Art vs Corporate Works
The final showdown….dun dun dunnnnnnn! Not actually, but this is a topic that plagues the mind of many individuals in our industry. Should I focus on creating individual pieces of fulfilling art work or should I do those corporate gigs with lots of resources and cash? While there has never been (and never will be a clear answer), I decided to talk to a long time partner in crime, the unbelievable technical and artistic mind of Vincent Houzé. We’ve worked on a few of projects over the years. You may know him from either his leading work doing beautiful physics simulations in TouchDesigner or from him amazing installation work (both corporate and artistic). I asked to pick his brain about his experiences as a top-tier professional who has done corporate mega-projects and solo installation work at festivals. You can find his selected works at on his website, vincenthouze.com, and more frequent updates about his whereabouts and works in progress happen on his Instagram and his Facebook. Without further ado, Vincent Houzé:
1) A lot of TouchDesigner artists have interesting backgrounds that led them here, so I’d love if you could tell us a bit about your background?
Elburz: I started up in the classical music scene. I went to university in Toronto for classical trombone performance, en route to a career as a trombone soloist. Over my time there, I found the scene wasn’t really aligned with my personality, so I dropped out of university. I got involved more into the electronic music side of the music industry. We were putting on shows with friends and we started seeing really cool live shows with synchronized lighting and interesting stage design and projection mapping and etc, so I volunteered to learn about that kind of tech. I learned TouchDesigner from there and made a few tutorials about the techniques I was learning because they weren’t very well documented (like Ableton Live template circa 2011). Being a Toronto-native, I was fortunate enough to meet the lovely folks at Derivative who are also based in Toronto. I started doing project work, started nVoid, and the rest is history!
Vincent: I started as an IT engineer in Paris, but didn’t find it entirely fulfilling, and I was messing with electronic music and graphics software on the side, so I went back to school for graphic design and computer graphics.
Through some influential encounters during the program (not the least, Maxime Causeret, who to this day is behind quite a few very successful projects) I found my way to the VFX industry, which required a mix of technology and artistry which was not so common at the time. First I worked in Paris, and then in London, and was lucky to work on high profile productions like the first Despicable Me and Gravity. Ultimately I became frustrated both by the “industry” nature of the VFX industry, where people have to be highly specialized, by the immense amount of waiting required for computers to achieve photorealism through physics simulations and rendering, and by the work always being limited to a screen.
This was followed by a great opportunity with the experiential studio Field.io, also in London, and my first encounters with the London crowd of artists using code as their medium. I began to experiment with audio reactive visuals myself and I stumbled on TouchDesigner, with which I felt right at home with my Houdini background.
Wanting to leave the world of non real time rendering for good, I reached out to Derivative for possible opportunities, and they luckily put me in touch with David Bianciardi of AV&C in New York, who gave me my first opportunity to make the leap (including over the ocean!). AV&C was a great experience, which quickly allowed me to work on a variety of high profile projects while being a part of the burgeoning TouchDesigner community in New York. At the regular gatherings organized by VolvoxLabs, I met members of the TouchDesigner community from all over the country. Another crucial encounter was with Alex Czetwertynski, an artist, curator and creative and technical director. Alex invited AV&C and me to collaborate on a piece for the first edition of the influential Day for Night festival, which had a lot of visibility.
Eventually I wanted more time to experiment and create artworks, and I joined NEW INC, the New Museum arts and technology incubator, for a year, and now have one foot in the art world and one foot in the corporate world.
2) Do you think there’s a difference between the “art world” and the “corporate world”?
Elburz: I think so, and from my experiences there isn’t much crossover in terms of talent, aside from a “crossover project” where some artist comes onto a corporate gig as a creative director or similar. There are very few artists in our field that I’ve seen go over in either direction and be successful in both. Vincent is one of those talents, which is why I wanted to get his input on this subject. From his wildly successful installations to his rock-solid corporate work.
From the experiences I’ve had, it seems like artists coming into corporate world don’t like how agencies work. They don’t do well with the indecision, the seedy marketing side of things, the incredibly small timelines, and possibly the hierarchies. I think for corporate artists diving into the art world, they may feel limited by budgets, especially after working on projects with hundreds of thousands, or million, dollar budgets for big brands. The lack of a “reason” to do something might also play into this, since I find a lot of art work depends on more of an internal motivation than it does an external goal/metric/KPI. Corporate artists may also be annoyed by general lack of defined processes that will push a project along. I think people’s personalities lead them to the field that is right for them, but I would bet for many corporate artists there’s a “sex appeal” to the arts world.
Vincent: I think this is a vast question, with different aspects to consider:
For more complex productions, a lot of artists are actually studios, run like small companies with a number of employees. In that case it’s probably not so different to work there compared to a regular company, with the artist acting as the creative director.
