Tabor Robak: The New Old Master
The American Artist Working on a Computer-Generated Frontier
- Interview: E.P. Licursi
- Photography: Eric Chakeen
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Team Gallery
Tabor Robak has been called the Michelangelo of digital art, and the comparison, though seemingly exaggerated, rightly captures the milestone that his presence in the fine art world represents. Robak was originally recognized for his intricate, animated digital works, so detailed and meticulously constructed that they took months to compose.
Prior to Robak’s arrival, digital animation was typically relegated to popular films and television, anime blogs, and sci-fi and fantasy fan forums. In the realm of fine art, the genre has largely been ignored, aside from a number of superficial and possibly ironic attempts by artists that seem to neither grasp the nuances of their software-based tools nor the tradition of their usage.
This is where Robak distinguishes himself. He is not only a master of the form, but also an enthusiastic fan, respectful of its many manifestations. Robak’s work forces the viewer to ponder the possibilities of art that is rendered by powerful computers: what will the computer-generated version of Bernini’s Rape of Prosperina look like? Will technology moguls, like modern-day Borgheses, commission holograms that supersede the human form like Renaissance statuary?
E.P. Licursi sat down with Robak in his Brooklyn apartment to discuss his work and the future of digital art.
I was surprised to find that you have a BFA. I thought you would have a computer science degree. Did you go into the BFA thinking you would do this kind of art?
When I went to art school, I hadn’t yet made the connection that I’d be using my computer skills for art. My computer skills were something that had been developing since I was a kid. My computer has been like my best friend my whole life, you know? I was using very early versions of Photoshop when I was a kid, doing weird commercial jobs since I was 13. So, a lot of my skills come from actual applied use. But when I entered art school, I thought I’d be a painter. I like the action, the directness of it. By senior year, though, I realized what set me apart from my peers was my ability with computers.
Growing up, was animation a significant interest of yours?
Yeah, all these different rich, visual worlds were places I spent a lot of time in. Games, anime, Pokémon cards, all of this type of stuff. Japanese animation was really important to me as a kid, in part because it was so hard to get your hands on. 20 years ago, before they even had Dragon Ball Z on TV, you had to go to Blockbuster to get it and it’d be in Japanese, or you had to go to the Japanese supermarket to rent it. There was this really personal kind of quest to get it.
Did you create your own animation?
Yeah, I got on to internet message boards early on for Photoshop. We did what we called Photoshop tennis, which is where you work on a file in Photoshop, just making some abstract thing—as a kid it was, like, a dude with a skull overlaid on his face and some dripping stars—then you send it to another guy and he adds to it. There was this culture of unprofessional things you can do in Photoshop, such as making bubbles, and spheres, and sparkles, and all of these cool effects that didn’t really have a commercial application.
So, what sparked your interest in fine art?
Mostly the sense that it’s a realm where making a visual thing is a thing on its own. It wasn’t my love of art history that made me want to be an artist, it was my need to do my thing and have a community that supports it. I can’t go into the museum and know all the names. I don’t know the history of all these things, but I can enjoy them, and I have very deep appreciation of composition, color, and structure in an image.
Those early internet forums were very different from the likes of Reddit and 4chan. Do you feel like they fostered your creativity?
It was so much more anonymous back then. And friendlier, too. Nowadays I would be terrified to post anything anywhere on the internet. At least not anything with a live comments section. There was a real collaborative spirit and a lot of positivity, and since it was less developed it was so much more idiosyncratic. It was just weirder.
One of the things that frustrates people in the realm of digital art is CGI in films. Your work is so finely constructed that it must frustrate you to see these bogus, $80 million dollar animations integrated into live-action scenes.
It’s hard because I used to be on the opposite side of it—like, make everything fake, you know? As fake as possible. At some point, I guess I just had my fill. Also, as my knowledge has increased, there’s no longer any mystery as to how they do it. I’m disappointed in myself that I have so little appetite for all these big, blockbuster films. I used to be able to find inspiration in the graphics, but they’re just not stimulating anymore.
One of the most basic categories of art criticism is where work falls within this matrix that puts abstraction and figurativism in opposition. Your work really challenges this dichotomy.
