Inside a plan to humanise the technological revolution

Mark Fielding
February 21, 2024
Creativity at the “the fault lines of earthquakes.”

Zach Lieberman explores the unexpected effects of creating art with code. He talks to Mark Fielding about humanising the coming technological revolution.

You might put Zach Lieberman's entire career down to waves and curved lines. As we start our conversation, Zach is trending in the crypto art world, but he's been too busy to notice, busy preparing for an exhibition at one of London's leading modern art galleries.

That's not to say Zach cares little about the blockchain ecosystem – “it's been fun to experiment with, playing with value and digital ownership, and it's been very exciting to find a way for people to collect digital art” – it's just that Zach is very much used to the different tech trends that come, go, and only sometimes stay for good.

Much has changed since the balmy summer of 2021 when NFTs exploded into the public consciousness. “These are waves,” Zach advises, “the key for an artist is to use these cycles as wind. You can steer and tack and experiment, but in the end you have to be sailing in the direction you want to sail in.”

Zach is also a Professor at MIT's Media Lab and has previously exhibited at the MoMA in New York.

For Zach, that has meant sailing headfirst into his first physical solo exhibition. Inspired by generative art pioneer Vera Molnar and her quote, ‘my life is squares, triangles, lines,’ Lieberman’s exhibition, by contrast, explores nature’s most elegant shape: the circle. Curved lines.

His work uses code to explore the nuance of what your brain sees versus what the maths calculates. “If you take a circle and squeeze it,” Zach meanders, “it becomes a blob; if you repeat it, it becomes a ripple.” It’s an exploration of the circle, the shape of life, of infinity, of perfection, he says. 

But within the exhibition you see more questions; complex ones, about how technology will influence the next generation of culture and creativity, and vice versa. How does code change our understanding of beauty? How does it change our understanding of what is good at all? How do our relationships with screens modify the relationship between those who make (not just art but everything) and those who consume, and who gets to ‘make’ in the first place?

“It’s going to impact a lot of people’s jobs and careers,” Lieberman begins. “That’s causing anxiety around our relationship with the digital.” 

A Professor at MIT's Media Lab, Zach’s art tries to humanise the transition. It imbues technology with our culture and natural behaviour, making the relationship more human. When people think of computers, they see a cold, lifeless machine used predominantly for work. “Spreadsheets and productivity. It’s functional.”

But that’s just one side of the coin. Code is more than just a tool for business, it can also be an act of expression, a form of creativity. Code is a language and a system that has something to say about our moral, personal and social development. It affects how we understand the world and the human condition. “I make art with code,” Zach continues. “My work is all photographs of maths. Everything you see is created with language.”

Part of Zach's 'Ripple Study'.

Zach creates with openFrameworks, a leading toolkit for computer art that he built in 2005. “Essentially I’m working with text,” he says. After that, he uses shader programming to manipulate the image on a pixel by pixel level, finding beauty in the nuances of numerical differences. “Change the code and you’ll see corresponding changes in the visual form,” Zach says. “I find there is so much beauty in the numbers.”

Drawing parallels to jazz, Lieberman improvises within a structured framework, exploring the possibilities of each iteration, producing thousands of images in his process. “I murder my hard drive,” he laughs. What follows is that most elusive of artistic endeavours: the creative act. “There’s a lot of listening. Listening to the work you are creating. You listen to the world.”

I ask what success for his latest exhibition, Circles, Blobs, Ripples, might look like. “It is a chance to have a conversation,” he says. “My dream would be to run into someone in ten years, and they say they saw the exhibition and started sketching and this is what I do now.” But what might this be, let alone in ten years time?

“I find there is so much beauty in the numbers.”

— Zach Lieberman

Technology can be discomforting, scary, sinister, but it can also be empowering, revelatory, and, of course, creative. “For me there’s something really powerful there,” says Zach. “It’s weird and makes me uncomfortable.” He believes it’s crucial for artists and designers to explore “these uncomfortable territories.”

The future feels like “the fault lines of earthquakes,” he explains. “Something is going to happen and it’s important to be there in one way or another. I think it’s a space where anyone who cares about creativity should be experimenting.”

Having previously exhibited at the MoMA, New York, and Verse, London, Zach's latest exhibition at Unit reveals how a systematic approach to image-making can transform simple shapes into mesmerising visual experiences.
Having previously exhibited at the MoMA, New York, and Verse, London, Zach's latest exhibition at Unit reveals how a systematic approach to image-making can transform simple shapes into mesmerising visual experiences.
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Mark Fielding
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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.

Zach’s exhibition at Unit Gallery in London is live until March 10th.