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Between Heart & Sky - A conversation

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Part I of the 1 hour Q&A by Sean O'Toole with artists Don Albert and Arno Morland joint exhibition at Habitus Loop Gallery, 61 Loop Street Cape Town on Sat 7th October.

Sean O'Toole - Guest critic

Don Albert - Artist & Architect

Arno Morland - Artist

nobody understands gawd - Arno Morland - 2023

Sean: There’s a wonderful book, you can get it at Book Lounge, called The Gig, the former English Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, about his life as poet, and he says “never trust a poet when there are more people on the stage than are in the audience”. I always laughed when I read that but then a couple of years ago I gave a talk at Book Lounge, during the Open Book Festival, and there were four of us on stage and two in the audience, so it involved a lot of dancing, BUT, one of the writer’s books got bought by John C. Riley and turned into The Sister’s Brothers (film), Riley was in the audience, so… watch this space! Something might happen.

My role is not to talk too much, it’s really just about prompting a conversation between the two artists. I guess the very obvious question to kick things off: its a two-person exhibition, so how did you two meet and how did you cook up this idea to show together?

Arno: We met through a mutual friend and we started talking,

Sean: Don’t be polite, tell us was it in a nightclub or…

Arno: Oh yeah we were all taking drugs…

Don: Actually it was at a very civilised lunch in the suburbs…

Sean: So recently?

Arno: Ja, three months ago. Don had this opportunity to show here, and he invited me so I thought what the hell why not? I mean he is a multi-talented guy you know, music producer, architect extraordinaire and an artist as well. Don is very talented and I have a lot of respect for him, but look, I mean we also discovered from our first conversation that we agree on a lot of things,

Sean: So what is it, politics, aesthetics, economics?…

Arno: Don’s agenda as far as ecology and climate change is concerned, something Don is very passionate about and I think he sees his art as ‘sounding the alarm’, which I really support and also feel passionate about by my work is very different, I think my work works in a different register, and I don’t have a definite agenda as such, but what I do find interesting about Don’s creative process is that he works with AI in almost a conversational way, so I feel what we have in common is that we are both comfortable with and seek to relinquish a measure of control to that process, so we are involved in the process, we participate in the process, but we are not in control of it. We are both comfortable with that and I think we are both drawn to that.

Don: Thrive on it…

The Eternal Question - Don Albert - 2023

Arno: So whereas Don works with AI as his conversational partner, I work in more traditional media but as an artist you are always in conversation and interaction with your materials, remaining attentive and responsive to what happens as you go, so as I see it its the same process but with different mediums. So I felt at that level we overlapped so I thought let’s throw it together and see what happens!

Don: I was also very interested in Arno’s art because it was thought provoking, and when he talks about ‘relinquishing control’, I hadn’t seen him making his art but I can imagine it starts off with some marks directly onto the canvas and that this thing starts to emerge, and its that ‘emergent’ quality which I am attracted to when I am doing my thing, where I don’t know precisely where its going… I might make something that leads to something else, so I’m not too precious or invested in the first iteration of something, as long as its got some sort of ‘DNA’ that I feel will ultimately be a building block for something else. Some things are not the final product, rather stepping stones…

Sean: So let’s pause for a bit and give it context, Don is an architect, Arno is a designer (Arno bristles!), they were both ‘rondlooopers’ - people who have been on walkabout - and have returned after journeys elsewhere. Arno, 12 years in the USA and four in the UK…

Don: That’s probably why we get on!

Sean: Don, a Durban boy, came to Cape Town, and then disappeared? I think you were in Singapore?

Don: Singapore and Bali for 6 years…

Sean: And then you went to Australia, so you are both also returnees with a certain life experience, and in a broad framework you are both sort of designers?

