DigitalFruit- Andy Kotlinski

DigitalFruit is an interview series from Adafruit showcasing some of our favorite digital fine artists from around the world. As we begin this new decade with its rapidly changing landscape, we must envision our path through a different lens.  Over the next few weeks we’ll feature many innovative perspectives and techniques that will inspire our maker community to construct a bold creative frontier.  The only way is forward.

1. Where are you based?

I live in SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, Washington.

2. Tell us about your background?

My parents were both immigrants from Poland, and met in Chicago, where I was born. They didn’t speak English well, so my first language was Polish. Of course, when I entered Catholic school, I had to start learning English (among other things) all on my own. Being shy and introverted didn’t really help either, so I tended to keep to myself and have very few friends. Luckily, my parents put me into music lessons to alleviate my boredom, and I learned the accordion so well that I won an Illinois state competition! I couldn’t believe I had won because playing didn’t seem too difficult, but it would become more so later on in my life.

My dad was a machinist by trade, and a tinkerer/handyman outside of work. He’d always be trying to amaze my brother and I with some gadget he’d acquired or trick he’d learned. I inherited from him a love of experimenting with, creating, and fixing (or breaking) things around the house. One of my favorite pastimes was the Logic-Kosmos super electronics kit; I’d spend many hours following detailed circuit diagrams in the hope of creating a simple flashing light or even a crystal radio.

When I was 8, my parents, my younger brother, and I moved to Mount Prospect, about 20 miles northwest of Chicago. One of the things that brought me the most joy as a child was going to the flea market with my parents, where I’d search for interesting books. I loved reading about the universe; my favorite topic was definitely astronomy, but also I’d beg them to buy me any set of encyclopedias I could find. I remember spending evenings reading the Golden Book encyclopedia and Britannica Junior, as well as a 1921 edition of the Book of Knowledge, just for fun. Another memorable title was Review Text in Preliminary Mathematics by Isidore Dressler.

I finished my Catholic elementary education and entered high school in 1983. Our school didn’t have any computer classes, but that was fine with me, because I had my own computer at home: an Apple ][ Plus that my parents bought me around my freshman year. They had no idea how to code, but the owner’s manuals were so incredibly good that even a kid could learn BASIC from them easily (and even a bit of machine language and Pascal). I remember writing some simple games and even a few graphics demos, all lost to time, unfortunately. My interest in programming (and playing games) grew to such a degree that my accordion practicing time suffered, and I decided to quit. Also, I already had an inkling that I was good at math, but after entering high school, math became my favorite subject—especially trigonometry and calculus. I remember spending long evenings differentiating, integrating, and writing proofs, and loving every second of it… partly because it felt cool that I could do something nobody else in my family could. I savored the feeling of looking ahead in my textbooks, looking forward to the time I’d actually understand the cryptic runes I was looking at. When senior year rolled around, I found myself having some difficulty keeping up with all my advanced classes (other than math) and felt a bit burned out and distracted, and this feeling carried over to choosing a college (my parents were no help). I ended up going to a small all-male school in Terre Haute, Indiana: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. It was the school with the simplest application form (maybe half a page long) and they had computer classes!

Things were not all rosy there, however. I found a bit of solace volunteering at the radio station there (WMHD-FM) as a disk jockey, but I’d always strongly be looking forward to my vacations, which I’d spend in Chicago. It was during this time in my life that I’d discover the Wax Trax! records store (and label) on Lincoln Avenue. There I discovered bands such as Front 242, Front Line Assembly, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and many others. Not only was I in love with the music, but also it seemed that every band signed to Wax Trax! was fantastic, a fact that helped immensely when I went back to Terre Haute and needed to decide on playlists at the radio station.

However, after a couple of years, I found myself struggling to remain motivated and became homesick. After all, I was used to a big city with lots of exciting social activities which were not to be found anywhere in Terre Haute. I quit college and drove back north, much to the chagrin of my parents. Although in the back of my mind, I wanted to somehow enter the music industry as a producer or engineer, my parents strongly encouraged me to finish college first, and then “I could do anything I wanted.” Their prodding induced me to spend perhaps a year at DeVry Institute of Technology, followed by finishing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Northeastern Illinois University. My favorite memories at NEIU consist of sitting in the computer lab and surfing the newly-formed World Wide Web using a text-based browser, and downloading shareware for my Mac.

