Fractal Art with Artist Julius Horsthuis

Julius Horsthuis’ work is currently on display at ARTECHOUSE NYC in Geometric Properties, on view through October. We caught up with him about why math should inspire and not intimidate people, his creative process and more.

ARTECHOUSE: So you’ve not seen the exhibit in real life yet due to the pandemic, right?

Julius Horsthuis: Correct.

How does that feel?

Not very good! Obviously I tried to get an arrangement with the different governments, but it was really quite a hassle, and they didn’t get back to me in time. I wasn’t able to be there for the opening, I haven’t seen the exhibition, but right now it feels less bad because I’m seeing people sharing on Instagram; people are talking about it or writing me about it. I still want to see it, obviously, so I’m trying to get there this summer.

Julius Horsthuis Headshot
Julius Horsthuis

There’s still time! Now, how did the collaborations between you and ARTECHOUSE come about to begin with? And how has it been to work with them as opposed to other places you’ve worked with?

The first collaboration with ARTECHOUSE was back in 2018 for another exhibition we did in Washington, D.C. – the Fractal Worlds exhibit. They’d heard of me through a mutual friend who runs an exhibition center in Moscow, and Sandro contacted me to say, “Hey, we’re interested in what you do; we’ve seen your fractals, so would you be interested in having a conversation about what it would mean to bring those fractals to an immersive space?” Obviously I was very happy to try that. I hadn’t really done anything like that before, so that was really the first time I was invited to see if I could bring that to an art space. I don’t come from that background; I come from a film background and visual effects background, so my journey getting into fractals has been a little bit different. I couldn’t compare it with anything else, but it was immediately obvious to me that it was a great match, that fractals were definitely best experienced in their D.C. location and now definitely New York.

Right, and you’ve also talked about how sound goes hand-in-hand with how fractal art is experienced. Can you speak a little bit more about how the score was developed for Geometric Properties, and/or can you talk a little bit about what you’re personally listening to now?

Sure, so my interest in music together with fractals has gone way back; I think my very first fractal that I published online had the music of my father, who’s a composer. It immediately became apparent to me that these fractals are very musical, so I do spend a lot of time when I make fractals to sort of find the right music. It’s not always easy, it’s often a challenge. 

Geometric Properties on view through October 31 at ARTECHOUSE NYC

For Geometric Properties, I can talk a little bit about the process. The sound effects themselves were created on location, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to be very involved in the creative process there. 

I do listen to a lot of music and I do enjoy a lot of music, but usually what I find works best with these kinds of things is music that’s made for a visual aspect. Film music is a great example of that. It works on a different level because of that. I found music from Michael Stearns, who scored music from films like Baraka and Samsar, which are these beautiful, poetic films with no narrative. It’s like a documentary with no narrative, no voiceover or anything, it’s just left up to the viewer to make the connections between the different images. I just fell in love with that music. So I took some other music from Michael Stearns and used it as a template to create the edit on, and then David Levy, who I’ve worked with before, scored the first part. You create the visuals that go with the music, and then the composer takes away that music, never listens to it, just has the visuals and sort of re-scores that. He’s never heard the original music, so it’s totally coming from him. It’s a great collaboration.

That’s amazing! And talk to me a little bit about your creative process. How do you work best? What inspires you while you’re working?

I listen to music sometimes while I’m creating, especially when doing the fractals themselves. A lot of the work is also doing color correction and a lot of other things, but when I’m exploring fractals, I do listen to music. It can be film music, but it can also be electronic music. It really depends on the mood I’m in or the stage of the project. And automatically you start to create these kinds of connections when you’ve got music on; I remember even as a kid I was listening to soundtracks and film music while riding the bus or something like that, and you just look out the window and immediately this music starts creating meaning in the world. You see a tree coming by to an ominous tone and that creates a story.  So that’s the kind of stuff that’s constantly going on in my head when I’m pairing music to these visuals.

And when inspiration hits you, what does that look like?

