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In Conversation: Bobby Kim Ling Chen, an "end-to-end" digital artist

In an era where technology is transforming virtually every aspect of our lives, the art world is no exception. The convergence of digital and traditional art forms has given rise to a plethora of innovative creative expressions, forever changing the way we perceive and appreciate art. As the lines between the digital and the physical continue to blur, artists face new challenges, but also exciting opportunities to push the boundaries of their craft. In this article, we delve into the rapidly evolving landscape of digital art, exploring the implications of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), the struggle for acceptance in the art world, and the potential for artists to shape the future of artistic expression.

In this interview, we will delve into the world of digital art with Bobby Kim Ling Chen, an accomplished "end-to-end" digital artist known for his innovative approach to merging traditional arts with cutting-edge technology. Bobby's expertise in digital image and video generative and derivative arts, along with his proficiency in using multiple software and techniques, positions him at the forefront of the digital art revolution.

Bobby Kim Ling Chen

First of all, can you share your artistic journey and what inspired you to become an “end-to-end” digital artist? What does “end-to-end” mean in this context?

I have not always been the artist I wanted to be since childhood. Instead, I was trained in Accountancy (which I call logic), obtained my Master's degree in Business Administration (MBA), and became the CFO and C-level Executive for many well-known multinationals with operations in Asia, particularly China, for many years.

At some point in my career path, I branched out into Information Technology (IT) and web design, capitalising on an interest I had in computer and digital science and technology during my university days.

Time flies. As we witnessed the "merging" of computing technology and communication – the downsizing of computer devices to smartphones, it was only natural that developments in technology would give birth to a hybrid of digital science and traditional art, better known as "digital art," which is understood by many as "artistic work or practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process."

Digital art is now gradually making its way into the art community, although more so in the forms of photography and videography, and is more acceptable if digital processing is used in the productions rather than in the presentations (over multiple mediums).

Against a backdrop of interest in traditional arts since I was a child, the ability to quickly learn software and applications and follow through "logically" because of work exposures, the elementary knowledge in programming picked up in my university days, and the courage to mix arts and science, it became a natural course for me to venture into the world of Digital Art.

In my artwork productions, because of all these skills, I do not collaborate with nor depend on anyone, such as a traditional artist or a programmer, to complete my creatives. I am "end-to-end" in this regard, meaning I take care of the two extremes myself: digital (be it digital assets or image/video processing and derivatives using multiple software, augmented reality programming, etc.) and traditional arts (be it contrast, perspectives, space, colours, aesthetic issues, etc.).

It is also for the same reasons that I personally favour "derivative" digital art, defined as creatives produced using multiple software and iterations to process and manipulate the digital objects (images/videos), over digital paint and brushes.

Boombox Dancers Radio City, Bobby Chen

The convergence of digital and traditional art has opened up new possibilities for creative expression, and it's becoming increasingly clear that these developments will have a profound impact on the future of art appreciation. With that, can you elaborate on the ways digital art could change how you approach and appreciate artistic creations in the future?

Technology has changed many aspects of our lives, from socialising and shopping to the way we appreciate art in the future. Two possibilities come to mind:

Firstly, most artworks exist because artists want to express themselves. Unlike traditional arts, expression can now extend beyond the creative itself, incorporating elements like surprises, participation, and interaction. Technology enables this extended expression through devices like mobile phones, VR glasses, and digital frames. This takes viewers from the original artwork to "the other side," defining the second part of digital art as artistic work that uses digital technology for presentation.

The extended expression may or may not be related to the original creative but should ideally be connected to art, such as music, poetry, or performance.

Secondly, traditionally, a skilled artist could capture a moment in time and make it stagnant in their artwork. Photography, a form of digital art, is a "real" capture of an instance, with the art in how that instance was captured.

As digital art evolved, videography captured motion, iPads and tablets enabled digital painting, software applications allowed for derivative arts, and AI introduced generative arts. Between the two extremes of photography and AI, derivative digital art is crucial as it allows humans to combine various elements within the spectrum of digital art.

Horizontally, derivative arts allowed mix and matches from "realism of photography" with a "handmade pictorial record" of a traditional artist. Perhaps not the best example, but imposing the face of Lady Gaga on the Mona Lisa would be in this category.

In short, "If imagination has no borders, why should we limit our creative process?"

However, make no mistake about it. Even if derivative digital art sets us free with the creative process, we are still limited by resources: availability of digital assets and software tools, just to name a few.

Now that we have a better understanding of the potential future of art appreciation, let's shift our focus to the more personal aspect of your work. In your artist statement, you mention the connection between memory and evolvement. How do you strike a balance between these concepts in your work?

When things are mixed, we normally would lost the originals. How well the “new” original is accepted would depend on how “catching” its result would be. Whereas being balanced might not yield the best results, “balancing” is definitely a technique one could not do without, particularly in derivative digital art.

In all my artworks, and of course that included “the connection between memory and evolvement” series of artworks I created, the balancing technique is indeed the most challenging because digital art is in itself a mixture of aesthetic, process applications on digital assets, expression, plus overall presentation factors.

The balancing is further influenced by the theme or the end objective of the artwork. Using “The Young Ones In Technology” as an example, whereas gadgets in themselves could be an exciting topic to talk about, how could I keep the momentum when these gadgets are already history, let alone being an artwork? So the theme itself became part of the “mixing” formula.

As we moved towards balancing these factors, questions such as what should be the background, how should the gadgets be arranged to attract curiosity, etc. started to creep in. Last but not least, whether expression beyond the creative proper is needed to add more excitement to override the aesthetic shortage.

In this example, one could conclude two important points:

  1. Theme, expression, overall presentation, and process applications on digital assets were chosen over aesthetics in the balancing technique. Clearly, if a “real” balance approach was selected thus giving the aesthetic factor more weight, the artwork may be beautiful but the theme may be lost, and the representation became abstract.

  2. Whereas one could “imagine” what an end result digital artwork should look like, it could fail because of the unavailability of the legal background images, and other digital assets/objects or software to process them into the desired results.

This is the major difference between 2D visual traditional arts and digital derivative arts.

Whereas the production process of the completed traditional artworks is more “controllable” by the artist, the same process could be “uncontrollable” by a digital artist because of the availability of data assets and their processing tools.

Can you discuss your approach to incorporating light, space, time, and optical illusion in your work? How do these elements come together to achieve your artistic vision?

In my opinion, light, space, and time are elements that could be added to digital (derivative) art much easier than traditional art. That is why I like to make it a habit to include as many of them in my artworks: first to make it my style or body-of-works, and second to differentiate my digital artworks from traditional ones.

On the contrary, with the exception of videography and digital painting, optical illusion is used more in traditional arts than digital derivative arts. That is why it is always a valuable add-on if I could successfully incorporate them into my artwork properly.

In my definitions:

  1. Light could be something shining, failing which it is achieved by contrast, predominantly using colors. Whereas color contrast could be easily achieved in traditional arts, painting a ray of light is much more difficult.

  2. Space could be reflected as depth or 3D. Whereas traditional art would probably use perspective drawing to reflect 3D, digital art could use “layering” or even 3D models.

  3. Time is defined as either still or in motion. Like traditional artists, digital artists could “capture motion in stillness”. For example, a person running. Whereas a traditional captured this motion in his imagination or from the real world, the digital artist could only use a digital asset from a photo, process it and blend it into his “canvas” software.

On the reverse, a traditional artist could never “capture motion in motion”. To this end, the digital artist has many options from videography to animation, and from 3D modeling to metaverse (including virtual, augmented, and mixed reality) using the “extension” from original artwork as discussed earlier.

To me, an optical illusion is the only element here that is challenging to incorporate into digital derivative art as digital assets are processed and not drawn.

Meta Coexistence Outside L.A. HRC, Bobby Chen

What role does experimentation play in your creative process, particularly when it comes to exploring futuristic digital methods and software?

When it comes to digital art, it is very important that digital artists keep abreast of the developments of technologies. There are two major reasons:

  1. Firstly, the digital artist could apply the new technology and/or techniques as soon as possible to be ahead of others.

  2. Secondly, to replace old techniques with new ones to improve not only efficiency but add value to the artworks. This is carried out not only to impose as a self-challenge to better oneself but also as a mechanism to ensure that new sophisticated techniques would always be injected into the artworks as old ones become extinct.

To keep myself up to date, I would normally spend around 30% of my work time in doing research, reading up, and playing with new apps and programs. Where potential new techniques are available, I would start a test project and see if the new techniques could be applied in my future productions. For example, I am now testing:

  1. How to make use of holograms in digital art.

  2. How to best utilize different digital file formats for different purposes to maximize data transmission speed and downsize file size.

  3. Programming method to incorporate more 3D models into my artworks.

Can you walk us through your motivation and ideas for the series exploring the ties between “memory and evolvement”, including "The Young Ones In Technology", "Forever Stars", “Boombox Dancers Radio City”, “Meta Coexistence Outside L.A. HRC”, and “Her Missing Headphone”?

First, let’s discuss the motivation behind creating the series of artworks exploring the ties between “memory and evolvement”, which existed in my inventory way before joining the Open Call of Underground Art and Design.

The reason is simple. Digital Art in itself is about “memory and evolvement”. In this case, traditional art is the memory or the foundation. Digital science applied to traditional arts is the evolvement. As I mentioned in my writeup for the open call:

“Memory is about the past. Evolvement is about the future. Yet the two are “ties that cannot be unbound”. Think of it in a simple way, evolvement without memory is like a baby that grows up without remembering who his /her parents were, let alone friends and places. On the same token, only memory existed but not evolvement is just like an elder, “revolving” in the past to the very end, without the feel of the future, let alone adventure”.

The series actually started off with "The Young Ones In Technology", which by the time I submitted for your competition, probably was already in its fourth version, and one other one titled “The American Jukebox”. The latter piece was not submitted because it has entered many competitions.

Another piece that was started around the same time was “Meta Coexistence Outside L.A. HRC”, which was already in its fourth version, just that the backdrop could be different, reflecting different places of the world.

The other three artworks, namely, "Forever Stars", “Boombox Dancers Radio City”, and “Her Missing Headphone” are newer works that will pass the test of time.

What were your creative process and techniques for creating these works?

In terms of the creative process, just like there is no one brush that could fit the whole painting in traditional art, it is the same with digital art. Digital derivative arts are in many ways similar to mixed media arts because of their loose discipline in utilising other materials such as papers, metals, paints, etc. Just that in digital derivative arts, photography to videography, and digital painting to AI generation arts, etc, as long as they are digital could be used.

Explaining how each of my artworks in the series explores the ties between “memory and evolvement” would only complicate the matter as the creative process is similar but the materials and software tools used may be different. Having made this prequalified statement, I would like to use “Meta Coexistence Outside L.A. HRC” as an illustration of the creative process.

At this point, let’s again recap the Wikipedia definition of Digital Art (mentioned in Answer 1 above) as “artistic work or practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process”.

Note this definition covers two areas: The uses of digital technology as part of the creative OR the uses of digital technology as part of the presentation process.

I believe when using digital technology as part of the creative process, most of the following steps need to take place:

  1. “Imagine” what the finished creative would look like

  2. Look for copyright-free digital assets that could help me “realise” my imagination. These digital assets could come from the internet, images, or even video. If I fail to find the stuff I want, the project may fail unless I “re-imagine”.

  3. Process the found digital assets using multiple software to derive the final. Some processing may require multiple iterations. And some may require digital painting. Note that at this point, the production may fail if the software is not available to take the images or digital assets to the desired level. I may change the expectations but that might affect the overall aesthetic of the completed artwork.

  4. The “painting” stage: put the prepared and processed digital assets on “canvas”, an image processing software that acts as a placeholder for aesthetic balance processing and where my elements of light, space, time, and optical illusions (if any) could be applied. This is where all artistic actions including contrast adjustments, colouring, touch-ups, etc. take place. Note that on the “time” element, it is the capture of the “stillness in motion” we are working on. If the digital asset is animated (for example processed video), we need to determine the position we want to hold the asset in stillness here.

  5. If digital technology is not used as part of the presentation process, the artwork is considered completed at this moment.

If digital technology is utilized in the presentation process, additional steps include:

  1. Building a "bridge" for viewer interaction: Connecting the viewer to the artwork through augmented reality or other interactive features.

  2. Inserting a "marker" for augmented reality: Adding a marker to the artwork to enable augmented reality features and writing a program to allow the phone camera to recognize the marker.

How do you approach incorporating elements of surprise, participation, interaction, and engagement in your art, and what role do you think these play in the viewer's experience?

Although my normal practice includes elements of surprise, participation, interaction, and engagement by taking the viewer outside the realm of the artwork in my artwork using technology in the presentation process, the practice is not without challenges.

