In Conversation with Anthony Hiley-Mann (MountVitruvius) cover photo


In Conversation with Anthony Hiley-Mann (MountVitruvius)

by Jordan Kantor

Anthony Hiley-Mann (MountVitruvius) is an artist based in London. He has a background in computer science and graphic arts, and his work reflects both of these disciplines. Hiley-Mann’s focus is on digital aesthetics, resulting in surrealist representations of his algorithms that balance geometric precision and nature-inspired processes. Hiley-Mann’s creative work spans a broad range of forms, from audio software to pioneering interactive work, digital products, and exhibitions. Code and generative artwork have been a foundational theme throughout his career, and are now his dedicated focus.
Jordan Kantor: Hi, Anthony. Welcome back to Art Blocks, it’s great to get a chance to speak in the context of the upcoming release of your Curated project Trichro-matic, which follows on Renders Game, from earlier this year. Before we get into what you’ve been working on, I am hoping you tell us a bit about your creative history. How did you first get into making art?
Anthony Hiley-Mann: Thanks Jordan, it’s good to be back! I grew up in a really pretty creative household. My mother was a fashion designer, and she cared deeply about the entire process of creating her garments. Every little detail was considered–from the rearing of the animals that provided the wool, all the way through to the tiny handmade detail with which she’d finish every garment. I think seeing the depth of thought and the care that went into her work taught me a lot very early on. Even if I didn’t really appreciate it at the time.
So, I’m a little different from artists who started with an analogue medium: I’m certainly neither a painter nor an illustrator. I very much came at creation with the computer as my primary medium. I began my own creative journey in earnest as a young teenager, making music in my bedroom, getting frustrated that I couldn’t create the sounds I was looking for. This led me down a path of learning to program, and I began creating my own instruments and sound manipulation tools.
I discovered pretty quickly that the process of making my own tools, using them to create something, and feeding that experience back into improving them was an extremely powerful creative cycle. Over time, this led me to see the computer as a unique medium: one that offers those who understand how to program it the ability to conjure almost anything into existence, or explore ideas in a really unique interactive way. This concept blew my mind at a young age, and it’s been a foundational belief I’ve carried throughout my creative journey.
JK: Drawing connections to your creative process back to your mother’s wool sourcing is amazing and poignant. From your early experience with building music instruments through your discovery of the potential of computer programming, how did you first get into digital or generative art?
AH-M: I’ve been creating procedural graphics and art with code since my early twenties (almost two decades ago!), but at that time I think I struggled to define what I was doing as “art.” “Art” felt somehow different, and my work didn’t seem to fit into people’s expectations of what it was, regardless of if I called it that, or how good it looked or felt.
Looking back, I don’t think I cared hugely that it wasn’t necessarily seen as “art,” and it certainly didn’t stop me from making, but it did skew my trajectory away from trying to get into the art world more seriously earlier on.
In my late twenties and early thirties, my creative work was mostly done with big technology companies, and I began to see my own work, and work from people I knew online, bleeding into popular culture: procedural graphics on TV, on the web, generative systems controlling video jockeying (VJ) sessions, interactive work, and finally, people buying prints or digital sculptures from artists working with code. This was many years before NFTs, mind you!
To me, this felt like a big turning point for computation as a distinct artistic and creative medium. It began to feel more natural to present myself as an “artist,” and to share my art with others framed in that way, even despite their skepticism at times. 
MountVitruvius, Mind the Gap #56, 2022.png
MountVitruvius, Mind the Gap #56, 2022.
JK: History is full of artists who wondered if what they were doing qualified as “art.” You are in great company there. Once you were more intentionally directing yourself towards art contexts, how did you discover the blockchain as a medium for what you were working on?
AH-M: I remember minting half a Bitcoin from the “Bitcoin Faucet” back around 2010, which was my first interaction with the blockchain (and my first serious lesson as I didn’t back up the wallet and lost it!), but my engagement there never extended beyond a passing curiosity. When Ethereum smart contracts and CryptoPunks kicked off around 2018, I dug in again. I only saw it as a fun and interesting concept and dismissed it–ironically, in the same way others had done to my work in the past as “not art.” It sounds crazy in retrospect. It wasn’t until late 2020 or early 2021 when I happened across some of Matt DesLauriers discussions around Art Blocks that I took a third and final look. I distinctly remember the moment I realized how on-chain generative art worked: It was like a huge slap in the face. It felt so obvious. 
The procedural artwork I’d been making fit so perfectly into how smart contracts and the blockchain operated, but it also brought about a performance-like quality: gave the work permanence, provenance, ownership. At that moment, I reflected on all of the issues that code based artwork had struggled with, and that I’d struggled with (in terms of defining my work as “art”). It really felt like an answer had suddenly popped into focus.
MountVitruvius, Renders Game, 2023.png
MountVitruvius, Renders Game, 2023. Development test output.
JK: That must have felt incredibly exciting–and validating as well. Once you saw the pieces fall together, how did your work change? Has your creative process evolved over time?
AH-M: Amusingly, my creative process today is much closer to the one I had experimenting in my bedroom as a teenager than the one I learned in the corporate world (albeit with far more experience). My work today evolves through a basic cycle: Start with a simple idea, put it into code, explore it, reflect on it, then take it apart and reimagine it. Sometimes, making it better is a function of a stronger vision, other times, it’s a function of exploration. 
Exploration is where the generative aspect of my work really shines. By letting go of some control, it enables discovery of new ways to see things that I’d unlikely have gravitated toward otherwise. Over time though, I’ve definitely come to realize that, for me, the hardest part of my work is not the technical aspect, but refining the clarity of my ideas, the communication, and the finesse that I want each piece to have. I think the majority of that realization comes through experience, and I’m personally trying to set a new bar for each piece I release in each of those areas.
MountVitruvius, Renders Game 163, 2023.png
MountVitruvius, Renders Game #163, 2023.
JK: Speaking of ideas and finesse coming together, can you tell us a bit about Trichro-matic?
AH-M: Trichro-matic is a piece about perspective. It’s derived from the term “trichromatic,” meaning the ability to perceive our world using the three primary colors, and I hyphenated it to “o-matic” (a term used to describe fictional machines) as a nod toward the generative system that creates the piece.
The foundation of this project is a shifting sense of depth. If you start at one point in the structure and try to make spatial sense of it, you’ll end up with a different understanding than if you’d started at another. Scanning the piece, you’ll start to change your understanding of the relationships between the elements: what’s facing in becomes facing out, what’s flat appears to become deep. There’s a touch of “op-art” to the piece in that way.
MountVitruvius, Trichro-matic #0, 2023.
To me, this shifting feeling functions as a commentary on the concept of perspective itself. Starting from different points can lead you to see things in a completely different way, and even then, one person’s interpretation will differ from another. As you explore each piece, I hope viewers experience that feeling of perspective change and begin to see the structure differently. I think there’s a more generalized reflection on empathy that can be found within that feeling.
There are many ways that the piece explores these perspective shifts: displacements, emergent geometric patterns, structure and color application, hints at a figurative material system and adjustments of scale and space, to name a few.
MountVitruvius, Trichro-matic, 2023_test2.jpg
MountVitruvius, Trichro-matic, 2023. Test output.
A really challenging part of creating the piece from a technical perspective was refining the process for rendering, as I really wanted to avoid strong linework. The absence of outlines in this piece encourages the structures to be viewed in this more abstract way. So, getting the fine detail right in how the colors layer on top of each other, the figurative look and feel of the materials, and the lilting curvature and imperfections in the piece were areas of focus for me and some of the most challenging elements to get right. I wanted to retain a feeling of boldness and clarity even without the strong linework I typically use in my work. I’d encourage you to view them large to make the most of it!
JK: I hear you saying you’ve pushed yourself to get similar effects using different techniques. It will be fun to see how that manifests as the series unfolds. What else would you want to direct viewers to look for in the series as it is revealed?
AH-M: I’m pretty happy with the breadth of style that the piece can explore. It’s definitely my most diverse algorithm to date, and there will be plenty of distinct outputs throughout the final collection. Every time I run a test set, I’m constantly finding so many that really surprise me.
A useful bit of the metadata to explore the collection with is the “genome.” This can be thought of as the point from which the algorithm starts, and outputs of the same genome are more likely to exhibit similar visual qualities. I think the easiest way to imagine the relationship between the genomes and the parameters is as a giant Venn diagram: imagine each genome as one of the overlapping circles, and the parameters are a dimension within that total space … Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that’s not so easy to imagine!
MountVitruvius, Trichro-matic, 2023_test1.jpg
MountVitruvius, Trichro-matic, 2023. Test output.
I mentioned previously that I wanted to avoid strong linework, which is true, but I have included a few outputs that intentionally include it. These line-work outputs are a counterpoint within the collection, a representation of the difference that this formal decision can make to the sensation of depth that is the project’s focus. And, again, I think this collection really works best at scale, the subtlety can get lost on a mobile screen, so definitely view them large.
JK: It will be a treat to explore all the different outputs. Outside of this context, are there any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
AH-M: My wife and I had a baby daughter just a few months ago. She’s amazing but a lot of work. So, I just want to say a public thank you to my wife for the space she’s created for me to focus over the last few weeks. Thank you!!
JK: Congratulations to you both. What is the best way for people to follow your work, if they want to learn more?
AH-M: You can follow me on Twitter at @mountvitruvius.
JK: Thanks again, Anthony. We will see Trichro-matic when it comes to life starting November 8!

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