If You Build It, They Will Come: Alex McLeod’s Ghost Stories

Alex McLeod’s work straddles the space between digital fantasy and reality. In highly detailed prints and videos he constructs worlds and characters that feel vaguely familiar but also totally alien at the same time. From a distance, his digital forests or mountain ranges have the right outline and color, but up close it’s clear that computer rendered shapes and planes of infinite variety comprise every branch and tree. McLeod has cheekily referred to his work as a “digital stew,” and there is something apt in his humour because of his slow, dense layering of many combinations of digital ingredients.

Besides preparing the largest digitally printed image in the world for Metrolinx in Toronto, McLeod is working on 3D printed sculptures, prints, animations, and an opera that will debut under the title Ghost Stories in Toronto on April 11, 2019. The opera will be backed by 16th century instruments and features four love songs performed by a singer to the digital creatures in the animations. I spoke with Alex about his process and what it’s like to work on an opera for the first time.

Anna Kovler: How do you achieve such intricacy and detail in your images?

Alex McLeod: It’s actually pretty simple and it has a lot to do with the hardware and software. The advancements in technology have afforded me the possibility to add more detail. But every time you add more texture it gets slower and slower. So there is a finite amount of detail you can put into the work before the computer might say nooooooo!

AK: Why did you choose the title Ghost Stories?

AM: I’m interested in paranormal, unexplained phenomena and I think there is a lot of overlap between the real world and the virtual world, and how things are created in each world. When we don’t understand something in reality, it’s attributed to a supernatural force. Somehow, I am trying to approach the idea of unexplained, or difficult to explain phenomena through empathy to space. I see the discourse around dark matter tied to this idea. Ghost stories can be about anything that’s outside of our bubble that we feel we can control.

AK: If a ghost is the lingering soul of a deceased person that we feel energetically and maybe see as a see-through figure, what do you think the ghost of a computer or server or algorith would be like?

AM: Right? Its funny because we do use those kinds of languages, even in 3D printing. When the machine is buliding up the sculpture in layers there is a thing called “ghosting” that happens, it’s the movement of the last movement that is still apparent, like waves in an ocean, that happen because of the last jerk or movement. There are many examples of digital ghosts, like afterimage, when a computer glitches and we see the last thing that was on the screen. Like a human ghost, a computer ghost it electrical energy that dies and gets reused.

AK: Was it challenging to work with opera for the first time? How was that process?

AM: This will be the first time that I have any performance in my shows. It all started when I met Meghan Lindsay at EXPO Chicago and we really hit it off and wanted to find ways to work together. The whole process was easy and amazing, and I think that comes down to our personalities, and working with an art form so different than my own. There was a mutual respect and understanding for the paramentes of what the other person can bring. She would say, how about this, and it was very fluid and we’ve come up with a plan we are both really happy with. I’m always the one to make things more detailed than they need to be, but in this case I thought, lets keep it simple and see how it goes and later we can add more detail.

AK: Do you think there is a difference between creating something in the digital realm that then becomes physical and say sculpting something out of clay that didn’t exist before?

AM: I think it’s essentially the same, because instead of using my hands in the way a potter would, I use a mouse and a keyboard and a machine to help me produce it. So what I do is similar to what a potter does. On the one hand there is the brain and the idea and on the other, the tool to create it, the medium used. My tool just happens to be a bunch of very powerful computers.

Alex McLeod’s exhibition Ghost Stories will open on April 11, 2019 at Division Gallery in Toronto as a feature show for Contact Festival. His public commission for Metrolinx in Toronto will cosist of 3 kilometers of original scenes along an above ground rail line, the largest printed digital image in human history.


Alex McLeod. GT6, 2019. c-print, 36” x 36”.


Alex McLeod, ROSEBUSH 3, 2019. C-print, 48” x 48”.

Alex McLeod, PINKSHELL, 2019. c-print, 20” x 25”.

Alex McLeod, 2019. Photo by Jessica Laforet, courtesy of the artist.