Arno: Its interesting you call me that, I don’t think of myself as that, I mean I have worked in those industries but…

Sean: I mean you have used the word ‘process’, and thats what I wanted to get to. What are the tools of your art making? To both of you…

Don: Mine is literally anything I can get my hands on. As an architecture student in the early 1990’s, some of us used to try and draw drawings that looked like they were made on a computer because we didn’t have computers and the CAD drawings and images that were coming from the glossies were so seductive, and we got flack for trying to make drawings that looked ‘technologically perfect’, but for me, if I’ve got a brick, I’ll use a brick, if there’s a piece of thatch, I’ll use thatch. When it came to AI, I jumped on it because it was a novelty…

Sean: But you didn’t go from thatch to AI?

Don: Well I did actually! In Bali we were building with thatch!

Sean: But your repertoire of tools often has included various digital design tools right? In your architectural practice for example…

Don: True… I mean I know my way around a computer, and for me photoshop is the Lingua Franca of the modern age (as my Professor Marcos Novak used to say), so for me photoshop is used even in the manual painting process as a way of experimenting, for example taking a photo of the physical work into photoshop and then say ‘what happens if I did a glaze in that colour?’, or ‘if I shifted this element to here?’, so I definitely use the digital tools to help the process…and vice versa, because in some cases hand sketches go into Midjourney, and that’s how Reece (Don’s partner) and I actually started to test what Midjourney really knows.

Sean: How?

Don: I remember drawing a very rudimentary sketch of a classical temple, triangular pediment (gestures) and a couple of stripes as columns, fed it in, blended it with a parametric “Zaha Hadid”- type building, and it knew immediately that my sketch was referring to a classical Greek temple and it morphed that into four detailed 3-D hybrid options but where the classical orders were spot on. So there’s a shorthand, or short circuiting of quite a lot of process or time, but its still fairly dumb by the way… It knows everything but it knows nothing…

Sean: So… we are not going to do the Guns ’N Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ of AI here… Arno, your process?

Arno: As far as sculpture is concerned, you would have noticed that I use a number of tropes. One of them is thought bubbles and speech bubbles, a convention developed in the 19th Century to give expression to that which is ineffable, spoken word, or thoughts. The intangible, invisible and fleeting… So my idea was to make things that were intangible, tangible, and things that were traditionally represented as two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and something which is fleeting, you render in the most permanent material, and the most permanent material in fine art of course is bronze. As far as painting is concerned, what I love about painting is that its such a beautiful, iterative process and I really do start with very little. 10 years ago I worked very differently, starting with thumbnail sketches, making a detail drawing of it, and then transpose that onto canvas, but for me it was like knitting, the only interesting part was in the idea generation, and then finishing it at the end, everything in between was a grind, so I thought ~ I don’t want it to be like that, I want it to be alive. So I experimented over the years with many strategies of taking away certainty for me, and these days I start with very little and am astounded at how the paintings transform while I am making them.

fear is every where but not in me - Arno Morland - 2023

Sean: What came first, sculpture or painting?

Arno: Painting, I’ve painted for most of my career.

Sean: Is that what you did for your Master of Fine Art?

Arno: No for my MFA I actually made these mobiles of steel and wood…

Don: So he is a designer… (laughs)

Sean: Maybe just to give people some coordinates, Arno, you also have a degree in Theology. How does that intersect, if at all, with your work?

Arno: That’s a very long story. I studied theology and I did preach back in the day, I married my father and my sister but I never became a minister as such and I did loose all those conventions as well, I did become a raging atheist and have been very comfortable that way for most of my life. Things have taken a turn for me over the last few years, I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘religious’ again, but I’ve discovered a kind of spirituality which has started to play an important role in what ultimately manifests in my work. The way I see things now is that I and everything else is part of a bigger picture, and that the creative process is part of that as well, and that is why its so easy for me at the moment to trust the process as a template for life, not trying to exert control. Staying attentive, being responsive and allowing it to play out.

Sean: A word that often appears in art history in the 20th Century, more so than the 21st Century where it has become verboten, is the word ‘sublime’. You (Arno) flirt with it, well you don’t flirt with it, and Don, you put your tongue out and kiss it. Can you talk about the sublime, both you.

