Rafaël Rozendaal

Interview: Digital Artist Rafael Rozendaal Explains the Magic Behind His Mesmerizing Websites

Leigh Silver, Complex, February 6, 2014

If you buy one of Rafael Rozendaal’s art pieces, don’t expect to keep it all for yourself. His works must remain readily available to anyone on the Internet. That’s because the New York-based Dutch-Brazilian digital artist creates captivating websites, simple shapes in striking colors that move, bend, and twist continuously in ways that are never the same. Unlike a painting or sculpture, his works exist online for everyone to enjoy. But like their more tactical counterparts, they are worth a lot of money.

At the first digital auction ever, Paddles On!, a sale curated by Lindsay Howard of 319 Scholes and hosted by Phillips and Tumblr, Rozendaal sold a website called If No Yes. The brilliantly hued site was listed at $6,000. The success of his work speaks to a rise in popularity of digital artists, and Rozendaal is one of the pixel veterans who has paved the way for rising stars in his field.

In 2010, Rozendaal founded Bring Your Own Beamer (BYOB), an open sourced forum for exhibitions that lets anyone curate and host their own art show. BYOB’s mission states, “Find a space. Invite many artists. Ask them to bring their projectors.” The concept speaks to the democratization of the art world through digital art, something Rozendaal enacts through his public websites.

Rozendaal’s websites are sometimes abstract, like If No Yes, playing with simple shapes and lines that the user can interact with. Other times, they are recognizable figures, a wobbly, frying egg or an endlessly unrolling spool of toilet paper. We spoke to Rozendaal about creating his online works, the rise of digital art, and what it actually means to purchase one of his websites.

How did you start developing websites and get into digital art in the first place?
I started very young as a child with drawing, and my parents are artists, so I always took it seriously. Some kids grow out of it, but I just kept on drawing. I always liked cartoons. My father is a painter, so I’ve always kind of felt like I was in that space between animated cartoons and modernist painting.

When I was five years old, I was already imagining that one day I would like to make something that’s like a cartoon character moving on the wall but without a story. I went to art school, and I studied a lot of video art and experimented with moving images. I discovered the Internet, and I thought immediately, “This is very interesting, and it’s great that there is no authority. I can publish whatever I want. I don’t have to know the right people.” Because that part of the art world is really terrifying. Then I thought I could make a website with my drawings. It’s more interesting to treat the medium as a medium itself, not as a medium for documentation. And that was really the key decision, to treat it as a medium and not as documentation. That’s the bottom line.

So your parents’ being painters were still interested in digital art?
They never liked computers, but I made a few sites and thought it would be cool to put each one in its own domain name because it felt more finished. If it wasn’t, then it just felt like some file. I don’t know if you understand the difference, but to me if you don’t put things in a domain name they feel kind of lost.

You buy the domain names, correct?
Yeah, and it’s not too expensive. I met Reinier [Feijen] who is a coder. I started by myself because I can code a little bit, but then I ran into problems where for him it was like five seconds of work. He’s like, “Let me look at that… boom boom boom.” Then we started making more and more, and slowly doing shows, and thinking about how to exhibit the work, and it just grew.

The most rewarding thing was that the audience grew with me. When you do an exhibition especially when you are young, you’re not at the most prestigious place. Say you have 200 people come to a show, maybe 250, and then you make a Web piece, and all of the sudden it’s 10,000 people. All of the sudden one of the sites goes viral and tops the other sites. Then all of the sudden it’s 100,000. Then it’s 1 million.

When you work with Reinier, do you see him as a fellow collaborator or artist?
I would say it is the same as a photographer who works with a printer. If you work with a different printer, the results will be different, even if they use the same machine. But it’s very clear that the photographer comes in with the ideas and the photos, and then they work together to materialize that.

You definitely have a distinct language in your work. How did you develop this style?
I call it digital frugality, using less because, especially in the beginning, the bigger your file is the longer it takes to get there. Also I have a personal affinity with clarity and graphic character. That’s why I always loved cartoons as a kid, but also things like [Piet] Mondrian. I’m very interested in abstraction for the sake of reproduction.

Throughout history humans have made drawings, and the medium is never—well up until a while—realistic as what you see around you, so you have to do tricks to exaggerate things, to make them feel real. If you look at the capital “A” letter, it used to be a bull’s head turned upside down. After a while it became the character “A,” so I’m interested in these abstractions.

If you think of early computers and early video games, they had maybe eight pixels to draw a character. You had to see the difference between the villain and the hero, and then you have to get very creative in creating a story within the eight pixels.

One of the reasons I’m using these line-based images, vector images, is because from the beginning I wanted the works to be scalable. I like reducing also in my personal life. Getting rid of things makes me really calm, having my house as empty as possible and only the things I really need. I think visually I am the same. I only want to have the things there that are really needed. A lot of times an idea will start off a little more complicated, and as I go along I get rid of certain aspects until I really get to the core.

Your sites feel calming because they’re hypnotizing, but they also makes me feel anxious that the loop or the pattern will never end.
It’s a bit like a waterfall, where you know that the water will keep on falling. You know that the water is not all of the sudden going to go upwards, but it’s always different. The technical term is generative—that’s the term for software art. That’s the difference between linear animation and something that is programmed. If you play GTA for example, the video game, in the background there might be trash blowing around. It’s a little different every time you go back to that street. It’s not a linear animation.

What you try to do when you find a medium is find its strengths and its weaknesses. I found out that if you want to go really 3D realistic, the browser can’t handle it, so I thought, “Let’s go the opposite way. Let’s make it simple as possible. What can a browser do that a DVD player cannot do?”

In an interview with Animal New York, you say that you came up with Nothing Ever Happens by using images of real water. Is that how most of your websites start?
It depends. There are figurative websites, and there are abstract websites, and with the figuration it is a very long process. What’s really important to me is the perception without thinking too much, staring at something and seeing that it is remarkable without having to explain why. I am not saying that water is a symbol for giving birth to life or whatever; I am just looking at the water. It’s like being high or something.

Finding the best visual translation of that impression, that’s a long process. I’ve made many water pieces throughout the years, and I will continue to make water pieces. I love the contradiction of water being on a screen, which doesn’t allow any water in it. Computers don’t like liquids, and I like that contradiction. In some of the works, they’re very rectangular, and that’s actually more true to the nature of how the screen is built because it’s made in a grid. These are kind of the opposite of that. I’m always playing with what is natural to the computer

It looks like there is going to be a greater recognition in the art market for digital art in the future. Do you think this will change the medium?
I happen to be a bit older, so I’ve experimented, and I want to encourage creation in this field. The art market is one way, but there should be other ways as well. I think the art market is very much in favor of people who know people. The Internet is more democratic. That being said, if I sell a website, that’s good for digital art in general. More people can feel encouraged, and more people can start trusting it. It seems to me that the world is changing, and soon all of our wall space will be screens, and people have to think in a new way.

Do you have a favorite site?
No. If I go to the Van Gogh Museum, it is full of paintings, and you see about 100 of them. You see him struggling, and sometimes you see him have a moment of clarity, but the interesting thing to me is the whole path.

If a collector buys a physical painting, he can keep it in his home under lock and key, but what do you think the relationship is that collectors have to your work?
One of my collectors travels a lot, and every hotel room he gets to, he puts his iPad in and puts up one of my works that he has.

He just has this one art piece that exists everywhere in the world. It is kind of magical. It is also a bit of a combination of vanity and generosity, which is hard. The name of the collector is mentioned [during the auction], so they’re known as a sponsor of the arts and new developments in the arts. At the same time he is generous because he helps this work of art be available to the public.