Pretty as a Picture (Issue #22)
An interview with artist Somfay
“Flight Of Fancy” (Somfay image) (GIF here)
1/1: Please introduce yourself.
Somfay: Greetings—I am Jes, though in these spheres I go by my surname, Somfay. I was born into this world on the 4th day of the 4th month of the year 1986, and I currently reside in a beautiful place bordering the countryside in Ontario, Canada.
In this life I am an electronic music producer, DJ, visual artist, graphic designer, and gardener. In the grand scheme of things, I am but a whisper in the ceaseless cosmic gale. From whence I come, shall I return.
1/1: What art have you been working on lately?
Somfay: I have recently been focusing on my series "Dreemtyme," where I conjure sigils and echoes from my experiences within the dream realm, through the combined use of analog and digital technologies.
I’ve also been building a new batch of Hither Dither—one of the analog glitch devices that I produce under the name "Fermata Positronics"—producing some new music, and completing some commercial design, in particular, for my friend Henry Saiz’ new mix compilation "Balance 032."
1/1: You're a musician and a visual artist. From what I read somewhere, you’ve shifted the emphasis toward the visual side in recent years. Is that right? How do you see the relationship between your different artistic endeavors at this time?
Somfay: This is true—I have been creating visual art for as long as I have been creating music, though music was my focus for the past two decades; it was my first love. During the recent pandemic, I decided I would take a chance and begin focusing more on my visual practice and slow my music practice down a little bit.
Although each of my practices are different in medium and execution, I view them all as fundamentally the same; they are all branches growing from one stem. The ideas and inspiration all emerge from the same source and are all sharing one overarching story.
I experience intense synesthesia of many forms, chief among which are auditory-visual (music and sound generate inner visions) and visual-auditory (visuals generate inner music or sound). In my practice, I find that this has been a great boon, where all facets of my creative activities influence one another and are constantly at play.
“Accretion Dance” (Somfay image)
1/1: Can you describe your workspace and how it influences your art?
Somfay: My workspace is a bedroom studio packed to the rafters with audio and video equipment, most of which originates from a bygone era. It looks out upon the edge of a limestone gorge that is wreathed with cedar, maple, spruce and aspen.
I feel like it is the setting of quiet nature that influences me most in the studio, in that it allows me the space to go inside of my mind and expand outward, with as few distractions and interruptions as possible. The quiet is crucial to my ability to focus and free my mind to take me where it feels it must.
Though I do my best to hone my ability to be in the present, while in a busy environment, I often find that my ability to go deeper into a flow state is hindered by too much hustle and bustle around me, so stillness and silence has always been where I am most able to see all of the doors that I need to open.
Though I greatly enjoy working with my hardware tools, I avoid allowing them to influence me too much. I find that to focus on the influence of technology can often lead to creations that are more about the technology itself than a deeper message. It risks the work becoming "art about the making of art," whereas I am more influenced by the abstractions of my inner world and the world around me.
The things that I feel and experience in life are what fuel my creative drive most of all. My time spent in the world of dreams, for example, is quite literally a second life for me, one that is also intrinsically linked with my waking life.
In my creations, I try to focus the purpose of the technology on clarity and making these worlds tangible for others to experience—I try to keep the technological influence on my works as "transparent" as possible so that it doesn’t interfere with the meaning at the heart of a given piece.
1/1: What tools do you use? Do you work with any special devices or tools unique to your creative process?
Somfay: There are so very many, but to touch the tip of the iceberg of the hardware that I use to create my visual work, I use a variety of video mixers, video cameras, video enhancers and color correctors (some of which are modified), and CRT monitors. I also use a variety of software creation tools such as Blender and TouchDesigner.
I don’t feel that any specific tool that I use is quite unique to my process; on its own, however I do take pathways with these tools that may be more unique to my practice. I am always searching for new paths to take as I explore, and there is always a large dose of serendipity involved in my experimentation. Ideas abound, and I am always writing down notable hardware and software configurations to remember and explore more in depth.
“Pretty As A Picture” (Somfay image)
1/1: What draws you to glitch art?
Somfay: Being a glitch in the eyes of the normative fabric of Earthly society…
I often find this world to be very rigid and with a narrow field of view, in many respects, although it does seem to be opening up more over time; evolution is a glacial process, after all.
I feel like the natural state of things is more fluid, more giving, more interconnected and peppered with endless diversity. It could be said that the true glitch is the "order" and hierarchy of which our species has attempted to enforce in this world, within the context of a universe evolved from entropy.
I have an unquenchable need to flow outside of these brittle and compartmentalized systems within which the world is currently ensnared. It is the same innate need that a seed has to germinate, even within the tiniest of fissures in stone. I am utterly compelled by it—the need to blossom is infinite.
Being non-binary, and living life through the lens of a brain with Asperger’s (known today as ASD), one cannot help but be perceived as "different" or "other" when existing within the periphery of the very thin band of what is considered "normal," even when heavily masking who one really is on the inside.
Part of what has always drawn me to glitch is the deep need to openly express, without fear. Sometimes I ponder that a glitch, in the context of technology, is Nature breaking through the deliberately square designs we have imposed upon it to remind us that we are not in control. A glitch is like a laugh from Nature, singing through the many walls we have constructed.
I am largely inspired by Nature in all of my practices, and there is no greater purveyor of fine glitch than Nature. The beauty in Nature is in its imperfection—the order of disorder, the riotous dance of its flow. I love to observe and absorb every aspect of it that comes to me when I am among the trees, grasses, wildflowers, and rivers; I then trust in the flow of things as I create, and allow those influences to pour forth as they must.
1/1: You do some analog glitch work in addition to the straight digital stuff. Can you tell us about that? On the far opposite end, do you ever have a use for a tool like Photomosh?
“Clarity” (Somfay image)
Somfay: I primarily work with a hybrid of analog and digital processes, though sometimes it is great fun to explore each set of processes on their own, to see what may arise. With digital processes, I like to inject the imperfection of the analog and natural realms, and with analog, I like to tame the wild electricity into rivulets of coherence.
It’s all about finding balance within and between each process, allowing them the freedom to go where they need to go. I like them all to influence each other and form harmonies between one another as I work so that none of them are ever singularly dominant or isolated. I find that things are most interesting and inspiring when I don’t silo things off and instead allow a constant dialogue. My process is always an ongoing symphony, where each element is evolving alongside the other.
Regarding tools like Photomosh, I tend to gravitate away from more preset-oriented tools in favor of more customizable environments like TouchDesigner. I definitely enjoy the challenge that limitation presents, but I prefer a blank canvas because I am more interested in the possible serendipities that may arise while venturing into the unknown.
1/1: How do you approach developing an idea into a finished piece? Can you walk us through your workflow?
Somfay: It is like a lightning strike—no one workflow is ever duplicated exactly as it was implemented previously. Sometimes they rhyme, but it’s always a little bit changed.
I have somewhat of an evolving framework to guide me, but it is more akin to a framework used to guide a lucid dream than it is to a methodical sequence to follow and repeat.
I will often start out by feeling a whisper of an idea from within, and I simply allow it the space to grow—and I trust that it will grow—if it feels the need to be brought into waking life. The idea is the leader, and I always follow it.
For my various processes, I have some technological procedures to follow in order to bring the idea into the world with as much quality and clarity as I can. These procedures, however, only exist for the sake of this clarity, and are not meant to influence the idea. These are things like best practices for recording a clean signal to VHS, or how best to use a digital camera to capture video from a CRT monitor; it is pure quality control.
The idea itself must always be the leader because it is the only way in which it can be brought to life with as little of my ego involved as possible. I prefer things to emerge from my subconscious, and from beyond my subconscious.
As often happens, an idea will arrive that shows itself clearly, but I will see that I must learn a new skill or technique in order to make it real, so I do my best to learn what I must in order to give birth to it, all along the way being mindful not to let the technology or process dictate to the idea what it should be.
“🏠 XX” (Somfay image)
1/1: Can you describe a typical day in your artistic practice, including any rituals or habits?
Somfay: From the outside, it is fairly unassuming. Each day is similar, yet different. One might see it as a picture frame that remains similar from day to day, but the image within the frame is changing a little more drastically with each day.
My habits to maintain my body and life are the picture frame—they tend to remain the same each day—but what I explore and create is always fluid. I treat each day as a freshly blank canvas, especially between projects.
For a day to have some structure is important to me; I keep a calendar to help me manage my projects and deadlines; otherwise, my mind alone could not keep track of all of them, and I would quickly become overwhelmed, like a deer in headlights.
Whenever I am about to start working on a project, I like to quiet my mind and remove myself from distractions. I then dive straight in to start germinating the seed of an idea, and let things progress from there. I find that, for me, the key to creating regularly is diving in without expectations, and placing complete trust in the ideas.
It’s only when I try to force things that they don’t work; forcing things is a good way to make an idea go into hiding—your desire to mold the idea too severely becomes a blinding light where you can no longer see.
1/1: Broadly speaking, how do you feel about the impact of generative AI on the creative process? Do you have a favorite AI tool?
“Deep Angel” (Somfay image)
Somfay: I feel very positive about the impact that AI will have on the act of creation. It is a tool like any other; without consciousness, only the mind of the operator can direct it in a meaningful way—only the ideas can direct an output to where it needs to go. It still requires the same creative act of exploration, practice and iteration.
I can somewhat understand the fears that people have about it, but I don't share them myself, as I feel that they miss the bigger picture by a wide margin. We are a curious species, and though some of us fear change, the only way we can make progress and explore new ways of doing and creating is to venture into the unknown and be open to the possibilities.
I suspect that AI will humble us as we move into our future living alongside it, as it becomes AGI (artificial general intelligence), and eventually ASI (artificial superintelligence). We tend to be a bit overconfident as a species, about how much we know and what we understand; I feel that the things we learn from our use of AI will eventually lead to a greater humility and understanding of ourselves and each other.
I see the present day state of generative AI technologies to still be limited, although there is a great opportunity to explore those limitations. Using Stable Diffusion and MidJourney, for instance, one can really explore the potential for "glitches" in their latent spaces. There is some real magic to be found when one takes the time to learn the language of each individual AI environment. They are full of surprises; I believe that many styles and techniques have yet to be discovered through their use!
I find that the state I enter, when I am using AI creation tools, is like a low bandwidth lucid dream, where I am being reflected back at myself in a mirror that the AI conjures through its interaction with me. I can only imagine how this will be experienced when these tools are eventually—inevitably—experienced and utilized in real time, with no latency. It will be something to behold!
“As The Sun Sets” (Somfay image)
1/1: Where do you see your music heading in the future? How about music and AI—anything interesting there you think?
Somfay: I don’t fully know—although I do know that I will continue exploring it for as long as I am alive to do so.
It is always a surprise with each recording that I make. As always, the ideas are in the lead, and I am their conduit. My musical language tends to be very melodic, layered and textural, so I suspect there will be more of that but with increasing clarity as I grow and evolve as a creator and as a being.
I suspect that eventually AI will be able to create music just as well as we can currently create. I feel like we'll see the development of some very interesting and compelling tools in the coming years and decades, along with the emergence of AGI. It would be such an interesting experience to work with an AI collaborator who is like a version of yourself but could offer you new perspectives that you might otherwise have missed.
We will need to completely re-approach how we view things like intellectual property and copyright. I personally don’t believe these things will last, particularly if we can realign ourselves to become a more empathic and compassionate species, where the goal of creating is more focused on enriching the lives of those we share our creations with, rather than on owning intellectual or material property and making a profit from it.
1/1: Are there any specific works of art (music, literature, film, etc.) that inspire or have significant meaning to you in your artistic practice?
“Small Hours” (Somfay image)
Somfay: Oh my heavens, yes. There are quite literally thousands. I will list five of each, just as a hint.
My Bloody Valentine—“Loveless”
Boards Of Canada—“Roygbiv”
2001: A Space Odyssey
Star Wars IV, V, & VI
The NeverEnding Story
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
PiHKAL & TiHKAL by Alexander Shulgin & Ann Shulgin
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Revenge Capitalism by Max Haiven
The Designers Republic
Nam June Paik
Benjamin Chee Chee
1/1: How do you come up with titles for your work?
“Cymatic Ride” (Somfay image)
Somfay: When I am focusing on music, a title will usually arrive before I come up with a single melody—it serves as a kind of "vessel" that the idea chooses for itself to grow into. It is a compulsion—I will feel a combination of words within myself and then go through many different terms, fitting them together until they match the feeling, like opening a combination lock without fully knowing the code.
The opposite is true for my visual art practice; titles almost always come after the idea has been made real. I seem to end up choosing titles for pieces that are simple in nature and act as a way to hint at what is being communicated within a piece. I feel that the real meaning of a piece is rarely able to fit into a title alone and that the piece itself *is* its title; so in some ways, I have "vanity" titles on my works, where they aren’t always directly conveying what the work itself is sharing with the viewer.
On occasion, a title will be more directly related to the content of a piece, but usually they leave a lot more up to the imagination. I prefer to have my work open to interpretation by the viewer or listener, as my pieces serve as a "tuned" mirror to gaze into; I don’t want to cloud the perceiver’s experience with my own private interpretation.
1/1: What draws you to NFTs and how do you see them as different from traditional art markets?
Somfay: I love how NFT technology does away with the middleman, ensuring that artists alone have full control over their creative vision. You have much more freedom to say "yes" or "no" in your decision making.
It feels similar to releasing music on one’s own private label, or on a platform like Bandcamp. I personally need to have this full direction over my vision, with as little outer interference as possible, and NFT technology has afforded me that freedom for my visual art practice. This does of course mean that I must be the prime advocate for my work, but having been an independent music producer and freelancer for so long, it is something that I am used to.
