When I first saw Carlo Van de Roer’s Modulator One, I had two thoughts: “This is beautiful” and “What is it?” Obviously, it’s a collection of photographs, but as I learned, it’s also much more. The project started in Van de Roer’s studio, where he built a makeshift “house” out of panels of repurposed construction sheeting and wall framing. He then cut into those panels to create shifting patterns of light and shadow, with varying degrees of transparency throughout.
From there, he captured that light play using PlateLight, a technology he helped develop as part of his work at Satellite Lab, a creative studio and R&D lab. This technology allowed him to capture different lighting setups at the same time, using the same camera, creating drastically different shapes and effects throughout the illuminated, paneled space. But that footage just marked the beginning of Modulator One. The images would only be fully realized once they were collected as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain.
The final still photographs that make up Modulator One are generated the moment they’re collected, based on each collector’s unique hash. The code executes and generates the image automatically. There are many, many possible outcomes, but only 48 pictures will ever be created, meaning that the artist has given up some creative control to the blockchain, the code, and most all, the collectors themselves. The collector sees the finished artwork before the artist does, giving new meaning to the idea of “owning” a photograph.
Even after I understood the basics of how the project works, I found the photographs kept drawing me back, again and again. The more time I spent with them, the more familiar they seemed, which felt odd given that, in many ways, they are the very first of their kind. Then it hit me: they reminded me, somehow, of Lightplay: Black, White, Gray (1930)–a film made by the pioneering Bauhaus artist and photographer László Moholy-Nagy, using a kinetic sculpture he built himself from metal, plastic, wood, and an electric motor.
Almost a hundred years later, Van de Roer is using brand-new machines and cutting-edge technology, but he’s using them to explore the fundamental elements that have always made photography and film unique: light, shadow, time, transparency, depth, and, often, a degree of randomness and happy accidents. In that sense, his images are firmly rooted in the history of the medium, while also expanding our definition of what “a photograph” can be.
Today, Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, is held at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. It’s one of the most important works in their collection, and the curators say there’s one question they always get from visitors seeing it for the first time. It’s the same question I asked myself when I first saw Modulator One: “What is it?”
There will be more generative photography projects following Modulator One, just as there was more kinetic art created after Light Prop. But I can easily see museum and gallery-goers, a century from now–perhaps in real life, perhaps in the metaverse–standing in front of Van de Roer’s photographs feeling that same rush of surprise and curiosity I did when I saw them for the first time. In an increasingly fast-paced digital world, it’s not hard to find beautiful photographs. But it’s rare indeed to find beautiful photographs that make us stop and wonder.
We asked the artist to tell us more about Modulator One.
What first intrigued you about generative art? Are there any projects that inspired you?
“The first generative NFTs I saw were Autoglyphs by Larva Labs, which were the first to be generated on-chain, according to Larva Labs. These are artworks that contain the art within the contract itself; the art and the distribution mechanism are one. It’s a wonderfully simple and smart idea. I was very inspired by that work and the work that followed in its footsteps by artists who were using the blockchain as a new creative toolset.
“I collected some generative work through ArtBlocks, and part of what I found so enticing about the work there was that it was co-authored by the collector at the time of minting. I was very interested in that collaborative dynamic and the demand on the artist to build a script that could create work independently, without being controlled or edited beyond the capacity of the script.
“When I first started looking at the potential for dynamically generated photography through the blockchain and smart contract, I was surprised to discover that there weren’t any projects yet in which the images were generated when collected. So Modulator One became an experiment for me, and as far as I know, it is the first generative photography project in which the images are generated upon being collected.
“I owe a lot to another mate of mine, Dykse, for working on the code for this project. We looked at some of the aspects we loved from the work we experienced on ArtBlocks, such as being dynamically generated online, and we coupled that with the advantages offered to photographers and collectors through permanent storage like IPFS.”
Can you tell us about the original installation that formed the foundation of Modulator One?
“I decided to let this work look and feel like the experiment it is, to wear that on its sleeve, so I set up the installation in my studio in LA. I had been working in there on installations of domestic architecture. I was creating a kind of construction site, thinking of a house as a site for shifting history and memory, where the past can be shaped into new stories, histories, and identity. All the materials used here were repurposed from that construction site.
“Over the last several years, my work has become focused on this idea of reactivating the past as something changeable, as I’ve been unpacking heritage and thinking through family history and lineage. My goal with the project was to record a moment of construction or creation within this ‘house’ and present that past moment in time as mutable and changeable through engagement. Each still image generated by a collector operates as a different recollection of this same moment. Interacting with the video work (see it here) will change the record of this past moment by switching the lighting in it.”
Where do the shapes and forms in Modulator One come from?
“The lines and the shapes reference different applications of ‘open form.’ Open form is a compositional term, but it’s also a term that has referred to the frame of a film or video vs the closed form of a still image frame. In either case, open form refers to pointing out from the constraints of the frame to potential in either in time or space.”
What is PlateLight technology, in layman’s terms?
“PlateLight is an in-camera photographic technology that enables the capture of different lighting conditions or set-ups at the same time on the same camera. The simplest way to think about this might be recording lighting from the right and the left at the same time but as separate footage — or day and night at the same time. A more complex example might be ten different lights used on a production set.
“Each different lighting set-up is acquired as a separate piece of footage, and these can be combined after capture. In this way, these different ‘plates’ of lighting can be used in an edit or as layers to sculpt with light, or we could switch between one and the other. Essentially, this gives us the ability to go back in time and relight a scene after its shot.
