An Interview with American Programmer and Digital Artist, Tristan Onek
The year was 1983. The day — January 1. It was a new year and, unbeknownst to many, a day a new world was created — metaphorically speaking, of course — but no, literally.
Also unbeknownst to many more people at the time was the fact that this new world was rather empty. Yet, there it was. The two ends of a gazillion wires around the globe (more or less) had been connected correctly and just like that the realities of our world — the real world, and the entire histories of our knowledge, our quests, our pains, pleasures, fears and imaginations began to filter through from the old world and into the new and back.
39 years later the feeding still continues to the point where it is now on the cusp of turning into a full-blown symbiotic relationship — metaphorically speaking, of course — but no, literally.
Put down the red-tinted-glasses and your POV of these two worlds could be merrier, or at least considerably different. Yet the immense size and scale of it all can be overwhelming. And it begs the question — where do you begin? And if you have the creative bug in you, it begs the other question — what do you do with it all?
American programmer, digital curator and artist, Tristan Onek seems to have found the answer (or at least a path to it) for himself, as well as an aesthetic that brings together varied sensibilities in provocative, surprising — and I dare say — even beautiful ways.
Fascinated with his art and inquisitive about his process and motivations, I connected with Tristan and shot him a barrage of uncouth questions to which he responded with kind patience. And here’s what he had to say.
Q: How would you describe yourself?
A: I am a programmer. That is all I tell people at first if they ask what I am. 'Programmer' also accurately summarizes my identity outside of my career since my creative work also mostly involves computers. I apply my computer skills to my creative ideas to produce output that is in itself both computational and creative. I use computers to create and curate art. My artistic interests currently focus on generative art, digital collages, glitch art, text art, and interactive web tools.
"As a programmer, a computer is the most intuitive tool for me to use in creative activities. As an Internet culture enthusiast and web developer, I see the Internet as the most effective tool for facilitating new creative activities with other people."
Q: We’re obviously living in a cross-cultural world right now — how does ‘where you are from’ affect your work?
A: I'm from America. I first decided to publicize my creative work while working in Los Angeles on technology projects. The sense of beauty, vanity, and envy that permeates everything felt very compelling and novel to me. Beautiful art was hidden behind glass panels and beautiful people were often hidden behind ironic dispositions. Being surrounded by so much inaccessible desirability forces a kind of confrontation with reality. That confrontation caused me to apply my computing skills to artistic projects in pursuit of creating beautiful art and finding people that I could create with. Since I left LA, I have spent my time trying to symbolically recreate what I found and could not yet access while I was there.
Q: How would you describe your work/your style?
A: Everything I do is influenced by computers and the Internet. I am obsessed with what's going on and distilling information, and I am lucky to be around at the same time as the Internet which makes that obsession so easy. People who like my work have said I seem to capture the current online "zeitgeist" which is something I would be proud of, since it means that my obsession has produced metaphorical fruit.
Q: Who/What are your biggest artistic influences?
A: Dieter Graf was an Austrian artist who was the first major artistic influence in my life. I spent some time in Austria learning about organic agriculture near his property, and he took time to provide much of his wisdom and compassion to me whenever I would visit. I think he provided to me a certain sense of love for the world and what happens in it. Major historical artists that influence me include Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia LL, Joseph Beuys, Robert Cumming, and Andy Warhol.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: I find everything I need for inspiration on the Internet. I love to obsessively collect information, save it, bookmark it, organize it in folders, and review it. I like to study forums and communities where people talk about art and culture, although I often do not participate. I started going to more physical art galleries and museums in recent years which is nice, but I always have a primary preference for browsing for inspiration from home.
Q: What are your biggest challenges? How do you deal with them?
A: Until earlier last year, perhaps partially due to the pandemic, I was very isolated from any creative communities. I realized that the only way to make progress is to know other people. I tend to work on my own ideas alone, but that approach hits a limit very quickly on what can be achieved. I like the expression "faster alone, further together" - each one of those is useful at certain times.
"I approach my creative work as an open-ended experiment between my mind and computer. I see ideas in my mind and I just try to start pulling that down onto my computer screen, piece by piece. I will just put together shapes, colors, news article clippings, and other things until I find something interesting that reflects my symbolic interpretation of whatever part of the zeitgeist I am studying."
Q: What’s your favorite time to work on your art?
A: I never create a schedule for making art, but I seem to always be the most satisfied making art at night.
Q: What motivates you to create?
A: Everything is just an electronic experiment. I study things happening in the world through the lens of the Internet, and I then create art on the computer that reflects how I perceive their present and future possibilities. That's my more noble and lofty reason, but I have more basic reasons too. I think the activities tangential to creative communities such as collaborations, exhibitions, parties, and others are all very enviable things to attend. I don't even go to such events often as it is, but I would someday like that option and perhaps even host such events myself.
Q: How do you define success as an artist?
A: I need to understand what's going on in the artistic world. I need to know others and be known in equal parts. I will consider myself successful when I am consistently and regularly collaborating and producing work with people both online and in real life. When that happens, I will be as interconnected as possible with what's happening.
Q: How do you develop your art skills?
A: I like to just show people things I'm working on and ask them what works and what doesn't. Sometimes it can be hard to find people who give good feedback, and the people who can give good feedback are often very busy and understandably cannot help me. I always strongly desire people who can cut things down and tell me honestly if something is awful.
Q: Any advice for folks who would like to walk in your footsteps?
A: Even Warhol had to spend time in his 20's designing shoes as a working professional. I can only do what I do because being a programmer provides stability and discipline that I can apply to my art after work. I would advise finding a useful skill and making the most out of it.
Q: What’s next for Tristan Onek?
A: I want to spend 2023 expanding my network of artistic friends so I can do more collaborations. I want a constant rotation of different projects with different people here and there. If anyone reading this is interested, please feel free to reach out to me.
Tristan Onek can be found at www.tristanonek.com
He also writes and curates www.sublimespectacle.com