There’s somewhere in between those two poles, and that moment of transition is an exciting place for me because it’s a moment of mental transition. I always think about looking up at the clouds—you’re either seeing the cloud or you’re seeing the cloud that looks like a dog. There’s that moment in between the cloud and the dog, which is that really special, magic moment of imagination, creativity, inspiration. It’s also this moment when you’re still not quite sure what you’re looking at, an idea is just forming. I’m mostly looking for that, probably just because it’s very visually stimulating. It has a mental texture to it.
Art critics, many of whom typically foreground painting and sculpture, are so interested in process. It’s clear to me that your process, in terms of skill and theoretical complexity, competes with sophisticated paintings and sculptures. Have you experienced resistance in the art world?
When I was in art school there was still a strong push back against the synthetic, artificial qualities of technology, but I think people’s appetite for it has just grown naturally over time. Since I’ve been in New York I haven’t experienced much push back in terms of the fine art legitimacy of it. I do think a lot about it in terms of painting and sculpture and these older genres. To me, painting and sculpture are not material bound, they are more philosophies towards a material, so there’s a lot of times where I feel like I’m making painterly work. There are lots of times when I feel like I’m making sculptural work, but all along the way it’s also interacting with the history of photography and film. I guess that’s the strongest lineage that real-time generated graphics would come from—it’s truly a hybrid medium.
Critics often emphasize the painstaking nature of your process, and that you spend months and sometimes years on an individual work. How do your ideas originate?
I keep tons of lists and outlines of ideas and inspiration. I spent a lot of time drawing in my sketchbooks earlier on, then I started moving into various computer programs. Since I’ve been making real-time generated work, my process has started mirroring software development. So, I found that I need to really think about the architecture of the software early in the process. It’s no longer a linear thing. It’s this living thing you have to treat nicely—like, if you pack it too full of files, it’s not going to open, or it’s going to crash, or it’s going to get bugs. Once I’ve figured out the software architecture, I figure out what new things I need to learn, because there’s always, in every single piece of mine, some new technique I’m trying to learn.
Probably since the formalized concept of art has existed, artists have used teams of people to help them create their work. You’re orchestrating software and code to have things done for you.
My analogy to describe my current work is that I’ve programmed a guy in a studio who has all these resources and all these different ideas about how to combine them, and then you just kind of turn it on and let the computer go at it.
And then you curate ex post facto? Or do you accept the randomness of what might come out?
It’s all about controlling the randomness. When I’m working procedurally like this and something perfect comes together randomly, that is so much better than a perfect moment where I’ve designed and placed every pixel just so. It’s more like finding a cloud you think is pretty, or finding some aesthetically pleasing pile of trash on the ground. Part of making something perfect is beating it into submission, and when you take that much time in making everything look really perfect you kind of limit your own exposure. I feel much more exposed in this current body of work than I have in the past where I was able to make sure I was comfortable with every little thing.
Another thing about your process that I find fascinating is the risk involved with working on such enormous files.
Moving giant files around and waiting months for something to render is the opposite of creativity. It feels like death, because at any moment something could go wrong. It can be terrifying. Rendering is also one of the most intense things for the computer to do, so there’s a literal risk of your computer melting. I mean physically melting. And then after you’re done with the rendering you have this video file that’s multiple terabytes, and you want to transfer it to another hard drive and it’s like, “Oh, great, now I have to wait four hours for the video to just transfer to a different hard drive.”
Are there advantages to working digitally?
I think it’s very close to the internal mental process. The type of abstraction I’m pursuing is almost like the way that an image appears in your mind and disappears without any sort of hard edges. The lack of physical limitations, aside from what I described, is really the great advantage. Also, the fact that there are new developments being made in the materials constantly. There are TVs that are able to display twice as many colors than they could a year ago. There’s a newness to the color on the screen all of a sudden—that’s so exciting to me. Right now in the contemporary art world, there’s such a sense of novelty around digital things and digital tools, especially VR. It’s going to take a more highly-trained palate to be able to distinguish between novelty and a certain type of craft. Art loves novelty, but novelty is all about who gets there first, who cashes it in first. I’m all about this slow and steady process.
“There’s a newness to the color on the screen all of a sudden — that’s so exciting to me. Right now in the contemporary art world, there’s such a sense of novelty around digital things and digital tools, especially VR. It’s going to take a more highly-trained palate to be able to distinguish between novelty and a certain type of craft. Art loves novelty, but novelty is all about who gets there first, who cashes it in first. I’m all about this slow and steady process.”
- Interview: E.P. Licursi
- Photography: Eric Chakeen
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Team Gallery