In Den Wolken - Don Albert - 2023

Don: The sublime is important for me because it creates a sense of awe, of something that is beyond us, ostensibly beyond our imagining or our capabilities. I was first turned on to it through the revolutionary French Architect Etienne Boulee who is responsible for modernism - I would argue. He was the first architect who conceived of public buildings, at a really grandiose scale, to install a sense of authority for the state, for the French state as it happened to be, and (most of) the public buildings in the world that have followed, have been in this gargantuan neoclassical typology. The rationale behind neoclassicism being highly mathematical, controlling, and essentially humanist. So for me, the relationship between the universe, and how we as a public can affect that scale of things, but we can only do that if we come together. I am skeptical of how we are encouraged to do things like “save the planet” as individuals, whereas collectively, we can do so much more. So the sublime is something tangible to me in that sense.

Sean: The religious sublime is a trope. Has that stayed important in your work Arno?

Arno: To me, all art has three aspects to it; an aesthetic/affective dimension, a conceptual dimension and then the poetic, implicit or ineffable, or… sublime. All art has all three dimensions but its weighted differently. For me the weight is definitely in that poetic, implicit, ineffable, sublime. It’s an attempt to manifest and have an expression of the sublime.

Sean: Maybe it’s a question to Don, but Arno you are also welcome to answer it: Do you consider the design software you use as a tool - like a paintbrush - or is it something more, maybe a prosthetic?

Don: The difference for me, if we are talking about generative AI, is that it is the first time that I have had a challenge, where software has presented something to me where clearly it knows more than I did about the subject matter that I was trying exploring. So in that sense it was a more genuine collaboration, which I enjoy when I am working with people, like a real arm-wrestle - creatively so to speak.

Sean: Could you chose and image and walk us though how you made it?

Don Albert explains the creation of "In Den Wolken".

Don: Sure, so for example in In Den Volken, it is a composite made of two separate images. For the bottom image, I had deliberately prompted Midjourney to imagine a classic Pierneef landscape and specified, “Pierneef, landscape, trees and clouds”, and there were a number of options and I chose this one, and I desaturated it in in the process of trying to composite it with another image. The top image came about through long process of ‘blends’…

Sean: What does ‘blend’ mean?

Don: In Midjouney you can be very specific in your prompting, but my process is more to ask for something kind of abstract that I know I am going to blend in a ‘genetic’ way into something else that has a very different quality about it. It’s almost like imaging what the offspring of random people’s children would look like.

(Videographer): In Midjourney you can ask it to “imagine” and it will create an image, or you can ask it to blend two images that you feed it, or blend up to five images.

Sean: So basically like a Nutribullet?

Don: Yes, its a bit like cooking for me… I look at it from a ‘genetic’ point of view because what I am asking for is the surprise, a dopamine kick, where you are getting not necessarily what you expected. By imagining and blending you end up with this cascade of optionality from which you can cherry pick, and then lo-and-behold, uncle so-and-so’s ears pop out in a final iteration in mysterious ways. The thing about generative AI is that it has no idea what its doing, all it knows, is that I asked for a tree, and it has searched a vast database of images, pixel by pixel, and it knows that certain clusters of pixels means certain things in terms of what my prompt was. Not only did Midjourney know who Pierneef was, it knew all his various styles (periods) through its deep language learning model, but it has no idea what it is actually giving me. Its dispassionate, completely…

(Videographer): Robotic…

Don: Yes, but the depth of the stylistic knowledge is there. Midjourney has the capacity to deliver very prescriptive stylistic representations, but I’m not that guy. I want a more chaotic journey where I am getting what I don’t know, and that goes back to my process in architecture using digital tools. It is also because I want to be somewhere where I can’t predict where I am going. That’s why I travel, that’s why I’m an adventurous guy. I don’t want to do the same thing twice. For me landscape is a place of experiences, not a passive backdrop to something, its an EVENT landscape.

Event 4 - Don Albert - 2023

Sean: Arno?

Arno: Don gave me an opportunity to play around on Midjourney and I used prompts for elements that are in some of my paintings, and it didn’t bring up things that were interesting to me, but what that showed me, is that what Don ends up with is not easy. It is not easy to get something that is interesting immediately out of that interaction, you have to have a feel for it. There might be a perception that you just have to put in a few words and something comes out but it is not true. To get something interesting out of it, I think, is an art.

Sean: So your scenography, like a whale floating over the city, doesn’t come out of AI?

Arno: No.

Sean: Out of your imagination?

Arno: Totally, I don’t know where that stuff comes from…

Don: As it should be…

Arno: A good way to get a lot of respect for what Don does, is to try it yourself.

Sean: To get back to the thread of the question which is to ask about the difference between a tool and a prosthetic. Don, you spoke about AI as a tool that is far more powerful than you initially thought, so in that relationship that you have with the tool, I want to understand how you view yourself. Are you a producer, a curator…?

Don: You are a bit of an editor, but again I see it as a collaboration with the history of art. In a post-humanist sense, its about relinquishing control, about relinquishing this idea that we as artists or human beings know everything, and being okay with using AI as a partner in the creation of something new. I see it a bit like digital sampling of music during the 1980’s, where you grab a bit of this, and if somebody needs to be paid so be it. There is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about how to recontextualise and put a new spin on things. I wouldn’t for a second claim complete authorship of anything where AI is involved.

UAP 5 - Don Albert - 2023

Sean: Aren’t you in a sense heroicising a tool - for example a digital lathe can produce astonishing things, but its essentially passive until its activated?

Don: Agreed. At the end of the day you have to choose the correct image.

Arno Morland, Don Albert and Sean O'Toole (left to right)

Sean: How do you read these images? If you asked me this, as a deeply conservative art critic… Unavoidably one skirts taste… Most of these images make my eyes water, but you know, what are you trying to provoke in a public, and what type of ownership do you take in this work? I mean, you sign them…

Don: I am not an AI evangelist. I see this as a stepping stone in my journey. My concern is primarily for, and probably always will be, climate change and the spatial pressures that climate change is going to bring to society. AI has opened up the opportunity to talk about the future of humanity, which then allows people to also start engaging with climate change and in this particular exhibition I came into the present (as opposed to being under water in the future). In this body of work I was initially interested in UAP’s and extreme weather events, and through the process of exploring that, ideas within quantum physics suggested that the unexplainable things we are experiencing is a collision of time - the idea of superposition and that reality only exists once observed, mostly. The idea that we can coexist, literally on top of each other as people, cultures and ethnicities. I don’t think I would have got there without AI. Is it a tool? Is it a guiding hand? Is it a crutch? Or is it a sounding board? It is all of those things for me. Of course some of the results are more successful than others on an aesthetic level. AI has certainly exposed me to certain patterns. For example in Pierneef’s work there is an underlying geometry of circles, triangles and diagonal lines, which are part of nature, but in a cubistic, futuristic way, and when people see these things they know we are talking about a certain epoch in art, superimposed against others of course.

This Land is Your Land - Don Albert - 2023

Sean: We have spoken about making. What does an exhibition mean in terms of practice. For both of you?

Arno: I am a full-time artist now, so there is a business element to it, but I can honestly say that it is not my primary concern. I do see myself as a participant in a bigger ‘process’, and I feel that sharing that with others is part of the process.

