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Mark Sabb, the versatile creator behind FeltZine, is involved in various roles. He not only produces installations, curates shows, and manages a platform but also develops video games and creates art. Sabb and FeltZine have been actively engaging in discussions surrounding online culture for years, emerging as prominent voices in examining and presenting cultural shifts facilitated by new technologies.

Through PRESS ESCAPE, Sabb presents a collection of artworks generated using AI and Python. The initial images are sourced from screenshots of video games that Sabb personally designed. These creations are typically only accessible at immersive installations curated and exhibited by FeltZine or encountered by Sabb himself, making them largely unavailable to the general public. Within PRESS ESCAPE, Sabb explores themes inspired by the original material, delving into ideas of time, mortality, addiction, and the pervasive impact of capitalism.

In a dialogue with Anika Meier, Sabb reflects on the inception of FeltZine, the transition from Web 2 to Web3 in the realm of the Internet, the evolving role of artists in the AI era, and the influence of video games on his artistic endeavors.

Anika Meier: Mark, when you founded FeltZine, what was the online landscape like at that time?

Mark Sabb: Felt Zine was established in 2011 with the original intention of being an underground, alternative fashion magazine. During that period, there were several emerging movements such as "Weird Facebook," Vaporwave, and Seapunk. Vaporwave held particular importance for me back then, given my strong affinity for sample-based music, particularly in the realm of hip-hop. The music resonated with me on a personal level. I also observed a prevalence of low-poly 3D renderings in cover art, music videos, and other creative works associated with the music. We delved extensively into this scene, both in real life and online.

Initially, our aim was to feature the visual and musical artists within this scene who were largely overlooked at the time. It became apparent to us that much of the art was being produced using free 3D software like Daz 3D and Blender. Subsequently, we began creating visual art ourselves, which further immersed us in the digital art and net art communities as time progressed.

Mark Sabb, Prayer, digital, 2014.

AM: How have the Internet and social media evolved in recent years, for better or for worse?

MS: It's quite challenging for me to categorize myself as one or the other. When considering net art aesthetics, for example, it's been truly remarkable to witness the mainstream acceptance it has garnered. We've seen a significant embrace of these aesthetics in popular music videos, which have evolved from the creative essence originally shared on social media. This development is positive as it opens up more opportunities for artists. Through Felt Zine, I've had the privilege of collaborating with incredibly talented artists who have achieved levels of recognition that may not have been as attainable a decade ago.

On the flip side, the merging of art and content has posed challenges for artists who prioritize art creation over brand building. By blending everything into content, we sometimes create a scenario where art, which can be thought-provoking or demanding of audiences, competes with content designed primarily to capture attention rather than serve as a commentary on social issues or aim to make an impact. Over time, competition has tended to favor content over art, which I believe is unfortunate for both artists and audiences in general.

AM: How has this affected FeltZine?

MS: For us, we have undergone significant shifts over time to align with what we believe our audience requires, as well as what inspires us. In the early 2010s, there was a stronger emphasis on creating interactive art websites, whereas now our focus has shifted towards developing interactive real-world installations, VR/AR experiences, video games, and projects that can resonate effectively across platforms such as social media and YouTube.

We recognize the importance of meeting the audience where they are, especially with new generations continually entering the online realm with their distinct experiences. It is crucial to adapt art into content formats that can engage and immerse them in the experience. It's a delicate balance of preserving our core identity while also evolving to remain relevant and connected with our audience.

Mark Sabb, Felt Zine Logo 21416, digital, 2016.

AM: When NFTs emerged, you swiftly integrated them into FeltZine and your own artistic endeavors. What motivated your decision to embrace Web3 and explore this new avenue?

MS: Various factors played a role in this decision. Looking back to our inception, I have had close connections with individuals involved in bitcoin and crypto since then, so it has always been within my sphere of influence. Additionally, one of our founding members has been deeply immersed in the blockchain space since around 2015 and strongly advocated for FeltZine to continuously explore avenues for empowerment. In mid-2020, there was a notable week where multiple artists, NFT collectors, and even founders of prominent NFT marketplaces reached out to FeltZine independently, suggesting that we consider minting NFTs. The timing was remarkable as these individuals were not acquainted with one another, signaling to me the potential significance of venturing into this space.