Otherwise, I would also compare being a solo artist somewhat to being a solo entrepreneur/freelancer, where besides actually creating artworks you have to spend time developing your brand, doing the accounting, setting up installations, deciding how much time to spend on research, and so on.
What you say Elburz is true though, in general budgets will be higher in the corporate world, supported by the business of the company initiating the project, though some art projects can also be super productions on their own. Equally true the overalls goals are also more defined in the corporate world.
Some other aspects to this question are worth mentioning: some solo artists will also regularly work on corporate projects, for their financial health or a change of pace, but keep it separate from their artist personae, as it’s sometimes not well perceived by the art world. On my end I do enjoy going from one to the other, since I wear every hat creating artworks, but can have a more focused role on corporate projects with bigger teams, so it’s a nice change of pace.
Also I would add that there is a distinction to be made between the art world and its galleries, fairs and auctions, and the immersive/interactive new media art world. Sometimes they overlap, and some artists have a foot in both, but I’d say the Art World can be dismissive of technology driven artworks and its often lacking critical discourse (is it art or a tech demo?). The complexity involved in more technological artworks also makes it harder to market than typical artworks. However the reciprocal is true as well, the art world is also looked down upon with its regularly obscure art speak, and a lot of new media artists are successful on the festivals and conferences circuit, and don’t necessarily want to be represented by a gallery.
On the other hand, as you mention, brands will also explicitly partner with artists for commercial projects, as a branding operation. There are many different configurations to that, from the artist art directing to sponsoring his artworks. It seems to me this is becoming more frequent, but a more rigorous analysis would be needed. Alex Czetwertynski recently had some interesting comments on the subject.
So all in all a complex subject ripe for an extensive discussion, and I believe with a lot more overlap than one would initially think.
3) What one piece of advice would you give someone wanting to be on the arts side of the industry?
Elburz: I would say stick to your guns. It’s easy to say “I’ll do a few corporate gigs to pay for the bills, then I’ll go back to art.” Once you’re in, you just get deeper and deeper into it. I think you should look at festivals and galleries where other TouchDesigner artists are putting installations, and then see if there are openings for smaller pieces in those galleries. So stick to your guns and do whatever it takes to hit that circuit and the festival circuit. Find residencies you can be involved with, go to events, meet people. It will probably start slow, but stick with it.
Vincent: I agree with what you say, any kind of goal requires focus and perseverance: trying to do interesting work and keeping at it, and then getting the work out there. Taking the time to build a network and connections will also plays a big role. I would say that going to a school or university, though it can be expensive, and the teaching sometimes approximate, can be really useful in the network building part and have one’s first opportunities to showcase artworks through the school exhibits.
4) What one piece of advice would you give someone wanting to be on the corporate side of things?
Elburz: Don’t say yes to every single thing, otherwise people will always take advantage of you. Even if it’s an easy thing, say “I’ll confirm and let you know. but we’ll do our best to make it happen.” That’s basically a yes without opening the door up to a million other crazy requests you probably didn’t sign on for. All the big agencies and brands that hire us aren’t wearing eye-patches begging on the street for a dollar. They’re rich! Don’t let them squeeze you and take advantage of you. Learning some business skills will take you a LONG way if you’re wanting to work in the corporate world.
Vincent: On the topic of skills I would say I think it’s easier to focus on one or a few sets of skills first and become good at it, before one expands in more directions, based on interests. I would say a good generalist is good at many skills, which is why it will usually be a more senior person.
On the topic of relationships with companies and what you say, I agree, but only to a certain extent:
It is true there is a time and place to act like a mercenary, I myself have been burned when I was starting out, and eager to work on a high profile project or excited do a specific kind of work, especially in the VFX industry.
On the other hand I would say though that I’ve had better experiences with smaller shops on experiential projects, which could be both because of the scale of the companies and the fact I was more seasoned. I’ll admit I have limited experience with agencies. I will say it’s a fairly small world and word gets around quick, both ways, about which people or companies are trustworthy and nice to work with or not.
5) What motivates your choices in learning or exploring a particular concept or topic? How did you find this choice different between corporate work and artist work?
Elburz: My career has been heavily leaning to the corporate side of things, and I find the things that motivate me to learn are finding new ways to improve work processes. This isn’t always as boring as it sounds, because in the corporate world other people are already forcing you to learn the new cool thing, so when I have some time to take a breath, I try to figure out what hold-ups we had on the last project or something I heard that could make our lives easier on the next project. So I’m pretty focused on efficiency and processes when it comes to my learning choices on the corporate side of thing. I find this kind of problem solving to be pretty fun in general, so I don’t miss the more exploration/artistic endeavors in my spare time.
