Casey Reas: Open Source, Community & Software
"I’ll struggle for equity within the arts and in education. People don’t have the same opportunities in life for all kinds of reasons and we need to collectively create opportunities for everyone."
Welcome to another edition of Behind The Keys!
This one is special to me. A huge reason why I’m into generative art is because of Casey.
An event that changed my life for good was Bright Moments CDMX back in November of last year, in Mexico City. I was fortunate enough to attend a talk between Casey and Zach Lieberman. I had no clue who they were, but their conversation struck a chord in me.
I later learned that Casey and Zach are absolute legends and that if generative art is where it is today, it is largely because of them and their desire to push the space forward. Glad I was at the right place at the right time.
Anyways, here is Casey’s interview. I hope you enjoy it!
And as always, thank you for reading. Means a lot.
WhoTF is Casey Reas?
Casey Reas is a renowned software artist and a professor of Media Arts at UCLA. With Ben Fry, he co-founded Processing, an open-source programming language for artists. He is also the co-creator of Feral File, an online gallery for digital art exhibitions.
His work, which ranges from small works on paper to urban-scale installations, has been showcased in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the world. It is included in several private and public collections, including the Centre Pompidou and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Casey balances his solo work with collaborations with architects and musicians, such as The National, for whom he directed 6 music videos back in 2017.
Overall, Casey is an influential figure of contemporary generative art and his work demonstrates how code can be a versatile medium for creating visual experiences.
Behind the Keys: Casey Reas
What is something you wish someone had told you before becoming an artist?
I wish I had access to understanding that art and software can be the same thing.
When and where I grew up, being an artist was drawing and painting. I loved that and it was my identity when I was young, but writing my own code ignited my energy. I didn’t know you could be an artist and a coder at the same time until I was in my late 20s. The history of art and technology was obscure back then.
What does your creating process look like?
I have many different ways of making things, but ideas usually bang around in my head for a long time — sometimes for years before I start working on them. Then, I sketch and draw and start to code. I usually don’t know where I’m going, but I start exploring. I find my way through the vague ideas to clarity.
Who are 2-3 artists you admire or respect that you think deserve (even) more recognition?
Colette Bangert and Sonya Rapoport are both early innovators in digital art who aren’t known by many. Lillian F. Schwartz is better known, but not well enough! Her early computer films are extraordinary.
What activity do you fall into when you are trying to enhance your creativity?
This isn’t how I think about it. I’m always looking at things, watching things, listening to things, and sharing with other people. The ideas come in and out in a continuous stream. I draw when I need to sort through things.
What do you benefit the most when working with NFTs and the blockchain?
NFTs and blockchains are new ways to distribute my work and connect with others. I’ve found a lot of new friends and collectors since I started working with them in 2019 with the a2p project that I created with Bitmark.
What is one thing you think artists should focus more on, and why?
I hope more artists will continue to think about community and see the big picture.
For example, Ben and I started Processing to encourage more people to see how coding and the visual arts go hand in hand, and to make a path for people to learn to create in this area.
I think we, as artists, should be making our own tools and frameworks and all of them should be free and open source.
What’s the hardest part of being an artist?
Listening to yourself and finding motivation and internal metrics.
It’s hard to not look to exterior markers of success to validate your work, but this is a dark path.
What habit or practice has changed your life the most?
Having two kids changed my life the most. They change so quickly, my life is always changing in relation to them.
What’s a book or an article that has greatly influenced your life?
Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg has a massive influence on my early artwork from the MicroImage series. I was introduced to this book while I was a graduate student at MIT. All of the ideas for my best artwork from 2001–2005 came from this book.
What does success look like to you?
Making things and having opportunities and space to make new things. Being excited about making new things. Having the ability to focus on making things, and also being involved in a ton of other things too.
What is your favorite failure?
I can only pick one :) I was flying to Paris for an exhibition, and halfway to the airport in a taxi I realized I didn’t have my passport, so we went back for it. When I arrived at the airport and I was checking in, my passport was expired. I was traveling a lot then, so I have no idea what state of mind I was in to have missed this essential detail. Major failure. I had to cancel the travel and ask a friend who was already there to install my artwork.
What are you willing to struggle for?
I’ll struggle for equity within the arts and in education. People don’t have the same opportunities in life for all kinds of reasons and we need to collectively create opportunities for everyone. Much of my work with Processing and the Processing Foundation is focused on equity.
What is one strong opinion you have?
Everyone can learn to code. I’ve been teaching artists and designers how to code for over twenty years and I think everyone has it in them. It’s easier for some than others and it can be scary, but it can also be very fun and rewarding. Everyone can do it.
Which of your past experiences/learnings have set you up for success in the present?
Always be patient, kind, and generous with others. I don’t always succeed.
What would you say to your 25-year-old self?
Relax a little more. Slow down, just a little bit. Take better care of yourself, take time for that. I tell myself these things all the time now too!
Learn more from Casey
Something to read: Casey Reas on the Art of Code
Something to watch: Q&A with Casey Reas
Something to listen to: Interactivity with Casey Reas