In conversation with… Alex May

Each month we feature a different artist in our 3×3 Instagallery. This month, the algorithmic photography of Alex May.

Hi Alex, we love a story, is storytelling a big part of your work?

Certainly, every piece has a story, although how this is manifested can be radically different.  On one level, the algorithmic photographs are stories about time and place and our experience of being alive and in the world, and on another level they are about my travels and how the technique is developing with each photograph.

I make work that respond to important developments in science and technology such as my recent commission for the Francis Crick Institute that has cutting edge scientific imagery combined with an aesthetic investigation of the building and the scientists who work there combined into video artworks that play across a 28 screen sculpture.

In my video projection mapping work I create fictional stories that bring together complimentary and conflicting juxtapositions of imagery and music. Sometimes bizarre characters appear with their own complex back stories, sometimes there’s an arcing narrative, such as in my video projection mapping performance at Tate Modern a few years back.

With my interactive work, the participant completes the story by bringing their own presence and actions to it, which I find fascinating.  The story of the creative process is entwined into even my most abstract generative video artworks.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Primarily through the collision between art and digital technologies.  It was what got me excited about computers as a kid; what drove me to teach myself programming; and what keeps me excited now.

The line between digital and physical worlds has become so blurred through advancements in computing speed, size, and hardware interfaces that it is hard to see where people begin and end anymore.

The digital world is a physical thing, of course – we’re talking about pushing electrons about after all – but the speed and scale of this is so mind bending that we treat it as an ethereal other dimension that we interface with through screens, speakers, buttons, and sensors.

All my work lives on this boundary, whether it is technology augmenting our ability to see the world (e.g. algorithmic photography), reaching into the physical world (robot artworks), or being enveloped by the digital realm (virtual reality).  This is why I have to employ such a wide range of technologies and techniques in my artistic practise.

What makes a great algorithmic photograph, and have your opinions changed over time?

A great algorithmic photograph captures a strong aesthetic impression of a period of time that can be immediately understood but holds up to being inspected in detail to reveal layers of subtle nuance over time. Some images are very abstracted, some are very minimal, and some are dense and have an intensity to them.  When you see them in print, they change with the light of the day and draw your eyes to different parts.  I feel they are alive with motion despite being still images.

My opinions have certainly changed, and they’re still evolving. It’s taken ten years of experimentation with these algorithms to the point where these pictures have taken form. That was a lot of learning about how computers record and store colour and motion and I’m still only scratching the surface.

What would you like to see the creative industries do more of?

I’d like to see more opportunities for long term collaborations with artists embedded into organisations with proper funding.  This has been proven to be of extensive benefit to both the artists and host organisations in European projects that have trialled the model.

Also, every empty shop and office space forced by law to be available as an art space if left unoccupied for more than a month.

Do you have any advice for upcoming artists you wish someone had told you?

You can make a living at being an artist. Be friendly, be professional, be punctual, be respectful.  Invoice on time and pay people on time.  Don’t get put off making your true art by anyone.  Travel the world.

Lastly, what’s next?

I launched my website to sell limited edition prints of work, and I’m in discussions about exhibitions, residencies, and commissions. I’ll be travelling to Tashkent in Uzbekistan in February, so am looking forward to taking photographs there.

There will be several exhibitions of my robot artworks over the year that I’ve made in collaboration with bio-artist Anna Dumitriu and the University of Hertfordshire, where we are both artists in residence. Our ArchaeaBot (a machine learning aquatic robot for a post climate change, post singularity world, based on the oldest life form on Earth: Archaea) is currently on show at IMPAKT in Utrecht alongside our Antisocial Swarm Robots.

Finally, I’ve started working on a new video sculpture that takes the form of a doll’s house incorporating video projection mapping and Pepper’s Ghost hologram illusions reflecting on the theme of uncertainty, which is the overriding emotion in the current sociopolitical and environmental landscape, and how technology is playing a part in that.

You can follow the development of all these works via my Instagram.

Inspiring stuff. Thank you so much for contributing to our 3×3 Instagallery!