Sean: Let me reframe that. We are firmly in a post-digital world where everything exists both physically and virtually, which has changed a lot of metrics about what contemporary society is, and our experience of it. You don’t have to go to exhibitions for example, you can check in visually online, but in some senses, if you look at what works privately and then displays publicly in an exhibition, there’s a feedback, be it friction, praise, whatever. It introduces torsion. With Pierneef, in 1928/29, when he presented that very cubistic stuff, the ladies in Pretoria who went to that exhibition gasped in horror, and then he started painting all this benign crap for the rest of his career. That is the friction that an exhibition introduces: ‘this isn’t working, so I will do that’. But in the digital age things have shifted. One reads say, the annual report on the global art market, that instagram has changed the art world and it has become a tool of discovery and direct trade for the artist. So we are caught in this weird moment where we do rituals like this associated with three, four, five hundred years of metropolitan art practice, and we are doing other stuff. So, my question is: an exhibition in a physical space, why do it?

Show opening - Oct 5th, 2023

Arno: I still think that embodied experience is important. In the discourse of the last 30-40 years there has been this dematerialisation, where people distrust the object. People try to get away from it - conceptual art in the 1960’s kicked it off. People have tried to circumvent the commodification of the art market and so on. Ideally I would like my art to function as an icon in the spiritual tradition. Do little offerings…

Sean: Religious icons?

Arno: Yes… like in spiritual traditions where people have an altar and make offerings… while I don’t expect people to make offerings, I’d like the work to be a quiet little presence in lives, just there on the side, as a little reminder of something that means something to them. Not as something religious. I do think that when you come to a gallery you have an embodied experience that is different to flipping through instagram, one image after the other. I hope people have an experience and want something that I have made to be part of their lives, so that as they change over time, that the meaning of the work changes and grows with them.

Don: Agreed, but the way I look at art is quite separate from architecture which has to be experienced in three dimensional space to be fully understood. I do understand the Mona Lisa but don’t need to stand in front of it to appreciate what it brings.

Sean: Well you won’t actually be able to get close to the Mona Lisa these days…

Don: True, but the way I learned about the history of art was through the Arnason (textbook) with badly reproduced images, and I still got it, at least I thought. It is different having a physical experience and there is a visceral, emotive experience to be had in exhibitions. We shouldn’t deny that. But I think any comparison between physical and virtual modes of consumption is the same concern that cinematographers have raised about consumers not watching movies together on 60m-wide theatre screens anymore. It hasn’t stopped great movies from being made since. Of course instagram ruins things, everything has to be square and compressed, but this is unfortunately where we are at. The art market is saturated, therefore marketing has to be more crass, images have to pop off the wall to be noticed and so on. It is a real challenge. I will continue to bumble along regardless of sales, and exhibitions or not, as I tend to make art as a therapy and as a pursuit of knowledge. It is great if someone buys something, if they don’t it doesn’t really matter, but what is important for me is for me to understand what it is that I am trying to paint and the rabbit holes that I dive in to. After four-hundred thousand brushstrokes I still don’t know what that is! (Points at Told You!)

Told You! - Don Albert - 2023

(Audience member): Was going to ask you!

Sean: Great cue! Where did it come from? What were the iterations?

Don: It has in it the ‘DNA’ of a feather of a peacock that I had bought for Reece for one of his paintings, which I took a photograph of, but way back in its iterations there are video stills of the forest fires in Kelowna, British Columbia. There are also other UAP imaginings and blends that were more mechanical in nature, and the final Midjourney output that Told You is painted from has got some sort of firework/missile looking stuff going on, which still had remnants of feathery geometric tracery in it, but when I started to render the brushstrokes made it want to be more of a bird thing… so, is it a bird? Is it a ‘plane?, you know, with UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena) the theory is, supported by NASA, is that these objects or creatures are not extra-terrestrial but are in fact of earth but have become visible through a collapse in time/space, a glitch in the matrix as it were. That’s the theory of superposition that quantum physics affords us. Its not so important what these UAPs are or where they are from, but rather that we are all from the same place ultimately, and that at any moment we could be here, there, or simultaneously in a different reality, so it is more about sharing space...

undead man - Arno Morland - 2023

EXHIBITION NOW OPEN Mon-Sat . Closes 31st of October.

For private viewings please email

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