HomeNFTsMidcentury Design, Nature, and Artistic Pariahs — Interview with Eko33

Midcentury Design, Nature, and Artistic Pariahs — Interview with Eko33


In today’s MakersPlace interview series, we’re thrilled to feature Jean-Jacques Duclaux, better known in the art world as Eko33. Since 1999, Jean-Jacques has been at the forefront of generative art, skillfully integrating the latest technologies with artistic tradition to produce groundbreaking work. In this discussion, he offers a glimpse into the innovative journey that has defined his career, detailing the development of his artist name and his initial forays into digital artistry.

The conversation then shifts to focus specifically on his recent projects and the integration of artificial intelligence into his creative process. Eko33 compares his AI-enhanced techniques to the seminal methods of generative art pioneers, discussing the challenges and revelations that come with using new technologies. He elaborates on how AI has expanded the possibilities of visual art, much like programming did decades ago, and reflects on the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of evolving tools. This insightful dialogue offers an in-depth look at the intersections of technology, history, and art through the experiences of a seasoned generative artist.

Brady Walker:: All right, welcome back to the MakersPlace interview series. Today we have generative artist Eko33. Eko33, would you mind introducing yourself to our audience, anybody who might not be familiar with you and your work?

Eko33: Thanks for having me, Brady. I’m Jean-Jacques Duclaux, also known as Eko33, a generative artist. I’ve been creating generative art since 1999.

Robotic scrolls of the mind 1 by Eko33

BW: What was your first generative artwork?

Eko33: I was experimenting a lot with sound in the beginning. One of my first significant accomplishments was using a joystick to position sound in space. That helped me create generative artworks, but it was sound-only, not visual art.

BW: Where does the name Eko33 come from?

Eko33: Yeah, so the name Jean-Jacques can be challenging to pronounce, depending on where you are in the world. Initially, I didn’t plan to dox myself and wanted something easy to pronounce. I used the NATO alphabet and ended up with Eko. The number 33 is special to me, so I combined the two. That’s how I started my Twitter and Discord profiles.

BW: What’s special about the number 33?

Eko33: In many different cultures, it can mean a lot of things. It’s interesting to have conversations about the number 3 because everyone has their opinion about it. It’s always a fun conversation starter.

From the Totemic series by Eko33

BW: I’m curious about your drop with MakersPlace and what prompted you to start this body of work, Robotic scrolls of the mind.

Eko33: This is part of what I call my new tech stack for working on generative art. I wanted to combine classic generative art with AI. Initially, I was reluctant to use AI because I thought, “No, this isn’t art; it’s too easy compared to coding.”

But then I thought about it and realized that the true pioneers of this space, like Frieder Nake and Vera Molnár, faced adversity because people said, “You’re using computers, and computers can’t make art.” So, I realized I couldn’t be that guy and decided to experiment with it.

I set myself a set of conditions to make sure I could play with AI but under certain rules. That’s how it all got started.

BW: Can you explain the significance of the work of Vera Molnár and Harold Cohen for you?

Eko33: Oh, yeah, they mean everything to me. Beyond the artwork, I think their resilience is key. I’m much more familiar with the work of Vera Molnár from a historical perspective, even though I’ve read a lot about Harold Cohen.

For Molnár, at some point, people were calling her crazy. She didn’t even have access to a computer in the beginning, so she created her “computer imaginaire” — an imaginary computer. She did everything in her notebooks, which you can still see at the museum in Paris. To me, it means that if there’s a will, there’s a way, and that’s one of the most important lessons in life.

Even if you come from challenging situations and can’t afford the materials to make art, that won’t stop you from getting started. You’ll find a way. That was the main takeaway for me, beyond her stunning artwork. I love the simplicity and beauty in it.

From Harold Cohen’s work, one of his quotes remains incredibly relevant today. He made an analogy between AI and a camera: people said using a camera isn’t art because the camera is making the art. It’s similar to how people today argue that using AI isn’t art. He was saying this 50 years ago, and it’s still relevant now, which is quite something.

Robotic scrolls of the mind 5 by Eko33

BW: Yeah, it’s interesting. I hear the “AI is just a tool” argument versus the “AI is doing the art for you” argument. I think about the difference between a quick iPhone photo and the disposable cameras back in the day. A quick snapshot is like Midjourney, while what you’re doing is like a high-end camera with a darkroom — a whole process that’s a lot more labor-intensive.