Vincent: So for the artist work, it’s quite self driven: I get to choose what I want to explore. From my VFX experience I have retained a deep fascination for the simulation of physical and natural phenomena, and the recent progress in graphic cards power makes it possible to achieve great results in real time, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on and am interested in exploring in artworks. Besides this core interest, I’m also learning and exploring necessary topics related to the installation part of the work, which in many ways is more practical than things living in the computer.
For corporate work, it’s project driven, and as you say Elburz there is always something to learn in trying to do one thing, even boring, in the best way possible. That is, of course, taking into account budget and time constraints.
On my end now having more of the specialty described above will make potential client reach out to me for this kind of work, and as well I have more agency choosing which projects I’m working on, as a freelancer, so I try to stay somewhat focused. Though an unusual corporate project can be a great way to learn and explore new techniques.
6) How do you find the concept of “Done” is different between corporate projects vs art projects? Is there more tension on either side or more satisfaction on either side?
Elburz: Actually this is one of the reasons that I think I was drawn to the corporate side of things. I really enjoy the “architecture” and “engineering” side of our industry, so I like that on the corporate side of things, we decide with the client what the goals are and what is “done” and then we write up requirements and specification documents that list it all out. Then we do our work and hit all those marks and then we can happily stop and enjoy it all. I think the vagueness of the arts side of things was always a bit of a grey mist that I didn’t enjoy. There’s a lot of stress and tension on the corporate side of things, but you quickly learn to disengage and leave work at work, even when all of a client’s money is on the line! I also enjoy the satisfaction of corporate gigs because the large budgets allow for really amazing technical setups and mega projects.
Vincent: For an art project, “Done” is not always easy to define, and probably talking of an artwork being successful or not makes more sense. It is true it can be hard to let go, so trying to see each artwork as an unfinished exploration, like a piece of a puzzle, starting where the last one ended, tends to help. In that regard having deadlines to hit for festivals and exhibitions helps a lot, the artwork will be done, because it has to be! Any other constraint, though possibly also a source of frustration, will help as well.
For a corporate project, as Elburz is touching on in other articles on the blog, sometimes “Done” is not always completely straightforward, as things can change along the way as the work progresses, or if the scope was somewhat vague to start with (not that I recommend that!). It is true, however that in general it remains easier to define than for an art project, if only because budget and time constraints are always present. I would add it depends on what exactly one’s role is, the notion of “Done” for the creative/design side of things being always a little harder to define than for purely technical problem solving. I think in my case working on corporate projects helps me having a more practical mindset tackling art projects, and it is true it is easier to have more perspective on corporate projects as they are less personal.
7) What are the functions and mechanisms you would consider fundamental building blocks to your work? Either technical or creative.
Elburz: A big thing for me is “clarity.” It applies to both technical and creative elements in my mind. On the technical side I’m always seeking technical architecture that is clear to follow, or a program that has clear flow to it, or a clear communication pipeline with clients or partners. These things have really helped make my professional life successful and easy. A lot of clients find the best part about working with me are these things! You’d be surprised how being clear is appreciated by everyone. No one has time to decipher your brain except you.
On the creative side, I think clarity is even more important, as I find more often than not we’re our own worst enemies. We make these really hectic installations that many normal users don’t understand or can’t interact with properly. It is a common issue I have with Leap Motion sensors. They always seem so easy to us, but almost every installation I’ve done with them, has require some special instruction or trial and error before the user understands that you don’t put your hand right over the sensor. Clarity always steps me away from adding features and towards having less features that are easy to use and have a great impact with the user. It may not be fancy or obvious at all times, but clarity helps me sleep at night!
Vincent: Not really trying to make a joke, but I’d say creating building blocks is fundamental to my work! Be it in computer graphics or physics, a lot of smaller concepts are present again and again, so every time I learn of a new concept and create a building block around it I’m always surprised of how much more it allows me to do, using it with previously developed building blocks.
Sometimes how concepts work together is obvious, sometimes it’s less obvious, leading to interesting discoveries or ideas to explore.
In general I always try to build on work I’ve done in the past and iterate, both for practical reason, but also because I think it’s a way for me to find things of interests.
So I would say for the art projects the mechanisms are this back and forth between somewhat aimless explorations and experiments, with much more directed work, once I feel I have something interesting I want to refine.
For corporate projects, if I’m not the main creative, which I usually haven’t been so far, I agree that having the maximum clarity from the creative is important. Or at least, knowing where we are in the process, as free-form, less directed explorations can help refine the design intent, especially when new technologies are involved. Otherwise as said previously, I will also try to reuse building blocks I have if I can, adapting them for the project, and maybe the new adaptations can be in turn reused.
8) From what I’ve seen of our industry, not many people completely up-root and setup their HQ far away from where they were born/raised/studied. Being from France, what made you make the move to New York and what has kept you there? Any advice you’d give people who are considering a big move?
