Moving Still Art: Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming”

A traditional painting is static to the human eye, despite the imperceptable movements of the atoms or the refresh rate of the screen if it displayed or created digitally. The husband and wife duo, Rob and Nick Carter, artist collaborators, looked to challenge the notion of how static these pieces need to be as part of their series called “Transforming.” Delving into a new venture between 2009 and 2013, they worked with the English visual effects firm, Motion Picture Company (MPC), to create a series of computer based digital paintings in a reimagining of still paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art, Renaissance, and 18th century Germany.

Four of these works are presented as films on Mac screens or iPads with traditional portrait frames, each ranging from approximately two to three hours in length that loop and repeat again. Each piece, slowly and often imperceptibly, changes over the course of the playback, employing databases of insect movements and plant life cycles, algorithms, and traditional computer animation. The intentions of their pieces are to promote sustained engagement with the paintings in contrast to the six seconds on average that a museum goer looks at an artwork.

Transforming Vanitas Painting

Transforming Still Life Painting

Transforming Diptych

Transforming Nude Painting

Significance and Communities

Groups interested in the survival of these works are art scholars across various concentrations. To those studying the original works of inspiration, these new pieces serve as a vital link to understanding the impact and tracing their influence over time. Rob and Nick Carter’s work is also an important example of remixing or reuse and serve as important pieces to document the influence of the original artwork along with the new work itself. Ultimately, preservation of the digital paintings also means allowing for further transformation as the digital files and code are much easier to transform than their analog counterpart. Thus, these works are part of the social memory creation surrounding both the original works and the genres they represent.

Another group that would want these art pieces preserved are those studying new media art and its history. Kate Bryant of the Fine Art Society of London claims that these are the world’s first digitally rendered paintings (old paintings entirely recreated with a computer), making it an important to preserve as documentation of the establishment of a new genre or technique. While the approach of a modern day homage to earlier forms of art was innovative, I believe the work of Rob and Nick Carter is conservative compared to some new media art which can be quite jarring from traditional paintings.

The conventional elements may have made the work palatable to more traditional galleries such as The Frick Collection and The Mauritshuis which exhibited some of these works alongside centuries old still life paintings (in fact it is apparently the first digital work exhibited at The Frick). The works of “Transforming” are therefore important to understanding how the genre of still life is being adapted to contemporary society due to changes in technology and how new media is making its way into older traditions. I think the intersection of old and new is important to document and will be interesting to users in the future.


At the same time, their work is using cutting edge technology in animation, coding, and display, which will interest computer art and design historians. Additionally, since Rob and Nick Carter worked with a visual effects firm, the works also will interest those who want to understand how corporate entities are involved with art, especially those facilitating digital art for those who may not have the technical skills to realize their vision.

Finally, these pieces are part of the contemporary attempts of creators and producers to foster user engagement with media content. With the ever growing amount of exposure to media on a daily level, the public often devote only a small amount of time to the images that pass before their eyes. These artworks represent a response to this moment, a clear commentary on the need to focus, and how undivided attention can be rewarded. Therefore, documenting “Transforming” means documenting the cultural conversation around media consumption in the early 21st century.

9 Replies to “Moving Still Art: Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming””

  1. You do a great job making the case for the significance of these works. It is interesting that of the whole of the various projects folks are looking at, yours looks to be the only one that is really anchored in the more conventional art world. So you’ve clearly made the case for why these matter. With that said, I would be interested for more of your take on what aspects of these matter to what potential sets of stakeholders.

    That is, I can imagine a lot of potential digital assets that could be part of this and they each come with some different challenges. There are the “paintings” themselves, the finished works, which it sounds like are super large high rez video files. Then, even from your screenshot, we can see some of the various kinds of digital assets that were likely involved in the process of creating those videos (So the 3D models, and whatever kinds of files were created as part of the process of making these.) Along with that, there are the various videos you’ve embedded (and others) that do a lot to document the intentions and process behind these. So given those various assets, I would be curious to get a sense of which of those you see as being the most important to various current and future stakeholders? Thinking through that is going to be really valuable in establishing your preservation intent statement.

    Great work, and a really neat set of works to explore the issues of the course in.

    1. I think the videos of the final product and the videos, etc. of documentation are most significant. If sticking to the artist intent, the replay of the final videos is certainly key to conveying their overall message of sustained engagement. Also, understanding the process is difficult without the documentation videos because the different assets were brought together and edited using a wide range of proprietary software. Some parts may have good documentation in the files themself where you can see the development (like code) but I’m less certain about animation files. Additionally, documentation is valuable in understanding how how and why this new genre was created.

      The next level of priority would be the code and what they describe in the video as databases of insect movement animations. The maggots in frog picture move based on code but I think the end result one capture of it running. The two fruit pictures each have their own separate app which run on two iPads that talk to each other and continually change pulling in random insect animation from the database. So at least the code for the two apps should be saved to maintain the artist intent that the work be random each time. All of the code I think is particularly important to understand how art intersected with algorithm, how much was actually random, and how much was designed randomness.

      On a third level, I think the original animation files are important for understanding the translation of 2-D into 3-D and seeing the complete design of the objects but ultimately this can seen in the video documentation. I think the elements can be recreated just as the animators did by knowing the processes and the tools they used. While these are important pieces, I’m placing it third because similar information is available elsewhere.

  2. I would definitely be interested in the documentation aspect of these digital paintings. The videos you posted from the Fine Art Society of London are good additions. I’m wondering if there’s anything out there from the artists themselves or perhaps even from the company they collaborated with that details the process on how these were constructed. Maybe the company would have made promotional material or videos to highlight the project with the side benefit of promoting themselves? Or maybe there are video interviews with the artists? This work seems like a good topic for a little documentary – why they made the art, how they made the art, the collaboration between the artists and the company, and the viewers’ reactions . . . .

    1. Yes, more from the artists themselves would be good. I’ve seen a couple videos with them but they’re not too in depth about the exact role they played. There is this set of short videos on how the company was involved ( which are short but give a great idea on the process. They don’t really mention the artists role too much other than that they were involved in all the decisions. I think viewers reactions are a great idea because these works were often exhibited alongside still life paintings and if the viewer didn’t read the caption it could be very surprising when something moved. One article I read said someone choked on their sandwich when seeing it. Maybe I’ll see if there’s more reactions on social media, thanks for the idea!

      1. Just checked out the videos – thanks! Pretty neat stuff. Yes, I can imagine viewers being pretty shocked if they had no idea about the work. Or I wonder if anyone sat there for the entire time to watch the whole cycle of it running?

  3. Are you going to try to contact MPC or some of the artists that worked there for their take on what it was like working on this? As MPC usually works on movies and commercials, this would be very different for the company and their artists. From the videos, it seems like they did some really cool and different things to make the frog decay, like creating it as one sim, and how they made the paint strokes stay with the frog as it moved. MPC and/or the VFX artists might have something interesting to say, if you can get a response from them.

  4. This project is right in line with Manovich’s Photoshop piece: how new media can encompass techniques that simulate the functions and effects of old media, while also enhancing them. I found it helpful going back and forth between these videos and that reading, so thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *