When I met Daniel Ambrosi I had the impression that there was much more to experience about his work than I could grasp at the time. We first met in Miami back in December 2019 during the installation of CADAF, The Contemporary and Digital Art Fair. Daniel’s work struck me because of its vivid colours and immersiveness. If one can be captured by the brightness of the giant backlit scene that Daniel depicts so meticulously, the eye is inevitably attracted by the infinite and psychedelic elements within it. You can spend hours staring at Daniel’s work and still feel you are just beginning to enter one of Daniel’s dimensions.
There is a sense of dislocation and transformation; departing from a known world to embrace a new dreamlike reality. The real and unreal transcend to a blurry territory that the human mind is fascinated by and yet so unfamiliar with.
In this interview we attempt to describe the creative journey of artist Daniel Ambrosi. The technology here is seen as a tool to explore the realms of artificial intelligence and consciousness, at times a companion for the creator and a silent witness to the art revolution of this century.
Daniel Ambrosi in conversation with Serena Tabacchi
Maybe you can start by telling me about your upbringing and what impact that had on how your interest in art emerged and evolved over the years?
I grew up in a suburb of New York City to first generation Italian-American parents who were born and raised in The Bronx. I had a lot of exposure to art and culture in Manhattan during my youth, courtesy of family expeditions and school field trips, and took full advantage of the great museums there.
Both of my parents were artists in their own right: my mother used to amaze me with her drawing skills when I was a small child and my father was a very talented singer who found some success in regional clubs. But the visual arts were most compelling to me. I was particularly fascinated by the ability of artists and illustrators to capture the essence of their subjects with uncanny accuracy and emotion regardless of the level of detail they pursued. I made many copies of Mad Magazine caricatures as a boy and, as a teenager, my bedroom walls were covered with posters of surrealistic paintings by artists such as Salvador Dali, René Magritte, the album cover artist, Roger Dean, and the lesser known pop surrealist, John Pitre.
I demonstrated a fair bit of talent in drawing and an aptitude for math and physics during my school years. This ultimately led me to the field of architecture which, through a serendipitous turn of events, enabled me to participate in pioneering work in 3D graphics during my college years at Cornell University.
At the same time, I became an avid hiker, skier, and traveler; all activities I continue to this day driven by my love of special places and astonishing vistas. As a “show-and-tell” guy, my desire to share with others the experiences that I was having in these special places is what instigated my art career. My challenges attempting to do that with traditional photography drove me to apply my facility with design, technology, and computer graphics in a quest to find better ways to accomplish that goal.
How do people generally respond to your work? Both within the digital art world and those distanced from it?
I’m always amazed at the crossover appeal of my work, especially when people experience my giant backlit pieces in the real world. From security guards to CEOs, small children to senior citizens, it’s so gratifying to see people moved so deeply–even to tears at times–by my creations.
Within the digital art world, the easy accessibility of my work is, I sense, sometimes perceived as less edgy or contemporary. Admittedly, there is a bit of a “retro” quality to my scenes as they are so deeply rooted in the 400-year tradition of landscape painting in the Western world, although I contend I’m extending that tradition in ways that are both unique and relevant to this time.
There have also been a few instances of digital art cognoscenti categorizing my human-AI hybrid artworks as “style transfer” which I consider both dismissive and technically inaccurate. Such assessments discount the unique computational photography techniques I’ve devised to capture scenes of extraordinary detail, vibrancy, and immersiveness. They also discount the deep art history I’ve studied/applied from past master landscape painters. With respect to the interpretations made by my customized “DeepDream” artificial intelligence software: this is not mere style transfer but sophisticated contextual transmogrifications conducted with nuance and subtlety at a scale never seen before. To these critics I would say, take a closer look.
In your work you interrogate the perception of reality. What is your emotional connection to the multiple layers in your work? Which layer is most real to you?
I’m an equal opportunity psychonaut! Fundamentally, I believe it’s consciousness all the way down and quite possibly all that exists are conscious agents and their interactions, with everything else simply being icons in our user interface (props to Dr. Donald D. Hoffman, UC Irvine, leading proponent of the theory of “Conscious Realism”). In my view, we should always be questioning what we see. Seeing is a subjective act that takes place in the visual cortex, not an objective recording of photons on our retinas. But even that is likely an oversimplification; we don’t have a clue as to what’s really going on. And, in anticipation of your next question, yes, I experimented with psychedelics in my past. Those profound experiences had a major impact on me in many ways, not least of which include the way I see the world, and in fact how I think about the nature of seeing itself.
You recently created a series of cubic virtual sculptures, each including five artworks. The cubes have an industrial look and are pulled with metallic cords which communicate a sense of tension between the serenity of the art and the framing structure. How did you come up with this design and what is the relationship between the five works in each cube?