As I delved further into the developments within Web3 during that period, I realized that this realm resonated deeply with us, particularly in terms of providing a platform for our original digital art projects and collaborations. This involved ensuring artists could receive ongoing compensation with due credit, among other benefits. In many ways, Web3 presented solutions to challenges we had been grappling with, offering new ways to enhance engagement with the art we create and provide more value to our community.

Mark Sabb, Bear Land, digital, 2019.

AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

MS: One of my earliest memories is of my mother being impressed with my creativity as a small child, and that meant a lot to me. I felt like it was the best thing anyone had ever said about me. I also grew up around a lot of artists, ranging from dancers to musicians and even visual artists, so it was something that I had a lot of exposure to. In a lot of ways, I always knew I would be involved in the creative space, and my life has just been a journey around learning and experimenting with what that means.

At some point in my life, I wanted to be everything from a filmmaker to a journalist to even a fashion designer, but at the core of it all has been connecting with my own drive to create, which is also usually pointed more towards alternative, underground, or cult aesthetics.

AM: It appears that creating Felt Zine has been instrumental in opening up numerous opportunities for you. You have collaborated with fashion brands and artists, showcasing your versatility. Can you share when you began delving into creating your own artwork?

MS: My connection to art-making has always been present. I was fortunate that, from my earliest memories, my family had several computers, most of which were equipped with early versions of digital audio workstations like FL Studio (formerly known as Fruity Loops) and some programs for creating visuals, including MS Paint. I would log onto these computers with ample support from my parents, aunts, and uncles, and engage in creative pursuits. Whenever I had questions, my mom would encourage me to look up information online. This all took place during the era of America Online and dial-up internet in the early to mid-90s, but I felt very comfortable creating on a computer at a young age. Although I never formally learned how to draw or create art in a traditional manner, I was strongly encouraged to be a self-taught creative, much like how my family members embraced DJing or rapping during the early days of hip hop in New York.

During my pre-teen and early teenage years, I spent considerable time on hip-hop message boards, which often featured sections dedicated to graphic design where users would share album art and concepts, ranging from official artwork used by popular rappers and DJs to imagined creations. I began crafting my own imaginary album covers and felt a rush of excitement when fellow users resonated with them, urging me to continue experimenting with Photoshop and Illustrator.

As I matured into my teens, my interest shifted towards filmmaking, and I envisioned pursuing that path. It wasn't until I entered college around 2010 and began working at an art museum that I started contemplating creating art within the framework of exhibitions, distinct from mediums like movies or music. I had always been drawn to art and explored it in various ways. Growing up among creative individuals, including singers and rappers who may not have identified as artists due to different circumstances in their lives, I consider myself fortunate to belong to a generation in my family that wholeheartedly embraces artistic expression.

Mark Sabb, Givenchy Collaboration, digital, 2022.

AM: You wear many hats these days. You produce installations, you curate shows, and you run a platform. This means that you are also familiar with the business, the marketing, and the production sides. Does this help you as an artist?

MS: I think it helps me as an artist in the sense that today it's very hard to get exposure for your art without understanding how people are consuming content at any moment.

At my core, I am probably similar to many artists in that I would love to just create meaningful art and share it without the need to focus on marketing, business, production, etc. However, the truth is that while it can be frustrating to work on everything outside of the art, it is even more frustrating to pour your heart into something that no one gets to experience. By also working on different aspects of presenting art experiences, I am exposed to a lot from different perspectives. Even though my path is self-taught, I have learned so much from artists who have studied and refined their practice at all of the world’s best art schools. I think that balance is important, and it is even something that I am hoping to instill in my children. Early in my artistic career, I was very against the art world and the system itself. I would even go as far as to say that Felt Zine was created with the expectation that no gallery or museum would ever want to show this type of art, or at least they wouldn’t be interested until we were long gone.

Early in my career, when I was embraced by galleries to show my art and then hired by museums to lead digital content and marketing, I was surprised and sometimes had a hard time accepting that I was a part of the art world. Now I am fully embracing all of it, and I think this is a new era for me wherein a lot of the lines are blurring in a very powerful way, and I am able to be my full self in all of these spaces.

AM: Have your influences changed over the years?

MS: On a large scale, I think I have always been inspired by the same things and have been learning from these worlds increasingly as I get older. I am heavily influenced by hip-hop and rap culture and music. On both sides of my family are rappers, DJs, and producers who have contributed to the culture of hip hop in impactful ways, and seeing that firsthand made a huge impact on me.

Musically, Vaporwave was also a big part of my artistic development during an important time in my life. Visually, the music videos, cover art, fashion, and promotional art tied to both music genres made an impact on what I create, from design to 3D aesthetics. I was also heavily inspired by the films of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as a kid, which led me deeply into researching and understanding exploitation and b-films from the 1960s and 1990s. Interestingly, I found out that I had already been exposed to a lot of those films, especially Blaxploitation films such as SHAFT, FOXY BROWN, or BLACULA, through the older generation of my family, so the deep connection to their art made sense.

During the pandemic of 2020, I started to take in a lot of philosophy and discovered the importance of self-actualization. That was a huge influence on me because I always felt like self-actualization was key to a fulfilling life, but I just didn’t have the right language for it. From there, I would say I became even more myself and understood that what I was doing, creating digital art, was true to who I am.

In the last five years, I have become more inspired by indie games specifically, but I have always been inspired by games in general, as you will see references to Carl Johnson from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas in my art dating back a decade. I think all of this is connected to my own self-actualization and being even more comfortable with the pieces that make me who I am.

Mark Sabb, Black Panther HQ, digital, 2015.

AM: You are influenced by computer games, and you create your own computer games. PRESS ESCAPE is based on various of your computer games. What was first? The games or the idea to make art with computer games?

MS: Part of my process for creating art is to always try new things. For me, that is a big part of the fun and enjoyment. I like to try different programs, especially ones that are free and open source, though I end up spending too much money on licenses, extensions, and assets once I get into anything. That being said, there are just times when I want to create something in Unity or Unreal rather than Blender and Daz 3D, which I was feeling uninspired by for some time.

Ironically, I probably wouldn’t be able to make games at all without understanding all of these programs separately. The first games I developed happened many years into creating art, so I would say that art and aesthetics came first and are probably still the main parts of any game I create, whereas those who start out as game developers tend to be more concerned with game mechanics. I think both are important, but everything for me starts with art.

Currently, it's hard for me to create anything aside from games. My mind is working in a way that's just how my creativity flows, and for PRESS ESCAPE, I just dove into that and tried to imagine every piece as a sort of depiction of screen shots from a full-game playthrough of an imagined game that finds its basis in games I’ve created.

A few years ago, I was able to experience the Picasso Exhibition Hall at the Hakone Open Air Museum, and it was amazing to see how much he experimented with everything from printmaking to designing dinner plates, often using new forms of art-making technology for the time. That was really inspiring to see that even artists, who we might think of primarily as painters or traditional artists, were actually very interested in new forms of art and technology. In my current and next phases, I hope to dive deeper into programs like Touch Designer, which will have a big impact on my digital art and IRL experiences, and keep trying new things.

Mark Sabb, PROV 250, digital, 2021.

AM: We have had in-depth conversations about the title. What does PRESS ESCAPE stand for? An escape from the world into the metaverse?

MS: I was recently diagnosed with leukemia a few months before this collection and exhibition were produced. It had a big impact on my life as I thought about quitting a lot of things, not even making art anymore as I was dealing with depression for the first time, and wanting to escape from it all at its worst.

Ultimately, being here for my children, my wife, and my family as I battled cancer empowered me. I realized I was lucky to be able to even make art that people cared about and be a part of the art world itself, and I made the decision that I would only create and contribute to things I really cared about.

PRESS ESCAPE represents that as a title that is a sort of double metaphor. Escaping from the IRL into the metaverse and pressing escape as a way to quit the game and into a new era of creation for myself with the realization that the time to make the work I care about most is now more than ever.

Mark Sabb, Villain 332, digital, 2021.

AM: The aesthetics of PRESS ESCAPE are reminiscent of video games from the 90s. Why the nostalgic look?

MS: The interesting thing about the nostalgic look is that it wasn’t intentional. I had started to generate these images based on the games I previously made, and it just happened. I tend to like real-time rendering and low-poly aesthetics, so it makes sense that the image models would pick that up. I thought the fact that the images just so happened to have this nostalgic feel was really cool, so I decided to embrace it.

At its core, I am deeply inspired by games like FALLOUT 1 and HARVESTER, which are deep in that aesthetic, but none of the source material was going out of its way to look like a game from the 90s, so that aspect emerged from the creative process, which was exciting for me. I think if I had tried to go for that feel, it would have felt inauthentic or similar to the PlayStation filter on replicate.

Mark Sabb, Press Escape #1, digital, 2024.

AM: Have artists working with video games inspired your work on PRESS ESCAPE?

MS: Video games will, at some point, be the primary way digital artists create, especially as it becomes easier for solo developers to make games. When I look at my kids, for instance, I think some of their first art experiences will be games, or as a part of gaming experiences.

I would say that I’m equally inspired by games that have a heavily artistic aesthetic, such as Hylics, but I’m also inspired by games that some might consider "walking simulators," which is sometimes seen as a negative, but I don’t see it as a bad thing at all, and I think at some point it will be the majority of where art games are going.

AM: What role did AI play in creating PRESS ESCAPE?

MS: It was important to me right now to make art using AI. The aesthetics being produced by image generation models are very much a reflection of our current time and feel right.

A lot of my art in previous years was based on 3D rendering, often using something like Iray GPU rendering, which felt right for the time, but when approaching this collection specifically, that felt outdated. It’s weird because, as mentioned, the art for this collection ended up feeling nostalgic anyway, but I think there is a big difference between a feeling of nostalgia connected to new forms of creation and something that just feels slightly outdated. In the end, it's probably all in my head, but I think those feelings translate to the art itself.

On a technical level, the main aspects of each piece in the collection were generated with AI with inputs from screenshots of video games I created, which were not produced with AI. I think the balance of AI-generative art coming from another artistic source is very exciting. I also find myself practicing my own art making via prompts and think that it is a very helpful way to generate ideas and continuously make art. While none of the art in this collection is prompt-based, I was making a lot of prompt-based art around the same time as this collection, which made the process of generating AI art more natural in general.

Mark Sabb, Press Escape #39, digital, 2024.

AM: What are your thoughts about the role of the artist in the age of AI?

MS: The artist will be even more important in the age of AI. Some are worried about AI replacing creatives, and that may happen on some levels, but there are certain aesthetics that exist and more that are coming that AI does not excel at or will require artists who understand these styles well enough to produce an output that feels true and authentic. As certain styles of art become more accessible to create due to AI, artists will continue to push the limits of what they can do and what the AI can create, resulting in more artistic aesthetics, cultures, and even meme formats.

Also, a lot of censorship issues can and will arise around AI creation, which artists will always push the limits of. For instance, I am very inspired by movie posters from B-films of the 1960s and 1990s. Because of the visual content of these posters, a lot of the top AI image generation programs and services block the content and do not let you generate images based on it. While it is understandable from a business perspective that these companies will want to have strict filters, and I am strongly against any malicious use of AI image and video generation, it does go against some of the most powerful art and the progress that has been made by many marginalized artists, ranging from queer art movements to the Black Arts movement to embrace the human form, especially those that have not been depicted in media as much.

The context of art is very important, and the artists are always going to be the ones who direct and produce this contextualization and re-purposing of visual semiotics to create new statements. AI has been and will increasingly become a key tool for artists and creatives.

AM: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!