© 2022

Seeing Fires Through Systems Art: With Angela Ferraiolo

Series HEAT



Heat by Angela Ferraiolo is visually complex and captivating. Using systems art and interacting elements, Heat is inspired by global warming and the tremendous wildfires that raged across the world. In the same manner that the fires rise, spread and morph, the elements of this series react, change and distort to produce visual masterpieces. The result is incredible, patterns of alternative colour and shape representing the environmental change we witness in our surroundings. We spoke to Angela Ferraiolo about the series, its inner workings and its outward visualisations.

Can you tell us a little bit about Heat?

AF Like most of my projects, I kind of stumbled into the idea for Heat. I was experimenting with 3D, just playing around with primitives, which are the basic shapes 3D code can produce, when the wildfires on the west coast started. Like the fires in Australia, they seized my imagination completely.

I have always loved California and Pacific Northwest, maybe in a way that only someone from the east coast can love California. There’s a fascination with the land out there that is a bit mythological. To see everything burning was horrible, a nightmare. For days, the fires were all I could think about. I decided to work through my ideas about the disaster in code. But the event was enormous, both physically and psychologically, too destructive to be contained by an ordinary representational strategy.

The more I abstracted the idea, the more truthful my response began to feel. So I started thinking about Heat in theoretical ways, as if I were looking for something like a platonic or meta-representation of heat.

Angela Ferraiolo, Heat, Grid No. 01, T1-T2, (2020), Computational Media.

How did you arrive at the idea to explore and visualise global warming through this project?

AF Heat continues my work with climate change and the environment. In Maps of a Future War, I looked at the ways elements in migration might reinforce or dissolve territorial borders. In The Regeneration of the Earth, I designed a system that explores the ways life on earth might resume after the heat death of the plant. For each of these projects, the starting point was visual, a result of observing the visual characteristics of elements as they respond to their environments. Each system in the Heat series follows a group of a few hundred thermal agents assigned to unique locations in a 3D grid. Those elements rely on their own internal programming and on signals from their environment to generate individual responses to changing conditions. As the heat in the system rises, every element undergoes unique deviations in color, size, and location. Eventually these deviations warp and distort the shape of the grid itself, representing heat as a source of universal disorder.

Like most artworks, the visuals of systems art go hand in hand with the concept of the artwork. The two aspects of the work must be in conversation with each other.  The Anthropocene can be imagined as a kind of accumulating heat, a phenomenon that puts the entire biosphere in peril. But not everyone on the planet is at equal risk with regards to climate change. Recent, more detailed observations on global warming describe the distribution of heat as both even and patchy, a result of what some researchers call ‘late industrialism’, in which some locations, and some bodies, are more exposed to environmental hazard than others. Social theorists like Achille Mbembe have termed this unevenness as a kind of ‘necropolitics’. Their idea is that some aspects of global warming are local and isolated. Heat damage can be deadly to some people while remaining invisible to other people, just as the damage of the California wildfires were devastating to some people and some locations, but quite unreal to others.

Meanwhile, art historians like Rosalind Krauss have described grids as an emblem of industry, an organizing structure for standardization and mass production. These are the technological forces found at the root of climate change. Looking at grids from another point of view, there are anthropologists who view grids as allegories for the relationship between individuals and society. Another art historian, Hannah Higgins, describes the distortion of a grid as a symbol of cultural upheaval and change.

With these ideas in mind, I felt the grid was a good candidate for algorithmic disruption, not only because of its formal legibility, but also for its particular resonance with the economic strategies of capitalist and post-capitalist societies.

In choosing to work with the metaphor of the grid, I established both a conceptual and compositional framework for Heat.

Angela Ferraiolo, Heat, Grid No. 15, T1-T4, (2020), Computational Media.

In crossing between the areas of coding and art, what do you think the potential is for this type of intersection to raise important questions about the climate crisis and environmental issues?

AF The potential for code as an artistic medium is really limitless. This will become apparent as more artists work in the medium. While code lacks the materiality of paint, printmaking, and plaster, computation is a good way of focusing a work on process and for insisting that process is meaning. Code is also a good medium for exploring complexity. Some systems can express thousands of calculations and variables while describing their processes.

Finally, computational art offers artists the possibility of emergence. Emergence is a special term borrowed from the scientific community. When a system produces emergent behavior that means that the system can produce an effect that none of the rules used in its design could have predicted. A system can in a way escape the artist and become something unprecedented. Ice, for example, is a classic instance of emergence. Nothing about water predicts the occurrence of ice. Yet viewed as a system, under the right conditions, water freezes or turns to steam. That’s emergence. In a way, those emergent properties are the real nature of water and water’s real identity is its processes.

Creative coding is embodied by this project, and from what we can see the visual elements are much stronger than the functional elements which are usually associated with coding.

How did you get into this type of work, and would you describe it as creative coding?

AF Creative coding is a great way to describe this kind of work. I started to code while working in the game industry. That job led to my first ideas of what computational art could be. Several years later, I was describing some project ideas to another artist and he advised me to look into the systems art of the 1960s and 70s. Cybernetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetic algorithms are also influences as is abstract painting. All these ideas coming together — abstraction, interactivity, and systems —  got me started on the kinds of artworks I make now. As far as the visual side of things goes, I would say my main inspiration has always come from painters, not scientists. I go to a lot of galleries and look at a lot of paintings.

Angela Ferraiolo, Heat, Grid No. 11, T1-T2, (2020), Computational Media.

Do you think it is important for artists to focus their work on addressing environmental issues, alongside other ideas and issues?

AF For me, yes, the work will often have an environmental, social, or political concern, so I guess it’s easy to see where I stand personally. Still, I would add that artists need to be free to explore whatever they might be experiencing at the moment. Art isn’t journalism. Art exists for art’s sake. All art addresses the human condition — sometimes the non-human condition — even if an artist’s intentions seem a little distant and hard to understand. Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on artists to produce works of social critique. It can be difficult for artists working with more personal themes to get funding or get into shows. I think we can loosen up a little here. Let artists make what they want. Sometimes that will be political, but not always.

The blends of colours and patterns across the finished project are fascinating to look at. Did you enjoy seeing the project develop over time?

AF It’s very satisfying to watch a system come together and see the kinds of results some of the grids produce. Throughout the making of these kinds of things, you’re evaluating the work as an artist, which means you’re looking and asking if it’s interesting visually. There’s a continual evaluation. In some cases, the conditions set out for the system gave an interesting process right away. In other cases, it took a bit more experimenting to get to something worthwhile. This is where ideas for evolving the system come in. Just like a painting you keep looking at what’s happening and trying things in response.

Do you think you will go back and revisit the project in the future, and make any changes to the data and visualisations?

AF Some artists really finish things once and for all, but I’m more the type that keeps thinking of new ideas for system processes, so yes, maybe not changes exactly but I can imagine a few more grids in the series, a few more processes to try with this idea.
hidden areas I was able to find evidence of pollution, showing my viewers that these environmental issues are really around us even in the places that we least expect. What I have learnt from this series is that unless something is really seen it will never be talked about, and so it is important to share as much as we can and speak up in order to make a change.

Angela Ferraiolo, Heat, Grid No. 11, T3-T4, (2020), Computational Media.

When looking over Heat, the shapes, movements and colours can act as metaphors for the changing environment and nature in all its aspects.What do you see when looking at Heat?

AF When I look at Heat, I see a system intent on taking itself apart. Most of the damage is contained to specific quadrants, but the effect on the whole is undeniable. The symmetry, beauty, and formal elegance of the original grid has been destroyed. Viewers can only imagine the grid as it was in the beginning.

Do you want people to take something away from Heat?

AF There are two important ideas in Heat: First, there’s the idea that climate change damages the beauty and elegance of the planet in ways we may not be able to repair. Second, there’s the idea that even if your specific location in the world looks fine, there may be significant damage occurring somewhere else.

Do you recommend anything for those interested in exploring creative coding?

AF There are many online tutorials to help people get started right from nothing. Just jump in and give it a try. Go slowly and bit by bit you’ll start to develop an approach of your own as well as an imagination for the kinds of work you might make with code. If you’re not having fun, go a little slower. One misconception is that you need to be good at math to program a computer, but you don’t really. You just need logic, the ability to break routines into smaller and smaller steps. Another tip is that code doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Many people find it helpful to go back and forth between code and material. These artists may do a little painting, followed by some coding, followed by some printmaking, then go back to coding. These different practices often inform each other.

Are you currently working on other projects?

AF One of the most disturbing aspects of the wildfires was the mass death of birds across the southwest. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to imagine a world where the birds have gone and we’re trying to replace birds with some kind of bird-like apparatus. So the last few weeks of code have been full of these kinds of systemic birds that are part nature, part machine. I’m working on layering these over textures that speak to ideas of forest, industry, and so on. This work is still in its early stages. 

Angela Ferraiolo incorporates the use of systems, data changes and creative coding to create visually stunning works of art.

ANGELA FERRAIOLO / INSTAGRAM / WEBSITE. ALL IMAGES COURTESY THE ARTIST. (Image captions: the term ‘t1-4’ indicates the image was captured at different timestamps.) IMAGES COPYRIGHT © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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