Ali Phi is a Toronto-based new media artist and creative technologist known for blending art, science, and technology. His work includes installations, autonomous machines, and performances, exploring new media and technology mechanisms. He emphasizes the interaction of physical space and human perception to create new experiences in both artificial and real worlds, utilizing computer programming and generative algorithms. His live performances, involving generative materials, sound, and computational dialogues, have earned him numerous awards from organizations like the Canada Council for the Arts. Phi also engages as a jury member, mentor, lecturer, and workshop leader, contributing to various educational and artistic institutions. His work has been showcased internationally, including at prestigious venues and festivals in Austria, Montreal, Iran, Poland, France, Belgium, and Qatar.
How did you get started?
I vividly remember starting with Sony camcorders back in the ’90s. At that time, I was mainly involved in archiving and shooting videos while living in Iran. The post-revolutionary period in Iran limited access to concerts, music, and theaters, but I was deeply interested in cinema and music. A few years later, I began learning music and playing instruments. I got my first computer when I was around 17 or 18, during my studies in mathematics and while applying to universities.
My journey in technology began with learning a programming language called ASP three. This led me to web development and coding, where I started creating websites. Subsequently, I attended the University of Saudi for civil engineering. For a couple of years, I worked as an engineer, designing buildings. However, my passion for creating sound and visuals never faded.
This interest intensified when visual programming software started to evolve and became more accessible, especially with the advent of Google. This provided easier access to resources and learning opportunities, enabling me to further explore my creative pursuits.
After several years in engineering, designing buildings and concrete structures, I delved into learning node-based software, paralleling my growing involvement in music. I focused on overcoming technical challenges in sound recording, leveraging my coding skills to develop innovative patches and delve into generative design, generative programming, and real-time processing. This exploration began around 2009 or 2010.
My work yielded numerous patches I wanted to showcase. In 2011, with a friend, we organized art galleries to display our work. Though not widely appreciated at the time, this initiative evolved into curating a festival that attracted other artists and lasted for seven or eight years.
During this period, I continued to develop my skills in coding and hacking devices. As a technology enthusiast, I was always fascinated by new developments, ranging from Kinect and Atari consoles to mobile phones. I recall jailbreaking iPhones to run custom-developed applications, which furthered my interest in hacking, learning, and prototyping.
After two years in the engineering field, I decided to pursue this passion full-time. Running the festival led to international collaborations and residency programs, where I learned about software like V4 and TouchDesigner in Germany. This period coincided with a booming cultural and technological landscape, filled with festivals and funding opportunities. It allowed me to connect with like-minded individuals and further my journey.
Today, I present my work through installations and performances, integrating audio and visual mediums. My projects have evolved from using Arduinos to Raspberry Pis, and I’m now exploring the incorporation of robotic arms and dogs to create meaningful works. This journey reflects my commitment to combining art, technology, and innovation.
Did you have any background in music?
I remember starting to learn the guitar a long time ago, but I soon realized that it wasn’t my main passion. After two or three years, my interest shifted to electronic music. I was introduced to Stockhausen and the electronic music movement of the 1960s. This led me to experiment with digital synthesizers, VSTs, and various new software and companies like Ableton Live.
Sound synthesis through Max MSP became a significant part of my work, allowing me to create experimental sound experiences and design sound installations. For me, there is no clear boundary between sound and visuals. They seamlessly blend, creating a dialogue and interacting with each other.
In my work, I often engage in jam sessions, collaborating with the patcher software I’ve developed. The majority of my projects are real-time and generative. Often, I have no preconceived idea of where a project will go, but I set certain boundaries within my software to guide the creative process. This approach allows for spontaneity and interaction during these jam sessions.
You mentioned earlier about the challenges you faced in your younger years, especially following the revolution. How would you describe the current state of the art scene where you are? It appears from your website that there’s a vibrant and healthy art community. Regarding funding, how do you manage the financial aspects?
Regarding funding for this type of art, there’s practically none. Any activity in this field relies on private sectors, art galleries, or galleries with international processes for selling artworks, which sometimes invest a bit in this domain. Prior to 2010, there was hardly anything happening. It was the younger generation with internet access who learned about global trends and attempted to replicate them with some coding, creating SOPs between 2010 and 2015. During this period, various initiatives, groups, and communities started to emerge, quickly getting up to date, especially with collaborations with international festivals, predominantly in Germany and Austria. These partnerships offered opportunities to bring in artists or find residency programs for collaborative work.
This was a real learning experience for us as artists and organizers of exhibitions and festivals, and also for the audience, who were being introduced to new concepts. From 2005 to around 2018 or 2019, before the financial crisis and inflation hit, there were many large festivals and events that were comparable in quality to those in Central Europe. However, due to sanctions and other limitations, the scene in Iran has dwindled recently. Many artists and workshop participants have moved abroad, though I’m not completely informed about the current scene inside Iran. It seems that the community and culture there have somewhat faded.
As for me, I moved not because of the situation but to pursue my artistic approach and practice, which I had been following since before running the festival. The festival itself was part of my effort to create something larger, a community for learning and supporting other artists and myself. I’ve always planned to travel extensively, to learn about new cultures and experience more art fairs. When I was in Iran, I frequently traveled to Germany for festivals, making it a routine to attend as many as possible by the end of summer. That’s a brief overview of the scene we once had in Iran. As of now, I don’t see much happening there, but I observe the activities of Iranian artists in a broader, international scope.
You’ve talked about learning and the creative process, especially in relation to producing audio-visual media. Given that some of your work is purely visual while others are more audio-focused, I’m curious about your approach. When working on audio-visual projects, what typically comes first for you? Do you start with the audio or the visual elements?
Currently, I’m in the midst of developing my next project, which brings similar concerns and challenges that I usually encounter, particularly in audio or audio-visual performances and installations. These projects often face technical and scientific hurdles. For instance, I’ve worked with EEG in two projects, collaborating with a neuroscientist friend to extract meaningful information from EEG signals. Eventually, I used these raw signals as controllers and parameters for creation, without exerting too much control over them. My installations, whether real-time generated or interactive, allow the audience to engage and react.
In my decade-long career, I’ve worked on my third audio-visual set, heavily inspired by architecture and space. My previous work drew from Iranian architecture, which has influenced a wide region from India to Iraq since the Achaemenid Dynasty. This dynasty believed in creating ‘Earth as in Heaven’, leading to the creation of Persian gardens and carpets. These elements were integrated into living spaces instead of just being art on the walls. My first two audio-visual sets featured architectural elements and sacred geometry from these architectures, combined with field recordings of traditional Iranian music and synthesized sounds. These were inspired by the past, not by the contemporary culture or city I was living in.
My current work is centered around the concept of digital waste. I’m gathering data that is typically unused, such as early social media profile pictures from sites like Orkut.com or Hi5, to train a model and create a library. I recently had an installation in Germany on this theme, where the work calculated its own cost of existence and the CO2 emissions and pollution it generated based on audience interaction. Though my work still incorporates architectural and oriental motifs in sound and visuals, I’m shifting focus towards themes like mass extinction and the imminent environmental crisis. This inspiration comes from data and digital footprints, but I also include elements from my past works in my audio-visual performances, allowing for more freedom in creating industrial-themed art.
Before we delve into your current work, which centers significantly on climate change and future directions, I’m intrigued by an aspect of your earlier style. You have a unique approach where you blend mysticism, technology, and science. Could you elaborate on what you aim to explore through this fusion? It’s evident that your earlier projects don’t just focus on one theme but integrate these strong, diverse elements.
Indeed, that’s absolutely true. Historically in Persia, the realms of science and technology, which originates from the Greek word ‘technologia’, were intertwined with the arts. This blend of disciplines was greatly inspired by ancient Iranian poets. These poets were multifaceted individuals – not just poets, but also scientists, doctors, physicians, and mystics. Figures like Attar and Saadi exemplified this, where their poetry was an extension of their scientific and intellectual pursuits.
Their works often conveyed the idea that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know, leading many to explore mysticism and write meaningful literature. This multidisciplinary approach is fascinating to me. They authored books on poetry, science, and mathematics and conducted extensive research in astronomy, studying the movement of stars – all rooted in science.
In the Arabic influence on art, the term ‘fan’, which translates to ‘technique’ in Farsi, illustrates how these concepts are interconnected. This resonates with me, especially given my background in mathematics, physics, and engineering. In fact, about 60% of my art career relies on my skills in coding, machine-making, and design. I often describe myself as a machine maker, as I primarily create digital machines.
My inspiration also comes from reading poems from that era, which astonishingly relate to current times, highlighting timeless concepts. In my work, I try to embody this blend of poet and scientist, envisioning futuristic cities or suburbs where my creations could be a part. I dream of one day hosting an exhibition, perhaps in 20 years, showcasing all my works and their interconnections, using both old and new AI-driven technologies. These works would encompass the essence of science and mathematics, featuring geometric and generative designs, sound, visuals, and the illusion of synchronicity between sound and vision.
What programming languages and software do you use to create?
I frequently use Python, which has been a part of my toolkit since the beginning. I find it incredibly helpful for prototyping and processing data. For creating prototypes and visuals, I primarily use TouchDesigner. When it comes to sound, Max MSP and Ableton Live are my go-to tools, though sometimes I also use TouchDesigner itself. If I need a specific library or function, I write it in Python, but I don’t restrict myself to any particular software. For me, software is merely a toolbox.
Lately, I’ve been incorporating web technologies like React into my projects, especially for creating interactive user interfaces. This required me to learn web technologies, even though I was already familiar with them as they were some of the first languages I learned. Sometimes, I also utilize web technologies and APIs for sending requests with CMS, integrating them into my work. TouchDesigner, Ableton Live, and Python are among the most used software in my practice.
You mentioned that your most recent work has had addressed the environmental consequences of technology.
The concept for my project, TWh (terawatt hour) originated while I was working on a web application. I realized that creating a website isn’t just about the site itself; it involves numerous content delivery networks, parsers, and API fetches with various services. Recently, edge technology has been employed to send data from the nearest server, reducing environmental costs by avoiding data travel over long distances. For example, accessing a website hosted in Japan might mean receiving data from a server in Montreal.
During this project, I became aware of the significant energy and electricity usage involved in data fetches and parsing between different services. This led me to consider that online technologies and the internet might not be as environmentally friendly as perceived. I then created a website with an AI backend to execute a simple process: a user clicks, generating a word in ChatGPT on the website, which is then sent to the server. This triggers the creation of a 2D pattern, later converted into a 3D point cloud.
The work was inspired by Arthur Ganson’s piece, “The Machine with Oil,” which is a machine that does nothing but oil itself. My project, similar in concept, was constantly calculating the energy use and carbon footprint of each action. Depending on the time taken to generate a new word, the energy consumption varied.
The final work was displayed at a UNESCO heritage site in West Germany called Zollverein. It was an installation where users could interact with the point clouds, control them, and play around. While they found this engaging and enjoyable, they soon realized their actions’ environmental impact. The installation displayed the amount of CO2 produced and energy used for each interaction, highlighting the significant environmental cost of seemingly minor digital actions like clicks, which are amplified on platforms like Instagram or Facebook.
This project aimed not to drive change but to shed light on our digital footprints and the environmental impact of our online activities. It illustrated how our frequent digital interactions, analogous to 5,000 clicks, could equate to the pollution produced by a gasoline car over a year, underscoring the hidden environmental cost of our digital habits.
From the onset of your career, it’s evident that collaboration with computers has been a key aspect of your work, giving you partial control over the creative process. How has the evolution of AI technology impacted your art? Specifically, how have you adapted to the advancements in AI as they’ve become integrated into your work?
Yes, that’s straightforward. For me, AI and emerging technologies are new tools. Technical advancements, like graphic cards, have always been tools to me. A new graphic card, for instance, is just another tool; it’s not a significant change in itself. Many patches that were unrunnable on a computer 10 years ago can now operate at 60 frames per second, thanks to technological improvements.
I’m continually learning and trying to utilize all these new technologies as they emerge. For example, there was a film festival by One way that offered credits for creating something new. At first, it seemed like a great opportunity, but when you start creating with those prompts, you realize the limitations. These tools are not yet at a stage where they can be relied upon for complete creation. Maybe in the future, something like ChatGPT-10 will be more dependable. However, in my year of using these technologies, I’ve seen them as tools that are not yet intelligent enough to be inspirational on their own. They are more like advanced search engines, providing data that needs human curation and control to create art.
Additionally, human perception of what is beautiful has always been subjective. With the advent of NFTs, for example, the aesthetic benchmark for many has shifted. What one person finds beautiful, another might find awful. This subjectivity touches on the human perception and definition of beauty, art, and meaning.
Returning to your question, I view AI technologies as great tools, similar to technical devices, programming languages, and software like TouchDesigner, which I used a decade ago. These AI tools help me create more easily and will continue to evolve. I never see software as a threat to my career; rather, I extract what I need from it.
Can you discuss Shym?
Yeah, that’s a very old one.
I was particularly drawn to one of your videos; it resonated with me, and I found myself watching it repeatedly. The aspect I loved most was observing how people from various cultures, who live far apart and have different lifestyles, interacted with it. Whether they were in a casual setting or a formal gallery anywhere in the world, the reaction was universal. This shared experience seems to act as a unifier. Could you share more about the concept behind that piece and what you were aiming to convey?
I want to clarify something about my installations. Though they were previously labeled as immersive, I see them more as spatial environments. In these installations, I create a so-called machine or environment that invites the audience to enter. My aim is to visually confuse them with a combination of projections, live sound, and visions, making them forget how and when they arrived, essentially throwing them into a space where they face themselves.
In most of my work, especially installations, I strive to create this digital mirror, a space where viewers can confront and engage with themselves. This approach is versatile and can be implemented anywhere, not just in traditional galleries. For instance, one of my installations was set up in an under-construction building. People had no idea they were entering an unfinished structure with concrete columns, only to find themselves suddenly in a transformed hallway.
This concept is integral to my installations because I believe each person is a cosmos within themselves. This belief extends to my audio-visual performances, where not all visual and sound elements are synchronized. Instead, there are numerous options and variations, allowing each viewer to perceive and interpret based on their internal synchronicity. They connect with different elements based on what they wish to see.
A recent installation illustrates this concept. It was a simple setup in a corner with mirrors, lines moving like water reaching the seashore, and a background scanner tracking people’s positions. Each person’s entrance generated a wave, which was then mapped onto a musical piece I composed, playing just one note. This subtle integration made it hard for people to discern that the sounds were directly linked to an interactive content projected on the ground.
IMAGE CREDIT: Ali Phi.
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