Interview with Marjan Moghaddam
Marjan Moghaddam is a pioneering artist known for her unique style of figurative animation. In this interview she discusses glitch, the sublime, and why she is not an AI artist.
I’m so thrilled to release this interview with artist Marjan Moghaddam. VERY late to the game I first came across Moghaddam’s work when I saw some of the #arthacks she created for Art Basel Miami in 2022. There is a lot of heavy terminology in the interview below that I attribute to the fact that it is on one hand very hard to describe Moghaddam’s work: it involves animation, NFTs, Augmented Reality, and a whole blend of methods. But on the other hand it is fairly easy to describe (at least for the #arthacks series): these are colourful, luscious computer-generated figures that morph and gyrate and perform, often against banal real-world backdrops, whether streetscapes or in the carpeted warrens of international art fairs. It reads as a type of intervention - a ballsy digital layer laid overtop space and place and alongside other artworks, where Moghaddam inserts figures, text, statements, and gesture, that invite and present commentary.
Glitched Odalisque Art Basel Miami, 2017 (still)
To see some of these incredible works in motion, visit SuperRare.
So let’s get into it. But first, a bio:
Hailed as a “trailblazer in the world of digital art” ( International Herald Tribune), and “the First Lady of Animated Painting” (Examiner), Marjan Moghaddam’s artistic style has also been called by Whitehall magazine of Art “instantly recognizable, the very definition of digital fine arts”. Moghaddam’s most recent collection of #arthacks have gained major international recognition in the press and gone viral with millions of views on top Instagram and Facebook Art Channels. Her crypto & NFT Art has sold into top collections on SuperRare since 2020. A survey of over 4 decades of her pioneering digital art and #arthacks was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art in Decentraland as a solo show during Summer 2021. Most recently she was the Winner of the First NFT Art Prize from Arab Bank Switzerland at NFC Lisbon. She is an immigrant and political refugee from Iran and lives and works in Brooklyn where she is a Tenured Full Professor of Digital Art at LIU Brooklyn.
Kate Armstrong: Hi Marjan! Thank you so much for participating in this interview. To start - would you introduce yourself in your own words?
Marjan Moghaddan: I’m a digital artist and animator working primarily with 3D Computer Graphics (3D CG) for screen-based animation and animated paintings, Chronometric Sculpture, NFTs, Net Art, AR, VR, physical prints, physical sculptures, physical and virtual installations, and phygital mixed media. I’ve had a pioneering practice since the 1980s, involving many different exhibited fine arts collections, using computer-based technologies, and mostly 3D CG since the late 1980s.
If I had to pick an artistic term that best described my approach, it would most likely be digital avant garde. While my practice is informed by art history, cinema/media history, animation, and CG history, I am interested in discovering aesthetics that have never been seen before, as a continuation of our civilizational creative dialogue. I’ve also studied both Eastern and Western art history, so I’m not strictly tied to either system and have been known to fluidly go back and forth. But most importantly, art is an important part of my sensemaking apparatus, and - in a world where memetic cascades driven by clickbait and virality crest and collapse in a matter of days or weeks - I’m looking for a more profound process of understanding. On some levels, I’m very old-fashioned, despite the cutting-edge tools that I use, because of my interest in profound meaning and the sublime in my practice.
Glitch Sculpted Dianna From the Louvre, Easter 2018 (still)
KA: In interviews and conversation you have been careful to distinguish your art practice from AI art, and to emphasize the role of the human artist. You have also said that you don’t think it is of fundamental interest to use tools unless you are using them to do something that hasn’t been done before, which I suspect is why you make that distinction. Can you expand on this?
MM: I am not an AI artist, correct; however, like most other digital artists, I end up using some AI tools because they are in the toolkit at this point. I think even if you’re using Photoshop’s “Content Aware” tool to (for example) expand a missing corner for a 3D surface, you’re using AI for just that part. In my case, I also use some 3D human generators that use AI, and recently I’ve also used a little bit of AI-assisted 3D animation editing with Non-Linear Animations (NLAs) that integrate AI tools, and this is for everything from Motion Blending to Motion Capture (Mocap) correction. So, AI is part of the toolkit in terms of the software that I use.
In my practice, I also use live action video or photography, but I’m not really a filmmaker or photographer because most of what I create is neither. So, I suspect this is the distinction that needs to be made now: how much of the work is AI and how much of it is not?
Today, with AI you’re still stuck with the “it looks like AI” problem and the data provenance issue1, which is major. I think if you’re using AI as I am, the data provenance issue is not as important because the bulk of what I create is original work. But if you rely primarily on Generative AI tools that use text prompts or other models to generate animation, video, or style transfer, then what exactly are you creating? If I type in text prompts that anyone can copy and paste, we will all get pretty much the same results, and while initially we all oohed and ahhed over the first Midjourney renders, by now we’re tired of the same old results.