First of all, the viewer may not be tech-savvy. That is in itself a show-stopper.

Secondly, what is on “the other side” cannot be the same all the time to maintain the element of surprise. Participation, interaction, and engagement could only happen after the surprise element.

Although the subjects to be presented, be it to increase participation, interaction, and/or engagement could be limitless, the efforts involved could be tedious. In other words, anything flies when technology is used in the presentation process. This is indeed the “playground” where art and science co-exist. By way of an example, suppose I want an extension to my original artwork where the user would become part of the artwork through his phone camera (to encourage participation), and both science and arts were to be involved.

Lately, I am trying to stay away from my normal practice by thinking more innovatively about how to incorporate more elements of surprises in the artwork properly by utilizing light, space, time, and optical illusion elements as discussed. Not that I am weary of technology used in the presentation process, just that I believe there is still room for explorations using technology in the creative process

The Young Ones In Technology, Bobby Chen

Can you share any upcoming projects or artistic endeavors you're currently working on, and how they continue to explore the relationship between technology, memory, and evolvement?

I mentioned earlier that we witnessed the merging of computing and communications and the downsizing of computer devices to smartphones. That era remains in my memory as an exciting and fascinating one. Technologically, it raised the question of evolvement: "Would it be possible to see a merging of computing science (as opposed to digital science) with arts one day?"

To be more specific, could an artwork pose a question and help compute or search for an answer? Or perhaps an artwork could be a magic game that invites participation from the audience for a computed answer on the smartphone.

In short, apart from thinking more innovatively about incorporating elements of surprise in the artwork itself by utilising light, space, time, and optical illusion elements in the creative process, for future endeavours and projects, I would like to make digital art more engaging and transform it into a two-way communication rather than a one-way expression that traditional arts may struggle to equal.

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring artists who want to delve into the world of digital art and explore its potential?

The introduction of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) in recent years has indeed fuelled the growth of digital art, as it recognises the work of original artists and protects against copyright infringements.

However, in the real world where we live, as opposed to a crypto one, I feel that digital art is still new to many and is only gradually making its way to full acceptance. While the world has already introduced metaverse galleries and Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated art, most of the art world still places digital art behind brushes and paints, pencil and paper, and photography.

Firstly, there is the psychological factor. Whereas most traditional 2D arts are tangible items with frames, digital art is normally intangible and can be seen directly from computer screens or monitors. This "formless feel" could devalue not only the value of the artwork itself but also the seriousness of considering digital art as art in the first place. That is why some serious digital artists now put their artworks on digital frames and ship them as "physical" art to overcome this hurdle.

Secondly, there is always the reasoning logic. In traditional art, many attribute the time it took to create an art piece to its value. On the other hand, photography is looked upon as skilled art, and the value is set according to the difficulties involved in achieving aesthetic results. But both forms of art have matured and opened sets of skill requirements, which the jury can refer to when determining their worth.

Digital art, perhaps due to its newness, may lack the benchmarks and standards in determining its worth. Because of the number of hardware and software that may be involved, and the diversified methods that may produce the same results, it becomes more difficult to discern which one is better than the other.

Many also fail to understand that some digital art may take numerous iterations of processes to derive their final forms. The high frequency of iterations also means a higher chance of failure. For the same reason, what a digital artist imagines or envisions at the start of the production might not look the same as the finished artwork, after numerous iterations. Therefore, while traditional arts may take longer to produce, digital art may have more redundancies.

The best way to judge digital art is for it to be given a category of its own in competitions. Ironically, this is seldom the case. It is only human to pick the sweetest and most familiar fruits for consumption, let alone the healthy values of some unknown fruits.

Some galleries sometimes also use rules that may apply to 2D traditional arts across the board without realising it may inevitably hinder the growth of digital art. For example, they disallow watermarks or signs on the artwork. Unfortunately, QR codes or AR markers look like watermarks and are therefore disqualified.

Despite the above observations, I must agree that there are more and more forward-looking galleries and museums that are opening up to accept digital art as a new art form.

I do not see myself as a successful digital artist to give advice. However, for aspiring artists who want to delve into the world of digital art and explore its potential, I could share the following experience:

"Yesteryear's nonconventional could be today's contemporary, and may even be tomorrow's glory. Time changes everything. We realise it but have never learned from it. Hence, be bold, be daring, and be yourself, and do your best despite the current challenges facing the digital art world."


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