Interview With Artist Tristan Espinoza

Linda Rudell-Betts, Senior Librarian, Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department,
Tristan Espinoza
Tristan Espinoza in collaboration with Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Tristan Espinoza is an artist, programmer, and organizer who lives in Los Angeles. Their work has been exhibited internationally and in Chicago, Pasadena, Los Angeles, and Medford, NY. Espinoza is a current MFA candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Design Media Arts program and holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In your biographical statement, you say (paraphrasing) that you “negotiate a sense of place and unsettle the image as a data point.” Tell us more about what this means and how you create art resulting from that unsettling.

My recent projects have been about observation. I’ve felt uneasy about going outside, especially when many people still aren’t wearing masks. So most of my quarantine has been mediated through screens. I was interested in how we come to understand place through this sort of synthetic observation. Especially in the context of mass surveillance—what is the potential for images to function beyond tools for capture? How can they be engaged with other frequencies or modes of interpretation? Those were some of the driving questions behind my work up to this point.

How do you apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to the making of your pieces?

I used machine learning in this project because I was interested in how it abstracted my time and labor. It took me a year to make all the cyanotypes used in this project, and the algorithm made 500 of them in 10 minutes. So it was alienating in a way that mirrored some of my initial experiences of connecting with others during COVID, and that alienation felt important for me to respond to on a personal level.

As I start to move on from this work, it feels less generative to center machine learning as a framework or conceptual concern. This isn’t to disengage from the ethical discourse of using machine learning, but to acknowledge a shift that happened for me where I became less interested in the method of production and more in the images and text themselves. I hope that I was able to compose the book in a way that allows it to be interpreted outside of any particular process. Moving forward, I think machine learning will become more of a sketching tool, helping make pictures or text around an idea until something congeals.

What’s your favorite part of the process?

Massaging all the disparate curiosities until a form emerges.

Do you use physical materials in addition to the digital media?

Yes. This is actually very new to me. Before Perennial, I was mostly making screen-based works, but this project cultivated my recent interests in prints, bookmaking, and language. I’m excited by how capacious my practice feels now like my inner child is re-emerging.

How do we experience your art? By viewing it on a monitor or stepping into a dedicated production environment?

Actually, when I was approached for this show, LAMAG asked me to prepare work for both their gallery and the website. Naturally, there was lots of overlap between Perennial as a physical installation and as an online experience, in that they’re both books derived from cyanotypes I made. But there are some differences too; I embedded some videos in the online version, for example, which would be difficult to do in the same way with the physical book. And the physical book is itself a large cyanotype, so there is a sense of intimacy and immediacy that shows up differently from the web-based book. So I’d say that it depends on the work and what it needs. Some projects will be screen-based, others ask to be arranged in space, and the rest will float in between.

What notable responses have you had to your art?

My dad at one of my shows coming up to me and saying: “Tris…I don’t get it.”

What does a perfect day in your creative space look like for you? Music, time of day, friends, food?

Mostly just warm tea and CBD for my anxiety. The beach at night when no one is there.

To see Tristan's work, visit the virtual exhibit.

The recording of Tristan Espinoza's Artist Talk for this exhibition is available here.

Reading List

Book cover for Artificial Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
Artificial Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
Boden, Margaret A.

Book cover for Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans
Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans
Mitchell, Melanie (Computer scientist)

Book cover for The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI Powered Creativity
The Artist in the Machine: The World of AI Powered Creativity
Miller, Arthur I.

Book cover for From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic
From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic
Boden, Margaret A.

Book cover for Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms
Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms
Fry, Hannah

Book cover for Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed
Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed
Mahon, Peter