Firstly, forget AI art. Generative art refers to art that has been created either wholly or in part by an autonomous system (ok, so just a little bit of AI).

Last month, the STUDIO label launched with a bang, the debut FOUNDATIONS LP release laying the groundwork for STUDIO’s sonic vision of cutting-edge music. Exploding with futuristic techy groove and experimental bass, such a project required visuals that fit the part.

Enter DeRe – sometimes, Bea; a visual designer and TouchDesigner artist from Michigan, USA who has been making waves, bridging the art world with electronic music in a series of audio-reactive visual works, created with creative coding in Touch Designer.

But how does it work? What does it all mean? Bea sat down with us to talk TouchDesigner, creative freedom, and the future of tech, after creating the stunning FOUNDATIONS visuals.

The FOUNDATIONS cover creating using DeRe visuals
The FOUNDATIONS’ LP cover created using visuals by DeRe

Hello! How’s it going?

D – Good, thanks! I think I’ve got Zoom working…

Hearing you loud and clear, first things first, we really enjoyed working with you on the FOUNDATIONS project. Can you tell us what your creative process was like for this? How did it all happen?

D – Firstly, I looked at the references sent to me from my own works; things that STUDIO were really focused on; organic shapes or objects, and the things to avoid. I took inspiration from those pointers keeping in mind the clear objects, the clear appearance of the graphics but at the same time, I didn’t want to restrict myself. I started with that and then tried to maintain the balance of the geometric and organic shapes within the design. I didn’t want it to turn out way too geometric or way too organic because of the music style. The LP is really awesome, and I feel like it sounds very technical, but at the same time, it has an ambiance that I thought sounded like a drawing style that I can play around with within organic shapes – if that makes sense!

The software used to create the album art is called Touch Designer. How does it actually work?

D –  Aha, I really get this question! It’s not really a new thing, actually, there are nodes-based applications similar to Touchdesigner, but I feel like TouchDesigner has a unique audience who are a community of specific users. It’s a visual development platform where you can create 3D projects or user experiences, VR. It’s a programming language or programming application that allows you to create 3D or visuals or interactive visuals. It works by pulling operators together into a network. Each operator has their own functions. You can even go deeper than that by messing with the code like Python. It’s like a mind map, to be honest, linking the starting point to the ending point.

Visuals made by DeRe
A snapshot of one of the many art projects made by DeRe in TouchDesigner

How it was described to me is that you input the code or audio and from that, you can either create a project or the software takes the data and imagines visuals. Am I on the right track?

D – Almost. So, the possibilities are almost limitless on TouchDesigner. But of course, there are limits. You can create almost everything, but you’ve got to have an idea of what you want to work on. If we’re talking about audio when I use audio as data, I drop in the audio, and Touch Designer will turn the audio webs into channels that contain data and numbers. So the numbers that I get from this will interact with the visual that I have created.

So the audio gets translated into a set of code which you can convert into a set of data and signals.

D – Basically, yes. Then you’ll run those numbers through a couple of the operators to make it more smooth or more usable because the pure data coming from the audio is going to be really raw. The FOUNDATIONS tracks especially have a lot of drops and beats – a lot of going on. If you don’t separate the audio beats sufficiently, it’s harder to use the specific bits of audio you want for certain visuals.

So that’s the first stage, then what happens in the second stage?

D – So to start, I’ve created two visuals. TouchDesigner has three to four operator categories. The first category creates geometric shapes, spheres, or circles and is my main tool. After using this to create, I’ll then set the whole network up. When I’m happy with the visual, I’ll try to connect the audio with the visual by dropping the audio data into the visuals. If I need to, I’ll make adjustments to the parameters to get the desired results.

More incredible visuals created by DeRe in TouchDesigner
A snapshot from a video generated by DeRe using TouchDesigner

Can you give an example of something that you haven’t liked and have changed?

D – Sometimes when you drop audio data into the visuals, you need to adjust the numbers – or code. You may drop it in and the squares and circles of your visuals only move a little bit! So if you want your designs to really move, you have to increase the numbers on the operators. To increase the movement and make it more powerful, you have to push the numbers higher.

Kind of like production? Tweaking, etc.

D – Exactly. You have to push that to cause the visuals to react more to the audio data. I disappear in this for hours and hours.

You like to start with the visual and then feed in the audio. Is that your typical creative process if you’re working on your own projects?

D – Usually, I sit down at my desk and go with the flow. If I’m working on my personal projects, or I don’t have somebody to collaborate with, I just let my ideas flow. After I get the results of the visual, I’ll work on the audio soundscapes for them, and boom I bring them together. It’s purely experimental.

Do you prefer collaborating with people? Or do you like working on your own projects?

D – I’d say both are equal. It depends on the mood, right? Sometimes I end up liking the visuals so much that I create my own audio, so it also feels a bit more personalized.

How long have you been working with Touch Designer?

D – I started seven years ago, but then I stopped. I was always interested in generative art or creative coding. I started with processing, a cyber gaming language based on JavaScript, and basically ended up writing Java code to create visuals. I took that, turned to TouchDesigner, and started to learn and experiment with it. But then, as I said, my job is busy – sleepless nights and such. I completely stopped and forgot about it. When the pandemic hit, I had time on my hands to learn the software again, and I haven’t stopped. At the beginning of this year, I realized I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone or my burned-out graphic design routines.

