Aaron Penne started his artistic journey with poetry, then sketched music attempts over to data visualisation and finally to generative artwork. With his generative Art, he tries to inspire emotion and curiosity. Aaron does not want to think like his heroes. Instead, he wants to think like their heroes.
NFT Granny: “Dear Aaron, Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. While browsing your beautiful artwork, I noticed that one piece of yours was presented in Karlsruhe, Germany. Amazing – how was that possible? As an older lady, I love enjoying the artwork in real life. Are there more opportunities to see your NFT art physically?”
Aaron Penne: My work was shown there as part of a group show featuring Art Blocks projects and other “digitally native” work. The Return series was designed for physical display on large screens; once better NFT displays gain adoption, I expect to see more of that. Bridging the gap between digital and physical is an exciting challenge. Seeing generative artwork large and displayed adequately is very different from seeing a thumbnail on OpenSea.
How did you first become interested in art, and how did you get started with it yourself?
Aaron Penne: Art is one of those things that is always there; it just has to happen. Over the years, it’s taken many forms for me: From poetry to sketching to music attempts to data visualisation to generative artwork. For me I prefer to call it “artwork” instead of “art” because there is so much work behind the final expression.
My first touching points with generative artwork was specifically because my career pivoted from electrical engineering into software and data. I was using data visualisation as a creative outlet for some time. There are many rules with data viz like Tufte’s “information to ink” ratio, etc., limiting potential expressiveness. I wanted to go a step further and create abstract images. I got inspired by another artist, Zach Bodtorf, who used the same data viz toolkit (matplotlib in Python) to make beautiful abstract images. It was like a door had opened. The tools I have spent years using for work suddenly became tools for personal expression.
Can you tell us more about the story behind your project “Apparitions”?
Aaron Penne: I had been working with this layered form for several years. It just holds so much mystery to me. It is a series of lines stacked, but it brings dynamic 3D movement to a 2D rendering with the right parameter space and aesthetic. By tweaking parameters, it creates very different feelings, from the comfort of a silk sheet to the rugged adventure of canyons. Exploring that diversity of outputs excited me about generative artwork and was a driving factor in design decisions for this project.
Which of your artworks are you most proud of?
Aaron Penne: I’m most proud of the “Return” project. It has been an idea I had since ~2010 after seeing a Wojciech Fangor piece in the Laguna Art Museum where my partner worked at the time.
The work was a blurry oil painting of a circle, simple but absolutely captivating. It’s an image I still think of often. Finding this infinite potential within such a minimal composition became a theme for me. Some of my earliest generative artwork experiments were trying to recreate the blurred circles. I struggled with the idea that my work did not “say anything” recently, so with “Return”, I really tried to grow as an artist and extract something personal and put it into a project. That’s where the title of the project and the concept of the slowly looping animation come from. The fundamental idea is a return inward, via meditation or similar, and this project for me recreates or facilitates that experience.
Another reason I love “Return” is because it continues the visual op-art tradition of Wojciech Fangor, Julio Le Parc, Peter Sedgley, Tadasky, Claude Tousignant, and so many others. I view this wave of generative artwork generally and my work specifically as a continuation of that lineage. To quote Frieder Nake, I feel my work has been “part and parcel of wonderfully silent conversations” with these artists, and I hope that I could do that dialogue some justice through this project.
Is there an artist you would like to work with? Like a collaboration?
Aaron Penne: I’m currently collaborating with a few talented people for ongoing projects, which is an exciting new challenge and way to bring artwork to life. Most of the generative artists I’m fan of are also friends, and I would be happy to work with any of them. I would consider collaborating in a new medium, like working with a film producer or musician, something new-to-me to bring that “beginner mind” back which in turn pushes the artwork forward.
Right now, beyond the projects I hinted at, I’m interested in collaborating with blockchain developers like Steve Klebanoff or Owen Shen. They are both wonderful people and bring innovations to the space, using the blockchain itself in creative ways. Seeing what artists like 0xDEAFBEEF are doing with smart contracts as a medium is painfully inspiring right now.
Who or what are your biggest influences or sources of inspiration?
Aaron Penne: I’m completely overwhelmed by the amount of talent that is visible at this moment. I have been a community leader in the generative art space for some years, running a club of ~300 amazing creative coders. We have been sharing work with each other for years, and now they are getting the spotlight they deserve. Seeing their works being developed and shared is a continuous source of inspiration. Being in an environment like that really pushes everyone to do better, to try new things.
