how-to by The Editors

Rafaël Rozendaal on his lean process and why now’s a great time to be a visual artist.

reading time 14 minutes

Rafaël Rozendaal is a New York-based artist who uses websites as his canvases. His online dreamscapes and playgrounds (see them for yourself) feature animated patterns and interactive images, and attract 60 million visitors a year. Known for selling the domain names to collectors and museums, Rozendaal’s other canvases include apps, browser plug-ins, tapestries, and lenticulars. All these mediums may make the Dutch-Brazilian artist sound whimsical, but in fact he has a very intentional process that uses the distractions of the age to his artistic advantage. We caught up with him recently to discuss his “minimizing” strategies, how he uses distraction productively, and why he thinks the digital age has uniquely benefited visual artists.

You talk a lot about the importance of “minimizing your life,” which I think is your way of saying minimizing distraction and maximizing your creative mindspace. How do you do that?  
I think a lot of my ideas come to me when I’m bored. I find the emptiness very beautiful, when there’s open time and open space. It’s something I seek out.

How do you create those situations?
A lot of artists want to have studios and assistants and all those things. To me, that just sounds like a lot of work. If I have a studio, I need to get internet there, I need to get a vacuum cleaner, and I need someone to manage the place, and I have to find that person and manage them. And then you’re busy with all these things that have nothing to do with coming up with new ideas. This is why I let external programmers and manufacturers do all my coding and weaving and printing. Basically I try to cut out all things that I don’t need.

This way of thinking is very familiar to me as a writer.
Yeah, my practice is a little bit similar to a writer’s. I just have a desk and a sketch book. I remove as many elements as I can. Minimizing my life also comes from moving around and traveling so much. It never made sense to have a lot of stuff. That’s why I make my physical work with external parties. It’s about being flexible. When I got into making lenticulars, I could have bought the machines for my studio, and done it myself. But that might have gotten in the way of my getting into textiles, as I did two years later. Maybe I’ll soon make things out of stone and out of glass. It offers a lot of flexibility.

And no clutter. You don’t have to plan ahead in a way that could limit your possibilities and the moments of creativity.
I think that’s essential to embracing the time we live in. For example, I installed my recent exhibition in LA over skype. I sent them 8 works and watched them hang them over webcam. No, exchange that one for that one. No wait: put that one back there. Everything’s really fast. This is kind of a problem, too, because then I don’t know what to do with my extra time.

We recently published an interview with a prominent essayist, who said that most professional writers only actually write 4 hours a day, if they’re lucky. Is it the same for you?
That’s true for me also because my practice is so streamlined. I don’t need much time to actually do the labor part of my work. I used to feel guilty about only working for an hour a day. But I’ve started to embrace it. My practice is highly efficient and that’s the reward. Now I go see a movie in the movie theater every day. That’s the benefit I have with outsourcing all the labor.

You must watch complete trash sometimes.
No, no, no, there’s always something good playing in New York.

Is your process always that smooth? Do you still deal with a lot of distractions?
Of course. When I talk about finding ideas, it’s a similar thing to writer’s block. A painter, for example, can get into a rhythm even if they have no clear idea, you splatter the canvas and just get into this work mood. Writers get blocked because they have less practical concerns and they just need ideas. And then there’s the distraction of the screen.

Does the internet, your canvas, distract you?
Yeah, I always feel guilty when I’m just browsing, online shopping, watching YouTube and stuff like that. That’s why I created Abstract Browsing, a plug-in for browsers that helps turn my procrastination into productivity. It takes the structure of all those web pages and generates colorful abstract compositions from them. Now when I browse I take thousands of screenshots. Eventually I started making tapestries from them. I’m interested in how machine learning and AB testing and market research and human decisions create strange compositions that never existed before. A big part of work I think is being honest about your life and the time you are living in.

Did you start making phone apps for similar reasons?
I have my phone in my hand all day like everybody. I started to think: what could the phone do that the computer can’t? The camera is the obvious difference. My apps are another way of changing the structure of what we see everyday, of changing the perception. In Here Hear, I wanted to capture the rhythm of an image. Images have a rhythm, and the app is a strange tool that creates melodies from. I made Blurrrrr because it’s really hard to take blurry photos with a phone. It focuses too fast.

Hearing you talk about this, it makes a lot of sense to me that your art always seems pretty optimistic about technology.
I’m either optimistic or fatalistic. I kind-of am of the school of thought that if the world is ending I might as well have a good time.

I often think about how people’s attitudes towards technology are very strongly influenced by their line of work, or by their medium of choice. Professional writers, for example, are usually very hostile to the Internet because it’s dried up their financial recourse almost entirely. In this way, you’re very much a visual artist.
It’s true. The internet been very good to visual artists. They’re making more money. I can think of a lot of people, like Ai Weiwei — the Internet is an extension of his practice. As a person who blogs and who is an activist who’s trying to reach people, of course the Internet is an important tool for him.

Did you move to the US because of European attitudes towards technology? Does your work fit in better here?
I mean it definitely feels like there’s a gradient from critical to optimistic going from Eastern Europe to California. It might not be true anymore, but when I was in Berlin a lot of people were making work that was against something, work that was responding to societal changes, and I didn’t feel at home in that attitude. I’m interested in the formal and playful aspects of technology. For me as an artist, I’m really happy about the internet, because I can make work without a filter. At the same time, that lack of filter might be ruining democracy. I come from a time where no one saw the downsides of the internet yet. People were hoping it would change everything and everybody could be their own boss. We thought it was going to bring people together. Now it turns out that people today actually want smaller countries. But it’s not my job to think about what digital [transformation] will do to society. I’m more interested in what it does to my perception and what the tools do to formal research and abstraction and playfulness. I’m interested in the aesthetic changes.

This explains your websites.
If you look at the history of abstraction, at the beginning, it was a lot about the inner world of the artist. Later the elements of chance and objectivity came into play. I’m interested in computational decisions; what can they they add to the exploration of possibilities? In the past, the artist decided what happened on the canvas. And with a computer, you can say, well, what if the computer decides? What if the viewer decides? My websites are based on those contingencies.

A lot of net artists, like you, Rachel Rossin, or Petra Cortright, have recently started making physical work. Why do you think that is?
It’s a natural progression because when you start as a young person, you have no money, and digital projects are the cheapest thing. Playing on your computer is the easiest thing to do. And then suddenly you get invited to do shows and you get a budget for production.

How did you start making physical work?
I stumbled upon the lenticular medium. Lenticulars are pictures with little plexiglas ridges. You may know them from postcards. Each has multiple images depending on what angle you’re looking at it from. I’ve always had a talent for moving images and I didn’t know what to do with still images, so this was important. I usually don’t like to define what goes where in an image. I like to let the computer decide. And then I discovered that with lenticulars that you can make an image that has infinite amount of end results. It’s a natural progression.
Before talking to you, I got the sense that you were doing a mass of separate projects. But hearing you talk about them, it sounds like it’s all one big project.
It’s all curiosity and energy. I think it’s naturally human to reconfigure your environment. That’s why people like shopping and cooking. Everybody has creative energy, but not everybody has found their medium.

Edited for length and clarity

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