Digital art from the Early 80s onward with mad scientist polymath artist Sum of Primes
MakersPlace recently interviewed polymath artist Sum of Primes ahead of his “retrospective futurus,” Ripples Through Time, in which he looks back at the work he created over the past four decades of creative digital exploration, and recreates each piece using AI.
In this interview, Sum of Primes candidly discusses his creative exploration of digital art, which started in the 80s from a childhood fascination with computers, and how it has informed his current work in digital art.
Watch/Listen to the Interview
Brady Walker: So, Ian, I’m curious about your handle, Sum of Primes. I tried to Google you using that and found a lot of mathematical posts, which is to be expected.
Sum of Primes: Indeed, it’s a nod to my early interest in physics and mathematics, particularly a small part of number theory related to Goldbach’s conjecture, which suggests any even number above two can be expressed as the sum of two primes. While some progress has been made in proving portions of the conjecture, the general problem remains unsolved. It’s a sort of geeky homage to math.
BW: Now, I’d like to dive into your artistic journey. Your story within crypto art is quite unique. Where did it begin for you?
SOP: Well, I appreciate that. My artistic journey began early in the digital world. I was an early adopter, learning to program as a kid around 1980-81. I started even before I had my own PC, my first being the Atari 400 with its high-tech membrane keyboard and 16K of RAM. I remember the excitement of upgrading to 48 kilobytes of RAM and an actual tactile keyboard.
My foray into online presences began with bulletin board systems at a mere 300 bits per second. With limited software options and a child’s budget, learning to program seemed like the best way to make the machine do what I wanted.
An early introduction to computer technology came through my parents, who owned a camera and framing store that also offered photo finishing. There, I learned darkroom work, mat and glass cutting, operating the one-hour photo lab, and color correction. But the most impactful experience was seeing the signed prints they sold and the diverse clientele who came in for framing.
Being near the University of Waterloo, an excellent place for engineering and computer science, we attracted a variety of customers, including professors and grad students. One day, a grad student showed me his thesis project – a computer he’d designed and built from scratch, housed in a briefcase. Seeing that at the age of eight or nine blew my mind and sparked my desire to own a computer and explore its creative possibilities.
The mall where my parents’ store was located housed a video rental store where we bought the Atari, and a department store that sold other computers like the Commodore 64 or VIC-20. However, I was drawn to the Atari due to its graphics, accessibility, and my rapport with Barry, the owner of the video store. In fact, I even wrote some software for his store early on.
BW: Were you exploring digital art at this time?
SOP: Absolutely. Text adventures like Zork satisfied my curiosity with decision trees and random number generation. But soon, I wanted to experiment with sprites and get more visual results.
In that era, we used TVs as monitors, with a maximum resolution of about 320 by 192. When you transitioned to 640 by 480 or 800 by 600, it felt like a huge increase. But designing early graphics-oriented games with such limited color and real estate was challenging.
At maximum resolution, if you wanted more than one color on the screen, you had to manipulate moire patterns to create visual artifacts, giving the illusion of additional colors.
I began with string art, random numbers, and sine waves, just to learn the ropes. There was a cartridge system then, including a turtle graphics-based program called Pilot, which introduced me to using coordinate systems. But for the fastest response and greatest flexibility, I had to read and write directly to memory addresses.
Though I did some assembly coding, I preferred a higher-level language. Atari BASIC was a good starting point, leading to structured BASICs, Pascal, Pro
BW: You mentioned before we started recording that you’d been doing digital art in your spare time, kind of on the side, with no intention, no thought of publicizing it. What were you doing professionally during this time?
SOP: Oh, professionally, I initially went to Waterloo to become a mechanical engineer. I was persuaded that pursuing pure math or theoretical physics wasn’t a good career choice, even though those were my main passions. However, after some time in engineering, computer science, physics, and math, I found it wasn’t the ivory tower of learning that I had envisioned. I ended up in IT, doing some automation and programming in Python, along with some DBA roles.
While I did some development in a few different areas, I found that in an enterprise setting, development wasn’t really for me. I preferred being a liaison to the dev team. I invested so much of myself in the work, delivering precisely what was asked for, but there were always revisions. It was like nailing jello to a wall. It could be wearing down after months of revisions.