Elburz: As someone who travels regularly, I say “If you’re considering it, go for it and give the new place a shot.” Sometimes you’ll find truly greener pastures and other times you’ll get a real wake up call, haha. Either way you’ll eat some new food and have some stories to tell later. I’d say if you’re taking the plunge though, don’t torch your current life, just put stuff on a small hold in case you need to head back. My “move” has been extreme but in the other direction where I’m basically always on the road or hanging out in some non-HQ country. I do it on the one hand because I enjoy the road life, and on the other hand, I came up in Toronto, where there historically hasn’t been a huge interactive installation scene or very many big budget projects, so I almost always have to leave HQ for work.
I’ve recommended similar to people I’ve talked to who are trying to learn and gain experience where they are, but where they are may have no gigs, so I recommend moving to where there are gigs. In particular this may apply to many folks who live in smaller cities in the US and are having trouble either finding a job or getting clients. It might be worth taking the dive and making the move to a metropolitan center like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, even if only temporarily to make a name for yourself. In countries like the US where it’s pretty easy to move into a giant metropolitan city.
Vincent: I’m always impressed by people who have a more nomadic lifestyle like you Elburz, since despite some big moves in my life and enjoying travels a lot, I think I need a home base to give my best.
After being born and raised in Paris and more than 25 years there, I felt like having different life experiences, though I stuck to large metropolis! The 1.5 years stint in London was refreshing, but I was curious to have an experience a little farther from home.
As said earlier, the New York move was not fully planned, it seemed more likely to me I would end up in Montreal or San Francisco while looking for opportunities in the experiential world using TouchDesigner, but this turned out to be a great move for me. A lot of things said are true, it’s quite cramped, and expensive, but also the sheer variety of people attracted to the city gives it a palpable and exhilarating energy. And it might sound cliché but I did enjoy the risk taking and optimistic mindset of most people I met, compared to a more critical and risk advert mindset of people back home. Which I concede might also have to do with my own evolution and people I connected with.
Otherwise I highly recommend traveling both for leisure and for work, as it always very interesting to see how other people live and work, often different in the details, but not so different for the fundamentals.
Corporate work allowed me to discover a wide range of cities in the USA so far, while I got opportunities to travel to Asia and Canada for artworks and performances. The new media art world is not so big so it was with great pleasure that I got to meet some of my heroes while traveling for exhibitions and performances.
9) How is an artist residency different from working on a corporate project? Any compromises you find being made in either scenario? Do you prefer one to the other?
Elburz: I can’t speak about the artist residencies, but corporate projects are either breakneck paced hell storms OR completely static undecided concepts that feel oh-so-far-away! This means it can be frustrating when decisions aren’t being made or you may be falling asleep in your chair after working 18 hour days for weeks on end. On the flip side, you get to play with that sweet sweet corporate cash. When a big brand wants to show the other brands that they’re cool and like new technology, you bet your ass they’ll give you as much money as you want to prove it (but you’ll have to fight for it still!). I always recommend people take some time off before they feel burnt out, because one you’re sick of it all, it’s already too late.
You’re usually making compromises on what you can do with a smaller budget than you’d like in a short amount of time you don’t feel comfortable with. Even though I mentioned that sweet corporate cash, everyone will always try to nickle and dime you, trying to get the maximum they can for the minimum spend. You will almost never have the trifecta of features, money, and time all line up and be perfect. Usually you’ll only get 2 if you’re lucky and know how to pull some strings. Otherwise you’re really just fighting for your one priority on this particular gig.
Vincent: To be fair I don’t have that much experience with artist residencies yet! Though an experience earlier this year was an artist residency at SAT in Montreal, accompanied by Dave & Gabe, the duo from a Brooklyn studio, to create a dome performance, Creatures. Usually as in this case there is some financial support, and access to otherwise hard to get facilities/hardware, and a deadline to create a new artwork that will then be presented and promoted by the organism hosting the residency. Having access 8 hours a day for close to two weeks to the 18m high with 31 spatial sound system dome was definitely a great perk, as well as feedback and technical help from the team there. Also a lot of time the financial support is partially replaced by lodging. It’s not always easy to make them work financially, as I don’t have such a nomadic lifestyle and keep a home in NY, so I think twice about residencies opportunities, but they can be great for networking and visibility, as well as a change of air and to commit to creating a new artwork, as said earlier, and also allow having access to special resources.
I’d like to personally thank Vincent from both myself and all of the community. I think this is a topic that plagues the mind of many. To get the insight and thoughts of a top-tier professional is invaluable. As my career has lingered mostly on the corporate side of the industry, I’m excited to look into other avenues of exploring interactive work, and speaking with Vincent has given me a lot of ideas. I highly recommend you check out Vincent’s work, it’s pretty remarkable. You can find his selected works at on his website, vincenthouze.com, and more frequent updates about his whereabouts and works in progress happen on his Instagram and his Facebook. And finally, I leave you with the humble smile of Vincent Houzé: