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In Conversation with William Tan cover photo

INTERVIEW

In Conversation with William Tan

by Jeff Davis

William Tan is an Indonesian artist and programmer. He double-majored in mathematics and computer science for his undergraduate degree at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Interested in the arts, he then continued his studies in interaction design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. His fascination in both art and science is what drives his generative art creation. He is now working as a full-stack developer and product designer in his family-owned furniture manufacturing business in Jakarta, Indonesia. We spoke about art, science, and the almighty.
Jeff Davis: Hi William! It’s great to chat to get to know you better. How did you first get into making art?
William Tan: I have had a great resonance with art since I was a little kid ... whenever my family and I travel, I would always ask them to stop by the museum to look at paintings. My first journey in art-making was through photography—maybe because of its “instant” nature that’s so appealing to me. Through this medium, I was able to learn the basics of art: composition, value, color and so on. In college, I worked as a freelance graphic designer and photographer and through those side jobs, I got to refine my skills as an artist. Sometimes I would take on wedding and product photography projects just to build my portfolio.
William Tan_Finding Mona.png
William Tan, Finding Mona.
JD: When did you start pursuing generative art?
WT: I took an introduction to generative art class at ArtCenter. It was the first time I was introduced to Processing. Having studied Java and computer science before, it was pretty fast for me to get accustomed with the software. It still blows my mind how the founder of that same software, Casey REAS, is also an Art Blocks artist—I am hugely indebted to his work (I think we all are, for his monumental contribution to the world of generative art). One of my earliest works in generative art is my Finding Mona piece that was created using Processing—I turned the design into a woven throw. It was a project for my art class.
JD: Then how did you discover NFTs and crypto art?
WT: My brother, Evan Tan, is an avid NFT collector and he was the one who introduced me to Art Blocks and the prominence of NFTs. When I saw the artworks created on Art Blocks, I saw its huge potential for me as a platform to showcase my work. So I started working on my project and applied as an artist.
William Tan_Jewels_sm.gif
William Tan, Jewels.
JD: How has your creative practice changed over time?
WT: Photography has been my main medium of art for the past decade of my life, but I have been dabbling on the side with oil painting (especially when the pandemic hit, I tried to learn new ways of expressing my art). Most recently, I’ve been pursuing generative art. After months of learning and experimentation with p5.js, three.js, and Paper.js, I was able to refine my skills not only as a programmer, but also as an artist. Initially, I approached these art projects as a way for me to challenge my programming skills—I considered them like a math problem I’d like to solve in my head. I would always try to find the best algorithm to solve a certain issue, and so on. As an artist, my medium of choice changes all the time. It depends on my willingness to try something new. To me, good art is about being true to yourself; art is an encapsulation or even extension of the artist’s life.
JD: Any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
WT: One of my greatest accomplishments is when I published my photography book when I was in high school (2013), Moeka Djakarta (literally, “Face of Jakarta”). The book is co-authored by my two high school friends, Nicholas Hilman and Raditya Santoso. It was an essay about life in Jakarta—the disparity and segregation between race and classes. For this book, I have held two exhibitions showcasing the work from the book. The book was also featured and promoted by the current President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, during the festival celebrating the city’s birthday.
William Tan_Scribbled Boundaries_2021.jpg
William Tan, Scribbled Boundaries, 2021. Test output.
JD: Alright let’s talk about your Art Blocks project, Scribbled Boundaries. I’ve been able to watch your development over the last couple of months, but what was the inspiration behind your project?
WT: Scribbled Boundaries was actually an experiment for me to test out my pseudo-random generator. I wanted to test if the random coordinates generated by the algorithm are evenly distributed and random enough to be used for an Art Blocks project. But I loved how the scribbles turned out to look like real pen or should I say colored pencil drawings. Compositionally, I am inspired by the Abstract Expressionist artists—I’m heavily inspired by the works of Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, and Josef Albers. I could say that my Scribbled Boundaries series is an inspired amalgam of their works; I am captivated by the beauty in simplicity and the relative relationship between colors. Conceptually, I wanted to convey that there is order in chaos: the “random” scribbles (generated by the seemingly random generated) represent the “unknown” in life, but if you look at the whole picture, order and beauty prevail. Similarly, life can be expressed by a series of seemingly random occurrences, and those events lead to where we are today: if I decided not to take that introductory generative art class in ArtCenter, I wouldn’t even consider applying to Art Blocks months before this. So I think everything in life happens for a reason.
JD: What should collectors look for in your Art Blocks project as the series is revealed?
WT: I feel like generative art can often look “clean,” robotic, and minimalist, which is great (I’m actually obsessed with those kinds of work too); but I want to break that stereotype, and showcase that generative art has a wide gamut of styles. The beauty of generative art is the unexpected aspect of it, you don’t know how the output will turn out, so as the programmer you want to “guide” the entropy in a certain macro-sense to make it look how you intend it to be in your head. It feels like the job of a CEO managing a company, or a sheepdog guiding the flock of sheep that has nowhere to go. It’s funny how when the output turns out to be surprisingly good; I find that it’s hard to attribute its ownership to me, it feels like the computer is doing the hard work, not me.
JD: That’s a really interesting analogy: artist as manager. I guess in this case a manager of algorithms. Is there anything else you’d like to share to help people better understand your art?
WT: As I said earlier, my art changes constantly—the different mediums are solely a tool for us to express who we are as a person. For me, using algorithms and code to generate art is a way for me to express my life and philosophy. There is such a huge parallel between generative art and theism. Like the thousand mints of Scribbled Boundaries that will drop soon, a person is like a mint of 7 billion other mints that were created by the Intelligent Coder (a.k.a God)—we can see his code in our DNA—a series of carefully ordered A, C, G, Ts. Each mint of an Art Blocks piece may have its own individuality, but it ultimately points to the artist as the programmer. Likewise, each human is attributed to the designer of one’s DNA.
JD: Wow, that’s some deep stuff! It’s been great chatting with you. Where can people continue to follow your work?
WT: I haven’t really been active on Twitter, but I will create an account soon. In the meantime, please follow my Instagram account. I’m also developing a portfolio website too.

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