Who are you?
Hey, I’m Rev Dan Catt; I’m a contemporary print artist working out of my studio in a sleepy medieval town called Shrewsbury in the UK.
When did you first start making art?
I started playing with computer graphics on a BBC Micro back in 1984, but that was more about the excitement of controlling what appeared on the TV. Up until that point, the television was very much a one-way rectangle of light that got beamed into the house, suddenly replacing the aerial with input from the computer allowed me to switch points on that screen on and off.
When I was finishing school, in the final report, my maths teacher wrote that my mathematics was very artistic, while my art teacher wrote that my art was very mathematical, which made me laugh and got me thinking. I loved the balance and patterns you got in mathematics, but I felt that I really wanted to be an artist, so I followed that in higher education.
However, a lot of the foundation art course was, well, basically drawing, which I was (and still am) terrible at, which got me back thinking about the computer as a tool for making the art for me. If I could program the computer to make semi-random art based around a series of rules and then pick the best results, I could “cheat” and not have to draw.
At this point, I’d moved onto the Atari ST and 286 PCs, and this is the crucial part, a maths co-processor that allowed it to do the mathematical calculations much faster than usual. Which should date me a bit; it was around 1989-1992, around 30 years ago.
How did you hear about FxHash?
I was already an artist with four drops on ArtBlocks but looked for something similar on the Tezos chain. I knew about Hic et Nunc, but that wasn’t generative, and I was feeling pretty wary of that site anyway. In part, because I saw people jumping onto nearly every new platform (which in hindsight was probably a good idea, lol), but I’d already decided that as NFTs was only part of my art practice, rather than the main focus, I’d rather have my work in one or two main places. FxHash seemed to compliment ArtBlocks really well while allowing a slightly different approach to generative art.
What do you love about generative art?
I love the feeling of working with the computer as a studio partner, but one I don’t need to make cups of tea for.
There are two forms of generative art, curated and what Tyler Hobbs coined “Long Form”. The first is what I started with years ago when computers were slow. I’d write the code and then tell the computer to generate a couple of hundred results overnight, and then in the morning, I’d look at the results for ones I liked and others that surprised me.
I’d then modify the code based on those to either tune it into the ones I liked or explore the fringes of the surprises, which were often caused by bugs (“features”). Then, finally, the code would run overnight again, continuing the process. Usually, I’d feel like a shepherd tending to the flock of sheep, guiding them but not in complete control.
After a couple of weeks and many iterations, you would end up somewhere totally different from where you started, which is what I mean by the partnership. So I wouldn’t have ended up at the final result on my own.
This allowed lots of failures; it didn’t matter if 80% of the output was dull, bland or just plain broken because you would only keep and show the handful of best results. You could cast the net of coding wide with some risky code in there.
The “Long Form” generative art we have on ArtBlocks and FxHash has you using a different set of tools; you can start with that wide net, but because every result has to be good, after the initial exploration, you quickly drill down into a set of results and narrow the code. There’s less room for surprises (although they do still pop up), and the code has to be 100% safe (i.e. not risky code).
They are two different styles which are both fun in their own way; the first can be wide, shallow and risky, the second is narrow, deep and safe.
The former, where you cherry-pick the results end up on versum.xyz, the latter on FxHash.
What is your creative process?
Pockets full of notebooks full of scribbles generally, it’s a glib answer but mainly true now because I have years’ worth of notebooks with ideas jotted down. This means my creative process is primarily immersing myself in online museums and galleries (up until recently, my day job was helping cultural organisations get their collections online) and then spotting something that reminds me of something I’d previously jotted down in a notebook.
I’d then look at what I’d scribbled and compare it to what I’d just seen and then try and figure out what modern processes the artist was bringing to their work that possibly didn’t exist when I made my notes. That is usually enough for me to go, “Oh wait, I’ve just realised I can now do [random thing I was thinking about the other week] and apply that to this old idea”, and then it grows from there.
But the answer then is “be old and have absorbed a lot of stuff”, lol! Which isn’t very helpful.
