The Discovery of Math: A Sitdown with Daïm Aggot-Hönsch (Part 1)
CohentheWriter Chats with the Algorist, Apeirographer, and AI Artist
Whenever we talk about “generative” or “algorithmic” art, we’re really talking about different expressions of computer software. And at their most basic level, computers conduct themselves in the binary language, ones and zeroes. All that artistry — and to a greater extent than we realize — yet another manifestation of mathematics.
Daïm Aggot-Hönsch (also known as DaïmAlYad) is a math obsessive. He styles himself an “Apeirographer,” or someone “who understands the world through the lens of mathematical realism, perceiving mathematical entities as having existence and reality of their own, independent of the material world. Through this paradigm, they recognize mathematics as an exceptional, timeless, and uniquely immutable subject utterly worthy of study and creative exploration” (taken from Aggot-Hönsch’s The Apeirographer’s Manifesto). In other words: The universe is built atop mathematics, and when math expresses itself artistically, it’s worthy of being considered High Artistry.
I talk about possibilities because Aggot-Hönsch gracefully and tirelessly probes them. His work may be underlied by a single sensibility, but its many faces are vast and unpredictable.
In our interview, Aggot-Hönsch and I spoke about the roots of his Apeirography, his process, his artistic history, and some of the works that have helped him push (and continue pushing!) crypto art’s algorithmic arm forward. I hope you enjoy this glimpse inside his mind as much as I did.
The following is the condensed and lightly-edited transcription of a conversation between Daïm Aggot-Hönsch (@DaimAlYad) and Max Cohen (@cohenthewriter) recorded in October 2022. This is part 1 of 2.
Max: The question I’m always interested in asking at the start of these interviews is: What was the first piece of art you remember creating?
Daïm: That’s a heavy question. I think the funny thing is art for me has been a chaptered experience. The first big exposure happened in my childhood prior to my move to Canada at the age of 12.
As a child, I didn’t only have the regular school art classes, but I was usually signed up for at least one extracurricular art class. I drew all the time, but one particular drawing that sticks out in my mind during that childhood period of naïve enthusiasm for drawing and art and creativity is: I came to develop this idea of a stylized tree, which I drew a number of times in a number of different ways.
Basically, it was a tree where the base, and what was visible of the roots, were very minimalistic and very similar to how the main branches came apart at the top of the trunk, so you almost had a vertically symmetrical trunk/branches/roots type situation. And then the foliage was basically an amorphous, simply-drawn, roundish shape. My perceived innovation in all of this was the leaves, because for all this super minimalistic stylistic thing going on so far, I filled in the boundaries of the foliage with the tiniest, intricate leaf-shapes.
I loved this approach to drawing trees so much that I did quite a few drawings of it. It was the first drawing I remember doing where it didn’t feel like I was just told to draw this, and I did the best I could, but obviously it’s not looking exactly like it. This thing, when it was done, looked exactly like I meant it to look.
Max: When did the interest in Apeirography begin? Did you always understand, even when drawing the tree, that in some ways for you, art and math are deeply connected?
Daïm: That’s a really good question. I would say, it’s weird, in my early childhood there was no indication that art and math would become intertwined as they eventually did for me. But you know what? That’s incorrect. I think for the most part I was perceived as creative; there was the drawing, and I wrote poetry from a young age. But in fact, prior to the move to North America, in Hungary I was actually generally-speaking at the top of my math classes to the point where the school had me semi-regularly going to these mathlathons, these math contests.
I guess in hindsight, having a strong interest and enjoyment of art, and having a degree of natural ability in math, I guess it’s not crazy that these came together eventually. But the more direct origins of how I started doing Apeirography came around the time of my daughter’s — my now 15 year old daughter’s — birth.
My personal programming side projects (which I always had some of) used to be more of guilty pleasures or distractions at the end of the night, something to mentally and intellectually take me to a completely different space. I was 99% focused on interacting with a little person, who was adorable, but could only say as much back to you as their age allows.
When she was born, I started looking at fractals, and fractal art I think is something that’s been, purely in terms of visuals and the aesthetic experience, always seemed amazing.
But when I started looking into them, I both liked and hated what I was seeing, because you had these incredible and — if you actually think through what’s going on — very intellectually-unlikely things happening on the screen, and yet the volume with which it was all being vomited onto the internet made it seem so unremarkable and plain and everyday.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that you could generate fractals galore with third-party programs that are explicitly created to let someone with not much mathematical or artistic ability get nice looking outputs out of the program. And don’t misunderstand me, this is not me trying to push artistic elitism; I think there’s something wonderful about the idea that you could have literally a 12-year-old that has no idea what complex numbers are and is years away from learning that, download something that shows them a bit of mathematical magic that spurs their curiosity and shifts their imagination in those sorts of directions.
But you had these incredible pieces of found art being treated as something very obviously not art. Because “Art” — and I’m speaking of Fine Art — is exhibited. It is collected. It is curated, it’s reviewed, it’s purchased. You can make it accessible to an ever-broader audience who gets to experience it. But with fractal art, as with a lot of digital art prior to the rise of web3 and crypto art and NFTs, basically all you had was that last part, right? Never going to be exhibited, never going to be purchased, never going to be curated, never going to be seriously, thoughtfully reviewed, but, hell, possibly millions of people are going to see it. But they’ll also see the million other images that look suspiciously like it because it was generated by the same exact program.
I started trying to research certain equations and playing around with the programs in an experiential way and seeing what the outputs were. And very explicitly trying to do things that I hadn’t seen others do. The whole idea of Apeirography is mathematical art as Fine Art. Yes, this stands in direct opposition to that free-for-all approach, which, on the positive side, may feel very democratizing, but it also takes away some of the magic and some of the wonder which art naturally has because of its unique contextualization as Art.
Max: When I was reading your Apeirographers Manifesto, I picked up on what almost seemed to be an anger at how mathematical artwork hasn’t been historically treated with the same respect as “art that was focused on the physical and mental realms,” in your words.
I got into crypto art just over a year or so ago. So for me, generative art and AI art have always been pretty widespread. But with each passing day, and with platforms like Artblocks becoming more prominent, the crypto art world is seeming to challenge that historical lack of respect. I’m wondering how it feels to see this ancient artistic practice you love now gain more respect and acceptance and awe in the widespread public?
Daïm: It’s very affirming. And it’s unexpected, to be sure. I came into crypto art at the end of 2019, and at that point, and for a little bit after, I definitely had my reservations about jumping into a space where I felt like I would struggle with the same issue of not being taken seriously.
But it was ultimately my experience in crypto art that led me to the place of confidence and self-assurance where I am now. I am at a place where I feel secure and grounded and justified in my own perception of my work, of its quality, of its relevance, of its meaningfulness.
Obviously I, like all artists, very much crave approval and outside validation and all that — It’s probably not even an artistic thing, just a general human thing — but even when it’s not forthcoming, or not forthcoming to the degree I expected it would be, I don’t question myself anymore. I know my own self-worth as an artist. I know the value of my own work. And I know which works of mine are significant and unique and worth having a historical view of, and I’m delighted when my audience agrees with me, and I’m not too put off when it doesn’t, because I’m pretty sure I’ll be the one who’s right at the end.
Max: Do you feel that crypto art’s explosion — and the continued establishment of generative art marketplace like fx(hash) and Artblocks — has affected the general world of Apeirography even when it’s not being specifically named as such?
Daïm: I think it’s hard for me to speak on that because, in my view, Apeirography is mathematical art approached through a specific lens and offered through a specific sort of contextualization to the viewer. And while I’m certainly not the only one doing that obviously, I may be one of the few people who has a more narrow set of expectations about what Apeirography ought to be, ought to do, ought to aim for. Whereas I think a lot of artists, even a lot of mathematical artists, fall into one or two categories:
- Either they don’t care very much about the art part as long as they present something cool in the math.
