October 30, 2023

The Interview | John F. Simon Jr.

The creator of ComplexCity is bringing software art to the blockchain with Artwrld
Credit: Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld
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The Interview | John F. Simon Jr.
John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023) launches on Artwrld in partnership with Art Blocks Engine on November 9. The collection consists of 512 unique generative artworks constructed from six possible templates and a nearly infinite number of possible outputs.

John F. Simon Jr. launched the first rendition of ComplexCity back in 2000 at the time of the dot-com crash. Powered by a Macintosh PowerBook G3, this iconic work of software art was a semi-autobiographical array of urban abstractions comprising skyscrapers and stop-and-go traffic, displayed on acrylic plastic. Now, after more than two decades, the renowned digital artist is collaborating with Artwrld to reimagine ComplexCity as a generative artwork for what the artist considers the more native home of Web3. 

While the original work evolved over time, the newly conceived version retains a wide variety of chance occurrences and interactions to allow a refreshed version of the city to emerge. It also affords the chance to reflect on the last quarter century in digital art. Here, the artist shares what makes coding a form of creative writing with Nato Thompson and Cody Edison.

Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld

Nato Thompson: This is Artwrld’s first fully generative art collection and we are so stoked to be working with you, John. For folks who might not be familiar with ComplexCity (2000), what inspired you to create a software artwork that is so biographical?

John F. Simon Jr.: ComplexCity is a living, evolving collage, that is also an autobiography and celebration of my love for living in New York City. 

Every Icon (1997) taught me that technology alone will not create Art — somewhere in the process there has to be a human. With ComplexCity, I resolved to explore the storytelling part of coding. 

When I sat down to write ComplexCity, I was ready to see how personal I could make the software so I chose to write a story about my day-to-day life as an artist living in New York around the year 2000. The traffic section covers the blocks on the West Side of Manhattan that I walked every day, from 23rd to 34th Street. The skyscrapers and birds were the view from my studio windows; the maze is a moving diagram of me running around the city; [while] I encountered the elevators everywhere — slow elevators drive me crazy. 

John F. Simon Jr., ComplexCity, 2000. Courtesy of the artist

Cody Edison: How does it feel to bring the work on-chain at a time when code-based practices are finally getting their due?

JFS: It feels great to finally share my early software art directly with a wide audience and to revisit projects that I was passionate about 20 years ago. The art appliances I started making in 1999 could only be seen in a physical space [and] were bespoke to a specific piece of computer hardware. Anything I shared online was either a video clip or still image. You could only watch their slow evolutions if you owned one.

I’m happy that the early work can now be documented on-chain and displayed as working code in a distributed and public way.  
Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld

NT: Many generative artists credit the influence of modern painting on their work, including A. Michael Noll, whose Ninety Parallel Sinusoids (1964) was a “computer version” of a work by Bridget Riley. It feels like this project could not exist without Piet Mondrian, and certainly not without New York City. Do you draw a line between painting and software? How are the two related in your view?

JFS: Good jazz musicians often quote the canon, as do visual artists. 

Painting is different from software. Drawing and painting are fluid and immediate applications of material, [whereas] software is written and debugged on a screen. 

Creativity underlies everything. The drawings I’ve made and the software I’ve written emerge from the same spontaneous, highly non-linear process. When I began working on ComplexCity, I made sketches and notes about my immediate surroundings. I played with code using a variable expansion method to discover possibilities. I thought about Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), as well as New York Mural (1932), and Koyaanisqatsi (1982). There were studies and code snippets made along the way. From all that activity and more, the art emerged. 

Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld

CE: Both long-form generative art and generative AI embrace infinite iteration. But it feels like ComplexCity pre-empts the digital world-in-flux as we experience it today. What has it been like to update these artworks so long after you created the original?

JFS: I’d say the theme of the 2023 update is “boundary dissolution” and that reflects both online and offline environments. Artists and programmers today have to be much more comfortable with exposure: open source software, a public ledger where all works are visible all the time, steady social media updates, and viewing environments that require software to scale fluidly from pocket- to stadium-sized. The artworld has also expanded its boundaries greatly in twenty years.

One no longer needs to be physically present in New York to make important contacts and build a career.

Global art fairs and online communities decentralized the art market. Galleries that only showed paintings now show across multiple media. Museum shows are more representative than they were in 2000. Crypto opened financial doors to new collectors and creators.

The effect of boundary dissolution in the new ComplexCity is that the nine subprograms that were rigidly placed in the original composition became independent agents — in some scenes taking solos and changing size, in others exploring color variations, and finally overlapping completely in a glitchy stack.

NT: You were building software in the age of net art and the demoscene. How different does Web3 feel to Web1, which also involved decentralization?

JFS: Web1 felt like “first contact” — the first time my computer could talk to other computers. The buzz was about how the new packet networks broke the one-to-one and enabled individuals to broadcast. My first net art project, Alter Stats (1995-98), tried to visualize and expose these network interactions.

Web3 builds on the same network idea but on the software level there is a much deeper intermeshing of money, code, and computing. 

We share more valuable things more widely. I can connect online from many access points using any number of devices, including my doorbell. People are comfortable owning art that lives in a distributed environment. It feels like the right direction for a software artist.

John F. Simon Jr., Alter Stats, 1995-98. Courtesy of the artist

NT: It feels like it took the NFT to unlock the market for digital art that pioneers such as yourself had always warranted. Do you regard the token as a part of the work or is it merely a convienent delivery mechanism for sales? What have NFTs brought to software art that is exciting to you? 

JFS: I tried for a long time to find a way to sell software artworks.

I asked $20 each for a numbered edition of Every Icon. People handed me the cash at openings and parties. Accepting credit cards online was costly and complicated. 

I wrote a software license agreement for Every Icon that included how the applet could be reproduced, shared, and resold, and incorporated a royalty for the artist. I kept a public ledger of the owners on my website. A lot of this was similar in concept to NFTs, but now the money is fluid and the ledger is global. At the simplest level I am happy not to have to handle this myself and even happier that the crypto space makes publishing, storing, distributing, reselling, and many other aspects of the commercial side of art available. 

Is the token part of the work? The token is certainly part of the ownership of the work. I think of the token as part of my work in the way that a Sol LeWitt ownership certificate gives the description of the piece before the Wall Drawing is made. My NFTs contain all the code for the piece before it is even run.

Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld

CE: You have described coding as a form of creative writing. Can you expand on what you mean by this and how this has shifted since you created the original artwork? Can you also speak about how you utilized AI to assist you in efficiently adapting and reproducing this software into new generative iterations of the original compositions. 

JFS: It is easy to assume that programming is a kind of technical writing because code is often used to solve mathematical problems, make tools, or control a machine. How can a set of code words be used creatively? 

Coding is creative writing because programming languages are universal. Each programmer chooses how they structure data, implement algorithms, and represent the results. Anything that can be computed can be written in code. Another reason coding is creative writing is because programs say something about programmers in the way that fashionable clothes reflect the visions of clothiers. Code is equally a solution and a self-expression. But, for me, the most important reason that coding is creative writing is that, separate from the contributions of the language and the programmer, it is the words themselves that create. 

Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld
The instructions in a program say what they do, but in their binary form, running on a computer, they do what they say. Coding is creative writing because the writing creates. I can’t always predict what my code will produce and that is why I like to write it — code brings me to places beyond my imagination. 

I would characterize the direction of programming from 2000 to 2023 as “more things moving faster.” I rarely have to think anymore about memory use or optimizations. The surprise in 2023 was how useful AI became to coding. 

ComplexCity combines nine separate programs on one screen. They were originally written in C on a PowerBook G3 Wallstreet model using the Macintosh Toolbox for graphics. Some of the simpler programs I could convert directly through ChatGPT with few iterations, [which was] already an amazing saving. With more complicated code I took the opportunity to give simple English language descriptions to ChatGPT and I got very good starting shells which I was able to elaborate to reach the final code. ChatGPT also sped up my work by cutting through some of my tendency to procrastinate difficult tasks like starting a new subroutine. I would ask ChatGPT for their version, run it, critique it, and I was off to the races.

Artwork preview from John F. Simon Jr.’s ComplexCity (2000/2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artwrld

CE: In the traditional art world and beyond many consider the blockchain and NFTs to be a failed experiment. In your life you’ve seen explosive technological breakthroughs push digital art forward. How would you respond to this idea of a failed experiment that has been so revolutionary for creatives and collectors globally?

JFS: When the dot-com bubble collapsed in 2001, people described the internet as a failed experiment, and Facebook hadn’t even been written yet. As for NFTs and blockchain in particular, the froth is definitely off the market. I doubt that the ultimate app for monetizing and distributing digital art will end up being NFTs on ETH but I do know that the idea of encapsulated, publicly verified, tradable digital objects is too compelling to go away. The NFTs of today will probably migrate and, if not, I’ll write the code again. 

As long as there is the means to store and display digital art, people will make and collect digital objects. The NFT bubble showed us that.

I love collecting digital objects. I love having a wallet filled with works from my friends and from artists I admire. Compared to the choices available for showing, selling, and distributing software art and digital images 20 years ago, I think we are at a great moment. We should continue to see good art being aggregated by curators and gallerists and catered to the devices and markets that are coming next.

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

With thanks to Alex Estorick.

John F. Simon Jr. is a visual artist and innovator in Software Art. His seminal work, Every Icon, was included in the Whitney Biennial 2000. Simon received a BA in Studio Art from Brown University and an MFA in Computer Art from School of Visual Arts in New York. His work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Simon’s publication, Drawing Your Own Path (2016) is an account of the meditative benefits of maintaining a consistent drawing practice. 

Nato Thompson is the co-founder and artistic director of Artwrld. A cultural infrastructure builder with over 20 years of experience in the art world, he served as Artistic Director at Philadelphia Contemporary, Chief Curator at Creative Time, and Curator at MASS MoCA. Thompson now heads the creative and curatorial vision of Artwrld, bringing established artists into the space of Web3 where he works collaboratively with them to commission and produce projects that engage broad audiences and explore the emerging possibilities of blockchain technology for creative practice.

Cody Edison is a lens-based artist, a member of the curatorial team and head of community at Artwrld, and the co-founding director of the digital art event, NFTuesdayLA. He received a BFA in Photography and Media from CalArts in 2012.

ComplexCity (2000/2023) launches on Artwrld in partnership with Art Blocks Engine on November 9. The collection consists of 512 unique generative artworks constructed from six possible templates and a nearly infinite number of possible outputs.