Q&A with Reza Ali, CODAME Featured Artist

We caught up with CODAME Featured Artist, Reza Ali during his solo exhibition “FluidScapes” at Organic, where we talked about the manipulation of form, the underlying Lego narrative in his life, and his advice for aspiring new media artists.


By Lauryn Porte on May 1, 2014

New media artist Reza Ali materializes complex data visualizations, multi-dimensional trans-architecture, and generative mathematical abstraction through his spatial sculptures and interactive installations. Ali explores the realms of art, science, and mathematics to make complex phenomena digestible, epitomizing the tension between material and immaterial space in his works.  Some of his projects include: ofxUI, an addon for openframeworks , POSSIBLE, an audio-visual VJ app for Deadmau5, and iCubist, an ipad app that augmented the Cubists Exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

So, who are you and what do you do?

My name is Reza, and I am an artist, designer and maker.  I have a technical background in engineering, but my primary obsession is with visual aesthetics, product design, generative form making and the future.

Can you talk about what mediums do you use to realize those ideas?

It really depends on the idea, I think the mediums I’ve been playing with have been software – I’ve been building a software studio space where the code is the thing that helps you research and learn, but also it helps you produce the work, and helps you generate 3D models per say, or it helps you just get your artwork out there into the world.  It is a way of thinking that leads to other mediums whether they’re interactive on the web, or they’re installations that people experience, or physical devices or hardware/software combos that do things that allow people to experience something.

Describe the work you have on display, what are ‘FluidScapes’?

Sweet, yeah.  I got really interested in the book The Poetics of Space, architecture and fluid dynamics – this happened while I was in grad school when I was studying trans-architecture with Marcos Novak, which is basically the concept of reactive architecture.  So ok the walls we have here are flat, they don’t change color, but in software, things are so malleable, things are so flexible, you can change anything in real-time, so the whole idea of trans-architecture is about taking that whole concept of malleability and transformability and applying it the buildings and spaces we live in.

Marcos proposed this question a while ago, which was: How do you get people to be aware of the space that they exist in?  And I was really fascinated by that question. As humans we’re conscious of our personal space – because we know when someone’s in it – but I think great pieces of architecture have this presence that you feel when you enter the space.  I got really obsessed with this whole concept of space, so I started studying fluid dynamics because the space that we inhabit is completely filled with fluids, like oxygen, and you can kind of see it when there’s like a hot area in a room that’s dissipating, and if you were to take a temperature measurement in that space, you could actually see the heat coming towards you – which is a really interesting concept, right?  So the pieces in the gallery are really about making the invisible visible, and the underlying concept are fluid dynamics, fluidscapes, so it’s kind of like giving that invisible beast of fluids a physical representation.

What did you use to make FluidScapes?

I wrote Fluid Solver in C++ and used openframeworks to help me visualize it in 3D.  It was software that was written to get those pieces to exist in the real world. FluidScapes exist as 3D models in the software, but I manifested them as prints, because I wanted to see them off the screen – I wanted to see them bigger, and more impactful.  It’s totally different when it’s on your screen, versus when it’s aligned vertically and put in a gallery space.

So you’re exploring this kind of dense idea of the materiality of absence, and spaces – it sounds like it would be interesting if you could make a room with these visuals for a more immersive experience.

Yeah, there are certain people that are doing that right now!  It’s really exciting, like some visual artists working with lasers, and creating these breathtaking spaces.

What else influences your work?

Generally, some concepts in math and science are super inspirational, for example – n-body particle systems are pretty interesting to me, basically n-body particles are aware of other particles around it. You can design algorithms to influence the physical properties of these particles (position, velocity, acceleration, etc) and how they interact with other particles around them. These generative algorithms allow you to design simple relationships that create insanely interesting emergent behavior. Most of the time I find happy accidents and behaviors that make me think of the book Vehicles Experiments in Synthetic Psychology, by Braitenberg.

I’m getting more and more physical every month, so I’ve been thinking about smart materials – imagine you had shades that become darker when you become more self-conscious or intimidated by your environment.  I find myself putting on my shades all the time because I want to escape and go away – so it’d be kind of interesting to play with how human emotion can influence the products around us and how they look.  Anouk had a kind of similar project –

– Right, she had that dress that becomes transparent based on body heat or something (I didn’t remember the name at the time, but the dress I’m referring to is called Intimacy 2.0, which is made of conductive e-foils that become transparent when exposed to electricity from an accelerated heartbeat or an increase in body heat.)

Yeah she’s fantastic!  Also, Robert Hodgin for this work with graphics, Zach Lieberman with his work with play and interactivity, Golan Levin, for his work in computational design, Casey Reas and Ben Fry, for their work with Processing.org, the concept of the software studio, and their signficiant contributions to the open source movement and making code visual and fun.  And my peers are constantly inspiring, everyone who’s an artist for CODAME is really inspirational, and artists who give talks at GAFFTA are amazing as well – I get inspiration anywhere and everywhere.

Can you describe the first tech project you ever built?

Hmm.  I would take apart my remote control cars, and I would Frankenstein them together.  I was always interested in how these things work, so I would take them apart and break them, and I’d try to put them back together.  And most of the time I was unsuccessful, but – what I would do is borrow parts from one and glue it to the other, and it was sort of like this monstrosity.  It was beautiful in its own way.  I remember as a kid building things with Legos all the time too; I was building things and tearing them down and figuring out new ways of building, and it’s the whole concept of playing with Legos has carried through my whole life, like when I pay with software – it’s like Legos.  When I play with 3D printing, it’s like Legos.  When I was tearing apart those cars – I thank my parents for not getting too frustrated.

At least you didn’t get to the toaster

No, I got everywhere.  Flashlights, remote control cars, airplanes – anything that was a toy.  And pens, and objects that I found really beautiful – I would destroy them.

Then I hope you didn’t have any pets!

Oh no. I grew up with 2 dogs – but I wouldn’t do that

Where did you grow up?

Let’s see, for the first six years I was in Pakistan, and then the next 12 were in Miami, FL, then NY, and then Santa Barbara, LA , and now the Bay Area; I’ve been living here for the last year and a half.

Ok, I have a hypothetical question, if someone came up to you and said I want to do what you’re doing -, i.e. awesome art and tech – what advice would you give them?

I would say make as much as possible.  Give yourself a goal.  If you see something that’s inspirational to you, think about how it was made, and try to learn the things you need to learn that will allow you to make those things.  I think the first thing that I ever did formally in the field was learn processing, and learn how to write code – not seriously like a computer science student, but enough where I could use it as a tool.

Were you self taught?

I have a technical background in engineering, but I hated coding in undergrad.  It was the worst – there’s so much pressure to write whatever bank software that they were trying to get you to implement.  So I rebelled against it for the longest time.  In grad school I realized that to do the things I wanted to do I  couldn’t do them by hand – it would take me days or weeks to get projects done, and at that point I was like, alright, I gotta go to the dark side, and figure it out – it was painful.  Learning in general is painful, so you gotta just remember to keep at it, your goal of what you want to make should drive you forward no matter what.  I feel like a lot of people just give up because it’s hard, and it’s painful, but if you’re really passionate about making, you’ll get over the learning curve.  That’s something that I would advise.  Take something that inspires you, deconstruct it, re-make it – just to learn the craft. Once you learn the craft you can start thinking about ideas and new things that exist within the field, right? The Legos that we play with now are so diverse.

I think that’s excellent advice, I buy the idea that you don’t really deserve satisfaction unless you’ve worked hard for it.  Changing topics a bit, I noticed a lot of your past projects have incorporated music with hardware/software – what do you listen to while you’re working?

Again, it really depends.  If I’m working on an audio-visualization, I’m really thinking about what kind of music that’s going to go it.  Personally I listen to electronic music, chillstep, dubstep, electronica, electro, etc – that kind of music does something to my brain. Especially when I listen to Autechre, Boards of Canada, or Richard Divine or most of the artists from Ghostly. I listen to music to help my brain focus and drown out distractions and help myself get into another space.

That makes sense, it seems like a lot of your work kind of parallels the structure of electronic music, which is, uh (unable to articulate anything verbally, I explain by drawing an imaginary square with my index fingers)

Yeah, and you feel it – the more eclectic the music, the more it stimulates your brain.  When you see something that’s normal, you don’t even consider it, you don’t listen to it… it’s kind of like when someone shows up to work all disheveled, and you’re like-

“Hey you, what’s going on there?” Is listening to this kind of ‘disruptive’ music normally apart of your process?

When I’m working I like to listen to music with no lyrics and completely engulf myself in whatever I’m doing and just, flow – I was up til 5 a.m. today working.  My process is really about letting whatever you’re doing come out of you, and I’ve heard this works for writers as well, and artists as well.  I’ve given up trying to get up early and work, I’ve realized inspiration is probably going to come at 11 a.m. or 11 p.m. and who knows when it’s going to leave.  So I keep working until I pass out – that’s my process.

How did you get involved in CODAME?

