Interview with Bob Krawczyk: Digital Art Redefined

Bob Krawczyk, an architecture professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, specializes in new media art with a focus on algorithmic art to generate 2D and 3D art. Instead of brushes, paint, and canvas, he uses custom-designed software and his computer monitor and printer to create his art, and occasionally a laser-cutting machine and a fabrication shop to generate his 3D models. His BitArt website discusses the intricate models that he uses to generate his Escher-like geometric art. Krawczyk's related projects can be found here.

Polar Flowers
Polar Flowers. Courtesy of the artist.

My art is not political or social commentary. It's basically forms that I find very beautiful. That's all it is. To me, it's all very rational. I can tell you all the rules and all the processes that I used to get there. There's a sense of utility and balance. It's seemingly random but it's not arbitrary. It's very much controlled and orderly. I think there's a classical beauty in art: symmetry, balance, form, and color. Sometimes in some contemporary art, such as new media art, those qualities are missing. I think art should be based on some classical model.

ArtStyle: How did you get started doing this type of art?

Bob Krawczyk (BK): I studied architecture at UIC, Chicago circle. When I was a sophomore I took a programming class, and I saw the applications in architecture and graphics. I did graphics way before the invention of AutoCAD. I did my first digital art piece for an art course in my second year. While I was still in school, I went to work for C. F. Murphy and Associates, which is now Murphy/Jahn, for about 8 years. I finally graduated (ended up doing a thesis on computing and space planning, and a couple of published papers), and had a chance to teach a series of digital courses at Harper College for about two years. I left Murphy and started my own consulting practice. At that time, I helped install the first computer systems and wrote graphic and management software for about a dozen design firms.

The architect who did Lake Point Towers, George Schipporeit, was dean of the College of Architecture at IIT at the time and somehow he got my name. We had lunch, and he interviewed me, and 26 years later I'm still here. The College of Architecture has about 800 students and 113 faculty members. I direct the undergraduate program and am a primary advisor in the PhD program. I still teach one to two classes a semester and advise the master's and PhD students. I started and developed most of the digital classes here. In the last 12 years or so, I took some of my design work and started moving into the arts, and have since participated in over 70 exhibitions. The artwork and the papers I write help me to prepare for my classes. Part of my artwork will end up in my classes, and things that I develop for my classes will end up in my artwork. I have the luxury of being able to research a lot of things I'm interested in, and they have multiple uses: teaching, PhD program, master's program, or my own work.

Spiral Mandala
Spiral Mandala. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Why do you call your art “algorithmic art”?

BK: That's the technical name for it. The idea of algorithmic art is that it's done with procedures. Some of the procedures are randomly driven, and some are driven by simple mathematical equations that can generate hundreds of things. My website will give you an idea of the kind of things you can do with these procedures. There's one series I did that involved over 600 images. The other series have an almost unlimited number of images that can be generated.

ArtStyle: Besides your own art, could you give me a specific example of algorithmic or procedure-based art?

BK: I think it was about 10 years ago that the MCA showed one of Sol LeWitt's wall paintings and that's the first time I saw his work, which was a square grid with arcs drawn in each square. In his book, he says that he usually starts his pieces by writing out a plan with instructions. For example, paint a square module on the wall, and then paint an arc inside the square this way or that way. He just puts down the framework for the piece, but his crew randomly chooses the details that he provides. And then they go on to the next module, make another choice, and however it turns out, it turns out. He sets up the rules for it, but he doesn't actually execute the piece. I do the same thing. I write the rules in a computer language, and my crew is the computer program itself. I tell the computer to execute a piece using parameters that can, for example, randomly select an arc and then rotate it some number of degrees. I just run the program, and I get whatever I'm interested in getting. If I like it, I keep it. If I don't like it, I run it again or change the rules. An example of a Sol LeWitt’s inspiring piece Any Wall is on my website.

Corva's Disk
Corva’s Disk. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: When you're writing the program and the rules, are you telling it exactly what to do or does it have choices?

BK: That's my choice. I can be very stringent about what I tell it to do or I can be very stringent up to a point and then tell it to choose from a list of possibilities, and I'm not sure what it's going to do. I set up all of the rules, the dimensions, what can occur, but the program is able to randomly pick them, and I don't know what order it's going to pick it or when it's going to pick something. That's where the discovery part comes in. I consider my programs sketches. I write a program and see what it does. Then I try different scenarios. I'll add or subtract, and then at some point, I stop. The point I stop is whenever I want to either publish a paper and discuss some of the methods or there's an exhibition that I need some images for.

Laser Cut Sculpture
Laser Cut Sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: When you view an image, do you work with it mainly on the computer monitor or do you print it out?

BK: I very rarely print it out. I just see it on the monitor and then I determine the size if I have to print it. For the stick sculptures, I have two books with over 4,000 drawings of the sculptures. I chose the ones that I thought were interesting to be able to execute. These sculptures were digitally created with computer algorithms and then laser cut.

It's a very simple concept of taking a stick and rotating it. But the way you rotate it, depending on what you use for the angle change between them and how many times you do it vertically and horizontally, you get these very interesting patterns.

The sculptures are then fabricated out of MDF, a composite wood, but I can also do it with fine wood such as walnut. The pieces in my office are a 1/8th-inch-thick material, and two rectangular pieces are glued together. These are all prototypes.

ArtStyle: When you say laser cut, does a laser actually cut the material?

