Claus Wilke Turns Data Science Into NFT Art
The molecular evolution Professor found a way to break out from his routine by creating NFTs
This article is part of the #30NFTArtists30days challenge, where I write a daily newsletter edition about a different NFT creator during March 2022. Consider getting a premium subscription to support my writing journey ✌️
I discovered Claus Wilke’s generative at work through my newsletter, as he has been one of the earlier supporters. Besides producing NFTs that use complex mathematical methods and techniques, he has a sustainable NFT investment strategy which I mentioned on Are you a good NFT investor and collector? I sat down with Claus to learn more about his background, generative artwork, influences, and why he was drawn to this space.
How did you discover NFTs?
Let me first talk about my connection with generative art, which goes back many decades. As a teenager, in the late 1980s, I discovered the book The Beauty of Fractals, and I was fascinated by the images it showed. I then also read The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Mandelbrot, and I tried to generate some fractals on my Commodore computer. It was so slow. Later, during my PhD, I worked in the fields of complex systems and artificial life, and so I encountered Conway's Game of Life, cellular automata, L systems, and pattern-generating reaction-diffusion systems. So all my life I've been immersed in the math that makes the foundation of generative art. I didn't really think about it in terms of art, though. To me, it was just things we do with math.
More recently, I've been a contributor to the data visualization library ggplot2, and through this work I've gotten to know Thomas Lin Pedersen, the maintainer of ggplot2, who is also a very accomplished generative artist. Because I was following Thomas on Twitter I kept an eye on what he was doing in the generative art space, and I took notice when he started to get involved with NFTs, in particular with Hic et Nunc (HEN). (Thomas minted Objkt #716 on HEN.) To be fair, though, at first I didn't take NFTs seriously. I had the same reactions that many people have: "What's the point of purchasing a receipt that links to a file? Why not just put the art on a website or sell as prints?" But eventually, it clicked for me. I realized how transformational NFTs are going to be for ownership and property rights in a digital world. So I decided I needed to learn more about them, and what better way than to get involved and collect NFTs of art that I like as well as create some of my own.
Can you tell me a bit about your creation process?
When I initially started out with producing generative art I tried all sorts of different algorithms and approaches, just like most people. But then I felt that I needed a theme, something uniquely me that ties my art together. I decided to go all in on one specific generative algorithm, t-distributed stochastic neighbor embedding (t-SNE). t-SNE is an unsupervised machine learning technique widely used for dimension reduction. I don't think it actually works very well for its intended purpose, but it works great for generative art. So I've been inventing all sorts of ways of using t-SNE in artworks. I've visualized its output with dots, and with polygons, and with Voronoi tessellation. I've created 3D sculptures that I've raytraced, and I've also made voxel-based sculptures that can be visualized in real-time on a GPU. When I first used t-SNE I thought I'd make maybe two or three different collections using it, but I'm way past that number now and still discovering new things I can do.
The self-imposed constraint that I have to use t-SNE forces me to be more creative in other dimensions. In many ways t-SNE is inconvenient. It's slow, it's somewhat unpredictable and seemingly has a mind of its own, and it requires me to either use external libraries or add hundreds of lines of custom code. But these inconveniences force me to come up with new ideas and do things in an unconventional way, and that hopefully translates into interesting art.
He has a very accomplished career in Academia.
Claus Wilke is the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor in Molecular Evolution at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the University of Bochum in Germany, and he received postdoctoral training in biological physics in the lab of Chris Adami at Caltech.
Find more about his professional work on his website - https://clauswilke.com/
How do you combine your professional career as a professor with the NFT art world?
Art is a hobby. I engage with it when I need a break from thinking serious thoughts or putting out fires at the university. I enjoy that I can do it entirely on my own. The majority of my job these days is supervising people and telling them what to do. I don't have that much of an opportunity anymore to build things with my own hands.
Who are your favorite NFT artists, and why?
There are so many, I cannot possibly list them all. So let me just cherry-pick a few. I have already mentioned Thomas Lin Pedersen. I'm also partial to Piter Pasma and Gerard Ferrandez (ge1doot), who do very interesting 3D work. I admire Pak for his deep conceptual thinking, with artworks such as The Title. Among the less well-known artists, I like Danielle Navarro, who has amazing creativity and colors. And lately, I have been super impressed by Nat Sarkissian and his collection California Hills in Late Sun. I haven't really seen anything like it. It's obviously a simple generative algorithm drawing lines and dots, and yet the result looks almost like a photo of a grassy hillside. Incredible.
Don’t forget to follow Claus on Twitter to stay up to date with his creations.
Until next time,
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