In Conversation with Robert Hodgin on Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers cover photo


In Conversation with Robert Hodgin on Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers

by Jeff Davis

Robert Hodgin is a digital artist living in Brooklyn with his husband and two cats. He is a co-founder and partner of Rare Volume, a design and technology studio with offices in New York City and Austin. Robert has been creating digital art since the 1990s and has work featured in the V&A, Smithsonian Design Museum, Wired, the SF Exploratorium, and Wing Luke Asian Museum. We spoke with Robert ahead of his Curated release, Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers.
Jeff Davis: Hi Robert! It’s great to chat with you. Can you tell me how you first started getting into art?
Robert Hodgin: I was a pretty creative kid. I was always sketching something. I ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design where I thought I might want to be a painter. Being there exposed me to so many other disciplines I hadn’t considered, and it was all very alluring. I ended up switching majors three times. Sometime during my senior year as a sculpture major, I saw a website made with Macromedia Flash and I was immediately drawn to the medium. I convinced my thesis advisor that I wanted to learn digital arts and he helped me focus on that for my final semester.
JD: When did you start pursuing generative art?
RH: I blame my Flash peers for that. In the early days, we all knew each other because Flash conferences were popping up all over, and many of us ended up speaking at or attending them. We became somewhat close and kept an eye on what the others were up to. I saw that a few of them were working with something called Processing, and I was impressed with the speed and interactivity they were able to achieve with it. That was when I first started to work primarily with code. I was hooked.
Robert Hodgin-Embroidery-2020.png
Robert Hodgin, Embroidery, 2020.
JD: Yes, I think Flash was definitely a gateway for many digital artists to start exploring generative art. How would you say your artwork has evolved over time?
RH: I spent over a decade working with coding frameworks like Processing and Cinder. I was making work that ran at interactive frame rates. Eventually, I reached a point where most of my time was being spent trying to optimize for performance and I hated it. Nothing interrupts the flow of creative coding like needing to refactor code and research optimization techniques to boost frame rate. Some people are great at it and even look forward to it, but I found it stifling. Sometime in 2017, I got interested in Houdini and started to focus all my time learning how to use it. Houdini allowed me to focus on the look of a piece without having to spend time worrying about how to make it run faster.
Robert Hodgin-Growth-2022.jpg
Robert Hodgin, Growth, 2022.
JD: And then how did you discover NFTs and crypto art?
RH: Mostly through Twitter and friends. The subject was starting to pop up frequently, so I finally stopped fighting it and applied to a few NFT sites. Not much happened and I decided to just focus on my work and ignore it. Around November of last year, a couple friends told me that I needed to look into places like Art Blocks and fxhash because I would probably love the concepts. I did some research and that was when I first learned that people were creating generative systems as NFTs and allowing randomness to dictate the content. It was very different from the NFT experiences I was familiar with, which were more about posting static images or videos. I started to pay more attention to what others were doing in these spaces and I was intrigued.
JD: Any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
RH: I got my drivers permit a couple months ago. Does that count?
Robert Hodgin-Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers-2022.jpg
Robert Hodgin, Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers, 2022.
JD: Haha, of course! Congratulations on becoming a driver. Alright, let’s get into your Art Blocks project. Could you describe the inspiration behind Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers?
RH: The project started with a desire to mimic meandering rivers with code. Once I had a setup that worked, I thought about how to present it. I have been a fan of Harold Fisk’s maps of the Mississippi created in the 1940s with the US Army Corps of Engineers. They show how the Mississippi River changed over many millennia. It is a beautiful series and it seemed like creating a generative river map was a nice direction to explore.

Early on in the development, I struggled with how to represent the parts of the map that were in the negative space. I thought the river composition was good, but it felt like it needed to be grounded in a place. That is when I started adding in road networks, railroads, and buildings. I spent a lot of time on Google Earth looking at zoomed-in regions around rivers throughout the U.S. and found some really beautiful meanders in the Midwest that were surrounded by center-pivot irrigation farmland. I decided to add the concept of biomes to the maps and one of those biomes would be farmland and would feature those telltale circular plots many of us have seen out airplane windows.
JD: Yes, the project really captures the concept of passing time as the river erodes the land and civilization eventually fills in. What would you like collectors to look for in the series?
RH: I hope collectors contemplate the place that is represented by the generative map. Though these maps are artistic explorations, I do find myself imagining the location that the map depicts. Initially they all were going to have extensive road networks emerging from the river banks, but I ended up really liking the remoteness of the maps when there are no signs of civilization. I ended up allowing for different levels of population ranging from remote wilderness to sprawling towns. Also, keep an eye out for treasure maps.
Robert Hodgin-Fish Tornado-2014.jpg
Robert Hodgin, Fish Tornado, 2014.
JD: Anything else people should know to better understand your art?
RH: I love natural processes that can be simulated with relatively small amounts of code. The custom algorithm I wrote to make the river animate is pretty basic and could be encapsulated in just a few lines. The same is true for flocking simulations which I have revisited regularly for two decades. Such organic mesmerizing behavior emerges from the simplest of equations. But then the fun begins, and you get to explore the parameter space within these algorithms. That is where I find my art.
JD: I really love that approach, it kind of reveals the elegance of nature. OK, it’s been great speaking with you! What’s the best way for people to follow your work moving forward?
RH: I generally post new work on Twitter and Instagram, and if I flesh out a project, I will add it to my portfolio site.

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