BK: The terminology we all use is “cuts,” but it doesn't really cut like a saw but burns. So anything that can be burned can be done with a laser cutter. Glass is not impossible but the strength of the machine you need is extraordinary because you have to melt glass.There are laser cutters that will do half-inch steel but they're very powerful. Ours here in school can't do metal but acrylic, all different kinds of wood, and styrofoam.

The drawings I do form the instructions for the laser cutter to cut out all the lines, to put the lines in the right place, but they don't intersect each other. Then of course all it does is cut out holes. What I like about it is that all the edges are burnt.

There's an overlapping joint on 4 pieces and then they are just glued together. The opposite pieces are the same design in each sculpture.

Spirolateral. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What do the students learn from doing the projects you give them?

BK: They're learning how to use rules to design a form rather than pushing and pulling on a form. We're dealing with mathematics as a basis so everything has a rule. It's interesting that it's all repeatable. In traditional design, if you sketched an idea 2 months ago, it would hard to repeat the idea exactly. Once I code this program, I can go back a year from now and execute it again and I'll get exactly the same thing. And I can change my mind — maybe the height or the width should be different — and I can generate it all over again.

3D Sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What type of 3D forms are you working on?

BK: I've been working on a process called 3D printing. You use a rapid prototyping machine (manufactured by Z-Corp in this case) to create a 3D model made from plaster. What it does is it takes your digital model, makes hundreds and hundreds of slices, about 300 per inch. The machine then puts down a layer of powder and then wherever the slice is, the machine spits out a binder, and the table gets lowered, and there's another fine layer of plaster that's put down, then a binder, and so on. What happens is wherever the binder spits out on the plaster, the plaster adheres to itself. In the end, you shake off the loose powder, and you can get very complex forms.

This is a mobius, which is a mathematical form. I did about 80 different models digitally, and then I chose about half a dozen of them, and then had the machine fabricate scale models. This is actually a model for an outdoor seating system.

ArtStyle: You said you were interested in coming up with the rules. What do you mean by that?

BK: I'm interested in how to specify artistic and design ideas. For a computer you have to be very explicit. If I told the computer to do something a million times, what will be the end result and what if I make a small change, then what happens. The results sometimes aren't as interesting as the process of understanding the problem. I'm interested in what I can do with a concept. What I find interesting is how to express equations visually and see what happens.

Metallic Lace
Metallic Lace. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Before you actually do the programming, do you visualize what you're after?

BK: I have sketches to determine the parameters. The hard part of the idea is if something has the potential of thousands of images — how do you see them all. The other problem is some things just look ugly. Well, maybe ugly is really what you want because that's going to be the next aesthetic. What was considered ugly 500 years ago could be very beautiful today. Aesthetics change over time. I can't see the equation in my mind. I have to run it to visualize lines, solids, or points on the screen. I don't care how it's been derived. I look at something, and if I find it interesting then I just play with it for a while.

ArtStyle: Do you look at your work as art or in terms of function and design?

BK: My approach may be more design because it's so methodical and influenced by my education as a designer, not as an artist. I did take one or two art classes in my architecture curriculum but knowing sculptors, I find their approach is sort of similar to mine — as they do one piece they are already considering what the next one might be. Some people say that I do more design than art, but I'm not sure. The process I use, they would say is design because I can explain it. It all has some kind of rational underpinning. Ninety nine percent of everything I do is explicitly created by a computer program. In architecture and design, what happens is that there are a lot of people who do this but then they take it and make it into a real building, and then they have to start changing it appreciably because it has a real function. Everything I've done has no function; they’re just visual pieces.

Metallic Mesh
Metallic Mesh. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What do you want to do with all of your art?

BK: Some of them I have proposed for architectural projects like railings, grills, and ceiling systems. Some of the 2D work can be carpet and wall patterns. I haven't really spent the personal effort of going out and marketing my work as well as I should. I did some laser cut ornaments a number of years ago and they did sell at the Illinois Artisan shop two or three years. They were a little bit delicate and made out of 1/16th-inch mahogany. I didn't upgrade it to a more durable material. Definitely some of the newer pieces are sculptures. These laser cut pieces you saw in my office can be hanging pieces. This semester my students are doing architectural snowflakes and stars for exhibit here on campus.

ArtStyle: What do you want people to get out of your art?

BK: To put it in a larger context, there are a lot of different ways to express an artistic interest. The purpose of our University art gallery is to show how people who are very technologically oriented do have an interest in art and express what they see every day. I'm very interested in every aspect of computing and how it can be used to express interesting ideas. I think I've shown to some degree that it can be done. And that's what I try to show my students. It's been an incredible help to my teaching. It keeps me fresh. Students give me a lot of ideas, which forces me to rewrite my notes and reconsider the concepts I show them. What's also interesting is what's happening in contemporary architecture and being able to write software to duplicate it to show the students that something that looks interesting and complex is not that hard to do. We can write an algorithm to do that and take off from there and for them to develop their own ideas.

Eventually what I'd like to do is just the art. There are many more things sitting on my computer that no one has seen. There are projects I'm working on that may take a couple of years before I can make a series of prints or make some sculptures out of them. I would like people who see my art to be amazed by it and find a beauty in it that lightens their day a little bit, maybe makes them smile, or maybe have them reconsider their own artistic feelings. But I have clearly learned over the years that it is something I have to do — it is no longer a choice but a need.

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