One of the pioneers of generative art, Erik Natzke is a hero within the Flash community and beyond. Garrick Webster asks him about his career, coding, interactivity, bird nests and his latest projects
To some, it's a baffling concept. But in the digital age it's as valid to use computer code to create artwork as it is to use a paintbrush or a sculptor's chisel, and Erik Natzke is a grandmaster when it comes to this developing field of art and design. Using routines coded in ActionScript, Natzke uses Flash to generate stunning images. At their simplest, his creations are still-life abstracts, with beautiful infusions of colour and forms mimicking the nuances of nature's own chaos. In more advanced projects, they're in full motion - growing, evolving, decaying and regenerating to become new creations. Today, he's passionate about building applications for touch-screen devices that let the viewer literally 'play' the image. Always thoughtful, polite and very open, Natzke spent time with us explaining his unique blend of technology and aesthetics.
Computer Arts: Generative artwork is at the unusual end of graphic design and illustration. When someone asks you what you do, how do you explain it?
Erik Natzke: My general answer - to most people in my age group - is that I write code to build tools that I then use to draw and paint with. Usually the 'uh-huh' that follows is that they understand what that means, or that they have no clue but still want to be polite. Because there are so many non-traditional steps involved in the things I create, I really don't blame them.
CA: Late last year you did a show called The Colors of Nature. Tell us about the thinking behind it.
EN: I decided that this was going to be an exhibition exclusively looking to mine colour from nature and use that as the seed or the germinating thought in which I would generate stuff. I didn't start out with too much of a vision. I didn't think about it in the context of 'This is how it's going to end up looking', I just thought, 'Well I really have found a lot of inspiration from both the colours and structures of nature'. So I just decided that's where I start from. Where I end up, well, let's just see where it goes.
I'm big into photography - that's always been something that's big, even just in my design life. I love going outside and shooting photography, just getting away from the computer.
CA: So you captured colour schemes from your nature photography, but the forms and compositions came via code?
CA: What elements of nature do you find particularly inspiring?
EN: There are lots of similarities between just how nature likes to germinate a flower with so many different petals, and its repeated forms and structures. I look at it almost like they're algorithms. A flower is generated by a system of instructions. Similarly, that's how I look at code: as a system of formulas that I have control over that generate a resulting outcome, or a generative system.
CA: You have a lot of fans, but what's the response like from beyond this sphere?
EN: Surprisingly favourable. I am constantly surprised by the people who have found my work and have ordered prints. What's interesting is to listen to that person, who isn't familiar with the technology, go on this journey with the work that even starts to give it new meaning to myself. It's funny how a static print can still be so interactive.
CA: Does it matter to you whether your creations look obviously digitally created, or do you prefer them to have a natural feel?
EN: It all depends on the mood of the moment. In the past I've found myself fighting the appearance of paint and brush strokes because I thought it would feel disingenuous seeing it printed on paper. I've since realised that I just need to let the process go where it will go. It's more about the final aesthetic and the emotion I want to either convey, or pull out of someone.
CA: Is it more important to you that your work is interactive and can be played with on a screen by the viewer, or that it appears in print and has a physical presence to it?
EN: I don't know. I think I have more ideas than I have time to execute. I have so many ideas for installation-based pieces that I'd love to do, as well as some of the stuff that I'm doing with multi-touch and working with mobile devices. I probably haven't created a piece of artwork in six months, and I'm kind of like, 'Okay, I need to get back into that.'
CA: So can you tell us what you've been working on lately?
EN: Lately I have been building painting applications for multi-touch devices, which is beyond rewarding. I am finally breaking free of the mouse and keyboard conventions, and it feels great. I've been spending a lot of my energy on trying to examine what I can create with AIR, and getting back into building some more interactive stuff.
I'm hoping that in this next year I'm going to get to create things that others get to play with, because there's a sort of recurring theme: after I've created a lot of artwork, people want to play with those tools, and I'd love to see what people build. It's just a lot harder to build that system, but I can see that happening probably within the next year; that people will have something to play with on their own.
CA: Looking back on your career, how important has client work been to you?
EN: I almost look at it like there are the three stages of my work. First, with the things that I worked on early on, I feel like I had the freedom to do stuff and that was how I grew. Then, I realised you learn from the people who are pushing you a little bit harder one way or another so, you know, 'embrace the pain-in-the-ass clients'. More recently it's been the pioneering spirit. Because I haven't been afraid to show people what I'm wanting to do or what I'm interested in doing, I've started to get these clients that have been asking me to push that boundary.
CA: What artists have inspired you?
EN: I find more inspiration from watching a kid trying to draw with crayons and the process that they go through to allow their imagination and creativity to emerge. Right now I have these really annoying birds outside my studio that are trying to make a nest, and I just get transfixed by the thought of a bird going out just to find a twig and then coming back and putting it into a tree to build this nest - to build up a structure that eventually is going to have some function or form. I'm probably more inspired by those things that happen than I am by the artwork that I'll see in galleries or museums.
CA: One of your stated aims is to blur the boundaries between design and technology. What do you mean by that?
EN: Over time the scenario develops where designers are throwing their ideas over the proverbial fence in the hope that the technologists will understand their aesthetic vision despite any technical hurdles that vision may present. A similar obstacle is present when technologists pass their ideas to designers to put a face to a schematic they have said is locked down and thus limiting flexibility of the design. It's that friction between the two different fields that I am most interested in breaking down. The more you can break down that friction and allow technology to inform design, and vice versa, the closer you can get to fully realising an idea.
CA: Many people would consider you to be a design icon. How does that feel?
EN: I am just honoured to be in a position to lend my wisdom and insight and knowledge and, hopefully, inspire someone to create wonderful things as a result of it.