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In Conversation with Casey REAS on Pre-Process cover photo

INTERVIEW

In Conversation with Casey REAS on Pre-Process

by Jordan Kantor

Casey REAS is one of the most influential figures of contemporary generative art. He’s the co-founder of Processing and the Processing Foundation, as well as the online gallery Feral File. Casey is both an artist and an educator, working out of his studio in Inglewood, California and teaching at UCLA in Design Media Arts. He also serves as a member of the Art Blocks Curation Board. I spoke with Casey in advance of his upcoming Art Blocks release Pre-Process, a project he has described as the “Rosetta Stone” of his practice.
Jordan Kantor: Casey, great to speak with you again. Thank you for choosing to release Pre-Process on Art Blocks. This is your fourth project following CENTURY, Phototaxis, and CENTURY 2052. Since this Pre-Process is so explicitly about retrospection—as you say pulling the “origin points back into focus”—I was wondering if you could reflect a bit on the specific ways in which the project as it is now bears the imprint of your creative coding journey since 2003. You recently detailed (in another context) the development of your work from early generative experiments through an engagement with machine learning and now back to generative work again. Are there particular aspects of Pre-Process you can point to that tell this story, visually, or conceptually, or technically: what is it now that it could not have been in 2003?
Casey REAS: Hi Jordan. It’s wonderful to speak with you again as well. I was working through the Pre-Process ideas for the first time in 2003, and the resulting work was shown in the “Process/Drawing” exhibition at bitform gallery in New York in 2005. These ideas were fresh and unresolved then. Pre-Process was the origin for the “Process Compendium” body of work from 2004–2010, and during those six years, I was able to reflect and further clarify things. An early version of the Pre-Process software was in the bitforms show but it was NFS (not for sale) because it wasn’t a finished artwork, but rather a collection of software sketches. It wasn’t until Art Blocks invented a new way of releasing software art that I saw a new way forward for Pre-Process. The new form on Art Blocks is an edition of 120 because it’s every significant permutation of the system. I can’t show these in total in a gallery, but Art Blocks creates the frame for everyone to explore the full series of work.
Casey REAS, Pre-Process, 2022. Test output..png
Casey REAS, Pre-Process, 2022. Test output.
JK: Thanks for this background, it is really quite compelling how an idea can stick with you across decades, and then find a new form/home/life when a novel context emerges. I know that the edition size for this project is something to which you’ve given considerable thought. Can you tell us a bit more about the different permutations that 120 limit affords and what we might expect to see from the outputs?
CR: Each Pre-Process work is composed of one hundred “Elements,” which are circles with attached behaviors: 
  • Element 1: Form 1 + Behavior 1 + Behavior 2 + Behavior 3 + Behavior 4
The form and behaviors define the motion of each Element as well as how it interacts with the other Elements:
  • Form 1: Circle
  • Behavior 1: Move in a straight line
  • Behavior 2: Constrain to surface
  • Behavior 3: Change direction while touching another Element
  • Behavior 4: Move away from an overlapping Element
The differences between all 120 permutations of the system are defined by the details of how we see the elements, the locations they appear, and their sizes. The most clear difference is how the Elements are rendered, which I call the “surface.” There are eight different surfaces and each reveals the system in a unique way. There are three different origins for the Elements: the center, a horizontal line, and random locations. These different origin locations have a strong effect on how we understand the system. The final difference is the relative size of each Element. There are five different configurations: small to large, large to small, all the same size and small, all the same size and large, nonlinear small to large. So in total, we have eight surfaces, three kinds of origins, and five kinds of growth: 8 × 3 × 5 = 120. This is why the edition is limited to 120 permutations.
Casey REAS, CENTURY #360, #807, #002, #021, #299, #865, 2021..jpeg
Casey REAS, CENTURY #360, #807, #002, #021, #299, #865, 2021.
JK: One of the things I most admire about your work is how motivated by internal logic your formal decisions are, like the edition size you just outlined. In art historical discourse, this type of motivation is seen as distinct from decisions that are made solely according to personal taste, which are often characterized as “arbitrary.” In this sense, your work has an explicit relationship to signal debates in the history of twentieth century art: from Dada to Constructivism and onward. You’ve mentioned Ellsworth Kelly in this regard, especially relative to your CENTURY project. Beyond the formal connections, can you talk a little bit about what draws you to Kelly’s work, specifically? I am thinking about how he uses a variety of strategies—such as chance and non-composition—to bring into question the role of the hand of the artist (and indeed the taste of the artist) in the making of individual works. Are these ideas you are thinking about relative to your artistic practice, and, if so, how?