Eventually, I found myself in server administration and sometimes acted as a technical team lead. Essentially, my role was usually IT-focused, but my primary function was being the go-to guy for solving tough problems. At various organizations, I would often be pulled into something I had nothing to do with because I was too stubborn to give up and could figure out the answer. I like solving tough problems, and I suppose that’s the common thread throughout my career.
For instance, in a recent Twitter Spaces event with an artwork by Reinhard Schmid, I noticed the binary on the art. I knew it must represent something, and I figured out it was Reinhard’s name and the Latin for him having made it. I just love puzzles.
My love for understanding how things work and figuring them out has been a powerful motivator. It’s what drives my deep dive into art, my exploration beyond the textbook in math and physics, and my relentless problem-solving approach. Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of lateral thinking and nine-tenths sheer stubborn will to solve these problems. In a nutshell, I’m a problem solver and an endlessly curious mad scientist.
BW: How does that translate to your appreciation of art? Because oftentimes, the thing about art is that unlike there being a hidden message in binary code somewhere on the piece, there’s a lot more ambiguity in the majority of art. There’s not necessarily a logical puzzle to solve. What is your relationship to appreciating art? And does that offer a respite from your puzzle-seeking brain?
SOP: Well, there are different facets to it. For me, the whole scientific side of things, the problem-solving aspect, is an exercise in creation and creativity. It’s about trying new things, breathing life into things that weren’t there before, and finding hidden gems. I may be awed by a piece of art, but for my full appreciation of a given piece, I benefit from understanding the broader context of an artist’s journey. This adds to the richness of an artwork. It could be a technical marvel or an artistic marvel, and I’ll appreciate it as such. But the human behind it is an integral part of the whole for me.
Over the years, my own art evolved as the technology did. In the 90s, I started exploring fractals from various perspectives and began working with VRML and 3D modeling. The tools for that evolved over time too, with open-source software like Blender and GIMP coming on the scene. Around the time I joined the military, I started a desktop publishing business, using vector-based graphics and bitmaps for graphic design. This was driven by my interest in technology and the opportunity to earn a little extra pocket money.
I think the artistic side of me made it easier to explore viable solutions from an engineering standpoint when I was doing research and development for carbon capture. For a good long while, I used my creativity in a scientific way as well as an artistic way. The artistic side of things was really an exploration of what is possible and how I could manifest my imagination in physical or digital form. Now, I find myself imagining the future of my art as physical pieces that are working devices, carefully engineered and built, but in their completion are actual works of art. So, it’s interesting to have the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Does that answer your question a bit?
BW: Yeah, absolutely. I’m just now reading, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. It seems like you guys are spiritual compatriots in a lot of ways.
SOP: Very good, very good. I think I have that on the shelf. I would have loved to have met him. Yeah, a big fan.
BW: So I want to talk about your Genesis series, Family Love. It’s absolutely beautiful. I’m curious to know how you created them.
SOP: Thank you. Well, this series is an exploration of fractal space, made for my mother. Are you familiar with the story behind why they exist?
BW: No, I’m not.
SOP: Okay. In the Manifold contract, I added some words that explain the reason for these pieces. To start sharing my art publicly, I thought I’d revisit this era. I lost my dad in 2002 due to heart trouble on Christmas Eve. My mom had had cancer and some procedures, but in February of 2009, her condition took a turn for the worse.
Myself, my siblings, and my eldest child, who was not even a year old at the time, moved in with my mother and aunt for what were ultimately her last few months. I was a technical team lead then, and I had been doing good enough work that I had already been afforded remote work part of the week. As my mom’s condition worsened, I transitioned to light duties, only called upon when absolutely needed.
These pieces were made for my mom, for her enjoyment. I found these fractal pieces that I had put together on a DVD that played with some poetry and music in a slideshow. There were some animations too. But these were made so that she could see some of the art that I’d created and find some moments of peace from her bed.
Simply put, I was very lucky. I had the best parents I could have ever asked for. I lost them far too soon.
BW: It’s beautiful.
SOP: In considering what to do with this art, I thought about what she would want, independent of what I want. It became clear that she would have loved the idea of it being shared and enjoyed by other people. That kind of made the decision for me.
