Rachel Clarke - An interview with Nicolas Sassoon

Metaverse Creativity Volume 3 Issue 1-2 "The New Romantics" December 2013

R. How do you make these works – can you talk about some of your processes and ways of working?

N. All of my digital work is based on graphics – no programming is involved on my end. I use mainstream image editing and 3D modelling software for the most part. On average, I spend six to ten hours a day on my computer with half of this time dedicated to visual work, research and experimentation. My work in general relies heavily on colour indexing algorithms, image resam­pling methods and computer-generated motion graphics. There is something very mechanical about my approach to these elements and I tend to focus on the very basics of each of these elements to develop my practice.

The work process varies greatly depending on the project. My moiré patterns involve a lot of experimentation and trial and error until I reach my goal. It is a very time consuming method because I keep track of every interesting result for later projects. I also produce a lot of non-animated moiré patterns, which has recently led me to do more research into tradi­tional pattern-making. For the more object-based or architectural works, I use simple 3D programs for modelling and then I use a lot of image processing. Most of my processes are time consuming and tedious because they are ever-evolving.

R. What traditional pattern-making are you looking at? How are traditional patterns influencing your work?

N. Japanese traditional patterns have been an entry point in my research, but I don’t know if this influence has really appeared yet in my current work. My interest is driven by the importance of natural elements in Japanese pattern-making, as well as how patterns are used as connecting agents in architecture. More essentially, it feeds questions of structures and rhythms in my work.

R. What about Op-art?

Bridget Riley and Jesus Rafael-Soto are very significant to my current practice. Bridget Riley for her approach of natural forms and rhythms, and Jesus Rafael-Soto for his penetrable interactive sculptures.

R. Yes, I can see the strong influence of both of those artists in the way you deal with space. Moving on, I’m interested to hear how you see your work in relation to the theme of the exhibition. What comes to mind when you think about romanticism? Do you define this through art history, certain artists, your own personal under­standing?

N. Painting played an essential role in my coming to art; especially move­ments like Fauvism, Symbolism or Impressionism. The old concepts of artworks driven by impulses; focused on a connection with the natural; and leaning towards the mystical are three ‘basics’ that are still very influential in my work. My personal understanding of romanticism tends to revolve around these basics, plus the belief that it’s an open-ended notion to be reactivated.

R. A lot of the titles of your work directly reference the natural environment: waves, tides, sunset, floods, trees, etc. However, nature is very much experienced through the lens of technology, and there’s a resulting sense of detachment. What’s your intent with regard to representations of nature?

N. There is a sequence from Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990), by Paul Verhoeven that stuck with me for a very long time. It is a short sequence at the begin­ning of the film where two of the main characters are having breakfast in their futuristic living room, looking at what appears to be a three panel window towards a peaceful landscape. One of the characters grabs a remote control and aims it at the window, switching from the peaceful landscape to a very dramatic and violent news forecast. After a minute the news forecast becomes somewhat disturbing to one of the characters who uses the remote again to switch back to the landscape, which takes on a very different – more alienat­ing dimension.

To me the sense of detachment towards a natural environment through technology often comes down to the mechanisms described in that sequence. A lot of my work tries to contemplate on that specific distance between objects of desire and their technological representations, the potential roles that they can take and how to represent them and live with them.

R. The natural landscape in the movie becomes an illusion. Are you dealing with alienation, and how nature is perceived in a world of simulation technology?

N. I am certainly attentive to how nature is perceived and shaped through technology, but maybe not always in terms of simulation and more in terms of subjectivity. Sitting in front of a computer for at least eight hours a day makes me deal with alienation, and some of my projects have emerged as methods of conciliation with that alienation. For example, my on-going project ‘Patterns’ always start with the intent to depict natural environments or atmospheric elements: rain, wind, water surface, clouds, etc. Because of the limitations of my pictorial vocabulary, I tend to focus more on translating the behavioural qualities of these elements rather than mimicking their appear­ance. The resulting animations are in-between abstraction and figuration, a sort of highly kinetic digital matter. They are displayed full-screen to suggest the immersive experience of looking at a landscape through a window. These works can be seen as the outcomes of my desires for these environments, but instead of trying to create exact replicas I try to recombine some of the qualities of these environments for a specific technological context, in a very subjective manner.

R. You use paired-down representations of nature, as well as architectural models, and non-objective imagery in your work – and there’s always a sense of reductive­ness, that you’re representing a model of a model. Would you say that you’re explor­ing the failure of modernist utopianism?

N. I originally started working on computer renderings of sculptures and objects as a method to manifest some ideas for actual pieces I wanted to make. I devoted so much time and energy into the making of these ‘prelimi­nary sketches’ that they became an end in themselves, as opposed to just a step towards material production. This experience made me re-examine the status of virtual models and computer renderings – as entities existing in between two worlds. Around the same period I discovered online commu­nities of individuals sharing their own creations and models – from dream homes to realistic replicas of famous objects, accurate renovation projects, animation exercises…

There is something very utopian with 3D modelling or computer rendering, especially when it is made by an amateur or hobbyist who doesn’t necessarily include his or her practice in a restrained production process. I don’t see that practice so much as a failure, but more as a form of contemplation towards virtual scenarios, a particular step in between fantasy and reality. Amongst these scenarios, the ones I really focus on usually have more to do with the history of vernacular architecture or Art and Crafts than the failure of modern utopias.

One of the projects that stems from this background is ‘Mansions’, where I have collected different models of dream homes made by amateurs. Nearly all of these dream homes fall under the category of ‘McMansions’ – gigantic suburban homes filled with unnecessary rooms and extensions. After collect­ing many of these models I selected a few of them and stripped them down from their architectural details, to only keep the most basic form – roofs and walls. These stripped down models exists as animations and also as small concrete castings, sized so they could be placed on a fireplace or on a dresser. In a way they have become objects to be appreciated for their sculptural quali­ties, but also as contemplative objects of excess.

R. So your experience in online communities has shaped your practice? The network has become a place of inspiration, as well as a place to create, discuss and dissemi­nate work for Post-Internet artists. Can you talk about what network technology offers for artistic expression that traditional models cannot?

N. I can only talk through the scope of my practice which doesn’t cover many significant aspects of how artists make use of the Internet. In my case, Internet has put me in the position of a self-publisher. I have built an audience through online publication that I couldn’t have built through gallery exhibi­tion, because the audience is different and the content is different. Clearly you can do that without Internet but the overall reach of online publication and the costs related to it makes it a much more efficient model on many aspects. The Internet has promoted amazing artistic practices that don’t fit within traditional models, and it has been doing so for quite some time now. The only downfall of this model is that it tends to lack the financial support other models provide. But this is changing – an example being how artists start to rely on crowd-funding to finance some of their projects.

R. What’s the relationship between your site-specific installation works in galler­ies and public spaces that strongly relate to physical architecture and the work you present on the Internet?

N. When a digital work is viewed online through a personal computer, the context is very different from a gallery context. There is a sense of intimacy, as well as a relationship to the screen that is comparable (to a certain extent) to the theatre model; you are facing the screen and almost nothing obstructs your vision. One of the main traits of my online work is to generate immersive experiences, and so that intimate context has been working for me in a way. When I work in a physical and social space I try to recreate this sense of inti­macy and unhindered relationship to the surface.

Before making installation works in galleries and public spaces I have worked for electronic music events where I projected my work in vari­ous spaces. This was a very formative experience as it gave me a field of experimentation to generate immersive experiences in a physical and social context. The architectural features of a space became surfaces for projec­tions; each space became a stage for interventions playing with the percep­tion of the space itself. It’s a type of architectural intervention where the immaterial physics of digital space are applied to a physical space for a short amount of time.

R. I’m interested that you talk about the site specific work as an ‘intervention’. When I think about the way your work interacts with architectural space, I’m reminded of Jennifer Steinkamp’s projection works, which strongly relate to the architecture of the environment they’re placed in. They explore work’s physicality as it transforms the space it’s placed in, as well as the viewer’s relationship to – and perception of – that experience. Many of your projections completely transform their environment, while others relate to architectural aspects of the location, and several public works change based on the motion of the viewer, which animates the imagery. Can you talk more about how you consider the relationship between physical space/architecture, the work you install in that space, and how you transform the viewer’s experience of the space?

N. I use my computer screen as a projective space, and most of my screen-based works are built around this projective dimension. When I started making exhibitions and installations, my focus was to bring this projective dimen­sion into whichever context I was dealing with. An essential quality of digital space is that it isn’t grounded in a specific location, and that it can fade your awareness of your surroundings rather easily. An example of this is the use of smart phones or tablets in public transportation. Most of the time, this qual­ity is perceived as alienating because it is not articulated to the context where it appears. One of my interests with installation works is to articulate that quality of digital space within architectures, public spaces, and other various contexts so it doesn’t become an alienating experience but more a dialogue between two spaces.

I am very influenced by my own distance from natural environments, and my work often turns into a fictional projection of natural environments subjects to specific scenarios; abstraction, ethereality, denaturation, etc.… When these works are projected into a space, I try to give them the pres­ence of a tangible environment; a ‘physicality’ similar to Jennifer Steinkamp’s installations which takes shape as windows, doorways and other architectural elements. It’s often a game of adding or denying features to a space by adding virtual ones. Screens and projections are typically perceived as tools to display content, while I perceive them more as surfaces and windows towards the digital environment we live with. My installations are an attempt to make these surfaces and windows more tangible. Each installation is a different scenario to experiment with how these surfaces can exist in a physical reality.

R. Are there other considerations that have to do with the history of a location or a building, or the social context? Can you give some examples?

N. One example would be ‘The Green City between Sky and Sea’ – a project which references a utopian seaside resort named La Grande Motte, designed by French architect Jean Balladur in south east of France in the late 60s. I lived in La Grande Motte for three years when I was a teenager and the city had a strong impact on my interests for architecture and man-made landscapes. La Grande Motte is famous in France for its utopian architecture reminiscent of Mayan Pyramids, for its garden-city layout (one of the only ones in France) and also for being one of the most criticized postmodern architectural projects in French history.

The project features three full-screen animations (Fidji, West City, Sunny Lands) titled after existing buildings from the city. Each animation can be compared to a waterfall; blue streaks of pixels are falling up and down the screen in oscillating rhythms. Each animation is built around a specific pattern of movement; one of them is horizontal, another one is circular and the last one is trapezoidal. Each animation is also highly kinetic and tends to alter the perception of space if stared at for a certain period of time. I wanted the animations to act as illusions or hallucinations, and each of them is very effective in that regard. The project exists online as well as through a series of site-specific instal-lations where the animations are projected at a very large scale. One of these installations happened in Vancouver in 2012 inside one of the lobby-level units of a condominium building. The installation was covering the entire front windows of the space, turning the space into a giant emitting chamber for the projection. The front windows appeared like a waterfall from both the inside and outside, turning the architecture into a temporary playground. It was exciting to see this project happen in Vancouver – especially within this type of architecture – because Vancouver is trying to build a contempo-rary utopia and struggles deeply with it, which is resonant with the original city at the origin of the project. The entire project aims to invoke seaside resort utopias, not in terms of figuration but more in its abstraction and its energy. It’s also a form of play – the play of an illusion for a short period of time, and the play with the space it invades as an illusion.