Sam Hains

This interview archived from Galerie Yeche Lange (Artist Info).

Sam Hains is a pioneering programmer digital artist whose work embraces the psychological intensification loops inherent to the human and machine interface. His recent Bullet Heaven [Yoko], which won the inaugural Optimism Prize, amplifies the visual saturation of bullet hell games, where projectiles spin and circulate with increasing density on the game screen, to create a sublime experience where the player can enter what he calls a “dark flow state.” He pushes the genre to emphasize its destabilizing mix of disorder and satisfaction for the sake of pushing the viewer out of their body and into a trancelike state.


Bullet Heaven (YOKO) is one of the most visually and physically satisfying NFTs I have experienced. I can annihilate the bullet arrangements immediately and keep them under control, or I can let them build and fill the screen before engaging in a high speed slaughter. Both give me high amounts of this feeling now associated with certain attentional tropes on the internet, satisfying. Can you speak to your thoughts on this concept and specifically how you were thinking about it for Bullet Heaven (YOKO)?

An initial inspiration for the interaction was the fidget spinner. Something simple, addictive, straightforward that somehow gets its hooks into you. But it is more than that. What about ten thousand fidget spinners? What if they surrounded you and spun slightly out of sync in such a way that you experience a complete and total loss of self? What if it was the most beautiful thing you ever experienced? This is a “dark flow state” and is the emotional terrain I’m interested in exploring with this project.

Slot machines have mastered this logic and the design of simple, mechanical rhythmic interactions, repeating over and over again, causing hypnosis and loss of self. The sound and visual components are very superficial, like visual fast-food. They are just supposed to catch your eye and lure you in. I’m drawn into the contrast between the beautiful fairy graphic from a magical world which is actually the front-end for an entirely predatory and mind-hacking drug machine.

Why do people play slot machines? To keep playing. To stay in a machine zone where nothing else matters. What is this machine zone? I feel we are all heading there, if not already. That we can weaponize and design technologies to produce something like a drug experience is kinda the key idea for me here.

So you’re abstracting this “dark flow state” and reconstructing it within a different context. Is there a difference between having this experience at the slots and having it playing Bullet Heaven [Yoko]?

The slot machine is an appealing example because it makes this idea of technological seduction into a sinister/manipulative machine so obvious, but it’s really the same idea with the arcade machine. The gambler is replaced with a gamer who is in pursuit of mastery over the system. For “Bullet Hell” genre of arcade games the difficulty is so extreme that the gamer must train extensively, feeding the machine with time and money in order to achieve this mastery. In both cases, I am interested in this toxic, psychologically abusive relationship between game and gamer and the transcendental “dark flow state” we achieve when merging with the machine.

This idea of being seduced into a technological system is also directly relevant to a broader critique of the way in which technology enforces its power over us. Technological power, unlike physical constraints, operates on our desires so that we wish to be trapped by it.

When I think about art on the internet, I think about the idea of “context collapse”, which is the idea that all visual elements are collapsed together into a kind of undifferentiated visual goo. On the one hand we have the internet, this gigantic, readily available archive of the entire history of human creative production. And these platforms and interfaces that just treat every element as an equivalent datapoint. On the same list of YouTube videos you might have NFL player DUI bodycam footage next to a Tarkovsky film. It’s all just content. You see this a lot on Tiktok with like a video of a Rick and Morty avatar, over a Minecraft Let’s play, with tips for maximizing your stock portfolio told from Morgan Freedman’s AI voice. Creatively, it feels liberating. We have permission to mash all these elements together and not worry about consistency or contradictions. In fact, the overlapping of incompatible and inconsistent elements actually better expresses the feeling of being online today. Makes me think of Michel Majerus’ paintings.

I think in this environment the artist as collector/sampler becomes increasingly powerful, as we can leverage all the existing stuff out there to grow the ambition of our projects without having to get bogged down in detail and traditional notions of craft. I think of the internet artist as a kind of “human compiler” - interpreting the junk of our online lives and recontextualizing them creatively into works of art.

If the artist is a human compiler maximizing incompatible elements, it seems like there is the risk of overvaluing dense disjunctive shock-collage, or something like this. Describe what you like about Majerus, and maybe the general rubric for expressing the feeling of being on the internet. In other words, what tempers the desire to smash everything together with everything?

I brought up Majerus' work as someone who I think gave us permission to experiment with overlapping and inconsistent elements, but this really only speaks to a certain style that is broadly characteristic of internet interfaces and aesthetics. The important point for me is more about artistic process. It is not merely a question of reflecting the ‘vibe’ of the internet back at the viewer, but rather making and remaking worlds to believe in from the tools and resources available to us at our moment in history. We are collectively the internet - an interactive database where every kind of object and thing is being cataloged and organized. It is a warehouse of infinite potential, content and remixability. The artist's role is to synthesize something meaningful from this chaos. I’m less interested in the specific style and aesthetic that naturally flows from this than the artistic possibilities of making by appropriation, loose IP rules and conceptual process.

The proliferation of AI models capable of mimicking an artist’s style highlights an important lesson on this also: that style does not define the human essence of art. If an AI can capture style, then true differentiation for artists cannot be in their style alone. Artists who have painstakingly developed their own distinct style seem most offended by AI, and cry out that their artistic ownership is at risk. Unfortunately for them, we are past the point of no return down this virtual rabbit hole and I believe that ‘style ownership’ will become an increasingly absurd and old fashioned idea. The question has always been: how to create work that speaks to life, death, and the human condition. We are too easily seduced by style and aesthetics. The role of the internet artist is to find new ways to express the very things which the machines cannot emulate.

Why do you think the move to reflect the “vibe” of the internet back at the viewers has become such a widespread strategy? Despite its limitations, it seems a lot of people are making money from this move.

One reason it is popular is because it’s easy and fun to create. All you have to do is assemble a database of possible elements from “surfing the internet”. Each object or image brings with it its own sense of context - often nostalgic in some way. You can then randomly combine these elements in Photoshop or with a script and Boom! Internet aesthetics! In order for this style of work to mature beyond “oddly satisfying” arrangements, I think artists need to think more critically about symbols, context and their input material.

Perhaps there is a raw familiarity with the style as it naturally reflects the way that content appears to us on platforms overlaid in different windows and tabs. As far as NFT space/art collectors, I would guess that Milady and Milady derivative culture has primed and trained a more midcurve, art buyer audience to identify this specific aesthetic as Valuable Art now. Similar to how Art Blocks trained its own collectors to recognize Minimalist painting as Important Generative Art. That generative art looks like Minimalism also reflects the fact that it is simply easier to create code-driven work like this.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a larger collection of Bullet Heaven interactive paintings which I intend to release via Yeche Lange that I’m really excited about. I want to push what we did with Bullet Heaven [YOKO] (🎩 Winner of Optimism Generative Art Grand Prize 🎩) to another level. Will be loaded with additional mechanics, new aesthetics and rarity.

I’m leading a design studio at a University in Melbourne, where we are working with the medium of computer simulation to create imaginary worlds. This has been a really rewarding experience and has given me an opportunity to start growing a thesis. I’m also about to have a baby in just over a week. Feel like my world is about to get hit by a meteor.