I understand why you’ve asked that question and it reveals an interesting aspect of art appreciation. It’s natural to wonder what an artist has in mind when observing this kind of dissonance and visual tension. Sometimes, however, the answer may be less mysterious and more mundane than you expected, and I hope my answer doesn’t disappoint you. The truth is that I learned early during this project that my Dreamscapes are rich enough to find/extract multiple compelling details from a single scene. When I was accepted as an artist on SuperRare, as a digital-native art platform I thought hard about ways to showcase my art that took advantage of the variety of file types SuperRare supports, now including interactive 3D objects. Years ago, I created my award-winning “Architectonic Photo Cube,” a novel way of displaying photos printed on glass that I dreamed up in the summer of 2011. I thought this might be a great way to showcase my Dreamscape Details and, in the process, express my former life as an architect and 3D graphics researcher. So, I repurposed this design to showcase multiple art pieces in a single art object, one which I hope someday will be experienced at super scale (e.g., 8 feet per side) in a virtual reality gallery setting.
What do you think your work can teach people about how to live in an increasingly technology-driven world, where the role of machines and computers within our societies becomes more and more ambiguous?
Artists have always used the tools of the day and, in many cases, pushed technology further by virtue of their own inventions and ambitions. When I reflect on my Dreamscapes project, I realize that by teaming up with an AI, it has taken me beyond my initial ambitions and unlocked a superpower for me in the sense that I could never execute these images on my own. But it has required giving up a degree of control in that I can’t really tell it exactly what to do and, in fact, I honestly don’t even fully understand how or why it’s doing what it’s doing.
If you think about the future of your own work or even daily life, I think you will conclude that you are going to be confronted with a similar bargain. But to me this is a fairly optimistic story because there is no sense in which the computer is trying to replace my job. After all, it has no innate desire to create art, nor any ability to discern which of the parameter settings are most aesthetically pleasing to humans; it’s just a tool, albeit an incredibly powerful tool that is somewhat beyond our comprehension. Ultimately, I still make the decisions as to how to steer it and what to keep or discard.
I imagine the future of art, science, and technology will be increasingly like this: where we use AIs to process more data, see more complicated patterns, and otherwise extend our natural capabilities, but working towards goals that we set and direct. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Artificial intelligence can enhance our abilities, our productivity, even our creativity.
How do you think the art world will respond to digital art in future? How will it be contextualised historically? What’s the difference between operating within the digital art world compared to the physical one?
I sincerely believe displaying/consuming digital art in its native digital form is the wave of the future and it’s actually quite liberating. Digital picture frames like the Meural Canvas are just the start; several other vendors are getting in the mix with super hi-resolution framed devices designed specifically to display art in either landscape or portrait orientation (the frames rotate). This yields many advantages: you can program the art to change on a desired basis and the art can be dynamic (e.g., animated loops, music videos, interactive 3D art objects). Before long, serious art collectors will cover entire walls with plug-and-play microLED panels that will immerse themselves and their dinner guests in dynamic art experiences. Framed prints will be so 20th century.
I’m also convinced that exhibiting and selling art in blockchain-based social VR settings will soon become prevalent. Game-changing VR technology like the Oculus Quest, which enables untethered low-latency presence in highly detailed virtual worlds, will only get better and many of the obstacles to adoption will fade away. There will always be great museums and physical galleries to visit and enjoy. But even these traditional venues will begin to stage immersive digitally-projected art experiences like those seen at popular immersive-only venues such as Artechouse and Atelier des Lumières.
Which artists (of any creative domain) inspire you and why?
Oh boy, there are so many, and if I could I would have a massive collection. Obviously, I’m deeply inspired by the great landscape painters: from the groundbreaking Claude Lorrain in the 1600’s, to the Dutch and Flemish masters, the European Romanticists, the incredibly skilled painters of the Hudson River School, the great Impressionists, the Cubists, all the way to David Hockney and the amazing “A Bigger Picture” exhibition he debuted in 2012 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight one somewhat unsung hero of mine, Maxfield Parrish, who gave up one of the most successful careers ever as America’s most famous illustrator to dedicate himself to landscape painting in the 1930’s. Parrish was a true role model for me; he tinkered with both old and new approaches to his medium and brought a level of vibrancy, detail, and luminosity to his paintings that I absolutely love and which hadn’t really been seen before.
Before we finish, how would you describe your work in one sentence?
My work combines computational photography and artificial intelligence in a never-ending quest to create depictions of the world that better convey the feeling of a place and the way we really experience it: not just visually, but also viscerally and cognitively.