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Mike Casey Interview, 1 of 4 January 22, 2011

baker b.: This is the first of, I hope, a number of synchronicity and art related interviews I will be hosting in celebration of the Pietmond Art Crawl opening in December, 2010. Joining me today is long time “syncher” friend, Mike Casey, whose artwork is now displayed in what is presently the largest of the Pietmond galleries: SoSo West.

Mike, let’s start with your more traditional art such as exhibited in SoSo West, which can be found on the World Wide Web at

http://www.sito.org/cgi-bin/egads/segads?idonly=MKC.

Can you talk about technique, philosophy, influences?

Mike C.: Thanks, Baker. It’s a pleasure to “be here”.

The common thread that runs through basically all of my art is that it’s done in an exploratory mode, rather than following intention.

To back up a little, before computer art was available, my art was mostly intentional. I worked with pencil and paper and focused on surrealistic montages or portraits from images where I attempted photorealism. For the surrealist drawings, Dali was the main influence to the limited extent that I was able to follow his lead. For the portraits, I was basically trying to transcribe photographs, or sometimes paused video, to paper and pencil drawings. At this point I saw refinements of photorealistic techniques and surrealism as my future goal.

Then computers started to show their potential for art. At first I was happy just to see different images displayed in increasing resolutions and numbers of colors. The first time I used photoshop, I was hooked. Distorting, filtering and otherwise modifying existing images was fun and interesting for me and seemed to have much more potential than traditional art. It didn’t take too long once I was free to manipulate photos to find that I was most excited about strange conjunctions of information where the original image was transformed into something unexpected and new. That’s when my intentional art efforts gave way to more unconscious explorations, guided by intuition.

So my basic formula is to start with an image or some noise and then start to manipulate it while only remaining vaguely aware of the process and watch for something interesting to happen. I didn’t have any direct influences for this approach, I just found it to be fun and satisfying. But recently I was reading Jung’s “Man and his Symbols” and found that it might have a similarity to Jackson Pollock’s method. He described approaching his art in a type of trance where he only finds out what he has been about after the painting starts to take form. Then he either stays connected to it and there is a harmony that makes it come out well, or he loses that connection and it turns into a mess. I follow a similar process and then it seems that the image either collapses into a mess or it suddenly transforms into something that is full of life and various images on many levels where the more I study it, the more I find.

baker b.: Thanks for that answer. I can tell this is going to be a great interview where I’ll learn a lot.

When you mentioned making a connection with an abstract expressionist type piece in order to keep from turning it into a “mess”, I immediately thought of the complex black and white piece called “Messy World” on the second of two floors in SoSo West. As I understand, this is also a more recent work, along with the similar “Information Nibbler” hung beside it. Can you discuss a bit how this trance technique has evolved over the years, and perhaps how this plays a part in choosing either a grayscale or color palette for any certain work?

Mike C.: Yes, “Messy World” is a recent work and created using a method very similar to “Information Nibbler”. I think “Messy World” started with the same image of the sun that “His Solar Face” used as a starting point. I was thinking about the bizarre and unhealthy psychologies that seem to dominate human interaction and so when the image sort of exploded with sinister forms, I decided to stop and name it. “Information Nibbler” started with noise, and was one of the earliest experiments with a sort of algorithm that I stumbled on for finding some sweet spots in information space where there were plenty of faces and other forms to look at. Since then I have tried to make other images using the same technique, but it doesn’t work as well as it seemed to at first. Could be a sort of measure of how well I am connecting with my unconscious psyche.

With “Information Nibbler” I also went in after the initial creation and attempted to emphasize certain forms without changing the naturally occurring structure too much. That’s something that I enjoyed doing with images shortly after I started playing with photoshop. I remember an image of a tree where I saw several faces, including an orangutan’s face, so I gently emphasized certain features to try to make them pop a little more. I’ve done the same with clouds. So that’s one point of evolution of my “methods.”

Speaking of methods reminds me of the lines from Apocalypse Now

Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

But mostly my techniques evolved from my time spent doing mathematics of nonlinear systems. The basic idea in dynamics is to have a transformation and then to iterate that transformation and try to characterize how the state changes based on that fixed law. It’s kind of like repeating a word over and over until it doesn’t sound right. With many of my images in the SoSo gallery, I started with a minimal amount of information and then applied a distortion repeatedly to create the kind of fractal shapes. Sometimes it turns out well. If it falls apart at some point, I try again. It’s strange that it seems to be an all-or-nothing process.