The roots or inspirations for people who are my inspirations are what is interesting. I don’t want to think like my heroes. I want to think like their heroes. I’m always trying to pull in new inputs and let new connections form. Nothing is off-limits. The fun of being an artist is you are free to pull inspiration simultaneously from any source. One of the projects I’m working on has inspirations from a masterpiece painting, an old door, avant-garde films, and a bad pop song all at once.
Is there something specific you are trying to express with your art?
Aaron Penne: Yes, but it shifts continuously from project to project, or even within a project during development. Frequently in my opinion, the artwork is there to inspire emotion, and with generative artwork, it also inspires curiosity. When viewing a classic painting, I think: “Paint and brushes were used, I’m not good at those, this is amazing”.
When I am viewing a generative artwork, I think: “code and a computer was used, I’m good at those, how the hell did they do it?”.
Creative code as an education tool is important to me, so inspiring the “I could do that” thought is always a goal, I want people to try it for themselves and explore the possibilities that I’ve discovered. There is so much beauty in the world, but it could always use more.
What do you feel when you are creating new art?
Aaron Penne: Excitement, doubt, joy, frustration, confidence, overwhelm, curiosity. There’s nothing like it.
Do you remember the first time you heard about NFT Art?
Aaron Penne: Erick and I talked back in 2018 about doing a generative tile project. He shared the general idea for what would eventually become Art Blocks. I feel lucky being able to learn about these concepts directly from someone like Erick, and his passion got me hooked. I’ve been diving into the deep end ever since.
How do you enjoy the NFT Art you have collected? Do you have a way to display it, for example, at home?
Aaron Penne: Most of the artwork I have collected is my own in order to gift it to friends, family, or institutions. I stay away from collecting projects from artists I love for a couple of reasons.
First, I have been friends with many of them for years and already own prints which I cherish.
Second, I want collectors to own the art, not me. I’m in this space to push the generative art medium forward and expand its reach, and I feel that would be hindered if I take some art out of circulation.
Third, I am frequently privileged enough to see these projects while being developed and help iterate with feedback behind the scenes. I have enough of a close relationship with the works from that experience that I want to allow others their chance to get a similar connection through collecting.
But when I do display the artwork I prefer to cast them to my Samsung Frame TV and make them the centerpiece of my home.
We would really like to know, where do you see the NFT Art scene in the future?
Aaron Penne: When talking with Sofia Garcia of ARTXCODE in 2018 I told her “contemporary generative art belongs in museums”. This is my goal, and I believe is where generative art is going (it’s already there).
As far as NFT art, I see the infinite potential. Artists are changing their lives dramatically in positive ways with the current state, but I think we are at the beginning of a fundamental shift that will change the entire landscape. Art is just the beginning for NFTs. It will become pivotal for games, brands, communities. I’m fortunate to be in the middle of it all and helping push it forward.
Which tools do you use to create your art?
What does a typical day for you look like, and what do you like to do when you’re not busy with NFT Art?
Aaron Penne: I don’t see my artwork as “NFT Art”. I see it as a personal expression of my experiences and feelings. Everything that happens throughout a day can become inspiration for my creative work whether it’s cooking, woodcarving, repairing drywall, baking, drawing, riding my bike, etc. I like to learn new things and keep a beginner’s mind, finding dots to connect later in my creative practice. And music, I’m always listening to music and trying to find new albums to listen to.
I work hard. In my day job, I’m building tools and backends to serve thousands of customers. There is a lot of pressure to get it right. This is why I love coding artwork. There are no code reviews to worry about. Outside of work, I spend time with my partner and our pugs. My partner is my best friend, my greatest support, and my harshest critic. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Aaron Penne: Don’t be afraid to break things. Learn how the algorithm works, not just how to use it. Watch your breath.
Is there something aside from art or NFTs you collect?
Aaron Penne: Dog toys, judging by our living room floor. I collect music. But mostly, I try to un-collect things, to give things away and get more minimal.
What do you feel the moment a project you’ve created dropped?
Aaron Penne: Overwhelming emotions. I’ve talked about this with other artists many times, and we all agree. The days leading up to a project release are filled with self-doubt and anxiety. I don’t view projects as drops, more as releases, where the real work can now begin. Creating a project is a very personal experience. Releasing it is a very public one. All the work up to the release date is secretive and shielded. So after release, it’s a baring of the soul, and that’s where the magic of the community happens.
Please describe your idea of a perfect world in max. 5 sentences
Aaron Penne: We are all just people, wanting to be loved and fulfilled. There is so much room for compassion, to relate to each other as the same. If we each start breaking down hate with compassion, the world would improve, and it is indeed improving despite the noise.
- Full Name: Aaron Penne
- Education: Bachelor’s & Master Degree in Electrical Engineering,
- First Job: Hipster barista, but my first “real” job after college was as an electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman