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We Talked With Dextro, One Of The Most Elusive Algorithmic Artists

Pioneering Internet artist Dextro talks about past art under Turux.org and his current generative video work.

Since the mid-90s, the hermetic and anonymous artist behind the name Dextro has been quietly creating some of the most pioneering algorithmic and generative art. Though his identity is a mystery, he is known for converging various styles, with work resembling luminous waves in one piece, and glitchy patterns in the next.

Call him the Thomas Pynchon of Internet art. As the site Generator.x wrote back in 2007, it was the Vienna-based Dextro's collaboration with another anonymous artist, Lia, on the cryptic website Turux.org that cast doubts as to whether Dextro was actually one individual or a group of artists deploying a multi-use name, á la Luther Blissett or Wu Ming—or, even like the conspiracy theory that Pynchon's work was penned by an author supergroup.

Though Dextro's anonymity stands in direct opposition to today's crop of self-image obsessed, Tumblr-based digital and new media artists, he can be coaxed into communication. Just as in the Tarot where the Hermit reemerges from hiding to share what he or she has learned, Dextro happily filled The Creators Project in on the details of his past and present work.

Dextro's artistic education began through childhood drawings and paintings. After matura, the Austrian equivalent of graduation, Dextro took up graphic design and photographic studies at The Graphical in Vienna's 14th District. There, he had the opportunity to work on early, hard drive-less Mac computers loaded with Illustrator, Pagemaker, and Freehand. Employing those then-new tools, Dextro began working as a freelance graphic designer.

“I started to make flyers for techno parties, and I liked the quick feedback I could get for my designs in that way,” Dextro told The Creators Project. “So, when I began showing these works on my website in 1994 and got feedback even faster, I liked it even more.”

From 1996 on, he began featuring animation work on Dextro.org. By 1997, he was looking into the MacroMind Director (now Adobe Director) software's capacity to move objects via code. His initial efforts with the program, however, focused on commercial architecture, rather than art. 

“I used to make 3D images for architects, and by doing that I created something (a landscape) out of nothing (vectors, defined only by numbers),” he said. “That fascinated me and I wanted to apply this principle to my graphic work.”

Though early computers and design software were prime influences on Dextro's style and process, he was even more inspired by music and nature. Books on water, frequencies, cells, animals, and self-organization satisfied his naturalist impulses, and music by techno-industrial act Coil, the Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra, electro-funk keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis became artistic touchstones. 

When Dextro began collaborating with Lia in the mid-90s on Turux.org, he liked to call the work “semi-automatic.”

“[The work] was interactive within a pre-defined frame of possible behaviors,” he said. “Now I like 'algorithmic' more than 'generative' or 'code-generated' [because it] hints at functions, relationships, dynamics, and not just information and rules.”

Dextro.org grew out of Dextro's dissatisfaction with showing finished works, including animations moving in a linear way. He was also annoyed with the tendency of artists to promote themselves, rather than let the work speak for itself, as well as artists' tendency “to address the ratio or intellect of their audience rather than their intuition or subconscious.”

“I wanted to include the viewer in the creation of images, movements and sounds, in a new project,” Dextro explained. “Like Dextro.org it shouldn't offer any information about its creator(s) nor any explanation or concept, and it should be free of commercial interests. Plus, it should have a fictitious name, and it should be interactive and therefore, in a way, decentralized.”

As Dextro explained, Lia, his then-girlfriend, wanted to learn to work on the computer to become a graphic designer. Dextro taught her the basics, later asking her to join in on the Turux endeavor.  We then explored Director together, and later contributed individually to the project,” Dextro said. “Turux.org initiated her career as net or generative artist, which I supported as much as I could. She started calling herself Lia because I would not have real names in the project.”

From 1995 to 2001, Dextro's artistic output was mostly interactive. One work features a finely-pixeled polygon void slowly forming colorful waves. In another, pixels unfold horizontally, revealing a larger geometric pattern.

In 2002, Dextro dipped his toes into high-resolution algorithmic videos. He called this move 'inevitable' because his scripts had become complex to the point where real-time rendering was no longer a possibility. “After Turux—that is, around 2000—I'd already made works that would slowly draw images over thousands of iterations,” Dextro said. “With altered numerical values of their parameters, they slightly differed from each other and I combined them to make videos. Naturally, they showed completely different movements than the original animation.”

For his video work, once Dextro “captures” the initial idea, he begins experimenting with code, changing numbers to see what happens. Changes can be surprising if the script is unstable.

dextro.org_59_094_audduca_HD from dextro org on Vimeo.

Dextro explained that, although numerical values change linearly, the visual results are far from linear. What's of interest for Dextro is the ability to define a mathematical situation that “holds in it many possibilities, which come to surface through numerical variations in some part of its initial setting."

“That's a complex reaction to the environment that borders on life,” he explained. “The code is usually non-linear, sometimes related to cellular automata, sometimes to magnetic pendula, but mostly unique, as far as I know. It's never fractal and never random, and everything is 100% reproducible.”

For his current video work, which can take the shape of dyes rippling and replicating in a void, or fiber optic lights growing and stretching, Dextro exclusively uses Processing. Other videos seem to feature reflective, holographic materials, or glitches injected into software encoding.

These ideas come from nature and its phenomena. While he tries to define his videos' rules mathematically, Dextro also employs meditation to better analyze the relationships between moving objects and their underlying physics. In his videos, he tries to convey information about these invisible, intangible forces, while keeping things understandable on intuitive levels.

“Ideally, viewers sink into their subconscious mind trying to grasp the essence of the depicted movements, as they would when looking at the surface and movements of water, or a heaving cornfield,” explained Dextro. “They should not be obscured or mixed, yet sufficiently intricate not to be understood at first glance."

“I like to think that non-objective movements like these could form a counter-balance to the visual extremism (with its effects on other mental processes) of TV, video games, and movies,” he added. “Theoretically, they could heighten the awareness and acceptance of complex relationships and natural balances. So, there is no rational concept behind these works, but an intuitive one.”

Since 2010, Dextro has expanded his work to include oil paintings on canvas. An ongoing series, the paintings retain the aesthetics of his digital algorithms, but with paint and canvas's uniquely classic textures. One painting might highlight a canvas's dimples, while another will have a flatness about it, upon which the manual application of paint almost simulates a physical algorithm. Painting manually (without even the use of an airbrush), Dextro creates exact reproductions of his algorithmic images, explaining that he wants “all interesting aspects of [his paintings] to come from the code alone.” 

Asked what current art and software inspires him, Dextro said he's mostly interested in physics, mathematics, and biology these days. A cursory glance at his paintings reveals an affinity for Joan Miro, however, and he freely admits his interests in Salvador Dali, Katshushika Hokusai, Gustav Klimt, and Antoni Gaudí. Ideas from the likes of naturalist and inventor Viktor Schauberger, and the German chemist Peter Plitchta inform his current work as well. 

“As far as software for generative art is concerned, all I want from it is a text editor and a good renderer,” he concluded, emphasizing that he writes all code from scratch, without pre-defined functions or libraries, or motion graphics softwares. “For me, it can't get much better than Processing.”

Just as Dextro momentarily popped out of the Internet's digital vapor, so too does he disappear back into it. Here's to Dextro—long may his algorithmic forms unfold on canvas and in the virtual ether.

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