From Tasmania to the intimacy of your phone - a conversation with Sten

An explorer, an academic, an architect, a traveler, an artist, a coder and a really fun person to hang out with, Sten’s qualities transpire to her art making in a crystal clear manner. For Little Lyell Machines, her upcoming release with Wild, Sten took a risk to explore one of her long-time obsessions: the 19th century mining boom in Tasmania, a remote island South of the Australian mainland. I like hanging out with Sten, I feel I learn something new and unexpected from her, every time we chat, so I hope you enjoy this conversation.

Little Lyell Machines (2023)
Little Lyell Machines (2023)

I heard through the grapevine that you joined 0x113’s "Coding for Artists" School. How has the process been for you? Where were you when you got started?

The most incredible gift I’ve ever received came from someone I have never met, with nothing asked for in return. This was 6 months of twice-weekly group lessons which have had a huge impact on me, not just technically and creatively, but on the way I think. Then, the community 113 has managed to nurture, with so many smart and generous people to whom I say a mental thank you daily. I have covid right now. You might think it’s making me overly sentimental, but no, it’s true. There’s an optimism about that particular slice of computer art culture that I want to hold onto.

Before then, I had taught myself some p5.js through YouTube videos as a fun practice to learn. But the Mathcastles school subverted and reoriented computer art beyond that step-by-step. A remarkable experience.

Who do you draw inspiration from within the NFT space? Why?

People who build tools inspire me. Quantized building artTab as a response to the most excruciatingly obvious gap in the space, Neokry building Persistence as a front-end for minting works on-chain, tokenFox establishing on-chain checking, you and Trent building JPG, and Mathcastles’ Discord streaming culture. I have no idea what the revenue model is, yet it's so crucial.

In terms of art, all the art I save or screenshot is stuff that is nothing like my own work, and I just look at it and think, "How did they make it? Sorcery!" Thinking here of Travess Smalley, LoVid, AnnaLucia, and Ezra Miller. I missed a lot of pop culture growing up in rural Tasmania during the 90s, coupled with being a deeply bookish kid. I didn’t have an art education, so now, if a piece of work comes with an essay positioning it within its cultural context, I am there. One NFT example of this is Baggy Industries’ projects - fun and visually low-fi pieces with a great deal of seriously detailed thought and description about the technical process and the cultural context of the sound elements. Another NFT example is David Rudnick’s Tomb Series which, through a published hardcover book, contextualizes 177 insanely detailed drawings of mini-discs within the entire northern European renaissance.

Much like "Tarot Code" and "Seasonal Maps", your previous works,  "Little Lyell Machines" encourages viewers to engage by exploring the artwork. They can discover the View Master-like microfiches you programmed within each output. Why choose to go interactive, even from the very first collection?

We need to acknowledge the intimacy of the phone, the learned navigation prompts we have with screens. I am into the idea of interactive works as toys, like the toys from a museum gift shop. Toys can be foils for big ideas. This also suits my way of working - I am not built as a deeply intuitive artist; I think in systems and categories and sequences. Interactivity takes those systems and then lets a viewer shake them up in a way that feels physical.

Tarot Code (2022)
Tarot Code (2022)

Let’s talk about "Little Lyell Machines". Can you briefly describe the concept and why you chose a story from a remote place like Tasmania to share with the Wild audience?

Tasmania is my childhood home. This story has been in the back of my mind for 10 years since spending a few days in this small township that was built around a 19th-century copper mine. The reason the story is so affecting to me is also from my reading of its archives and history - the primary characters really did envision a grand marvelous city here. (Or maybe they were just pumping the vision to make the stock go up). Either way, the contrast between this imagined world and the reality, which is a tiny, almost deserted town with mountains and forest all around it and one winding road in, is staggering. But it's also a really normal outcome of the systems of our global history. Joining Wild, I felt like I was being encouraged to take the opportunity to explore something a bit more complicated and a bit more personal. The residency gave some structure to articulating creative ideas, the opportunity to discuss with my peers, gain the insight of a diverse group with different art disciplines, and the confidence that a company and a whole team with strategy and marketing expertise thought the idea was worth making.

An output from the upcoming Little Lyell Machines dropping on next week
An output from the upcoming Little Lyell Machines dropping on next week

What is under the "Little Lyell Machines" hood? How did you construct the project?

The work is a single script written in p5.js; it’s all 2D, and it’s on-chain using the p5 library on Ethereum. The algorithm brings together 3 parts: an interactive system, visual rocks, and words. Starting with the system, this is the random arrangement of fragments within a canvas field and the sequenced movement through screen touch or mouse click. This system was clear to me as a way of bringing together a wide view and a close view of visual information.

Defining the visual content took a lot of experimentation. I started with the inspiration of geology drawings and scientific flow charts, but then it was there, right in front of me all along - simple but beautiful rubble. Precious and discarded. Instead of the hard lines of scientific drawings, they are more painterly. The rocks are generated at mint with random quantities, scales, shapes, and procedural color outputs. And I think they are suited well to generative work - flung down at mint in sparse, uniform, or chaotic ways, with earthy or vivid mineral materiality and the surprises of random().

The third element, the words, are the link to the original mining story. 12 fragments, 12 facets of the social, financial, mechanical, and environmental machinery of the mine. These are also randomly generated at mint, from a selection of words drawn from the historical documents. The resulting labels are a curiosity, much in the same way you might move through a museum and then look at the labels thinking, "Is that really what I’m seeing?" Abstract fragments of machines that are long gone.

If you could dream up your ideal audience member, what could be their experience and expectations towards this new series, and future ones, in terms of interactivity?

I’m not sure how to answer this because I see in my mind all these specific wonderful people (their avatars or ENS addresses) who I know have collected my work, and I want them to see the intention behind the interactivity. On the other hand, it is really thrilling when someone with no mutuals engages with the work and chats to me about it. This happened most with "Little Lyell Machines" because I think it was such a visually simple idea, so people who had zero context around the project were able to quickly play with it and enjoy it. Reaching new people through digital toys that offer immediate interactivity feels good.

Little Lyell Machines (2023)
Little Lyell Machines (2023)

You are an architect (and an academic!) that's learning how to be an artist and coder by making. Is this approach (learn by doing) also present on other facets of Sten? I never turned my academic training into a career because, when I finished my doctorate, I gave myself a month off work, and that was the month that I opened Processing for the first time. I find it challenging, in a good way, to be open about learning. I can be very overly serious about things, so I desperately wanted to keep my coding and art practice fun, to be open and social about it. This is totally different to the mentality of academic and government and architecture, which can be paranoid and kind of fearful institutions of ego. OK, your question has jolted me into thinking it’s time to explore the next new thing, even if I don’t know where it will end up. You have to constantly countertrade your own predispositions.

Seasonal Maps (2023)
Seasonal Maps (2023)

When I first came across your work, you had just launched Tarot Code and alongside it an amazing essay to contextualize and understand the artwork. It is clear that context matters a lot to you, and so does to JPG and Wild - however, context is not always plentiful around NFTs. How can we all work together towards creating sources of information so newcomers and seasoned enthusiasts can learn and discover artists better?

I think JPG has done a lot of work to build context. The canons are a pragmatic resource in what can feel like a very disparate and atomised world, and because that context is community curated it also highlights experts and points of view within the field.I love to write, so articulating the context in words is so important to me personally, even if no one reads it I will still write it. I do have quite a lot of faith that the context will coalesce, it just takes a lot more time.

Little Lyell Machines by Sten will be released as part of Wild’s first exhibition, Material, alongside series by Figure31 and Jeffrey Scudder. More information here. 

Material goes live on:

Monday, Oct 30

4pm ET / 1pm PT

JPG has an allowlist/presale, so head over to our Discord to join it.

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