A lot of the inspiration comes from the actual process of exploring these fractals. A lot of these fractals don’t really give anything interesting, so there’s a lot of trial and error, and you never really know what you’re going to find. I might spend two or three hours just going through formulas, nothing much is happening, and then suddenly I just see this shape I’ve never seen before. That’s usually when the creative tingling starts to happen. You get energized and you start imagining what it could be, and then at some point you have a couple of those moments and start to put them together. 

Sometimes you do get inspiration from elsewhere, like a movie. I can watch a film and that can really inspire me, even just a visual aspect. I remember watching Blade Runner and thinking the mist or the fog of that film was inspirational for some reason. I wish I could say I take walks in the park and get inspired by seeing a specific tree, but I don’t really think that’s true. It’s usually the actual moment of working and seeing a new shape emerge in front of your eyes.

Totally. Now, obviously math is involved in fractal art, and I think both math and art can be intimidating for people who feel like outsiders, or who feel they don’t have an innate understanding of one and/or the other. What would you say to someone who feels that way?

Right, so the first thing I’d say is I’m not a mathematician at all; I’d be just as intimidated as any other person who didn’t study math. I don’t actually understand these formulas, and on a mathematical level I couldn’t explain why certain things do what they do. But also, maybe I don’t completely want to understand. Maybe that’s the sort of comfort I could give someone who might be thinking, “Math is something I want to stay really far away from.” Not understanding it makes it more interesting, perhaps, because it has that wonder and amazement of, “How the hell can you get this mathematical formula to this alien cave? What is that process?” If it was completely obvious and clear to me, maybe I’d go, “Meh, okay, seen that, done that.” But because it’s a mystery, because it’s so weird and counterintuitive in a way, it’s still interesting to explore these kinds of things.

I should say I have an intuitive understanding about which formula creates what kind of shape, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work. After doing this for seven or eight years, I can sort of know, “Okay, if you take this weird formula to create a cube or something more rounded and organic, you can combine the two and get some weird hybrid.” But the actual math, I think that’s kind of the beauty. You don’t need to know anything about math in order to appreciate it.

I agree, 100%. So, are there any trends lately in the art-tech space that you’ve been interested in, even if they’re not directly related to your work?

Something besides fractals that has caught my interest for a while is artificial intelligence, everything that’s sort of created by AI and neural networks. They do such amazing things, and obviously learning from the previous exhibit in New York, Refik Anadol’s Machine Hallucination, was exploring all of that stuff in a really beautiful way. I think that’s an amazing thing that can happen, and right now it’s so rapidly growing; almost every week you see a new thing. Who knows what will happen in a year or two? So I’m definitely interested in that, I’ve tried to play with it a little bit myself as well, but I do think it’s better for me to focus on fractals and see later how that’d maybe tie in. But yeah, AI is something that probably won’t cease to amaze anytime soon.

Absolutely. And what are you working on right now that you can talk about publicly, and what do you see happening for you and/or the art-tech world in the next five, ten, fifteen years?

I’m working on a couple of things, but one project I’m working on is doing a high-resolution fractal, stereoscopic VR experience. I’m not sure how long it’ll take. It might take months or even up to a year, but I just want to get a nice, beautiful fractal experience that feels meaningful. I’m also working with a couple of planetariums on stereoscopic experiences, as well as design work for films and that kind of thing. I’m trying to get fractals in a title sequence for films or a TV show. Basically I’m just trying to see where these fractals fit. ARTECHOUSE is obviously a beautiful space, I love working with planetariums, small screens on your phone, films…it’s just interesting to play with all these different mediums and see where fractals can add something to the story or to an experience.

When it comes to where I see myself in the future, I always find that a really difficult question to answer. I’m not the kind of person who tries to predict; it’s like, let’s just blame chaos theory since we’re talking about math. I think chaos theory and fractals are very aligned with how unpredictable things get. For me, it’s always been to just try to see what I can do with what exists now, rather than trying to predict what will exist tomorrow. I’m much more interested in what exists now, which is already mind-boggling.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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