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In Light and Stillness, The Sublime Artistry of Ali Phi

Ali Phi is a prolific Tehran-based media artist, musician (as elemaun) and the founder of nullsight, a studio that produces technology-driven projects for clients involving creative coding, interaction design, immersive environments, 3D mapping and so on. 

TouchDesigner plays a role in all of these enterprises as Ali tells us:

"About its importance in my works, TouchDesigner is the most powerful toolkit I've ever used! I should say that I work with different platforms of visual programming and coding and use them based on demands of the project, but usually TouchDesigner is my first priority because of its stability and ease of modelling the ideas into a patch. The simple logic of programming and the possibility of running python scripts as well as the software being so up to date for connecting to new technological hardwares are the most powerful reasons for me to start all sketches with TouchDesigner"

And if that wasn't enough Ali is taking on the position of Course Director for a new media arts program - the first of it's kind in Iran - at the Tehran Institute of Technology where TouchDesigner will be one of the "principal classes".

We've been smitten with Ali's work for as long as he has been producing it - for its beauty and elegance certainly, but also for other qualities, possibly deeper qualities that are a little harder to describe... like the sense of stillness and reverence that seem to envelop the viewer (of videos and documentation 'from a distance') or participants (the people in the videos who are experiencing the work 'live').

What follows is a look into some of Ali's audio-visual works alongside a few questions we had about his experience and process in conceiving and producing the work.


real-time generative audiovisual installation | October 2016

Yasaman was an artist who passed away a year ago because of a very rare disease. They found out that she was sick and one week later she died. I didn't know her but I was asked by her family to make an installation on her anniversary at a place where she wanted to build her own gallery of arts. The place is still under construction and we were at the same age in the same city with the same interests. The place is going to be an art foundation for media arts.

So the installation was a motion graphics of simple lines generated based on frequency of a generative piano piece I wrote for her. It was projected in an under-construction building with 3 video projectors between a 15 meter-long mirrored corridor based on the concept of sequence and mortality.

Derivative: It occurs that most of your work gives the appearance of 'blue' – maybe the white used is actually white but things always look blue which adds to the feelings of reflection and sometimes even a sadness – can you comment on that?

Ali Phi: I usually try to stay at monochrome, but yes there are very narrow vibes of blue for controlling mood. Cold colors specially blue is what I use sometimes because of its frequency.

Derivative: How do you go about making the work – work where visuals and audio are inextricably connected and sometimes it's hard to say what came first… so how were these pieces conceived and how did you go about realizing them?

Ali Phi: Most of the times it's music first, and then thoughts about illustrating the sound and adding physical parameters like mirrors or smoke or site features to make the audience experience the music or sound in a unique way.

Derivative: There's a lot of work with particle systems…

Ali Phi: Yes I work with particles a lot as the most primitive processes of life. It's one of the main reasons that I became familiar with TouchDesigner maybe because of its super handy particle system engine! One of my favorite Operators is the Particle SOP which allows for the formation of flexible and limitless worlds very quickly and very practically.


interactive audiovisual installation | October 2015

Each living cell contains unique information, based on a universal structure. Human beings as the most intelligent of these beings are placed in an infinite context and some by finding a particular point in that structure reach awareness.

Am is an interactive digital installation that occurs in front of the mirror. Images are projected on the wall facing this mirror. These images normally remain invisible. As soon as an audience enters the installation, the previously invisible images begin to appear and an image of an advanced particle system starts to form on the audience's body. The progression of the particle system is accompanied by ambience music.

Derivative: Your explanation of how 'shym' came about is an extremely moving story and the work absolutely reflects that… how else does one reflect on life that ends suddenly and so soon? 'Am' has the same stillness – the same kind of "being bathed in light". It is to be appreciated in a time where so much work is based on interactivity – as in "I need to move to make it move", your work just requires people to 'be' there and they seem to then be still and let the work play upon them and affect them.

