Meet Jonathan McCabe

TNG:  What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

JM:  Because I have a day job , my work as an artist often starts at about 10pm. So in the studio I work on the computer and I ended up working on programs for years and years adjusting and changing them. So I got a few threads of work. I work with editing text and running a program and it produces its output which produces an image or video. I see the output and then I go back to change the program. 

TNG: How would you describe your journey as an artist?

JM: As a teenager I was very interested in computers but never considered myself as an artist at the time at all. When the Mandelbrot Set was publicised in the magazine Scientific American in 1985 I thought ‘wow that is quite astounding’. So I spent a lot of time on that until fractals became deeply unpopular. But a lot of my art is still influenced by that fractal aesthetic as well as the color aesthetics. I was also inspired by an article by Stephen Wolfram in 1984 in Scientific American, about exploring the behaviour of complex systems made out of simple parts, known as cellular automata. One of my programs was producing stripes and then I found out that Alan Turing had published a theory in 1952 about it and he sort of brought mathematical thinking into biology. He had this theory of how cells could communicate with each other locally and all deciding a spot to become dark and tell the ones around them not to become dark. So a lot of my programs now have that idea built into them.

TNG: Your thoughts on generative art?

JM: Generative artists are sort of more hands off and set up the thing and then it does what it does - you make something which will make something good. So it’s an indirect kind of art. You are not directly telling it what colors to do or where to put things. You are just setting out to do something which will make for an interesting output. And if it doesn’t you tinker around with it until it does. 

TNG: Do you ever come across the question how much of the art is the artist's work and how much of it is the software or the computer? 

JM: This question comes up in computer art in general and in AI art. It is hard to tell where it is coming from. In photography it was once questioned in a similar way, say the scene that is photographed is producing the art, but it has now become accepted as an art form. I think computer art might be similar in a way. The person is working with the computer and with the text of the program. You can’t have the art or let’s say output without the person and you can’t have it without the computer. So the artist in a way is the whole system together. I would like to think that I am still an artist, but an artist with my machinery and tools. With generative artists it’s more the interaction with the tools which is its art practice. It’s nice to be part of something  where it is not considered art yet, because I can go ‘oh the world is not ready for me yet’.

TNG: How do you approach the process of creating a generative artwork, and what role does programming or code play in your creative process?

JM: The programming is central to it, as I am explicitly telling the program what to do. I am setting up a system based on the text of the program. The text changes over the years as I respond to the outputs of the program by modifying the text. 

TNG: What kind of tools or software do you use to create your generative artwork, and what benefits do these tools offer?

JM: It is built on a whole pyramid of other people's software and based on those toolchains. There is the text editor where I type code, the compiler that turns the text into the program, the operating system that runs the program and writes the files out to the disk drive… I also use software that makes a movie file from the images. So I really couldn’t do any of my work without the previous work of those other people. Thank you very much!

TNG:: What fascinates you about digital art?

JM: The fascinating thing is the surprising moment of what comes out of it - especially in generative art. It’s the moment of surprise and there is creativity there in the system and it is very rewarding to see that happen. I would say it is also the idea of what is possible. Exploration is what keeps me interested. There is always something new around the corner, I love to say. 

TNG: Can you walk us through your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished artwork?

JM: Sometimes if there is an “interesting accident" as I like to call it, then I would look into that to explore what is going on. I have a tendency to just make a simple pattern making system, for example a Turing pattern, and then make multiple copies of them interact with each other and would complexify it that way. 

TNG: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who are just starting out their careers?

JM: Artists just have to do art and it doesn’t have to pay the bills. Just do it and have it as part of your life! It can take a really long time to develop your art, and the journey is as important as the destination.