CR: This specific body of work that Kelly created in Paris in the 1950s has a strong effect on me for the reasons you mention: the role of the hand and mind of the artist in the creation of the work. If we use a simple definition of generative art—the shift from making art to making systems that make art—then artists like Kelly and those before him were performing generative works centuries prior to the creation of digital computers. My personal understanding of chance operations, randomness, and stochastic methods begins with ideas around Dada and realized by Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp. I see John Cage as a second-generation champion of these ideas, and Cage’s work and writing has had a massive impact on my approach to creation. I always want to have an open mind to unexpected aesthetic experiences. I always want to get beyond my own bias. I seek experiences that I haven’t had before and want to make work that I couldn’t imagine making.
JK: I really appreciate the idea of “performance” that you bring to bear here, which is very specific and distinct from notions of authorship, invention, and originality (and all their attendant baggage) that remain close to many discussions about art, even today. Can you tell me a bit more about what it means to you to frame this activity—of Kelly’s, but also perhaps of your own as well—in terms of the performative?
CR: I’m interested in fields of possibilities far more than a specific outcome. This is the essential reason that I work with software. The authorship is in creating potential for variation and difference. My software “performs” by exploring a space of possibilities. Much of my work is meant to run on timescales beyond more traditional media; the work is intended to run for days, weeks, months, years. For example, CENTURY 2052, released last month, has a thirty-year timeframe. Each of the editions contains a multitude of variations and is always changing through its movement. All of the work is related to performance because the viewer doesn’t know what will happen next. The work is changing each moment, and at each moment, it’s never the same as it was before and it will never be the same again. Each of my four Art Blocks releases also allows the viewer to become a participant in the performance, to alter the way they see the system and to fundamentally change what’s unfolding. With CENTURY, for example, the viewer can cut and re-cut the image to perform as Kelly did when he was slicing his drawings and re-assembling them.
Casey REAS, CENTURY 2052 #35, 2022..jpeg
Casey REAS, CENTURY 2052 #35, 2022.
JK: The questions around artistic agency had a very particular meaning when artists like Kelly and Sol LeWitt (whom you’ve also mentioned as a touchstone) asked them in the 1950s and 60s (in the midst of, and against, dominant discourses around expression in abstract art), and the terms of this conversation are significantly different now, a half century later. To that point, what are your thoughts on the delicate balance between expression and anti-expression that creative coding affords, and what are the stakes of this conversation today from your perspective? If these aren’t the right terms of a dyad, please let me know if you have better ones to offer.
CR: I’ve never been interested in personal expression and making work about my feelings or emotions. My earliest work was around the aesthetics of systems and images. I talk about this as “conceptual art” with a lower-case ‘c’ because it’s about the idea and the image at the same time. There are threads of conceptual art in the work, but also the visual history of painting and drawing. It’s my hope that people will experience the work emotionally and also intellectually. In recent years, I’ve also started creating work that’s anti-rational in how it’s experienced. It’s the aesthetics of sensation and sitting with the work and letting it act on you. This work, for example, Untitled 5 (Not now. No, no.) and KNBC (December 2015), creates a space to occupy and feel.
installation (too long to fit file name - see spectrum for description).jpeg
Installation view of Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. Left: Casey Reas, Software Structure #003 A, 2004 and 2016; Casey Reas, {Software} Structure #003 B, 2004 and 2016. Right: Sol LeWitt, 4th Wall: 24 lines from the center, 12 lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, 12 lines from each corner, 1976. Photograph by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of Casey REAS.
JK: I really appreciate the play between systems and the anti-rational ways of thinking you describe. I wonder if we could touch briefly on your Software Structures project, commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which you launched in 2004, and restored in 2016. You have written very compellingly that the project began with the question: “Is the history of conceptual art relevant to the idea of software as art?” Did the project help you arrive at an answer to this question? Can you reflect on this now?
CR: Yes! Thank you for asking. When I was doing that work in 2004, there were scarce resources for thinking about this, and there were divergent histories—people who worked with code (often not considered artists or underrecognized) and people who worked through art systems with paint and more traditional media. Different communities had their own narratives, and there wasn’t much overlap. As a student, I studied art history, but not deeply enough to really dig into American conceptual art in the 1960s. Learning the history of art is a lifetime pursuit, and this commission from the Whitney Museum allowed me to explore the question, “Is the history of conceptual art relevant to the idea of software as art?” with energy. The answer is “of course!” My approach to making and thinking about work goes beyond materials and media. In researching this history, I saw a divergence between the “Software” exhibition curated by Jack Burnham at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970 and the “Information” exhibition curated by Kynaston McShine at the Museum of Modern Art in the same year. Both exhibitions featured a range of conceptual artists, but in the first exhibition, they were engaging directly with code, and in the second they weren’t. For the moment, at that time, the point of view promoted by the “Information” exhibition became the dominant narrative for many decades. It felt good when the “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018” exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum in 2018. Thanks to the vision of curator Christiane Paul, I was able to display my Software Structure work next to a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, but more importantly, the exhibition merged the two narratives that had forked in 1970. Artists working with software like myself, Rafaël Rozendaal, and Ian Chang were included with artists from the prior generation like Nam June Paik, Charles Gaines, and Donald Judd.
Casey REAS, Pre-Process #0, 2022..png
Casey REAS, Pre-Process #0, 2022.
JK: Yes, that was a truly groundbreaking show and did a lot of the work you mention of stitching together these somewhat divergent histories. I think it helped set the terms for a lot of the serious art critical consideration of the current generation of artists working in these ways as well. And now, as a final point, I’d like to circle back to what you were saying about anti-rationality earlier, and touch on the idea of intuition in your creative process. You have previously written “Many pieces of software may have their origins in a quick impulsive decision, but as soon as they are made manifest in code they become rigid and fixed as dictated by the constraints of the technology.” We have primarily focussed on the systematic underpinnings of your work here, but I sense you make room for intuition (and maybe even fun) in your practice as well. Is this something that resonates?
CR: I work very intuitively within a rational media. To counteract the logic of software, I start with language, drawings, and diagrams. I never know what I’m doing while I’m doing it. I sketch a lot, meaning I sketch with code. This is a form of play and it’s open ended. I create dozens of variations while trying to bring a fuzzy idea into focus. I try things out and then follow a line that feels right. Almost everything that I create happens in two parts. First, the technical system is sorted out and second, it’s tuned, which means the visual form and expression is clarified by performing and precisely defining the parameters for change. The second part always takes much longer than the first. I can usually only explain or describe what I’ve done long after I finish the work. I write about it after, not before, and exhibiting work and giving lectures about it forces me to examine and contextualize it. For example, the system of instructions for the Elements behind Pre-Process was extracted long into the creation, rather than at the start. In contrast, the formal system of instructions that were intuitively developed became a generator for other artworks that were created through exploring permutations in a more rational way. So, it’s messy and in practice it does work both ways. Working with code allows me to clarify the noise in my head, it forces order from chaos. It’s a delicate balance.
JK: Well, you certainly seem to strike the right balance with great consistency. Thank you for your time discussing this project, Casey, and for bringing your work back to Art Blocks. We are delighted to host Pre-Process and can’t wait to see all 120 iterations.

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