Ali Phi: About interactivity, I have worked a lot in commercial projects and interaction design for user-friendly installations but in my personal installations, I am looking for a new and more instinctive way of human interaction. I really focus on designing environments where people would be "thrown away" from what they are when they enter the installation by using lights and generative motion graphics.

And on stillness & dignity - as a big city resident I am a dissociable person and try to live more in my loneliness. It does not mean that I am down-tempo or sad or depressed, I have the elemaun project where the content is so much hyperactive and dance/philosophy driven.

After a while I found out that humans are the main part of my installations as well as sound, darkness & light. So I started to look at this concept of humans in my imagination as something much more different than what I experienced in real life. I tried to look at it as a unique piece, praise this concept and face them to themselves in a sublime position.

And recently I have been studying eastern philosophy and ancient Iranian poems which may open new doors to this exploration.


music video, director, producer | music by Tegh | October 2015 

The first part of this music video starts with 8 layers of glitches and noises which act with changes of sound frequencies from the music. The second part illustrates the birth of a particle system and its evolution using visual coding techniques; the particle system parameters in this section are controlled by frequency changes of sound. In the third part mixed techniques of the previous two sections are used.

Real-time image processing produces a randomly edited sequence of videos synced with the tempo of the music, merged on the completed particle system from the previous section which now connects some points included in that system with a simple line and illustrates a virtual sphere in the heart of chaos. The film was made with a Canon 7D DSLR camera and visual coding, sometimes recording edited videos from a LCD display and merging that with the original video.

In his video performance piece created for electronic music project Tegh, Ali deconstructs the musician’s original parking complex performance of Inside – itself inspired by the machine-based life of our era and built on a foundation of computer coding and digital sound process – and reassembles it as a layered, self-referential film which evolves into a particle landscape as it progresses.

Derivative: What is your experience - as an Iranian artist living in Tehran? Are there limitations or restrictions that impact your life/work.

Ali Phi: To go a little further back, when mothers of my generation were pregnant and we were born Tehran and the whole country was under attack from the air force of Iraq (which absolutely had some physical effects on us). It was right after the Islamic revolution, so what we experienced is something bigger than restrictions and limitations.

We grew up with all those limitations and sanctions and as well, we were experiencing the same digital development and video games era. For me everything started at 12 with Sony Handycams, Atari, Sega and my first personal computer which I got a bit late when I was 18. We have learned how to adapt to governmental limitations by instinct.

Absolutely we should be careful with what we make but there has been no problem until now for me and the mediums that I work with. Maybe that's because of my minimalistic orientation, but this feeling of considering red lines still exists.

transient dreams in passing fantasy

real-time audiovisual performance | boom gallery, tehran, iran | July 2014 feat. Shahrzad quartet

Illustration of sound frequencies produced by the players of Shahrzad Quartet in real-time through visual coding. The origin of the code are generative particle systems and it reacts with changes of frequency and touch of players. After generating visuals they were projected on two different videomapped installations of mirror works by Pooya Aryanpour. Projected visuals were deconstructed after refraction and the result was another particle system from the point of view of these installations which was surrounding its space. The composition of this performance was written by Hooshyar Khayyam.

Again the unique way of working with sound frequencies from instruments and connecting them to a generative visual creator patch was very easy and flexible to achieve in TouchDesigner.

Derivative: You must be excited about your new position at the arts school and teaching! What you hope to achieve and experience there.

Ali Phi: Being in position of a teacher is so wierd because I have never been in a class to study for the things I am doing! The challenge is how to transfer knowledge to others in a way that they can combine it with creativity and not just become technicians.

Meeting younger generations and their ways of looking at subjects beside their passion of learning is so cool but my main concern is how to lead them to develop concepts as well as technique.

Derivative: So... new year, new ideas? Anything percolating or in development?!

Ali Phi: For upcoming projects, I'm working more on Iranian motifs and designs. Up till now I've understood the possibilities and logic and now it's time to reach to the parts which are connected to the past and specially ancient Iranian arts. Also spreading the knowledge and collaborate with younger generation and their ideas.

Derivative: Thanks very much far talking to us Ali! We are very keen to see what 2017 brings!

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