Although I’d held some temporary employment during my college breaks, my first long-term job was working as a ticket clerk at what was then First Chicago Investment Services, a bank-owned brokerage in downtown Chicago. It was mostly menial work, matching tickets printed as the “traders” (actually just glorified customer service agents) entered trades into the system. I was very good at my job, and soon found myself taking the NASD Series 7 exam and moving up to being one of the “traders” myself. It was during this time, around 1994, that I entered graduate school at DePaul University in Chicago, while still working full-time. I graduated hardly 2 years later with a Masters in Computer Science, with a concentration in Visual Computing.

Afterwards I tried to apply my degree at First Chicago, but I craved a bit more creative leeway, so I applied to a small Chicago-based consulting company called ThoughtWorks, joining in 1999. Working there provided me with colleagues who were all most-likely smarter than me, along with various projects that were very challenging technically. About a year afterwards, the company announced that they were betting big on the Java computer language becoming very popular in the enterprise, and that we should all learn it. Luckily, I had already studied Java at DePaul, and got pretty excited to become an expert at what I’d only spent a little time with at school. In the back of my mind, however, it seemed I had other desires that were begging to surface.

In my my spare time at work, I’d code up some algorithms and run them on our super fast (at the time) Pentium Pro servers to render some pretty fractals or other digital pictures. Then, after about 3 years at ThoughtWorks, I decided that working with computers was much less fun than playing with them. So, of course, without thinking too much about the consequences, I left ThoughtWorks and took off to Florida to attend Full Sail video game development school for about a year. However, even though I graduated valedictorian with an Associates Degree, I wasn’t very excited about moving away from Chicago to find a good game development job. My savings spent, I decided to come back to ThoughtWorks, where I spent the next 7 years or so working on various projects and making lots of money, but not really having such a great time doing it. My thoughts were filled with the desire for more free time to be creative in my own way, not dictated by a client’s specification document but rather by my own imagination. In the meantime I’d moved from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, and then to Seattle. My last ditch effort in the computer field was a stint at Amazon Web Services, where I lasted about 8 months before I threw in the towel and just completely wanted to quit racking my brain and wasting my life energy thinking about and struggling with problems that I didn’t personally have any vested interest in solving.

I spent the next ten years or so simply “taking a break” from what most “normal” people would consider normal. I didn’t have a job to go to, and considered myself temporarily retired. I attempted to try securities trading to make some extra cash, but instead, as time went on, I slowly traded my money away. With my parents’ inheritance completely lost due to my lack of discipline, I felt pretty discouraged. It was during this time, about 4 years ago, that I simply wanted to find something that would make me feel good again, excited about life again, and realized that it was within my grasp the entire time: creating art. I remembered the late nights at ThoughtWorks, coding Julia set algorithms just for fun and amazement, wondering what they would look like in the morning when the computer finished rendering. If I could just have that feeling every day, then I could withstand pretty much anything. So, currently, I share one new piece of art per day to keep my sanity, and drive a truck to make an actual living. It’s great not to have to waste brainpower at work; I get to save it for later on thoughts I actually care about.

3.  What inspires your work?

At DePaul, I had a couple of favorite professors (Dr. Richard Johnsonbaugh and Dr. Steve Jost) who co-authored (with Earl Gose) a book titled “Pattern Recognition and Image Analysis” and taught a course based on a draft version. Dr. Jost in particular is whom I credit with introducing me to the Mandelbrot set and how such a simple algorithm could produce such fantastic visual patterns. Moreover, it was the first time I’d ever been able to write my own image processing algorithms and tweak them to see what the effects would be. I was like a child again tinkering with some gadget my dad had found God knows where.

Around the same I discovered an amazing book by Clifford Pickover, entitled “Chaos in Wonderland” and filled with what seemed like photographs of aliens. These turned out to be strange attractors with very simple trigonometric recipes, and I was instantly hooked on his entire bibliography of fantastic how-to-make-awesome-graphics books.

Speaking of books, my personal library of over 4,000 titles contains mainly art, computer, and math books. Of course I haven’t read them all cover-to-cover and probably never will, but I love staring at my shelves and choosing a book at random to browse for inspiration. Some of my favorite books include those by Andrew Glassner, “Creating Symmetry” by Frank A. Farris, “Symmetry in Chaos” by Michael Field and Martin Golubitsky, “The Beauty of Fractals” by Heinz-Otto Peitgen, “The Science of Fractal Images” by Peitgen/Saupe/Fisher, and “Fractal Cosmos” by Jeff Berkowitz.

