Frame 61

Ulla Nolden

Frame 61
Ulla Nolden

Background: I grew up in a house where the word ‘artist’ was used to describe someone with poor manual skills. Of course I realised early on that this was strange to say the least, but it still left me with a deep suspicion of anything labeled ‘art’. I became a motion designer because this placed my creative work at a safe distance from art. Its value could be measured objectively by commercial success. Yet I remained intrigued by art and its history. While in the past art followed certain rules, contemporary art seems to revolve around a question: What is art? Inherent to this question are others: What does the artist have to say? Is there a need for art? What is art’s value? 

For a long time I thought there were answers to those questions that I simply hadn’t understood yet. When a few years ago I realised that contemporary art is not about an answer but it is an exploration and a debate, I was surprised to find my own thoughts and ideas were already part of this. It was very liberating because suddenly an expression of myself, the representation of a personal view, had value. So I’m not sure when I became an artist: when I started thinking like one about 10 years ago, or when I started calling myself an ‘artist’ about 2 years ago.

Swarms: I am fascinated by the varied yet balanced movement of insect swarms. I perceive beauty in the movement itself, separate from the creatures which produce it. It is the balance between simplicity and complexity of movement which I am interested in; the apparently chaotic unpredictability of the movement of each entity in contrast to the perfectly stable system of the swarm as a whole. Through studying the computational representation of swarm behaviour (particularly the works of Craig W. Reynolds and Daniel Shiffman) I was able to understand how the movement is generated.

Every entity within a swarm is autonomous, there is no leader. The movement is created because each member follows a set of behavioural rules: align with the movements of your neighbours, move towards the average of your neighbours’ positions, keep at a distance from your neighbours, move towards a specified point in space, wander aimlessly. For the execution of those rules only a limited radius around the entity is evaluated. Although based on very simple behavioural rules, the resulting group movement becomes very complex. 

Sunlight: I have long been intrigued by the subtle movement of shapes of light made by rays of sunshine coming through windows. The viewer only notices that there is a movement when pausing and observing carefully. The movement is created by gaps between clouds which are propelled by relatively strong winds. Understanding that the movement is determined by the shape and distribution of clouds enabled me to represent it. I used a fractal noise algorithm simulating the cloud structure to generate the frequency and duration of the movement and the light intensity.

Being a digital artist: Computational technology is at the forefront of cultural innovation. Yet most people only engage with software as users. The potential for innovation is strictly limited by what the creator of the application has enabled the code to do. I started to write my own software because I want to explore the potential beyond this. 

The viewer: I present my view. It is based on a particular mode of perception, a heightened attention towards the subtle and the fleeting at the margins of physical reality. I want to provoke this mode of perception in my audience, not just in front of my work but anywhere. 

Process/ideas: Certain aspects of physical reality catch my attention. The process of this particular mode of perception has become the focus of my research. I see static elements of my physical environment as a grid of lines, colours and textures. The immediacy of this perception finds its representation in instantaneous photographs. Over the years numerous iterations of a feedback loop of taking photographs and viewing them gradually revealed my personal aesthetic. I have documented this process in the project EVERYDAY. By contrast, I experience the visual perception of movement as accumulative. Over time, observations of similar movements are layered to form one complete percept. 

As part of this process I formalise the rules which govern the movement. In the PURE MOVEMENTS series I translate those behavioural rules into computational instructions. The visual representation of the resulting abstract algorithm is a test of my understanding of the mechanics of the movement. 

I visualise the abstract algorithm using the aesthetic language I developed in my photographic work. I represent variations of the algorithm in different environments for which I create a visual reference grids of images from the EVERYDAY project. The first environment is a photographed space. After that I place the algorithm into various physical environments by means of projections or sculptural installations. Each algorithm can create an infinitely continuous movement. The movements within photographed spaces are rendered into a finite loop while some of the movements in physical spaces are generated continuously in real-time.

Studio/routine/swing a cat: My studio is a sunny room at the back of the house, full of books and computers and plants. Particularly now in the spring, half of my desk is occupied by vegetable seedlings for the garden. I’m happiest when I sit there quietly and try to figure out how to make something improbably difficult. I’d say the room is just about ‘cat-swinging-size’, although quite a few plant pots would probably be knocked over in the process.

Titles: When I was creating the first algorithmic animation, I thought of the coded, abstract stage of the movement before I visualised it as ‘pure’. This was influenced by my reading a lot about Plato at the time. For me my algorithms are ’forms’ or ‘ideas’ beyond physical perception. The title for my long-term daily photographic project emerged slowly. As I noticed recurring themes and patterns in the photographs I published, I began to read more and more about my subject matter, the quotidian environment that sociologists call ‘Everyday’, scenes that are so commonplace they tend to be overlooked. 

Influences: In my aesthetic I detect the influence of the unembellished urban surrounding of my German upbringing, as well as my design education. The way I select and represent movement has many influences, one of them is definitely the early work of Wim Wenders. I remember a long time ago I saw a short film by Wenders. I don’t remember the title of the film and I never saw it again. He had recorded a crossroads at dawn, the camera remained completely static, the film ran the entire length of a 3 minute reel, the crossroads was deserted, the only movement was the continuous change of the traffic lights and the slow shift of light as the sun rose. 

Future/shows: I’m waiting for a book about my work to come back from the printer’s. I started making the book as an alternative way to view the more than 3500 photographs of the EVERYDAY project. Later I decided to add a chapter about the PURE MOVEMENTS series because one is based on the other. In its digital form the linear presentation documents this very well, I hope so will the physical object once it is printed. And my work ‘Pure Movement 1, environment 1’ will be shown at Industry City Art Gallery in New York as part of ‘Digital Canvas’, ikonoTV’s 24-hour programme of digital art on 28/29th of April. After that ikonoTV will broadcast the work on 7/8th May.

Artist website

Publishing date of this interview 29/04/16