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The Artist Who Speaks to Computers and Their Humans

Oct 8 2015 6:55 PM
The Artist Who Speaks to Computers and Their Humans

Photos by Patrick Delaney

Ashley Zelinskie is a Star Trek-obsessed nerd creating art with the 3D printer and super computer she built herself.

Like much of her work, Ashley Zelinskie eludes a one-dimensional definition. She is a Star Trek-obsessed nerd who studies electrical engineering, theoretical physics, and space in her spare time. The stunning 28-year-old looks like something out of an Anthropologie catalog and wears a ring blessed by the Dali Lami. (She's a Buddhism enthusiast and life-long vegetarian.) With her three-Dimensional sculptures, Zelinskie is changing the face of both the art world and the tech world.

Her story begins as many young artists' journeys do: when Zelinskie was a talented young painter and sculptor who scored a spot at RISD. She graduated in 2010 with a BFA in glass blowing (a vestige of her Dead Head days) and a minor in the history of Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic art. She moved to Bushwick, where she says she bartered her way into a studio, promising to fill the building with artists in exchange for free rent. Then she realized she was tired of glass blowing.

Well, can I go the complete opposite direction and find something that's always changing that I'll never get bored of?

"After doing four years of [glass blowing] I was so uninterested, but I used it as a catalyst to tip me in the complete opposite direction," Zelinskie says. "Glass blowing is such an ancient art, it hasn't changed in hundreds of years, there've been no improvements to the technology. I was like, 'Well, can I go the complete opposite direction and find something that's always changing that I'll never get bored of?'"

Zelinskie's career rebooted itself in a dorm room at Penn state. Her younger brother attended the school as a computer science student, and she visited him often. During her stays, her brother taught her how to code. They stayed up all night to debate computer theory, nature, and physics. Inspired by their late night chats, Zelinskie came up with her concept of Reverse Abstraction, an idea that now dictates much of her work.

Reverse Abstraction acknowledges that humans and computers perceive the world in different ways, one in objects and shape the other in code. Zelinskie creates things in dual form: the way humans see them and the way computers see them. To show what computers see, she creates concrete objects out of the code that composes them. For example, one of her sculptures is a 3D-printed cube composed of the code that makes up the particular shape in a 3D-printing file. After coming up with Reverse Abstraction, she realized 3D printing was her ideal medium.

"I think the idea should come first and the medium should come second," said Zelinskie. "Being limited by thinking of the medium first and the idea second, that's not the way my brain works. I like to sit and read and think and come up with a really cool idea and then manifest that in the most appropriate way."

To 3D print her artwork, Zelinskie first had to acquire a 3D printer and learn to manipulate computer files. Zelinskie practiced on Arduino boards, miniature motherboards that can be easily programed to control interactive objects, like small robots. She raised money to buy a MakerBot. At the time, 3D printers were relatively new and you had to buy a kit and assemble it yourself. Zelinskie says she finished building her system in a few days. MakerBot was so impressed they asked her to be their artist in residence in 2013.

"I like building stuff. MIT does open courseware and I kind of ate up their electrical engineering classes online," Zelinskie says. "I have no formal training in this nor do I think you need it. Computer science and engineering stuff you can basically teach yourself through the Internet."

During her half a year at MakerBot, Zelinskie designed and printed the first object in her Reverse Abstraction series, a chair inspired by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. In the 60s Kosuth's created "One and Three Chairs," an exhibition which combines a chair, a photo of a chair, and a blown-up definition of the word chair. Like Kosuth, Zelinskie printed a chair comprised of the code for a 3D file of a chair. Both artists aim to question the nature of the object.

I got cold emailed out of the blue one morning and they were like, 'We're with the US government, and we would like to purchase some of your art work for an embassy.'

Zelinskie moved on to a residency with 3D printing company Shapeways in 2014. She made a finalized version of her chair and showed it alongside her other sculptures at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Zelinskie was picked up by the TORCH Gallery in Amsterdam who now represent her. Then she says she received an email from the government.

"I deleted the email at first," Zelinsie says. "I got cold emailed out of the blue one morning and they were like, 'We're with the US government, and we would like to purchase some of your art work for an embassy.' I was thinking this sounds like the Nigerian prince scenario."

After consulting a lawyer, Zelinskie realized the email was real and sent an apologetic response. Luckily the government was still interested. Through the Cultural Exchange Through the Visual Arts program, Zelinskie says one of her cubes will be placed in the new American Consulate in Saudi Arabia upon the building's completion. The assignment meant she had to figure out how to print a 5x5 foot version of her cube.

"That's the cool thing about working with files on the computer," Zelinskie says. "My sculptures exist in this very malleable state where I can really easily make them change and adapt to whatever I need."

Working with computers and 3D printers has its limits. Zelinskie has had to build her own super computer to handle her high-density files and programs. She also uses laser cutting to produce much of her work, and she struggles to find laser cutters capable of keeping up with her. Zelinskie eventually reverse engineered the problem by finding a laser cutter salesman and asking him for the companies that had bought his biggest cutters—the ones she needed. She now sends and picks up much of her work in Philadelphia.

A recent exhibition at Lightbox in New York City curated by Kristin Sancken, an up and coming curator known for pushing boundaries, debuted Zelinskie's video project "Code Density." Code Density capture's some of Zelinskie's frustrations with her work, namely how she is limited in the objects she can produce because the code behind the sculptures is too long to fit on the object.

"Code Density was basically me taking a stand. I always get asked questions like why don't you do a sphere or why don't you do a more complicated object or why don't you do something bigger. People want my sculptures to be so much crazier," Zelinskie says. "The reason isn't because I don't want to. The more complicated the shape the longer the code is. The longer the code, the more ripping my hair out to fit it back on the piece. I am seriously true to all the code; all the code is on that thing no matter what I have to do."

We really take for granted how much code is behind everything.

Zelinskie could use a different language of code like HTML but she prefers hexadecimal because it is closer to the language machines inherently understand. Code Density projected all of the code behind a design program's blank file across the walls of a room while music played and dancers enacted the computer's eventual crashing as it is overloaded with code.

"I wanted to make a video that demonstrates what a computer is doing when a file is running through its brain," Zelinskie says. "We really take for granted how much code is behind everything. Like [with] an Instagram photo, you could never fit the code for an Instagram photo in the space of that tiny square. It would just never work."

Limitations may frustrate Zelinskie, but they don't seem to slow her down. She has already built her own 3D printer and super computer. Currently Zelinskie is collaborating with a various scientific institutes on projects relating to space and radio astronomy. She says Google is providing her with the files of paintings she wants to print and code. She's also started a series called "Human Code" where she 3D prints sculptures of humans using their own genetic code. Thus far she's only mapped and printed herself, but she's working with a portrait photographer to supply her with more photos. She also says she swabbed some of his clients and is waiting on their genetic results to design and print sculptures of them. Finally Zelinskie is preparing for Art Basel Miami in December, a pivotal time for her to sell work and raise enough money to pursue her various projects.

There aren't enough women working in art!

Reviewing Zelinskie's accomplishments one can't help but believe she is a super-genius, maybe even a robot, the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk of the art world. When asked why there aren't enough women working in tech she laughs and fires back, "There aren't enough women working in art!" Watching Zelinskie bounce around her Brooklyn studio, surrounded by books and Star Trek posters, introducing her 3D printers by name (there's Wall-e and Eve) and talking about the Dali Lama's Twitter feed, one can't help but admire her humanity.

"I really like to think about the future and ideas that will always be relevant. I read a lot of sci-fi. I watch a lot of sci-fi movies," Zelinskie says. "I'm really interested in science fiction because it's funny how often they get it right, and it's purely fiction coming out of someone's head somewhere."

She goes on to list the number of Star Trek devices (the Replicator and the HypoSpray) that have become real. For a big-picture thinker like Zelinskie, the ideas that matter are those that are eternally relevant. Perception is one of those ideas. Through her work, Zelinskie forces us to question how both humans and machines perceive objects. Some have gone so far as to say that both humans and computers can appreciate Zelinskie's art.

There is no "what's next" for Zelinskie because she doesn't want it that way. She prefers to evolve based on what she wants to create. Like the science fiction writers she admires, she only faces one limit: what comes out of her head.

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