My favorite “traditional” art style is Op Art, but I also find some surrealism very cool, especially that of the nonrepresentational variety. My favorite artists include Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte, Victor Vasarely, and Bridget Riley.

Math topics that inspire me include fractals and chaos, cellular automata, pathfinding, statistics, image processing, image warping/transformations, and computational geometry. Combining various aspects of mathematics within a single digital art work for me is super fun and interesting and an endless source of creative inspiration.

Of course, browsing social media such as Instagram and Facebook provides me with an endless stream of potentially inspiring images. My mind immediately goes into “how did they do that?” mode, and if I can’t instantly answer that question, I know it’s something to try and figure out for myself as soon as I can. This process of discovery (if I’m successful) is almost more enjoyable than creating new art using the newly discovered process, but not quite.

4.  What are you currently working on?

I just finished working on a fast convex hull implementation and a k-mediods clustering algorithm. This weekend I intend to use these, among some other ideas, to make a new series of art that I can share in the months to come.

5.  Describe your process and what tools you like to use.

My process usually starts with an image I’ve seen somewhere, perhaps in a book or online, that I want to try to recreate in my own way, meaning purely algorithmically without using traditional or even digital painting tools. Sometimes I have an inkling on how to begin or even a full-blown recipe to follow, but most times I have to do a bit of digging and research to figure out what exactly is going on mathematically in the image.

Sometimes, though, I choose as my starting point nothing at all; I don’t have an image in mind, and I want the computer itself to generate a bunch for me to sift through for some diamonds in the rough. For these experiments I choose perhaps some coloring schemes and a collection of “operators” such as fractal or IFS algorithms, image warps, and symmetry transformations, and let the computer combine them at random, generating images that I can then choose to further refine. This aspect of serendipity plays a huge role in my process, especially for my more recent designs.

I write all my own software in Java to create my artwork. I use the free community version of IntelliJ IDEA as a code editor, and Mathematica (which is also free on the Raspberry Pi) for its visualization and equation solving abilities.

After satisfying myself that an image is ready to share with the world, I upload it to my website and publish a link to Twitter, and then at some later date schedule it for sharing to other social media sites (Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest).

6.  What does your workplace or studio look like? Do you work in silence or listen to music while you work?

I work from my living room, standing at a desk that’s in front of a window overlooking my apartment complex’s courtyard filled with flowers and palm trees. In every other direction there’s nothing to see but my bookshelves containing my library of books. Of course I also have my CD collection of EBM, post-punk and dance music completely ripped and on endless ad-free random repeat.

7.  How has technology shaped your creative vision?

Immensely. Without interfacing with computers, there is absolutely no way I could have created the art I have. At this point, sitting down and “drawing” or “painting” to me holds very little interest, because I know that the lifespan of a drawing or a painting is extremely short compared to an idea, a process, an algorithm, that can be preserved digitally for untold years into the future. Moreover, an artist’s process should be “shareable” and not die with them. A drawing or painting is simply an end-product of that process; it doesn’t explicitly contain or express it. On the other hand, my computer programs detailing my processes will be shared with the world at some point in time, and I hope that they can bring a sense of wonder to those who study them: “How can something so simple create something so intricate?”

8.  Any tips for someone interested in getting started in the digital art form?

Follow whatever excites you, and think about how you can recreate or make it even better. With practice you will learn many techniques that you can freely mix and match to create a style all your own. If you’re interested in purely algorithmic art, learn how to code in a simple language that you enjoy, learn algebra, geometry, and trigonometry (at least) and even perhaps some calculus… hey, it can’t hurt! Most importantly, always be challenging yourself every day to create and share some art. It wasn’t until I made the decision to be a daily artist that my skills and confidence truly began to increase. And don’t compare yourself to anyone else except yourself.

9.  Where do you see generative and digital art heading in the future?

I’ve seen some interesting approaches, including using some sort of artificial intelligence algorithms to create and refine images, and crowdsourcing of real people to “vote” for the best creations, a la Electric Sheep. I love all aspects of this. It is especially validating to me that my designs are considered “art” by some people. Not so long ago, computer “art” was shunned and not worth considering seriously by the vast majority of people. I believe if an image speaks to even a single person, it was worth creating, and is truly a work of art. The future is in our hands and we need to say loudly and clearly that generative and digital art is here to stay.

Andy Kotlinski


DigitalFruit is curated by Adafruit lead photographer- Andrew Tingle


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