Erik Winkowski interviewed by Case Jernigan
MATERIAL WORLDS is an ongoing series at Evergreen where contemporary video artists and experimental animators discuss their relationship to tools, technology, and the history of art.
The creator of the popular video sketchbook, Erik Winkowski conducts mixed-media imagery like an orchestra. He uses vintage footage, paper cutouts, photography, drawings, and paintings for his wide output of animations and digital experiments that reference play, openhearted experimentation, the history of art, and daily living. He’s screened work in New York and Paris through CADAF, and he’s made experimental digital art for Prada, Gucci, Hermès, and the Rolling Stones. He lives and works in New Orleans.
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Case Jernigan: Talk to me a little bit about your relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, you’ve made a lot of AR [augmented-reality] work with filters. And pretty recently you’ve been using AI to make animations. Your most recent piece online on your Instagram is a full short film. Tell me about this process. Tell me how you landed here. We talked about this process a few months ago and I want to know where your head’s at.
Erik Winkowski: You know, with making video work, the primary way of sharing it has been through Instagram and places like Vimeo. We live, obviously, in a digital world, and I feel like embracing these as platforms has been a good thing for my art and something that has been good for me just exploring in my own work. I’m just open to using as many tools as I can and open to experimenting. For me there’s always a quality of the analog meeting the digital. For some reason I find that really interesting. And so I experimented with AR and more recently with AI. The AI stuff—it’s so hard, there’s so many crazy predictions about AI these days flying around. It’s hard to come at it from a sensible place. But I think it’s probably going to have as big of an effect on art as the computer did. That said, there are people who are completely unaffected by the computer in their creative practice, more or less. I mean, besides contacting people. But for the most part, their art exists outside. Similar to the computer, I remember reading recently some of the first reviews of Toy Story or Pixar and people saying, “What a shame, humans used to make movies and now computers are making movies.” That’s so not the truth, obviously. Those are such heartfelt stories, coming deeply felt from humans, with so much love and craft going into them. So I think it’s possible to do that through a computer. I think it’s also possible to do that through AI. I don’t know what that will look like. We’re in a weird early stage where the generated imagery has been the primary exposure people have. That’s how people have come to understand AI.
EW: There will be probably be millions of ways that it will integrate itself, if you want, into your daily life and practice. But it’s such a big change that it is slightly freaky and I have mixed feelings about it. I’ve already used it in some of my client projects for little things. Things you wouldn’t even know that I’d used it for. Like I couldn’t find the right type of photo of a building. And so I did a, you know, image-generated thing and it was the perfect thing I was looking for. But like I was saying earlier, I’m always interested in bringing something from the real world and comparing it—mixing it—with the imagined world. I think a lot of AI, as it is right now, you’re giving so much power over to the AI to kind of do both. Judgment aside, I just don’t find it all that much fun as an artist. Which again, you need to go with what feels right. I feel like that’s not a bad philosophy when making art. Do the thing that feels good. That’s what you should be doing. And at this current state, with AI, it’s not totally doing it for me. But there’s incredible things coming out. Like Runway. I don’t know if you’re familiar…
CJ: I don’t know. No. Is that the uprezzing software?
EW: I think they do some of that. Topaz does that as well.
CJ: That’s what I was thinking of.
EW: Runway…they seem to be coming out every two weeks with some new piece of software. From removing backgrounds really easily from videos and all these other things. But they have their own video generation coming out right now…AI video generation…where you can basically upload the video and then do a style transfer, so to speak. And so I’ve seen people upload The Simpsons intro and make it into a Cubist sculpture piece. It’s totally glitchy in an amazing way. It’s visually incredible, and at the same time—and I think you were saying this when we last spoke—there’s something that maybe feels a little hollow about it. And that’s certainly a quality I’ve felt. And I think something that’s interesting about animation is that, up until 2023, if you looked at any piece of animation, you more or less got a sense of the insane amount of work that went into a piece. Especially as an animator. You get to know…how did they…that was like a year of their life they spent on this thing. But now? I don’t know. I’ve done a couple of pieces that are on my Instagram that truly would have taken me a full year of painting to do. And I don’t think I ever would have been able to pull it off. And to be able to do that in ten minutes makes you question the value of it. I think there’s something about getting something too easy that makes it not be valuable anymore. But again, for me, the thing that I’m excited about is the exploration process. The discovery. Going out into the world. Experimenting with tools and mediums. I actually believe that it’s possible to do that through AI. I did a fair amount of experimentation and there were all sorts of wonderful, happy accidents. But it’s probably going to be a tool within my tool set and not be the whole thing, if I do use it.
CJ: The last time we spoke, you had just released “Leaving Home,” your short film that you used drawings and cutouts, I’m assuming, and then AI.
EW: Yeah, I started talking about the limitations of tools. When I made that a couple of weeks or months ago—this is like the speed that AI is going, where it’s like “three weeks ago we were very limited by AI but now!” But yeah, I was using Stable Diffusion and one of the ways you could animate with Stable Diffusion was to start with an initial image and tell it the things that are in the scene so it can kind of riff off that and give it a style. And so I was using minimalist abstract shapes and woodcut as a prompt. That prevented it from getting too crazy. You know, if you didn’t give the minimalist, abstract blah blah blah, it can start getting to really tiny pixelated craziness and I wanted to keep the shapes pretty big. So there are these workarounds that you figure out. All sorts of times it came up with a solution that I never would have come up with. It’s interesting, because in some ways it can be kind of limiting—maybe this is a good limitation to have—but you’re almost limited by your own experience and your own imagination. This is one of the beauties of collaborating with someone else when you give them a prompt or something and you see their response and you are like, “Wow, I never would have gone in that direction, but it’s kind of an interesting one.” I feel like you get some of that in AI. Is it cheating? Maybe. Where you type in the thing that you’re trying to do and it shows you a different way of doing it? Hmmm, maybe I should try that out! That’s a totally different approach than I would take. But then you wonder how much of this is yourself…which is another crazy part of AI. What are the data sets that it’s pulling from? It becomes this weird way of being able to create collages, pulling from the history of visual expression. It almost feels like a machine to manipulate the collective unconscious. Like Carl Jung. It’s this weird dream machine. It’s odd.
Fall / Winter 2023
New Orleans–based artist Erik Winkowski (b. 1983, NYC) treats video like collage, cutting up, painting over, and remixing scenes from everyday life in playful, unexpected ways. After earning his BFA from the Cooper Union in 2006, where he studied animation and design, he worked for several years as a motion designer creating computer animations by day and paintings by night. In an effort to fuse his handmade work with his digital work, he started his Video Sketchbook on Instagram in 2018. Over the course of a year he posted a new video each day and developed innovative animation techniques that integrated the colorful exuberance of his paintings with the hypnotic quality of his video work. He continues to experiment, pioneering new techniques in animation that can be seen in his collaborations with Gucci, Prada, Hermès, and the New York Times.
Case Jernigan is an experimental animator, narrative game-maker, and educator. He makes work about panic, illness, nostalgia, and repressed bro culture. He shapes vulnerable worlds and values play. He’s been an artist in residence at Sharpe-Walentas and the Center for Book Arts, screened at Hotdocs and Hollyshorts, and shown paper-works across the US. He recently completed an animated documentary shorts series with Closer Productions about soccer fans. He’s currently building a stop-motion autobiographical video game about art.