Another method that I’ve practiced over the years for distorting images is to use layering and combining the layers in various ways. This is what I added to the repeated distortion process to get to images like “Messy World” and “Information Nibbler”.

baker b.: As you probably know by now, I’m not much of a mathematician myself, but I am interested in some layman aspects of more fringe subjects like chaos math, especially as applied to physics. Do you see this relating to quantum physics by chance, perhaps like peering into a sub-atomic world where ordinary, Newtonian laws of cause and effect break down? At any rate there seems to be a blurring between real and imagined in your work, or that they are much closer together and more difficult to resolve apart.

Can you explain more the layering techniques used in pieces like “Messy World” and “Information Nibbler”? Are you referring to Photoshop layers?

Mike C.: I never thought of it as quantum vs. deterministic, but the way the images result from a “collapsing of a waveform” does seem much more like a quantum function than intentional Newtonian cause and effect. In fact, the main distortion involved is the wave filter. Once they are resolved it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to separate them again.

Yes, the layering techniques I refered to are Photoshop layers. So there are multiple images that are combined according to different functions that produce the final image. In these cases, the individual images are created through an iterative process, but the way that they work together gives the desired effect.

baker b.: Thanks for this information; much to chew on here. A brief question about the always interesting and mysterious titles for your pieces. How do you come up with them? Then I would like to ask about a specific work, if I may bundle my questions again, called “Dr. F,” where an insectoid humanoid with wildly flowing hair seems to stare back at the viewer with two, round blue eyes. At least to *my* eyes. Do you see this particular piece as having anthropomorphic qualities as well? If so, how does this relate to the images you see and even highlight inside the surface “noise” of more recent pictures such as “Information Nibbler.”?

Mike C.: For the titles, I’m usually left with an impression during the process, or when the image reforms I see something that inspires the title. I think it would be fair to say that when an image inspires a name, that’s when I stop transforming it. Though I sometimes continue manipulating the same image afterwards to see if I reach a different stopping point/ a different name. Sometimes the name is inspired by something that’s mostly outside of the image, but has some vague connection to it.

I see “Dr. F” exactly the way you describe. I think I was exploring the liquify tool in photoshop, but the eyes were created by intentionally selecting the circles and recombining them with the rest of the image. I think the name was short for Dr. Funk, which is the character that the face seemed to suggest to me – sort of a cartoonish mad scientist, flying through a vision of “funky” reality. I have a difficult time creating images of scenery. I mostly focus on anthropomorphic subjects, especially faces. Similarly, “Information Nibbler” was named from the central character that I saw in that image, which reminded me of Nibbler from Futurama (wearing a Gilligan type hat), with the dual meaning of sort of nibbling on information until I could taste something in the noise.

I think “Dr. F” was created around the same time as the MikeCosm II, and shares a similarity to the being I see on Level 6 of that project, with lines flowing away from a central face with big round eyes.

baker b.: I want to return to the Mikecosms very soon, but, going along with “Dr F” right now, I know that in real life you’re a research doctor who’s had success in his chosen profession. How do you see art plugging into a bigger, life picture, with the understanding that this has not been a primary career focus?

Mike C.: I have a PhD in mathematics, which many people see as diametrically opposed to doing art. From the general neuropsychological perspective, math is considered a left brain, logical, activity, while art relies more on the wholistically inclined right brain. My older brother is a very talented artist/graphic designer and a musician, an he had a lot of influence in those areas. As a child, it was natural for me to pursue art since it was in my environment, and I was lucky enough to have some ability. I was a good math student, but my path to really focusing on it started with an interest in philosophy that expressed itself as a love of science. In college, I got interested in artificial intelligence and neural networks and eventually found an adviser, Professor Arnold Mandell, who was trained as a psychiatrist and founded the psychiatry department at UC, San Diego, where I went to school. When I met him, Arnold was in the math department, applying nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory to understanding the mind. It took me months of effort to start to understand what he was talking about, but he was incredibly brilliant and had a lot of wild ideas that spanned many disciplines and convinced me to switch to mathematics for my degrees. Fortunately, I enjoy the process of doing math, so I’ve found a career in the gaming industry, mostly designing slot machines, including exact calculations of expected payouts.

While designing slots, having a background in and appreciation of art is useful. I work closely with artists to create the games and occasionally create some preliminary graphics myself.

More generally, for peace of mind, I think art as a hobby gives me a way to work both sides of my brain and hopefully strengthen the functioning of my mind as a whole.

baker b.: Very interesting material Dr Casey (!) I didn’t know some of the details about your education and upbringing. Thanks for sharing. I would also add here that you are an excellent writer, and I think you would have had success in English studies as well.

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