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In Conversation with Aaron Boyarsky (ixnayokay) cover photo

INTERVIEW

In Conversation with Aaron Boyarsky (ixnayokay)

by Jordan Kantor

Aaron Boyarsky (ixnayokay) is a generative artist and software engineer living in Falls Church, Virginia. His artistic practice is focused on the emergent behaviors of chaotic systems like cellular automata, fractals, or models of population dynamics and evolution—recently, with an emphasis on engaging animation and interactivity. He holds a degree in computer science (with a minor in mathematics) from Virginia Tech.
Jordan Kantor: Hi Aaron. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us in advance of the upcoming release of because unless until as a Curated project. Some members of our community will already be familiar with your work through your three previous releases on Art Blocks—Zoologic, mono no aware, and Implications—but I was hoping we could take a step further back. Can you describe how you first got into making art?
Aaron Boyarsky: I got my start with creative writing in high school—writing a lot of poems, and helping to curate work for our school’s magazine. In college, my interest turned more to photography: learning how digital cameras work, and how to have an eye for it. In my last semester of college (in 2009), I took a course on cyber art that paired computer science and art students for various projects, and found I really enjoyed it. I feel that course was like a spark that set a fire in me for wanting to create art, framing it as something I could do for fun.
JK: Sounds like that course came at just the right time for you. Following on that, how did you first get into digital or generative art?
AB: Not long afterward, I was creating a visualization for a math problem I was working on, when a friend looked over my shoulder and said, “cool art!” I hadn’t been intending to make art, but that was sort of a light bulb moment for me—that I could use code for art. It was the start of a prolific few years (from 2010–12), making art on a daily basis (a lot of which is captured in my 100 Days of Ixnay collection). I did a lot of work with fractals—both generated by my own software, and with fractal explorers like Xaos. Some of my work involved number theory, modular arithmetic, or 1D cellular automata.
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Aaron Boyarsky, everybodyconga (#41 from 100 Days of Ixnay), 2011.
I was also doing a lot of work with what I called “photomods”—a combination of abstract photography and heavy editing with Paint.NET to create surreal, mathematically inspired images.
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Aaron Boyarsky, suitable (#8 from 100 Days of Ixnay), 2011.
From 2013 on, my main focus was photography, without much in the way of editing. Just me, a Nikon D810, and a lot of travel (48 U.S. states by now). A lot of my work was landscapes and astrophotography, and exploration of nature in Northern California. I was still making some fractal work using software here and there, with a focus on higher levels of detail. I spent a lot of time here thinking about connections between math and nature, which was and remains a big source of inspiration to me.
Aaron Boyarsky, Untitled, 2015. Photograph.
Aaron Boyarsky, Untitled, 2015. Photograph.
Around 2017, my focus shifted again to animated digital work—simulating predator-prey population dynamics, 2D cellular automata, evolutionary processes, the growth of leaves and rivers. I enjoyed modeling complex systems with emergent behavior, just for the puzzle of making them, and the joy of seeing what they would do. I tried to organize a meetup group in the Washington, D.C. area to emulate the cyber art course I’d taken in college, and bring programmers together with artists to see what sorts of animations we could make. We had one meeting, in my apartment, and around six people came. There was pizza, there was animation, and it was generally a good time.
JK: So how did you get from six people and a pizza to discovering blockchain as a medium for art?
AB: My earliest exposure to blockchain art was probably CryptoKitties; around that time. I’d been getting into investing in ETH, but was interested to learn more about the actual applications of this “world computer” that I was apparently betting on. So I spent some time minting and breeding kitties, and thought it was pretty cool. In late 2020, I started hearing about platforms popping up allowing a Javascript program to be encapsulated in an NFT (“like if a CryptoKitty could be any animation you wanted!”), and began to wonder if I could capture some of the animations I’d been making this way. Unlike earlier still work, the animated/living programs I was making were a lot harder to capture and preserve in the same way. They were a pain to host, requiring a domain and a server, and monthly fees. And the thought of collecting or selling them (or that it could even be possible) didn’t cross my mind.
In January 2021, I started to seek out some of those platforms, and found Art Blocks (among others). Initially I refrained from reaching out since the application process seemed daunting, and I really just wanted a way to capture sketches (something more like manifold.xyz)—but eventually I decided it looked like the best option to capture programs as collectible art, so I put in an application. I think it is contextually important to mention that, by that time, I’d been actively making digital art for a decade, yet I still hadn’t actively participated in any sort of art scene or market. Digital art was just something I did for fun, and not because I thought much about its cultural context, or buying and selling it—beyond some fractal posters I made and sold at Spaghettifest 2010 for $5 apiece (like the one below). I really had no idea of the sort of adventures I’d be getting into with Art Blocks. I wasn’t even yet familiar with the term “generative art.”
Aaron Boyarsky, tegeturas alpha, 2010. Poster. Edition of 15.
Aaron Boyarsky, tegeturas alpha, 2010. Poster. Edition of 15.
JK: Since you began to frame what you do as art, can you describe how your creative process has evolved?
AB: In my earlier years as an artist, my work was more about visualization and exploration of pure math, for the sake of “seeing it as it is.” I thought of it like being an explorer in a strange universe existing alongside our own, and capturing views of that place. Some of it involved warping photos to remove their context, using them as textures for mathematical constructs. Most of this work was static, and done quickly as a 1-of-1 sketch with little-to-no consideration of an audience or broader artistic context.
In recent years, I’ve moved towards animated, chaotic art with emergent properties. Connections between nature/existence and math play more of a conceptual role. My focus has been almost entirely on long-form generative art, which I find a lot more challenging than 1-of-1 pieces: it’s very different to spend most of a year working on an artwork, than it is to spend a few hours. Making art for an audience has meant I need a much deeper consideration of things like color, composition, and performance than I used to have. I’m also really interested in the web as a medium—interactivity, HTML menus, local storage, date and time, responsiveness, sound, hypermedia—which I typically make reference to in my art in some way (and will continue to explore). It’s been very interesting immersing myself in a space where so many other people are making interesting art, which I think has played a role in shaping the context I feel when creating something.
JK: Outside of your artistic practice, do you do other work, and, if so, how do these endeavors connect?
AB: By day, I’m a software engineer, and have been doing that for twenty years or so. For the past five years, my focus has largely been UI-related, so I’ve been eating/sleeping/breathing Javascript. That’s given me a technical fluency that’s really helpful to my work as an artist. Project planning and organization have also been helpful to staying focused on longer-term generative art projects. Most recently, I’ve been working on a generative application that helps with creating questions for the SAT test, so there’s a technical overlap with my artistic practice that I find satisfying. I’ve been able to bring an idea or two from my day job into because unless until, so there’s definitely some conceptual overlap, too. As it turns out, I seldom require my Computer Science degree for my work as an engineer—but find complexity theory or data structures a lot more useful when tuning the performance of art.
JK: That’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing that side of yourself. Taking a look at your previous Art Blocks projects, can you tell us a bit about Zoologic, Implications, and mono no aware and the interests or arc of development that connects them, if you see one, now that some time has passed since their initial release?
AB: mono no aware was based on some experiments I’d done in the past to make the “Game of Life” cellular automaton a little more interesting. It was heavily concerned with symmetry, the chaotic boundary between two paradigms, and conceptually, the eventuality of transition between life and death. It was my first generative artwork, so I was learning the basics of diversity and feature design.
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Ixnayokay, mono no aware #355, 2021.
In Zoologic, I wanted to explore population dynamics and evolution. I experimented with new techniques like interactive menus, interactive controls, responsiveness, the use of neural networks, and sending data from one output to another. I transitioned to my own vanilla JS framework, in the hopes of having reusable code for use in future projects, and leaving room for an audio library for eventual experimentation with audiovisual work within the single-library constraint of Art Blocks. I switched to using polygons, a hexagonal grid, and color palettes for improved color.
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Ixnayokay, Zoologic #227, 2021.
My third generative work, Implications, was a pendulum swing back to the cellular automata (CA) and symmetry of mono no aware—but with greatly improved color, performance, and diversity. I applied a lot of what I’d learned during my first two projects to better refine my features and interactive controls (applying the mantra that sometimes, less is more). This work was built with and improved upon the framework built for Zoologic, adding real time self-correcting frame rate management and performance improvements (e.g., the use of a buffer canvas). While this work was drawn with squares/CA, I took inspiration from Zoologic and used polygons to help divide the canvas into regions showing different behaviors.
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Ixnayokay, Implications #176, 2022. Live view.
JK: Thanks for outlining those throughlines. To the project at hand: please tell us a bit about because unless until.
AB: because unless until is a work exploring the experience of change— moment-to-moment, and over the course of days/weeks/months/years—through the lens of morphing mathematical shapes and textures. Most things in the world around us are changing as time passes, whether slowly or quickly, and it seems worthwhile to represent our experience of the flow of time in art. Each day of the week or month, the appearance of an output changes subtly. With each month, the output changes more drastically. Occasional weekly or annual events can dramatically change the output. And of course, moment-to-moment, the algorithm demonstrates the ongoing change and chaos of a complex weave of multiple cellular automata—with a diverse variety of appearances over the course of minutes and hours.