BW: This brings us to the titles. They’re very evocative and weighty, obviously.
SOP: Yes, they are. The titles for the pieces themselves, some of them are new titles for old work, based on the feelings they evoked in me. Because at the time, it wasn’t feasible to have this kind of conversation with my mom.
In starting to share publicly, I wanted to create a story arc with the first eight pieces that I minted. It’s meant to represent the journey of creators, from the idea of creating something from nothing, realizing the possibilities, dealing with criticism, and then enjoying the freedom that comes when they realize their intention in creating was pure. They made a positive impact, except through the lens of those who would like to detract from it for no other reason than to drag other people down. Unfortunately, there are some of those out there, but that’s not a question, just a statement that we can likely agree on.
BW: Absolutely. Your DECA art website mentions that you aim to “do your best to support others and drive positive change in the world.” I’m curious to know how art has affected positive change in your life.
SOP: Well, when I’m not working on art or looking after my children, I spend my time trying to implement solutions to address environmental and humanitarian concerns, specifically the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Last year was a year of big change for me personally. My two children’s mother and I are now under separate roofs, which was a significant transition for everyone.
Apart from art, I started a coffee company that donates almost all of its profit to the charity that the customer chooses. To ensure transparency, I’ve set a hard line: 20% of gross profit goes directly to the selected charity. This is my attempt to create a social enterprise bordering on non-profit that I believe should exist.
Can you imagine if large banks or other financial institutions directed even 10% of their net profit towards positive causes? The impact would be considerable.
Recognizing the ticking climate clock, I believe we can avoid crossing the 1.5 degrees threshold if we can sustainably capture an average of four gigatons per year until the end of 2033.
Having done research on carbon capture and various other fields, I can see potential for sustainable solutions not only from direct air capture but also through alliances with biosphere culture, reforestation, habitat restoration, and oceanic initiatives. For instance, I’ve been advising an XPRIZE team for a couple of years based on my experience with carbon capture. Their approach centers on kelp and sargassum, and they have a passionate team behind them.
This is what motivates me to take action. Recognizing from a scientific and technological standpoint, there are numerous options we can pursue. However, many of these are not being implemented at scale, often due to economic considerations. While some solutions may be self-sustaining, they may not provide the high return on investment that some firms seek. It’s important to find a balance between growth and sustainability.
BW: What’s the name of the coffee company?
SOP: It’s called Ancient Sled Coffee Company. Currently, we’re only distributing in the US, primarily using La Colombe roaster, which is based in Philadelphia and has another location in California. They even made it to Whole Foods last year. However, we do have several roasters in Canada and the US ready to join us when it becomes viable.
I’ve always believed that a hefty marketing budget would simply detract from the donations to charities. So, my intention was never to spend a lot of time promoting the company. Instead, I aimed to attract people with a similar mindset to mine, those who understand that their everyday consumables can support good causes. Of course, without a significant marketing budget, spreading the word is a slow process.
Over time, I’ve connected with a number of charities. We have support from water.org and Same You. The World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy have also shown interest in the idea. However, engaging with multinational charities can become complicated due to regulatory issues.
As I delved deeper into this, I realized the complexity of these regulations. In the US, for example, there are state-by-state as well as federal legislations in place for consumer protection, which are necessary due to some unscrupulous actors in the space. These regulations, though, make forming relationships more challenging and costly for those genuinely trying to effect change.
So, with some of these larger organizations, we have to settle for a gentleman’s agreement. They support what we’re doing as long as we follow certain guidelines, which helps us avoid hefty legal fees associated with formalizing the relationship.
Ancient Sled, in itself, is an artistic venture. The logo is designed to evoke the symbolism of secret societies. If the brand ever becomes tremendously popular, there’s lore and an alternate reality game involving puzzles and factions ready to be unveiled. For now, though, with a small base of supporters, it’s more about selling good coffee and supporting charities. And that’s good enough for me.
BW: Having worked in digital art for so long, you’ve iterated through a ton of styles. Can you tell me about that side of your creative exploration?
