Photoshop is my PlayStation now: how a game tester became a mysterious digital artist
For some time now, I’ve used images from Creative Commons to amplify my work — both as a writer and at my day job. Most emerging artists and nonprofits can’t afford a fancy stock photo license, so we heavily rely on Creative Commons licenses instead.
A few years ago, I came across a stunning image on Flickr by an artist named Surian Soosay. I used the image for an article and gave him credit, as required by the license. But his images came up in my searches with surprising frequency. The search terms varied from “internet” to “video game” to “Apple” to “Boko Haram,” and nearly every time, it seemed, one of his works caught my eye. It wasn’t just that Soosay covered these topics — he interspersed images of popular figures such as Bill Murray with abstract paintings, still lifes of flowers, and laughing children. Some pieces were satirical while others were downright disturbing. In other words, his portfolio reveals a rich variety of styles and experiments—pushing him beyond a mere hobbyist, I think, to the ranks of a full-fledged artist.
I’ve never paid him a dime.
Nor, it seems, has anyone else. Over 1300 sites have used Surian Soosay’s images, including major international publications. Several of his original images — there are nearly 4,000 online — have been viewed thousands of times. All created for free.
That’s the challenge of Creative Commons. It’s not easy for an artist to shift from giving things away for free to selling images for a living. There’s a fine line between appreciation and exploitation, and I felt that I was beginning to cross it by overusing Surian Soosay’s work. But it was very difficult to find out much about the artist. In fact, I didn’t even know “he” was a man because Surian is an uncommon name, and he does not allow images of himself to circulate online. For such a prolific digital artist, he remained shrouded in mystery.
Then one day, Soosay reached out to me through LinkedIn and asked for an endorsement because he had seen that I’d used his work to promote the launch of my novel. Of course I said yes, but he revealed little about himself on his profile. So I contacted him a few months later to find out more about him.
We conducted the following interview by email over a few weeks. We’ve never met or spoken in person.
Surian Soosay grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, as the child of a Malaysian-Indian father and white Scottish mother. A high school teacher recognized his talent with photography and recommended he further his studies in the field. He went on to receive a BA (Honors) degree in Photography, Film, and Image at Napier University in Edinburgh. At school, he developed his logo — which combines a comedy / tragedy mask with an electric socket — and also acted in theater productions. He graduated and became a video game tester for four years for Grand Theft Auto. Growing tired of it, he left to go woofing (volunteering while traveling) before spending two years teaching and working in China. He’s now back in Scotland and trying to break into editorial illustration.
How did you become interested in art and design?
I’ve been interested in art since I was a kid, when I used to draw silly cartoons. I would make up characters — I had a crap character called Paws the Dog, who was basically a rip off of Sonic the Hedgehog. I used to draw on an Amiga computer and I loved cartoons, comics, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, and manga.
You have an immediately recognizable style. What did you do to develop it?
Lots and lots of time experimenting with creative software, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I have fun creating my own techniques so my work can be distinguishable from other people’s work. I don’t want to just watch tutorials and copy techniques. My background in video games, animation, fine art, drama, and teaching are all finally merging in one place. I hardly play videogames anymore — Photoshop is my PlayStation now.
Animation and digital video are great, but they’re very time consuming so I decided to focus on creating still images. I love the immediacy of stills — to keep bashing stuff out without being held back. It’s very liberating. I can think of an idea and quickly whip out an image. I have ideas all the time, so speed is important to me. I like moving on to the next idea at a fast pace.
You also follow tech and stories about the net. What interests you about them?
In my opinion, the internet has been the biggest revolution in my lifetime and I want to be part of it. I find the internet so exciting — I see it as a way to create something new and different. There is plenty of bullshit and porn on the net, but great art too. When I was teaching in China, the slow internet and the “great Firewall of China” got me down. I like to be aware of what is happening in the world to see if there is a new way to express myself, and I couldn’t do that there. I don’t watch television anymore either — I find it boring and old fashioned.
The internet gives you the freedom to say, “Fuck you, I’m doing what I want to do.” If you don’t fit in, it doesn’t matter. You can celebrate being different on your blog or photostream. You can experiment and find your voice.
You seem to have a passion for politics and social justice issues. How did that happen?
I like to make images about topics I am interested in and care about. I create for free so I try to explore work that I am passionate about, such as doodles, graphic design, or wherever my mood takes me. Creating work for free on the net really liberates you. You have a global audience from different backgrounds. In the real world, I would probably need to illustrate a product and jump through tons of hoops to work. I believe to grow as an artist you need to at least attempt the hard issues, and I find complex world issues fascinating. I enjoy trying to break ideas down to their essence. Teaching is similar — trying to give information across in a simple digestible way. If an ignorant person can become less ignorant by looking at a picture, isn’t it worth a shot?
Ultimately, I get pissed off with what is going on in the world and I can feel helpless. But I don’t want to bury my head in the sand and watch cute cat videos. I try to make deeper work than “internet memes,” if that makes sense. Politics and social justice can become dark and depressing though, so I make silly art as well to find balance.
How do you feel about Creative Commons licenses? Have they helped your work?
I absolutely love them. I love the internet and I want to give something back. Creative Commons seems like the best way to do that for me. I don’t have the time and energy to network professionally. Creative Commons helps people find my work without much effort on my part. It’s cool that independent and mainstream journalists can use my images — it makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger, a global community. I try to read the articles that use my images when I can. For fun, I collect screenshots of sites that use my work. It’s like collecting stamps, or getting achievement points on an Xbox. “Tagging” in graffiti might be a better analogy, but I don’t consider Creative Commons an act of rebellion.
Did your experience as a video game tester affect your work?
Aesthetically, I think so. Even though I try to use more natural media, I can’t escape my “techy” roots. Renoir is a good historical example of this: he decorated ceramic plates when he was younger and that style bled through into his canvas work. Game testing may have had a similar effect on my work with Photoshop. Pixel art and polygons are probably ingrained in my brain, so it comes through naturally in my artwork. As a QA [Quality Assurance] tester you fix “bugs” by reporting the mistakes made by artists, game designers, and coders. It makes you more watchful for mistakes, and I polish my pictures more and notice more visual mistakes than another artist might. Art can also feel like a video game to beat.
How does your Malaysian heritage affect your art and what you decide to explore?
I would consider my thinking 80 to 90 percent British because I have grown up here almost all my life. However, people sometimes look at me and think I am a foreigner, especially when I grow a beard. When I was in China, people considered me a Western foreigner. So no matter where I travel, I feel like a foreigner. The internet gives me artistic freedom as a global, neutral place and I can use an avatar instead of my real portrait. I do love the UK and I have a newfound appreciation for it since I lived in China.
I use two logos — one white and one black — that represent my outlook and heritage. I am mixed creatively as well — I appreciate fine art as well as commercial art. I find the themes of opposites / mixture / light / dark very interesting.
In one image, you show your avatar shooting the singer Sean Kingston. There are a few other photos like this, one with Britney Spears, for example. What are you trying to say in these photos? They are obviously the exception to your art, but they are also important enough to you to include in your photo stream. Are you worried that someone might interpret these as advocating violence against these figures? If not, why not?
I was just letting off steam in those images. I don’t condone violence. But I enjoy gory horror cinema and violence in movies. I was watching a lot of 80s horror films when I made those images. I assume people are smart enough to know the difference between cartoony-art violence and actual violence. But after Charlie Hebdo, maybe I shouldn’t assume that anymore. Everywhere in the media I see stupidity and injustice, and I was expressing my frustration. That’s it. Emotional images. While people are listening to Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber they are ignoring something profound and meaningful. It gets on my nerves. In my opinion rappers and musicians used to sing about powerful themes (people like Marvin Gaye and Public Enemy.) Now they seem to sing about “bling” and materialism overload, especially shows like Sex and the City, which have tons of product placement. I get frustrated by this and those images are my emotional outpouring.
Where do you hope to take your work moving forward?
I’m becoming more interested in combining writing and poetry with my images. Writing adds another important layer. I also want to play more with natural media, such as real paint and chalk, and to integrate natural materials into my digital work. I’m interested in messing with projectors and light as well.
I’d like to make artwork for everyone, including people who would never set foot in an art gallery or who simple can’t. If “internet art” becomes more established as a discipline, I want to be part of it. I love art because I’ll be able to make it when I become middle-aged and elderly. I’m in it for the long haul, if I survive this crazy world we live in.
You can visit Surian Soosay’s blog here.
Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a novel out now from Unnamed Press.