I met Bruno (CODAME Commodore) randomly one night when I was hanging out with Robert Hodgin and a couple other friends.  Bruno told me about CODAME, and I was like that sounds fantastic and I’d love to be a part of that in any way possible.  We followed up over email, and I think the first thing we ever did was this Halloween thing – it was really weird and that’s why I loved it.

Why was it weird?

It was weird because I was projecting visuals in this room, where there were these people dressed all in white –

Oh – 5enses!

I think so!  And they were all sort of moving in space.  And I was like, this is awesome.  This is weird, and I like what it’s doing to my brain.  Yeah, I think CODAME has been super helpful in terms of fostering the growth, Bruno and Jordan are fantastic, and always invite me to show work or talk, and I just want to say that those guys have been really critical to my growth as an artist in SF.

On that note, can you talk about CODAME’s Adopt and Artist program, and what you’re looking for in patronage – why do you want to be “adopted”?

I think it’s an interesting concept – if you go back to the early days of the Renaissance, there were patrons that would encourage/fund artists to make their work, and these artists would become influential in history, not only for what they painted and how beautiful it was at the time, but what they were saying with their work.  I think as with artists today, especially living in the Bay Area and working in the tech/art field, there’s a lot of people who are like, “Come work for my start up. Write JavaScript for me.” And I think that’s interesting and fun, but, there aren’t a lot of places that are truly encouraging artists to make with technology.  And I think technology has only been around for what, 40 years – so in my opinion, we know so little about this field, and there’s tons of new things, like social media, new applications that connect people, and a lot of unknowns: ethically, socially, emotionally, and I think artists need to be exploring right now.

What did you do before you started pursuing your art practice full time?

I worked at this company called Famo.us, and they are reinventing the web and the interfaces on the web.  Those interfaces are really about movement, aesthetics, design and performance, because the web all seems slow – and apps are faster.  So the whole concept there is “make it better” – create frameworks that allow people to do what I do, with real-time graphics but on the web.  So that whole feedback cycle of hey let’s make art with JavaScript, was an interesting concept because I had a constraint, but I had to be really creative with that constraint, which forces me to think differently and feedback.  In that way it was a challenge for both of us, but both parties equally benefitted from having each other around.

I’d love for companies to have Artist in Residencies that actually pay decent salaries, so I could do what I do and be more sustainable.  Now I’m like, extremely cheap, and I dunno – it’s sort of uncomfortable sometimes, coming from making six figures to making less than 30. is a huge, drastic change.  So it’d be great if companies were more willing to be experimental.  I think all the good ones like Google, Apple, Salesfoce

– even Facebook

Yeah, I think those companies – Autodesk of course–  are really leading the effort forward.  I would like more companies to embrace it.  Adopt an Artist is a great movement because patronage is dead, but it needs to come back.

Are you currently working on any other projects?

I just finished a project that’s all about 3D scanning and sculpture that’s for children and students – that’s going to be released, formally written up on my website, probably in a month.  The project is collaboration with this guy Jeff, who runs Bot and Dolly (with Randy), a company that does some insane things with robots; they’re the guys who helped shoot Gravity – these robotic arms that do amazing movements around the actors.

Oh, and one small side project I’m going to be working on at Autodesk is all about generative voronoi puzzles.image

What is a ‘voronoi’?

So let’s say you have two points here (gestures with index fingers), there’s a line that basically is in between them that’s equidistant to the points.  So if you have another set of points here (more pointing), there’s another line, and then these lines are connected together to basically create closing spaces- it’s like another type of algorithm in computational geometry.  So the whole concept of the puzzle is to have these certain points moving to certain algorithms over time, and generating from their movements a three-dimensional cell or puzzle that anyone can put together.  It’s really a project all about form in a generative way.  I think these shapes are really beautiful when you see them in the software, these sort of like these curved surfaces that evolve just because these particles are moving in space to certain algorithms, and when you look at them they’re totally far out, and when you touch them, you feel something, and then when your brain uses its power to put them together in a puzzle it’s really satisfying.

I’m seeing the Lego pieces come together here.

Yeah, right.  There’s generative systems driving form, which is driving 3D prints, which is then being made into things, which is then illuminated from the bottom – all these pieces come together and I find it fascinating.  I don’t know what else to do with my life (laughter).

Actually what I want to do in the future is have my work be way more interactive, and way more engaging where you’re not just looking at a pretty picture and appreciating it for the underlying mathematics and aesthetics, but you are engaging in it to the degree where you’re touching it, you’re feeling it, to accomplish something like a mental puzzle.

Edited for length.  Reza Ali is currently an Artist in Residence at Autodesk, and Featured Artist at CODAME who’s currently up for Adoption, Contact us if you have questions or ideas.