The Immersive Interaction of Massive Digital Art
Noel - Artist, aka ScarletMotiff
2022:- I, Bwojji Elijah, immersively converse with SCARLETMOTIFF (Isaac Noel Apitta) on his journey into the Art’s Space of Uganda; both as a creative technologist and an audio-visual artist from Kampala Uganda.
Pause. Rewind. Begin.
2018:- I encounter SCARLETMOTIFF on a Saturday night, a Collective Ug night, at Nakasero Primary School. This is also the first night I first saw someone create digital art or visualisations. I was excited to meet him...
2021:- SCARLETMOTIFF holds the first-of-its-kind exhibition at the AfriArt gallery
2022:- Noor Riyadh - Riyadh Art features SCARLETMOTIFF from 3rd November to 19th November.
For more, watch here.
For now, let's dive in!
This conversation took place at MOTIV in early September. In it, SCARLETMOTIFF explores his existence in this art space and what the art industry has to offer for artists like him, as the world fights on from the effects of COVID-19.
Exhibition at AfriArt gallery, 2021. Credit: Andrew Pacutho
Bwojji: How did you get into this line of work? Also; going through your instagram, I noticed an account @touchdesigner tagged on almost every post.
SCARLETMOTIFF: Touch Designer is a programming environment, but most people view it as a program. About how I got into this art space, there is no linear path. My story starts with music, back in high school at Buddo King’s College. Everything that I have that is creative has come from that point. I joined a band and we used to put together band nights; I used to design the tickets and the production support work.
After school, at church, I took part in a lot of youth productions, where I was in charge of stage designing and lighting design. When I joined The Collective Ug, there was more work to do around design in staging and in presentation- the storytelling of the built environment. I found myself in something that I hadn’t considered, and after we had done the décor and design of the first show, I became the guy who does that. I designed the stages and the lightning. After a while, it entered into graphics. And my intent for whatever design I was making, be it a lighting design or a staging design was how to add to the story the event is trying to tell, and identify opportunities for storytelling even in small thematic elements.
That’s where I started. It’s an evolution from that musical point, to creating supporting elements that help tell musical stories, to learning and using tools from Adobe Suits. The recurring payment of Adobe was not the best for my pockets and, the tools support the minds that are ultra-organized and have a fixed well defined vision to be achieved at the end of the day. I don’t work like that! I have a general direction in which I want to go and the vision is developed in the experimentation process.
Bwojji: What do you call the art that you do?
SCARLETMOTIFF: It’s called Generative Art, it's relatively new; at least it has resisted characterization because everyone is doing something different in it. You build a set of rules in the design code. It’s not AI (Artificial Intelligence); it has a set of perimeters that allow you to make decisions based on the inputs presented to it. What I create is something like when you touch your phone and it reacts immediately in real-time. This art takes the inputs from the environment and then reacts. Instagram, as a video site, is hard to achieve that interaction; so I render out the inputs and put music instead. That's why when someone visits my page it’s easy to call it music visualization.
Bwojji: How have you found collaborating with other artists?
SCARLETMOTIFF: In the beginning, I didn’t see my work as Art! I think it is the way people treat things from the digital space as fodder for the consumerist enterprise, where people throw away after consuming. It’s hard for someone to see something intangible as that and call it art. But I have seen great value when you get to see your work as Art. The matter of fact remains that for most people who work in the digital sphere in this country, their biggest market is the corporate space. The way it's designed, it does appear like the corporate space is the antithesis of the art space. Internationally you get to see a corporate entity collaborating with an artist who has gained enough solo clout, like Kanye and Adidas and it’s an artist collaboration. But here it rarely happens. The times I have been able to truly create from an artist’s standpoint and cast a vision onto things, was when I had the unlikely or ironic privilege of not being paid to work on the production.
Asking about collaborations, I have worked on stage designs for The Collective Ug, on youth productions of All Saints in Nakasero, and that kind of stuff. Weirdly, my work did begin around the theatre and that concert I did with MoRoots, it happened in 2019, and in 2020 the pandemic happened; things have been closed for a long time! Collaboration in the country for me has been a touch and go. But the people in the new media art environment are few; I think the most fervent of them is the digital illustrator. But I have found out that even in a space where there are very few people like that, it’s hard finding people who do what I do. It's those closest to it. I have been collaborating with them, even with animation studios like Creatures Studio. 'Collaboration' is a big word:- The Creatures studio gives me space, I sit there sometimes, and we talk and flesh out some ideas that I get to work on; that’s how it has always been. It’s all informal stuff. I don’t think there is an infrastructure in here. First of all the artist infrastructure for selling traditional art is very specific and it exists in art galleries like AfriArt gallery (hyperlink to Afriart gallery website), which were kind enough to allow me to use their space for my first exhibition. But in general, for the kind of work we do, it’s hard to find people to collaborate with sometimes. People I have found it easy to collaborate with are musicians, like Izaya the Composer, and MoRoots to some degree. People who work 'around the space' like My Friends Make Music run by Gabriel Mundaka, and have been playing around with similar tools that I am using (guys like DJs), are the ones I have collaborated with so far.
Bwojji: Do you see a chance for the next generation, young kids coming after you, to take up this art and expand on it?
SCARLETMOTIFF: If nothing else, using that dreaded word correctly:- exposure! One issue for me when I was beginning was, half the time I didn’t know the name of the stuff I wanted to do, and google couldn’t help because I didn’t know what to type in. At some point I had to correct information from different disparity sources: I have a friend who is a professional stage designer, I listened to him, and some of his words led me to the tools I am using. I have friends who are musicians, and some of their advice has helped me understand my audio production. I have used the information I have gained from them to build this composite which is my information base which powers a lot of the work I do. But I do a lot of that by myself or with very few collaborators. The people who are coming after us- the kids, at the very least we are here:- That is, if nothing else, no matter how far I can be able to go, someone will see me working and they will ask me a question and it will set them off and they go further than I could ever. You see a lot of artists today, musicians like Bantu Vibes. There are a lot of these artists on the Youtube channel- Expressions. They are young, and few of them are above 25yrs. And you see the entire production unit is these young people, younger than me! They are here and at a much younger stage in their lives. They are achieving great things. And for them, the sky is the limit. There is a lot of space for the mentorship of young people.
Bwojji: If someone takes you to work on a concert deep in Luwero, do you think the youth there will understand the story you are telling through the media you are using?
SCARLETMOTIFF: All I said before is just a preceding statement; when one looks at it with a critical eye, they realize that I am probably speaking about the people who exist in the metropolis because the context I have grown up in is very different from the people who grew up on the farms in Mubende, or certain parts of Gulu far from Kampala. The rosy picture I have painted of the future does paper over those particular cracks that, to sit in a place we are in, which is this technologically advanced, at least from where we were, it’s something they will never have access to. The only reason why this stuff was a lot easier for me to get into before I even reached a point to say they are too expensive, I had computers- that was not an issue. When I was introduced to the tools to use, the tools were just outside of what I knew, I had a framework that helped me figure out how things worked. Some people don’t.
Sometimes the thing that is missing is more than technology, and more than money (and maybe they go hand in hand); in this country, the thing missing is the permission or allowance for one to dream. It’s intangible, and politically some people have taken away people’s ability to dream or they have not fanned it into flames; it's intangible it will never win any votes.
Every single time I show people what I do, guys say "waaa this is not from Uganda." I heard it with Collective when we were making music in Wandegeya and started releasing it, people started saying it's not from Uganda. It’s like anything good is not from here! And this kind of thinking permeates to the highest levels of power in this country. Like our doctors are there to maintain medical equipment, no one is looking at them to be innovators in their fields, no one is allowing them to. This is what I am trying to say if we go into that space, and take the concert to Luwero, the people might not understand necessarily my visual things, and they might not know computers, but there is something to inspire people and they get permission to dream.
Bwojji: We live in a country where the goal is money, and success is when your art sells. When you have conversations with people about your art, the first question is, "how will it make you money"! How have you been able to reconcile this narrative with your process?
SCARLETMOTIFF: Maybe this is the truth about Life. No one is allowing anyone to go through the processes of developing an idea... There is no space to allow people to fail. Failure is not such a bad thing. I have failed at things before. I have come to understand that failure is not the final stage. And there are many ways to get success even when you are not earning from your art.
I had an exhibition at the AfriArt gallery. It was pretty cool; I think it was the first of its kind in the religion for an interactive art exhibition. It went on for three days and it was expensive, something we need to talk about. People would walk into the exhibition; some would mellow into it and have an experience, and others would go beyond their heads and ask what is its commercial value, how I am making money from this. This is odd, because we are in an art gallery, to be fair my work was not being sold in the art gallery, I am not an AfriArt gallery artist, but we are in an art gallery. Everyone is looking at you as if your art can only exist to be in a certain structure which is the corporate branding space. I have nothing against that. In this country, if you want to do something creatively, it’s only going to have value if one of the big brands is the one presenting it to the audience. And these brands support a lot of artists' things in this country. But there should be a space for people to have a vision of the future or of the art world that doesn’t align with the cultural thinking of the time, and innovate in such spaces, be it artistic or scientific
It has taken me a while to come to an understanding of what it means for me to be an artist. I haven’t planned on most of it, I am just seeing where it goes, but when I get an opportunity to dream and cast my vision upon it, then I try and do that. But I also need the space like any other human being, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn to grow, to redirect, without someone asking me for a 10year plan of what I am doing, even when they too don’t understand what they are saying.
Bwojji: How have you been able to position yourself to get those paying clients; because even artists can’t eat air and talk?
SCARLETMOTIFF: for context, I have been in this industry as a professional or as a volunteer for the last 6years; I started earning useful money from it last year in October. But I have been lucky. I have had the backing of my family. And that is something we shouldn’t discount. I have a series on Instagram, which a friend encouraged me to start called Generative Dreams; when I started it I was trying to learn how to use the technology. Organically my following started to grow, and I have never done any advertising, but any kind of work I have gotten has come through that. I have not positioned myself at all. The company that created Touch designer software, invited me to their Youtube channel for a conversation. I had like 40 pieces at the time and putting up a website, it allowed me to explain my work. As an artist, it’s your job to put up the work you want to be hired for. If you go to my Instagram, the things I have pinned up show my work in physical settings; whether my photo exhibition in AfriArt gallery or that time I had my work on a building in Tokyo. Because I don’t want my work to only exist in small spaces but in massive spaces, on buildings, screens where people can interact with it. Maybe I am not talking about positioning for earning money, but sometimes positioning yourself for the kind of work you want to do.
Bwojji: Thanks so much for the conversation.