I do not have extensive experience in the traditional art world to draw upon, but I can tell that the NFT art market is still very nascent and has a lot of maturation ahead of it. In my opinion, there is too much speculation, and not enough connoisseurship or deep appreciation for the intrinsic value within the art itself. I understand why it is this way, as humans tend to follow the in-group, rather than their own intuition, but I do see things gradually improving.
With regard to speculation, I hope to see less of it into the future. I would like to see a market that moves more slowly and deliberately, where purchases are held for a greater duration before they are put onto the secondary market. In the traditional art world, it is commonplace for collectors to hold onto works for many years, if not decades, before a piece returns to the market (if at all).
As an artist, when you have dedicated your life to expressing ideas into tangible reality—having spent many thousands of hours training to do so—it can sometimes feel a bit demeaning when someone only sees your work as a way to make a quick profit—as a means to an end—rather than a meaningful experience to savor and contemplate.
I would like to see a more clean, honest and patient market evolve from where we are now. I believe we can get there, but it all depends on how we choose to align ourselves, and our intentions, within the present moment.
“Twin Telepathy II” (Somfay image)
1/1: For someone just getting into NFTs, what advice would you offer?
Somfay: Firstly, I would suggest to them—above all else—to stay true to their heart and true to their path.
In this, stand with resolve and dignity, and do not allow others to push you away from what you feel you must create. This is a more general piece of advice for any creator, but in this space it bears highlighting, as there is still a fair bit of undue influence from speculators who do not have an artist’s best interests at heart. Be fearless and confident in your creations.
Take your time and practice patience. If you are a new artist, and new to NFTs, know that this is a very long-term path to pursue, and it may take several years for your orchard to bear fruit. Tend to it with the love and attention it requires. Sometimes it is a struggle—if you need to take a break, it is OK to do so. Be mindful with yourself, your time, and your energy as much as you need to.
Don’t focus on sales. Markets ebb and flow and you don’t have complete control over what others will collect or purchase. Instead, focus on building relationships and genuine connections with your peers, and creating stronger works that speak clearly to your audience.
Trust your intuition and instincts. If someone tells you that you are "over-minting," that you need to stick to a certain style, that you post too much or too little on social media, or tries to direct you away from your path in a way that you are uncomfortable with, don’t listen to them—only you know yourself and your path. Some things that you do will not work, while other things will work—experiment and try different things. Every artist's path is unique and there are no "one size fits all" solutions.
As it can sometimes seem that this space favors extroverts, if you are an introvert, don’t feel pressured to join in when you do not feel comfortable doing so. You have the right to your space and privacy, and your true allies will never fault you for it.
Be kind, be courteous and respectful, and enjoy the path you are walking.
“Hunter” (Somfay image)
1/1: Who are some of your favorite artists in the NFT space?
Somfay: There are so many of them that it would crash your browser if I were to list them all! Here are just a handful whose work I am often taken by:
1/1: What are you working on next?
Somfay: I’ll let my next pieces be a surprise, but keep an eye on Refraction DAO’s feed, as I’ll have a new piece in Ellie Pritts’ "Electric Psychedelia" exhibition in Lisbon, and you may just experience an AR sculpture in Miami this December. I would also recommend keeping an eye out for the Analog Video Union’s recurring drops, as I almost always have a new piece within each of them, alongside so many fabulous artist peers!
1/1: Could you show us some of your favorite work and tell us what it means to you?
Somfay: 1.) This is a recent audiovisual remix I did of one of my friend Ex Mortal’s audiovisual pieces entitled "_N I G H T S W I M M I N G_." I fell in love with his original music, and really wanted to explore his melodies through the lens of my own perspective while reinterpreting the visual theme in a similar manner. It has its own meaning, but as with most of my meanings, I shall remain mum about it so the viewer/listener has as pure an experience as possible.
"_N I G H T S W I M M I N G_" (Somfay image) (A/V here)
2. It was a dream come true to collaborate with one of my favorite artists for his "continuum" series. I wanted to blend our styles together in as balanced a way as I could, where both of our expressions could sing in harmony. It was a joy to work with Kota on this!
"continuum #149" (Somfay image)
3. This piece was a special commission for Xerox"s project "The Commission." For this round of the project, he gave to me and a handful of artists the prompt "Sorayama Akame." The first part of the prompt is in reference to the artist Hajime Sorayama, who is well known for his chrome styled imagery, while the second part of the prompt "Akame" means "red eyes" (i.e. as they appear in a photo due to a camera flash).
"Tickling The Dragon's Tail" (Somfay image)