Eddie Villanueva, Herman’s Head, 2021, AI generated human head, 3D printed, with enamel paint, rubber, and soy wax.
Photographs: George W Chevalier
Q & A with Eddie Villanueva
Gallery director Margaret Pezalla-Granlund interviewed Eddie Villanueva about his work in February, 2021. Villanueva’s work is included in the 2021 TCNJ faculty and staff exhibition, Envision Us.
Margaret Pezalla-Granlund: Thanks for doing this. Thanks for being in the exhibition. It’s exciting to see the gallery actually have work in it.
So what I’m doing with these interviews is I’m just talking to faculty who have worked on this show. I’m asking like just a few super basic questions that I hope will help people get a little insight into your work. And I guess, first, I just want you to, you know, tell me about your work. what’s what. What are you sharing with us?
EV: Well, the work that’s in the show is part of a new body of work that I’ve been exploring since, .. I guess the impetus for it started with a lecture that I went to at the CIA Convention last spring, just before the COVID-19 hit and changed.
MP: Everything shut down.
EV: Yeah, and really changed everything. And in the lecture it was about the use of Ai technology and art making, and in the classroom, and one of the speakers was the creator of a program that had used AI technology to make image generation possible for artists, so it was very much his intention to, you know, make it so that artists could use this technology without having to you know get a computer engineering degree or anything like that, but that they could use it very intuitively and use it for the production of new work.
And the intimate ties with new technology and exploration of new technologies, and my studio practice has always been something that was very much a driver for different forums coming out of the studio so around August I reached out and was working with him and meeting with him several times talk about the meeting with him, you know, on the computer several times to talk about like what I really meant and what it meant for the artistic practice and one of the things that I kind of started realizing is that in itself is very much similar to the way in which surrealists developed surrealist games and things like the you know the exquisite corpse game or things like automatic drawing or games of chance, and this is something that always been like an active part of my project process so this program called Play Form, basically, what happens is you put input into it, you put image input into it, and then the program is trying to learn from the examples that you’ve provided the thing that I find so interesting about is depending on what that visual culture visual imagery is.
It really not only just exposes and creates very strange and surreal imagery, but it also very much starts to expose and allow us to acknowledge and investigate the way in which conventions of beauty or conventions of masculinity or conventions of aesthetics and taste how those things start to become exposed to us by seeing how an unconscious mind interprets the images that we put in and the object forms that come out of it or not only just really exciting and really weird and cool and scary and freaky, but they also tell us something about ourselves about what we, you know, champion as images of beauty…
EV: *laughing* I forgot what the question was.
MP: Haha. Well yeah, it’s so interesting to hear that connection to surrealism, and it really does make a lot of sense as being sort of a very contemporary adaptation of these surrealist games. music chance and also kind of using some kind of unconscious or subconscious or however you would refer to it in this AI environment.
But yeah, just hearing about kind of about where the work came from…How you developed it, where you ended up…Where did this piece in the gallery come from?
EV: So I do want to just give credit to the creator of that program because he’s a really interesting guy- I believe professor at Rutgers actually- his name is Ahmed El Gamal and just in conversations with him about his perspective on Ai started bringing into my own, you know, sort of more conceptual interests in my product process in my studio projects which have a lot to do with masculinity and body dysmorphia, and things like cultural sanction forms of masculinity or cultural sanction-formed gender identity and whatnot.
The first several projects that I did with it first like to get my feet wet were just inputting pictures of people and juxtaposing them with different forms and seeing what comes out the other end so this first.
I’ll share my screen, because I want to show you kind of what I’m talking about, because I think a lot of one of the problems and one of the reasons why I really wanted to do this via video is just that the things that I’m saying are so like…I’m barely having a grasp on what I’m saying, because it’s just so new to me I don’t even barely know. But I can show you what I’m doing, which is a lot easier for me to do so great, yeah.
So if you can see… Can you see my screen?
MP: Yep, it’s up.
EV: Okay, so this is the program called play form.io. And there are several different ways that you can make the computer generate new imagery, and one of them is through having it start with one collection of images as like a basis, and then have it slowly morph into the influences of another group of information, so in this one of these first iterations that I did I was…
EV, after a pause: Okay, I’m sorry. The dog is squeaking. -Yeah, so we have inspirations that are-Sondra can you take a squeaky toy… Oh, I see. Okay sorry. Hopefully, you can edit that.
MP: Yeah, the wonders of working at home right?
EV: Yeah. So starting with a group of inspirations in this case, it was a lot of images from Herman Miller catalogs which you know, have a really strong design sense to them and mixing them with a group of 500 is so just random average faces different races different age groups, different genders, and all that kind of stuff and then telling it to make sense of these things, and the results after you know so many iterations start to create these absolutely fantastically horrifying structures, where you have likenesses coming through but also playing off of the initial structures of geometric forms and things like that. That it just creates such strange beings in a way that I was immediately really drawn and you know clearly repulsed by but also just really curious about.
Not just about what, you know, how cool they were just really kind of very base level but also like what it was about these that I was drawn to and I started thinking about things.
I watched a documentary several years ago that was about the reconstruction of the elephant man’s head and how we were like these, these scientists were trying to learn more about Joseph America who was you know, commonly known as the elephant man and how he would have sounded, how he would have looked, how he would have felt.
And they created these 3D models from sketches and pictures and things like that and ended up being able to create a voice box that was a likeness of what his voice bicycle list looked like and then they had an actor read a poem that he wrote, so that we could also you know we could actually hear what he would have sounded like and this idea of like kind of like recreating or you’re like creating these- you know models of long ago humans or bodies or you know these the anthropological kind of investigations, something that was really interesting to me and I started seeing these as a potential for looking at how these bodies would actually be in real life. So it started me down the rabbit hole of just thinking like well, how could I, how could I find more ways to get these bodies these strange, you know disturbing anomalies into a more physical form and as it was being.
As it was generating these different images I for some reason I don’t know why, but I just fixated on this one particular image, I think it was because I really liked his little hat- or her little hat- or its little hat- that seemed to like become generated and it looked almost like a fully fleshed head with three eyes and things like that, but it was almost like it felt pretty complete. I know when so very intuitively I just decided that I wanted to download that and then figure out ways, and I tried different 3D modeling software that could take this image and try to give it volume and whatnot but it never really created the forms that I was looking for or that really felt natural to this being so, I ended up deciding that I would like to also teach myself how to model this thing in three-dimensional form using a 3D modeling software called Blender.
It’s something that I’ve been dabbling with for a while and that I have you know very limited knowledge of, but you know, in a way that I can actually in some way make things work so bringing this image into blender and actually trying to use my knowledge of anatomy that comes from my training as a painter and drummer to kind of flush out is excellent and I guess in a way, it was also an act of trying to find like, an unconscious like version of a human being and meaning that, like if the computer had all of these inputs, what would a human being, look like coming out of it, and in this way I kind of I’m trying to bridge the gap between its ability to make something that is resembling human and our ability to really acknowledge that thing as being human by getting it form in three dimensional form and by bringing it into this common structure of the art world that we know and recognize forms of beauty in and that’s the bust, you know the sort of like Roman-esque or Greek or Roman sculpture.
Because that’s the form that we recognize in western canon of like you know, like classical beauty so by bridging the gap between what the computer things of his human and what we think of is like these optimal versions of human I thought that it would be this early interesting segue between those two kinds of mind and learning experiences.
MP: That’s fascinating because the Irving, with the 2D it goes between you know there’s something about what does it take for us to recognize this as a face, what does it take for us to recognize this as a human and then there’s something about bringing it into the three dimensional space that brings that back to thinking about like a real creature or a real human like, How does it make that translation from this, you know kind of bank of photographs of sorts images gets processed. It gets processed again but it’s also being processed by us, at the same time, right?
EV: And I mean it has all the more relevance in this COVID era where we are only really experiencing each other via 2D, in iterations on zoom calls or via instagram, or other posts and stuff, and there’s always this kind of weird barrier between us and it seemed really then appropriate to give it more form in order to make it more real in a way to take it beyond just like a weird wacky kind of iteration of a human and start thinking about it more so as like well, what is the relationship between the computer and the human mind, what is the relationship between our expectations of what is a person and the way in which the computer reads these traits and decides the hierarchy of some sort to you know these are the things that actually make a human versus what we you know the nuances of what actually we recognize as being very huge.
MP: Right. I also think that connection to representations of humans is really interesting, especially when you mentioned the idea of the porter strike.
And I know there’s a whole series of bronzes that are just heads, but that are all these really extreme emotional states, and I can think of the artists now, but I know there’s I think there’s some Huntington that’s where I remember seeing them in Pasadena.
EV: And I do get to that like part of the reason why it is the head and the bust is very much also to do with my technical limitations with this material because. Honestly, it, I was busted my brain just to get this like head image in some way, shape or form working so I mean, as I practice as I become more student, similarly to the learning machine, as it becomes more students starts to make evolutions that somehow still start to converge into a more humanly meaningful way and I think that’s like that’s learning in general, and I think it’s a fascinating process that we’re like I’m engaging the machine and really engaging my own expectations of what is human and trying to find that middle ground.
MP: Of so yeah that’s great. And it leads kind of to my next question, which is: Can you tell me about your studio? I know, everybody has different circumstances that they’re working on. Some people have dedicated studios, some people don’t. That’s something that students have to figure out once they graduate and don’t have access to an art building anymore.
How do you work? Where do you work with your setup?
EV: I would love to just take a little video of me walking through my studio so you could actually see it’s a total freakin mess right now. But it’s I think it’s interesting and important to see also the working situation that I have, in order to better understand my process, which is very much. Not… I wouldn’t say chaotic but it’s like controlled chaos kind of thing you know? Like it’s that person who has like a million papers on their desk but they’re all in a very specific pile you know it’s the very specific piles of mess. So my studio is kind of like that and it’s my wife and my family, daughter and dog. We all live in a very small Cape Cod-style house that has a small sunroom that was like a summer room and then the garage and we worked really hard since being here to make those into functioning studios because my wife also has an art practice that’s very involved now too.
So my studio is the garage, but it’s very much set up in a, like a little technological palace of creativity and nonsense, where I have my musical instruments. I also like to dabble in making instruments and stuff like that. I dabble in programming and working with microcomputers like, you know Raspberry Pi’s and Arduino kits, and I have my soldering station, and I also have small animation setup that I can use to make other small little GIFs and animations and stop motions and things like that.
And everything’s kind of convertible, everything kind of moves or changes or like I have an eight-foot gravity. You know CNC machine, but I just took it down-converted because I need some wall, because now I want to do some paintings so like I think that this kind of convertibility, almost like a sort of like plastic manipulated or manipulate double space is very much what then also reflects in my practice where I mean if you look at this piece it’s very different phone if you remember: you were in the talk when I first applied because I’ve been at TCNJ for four years.
The work that I was showing in that portfolio of works was extremely varied and not at all figurative and now I have these figurative works that are Ai based, but I also do things that are. You know I’m trained as a painter and I do, you know, these big beautiful photorealistic paintings in my dad’s basement. I also have work that is drawing base. It’s very graph graphic based. And my studio functions around my interdisciplinary it and my randomness in my decisions like oh now I need to make so I’m now converting my Barbecue grill into a small kiln so that I can fire some clay pieces that I just made.
MP: Oh well, that also leads to my final question which is: What’s next? What are you excited to get started on next?
EV: Well, honestly I’m excited to do some paintings, because I feel like…sometimes I just…You know, like with it every one of these pieces of technology and every one of these like gestures, you know I say I’m doing some paintings, but I’m also planning on doing some vinyl blowup dolls so you know it’s really all over the place. I’m doing some paintings of some of these iterations if you’d like I’d like to show you some more of this screen here…yeah
So this is my platform I know, and if you go back to the different projects that have been working on. Here is a project where I’m mixing and blending or I’m putting images of the US senators with faces of the insurrection us and the kind of forms that are coming out of it are really terrifying and very intriguing in that what I’d like to do is you know divide up the senators and two parties that were very supportive of President, you know experts in the guy I don’t want to say, “He Who Should Not be Named”- these senators that added to what ended up becoming this very dark moment in our US history and using that to kind of blend together and find these strange formal elements, and these are things that I would like to turn into painting somehow, where it almost kind of mimics the way in which we see senators often represented through things like grand portraitures in their offices or in their State Houses and things like that so using that as an input. But then also in line with the ideas of like masculinity, femininity, conventions of beauty, body dysmorphia, all these other things I have several other projects where I mean, this is, you know I’m going to stay away from the not safe for work images and things like that, but I have images of you know I don’t know, like the cool name is like Dick PICs and then making those. gestures, which are not only like offensive gestures, but they’re also these things that are off that can be also seen as like extremely vulnerable or a gesture of desperate need for confirmation for somebody that is looking for another person as a sexual partner that one has this throwaway gesture of the dick pick and then they can say, oh no I’m just like a dirty. but it in itself also there is this kind of layer of anxiety and insecurity that I think is really fascinating and the images that are coming out of that are really interesting.
But there’s also another body of work that I did, a Google search for hot guys and, the results are shockingly standard in that it’s always like a guy from like mostly his torso surprisingly mostly like brunette. And just, you know, totally ripped and often wearing jeans often at the beach, you know, so the results of that, became these really wacky goofy looking things and I love this guy in particular and their bodies are so a morpheus but the like slight the weird almost photographic detail in the textures that are generated are fascinating.
And I was talking to an artist friend in New York- Johana her, and she was immediately- when she saw these she was like, ‘These are just begging to be made into blow-up toys’, you know, like blowup dolls and I’m like, ‘Oh my God you’re absolutely correct”, so this guy In particular…I have a bunch of vinyl I just learned how to use an iron to make big inflatables and stuff like that so I’m going to find a way to print this guy onto vinyl and then make an inflatable of him. But I’m also intrigued by the idea of adding pillows and I was looking up something… There are some women who make these ideal boyfriend body pillows and it’s literally just a chest.
And so I’m going to also make these into pillows and just see which ones, you know, like I’m also just playing around. You know as far as the kids go; If you’re watching this you know, like…If you’re wondering if you should do something or shouldn’t do something… I’m making blowup dolls and body pillows because what the heck, you know! Why not?
So just do stuff and see what comes out of it, I mean it could be like, ‘I’m never going to do that again’, or it could be like, ‘This is my new passion in life- making these body close up hunky guys’. So, yeah.
MP: That’s what I’m below, yeah. And I love that this also comes back tears studio right like that’s why your studio has so much happening in it, and then you know.
EV: Like with the studio too. It’s a never-ending battle of like, ‘Shit what do I need now?’, and the newest thing. Like, who would have thunk that I really, really want a sewing machine now because I’m also going to do this?
MP: Well, this is amazing! Thank you so much.