Can you tell me about how you trained and created the AI for this series?

Eko33: Of course. As I mentioned earlier, I was okay with working with AI under certain conditions. I wanted to train the model using my own work because I would feel uncomfortable using a model not trained on my art. That was rule number one.

Rule number two: I wanted it to be super high resolution. In my work, I love high definition and wanted to print the pieces in a super large format without compromising quality. That was uncommon and put constraints on the project, but I’m glad I did it because you’ll see the work presented by MakersPlace during the Digital Art Fair. You’ll see it on screen and printed, and even at a large size, there’s no compromise on quality.

Rule number three: we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and for me, the giants are people like Molnár and Cohen. For me, using a pen plotter is symbolic of the genesis of contemporary generative art. So, the third rule was that it must be able to do an SVG export.

This means you can give the file to a pen plotter, which will draw it with a pen. It’s a way to close the loop and reference where we’re coming from. You can scale it indefinitely because it’s vector-based and inscribe it on-chain if you choose to do so.

This approach takes into account the origins of generative art while staying relevant in the context of blockchain technology and on-chain provenance. That was my thought process when I started.

From the Monster Luck series by Eko33

BW: How did you incorporate the influence of Molnár and Cohen into this series outside of thinking about the origins of generative art and using a plotter?

Eko33: I would say Vera Molnár’s influence is more on the conceptual level. On a micro level, if you zoom in on the works, you’ll see that everything is composed of very simple shapes, which is very much related to her work.

From a Harold Cohen standpoint, you can see some thicker lines in the series presented with MakersPlace, reminiscent of his plotter works, along with some lighter backgrounds. From a technical point of view, I think that aligns closely with some of Cohen’s work.

BW: Can you tell us about how this algorithm works technically, and what you’re particularly excited about?

Eko33: Sure, disclaimer: this is technical language, but I’ll try to keep it simple. I like to imagine having multiple assistants in my studio, each representing a different computer with its own set of functions and specialties.

One assistant is the AI guy, creating big shapes and pushing pixelated video flux. Another assistant is the machine vision layer, connecting the AI flux with the P5.js computer. The third computer represents classic generative art with P5.js and GLSL shaders for performance reasons.

So, we have the AI on one side, classic generative art on the other, and the machine vision in between, connecting everything together. I’m behind all of this, trying to orchestrate the chaos and create different outcomes.

What excites me is how fast I can iterate with this approach. With classic generative art, it can take months or even years to work on a specific algorithm, which requires patience. But with this new approach, I can move quickly and experiment, allowing me to explore various creative directions.

However, it’s easy to get lost because you can go anywhere and nowhere at the same time. As an artist, you need to be in tune with yourself and know what you want to convey.

So, we have these three agents representing a contemporary approach. I’m orchestrating them together, with the AI on the left and classic algorithms and code on the right, all connected by the middle layer. As an artist, I move between these layers, exploring different places and emotions.

From the Untitled series by Eko33

BW: How do you keep yourself on track when you can explore any aesthetic area? What was your internal dialogue like when you found yourself going too far afield?

Eko33: This is an evolving process, and it depends on the conditions of the day. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to do, so it’s about simplifying and capturing the essence of the idea. I think it takes more time to simplify things, and it’s easy to make things complex for no reason.

Happy accidents also play a role. With generative art, randomness is your creative partner, so you have to leave space for random numbers to change things in unexpected ways.

The most common approach for me is starting with a core idea and refining it over days or weeks. I like to have a consistent visual structure while maintaining enough diversity for people to recognize the series and appreciate the variety within it.

If you go too far, one output can be completely different from the rest, which isn’t ideal. But you also need diversity to avoid monotony. I know some collectors have triptychs of my works, so I ensure they complement each other well.

I also do print tests because it’s important to see the work in real life. Some people display it on screens, while others print it. Seeing it printed allows me to live with the work, which I enjoy.

BW: I read that you have a process for choosing a color palette. Can you tell me about that?

Eko33: Yes. Over time, I’ve built a palette of tools that I use, and choosing colors has always fascinated me. I’ve used many different systems because when handling a large number of palettes, it’s important to have a way to display, fine-tune, and search them.

I’ve built tools for that over time, but the most important part is how the palettes are created. I created a dataset of references and works I enjoy and wrote code to extract color palettes from them. I can make them evolve, almost like throwing dice on a table and adding variations.