It’s your creative escapism.

D – Yeah, exactly. When I was a kid, I saw my friends becoming musicians, becoming audio producers. They would go all the way. Even though I also loved music and art, I thought, ‘I couldn’t do that’. I used to worry so much. But now I’m no longer worried, I’m just having fun. At the time, I wanted to have something that I’m really good at and that I have so much passion for that I could go all the way to become that thing. I enjoy doing these things. Now, as an adult, I think that’s all that matters; that I can do with this, and it makes me happy. 

Did lockdown lead you back to TouchDesigner?

D – I felt burnt out. And then there was one project that I worked on, as a graphic designer, where I had to design some very complex graphics and almost use some generative art to generate them. I was in Illustrator then I realized, TouchDesigner is so much easier, it involves coding which can save you from spending hours creating lines and lines and repetitions of the same graphics over and over.

How would you describe your genre of generative art?

D – I don’t really know what genre all my art is, but it is a new media of art involving computer art. As for the style, personally, I call it dark space.

Previous work from DeRe
“Tau Ceti”, a previous piece of art by DeRe generated using TouchDesigner

Ah, so you’re a trailblazer. What characterizes dark space generative art?

D – Haha, yeah, dark space. It’s material that refers to dark space. Dark space inspires me the most.

Who or what other styles have inspired you?

D – Post-war experimental artists like John Cage, he created graphic notations of music scores. Each graphic notation that he created had its own meaning. His work was beautiful, and at the same time, it made sense musically as a score. It told you how the music notes work but in a very unique way. Post-war and avant-garde work have inspired me a lot. To be honest, every TouchDesigner artist has inspired me and seeing how distinctive each of them are, it motivates me to push forward and continue to establish my own style. @NONOTAK, @Dith_idsgn, @Elekktronaut, @alex.g.u.e.v.a.r.a, @404.Zero the list goes on. The @touchdesigner Instagram page itself also showcases a lot of work. There are so many sources for learning Touchdesigner with a lot of wonderful artists putting their tutorials and techniques out there on website’s forums and on their Patreon accounts. If you are new to TouchDesigner, try to understand the tutorials and the functions of each operator instead of worrying too much about the steps and numbers, it’s fun to get lost and experiment — discovering happy accidents.  

How would you describe your personal music style and/or visual style? 

D – So, music is not my main thing, it’s a slice – something that I do for fun like soundscapes to accompany my visuals. I believe I don’t really have a distinctive style – such a bad answer. I’m really experimental, I just go with the flow. Although, I am a real Space girl. I love space, and it inspires so much of my work. Everything I draw is dark space, which I think really affects the visuals I create. I can talk about this universe for days and days. Have you seen the Cassini picture of Saturn’s rings? And behind the rings, there’s a tiny blue spot – the Cassini Pale Blue Dot photo. I cried so much when I saw that for the first time, the picture really moved me. I printed out and framed it to remind me of how small we are, and how small our problems are.

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on in your career so far?

D – I have a couple of them. One that I really love is called Vesak. I created this with my friend Christopher who’s an audio artist and produces a lot of ambient. He likes creating soundscapes that reflect stories. In this case, Vesak means the birth of the Buddha. He recorded this soundscape whilst he was meditating in Nepal; the temple bells, and atmos from the temples when he was strolling around. The first time I listened to the full track, I got goosebumps all over and cried. I knew I wanted to create something subtle but also had life and urgency around it. Another is The Nocturne where I sampled the audio from Chopin’s Nocturne No.20 in C sharp minor which is a really dark chord. I created the soundscapes myself to use with these visuals. I’ve always listened to dark classical music at night and often thought about mortality and death, uncertain things in life… I used GLSL to map the image instance, creating the particle effect on the statue – if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of sand grains.

A frame taken from DeRe's work in collaboration with Christopher Manhey
A frame taken from DeRe’s work in collaboration with Christopher Manhey

What do you think is the next big technology?

D – AI is of course advancing. And I believe that as artists we have to step up our game – for some reason… But I wouldn’t worry about AI technologies because, at the end of the day, we all need human touch. We need some imperfection. Yes, AI is going to be a huge trend, it’s already a huge trend right now. But as I say, if it’s become a trend, then there’ll be another trend along soon. Midjourney is an AI art gallery. It’s made artists very worried about their careers because you type in the words, and phrases, then you get the resulting painting. Artists will spend seven hours finishing one painting, and users just type in words to get art in seconds that looks better than yours. AI-generated art is all over social media. But you know that it’s generated by AI. You look at it, it’s beautiful but, so what? There’s a lack of human touch. There’s nothing special about it in that sense. It’s empty. Who knows, we may even build an AI to work with artists who have already been practicing for 15 years. Using AI; not replacing humans and replacing artists. It will never work. As a human, we can overcome everything if we keep learning and keep trying. If you want to start doing something, just do it. Don’t be afraid to fail. You’ve got to fail in order to learn.

Thanks so much to Bea for this in-depth talk about her art, her creative process, and her inspiration. Don’t forget to follow her on socials to find out more about her work.

You can stream/buy the FOUNDATIONS LP she worked on with us on all major streaming/selling platforms here or on Spotify down below.