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November 19th. 2003: Interview with John F. Simon Jr.
[November 19th. 2003]

John F. Simon's ComplexCity (2000).

"I am never sure what it will do ... until I run it"
Interview with John F. Simon Jr.

To really enjoy the creations of New York-based John F. Simon Jr. (b. 1963) you often need to know a little bit about them. Simon is a true 'nerd' artist with a background in planetary and earth sciences and also art school. Years ago, while looking for a creative outlet for his thoughts, he came across Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) - a graphical drawing of Manhattan seen from above - and realized that art doesn't need organic shapes. He made ComplexCity (2000), which is also Manhattan but in Simon's version everything moves, controlled by a computer program: cars drive, stop for red light, elevators move up and down. ComplexCity is run by an old laptop - bought on ebay (auction site ed.), the artist says - rebuilt as a screen placed vertically on a wall. Kopenhagen e-mailed with the artist. Interview by Kristine Ploug.

First, I would like to hear how you categorize your work.
First of all my work is visual art. I make software artworks that run on displays but I also make drawings on paper and computer controlled laser cut objects.

You have done a number of panels - i.e. Every Icon and ComplexCity - that have to be seen live, almost like tangible art forms, and you have also done work that can be seen online (but doesn't have to be experienced online), like Unfolding Object that is currently on show on Guggenheims site. What do you call your art?
I call ALL of it my art. It is easier for me to think of what I do as a 'creative practice' that includes all manifestations of my ideas.

Do you still do new panels? I noticed that you wrote 1998-2001 on your site.
Most definitely! I haven't updated the site in a while - there are a few new projects and panels. There will be a new panel made this summer and shown in September (in Brye Wolkowitz - a new gallery on 26th Street in New York City -ed.). It will be a group show with Alan Rath, Jim Campbell and Steinna Vasulka.

Left: Color Panel v1.0 (1999). Right: Unfolding Object - currently on show at

What is your work process? I am especially curious about your digital works - what comes first, the idea or the software?
I work first from sketches. I try to study my creative process as I draw and translate a few of my internal rules to code. Then I look purely at the code, I have written. What variables have I chosen? What happens when I modify the variables and move the code through possibility space? I see what happens on the screen as I improvise with the code and then sometimes return to drawing with those ideas. I consider my work to include both the analogue and digital.

Do you believe you can reach some sort of new level of creativity using software combined with analogue drawing - or is that just your way of working?
I don't know the levels of creativity that you refer to. I do have two creative sources in this process instead of one. Maybe this is a new level? I know that when I write something in software, I am never sure what it will do on the screen until I run it. I describe something in code that will generate a graphic or an animation and then run it to see the result. The result often surprises me or leads me to a new way of thinking about the figure I'm creating. These new looks make it back into my sketches where I improvise on them a different way. I have, over the last 10 years of working this way, moved a long way in what, how and why I create.

Even though you regard yourself as an artist, plain and simple, you are often referred to as a digital artist or software artist and one of the few people that work creatively with programming. How do you feel about that - and what is your attitude towards software art?
I am happy to be referred to at all! Labels are useful for setting work in context but I try not to hold it too tightly or stick to working a certain way because I'm identified that way. I love software and I have called certain things that I did 'software art' for a long time. My 'Every Icon' was certainly software art. I am very interested in new software art projects that I see and in expanding the definition of the field. Besides creating purely software artworks I have used software to make pen drawings, linoleum floors, formica walls and plastic souvenirs. I also spend a lot of time drawing by hand on paper.

Left: Color Panel v1.0 and Every Icon at Electrohypes biennial 2002. Right: Simon himself.

Last fall you exhibited at Electrohype in Malmoe - a biennial for computer based art. There is a lot of discussion going on about how to exhibit computer based art - whether it should be exhibited in separate exhibitions or festivals or together with tangible art forms in a more traditional fashion. What do you think?
Separate festivals are great for new ideas to help concentrate the practitioners and focus the discussions. I had a great time in Malmoe because it was well planned and I got to meet and have discussions with lots of individuals. It doesn't always happen at larger festivals. That being said, I think that we shouldn't loose the focus that software art is a kind of art and work should also be done to define the place for this work in the larger art world. I exhibited software artworks last year at the Miami Basel Art Fair and at the Armory Show here in New York - both very mainstream art world venues.

What triggered the idea for the panels? To show digital art hanging on a wall, like a painting.
I was making drawings by writing my own software tools. I first started to think about the panels when the subject matter of the drawings changed from landscapes to catalogues of marks. The drawings were static prints of a dynamic process. It occurred to me that the appropriate way to see a dynamic process was in a dynamic medium. I started buying used laptops, taking them apart, and letting my software run on them. The pieces are dedicated to a single system that evolves and never repeats.

One might think that the panels were a conscious cross-over between genres - digital art to be hung on a wall… A way to exhibit digital art. Did that not play a part at all?
Sure. Many threads were joined together in these panels. The panel idea answered my theoretical concerns with dynamic drawing as I said above. At the same time it was a way to encapsulate and display software. It dedicated a piece of hardware to a piece of software and it only needed to be turned on. Finally, the panels sold very well so they became also an art market commodity and a way for me to support myself and focus only on my art.

An element from Simon's ComplexCity (2000) and Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942/1943)

You have some obvious connotations in some of your work, i.e. ComplexCity. What are your inspirations?
I owe a tremendous amount to Paul Klee and his ideas about a dynamic picture space. ComplexCity is based on a dialog between Stuart Davis and Piet Mondrian. I also look at a lot of scientific imagery (such as cellular automata) and maps. and use many of Edward Tufte's ideas about informational display.

So basically you do contemporary art!!

Do you have any 'idols' in the digital arts - do you look to the digital arts for inspiration?
One of my favourite media works is Nam June Paik's sculpture of a Buddha watching itself on television. I like a lot of digital art but I think it's a very young medium and hard to 'idolize' anyone. I still learn a lot from everyone in the field and the different ways each artist approaches hardware and software.

You seem to consider art a commodity - i.e. you sell souvenirs from you website…
Yes. I think being in New York with so many commercial galleries and in the USA, where there is less government support contributes to this attitude.

You also sell a version of the programs in your panels for buyers to put on their computers.
No - the programs on the panels are only sold on the panels with the exception of Every Icon which appears on panels, web, pilot, projection, etc. There were some 'stand alone' software artworks like Color Balance available early on.

Where do you think the art market is going in connection to the digital arts?
There is a small niche which will probably grow as it merges into video art and installation art.

Miltos Manetas says he believes web domains to be the new art objects. What do you think?
I agree with him that electronic 'stuff' - web domains, software, databases, are growing in importance. I am interested to see what will become of it all in the future.

More …
John F. Simon Jr's site:
Unfolding object at the Guggenheim:
Jon Ippolito's interview with John F. Simon Jr from 2002:
Tilman Baumgaertel's interview with John F. Simon Jr from 1999:


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