In Conversation with Eric De Giuli on Calian cover photo


In Conversation with Eric De Giuli on Calian

by Jordan Kantor

Eric De Giuli (EDG)is a theoretical physicist and generative artist. He currently lives outside Toronto, Canada with his wife and daughter. Following his studies at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, he worked at New York University, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and the École Normale Superieure, Paris, before returning to Canada. 
His scholarly research centers on the emergence of complexity in the universe. Current projects focus on the origin of life and the structure of language. His generative art practice has developed in parallel with his professional interests. Early work (Generative Landscapes, 2002–06) explored the complexity of geological forms, while recent work takes cues from scientific questions and probes how alternate worlds might differ from our own (Alien Tongues; Alien Codex; Spectral Beings, all 2021). In his latest work, he has leaned towards abstraction (Stitched; Mazinaw, both 2022) and the interpretation of quantum mechanics (Glass, 2022). 
Jordan Kantor: Hi, Eric. Great to get a chance to speak with you. It has been rewarding to see Calian develop as you have iterated it on the test network, and we are delighted to present it now as a Curated release. Before we dive into the project at hand, I was hoping you could tell us a bit about your creative history. How did you first get into making art?
Eric De Giuli: The creative pursuit of beauty has been important to me for as long as I can remember. Initially I drew, painted, and built LEGO sculptures, but these were largely set aside when I discovered code. The process of implementing an abstract idea in the dark, and then seeing it come alive on the screen, was intoxicating.  Moreover, once I had something working, I could iterate rapidly, pulling the strings of the puppet to watch it dance. So in high school, I taught myself programming specifically to make beautiful things on the computer. First in BASIC and then in Turbo Pascal and c, I created demoscene-type sketches. It was a solitary activity, but one that struck a chord within me.
JK: It seems a logical progression: from a child’s enthusiasm for building and painting, to a teen’s interest in programming, to a highly developed creative coding practice. Can you walk us through how you began to approach generative art aesthetically, as an art form in itself?
EDG: After initial explorations, I really got hooked on generative art through a program called Mojoworld. The artist would write routines dependent on random inputs to shape and color an entire virtual world, which would later be explored and rendered as virtual (metaverse) landscape photography. It was ahead of its time.
Eric De Giuli, Cathedral, 2005. Generative digital rendering from Mojoworld..jpeg
Eric De Giuli, Cathedral, 2005. Generative digital rendering from Mojoworld.
The contrast between relatively simple codes and the infinitely complex outputs was striking. This was around 2002–06, as I finished my undergraduate degree in math and physics. I had decided to become a theoretical physicist, mainly to understand self-organization, which I had first experienced in generative art. 
JK: Wow. Twenty years ago already! Can you elaborate a bit on how you discovered the blockchain as a medium for art, and the tension perhaps between what I assume is your practical work in physics and your non-instrumentalized artistic pursuits?
EDG: Indeed, while beauty plays a role in physics, there’s tension between the creative impulse and the pragmatic need to build crude models to describe the data. So building a career motivated by beauty is difficult at best. I had discussed this with a good friend of mine, @metaregular, who also knew that I had a serious interest in generative art in the past.
He turned me on to Art Blocks quite early, before Ringers minted. I saw how Art Blocks perfectly facilitates what is now known as long-form generative art, and immediately started thinking about how the topics I am currently researching (the structure of language and self-organization in chemical reaction networks) could be expressed through generative art collections, reigniting my latent interest. My first NFT project, Alien Tongues, was inspired by my physics research into the structure of language, and even used a theoretical result from that work to situate the alien tongues at the edge between order and chaos.
Eric De Giuli, alien tongues 03a, 2021..png
Eric De Giuli, alien tongues 03a, 2021.
JK: I can certainly see throughlines that connect these projects, but was hoping you could elaborate on your working methods a bit. How would you describe developments or evolutions, even, in your creative process over time?
EDG: As I get older, I find myself less interested in recreating aspects of the physical world and more drawn to the potential to transcend it. My motto now is “there are no artifacts; there are only interpretations” (with apologies to Nietzsche). We are still just scratching the surface of what is possible with code, as we develop visual language that goes beyond traditional media. This is particularly so for interactive and animated pieces, like Calian.
Still, each of my codes is developed through a common process: I start with a clear idea of what I want to create, and I go straight towards that goal. Only once I can feel the spirit of the initial concept do I start to play. By this point, the code becomes, in a sense, transparent—such that I can mostly be led by intuition, without agonizing over algorithms. Then it’s a process of iteration over the parameters, features, and variations that I put into the piece. Which parameters add a new dimension but remain faithful to the spirit? Do I let this variation run free, or rein it in? I enjoy this dialogue between rational and creative thinking, which is at the heart of generative art.