SOP: Sure. When you don’t have the objective of putting your art out into the world, you’re free to explore without worrying about people’s expectations or comparisons of new work to old. That freedom allowed me to move through various stages of mathematical, fractal explorations, generative work, and 3D modeling.
I’ve always been curious about AI, starting from game design in the 90s. I envisioned NPCs that could evolve and change over time based on their experiences. This curiosity extended to categorization and management systems in enterprise and open source projects.
As I was diving into After Effects for post-processing, I started exploring some of the latest artist tools. StyleGAN and Art Breeder were early precursors that helped me get started. But when I discovered Mid Journey 3, it was a fantastic rabbit hole to fall into. I enjoyed using these tools to create works that didn’t look like the outputs that others were getting.
With my enjoyment of electronics and technology, I was keen to see what I could make these tools do, even beyond their intended purposes. I wanted to create effects like macro photography, cinematic views, and the look of paint on a canvas.
I’ll continue using AI as a tool because it’s just too much fun. But it won’t be the only tool I use. Some of my future masterworks will be primarily 3D modeled and digitally painted, with AI used maybe for textures.
BW: It is a lot of fun. What kinds of work can we look forward to in your future drops?
SOP: For my upcoming work with MakersPlace, I’m looking to recapture those early generative pieces that I did in the 80s when I was learning to program. I’ll probably do about five of these, accompanied by AI reimaginings of them.
If things go well, I’ll go decade by decade, exploring and recapturing the different kinds of things I was doing in the 90s, the 2000s, and so on. The period from 2010 to 2020 was mostly filled with caregiving and homeschooling my children, but I was still able to do some sketch work and more fractal explorations.
BW: I’d love to see, do you still have some of your work from the 80s?
SOP: I have a clear memory of the books that I used and the kind of things I was doing. I’ve been using an actual Atari emulator, an 8-bit emulator, to recode some of those. So you’ll get to see what the output would have looked like then, but framed in a more modern, higher resolution kind of output.
BW: We’re coming up on the end of our interview. I usually ask artists about advice related to creativity they would give their 20-year-old selves. But I want to change that and ask about creative problem-solving. What advice would you give our audience or your younger self about thinking creatively to solve problems?
SOP: That’s a large question, but I would tell my younger self, whether in enterprise or on the artistic front, not to be afraid of making mistakes. Perfectionism can be paralyzing, and it’s usually through iteration, exploration, and learning that we achieve the best outcomes. Keep in mind that others are rarely as judgmental of you as you are of yourself.
BW: Assuming you’re making mistakes, how do you make progress and overcome creative blocks?
SOP: You have to be mindful of your process. Analyze what you’ve done, how it turned out, and what you can do to improve future efforts. Otherwise, you may never move past a plateau. The UK Nurses Association has rebranded “fail” as “first attempt in learning.” You need to take a proactive approach, and if you’re not mindful in trying to learn from your experiences, you won’t be able to do things differently next time.
The concept of 10,000 hours to mastery has been misconstrued by some. People may think that by mechanically going through those hours, they will become masters. However, it has to be mindful time, with a feedback loop of learning and improvement. This applies to sciences, arts, technology, and life in general. As Einstein once said, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.
BW: That’s very cool. Well, thank you so much. This has been amazing. I really enjoyed talking to you. For the final question, where can our audience find more about you? Where can they follow you?
SOP: I’m mostly active on Twitter. I’ve recently started out in Blue Sky, although it’s still in its fledgling stage. For business purposes, I am on LinkedIn, but my art hasn’t made its way there yet. My interests are broad, reaching into climate and science, educational reform, and more. I believe there’s a lot of room for improvement in many areas if we take the time to look.
BW: And where can people find your art?
SOP: I learned early on from Mintfaced and others about the value of having your own contract for on-chain art. So, for any art that I intend to put out in the world, it will be on-chain, stemming from my own Manifold contracts. You’ll be able to find me on platforms like Foundation and MakersPlace.
I’m excited about what I’ve heard coming out of MakersPlace regarding their approach to focusing on the artists, curators, and collectors. If they achieve their goal of being top-notch in this regard, they’ll be a go-to platform. It’ll make digital art on web3 a sensible and intuitive place for the general public. I’m very excited about their motivation and look forward to seeing it manifested.