Artist Spotlight #1: Jesse Woolston

Getting to know the multifaceted multimedia artist, composer, and New Zealander.

As a person who does applied machine learning, I was especially drawn to the multimedia artists that integrate AI into their art. One night I was perusing Twitter for artists that dance in the center of these spaces and I happen to come across Jesse Woolston’s profile as he was marketing his genesis piece. Almost immediately I knew I had found an artist that will stand the test of time. Whether you’re a fan of NFTs or not, keep reading — this man is pioneering the coalescence of AI, music, color, and more in a stunning way.

I really believe Data Scientists and Machine Learning Engineers become stronger when they have the capacity to be artists, so I was fortunate to have one foot in this domain and interview Jesse. Getting to know him has sparked my desire to do this Artist Spotlight series so I hope you enjoy reading and learning more from Jesse like I did.

And with that, here is Jesse Woolston.

Q: Jesse Woolston, according to your twitter bio, you’re a New Zealander, Composer, Sound Designer, and Media Artist. Anyone who sees your work can easily see how multifaceted you are today, but if you had to summarize your origin story, how would you depict it?

Yea, I haven’t been able to successfully focus on an individual discipline, which looking back is rather comedic, but it makes sense in terms of why I create. The methodology comes less from an art perspective and more from a human one. I see art and emotional mediums such as music purely to convey concepts or meaning in a way that serves the mechanisms to which we communicate and feel. I am so moved by visual & auditory arts and how they can be used to serve experiences that it has become obvious that I need to harness these tools together.

Q: I remember you mentioning how long your genesis piece took to create, and it’s quite evident how much thought and time went in to creating each element of it. Have you ever faced challenges of balancing that pursuit of perfection with letting quantity breed quality over time?

This is a strong question, especially in our current technological climate, between quality and quantity. I see quantity vs quality depending on why it should be used. When I was still learning my tools, I focused entirely on quantity to gain a practical understanding of the work, but now I only consider quality. Everything I make serves the purpose of it existing, so the idea of quantity doesn’t have much sway; rather, I will always take the time to craft a piece with the end goal of connecting with the viewer through aesthetics, intellect, and emotion. By stepping out of the quality vs quantity balance and always going back to the arts function, I feel the freedom to create without those influences.

Q: When I see your pieces, the first word that comes to mind is mesmerizing. There are so many layers being combined of sound design, color theory, AI, environments, etc. that it keeps you wanting more. What’s the most difficult part of layering these disparate elements into something that ties together cohesively?

Thank you so much! Yea, it ended up being quite the artistic cake, everything considered.

What I find consistently challenging, but equally fulfilling is how to communicate each element in a way that gives the mediums the sense of marriage, but also enables each element to stand on their own. I find when art feels whole, it creates a much more immersive experience. What I use as a guide is expressing the concept. To put it simply, we use language to communicate concepts, so I am doing the same thing, but through different languages of expression, which say the exact same thing.

Q: With all these varying crafts, I imagine it can be easy to run into hurdles where you’re unable to figure things out. Where do you draw your inspiration from to push through?

Yes! Things can be difficult, but I prefer it. I know that if the work is reasonably difficult because of the different dimensions I’m working in, it will ultimately feel much more satisfying and fulfilling when it comes together. A theme I’ve seen throughout the life of my work is the sense of wanting to be on the edge of what is possible with art and technology. I have always found breaking new ground to be where I thrive, so I have enough inspiration, discipline, and excitement purely from being involved with these mediums to keep me consistent.

Q: It’s evident how much of nature informs and guides your process in creating art. Do you have any specific locations or trips you’ve been on that you can trace this love for nature back to?

Nature informs everything that I do, especially when using technology. Technology and art can easily lead away from the natural and towards machine as the forefront, but I see machine purely as a method to convey. The computational paint brushes I use serve the work that connects us as humans. Growing up in New Zealand, I developed an incredibly strong relationship with nature and the emotional context it gave me. I have always felt connected to the natural world and will maintain that connection regardless of the technology I engage with, especially as contemporary society develops more and more technology.

Q: I know a big aspiration of yours is to foray into physical spaces and create physical installations for your work. Do you wish more artists thought of how their digital works interact with physical environments or is some art just best to remain digital?

Yes! I have been building installations for years internationally at this point, but my physics-centric work being what is currently prominent. I’m incredibly pleased about that, given it has a seamless integration into space. With my work, it’s incredibly important to have physical space, especially when working with scale. My focus is on our universal laws and how we interact with those laws at different points of scale, so creating immersive experiences is a very tangible way to have the viewer experience the work’s intention.

Q: AI art is in its early stages and we’re likely to see a greater integration of advanced technology with art. What are some things about AI that you want future artists to learn? Are there any lessons with integrating AI in your art that you have learned?

I am quite excited for AI and ML within the art world. When considering a machine that is built to understand how human beings interact with the world, there is so much potential to go beyond our limits that are imposed by nature. A straightforward example is AI and ML optics with vehicles. They function to mimic how our eyes and minds work on the road, so the machine learns the behaviors of humans in order to provide sufficient information to maximize our experience. That interaction between the human perspective and how machine can re-interpret that perspective is incredibly interesting and I am looking forward to seeing more and more artists explore that component.

Q: Are there any artists today that you’re most excited to see the next chapter for? And why them?

I’m quite the fan of Daan Roosegaarde and Olafur Eliasson, who are rather mature in art, but always create a sense of excitement with their work. That element of being multi-faceted and a creative explorer is what I find thrilling.

Q: If you taught a course on art to the next generation of artists, what would be the message you would want the students to take away?

Love this question! The message I would want all artists to consider is why the artwork should exist in the first place. This approach is not a cynical one, but opens the opportunity to think about the progression between an idea, the tools used, and how a viewer will experience these components together. Why use aesthetics as a vehicle to communicate? Why is this subject matter important to people and by extension this era of art? These questions enable an individual to create a greater sense of depth and intention behind their artwork and why certain tools may or may not function better to serve the message.

Jesse has been one of my biggest sources of inspiration in the art world recently, and that was only solidified after getting to know him more through this interview. You’d think that a person who can beautifully combine AI, color theory, musical composition, biology, and more to tell a story would be obsessing over their abilities to manipulate these tools at a high level. Instead, Jesse sees himself as a learner with a growth mindset who just so happens to have all these tools available to him in order to better understand and connect with the surrounding world.

It’s admirable to see a person pushing the boundaries at a such a high skill level and not losing focus on what matters. In my opinion, this mentality is precisely what separates Jesse from so many others. His ability to focus on meaning beyond the noise is what truly makes him a virtuoso.

You can check out more of Jesse’s work here:

Twitter | Instagram | SuperRare

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Ani Madurkar

Ani Madurkar

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Senior Data Scientist | Photographer | Storyteller. Top Writer in Artificial Intelligence