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In Conversation with Kelly Milligan cover photo

INTERVIEW

In Conversation with Kelly Milligan

by Jeff Davis

Kelly Milligan is an artist and creative coder from New Zealand. With roots in front-end and creative web development, he translates practical coding skills into browser-based algorithmic and generative art. He aims for organic texture and bold colors in his artwork, searching for results with unexpected form and complexity. I had the opportunity to speak with Kelly in advance of his upcoming Art Blocks project Act of Emotion.
Jeff Davis: Hi Kelly! It’s great to chat with you. Let’s start at the beginning, how did you first get into making art?
Kelly Milligan: My mum was a hobbyist artist throughout my childhood and brought her practice into the house. It wasn’t until my final two years at school that I discovered photography—an artform I still enjoy casually practicing today. I had picked up web, Flash, and Photoshop basics in my teen years too, making silly and personal things just for the joy of it! The major passion and direction in my career has been highly creative browser-based projects, artistic in their own way. I love pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a humble web browser. I’m so happy to have met and learned from so many talented folks along the way!
JD: When did you start thinking about generative methods as you were exploring browser-based art?
KM: It was in 2016 when I created my first generative systems specifically for the creation of digital art. I had been following a handful of code-based artists on Twitter for a couple of years, and I was spending more and more of my time working with Canvas2d and WebGL. The idea that I could create my own printed artworks with these browser-based tools was captivating! I wanted to make stuff that was worthy of being hung on a wall, and then have the ability to generate practically unlimited unique iterations if it?! So much power. I have continued my practice since and have found the exploration of this work immensely rewarding. Often, it provides real transferable skills to reinvest into my web-experience work. In 2018, I completed my first commercial artistic generative system: Piece 18. I’m terrible at drawing, and no good with a brush, but through code I can create. It has been hugely empowering and satisfying to embrace this practice.
6482311303fcf3b8dc09e4d9_bb4aa46c.png
Kelly Milligan, Piece 18, 2018.
JD: How did you discover NFTs and the Web3 space?
KM: Oof, who can remember after the whirlwind of the last two years? I had heard some of the rumblings around ETH and NFTs, #cryptoart on Twitter, and all that, platforms where artists could sell their single editions for crypto, and something about folks rocking pixelated cartoon profile pictures too? It didn’t really resonate with me at that time (what an oversight!). Then Hic Et Nunc arrived in all its esoteric glory. Fellow generative artists, ones I had been following for years at this point, started minting their art there as NFTs too! The underground community vibe was so fabulous and so much fun. It’s hard to believe that it was only back in March 2021; it feels like an eternity, things move fast. Art Blocks hit my radar around the same time in the form of Archetype and subsequently Subscapes. I quite liked the idea of generative collections powered by the transaction hash, but I didn’t have the sense to engage until after applications had unfortunately closed.
JD: Oh no! Well, I’m glad you came back after we were able to reopen artist applications. How would you say your creative practice has changed over time?
KM: I spend a lot more time thinking about my work before touching the code now. I find myself particularly time-poor at this moment in my life, and so I interrogate the intention and meaning, the approach, and the desired outcome quite vigorously. I still very much trust the process and expect to be delighted by the unexpected, but I do less wandering, less following my nose. I know more of my destination before I embark.
Kelly Milligan, Searching for Meaning, 2022.gif
Kelly Milligan, Searching for Meaning, 2022.
JD: Any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
KM: About being time-poor … I’ve recently taken over as full-time parent of my busy one-year-old! It’s intense, for sure, but also highly rewarding in different ways. A new chapter, part of the journey, and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to spend this time. I’ve put my business on hold to focus entirely on fatherhood and art, continuing to diligently practice during nap times and evenings … I feel like that is an accomplishment! I’m obviously absolutely thrilled and humbled to be releasing Act of Emotion as a Curated collection—such a massive personal achievement for me in my artistic practice.
JD: Continuing to find time to practice art as a parent of young children is certainly an accomplishment! And we’re very glad you were able to bring Act of Emotion to Art Blocks. Could you speak a little bit about the inspiration behind the project?
KM: It’s been several years since I first conceived of this idea, patiently waiting for an implementation lead. It was fundamentally borne out of inspecting abstract painted works up close: the vibrant, textural, and emotional blending of oil and acrylic paint volumes can say so much in a single stroke. Three dimensional, supremely evocative, elementally fabulous—it’s almost like a cheat code for traditional paint artists. The goal was clear: a simulation of paint at a material level, with all of the pigment blending, depth, and vibrance of wet media, applied in intentionally simple abstract forms to pull focus onto the media itself. In practice it was challenging, how to achieve that level of depth with code, I wondered and wandered for ages! As I made progress, I couldn’t help but ponder how much the act of “painting,” and expression through it, comes down to the choice in materials … Where is that convergence between the “paint,” the act, and the intention? This system emerges as a sum of many of my previous works. The elemental textural learnings from Rust, Terraform and Terroir, and the brush simulations of Piece 18, brought together.
Kelly Milligan, detail of Act of Emotion test output #38.webp
Kelly Milligan, Act of Emotion, 2022. Test output (detail).
JD: I think that is what drew me in about your project, the way it creates a seemingly material expression through digital means. And obviously the art historical references it conjures up as well. What would you like collectors to look for in Act of Emotion as the series is revealed?
KM: I hope that collectors embrace the performance of each piece, it’s the act of painting that is central to these works. In Ab-Ex style, it’s somewhat more about the act itself than the final result. There is a lot of veiled and layered meaning included, both conceptually and in the range of forms. Even in the name “Act of Emotion,” intentionally too obvious, but through engagement it starts to reveal itself as more. I’m excited to discuss and theorize further with the audience. I’ve allowed quite a wide range within the system’s narrow gestural bands of expression, I still expect some surprises. 
Kelly Milligan_Act of Emotion_2022_Test output.gif
Kelly Milligan, Act of Emotion, 2022. Test output.
JD: Anything else you’d like to share to help better understand your art?
KM: I’m passionate about real-time and interactive art, but I also love seeing my work printed, mounted, and displayed in tangible form. I strive to create work which is detail-dense, providing a rewarding experience for those who seek closer inspection. I’m ready to provide prints as soon as minting is complete, and I would love to see them realized as physical “painted” works.
Kelly Milligan, Act of Emotion #0, 2022, giclée print on canvas .webp
Kelly Milligan, Act of Emotion #0, 2022. Output as giclée print on canvas.
JD: Wow, that looks great! Look forward to learning more. And what’s the best way for people to follow your work moving forward?
KM: I’m active on Twitter! I also have a website where I slowly collect my body of “finished” work.

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