When I’ve taught creativity, I often point to the books “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon and “The Art of Creative Thinking” by Rod Judkins. Both of which cover the fact that great artists have “copied” other artists throughout time, by which we mean “be inspired by”, much like how you can trace musical influences (and sampling) down the years, the same is valid for visual art. If you sit there thinking, “I must do something completely new and original”, you’re going to be in for a hard time.
I suggest to students that they pick three artworks or artists and then try to smash those styles together, which serves a couple of purposes. If you choose just one artist and then someone goes, “You just copied so-and-so”, that’s a feel-bad moment, especially if you attempted to pretend it wasn’t true! But if you mash together three different styles, you can happily say, “I was influenced by these three artists”, which is an excellent way of doing art. You’re most likely pushing one of the styles forwards in a new direction, even if just by a little bit, which is how traditional art works, and you’re acknowledging your inspiration. And in the process, you’ll probably move away from those sources anyway as you explore your own take on the whole thing.
My FxHash project “A Slight Case of Overbombing” started with the curves from Bridget Riley’s piece “Kiss”, the 60s/70s style of “Rosie’s Walk” by Pat Hutchins and the gradients and tone of the 1912 “Woodcutter” by Cubist artist Kasimir Malevich. The final result doesn’t look like any of those three, but that’s where it began, and then I started throwing code and algorithms at it.
Your FxHash Genesis piece was “Concord”. How did this piece get created?
That was created in response to a struggle I was having with ArtBlocks exploding around October last year (2021). The previous month I’d just dropped my 70s Pop Series Two project and was starting on the next one (80s Pop!) when suddenly things went a bit wild, and drops were earning literally millions of dollars.
I’d always thought of ArtBlocks and FxHash as a wage income for a working artist rather than a way to get rich. So I could happily make three or four drops on ArtBlocks and a similar number on FxHash as part of my “job” as an artist, along with my more traditional print and pen plotting work.
For a lot of my career, I’ve been working on the internet writing code but trying to get back to creating physical artwork, which I’d just started doing in the last few years. Almost to the point where my print work would cover my expenses and wages. Then at the end of last year, digital was all, “Oh, come back into the digital fold, give up on all that physical stuff, all the money is over here!”
Somehow all this triggered a crisis of conscience, of working out why I was doing the work. Was it now for the money rather than the creative process? Of course, it wasn’t, but it did suddenly suck a lot of oxygen from my desire to make stuff.
So I worked through that with my therapist for a couple of months, which involved a lot of mindfulness practice and resolving how I felt about digital vs physical compared to digital + physical.
The result was that after months of dragging my feet with my next ArtBlocks drop (which I’m still working on), over the course of 24 hours, I’d created Concord, uploaded it to FxHash and sold it out.
The whole project was something that could be both digital and plotted with a pen plotter, and proof to myself that projects need not take months.
It was a move back to something simple and calming. I saw a lot of work on FxHash about colours and movement, with very computer graphics vibes, and I wanted something static and almost natural, without leaning too hard into trying to be realistic. The whole project was about subtraction and balance, which I was bringing back into my life at the time.
How did you first get into pen plotting, and what device(s) do you use?
It all goes back to the “I can’t draw, so can I get the computer to draw for me?” thoughts from way back, but instead of the chunky pixels of the time, I could use fine point fountains pens and hand-blended ink.
I’d been eyeing up pen plotters for a while but didn’t have the space for one. Then I got my first studio and ordered an AxiDraw V3/A3 right away.
I now have two V3/A3 plotters and an AxiDraw A1 plotter.
They make me smile every single day, and I adore the fact that they do all the hard work of drawing while I just write the code!
A slight case of overbombing is a grand landscape piece with a great amount of variety in color and scene. What was the goal with this work?
I’ve talked a little about the inspiration behind it above. The main thing I had in my head is I wanted the result to be like a print you’d have in a child’s bedroom. So I tried to make the type of art that I grew up with, that would be on the school or nursery walls.
