Markos R. Kay
Freelance Creative Director, Designer, Illustrator, and University lecturer
Coming from a traditional fine art background, he first became fascinated with digital generative art and its intersection with natural sciences during his Masters at Central St. Martins. His work deals with themes of emergence, evolution and complexity. He has industry experience in design having directed idents, ads, branding and graphics for major broadcast, retail and design companies. He has also directed large-scale projection mapping events as well as audiovisual and interactive installations.
Sciencemotionology: How long have you been doing animations? And how did you become so interested in science and biology?
Markos: It’s been about 15 years now – my first digital animations were made in Flash!
My interest in science and biology started from a very early age, I guess due to an inherent need to understand how things work on a fundamental level. My creative work has always been related to this process of understanding, but it’s really 9 years ago during my Masters degree that I focused on exploring the relationship between generative art and biological/physical processes.
Sciencemotionology: Which tools (and software) do you use essentially in your work?
Markos: It always starts with pen and paper – I have volumes of sketchbooks full of ideas that will probably never see the light of day! Digital production usually involves a laptop running Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Cinema 4d.
Sciencemotionology: Which books do you have close by for research for a new science-related work, for a new animation, or simply to look for inspiration?
Markos: I’m into quite heavy reads that can have a profound effect on my thinking processes – so reading for me is often hard work! David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order is a book that I often go back to and it seems that Bohm’s ideas are becoming relevant again amongst physicists. Wetware by Dennis Bray has really helped me understand the intricacies of computational biology. DeLanda’s work on simulation and Laughlin’s writings on neurophenomenology currently make up the conceptual framework of my work.
Sciencemotionology: Considering you have essentially a design background, where do you get your ideas to illustrate the biological space?
Markos: I spend a lot of time looking at images of microscopy and analysing their visual language. This is not just about the subject under the microscope, but also the technique of microscopy itself. The same thing under a conventional microscope will look completely different when seen through an electron microscope, and each technique will illuminate different aspects of the same subject. These diverse perspectives as well as the shift between them is what informs my work. I am interested in how information from something completely invisible to the naked eye can be translated into something that we can perceive and connect with.
Sciencemotionology: Could you describe briefly your creative process, from research to the final product? Do you spend a lot of time researching for a science-related work?
Markos: 90% of my creative process consists of research and experimentation - for example for “The Flow” I spent over a year researching the theory behind it and doing visual experiments, while actual production took about two months. When dealing with science it is very important to have a thorough understanding of the subject matter as it will be scrutinised by experts on the field! I also write extensively while researching which helps me analyse and reflect on my own thoughts, propelling the project forwards. There is also visual research that takes place, a more intuitive process which involves collecting visual references that resonate with the project. Ideas are first sketched on paper and then materialise as experiments in 3D software. Eventually the final product is a combination of these experiments.
Sciencemotionology: Have you done collaborations with biologists and scientists and how do these work? How do the different languages between a scientist and a designer translate into your work?
Markos: I’ve recently had the amazing opportunity to work with the HHMI to illustrate some of the findings from their method of lattice light-sheet microscopy that has been recently awarded with a Nobel prize. It was very interesting for me to see their dedication to accuracy and precision in the way they wanted the information to be portrayed which often conflicted with my dedication to aesthetics and concept. They would often tell me “it’s beautiful but it’s not realistic” and really our collaboration was about finding a happy medium between scientific precision and artistic license. As an artist my goal is to reimagine and reshuffle experience whereas for a scientist it is to clarify and put experience into order and it’s that conflict that I want to translate into my work.
Sciencemotionology: Do you have any advice for newcomers, coming from a scientific background, entering the animation world?
Markos: If they are coming from a strictly scientific background I would suggest that they immerse themselves in the history of design, animation and contemporary practice. I think in order to innovate it is very important to contextualise our work and know its place within the spectrum of art and design. It is also important to develop an extensive visual vocabulary drawing influences from as many different places as possible and use these influences to create unique experiences. Always aim for pushing the boundaries!
"...looking at images of microscopy and analysing their visual language."
"...finding a happy medium between scientific precision and artistic license."
"...reimagine how these cells look like in a more conceptual manner using scientific theory"
Sciencemotionology: After you were commissioned, where did you look for inspiration for how the illustrations would look? What was this process like?
Markos: The main inspiration was the actual recordings of cellular processes using lattice light-sheet microscopy by the Betzig Lab at the HHMI. The detail in form and movement that this technique provides is exceptional, and only that is an endless source of inspiration. Of course the technique has its limitations as it does not record images like a conventional camera; it scans its subjects in a tomographic manner and then stitches all the layers together to create an image. So my task was to reimagine how these cells look like in a more conceptual manner using scientific theory. For example we all know that cells are mostly made out of water, and the Betzig lab recordings show us their fluid movement, so one of visual interpretation was to present a cell as a transparent fluid object. Another source of inspiration was different microscopy techniques and the visual language and forms that they reveal.
Sciencemotionology: What tools did you use to create the pieces? Was there are lot of experimentation?
Markos: I used 3d simulation software to create the piece. Experimentation was really at the core of this project – my approach was to create virtual experiments simulating the biological processes that the Betzig Lab recorded. Creating simulations involves setting initial parameters and creating an environment with physical laws and then letting the simulation play out by itself. This leads to unexpected and often beautiful results that almost have a life of their own. I based my experiments on three specific recordings from the Betzig Lab out of which still images were extracted and then selected by the HHMI for their cover and feature illustrations.
Sciencemotionology: Why does science inspire you to create art?
Markos: I often get asked that question and I could write an entire book on the relationship between science and art and why it is such a fascinating subject! On a personal level though for me science has an existentialist quality – it aims to answer questions about how the world works but more importantly it creates more questions about reality. It deconstructs and reconstructs knowledge and it uncovers beauty, complexity and simplicity just like art. That existentialist aspect resonates with me as an artist and it provides endless material for inspiration.