Dutch visual artist Tarik Barri is no stranger to digital culture. His collaborations with Thom Yorke, Flying Lotus, Robert Henke, Nicolas Jaar, Sote and many more are well received. He is the developer of “Versum”. Software that creates 3d real-time virtual worlds.
How does your aesthetics as an artist evolve during your career? Is there any evolution pattern from strictly geometrical shapes to more fluid visuals?
When you make a simple computer code, because I code all my visuals, very often that means that you’re making simple geometric shapes and straight lines. So my aesthetics was very much in that sort of straight, strict dimension. But it’s very hard for me to make a distinction between how much my own aesthetics changed or how much my technique changed. We were always a unity. I think from almost the very beginning, I tried to go into more fluid types of motions, and even when I was working with very strict straight lines. I did always use a joystick, which was very sensitive to my hand movements so that the way that I would move through my strict landscapes would still be kind of, you know, strange and organic. I think it was always there, but over the course, I’ve developed my techniques, that I could let that more fluid, more breathing human side of myself, to let that flow to the computer.
Even though you avoid playing video games, as you once mentioned, you still play with code.
I’m very much playing a computer game indeed, yeah. And that’s also often how I explain to people how I create visuals. They ask if I do video or sometimes. It’s hard for people to understand, but everybody does know computer games. Video games have their virtual environments. There’s no specific video that is being played, it’s just you’re moving through virtual space and you see the reflections on the walls. That’s very much how I work. And it’s probably inspired by video games also because I did play video games since I was a child and I was also very fascinated with how I can create my own types of games.
In some ways sure the video game idea very much deeply got into my mind, but at the same time, I’m staying away from explicit video games, because indeed, then I will get dive too deep into that and lose even more of a sense of reality than I already have lost.
Is it a way of escapism?
I think yes. I think you can definitely see it as escapism. Sometimes it’s very hard to see the difference between going into a deeper layer of your personal reality and escapism. Anytime you explore anything within yourself, means going away from something that maybe you don’t want to explore. And it’s very hard to see sometimes when you’re walking towards something and where you’re walking from something. I do believe that in my art I’m definitely going towards something. That I’m exploring within myself. It’s hard to put that into words, but I am trying to find to tickle my brain in ways that I have not felt before, and I am exploring both emotions and stuff within myself that I didn’t know before. I think also that’s what resonates with an audience because very often people always tell me that it was an emotional experience. I’m not just doing a flashy, happy thing. I am actually trying to go deep into some kind of world and at the same time sometimes I’m working on this very very intensively. I also have to admit that I’m doing this because I’m trying to escape maybe sometimes a little bit more painful or more boring kind of aspects of daily life. So it’s both, escapism and it’s also realism in a kind of spiritual way.
Do you consider the machine/software as the co-author of your works?
Totally. That’s also very much something that I embrace. When I was drawing as a child, I would try to make a very neat drawing and would never succeed. Every time that I would have this very precise plan and I would try to precisely make it, it would become boring and terrible and I would eraser it. Then I would try and make it again and it would always be wrong. But when I embraced more the fact that I could just take a pass and just go, all of a sudden it became way more interesting for me. I was letting coincidence and letting the paper, the random movements of my hand, my poor motoric skills become part of the end work. And then I was happy with it. That was always the case and still is with the computer. I leave lots of room for mistakes and for accidents. I always keep my eyes open for them and often my pieces are therefore based on mistakes.
I start with an idea. The idea gives direction. Now I have some energy, I have some momentum, and as I’m going on my path all kind of weird things happen. I may change direction in my path and can end up in a place that I could never have imagined. It happens during the interaction with the machine. And I discover all these instances during the journey.
So as an author limited by software, you become another software?
Well, I am dancing with my software. I’m both creating my software and I’m being limited by my software. I often see it as a dance, that I’m doing with a dance partner. I can’t always predict, but I try to be very sensitive, so I try to move along. Of course, if I just let it go, I’m going to fall over and everything will be random. So I need to keep it under some control, but not be super hard, because then my dance partner cannot go anywhere. It’s a very sensitive motion, where I and the computer are constantly in this emotion together.