“It started as an idea I had years ago working on a film in Australia when we wanted to film two quite different looks at the same time. We developed and patented the approach at an R&D studio called Satellite Lab, which I founded with my mate Stuart Rutherford. PlateLight is pretty new, although we’ve been experimenting with it for years. It’s at a point now where I’m really excited to start using it in more projects. It recently had its feature film debut in a major motion picture, which is an exciting moment for me and the team that brought it to life.”
Can you walk us through the very basics of how the final Modulator One pictures are generated?
“The performance is captured in the studio, in one take, using PlateLight to record the multiple lighting set-ups. That footage is used as layers, so each layer is a different lighting look of the same take. For the generative work, these layers are uploaded to a server, and when a piece of work is collected, the script that creates the image is activated automatically.
“It reads the collector’s hash and uses that to drive variables that decide things like how many layers, which layer, and which parts of which layers are used in generating the image. The script generates that image automatically and uploads it to permanent storage and connects it to the token of ownership.”
What are some of the challenges you faced in bringing this idea into the world, and how did you overcome them?
“There were plenty of technical challenges on the coding side, as that was new to us. My friend Dyske and I worked on the code for a long time, learning how it needed to interact with the blockchain, contract, and permanent storage. Part of that was also figuring out creative variations, given there are far more possible outcomes than there are tokens available. What I like about what we ended up building is that the collector’s hash acts like DNA, in that if one person collected all the pieces, they would have a degree of bias different from another collector doing the same thing.
“We also wanted there to be a seed that the collector retains, so if permanent storage turns out to not be so permanent, that collector could use the seed to generate the same image again online using the same script. That seed, which is their hash combined with info from the token they collected, perhaps also provides some longevity.”
These images remind me a bit of Light Prop for an Electric Stage by László Moholy-Nagy, which I recently learned is sometimes called Light-Space Modulator. Can you tell us about the origin of the Modulator One title? It’s not a Moholy-Nagy reference, by any chance, is it?
“It is a reference to Moholhy-Nagy. His endeavor to look at ‘light as a new plastic medium’ is something I’ve been thinking about while working with these new toolsets. It also references the process of the generative script adjusting variables independently.”
How did The Portrait Machine Project, your first NFT collection, inform or influence the creation of this newer work?
“TPMP was my first project on the blockchain, and it really gave me some encouragement, as it sold out in a few hours. It prompted me to research what an NFT really is and can do. At that stage, provenance and the advantages of permanent storage were new and exciting, and this led to me researching what else is possible beyond the marketplace–to the creative potential in the chain.
“The images in that project also depict information as color and light, and that has been a recurring theme for me, as I’ve started making work that messes with the representation of time.
“When I created the portraits in that project, I was working with an Aura camera. My interest in that camera was to use it to explore the powerplay in the portrait-making process, but a takeaway from that project for me was that the inventor of the camera had created it in an attempt to present the world as he saw it. That was something that stuck with me and probably led to me creating technology myself.”
Why was it important to you to include the collaborative element within Modulator One? What does it mean to you to collaborate with your collectors in this way?
“I’ve wanted to incorporate collaboration with a viewer more and more recently. I had created some installations at museums and galleries starting back in 2014 in which the viewer’s position or point of view in front of an image of a decisive frozen moment would change that moment through lighting. And I’ve created interactive lighting pieces online in the past, but not in a format that can be shared or collected in the way that an NFT allows, so the smart contract has really changed that.
“I wanted to put the tools for authoring the past in the hands of the viewer, to experience the ‘based on a true story’ nature of the way we are dealing with the past. This is something photography is so good at because the photographic mechanism itself is ‘based on a true story,’ and at the same time has provided us with a visual vocabulary through which we have come to understand time. Intervening in that constructed representation of time that photography has provided (timelapse, frozen time, bullet time, slow motion, etc.) has been a driving force for creating this camera and lighting technology.
“I started making this kind of work that played with the past while searching for threads of my Dutch heritage in the U.S. As an immigrant, I was intrigued by some of the early European art that was used to create a sense of place for settlers and the way in which those artists butchered the past into new stories and new histories to create a sense of identity. We see a similar thing in domestic architecture.
“While I was researching this, fake news became very prominent, and it became quite common to see very different representations of the same moments in time. While these disparate things were overlapping in my daily life, looking back, I think making work like this became a way for me to work through and think about some of this.
“The collaborative aspect of this project became very important to me, and what I’ve loved to see is that Modulator One is becoming a sort of community-created recollection of this moment for photography and the blockchain, with collaboration from those who pioneered some of the main platforms we use (Justin Aversano from Quantum, Alejandro Cartagena from Obscura, Shane Lavalette and Ashlyn Davis Burns from Assembly), as well as the first artists on those platforms (Amy Elkins, Cristina de Middel), other artists here pushing things forward and participating (Yatreda, Alec Soth, Roe Ethridge, Matt Porter, Hannah Whitaker, Reuben Wu, and many others), and some of the wonderfully supportive collectors of photography (studio137, Freddie, PixelPete, Blockbird…).
“There are 48 pieces in total. The project feels like it’s becoming something new to me, and I think that’s part of the joy of relinquishing control in the generative process.”
You can collect–and co-author–photographs from Modulator One on OpenSea. Van de Roer set prices at 0.24 ETH, lower than past works, to make the project accessible to a wider network of collectors and collaborators.