Now we require the models to keep growing so that they can deliver greater and newer novelties, but they need human content for that, and if we replace most working artists with AI, where is this future content for machine learning going to come from2?
The hope currently is that the Singularity3 will save us, that powerful AIs will originate further novelty, but what will we have accomplished then? And is that - whatever it is - art?
But ultimately, you are correct; I don’t think of myself as an AI artist. There is no way I could deliver the original and unique results that I do with my art if I relied on AI more, because delivering original and unique art is just as hard with traditional tools as it is with cutting-edge technologies and AI. And when everyone’s aunts and uncles on Facebook can create images that resemble the work of crypto artists on Twitter, then the works become more and more common, and eminently forgettable.
KA: I was so interested in your idea of how digital embodiment can be viewed as an extension or next phase of development within an art historical narrative of figuration. Your work is also engaged with intervening in spaces in order to inject something new, or something missing. Of course I’m thinking here of the #arthacks series, for example “Our Lips are Sealed” at Frieze 2023, NFTopia at Art Basel Miami, and “Crypto Art Rides The Bull”, where you stage an Expanded Reality (XR) intervention outside the New York Stock Exchange. Can you talk more about this?
MM: I started working with bald 3D humanoids in the 1990s as a way of exploring Posthumanism, but also as an extension of the historical conversation about figurative art. Back then, my bald humanoids were covered in wild fractal textures as a type of pigmentation, and eventually they evolved in the 2000s to the morphed and motion capture-driven bodies I worked with from 2008–2015. During this period, I was working with figures aggregated from platonic solids (such as pyramids, cubes, etc) as a way to convey how humans are quantified within the digital sphere as packets of information. This was a way to address some of the contradictions of mixed reality.
Our Lips Are Sealed (still)
By 2016, I had moved back to the contiguous figures you see in #arthacks, in part because by then we were fully inhabiting and embodying the digital. I was pushing the boundaries of figuration in the realm of the digital by experimenting with various sculptural volumes to explore inherent qualities and aesthetics of the medium. Since the 1980s at least some part of my practice has involved not just innovating the aesthetics of the new medium but also innovating forms of exhibition. I started with animated projected paintings, virtual installations, and early internet art in the 1990s and have continued to evolve forms since. By 2015, I realized that even though I live in NYC, the bulk of the art that I looked at was not in galleries and museums but in my social media feeds. In fact, exhibitions seemed to mostly deliver visuals for social media, as opposed to focusing on exhibition attendance. And that’s when I decided to place figural Chronometric Sculptures4 into exhibition footage, as a way of redefining digital form post-internet and radicalizing curation while democratizing the exhibition space.
But merely hacking as transgression was not enough; there had to be a transformative dialogue. The intervention had to go beyond the technical and be cultural, sociopolitical, and philosophical. In 2016, for instance, I hacked the landmark Gagosian show “Nude: From Modigliani to Currin” because that show did not include any digital or non-binary nudes. I do the #arthacks often, especially during the art fairs, because ideas that percolate in my social media feeds often end up in my artwork. I’m not a fan of proselytizing (mostly because I change my mind a lot regarding various issues, and I would make a terrible zealot because I’m very fluid and open), but I try to explore what is happening and to create that space in social media for contemplation and reflection beyond the reactionary posturing of clickbait.
Our Lips Are Sealed came out of a question - how did we get from #MeToo to where we are now, when gender-critical feminism is being censored and women must still struggle to define the boundaries of their sex-based rights? I had done several #MeToo hacks in 2018, including the #GlitchGoddess of Art Basel Miami which went viral with millions of views and tens of thousands of comments from women around the world, who saw it as the first digital art feminist work that went viral. I am not necessarily “for” or “against” anything, but I question what is happening and I examine it from multiple perspectives. When I first did that hack, there were several comments from other female artists thanking me for it, but later they all went and deleted their comments because many had institutional shows, so their lips had to be sealed, ironically, and I certainly understand that. I have an independent art practice that allows me the leeway to tackle controversial ideas in ways that many artists can't. These are the perks of being a digital artist ;-)
With Crypto Art Rides the Bull, things were a bit different. The Beeple sale had just happened ( when artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69M through Christies) and NFTs were experiencing a bull market. For me the best way to capture this moment was to hack the New York Stock Exchange by placing a female rider on the famous bull sculpture in augmented reality. Art was already an asset class as an investment, but crypto Art, digital art, glitch art, and a female rider no less—all these were revolutionary new ideas bursting into the world at that time.
Crypto Art Rides the Bull (still)
KA: Related to this, I think, is the political and activist thread running through your work. The work is grounded in feminist approaches, glitch as a site of resistance, and political commentary in your recent works about Iran, with the Barayeh Azadi: For Freedom series. I know that wasn’t a question but would love to hear more about your thoughts and approaches here.
MM: You definitely nailed it, so I don't have much to add. But for context, I lived through a violent revolution in Iran at the age of 17 and became a political refugee in the US thereafter. I've been self-supporting since the age of 21 when I started a new life in a new country, having arrived in the United States with a single suitcase. I was a punk rock artist in the NYC East Village art scene, working as a resident video artist at the Pyramid Club from 1984–88, so on many levels, political upheaval, revolutions, PTSD, and the radical art of the 1980s East Village, shaped my art practice. Fast forward decades and many of these influences are still active in my practice.
KA: I think of your work as being grounded in a framework of supra-digital expanded practices. You seem to be conjuring the animal spirit of digitality, exploring notions of embodiment and figuration within these joyful, defiant spaces using 3D CG, animation, augmented and mixed reality - maybe even performance? - resulting in these lush, untamed aesthetics. You also use other terms such as animated painting, AI GAN-generated painting, virtual worldbuilding, and chronometric sculpture. If that wasn’t enough, you also work with sound, print, sculpture, and installation. Could you talk a bit about how you think of your work in terms of disciplines and histories? Do we have names for all this? Do we need names?
MM: I think existing disciplines and histories are very rooted in the physical and material, and as such, they can have very rigid boundaries and contours that define them as art forms and creative fields. But in terms of the post digital, these same boundaries become highly amorphous, malleable, and maybe even liminal, so the intermingling and the fluidity is inherent in the post digital. For me, using sound - whether as a trigger technically or as an accompanying piece of music that synesthetically drives the motion - is as natural as a painter, let’s say, using different brushes. It’s the nature of the expansive, non-material, and varied tools that I use in my practice. And this is very much how art has changed since the early era of computer art. Digital art may still struggle in the traditional art world, but it’s the visual language and modality of our culture today. Much of my digital art practice since the 1980s has involved innovation on every level, from the aesthetics, techniques, technologies, form, and concept, to the philosophical underpinnings, that I had to create the language and nomenclature to explain and contextualize what I was doing because it didn’t yet exist. And of course, if I had done any of this as a man, as many have noted, it would’ve been a lot more celebrated, but as a woman, nobody knew what to do with it or how to evaluate it. They still don’t.
Our Lips Are Sealed (still)
KA: As a follow up to the above, I wonder if you would weigh in on what you see happening in the contemporary moment with digital practices and, as an artist working with computers and digital art since the early days of the internet, how you have seen it change over time, and where you see it going?
MM: I think the internet 1.0 era was very freeing. I set up my domain (marjan.com) back in 1995, and I was creating early internet art, posting it online and finding audiences there. I totally believed in many of the egalitarian, meritocratic, global, and democratic principles of that era. But much of that seems to have become pathologized in our times. Tech itself has changed a lot. Back then everybody was a college dropout: A college degree meant that you stayed in school because there wasn’t anything you could actually do. Now everything centres on getting a degree from the right school, which has become a neoliberal influence in recent decades. Merit itself is viewed as a negative phenomenon, as are many of the other ideals of internet 1.0 like free speech, etc. So, I think this era has been the counter revolution against internet 1.0, born out of the reaction to the bubble bursting at the end of the 1990s, when the suits came in to clean house.
But much of crypto art and Web3 is moving beyond the corporatism and institutionalization of Web 2.0, so it can become reactionary in that way, using the original cyberpunk and cypherpunk ideals of the 1990s. It remains to be seen whether it can evolve into an innovative, free-spirited phenomenon with great transformational power, like the internet 1.0 era did, or not.
KA: You are engaged with legal and ethical aspects about the rights of artists within the context of AI. Can you tell me more about your advocacy work in this area?
MM: Most of my advocacy is limited to my practice, what I do as an artist, and what I say in public talks, interviews, etc. But the greater question, legally, politically, and ethically, is: Where do these AI images come from? Does AI create them? No. It’s machine learning trained on billions of images created by uncredited and uncompensated human artists, delivering results that relate to the text prompt, in what might be described as smarter Xerox machines of the 21st century that can do remix. And these same Open AI Language Models are now replacing humans, but once again, with what? With the remixed, uncompensated, and uncredited output of human artists. If this is not predatory capitalism, I don’t know what is.
When you look at many of the people who are driving the AI, NFT, and crypto art scenes, you realize they are invested in AI companies and are using the “art” part as branding and marketing for their investments. Who are they making the money from? Artists who use their AI tools. So they push more artists to use AI, so they can then make more money from their AI tools. It’s a circuitous spammy system with exhibitions and contests designed to drive the business model, not necessarily anything we could call the highest expression of culture, or for that matter, even an organic phenomenon. This is not so much an art movement as it is a marketing push for a new technology, and that must be acknowledged, in my opinion. So that’s one problem.
The other problem or question is, what happens to the story of human artistic capital in the 21th century? In the age of AI we might argue that the idea - as articulated as a text prompt - is more important than how it was made5. At this point, the idea of a retired Wall Street millionaire becoming an art-factory-manager-artist like Jeff Koons, who, by his own admission, couldn’t complete one of his own paintings if he had a year to do it, has become a kind of default.
So, it is against this background that anyone can generate art by typing a text prompt like “a George Condo-like painting with vibrant contemporary colors on canvas”. This is the technological manifestation of the last half century and its marginalization of individual merit, talent, ability, and process. And when the practice of postmodern art becomes an automatic technology, it’s dead as an art movement. Back when I studied art history and Renaissance art, the story of the Renaissance began with the poor shepherd boy Giotto who drew a sheep in such a lifelike and natural way that nobody had ever seen anything like it. For Giotto it was raw talent, skill, and ability that differentiated the work. But that type of merit is not really appreciated or celebrated anymore. Human authorship itself is now being sidelined by AI. So, we’re due for many new ideas, some of which are nascent, some revolutionary, heretical, disruptive, etc. but they all involve the articulation of not just art but human creative capital itself.
KA: Who are some of the artists whose work interests you at the moment?
MM: I always have to start with Mark Klink, because I really love his work, and yes, we are friends, and I consider him another artist who is actively engaged in mining the new aesthetics in terms of the digital in an original and unique way. I’ve even done a collaboration with him, Glitching Mark Klink’s Head in TOMOMA (the Other MOMA) and we’re due for another collaboration. I also like Sabrina Ratte, I think she has come up with some incredibly interesting aesthetic ideas and approaches in 3D CG, and it’s rare to find artists who do that, since so much of work derives from existing genres. Digital art unfortunately suffers from a generic visuals problem, especially in terms of the institutional aspects of it, so it’s always refreshing to find artists who have as much of an individualized approach aesthetically, as celebrated painters, let’s say.
I also recently worked with Empress Trash. I’ve been in the glitch scene for a very long time and am incredibly impressed with how she has carved out such a distinct and original style that is instantly recognizable. Ras Alhague is another glitch artist I feel has done that. As a crypto and meme artist, Stellabelle continues to put out visionary collections that are as unique as her fingerprint, and she is constantly pushing Web3 boundaries in terms of metaverse and smart contract experimentation in interesting and innovative ways. And lastly, Lorna Mills, who has had a longstanding digital GIF art practice with originality, vision, persistence, and a great degree of conceptual legitimacy in terms of the medium.
KA: Great artists, and very thought provoking ideas. So – projecting forward into the future, what does the life of an artist look like in 2033?
MM: I don’t know. Either we’re going to be celebrating a future Renaissance that recentres humanity and individual merit in a rebirth of classical humanist ideas updated for our century, or people with wealth and social privilege will continue to mine the uncredited, uncompensated work of billions of “maker artists” in a virtual simulation of the arts. I view the latter as a new Dark Age in which AI governs humanity at the service of the elite.
KA: Hoping for the future Renaissance! Thanks Marjan for the interview and all the best for your upcoming projects!
The “Data Provenance issue” refers to ethical questions that arise when large language models are trained on data that includes the work of artists without acknowledgment or permission. An interesting article on this subject is “Generative AI Has a Visual Plagiarism Problem : Experiments with Midjourney and DALL-E 3 show a copyright minefield”, IEEE Spectrum, by Gary Marcus and Reid Southen, January 6th, 2024.
KA: I wrote more about this point in a previous post: Researchers have called this phenomenon “Model Autophagy Disorder (MAD)”
The term “Singularity” describes the hypothetical point at which technology -- in particular artificial intelligence powered by machine learning algorithms -- reaches a superhuman level of intelligence and capability.
“Chronometric Sculpture” is a term coined by Moghaddan that refers to a time-based approach that blends the aesthetic qualities of sculpture with animation.
Of course the concept that the idea is more important than the process is over half a century old, having been explored by Robert Smithson, among others.