So, I am not my software, my software is not me. We create together, like an artist and their medium are always together. What is being created as an oil painting is never purely the result of the pure imagination of the painter. Properties matter. Properties of their medium like oil, canvas, and of course the experience of the artist.
So where is the line where we can say who is the author? If the medium is the message in a way, right now we already have AI-based art. Of course, it is still coded by humans one can argue, but it is not a fantastic concept to have self-learning AI who will eventually learn how to make art.
It doesn’t really matter who made it. I do think that artificial intelligence will not do art within the next 50 000 years. It won’t do something that comes close to what a human being wants. I’m not even saying that artificial intelligence will be worse in making art. I think that awareness cannot be measured. But let’s say it is self-aware, and they make art and maybe their art will be fantastic for each other, but I’m a human so it will not be good for me. It might be appealing, but it will not get the same kind of emotional resonance that they can get from another human being. Unless of course, artificial intelligence will be completed perfectly able to replicate the emotional states of human beings. But we know very little of the brain. We know very very little intelligence.
We have discovered some tiny principles to construct AI, and we’re going wild on that. It is cute, but also it’s very much overestimating how deep the human brain goes. The fact that AI can do some superficial things is super impressive, but still, it’s only the surface of the surface of what it means to be a human.
You said that awareness of AI cannot be measured. What about awareness of the human? Turing test for audience. If we exclude you as a co-author, will the audience still understand if visuals are done by machine?
Hm, of course, it will be difficult. If AI is trained by me, it will basically replicate my style. It would be some weird type of recording of me. Maybe it’s still me through a weird artificial intelligence filter. So yeah the line then becomes very blurry. It’s a good test to see if somebody is emotionally involved enough as a good visual artist. So if somebody cannot see the difference between you and generative art, then you just need to pay more attention to your craft maybe.
Do you adjust your visuals during live performances depending on the emotional feedback you get?
Yes definitely. I do respond to the energy in the audience. If I really feel that it’s not right and especially during the very first tryouts of a performance when I’m still trying to find out myself. With “Sacred Horror In Design” for example, we’ve done it so many times that I just feel when it’s right. I just go with my own thing. And more or less I assume that the audience will be with me because if I’m strongly feeling it. At some point, you also have to trust your gut. If you are really feeling it, just trust that people are going to be coming along with you.
Do artists with whom you collaborate somehow shape your visual aesthetics?
Yeah, I think. But it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly. I can’t say how it would have been different if I had worked with other non-visual artists. Of course, it’s a natural evolution of learning. To listen more and more closely to the music and understand how I can translate my listening experiences into visual experiences.
For instance working with Paul Jebanasam, with whom I worked a lot, he has very rich soundscapes which really opened up a lot of what I was doing with my visuals. And with Thom Yorke. It was a little bit more explicit the way he asked me if I could try and do more two-dimensional stuff instead of three-dimensional. Also, Nicolas Jaar had some of his very specific remarks. All the artists that I worked with, are in one way or the other kind of visual I think.
Have you tried working with video archives and what attracts you to working with code?
I started out doing only program stuff from within the computer because it gave me a little power that I could always manipulate because I always had the core material of what was created on-screen. I had it in my own hands. If you make a video, then you don’t have in your hands as strongly. You can speed it up, you can manipulate it, you can do some stuff. But I always like to have more freedom than that. When I do audiovisual performances with Lea Fabrikant, I’m actually making live recordings and manipulating them also in real-time. That’s sort of a compromise. Sure there’s a video and these are images that are then stored within the computer, in a sort of like a static way but also I make those recordings on the stage in real-time. So there’s still that freedom and also showing the audience “look it’s happening here and now”. I guess in a sense I just always really love that sense, that things are really happening now and here. That’s also why I like to be on the staged with artists to show “Look, I’m a human being, this is happening here now. We here together, and we’re together having this unique experience”. That’s something I find very important.
More info on Tarik Barri: http://tarikbarri.nl/