- Or on the other extreme, you have artists who only see math as just one of the tools in their arsenal, and if it ends up being Apeirographic without too much other stuff added or mixed into the whole thing, that is incidental.
There’s a lot of stuff I’ve made, and that I could make and probably will make, that are fundamentally unsuitable and not reasonable to make with such a system because they require far too long to process and render. And far too long can literally be like two or three minutes (which is, in my book, super fast, because I have some stuff which basically took hours or days to render).
My recent series “Isles Upon Deemed Rivers and Other Wonders” is a good example. It’s an algorithmic series, and the algorithm itself isn’t terribly complex or complicated, but nevermind the experimentation and curation portions, just generating the pieces from the source images took a couple of days. That’s something I couldn’t have made happen in any type of real-time generative environment because of the processing required.
My hope is that the enthusiasm for real-time generative art will continue and grow, and that, either through other platforms — in my case this was for UltraDAO — or through expanding the range of approaches to generative art on existing platforms like Artblocks, other folks in the market will make it possible to have more artist-curated and pre-rendered or pre-created algorithmic and generative series as well. Because I think we’re missing out. I look at the amazing stuff I see created by the artists on Artblocks and I think to myself: What sort of things could be coming out if rendering time was no object, right?
Max: I’ve noticed that in your style there’s been a seeming evolution from this fractal, geometric, polygon-based early artwork to be what seems outwardly to be work that’s much more intricate, often AI-influenced. I was wondering if you see that more as the result of changing technology or more of a changing sensibility?
Daïm: I’m not sure if I necessarily see it as an internal evolution within me. The fractal-based stuff goes back to my earliest experiments with Apeirography, and it was sort of my signature entry into crypto art. I think as I found my footing in crypto art and, in the broader sense, in art, I felt increasingly free to move beyond my original self constraints and limitations and start doing experiments with AI or AI-assisted art stuff, and particularly algorithmic stuff.
As an initially and primarily mathematical artist, with Apeirography I take pride in letting the math do its thing. I don’t start creating something with a preconceived notion of what it’s going to end up being or bend the mathematics to my will because I see mathematics as being populated with an infinite number of incredible objects and entities which, some of them nobody has ever seen before. Period. And here I am in my pajamas at the computer screen at 11pm, and here it is. Now it’s a thing that has been seen by a person, and I get to decide whether it’s good enough or interesting enough or striking enough to put in front of a broader audience.
But at the same time, I gotta tell you, it’s awfully hard to be topical or on-theme or apply to an exhibition with mathematical work because it’s very difficult to make it do what I want since I’m mostly trying to let it do what it wants.
So generative art and algorithmic art was like a siren song to me from the earliest days. That it was largely the same toolset I would normally use, programming and various processing tools, but it would give me creative control to a greater degree. And so I think that’s the evolution you see.
Max: Do you believe that math was discovered or invented?
Daïm: My view is very much of math being in a state of progressive discovery. And I guess I have some understanding and appreciation of the idea of math as invented, but at the end of the day, there are mathematical objects or entities that are literally more complex than the entire physical universe. And it seems an odd notion that this is just some weird thing that we humans came up with, because let’s say I had a time travel device and could go back to x-minus-100 or x-minus-1000 years. If I had the sufficient bread or gold ducats it took to motivate some paleolithic farmers, they could theoretically follow a sufficiently detailed set of instructions to create the Mandelbrot set in a large field in the middle of nowhere thousands of years prior to its “discovery.”
There’s very much a sense that math somehow accesses things that are outside of our minds, purely outside of the physical world. It just seems like mathematics is a way to access this platonic realm of perfect shapes, some of which are exceedingly simple, and some of which have complexity beyond anything that could be accurately represented with all the physical matter in the universe. So, yeah, definitely discovered as far as I can see and feel and intuit.
Max: I tend to fall on the same side of the argument, but you put it much more eloquently than I can.