I start with colors mostly from masterworks or photos I take, like walking down the street and seeing an old, rotting wall. I extract those colors and then make them evolve. The code adds variations so that we don’t just have five colors; we have a foundation of colors that change throughout the work.

From the Artefacts series by Eko33

BW: Where did the colors for this series come from?

Eko33: Here, we have a set of primary colors. I usually work with primary colors as a foundation. We also have some organic tones, like being underwater. The colors mostly come from nature—plants, rocks, sediment traces. That’s their origin.

BW: I wanted to ask about your connection to nature and how it’s connected to your art. Can you tell me about your practice of capturing environmental data and the series where that practice has been used?

Eko33: I like living in secluded places, whether in the mountains or by the sea. Over time, I’ve realized I don’t like crowded places for long. I prefer to find the right balance between being remote and connected. The first sensor is myself—my eyes, ears, and nose. I started building simple electronic sensors over the years.

As a kid, I was fascinated by electronics but wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t have formal training, so I learned it later in life. Around 25, I got more involved with electronics. Just as I enjoy photography, I also enjoy recording sounds and environmental data.

I have these small, waterproof boxes with a battery, microcontroller, and a set of sensors. They capture sound, movement, temperature, humidity, and other environmental data. Collecting these data points can provide a source of entropy, which is always helpful because generating random numbers with a computer is challenging.

I like collecting things, and data points are no different. I can capture how the wind blew in Switzerland at a particular time or how the ocean sounded in France. I then use this data in some of my works.

BW: What do your initial sketches look like? I’m curious to know if someone who saw your notebooks would recognize your style from your generative pieces.

Eko33: I think it would be challenging to recognize. My sketches are always in my Moleskine notebooks, which have quite an old, frail look. I mostly use black and white, sometimes with a Sakura pen. I’m usually not too happy with my drawings, which may have drawn me to use computers more.

With some open-mindedness, you could see where “Neural Sediments” started. But the sketches are really just drafts. I use them to keep a human touch in the initial stages and ensure I know where I’m going.

As I mentioned before, working with code can have a significant impact because it takes so long to build. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s like wanting to go to Australia from Boston. It’s a long trip, and you’d better know where you’re headed. It’s much easier to restart a drawing than to refactor your code, so that’s the main reason.

From the Lucky 80 series by Eko33

BW: How would you define or explain your emotional connection to this series?

Eko33: For me, this series is about simplifying. For example, in my studio, I have a lot of things, and it’s sometimes messy. But where I am right now, I have pretty much nothing: just a computer, a simple room, a table, and a garden chair.

I enjoy this simplicity very much, which is based on Stoicism—like sleeping on the floor to remind yourself how nice it is to sleep in a bed. This series is simplified to capture the essence of the work without too many distractions. Even though it may look simpler, it’s much more challenging for me to do.

BW: What should collectors look for in Robotic scrolls of the mind as it’s revealed?

Eko33: First of all, it’s one of the smallest series because there are only nine works. That’s unusual for me, as I’ve usually done either one-on-ones or larger drops. For instance, the Art Blocks Curated release was a much larger edition, and my work on SuperRare had 26 pieces overall.

So, this is a very intimate collection with only nine works. The simplification is also important to me. It can serve as a token to remember that simpler things are usually the best. I like my work to remind people of cognitive biases and how the brain processes things. In this series, it’s about getting to the essence and simplifying.

It’s also a combination of plotter works, which might not be obvious at first. But when you think about it, you’ll see the larger vertical lines reminiscent of some plotter works. The finesse of the lines ties the whole project together. It’s a blend of early computer works and advanced technology, combining AI and classic generative art.

Robotic scrolls of the mind 9 by Eko33

BW: I’m curious to know where a collector might spot your affinity for mid-century design in your work. I know you’re a great collector of mid-century design, aren’t you?

Eko33: Absolutely. Maybe the color palette would be the first hint. Sometimes, it’s also the texture. I wondered why I’m so obsessed with organic texturing in my work because many of my artist friends do more ASCII, very computer-like art.

I’m recreating this because I spent so much time buying old magazines off eBay or classified ad websites to find references. Nowadays, we have more reference materials, but if you had a desk lamp from Guariche—one of my favorite designers—you weren’t sure if it was really a Guariche lamp or not.

The only way to know was to look through reviews of magazines from the ’50s. I wasn’t interested in articles about how to vacuum-clean your living room, which was most of the content. But I loved the advertising pages because sometimes they included the designer’s name.

I spent so much time with old paper that I think that’s why I’m always trying to recreate that rich, paper-like texture in my work. It’s so demanding because it’s an old thing that requires a lot of computer power to recreate today. So, those would be the two elements I can think of right now.

BW: Who are some of your favorite designers of that era? You mentioned Guariche as a lighting designer.

Eko33: I have many favorites, but most of them were architects. Le Corbusier is by far my favorite. He created so many buildings, like those in Marseille, and designed chairs and sofas.

Charlotte Perriand is another favorite. She made a great amount of wood furniture, and her work in Switzerland is iconic. My ideal home would have snow, trees, and a big Charlotte Perriand table with chairs.

These are the top influences for me. Recently, I found myself interested in ’80s and ’90s furniture, which I initially didn’t enjoy much. I’ve been collecting more of it lately. I love Ettore Sottsass’s work, especially the Memphis collection. Everything he created from that era blows me away.

I recently rediscovered the columns from Shiro Kuramata—simple but interesting work.

Mid-century design was my first love, but now I’m appreciating ’80s and ’90s furniture more. Ettore Sottsass is my current favorite.

From the Generative Bots series by Eko33

BW: I’m curious. You’ve mentioned before that “A Thousand Plateaus” by Deleuze and Guattari was a big influence on your understanding of blockchain as an artistic medium. Could you dig a little more into that?

Eko33: Yeah, it’s a fascinating work on so many levels. This rhizomatic approach and the different levels—we speak about layer one, two, and three—have so much relevance to blockchain technology and its societal impacts.

There are three main ideas from this work that are particularly influential. I’m curious to see what hasn’t yet been connected between “A Thousand Plateaus” and the current blockchain and Web3 space. I’m sure there’s much to rediscover in light of recent Web3 and AI developments.

BW: What’s your great unrealized project?

Eko33: I’ve been working on structures for a long time but haven’t reached the point where I’m happy with them. For example, Nicolas Schöffer has been a huge influence on me, both conceptually and physically.

I hope someday I can create a sculpture I’m proud to show. So far, I’ve made one when I was very young, but it wasn’t animated or cybernetic. I made it with my father using an old, distorted tennis racket, a tennis ball, and some clothes.

What I’m working on now involves servo motors, stepper motors, and Arduino controllers, with a blockchain oracle sending data that can be interpreted at the smart contract level. This is the kind of project I’m excited about right now. I’ve been working on it on and off for quite a while, but it hasn’t been shown yet.

Maybe at MakersPlace someday.

Terra Incognita – 23 / Abstract Avenue by Eko33

BW: I hope so too. We’re now doing generative and physical, so we’re a one-stop shop. How do you define art?

Eko33: I wish I could define it because I’m not even sure myself. For me, the definition is evolving, but it’s something communicated visually, by sound, or in a haptic way. It moves emotions. If I had to summarize it concisely, “moving emotions” would be it.

BW: My last question is, what are you reading, listening to, and watching these days? You can answer one or more of those.

Eko33: Reading-wise, I’m going down some weird tangents lately. These days, I’m reading a lot about fermentation processes for food. It’s a rabbit hole I fell into a few weeks ago, and it helps me completely disconnect from everything. You never know where that kind of thing will lead you.

When I look at my yearly retrospective of what I’ve listened to, it’s a lot of random stuff. Recently, I enjoyed discovering solo harpsichord music, which is unusual but fascinating. Classical music is something I enjoy listening to, among other things. I also love Indian classical music.

I love discovering new things, and I found ChatGPT quite interesting for music recommendations. That’s how I ended up listening to solo harpsichord.

Robotic scrolls of the mind 7 by Eko33

Eko33/Jean-Jacques, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Is there anything you’d like to leave our audience with? Anywhere they should go looking for you?

Eko33: Thank you, Brady, and the whole team at MakersPlace. I’m really excited about this new platform and MakersPlace’s entry into the world of generative art. It’s extremely valuable for the space. Everyone on the team is fantastic, and the connections you make between fine art, generative art, and digital art are invaluable.

I’m absolutely looking forward to meeting everyone in Basel. If you have any questions, you can find me on X at @Eko33. I’m happy to receive messages through my website, eko33.com. I respond to all my DMs and emails.

I’m super excited about the event, and I can’t wait to see everyone in Basel—or digitally, if you can’t make it this year.

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