Often a good piece of art can have you daydreaming and inventing stories about it. I grew up watching a lot of weird Sci-Fi films that would be shown late at night on the art channel; they tended to have this bleak post-apocalypse style where a lot of it was just the camera panning over a desolate landscape. Another influence was the book/film “When The Wind Blows” by Raymond Briggs, although in a very broad fashion, along with the red weeds of War of the Worlds. Both were things we were weirdly exposed to as kids in the late 70s and early 80s.
To me, the red and yellow landscapes have the sun rising and setting day after day over a world devoid of humans, just an unnatural hue filling the land, much like the recent orange sky in Australia and the USA with all the fires.
That was the initial tone, but I then caved in a little bit to the other palettes.
It’s a bit of a grim thing to have in a kid’s bedroom, but for a lot of us, that was the mood in the late 70s.
Why do you make art?
It feeds my soul.
Are there any quotes or pieces of advice you’ve heard in your life that have stuck with you?
“Never Whistle While You’re Pissing”- Hagbard Celine (never try to do two things at once, focus on one at a time).
“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” – Oscar Wilde (do all the things) – but I got it from the band Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
“To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder” – Curse of the Greyface – Principia Discordia
“Don’t pay attention to anyone older than you. Do pay attention to anyone younger than you.” – Daniel Catt.
Your most recent FxHash work is called Hexagones art for bots. Why are these for bots?
This started as an idea over on ArtBlocks when people set up bot networks to sweep in, buy artwork and flip it. The idea that some artwork would be bought, sold and then sold on again, all by automated bots with no human intervention, was interesting to me.
I thought that it would be interesting to have the concept of creating art for those bots, as they were going to buy them up anyway; why not have something that may appeal to them?
Obviously, I know that the bots don’t care, but I wanted to have a what-if thought experiment. At the moment, people are creating neural networks to generate artwork based on adversarial systems; one AI generates the art, while another analysis how highly it scores on the “Is it art-like?” scale, which gets fed back into the system.
Suppose this was extended to a system where the AI bot network starts monitoring what artwork gets sold a lot and for higher amounts and uses that as a training source for “high-value” art and automatically trades that art for tiny profits. In that case, you end up with a judgemental aesthetics art grinder system.
Once that started happening, an artist could exploit the network with artwork specifically designed to trigger the bots to buy it. Indeed if we go full Count Zero – William Gibson, you can have the AI creating the artwork for the network of artwork consuming and trading bots.
Again, this is a fancy thought experiment rather than a realistic belief.
However, after my first Concord drop, and as an established ArtBlocks artist when I announced A Slight Case of Overbombing (ASCOB), several bots were set to watch my wallet for new artwork dropping. When I launched ASCOB, the people in the discord channel knew to hit up the FxHash frontend to mint it, but the bots also saw the contract hit the blockchain and automatically swept some up.
The idea was to quickly follow up that drop with a second smaller one, without any announcement, so that only bots that were still watching my wallet from the previous drop and still set to buy up whatever they could would grab them.
There was some discussion about the price (low) and the secondary sales percent (also low) and how it just made the flippers money as actual people went to buy them on secondary. But I didn’t want any accusation that I was trying to make a money grab; I wanted the focus to be on the concept rather than getting tez from it.
The name Hexagone is a play on words, I knew that by the time anyone knew about them, they’d all be gone, so they were Hexagones rather than Hexagons.
The reason for hexagons was the introduction of hexagon-shaped avatars on Twitter for people linking their Twitter to their NFT wallets. The idea was to create the perfectly shaped artwork for the bots who buy artwork and live on Twitter. This is why the hexagon is awkwardly on its side rather than how I’d typically do them.
How do you know when a work is finished?
You take the work to about 120%, then strip it back to around 80%, then you know it’s finished.
Is there any artists or collectors you want to shoutout?
I’d like to shout out the #genartclub hashtag on Twitter.
Thank you for making such a great resource of interviews with artists. I’ve enjoyed reading through previous interviews and discovered some new artists, which is excellent.
Oh, and follow me @revdancatt pretty much everywhere.