Eric De Giuli, Spectral Beings, 2021. Live view..png
Eric De Giuli, Spectral Beings, 2021. Live view.
JK: I want to circle back for a moment on your work in the field of physics. How does your art practice connect to and depart from this other pursuit?
EDG: The greatest joy in theoretical physics is to intuit something beautiful about the world, build a theory around it, and see it vindicated by experiment. But it’s like dancing in a straitjacket: the constraints severely limit what one can do, enough so that proposing a truly new, correct theory is something that most physicists never accomplish, certainly not in fundamental physics. Most of the time I’m banging my head against the wall. In generative art, there’s more freedom. I can play at the edge of what is known and what is possible, creating alternate universes a bit askew from our own. I find complementarity there: art as exploration and visualization of possibilities. When a piece takes a genuine question but playfully explores it without strict scientific rigor, it can spark new ideas, as indeed happened during the development of Calian.
JK: Well, let’s get right into it, then. Please tell us a bit about Calian.
EDG: In a sentence, Calian is an interactive exploration of life-like behavior. It is meant to suggest both life as we know it and the digital infrastructure that underlies modern technology. This ambiguity is intentional: until this point in history, it has been straightforward to distinguish living things from inanimate matter; we use the fact that all life descends from a common ancestor to label things based on their evolutionary history. We replace the hard question “what is life?” with the much easier question “what is part of the tree of life on Earth?”
But we are witnessing now in society the creation of primitive AI, for example the ChatGPT program, and the various AI painting programs. Without the possibility of a material comparison with known life forms, we need to find general principles of life. This is not an idle exercise, as questions like “when does agency begin?” or “when does identity begin?” have moral repercussions. Of course, I don’t have answers to these questions. But we’re going to have to face them eventually, and I hope that by experiencing Calian one can appreciate the subtlety of the problem.
Eric De Giuli, The forest path to the spring, 2023. Calian test render..jpeg
Eric De Giuli, The forest path to the spring, 2023. Calian test render.
JK: These seem intense and pressing questions. Can you talk a bit about how Calian builds on your previous Art Blocks releases, Glass and Mazinaw?
EDG: Whereas Glass and Mazinaw both used the p5.js library, Calian is written as a GLSL shader in pure javascript. That entailed a lot of overhead that I needed to learn, but it allows the code to harness the incredible power of modern GPUs. So there is hardly any code overlap between Calian and my previous releases. Yet I see continuity both in terms of overall style (maximalist, with naturalistic palettes) and concept. All three collections play with ambiguity, expressed in distinct ways. 
Eric De Giuli, Glass #24, 2022. Live view..jpeg
Eric De Giuli, Glass #24, 2022. Live view.
JK: Interesting: I think people will definitely see connections, and departures, from your previous work. So, what should collectors be looking for in the series as it is revealed?
EDG: There are sixteen different styles, each with their own personality. I expect that collectors will have strong preferences across them. And because they are run by different physics, they have variable reactions to interaction; they don’t feel the same. So I encourage collectors to investigate pieces from the different styles, in Live mode. Before the release, the Explore Possibilities tool is useful to see the variety.
Eric De Giuli, Calian #0, 2023. Live view.
JK: It will be exciting to see what the algorithm creates. Are there any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
EDG: It was a thrill in 2022 to have an exhibition of my work in New York City. Much of my work is meant to be viewed in large format, so seeing my series Spectral Beings projected large was satisfying. And the show, which we arranged to take place during NFT NYC, was a great opportunity to meet many collectors and artists. The following day was the Art Blocks event at Samsung, where again I was able to meet many from the community, while seeing Mazinaw on the huge screen.
Eric De Giuli, Mazinaw #132, 2022. Live view..jpeg
Eric De Giuli, Mazinaw #132, 2022. Live view.
JK: I can imagine that was rewarding. Is there anything else you’d like to mention more generally that would help viewers approach and appreciate your art?
EDG: If art is about making the unseen seen, then I hope my work can show that the same is true of science. There are laws of reality, known to actually be true, that are entirely unobvious in our everyday existence. While these laws take their most precise expression in abstract mathematics, I believe the intuition behind them can be conveyed by artistic means. Through this, hopefully one can gain a deeper appreciation for the richness of our universe.
JK: An interesting balance between intuition and rationality. Thank you again, Eric, for taking the time to discuss Calian and your practice more generally. What is the best way for people to learn more about your work? 
EDG: I’m most active on Twitter but I also have a Discord server and a website. I really enjoy engaging with collectors, so I encourage anyone interested to get in touch!

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