Aaron Boyarsky, because unless until, 2023. Test output.
Aaron Boyarsky, because unless until, 2023. Test output.
With this work, I wanted to refine my artistic practice to go deeper on some of the techniques I explored in Implications; I wanted to continue giving people a feeling of discovery each day; I wanted something that would inspire discussion in its audience; I wanted the work to be accessible on the devices that people have in the present. I was interested in what new concepts could be introduced in a work that changes with time—like realtime features displayed in a menu within the program (i.e. what has changed about the art today?), since they can’t be easily represented outside of the program. A central concern was maintaining the identity of an output, even as it changes with time. What is it about an output that makes it this output, that needs to be maintained to keep that identity?
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Ixnayokay, because unless until #0, 2023. Live view.
because unless until is, in many ways, a direct descendant of Implications. It was actually built with the Implications code as a starting point, replacing pieces one at a time until it began to take on a new identity. My initial focus was on making substantial improvements to the performance and diversity of the algorithm—both the cellular automata, and the canvas-dividing animations themselves. Here, I took inspiration from some of my older work represented in the 100 Days of Ixnay collection, with mathematical shapes like fractals and polar inversions. These were joined by CA animations, and polygons from Zoologic/Implications. I made dramatic improvements to my colors by switching to a CMYK space, using interpolated gradients and “enemy detection” to select complementary colors, and adding a more sophisticated coloring algorithm. The responsiveness / non-square aspect ratios of Zoologic have made a return in this work.
JK: It definitely has a new level of complexity and its own aesthetic identity. What should collectors look for in the series as it is revealed?
AB: While there are a fairly low number of animations and palettes in because unless until, there are many, many hidden features that will change how each animation ultimately looks and how colors combine—so expect diverse arrangements of common elements. There are also a variety of emergent features that can appear for the different animations and textures, so some outputs may appear to have unusual characteristics. Different outputs will have different special days of the week, and each one has its own uniquely chosen “Fiesta Day,” so those are worth paying attention to. I’m hopeful that a series size of 650 will mostly cover the year with “Fiesta Days”—we’ll see. We should see the series grouping into subsets by days of the week. For example, all of the outputs that change colors on Fridays, and I hope this will serve as a discussion prompt for collectors.
JK: We will look for those Fiestas! Is there anything else you’d like to share that would help viewers approach and appreciate your work?
AB: Please understand that while NFTs are often viewed as you scroll, because unless until outputs probably take at least five to ten minutes to exhibit enough changes to get a thorough, holistic view of how they look and behave. Each output is a time-based generative system of its own, that can take prolonged or repeated viewing to get to know. The more time you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it.
You may want to “time travel” by adjusting your system clock to see how a given output might look in future months, or on special days. The thumbnails are captured with the “canonical” and “synchronous” modes enabled (which are off by default in the live view), so expect that outputs won’t look exactly like their thumbnails when you view them. In fact, each output will evolve in non-deterministic ways (a little different every time) unless synchronous mode is enabled—so expect a subtly different experience with each viewing. For more about these modes, press H to access the interactive help menu.
At times, outputs may display brief periods of emptiness or muddled textures—but systems are in place to gradually recover from these conditions. I wanted the work to have moments of imperfection or discomfort, with transitions back to greater excitement or visual interest. These moments help give because unless until a narrative appeal. What’s happening, and how does it compare to what was happening a minute ago? What’s changed, and how does it make you feel? Again, this work is best experienced over the course of at least five minutes, or as an ambient, constantly-running artwork in a space.
JK: It sounds like these will reward slow viewing. Thanks for pointing that out and something to look forward to. Are there any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
AB: The completion of because unless until is my main recent accomplishment. It feels like a capstone to the recent arc of work with generative, cellular automata-driven systems that I started three years ago, and like a new high water mark for my artistic practice. This project has taken me about nine months to complete_and in that time, I’ve had to lead a software team by day, to welcome the birth of our second son, to chase after our 2-year-old … it’s a lot. It has meant a lot of late nights and long hours, so I’m glad to see this work to its end, and can’t wait to see what people make of it! Special thanks to my wife Ashlee, whose support and feedback during development played a significant role in making this project happen.
JK: We think it is a high water mark as well. Congratulations on getting to this stage. For those who want to learn more, you can follow Aaron (@ixnayokay) on X or Discord.

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