Obscura Journal Contributor Brileigh Hardcastle recently interviewed artist Claudia Pawlak in preparation for the first ever Foundry Commission drop, where five artists were awarded the opportunity to envision and work on a new project of their choosing. The first generation of artists received mentorship and curatorial assistance throughout the process. Pawlak discusses In Translation, a series of twenty five images created for the commission and how the AI generated project meets at the intersection of history, photography, and technology.
NFT’s are part of the new digital frontier: they are an emerging asset that has transformed the photography world and renewed a sense of excitement within the community. Coming from a traditional art background, I have mostly interacted with new faces as the majority of my artist network remains hesitant to come aboard. I was surprised when I discovered someone I knew long before I immersed myself in the world of web3: Claudia Pawlak.
Claudia Pawlak is a Canadian photographer based in Toronto, ON. Using photography as a means of preserving emotional response evoked from the spaces around her, the work aims to create a personal narrative connecting her relationship with people and place. Claudia has quickly become an active member in the NFT photography community: she is one of the first recipients of the Obscura Foundry Commission, a founding member of the RawDAO, and the founder of Frame11 Gallery, a women and non-binary focused NFT gallery.
While working on the Foundry Commission, Claudia took inspiration from the cyanotype work of Anna Atkins as well as generative artist Claire Silver. For her project "In Translation," a machine-learning algorithm was trained to create a unique set of otherworldly botanicals which were then printed as cyanotypes. Through minting the works as NFTs, the process comes full-circle by bringing that which was originally created in the digital world back into it.
By echoing the work of Anna Atkins and Claire Silver—two women from radically different contexts that have both been pioneers in arts and technology—Claudia's project becomes an extension of her own commitment to paving the road for female artists entering the space. As a result, the work meets at the intersection of history, photography, and technology.
BH: Let’s talk about this collection - how did you decide this was the best project for the Foundry Commission?
CP: In 2020, while under lockdown in Toronto, I began experimenting with cyanotypes as a way to interact with objects in the confines of my home. The subject matter ranged from fallen houseplant leaves, to face masks, to keys, black and white negatives, and more. Really anything that I could get my hands on to pass the time. Around this time I also started familiarizing myself with art on the blockchain, which segued me into a rabbit hole of machine learning and GANs. The idea to create a series of cyanotype prints with AI-generated botanical imagery was always in the back of my mind since then, but I never had the chance to really start it until the Foundry Commission. The Foundry Commission challenged me to put pen to paper.
BH: Have you had a commission before? How did you find the process of completing 25 works in 4 weeks? How did you feel about the curation and mentorship component? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?
CP: This is my first commission, which is exciting because it’s a NFT native commission. The fact that commission opportunities are available for photographers creating in web3 is so incredibly validating, both for artists and for the legitimacy of the NFT industry. The mentorship component was fantastic. Lisa Volpe was an insightful resource in connecting this collection to the work of Anna Atkins, both visually and contextually. Creating 25 works in 4 weeks was incredibly challenging. During that time, I had to create databases of botanical imagery to train my models, sort through outputs, print the ones that I liked, and expose them to sunlight outside to create my final prints. For the entirety of December I booked off 12PM - 1PM each day and just printed. Some days were incredibly frustrating as I watched my prints get buried outside in the snow. But it became meditative by week four: routine, automatic, a partnership between machine and artist.
BH: I saw that you did an internship at the Canadian Museum of Nature while completing your MA. Were you thinking about botanical specimens at that point?
CP: I was but I didn’t realize it at the time. The Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) has two buildings, the main museum building and the scientific research facility, and that’s where my office was located. I would often talk with the botanist there and observe how they were photographing their specimens. They were delicately placed on these surfaces that looked like paper and had a DSLR above it. At the museum there was a lot that I was inspired by and in retrospect it might have been an unconscious seed for this project.
BH: I love how the digitization process at the museum mimics the way that cyanotypes are made by laying objects against the paper. Why did you choose the Biodiversity Heritage Library's archive to train the AI?
CP: My friend Grace who works in graphic design told me that their entire digital archive of illustrations was accessible online and open source via Flickr and I always found that fascinating. She had used their illustrations for design work before and I thought that I might one day use them to make collages or other works. That had always been in the back of my mind since 2015. It was not until recently while working on the Foundry Commission that I needed a database of botanicals and thought, "where do I start?" And then I remembered the Heritage Library's digital archive of illustrations which is easily accessible and open source. When Anna Atkins was creating her work, she was doing it in a groundbreaking way and all of the scientists before her looked at illustrations since they didn’t have photographic evidence of these specimens. And so I thought it would be an interesting connection to go back to the illustrations to create my database.
BH: What do you find interesting about Claire Silver’s work? Was there a piece in particular that first inspired you to use AI?
CP: More than anything, it is how Claire Silver speaks about her work. Claire views AI as a familiar friend and constant collaborator exploring hidden worlds, meanings, and emotion. Neither is present without the other. What really drew me in is this aura of otherworldliness she’s able to capture in her works, present in pieces like“aqua regia” and“anonymous incarnatia.” These forms visually inspired me to seek the same abstract quality in my botanical outputs.
BH: Why is Anna Atkins’ work important to you? And what role does the cyanotype process play in this collection?
CP: Anna Atkins is a photography pioneer and a core part of how we understand the sun print today. She was a botanist using cyanotypes to more accurately depict specimens of plant life, as seen in “Photographs of British Algae.” In a world where scientists relied on illustrations of flora to complete their studies, Atkins advanced the process by photographing the physical forms of these specimens through sun prints. In doing so, the cyanotype is rendered as a way to photograph a physical object. The print implies that the object is real, taking up volume and able to be seized by human hands. By printing my AI-generated botanical imagery as cyanotypes, I am questioning truth, authenticity, and the role of the cyanotype as a document of the real.
BH: Is there an image in this series where you were most surprised by the results of the AI?
CP: There is one image in particular that caught me off guard for how human it feels. #11 is arguably one of the most sci-fi out of all the outputs but there’s something about it that feels like raw imagination, like a hand-drawn illustration right out of Luigi Serafini’s “Codex Seraphinianus.”
BH: It looks full of life and parts of it remind me of internal organs like lungs. When you look at the images, the rendering is very different visually than the other parts of the botanical like the stem or leaf. It’s interesting that the AI, a machine, seems to be depicting life in an artificial way.
CP: It's funny that you mention lungs, because I also think of body parts when I see these images, particularly #4. It almost feels like it has lungs or brain matter attached to the stems. Maybe that's just my perception of what the forms look like, or maybe it’s the AI collecting data from other plant imagery that combines to look like that. I’m not sure, but it’s really interesting how these shapes can be read. According to the AI it’s another plant, but then a human looks at it and identifies a body part.
BH: What is the relationship that you see between the machine and the artists’ hand in the work?
CP: I see an ever-evolving collaboration between artist and machine that celebrates differences, similarities, and welcomes room for error. When the GAN so carefully generates outputs for me, it is my role to sort through them and select which ones fit the vision of the project. I quite enjoy the dynamic that exists between the AI offering me these highly-controlled results created in the digital realm which I then render as physical prints in an uncontrolled, organic environment in the physical realm. The machine is an archive and record of cultural artifacts, and the artist a curator of this information.
BH: Web3 is often referred to as the wild west. What are your thoughts about being an artist working with emerging technologies? Has entering this space altered your goals and ambitions as an artist going forward?
CP: The NFT industry has created a new ecosystem for artists to distribute their art and collect cryptocurrency in the process. It’s an entirely new layer that runs parallel to all of the systems and ambitions of the traditional art world. I enjoy the thought of living in a world where NFTs are normalized as a way to interact with the art market by administering our work as prints, photo books, and NFTs. Being involved in web3 hasn’t altered my ambitions and goals as an artist at all. My goals continue to stay the same despite my home in the NFT space. I still want to make art, connect with like-minded artists, and show my work, only now I’m doing it in this new vertical.
To view the full collection of Claudia Pawlak's Foundry Commission visit:
Claudia Pawlak Twitter:
Claudia Pawlak Website:
Follow Obscura DAO on Twitter:
Join the Obscura Discord:
Want to Contribute to the Obscura DAO?:
Want to Partner with Obscura?: