IO Artist Interviews: Anne Spalter, Energy Kaleidoscopes

Digital + Physical Drop in collaboration with Infinite Objects

At the heart of "Energy Kaleidoscopes" (EKs) lies patterns of power and light. The designs build on the mathematics of traditional kaleidoscopes, re-imagined in vibrant digital light and color. Inspired by the symbolism of the lightning flash as a metaphor for spiritual transformation, the pieces are also influenced by the dynamic energy of modern particle accelerators as they explore the cosmos' deepest mysteries. With EKs, the realms of science and the arcane intertwine, randomness meets sacred geometry, and the boundaries between the natural and the mystical dissolve. 


Infinite Objects (IO): Anne, you have done amazing things for the digital art community, one example being the roots you’ve built in higher education. Not only have you founded the original digital arts courses at Brown University, but RISD as well. Can you talk a little bit about your artistic roots and what led you to your practice today?

Anne Spalter (AS): My practice began with traditional training–I majored in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design–and I wasn’t really looking for new media. Two things spurred my interest in (and eventually obsession with) digital art, though. The first was my needing to write a long thesis to graduate from Brown University (where I had transferred my junior year to study Mathematics). I had a manual typewriter and was buying ever-larger sizes of white-out to compensate for my poor typing skills. A friend showed me how I could enter all my text into a magical “Mac” and then press a single button and have 100+ pages “print out” looking like they’d been published. I was immediately intrigued. 

AS: The second motivating factor happened after I had graduated and moved to NYC to work in banking. I was paid well but the hours were insane so I didn’t have time to go to a studio and use paint. I began to experiment with art and design tools like Adobe Photoshop and now defunct programs such as Studio 8 and Aldus Freehand. Eventually I realized that as much as I enjoyed a regular paycheck, I really wanted to pursue artmaking, not finance, so I returned to graduate school. Once again I majored in Painting in RISD (and received my MFA in 1992) but by this time I was seriously interested in digital tools and wanted to explore them more deeply. I tried to take a course on computer art, but none were available. In this somewhat unusual situation, I was asked to teach a class to my fellow graduate students, and began developing my curriculum for The Computer in the Visual Arts, which eventually became a 500+-page textbook (Addison-Wesley 1999).

IO: Energy Kaleidoscopes is a fascinating blend of modern tech and sacred symbolism. I’d love to know more about how themes of power, light, and spiritual transformation inspired the creation of these pieces, and what you hope collectors will take away from them?

AS: Technically speaking, I used a custom Stable Diffusion AI pipeline, running locally on a gaming PC with a high-end NVIDIA card, to experiment with ways of generating abstract AI artwork. The pieces are a combination of textual prompts and reference images using examples of my previous original artwork. Conceptually, I have been increasingly frustrated with the way that AI is evolving to create more and more photorealistic imagery. Since my background is in painting and I have never worked in a realistic manner, I’ve been feeling that the tools are more and more aimed at other groups of users, so creating dynamic abstract work seemed like it would be a fun challenge. I was interested to see what AI would think of abstract prompts and the use of more verbs instead of the specific nouns and detailed camera settings, etc that are commonly used. I have a longstanding interest in mathematics patterning and have done several series of kaleidoscopic video works in the past (not AI). I love ways that digital tools can help me see things in ways and explore formal qualities like color and composition separate from initial video or or other image input. 

AS: As I played around with these ideas, the pieces slowly began to take form and I narrowed in on examples that seemed to convey intense energy and a combination of structured space but with a loosening of the usual strict symmetry of traditional kaleidoscopes. As the works gained more aesthetic clarity, I felt like I was exploring a world of pure energy, which of course reminded me of quantum physics and all of the bizarreness that is entailed in exploring the forces and elements in that realm. 

IO: EKs draws inspiration from particle accelerators, geometry, the cosmos, and the arcane. How do you see the relationship between scientific exploration and artistic expression in your work, and how do these seemingly disparate elements come together in Energy Kaleidoscopes?

AS: Just as particle accelerators help us explore realms we can’t see with regular vision, so computers help artists explore new realms unreachable with traditional tools. The challenge of depicting something that you can’t “see” or photograph like quarks or spiritual forces, seems especially suited to both fine art and the new communications media made possible by technology. I can’t tell what images the AI used but I like to think of a spiritual collective unconscious, represented by the wealth of imagery that has been scraped from the web and other sources. I think that Carl Jung would have loved quantum mechanics, especially quantum entanglement because he didn’t really believe in cause and effect. I’m always reading things like this recent article : which just blow my mind. I think both good art and good science make you look at the world in new ways. 

AS: I hope that Jung’s synchronicity, the iconography of energy/lightning as spiritual transformation, and the evocative realm of the subatomic all merge in these works to create a mysterious but positive impact on viewers.

IO: Could you walk us through the creative process behind Energy Kaleidoscopes? What digital techniques do you incorporate to achieve the uniquely vibrant and dynamic patterns seen in EKs?

AS: As mentioned above, the initial compositions were created with Stable Diffusion (2). I enjoyed being able to control all aspects of the software, using the Hugging Face code, and experimented with different models, Loras, sampling methods, generation sizes, etc. The animation is AnimateDiff. I sometimes used straight text prompts and sometimes had reference images to create more compositional variety. I used Topz Video AI upscaler to bring them from squares to 108x1920 and then TensorPix to upscale further and smooth out artifacts. Adobe AfterEffects helped me color balance and I used Adobe Premier to assemble the longer videos for the Infinite Objects. Although the works can be on a phone or tablet or computer screen, I think having the physical IO will help people enjoy them more fully.

IO: This drop will include both digital and physical components. How did you approach the challenge of translating the designs of Energy Kaleidoscopes from a digital format to a physical object (or vice versa), and what excites you most about collectors experiencing your art in these forms?

AS: The most immediate aesthetic choice people might notice is at 16:9 format vs a more common 1:1 aspect ratio for NFTs. 16:9 meant they would work perfectly with the Infinite Object screens, as well as any TV screen. As noted above, even though we all look at art on our screens now, there is something special about an object you can hold and that frames one’s work and guides the viewing experience. IOs are great because collectors don’t need to have outlets installed in their walls, there’s no remote to lose, there’s no switch or buttons to learn. You just unbox it from its beautiful Apple-like packaging, plug it in, and you’re all set. So it’s kind of the opposite of the crypto space, which often demands a lot of technical knowledge. 

IO: How do you see digital art, AI, and traditional artistic mediums changing your creative process over time? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you are excited to explore following Energy Kaleidoscopes?

AS: I started using AI in late 2020 and I haven’t stopped! It’s addictive. Although I never plan to give up painting and drawing or other tools and media, it’s harder and harder to imagine creating things now without some kind of AI involvement. It's just too magical and fun. 

AS: After EK I have another big NFT/physicals drop coming up in July. I can’t share details yet, but, yes, it involves AI.

Check out Energy Kaleidoscopes live to the public 6/13 at Noon EST: here: