In July 2017, a research conducted by business data company Domo stated that Giphy, the most used online platform for posting and sharing GIFs, serves no less than 690,000 pictures a minute. Is it any wonder? In the last two years, Facebook and Twitter introduced intuitive systems to share GIFs on their platforms – a move that accelerated the popularization of a digital object with unique features that a few years ago was especially appreciated among communities of less structurally fixed online platforms as Tumblr and reddit.
GIFs have been accepted and adopted by new users who rely on animated pictures thanks to their planned pervasiveness in their digital communication habits. The practice of Nicolas Sassoon (b. 1981), a French artist who makes art with GIFs since 2011, suggests creative strategies to exploit the features of this format in order to make works that couldn’t be made with any other medium.
He started with what is broadly understood as Gif Art (2D looped animations) and in these years questioned the spatial nature of his works, placed his patterns within 3D computer generated landscapes and also the way human movement animates a fixed picture.
In 2011 he founded WALLPAPERS with artists Sara Ludy and Sylvain Sailly, a collection of digital patterns created by them and invited artists on display both online and in physical venues. In these days, the trio is launching the new website of the project so what better opportunity to contact him and ask about his practice?
Filippo Lorenzin: How do you describe your artistic research of the last few months? Among the best known of your recent works I can’t help but mention the ongoing collaboration SIGNALS (2017) with Rick Silva and your collaboration with the fashion brand UNIQLO, two projects that gave you the opportunity to experiment with different medias.
Nicolas Sassoon: SIGNALS is a collaboration that Rick and I started a few years ago. It began through conversations about some of our mutual interests: the natural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, how they impact our individual practices and how we impact them. In my work, these landscapes manifest through abstraction and pixelated surfaces, while in Rick’s work they manifest as 3D renderings extrapolating natural forms. We began to think of different ways to merge both of these researches. One of the key elements in this collaboration became the concept of “SIGNALS”: the creation of dissonant or non-natural elements embedded into natural sceneries. We render various natural environments and integrate foreign elements within them, as if they were integral parts of them. Another key element in the project is a form of extrapolation on the effects of the Anthropocene; how will these landscapes look like in 100, 1.000, 10.000+ years? This question became an open basis to render different types of environments.
My experience with UNIQLO happened through Christophe Lemaire’s SS17 collection. My contact at UNIQLO already had experience with my work translated to textiles and was very thoughtful throughout the whole process. I had the chance to follow some of the steps involved in putting a collection together, which was exciting and new to me. I did a few collaborations in fashion and textiles before that, and what always transpired is that it is much harder than it seems to translate a digital pattern to garment. There are so many questions that don’t necessarily apply to screen-based works: materials, scale, textures, volumes, etc. They all need to be addressed but you can’t experiment endlessly, so you have to rely on instincts and other people’s expertise. That’s when the term collaboration becomes very meaningful.
Otherwise, I’ve also been making animations referencing local venues in Vancouver that I had some relationship with; transient venues and project spaces that have since disappeared. It’s been an opportunity for me to address some of the poetics contained within the imagery I use. It has also been a way to look back at my involvement within different communities here that have been – and still are – significant to me, in my personal and creative life.
Filippo Lorenzin: Looking at your works, especially the series Vessels (2017), it seems accurate to link your practice or at least a part of it to modernist questions – the unique features of a media, the engagement of the viewer’s senses through calculated patterns for example. What do you think?
Nicolas Sassoon: Vessels is a new project that I’m still developing, right now it mainly exists as a series of animations that can be read as sketches for future sculptures. The project is based on the creation of botanical displays housing living colonies of algae, mosses and liverworts. Each Vessel is a structure designed as a host for one or several of these plants. The host structures are connected to a system providing water, heat, nutrients and light. The growing patterns of the moss propagate over the host structures, generating living textures. The plants cultivated within these structures have simple requirements, but they need time and stable conditions to establish a colony. Each Vessel needs regular maintenance to be activated and for the plants to stay alive.
Vessels is a platform for experimentations; the project is fed by a wide range of plant cultivation methods – from planted aquariums to hydroponics culture – to eventually generate botanical displays and structures. Part of it is also looking at the representation of decay and overgrowth in man-made structures, architectural components and synthetic materials. A first iteration of Vessels was exhibited this year at ATZ in Milan. I had the opportunity to work with Diorama Editions and Zoe de Luca on this exhibition and the project will develop further in 2018. I’m planning for the production of several Vessels this winter.
Filippo Lorenzin: Both SIGNALS and Vessels explore ways of mediating digital materials with the genuity of natural processes. In other words, the scripted premises of the binary code with the not less scripted consequences of organic and vegetal life. I wonder if this was an underlying theme also in your less recent projects or if it’s something you’re addressing in these months in response to a specific event.
Nicolas Sassoon: Patterns has become a method for me to mediate atmospheric and natural forces through animation and abstraction; it’s an important starting point in my practice overall. However in Patterns there is no particular context other than the screen (or the space where the works are displayed) and the reference to the natural is not really overt. Recently I decided to engage in other forms of representation, other working processes and more specific contexts. SIGNALS is a good example which links to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Another example would be large scale works like INDEX (2016), AVENUE (2017) and SKYLIGHT (2017) which are based on project spaces in Vancouver. Vessels is another instance. Abstraction is always present in my work; it is present in all my newer projects at a cellular level. All these projects contain elements of abstraction but they also explicitly connect to environmental, architectural and botanical questions through figuration, sculpture, installation…
Filippo Lorenzin: In INDEX, AVENUE and SKYLIGHT, the rooms you recall are not static but float on a starry black background. If I remember a scene of my past, it would take place in an environment lacking of spatial features – let me ask what makes your memories travel through the outer space.
Nicolas Sassoon: The outer space surrounding the architectures in INDEX, AVENUE and SKYLIGHT operates like a plinth for a sculpture; it isolates and elevates each space from any other context. The spaces depicted in these animations are referencing former project spaces in Vancouver; each animation is name after one of them. Between 2012 and 2016, the venues referenced in these animations hosted numerous arts, music and live events before shutting down in 2016.
Part of my approach for these works was to contemplate on the fate of these underground venues, and how do they live on after they shut down. These spaces aren’t dedicated to document their activities as cultural platforms and once they shut down, they are only remembered through word-to-mouth, through people’s stories and memories. They are very transient by nature; they get activated at specific moments for very short periods, then they disappear. I wanted to fixate an image of these venues right before they open for an afterhours party, which represents to me the culmination of their existence as spaces for escape, for dance and for excess.
I also wanted to work from memory when portraying these venues as a way to channel the nostalgia and the energy contained within my memories of these spaces. But my memories were incomplete so a lot of details within the animations are imaginary. There is a lot of fantasy in these works; they are a combination of recollections and imaginary elements coexisting on the same plane. They work like a tale or a myth; the original story gets slowly distorted through time and turns into something else.
Filippo Lorenzin: Another recent work is Drift (2017), a video in which a moon-like shape is covered by drifting patterns that, at a first sight, recall an eclipse. The texture of the shapes and the background gives the work an unsettling mood, like a silent horror movie. Esoteric ziggurats and pyramids stand in a never ending desert, suggesting mysterious connections between binary grammar and ancient calculations. What brought you to make this work?
Nicolas Sassoon: Drift was made for ECLIPSECORE, a group exhibition/screening organized by Rick Silva in response to the 2017 North American Total Solar Eclipse. Before the eclipse in August, a lot of online media was focused on scientific data relating to the phenomena, which in reaction led me to look into mythologies relating to solar eclipses. Drift started through this research and it was also inspired by the track I used – Drifting Down by Administrative Segregation. The video is structured after the passing of the moon in front of the sun during a solar eclipse. It then moves into a surreal narrative which doesn’t reach a conclusion; like a meeting that has been cut short. I kept thinking of “A Trip to the Moon” by Georges Méliès as I was making the video, and other early moving image forms dealing with celestial events. Drift is inspired by these old films; it is a mix of desuetude and fantasy.
Filippo Lorenzin: You explore the architectural features of your works by placing some of them in urban environments. The growing displays of every plan surface reshape the urban horizon – from smartphones to animated facades of buildings. Do you feel the public sentiment changed towards this state of things since you started experimenting with physical spaces? Was your practice affected by it?
Nicolas Sassoon: I don’t know if the public sentiment has changed, but the infrastructures have changed, and that usually sparks a chain reaction. A lot of this evolution has to do with advertising and what new platforms/displays advertising can find. Over the last decade, outdoor displays and façade projections have become very prominent for large scale marketing, and once this happens the technology is instantly introduced as something attractive to a wider audience. It can be challenging to work with these displays as an artist, although I’ve had some positive experiences with outdoor displays and façade projections recently. I don’t think my practice is affected by this type of displays; I make my animations primarily for screens, and from there they can extend to other platforms.
Filippo Lorenzin: The size, the technical features and even the company that made the monitor affects the quality of the picture – without even talking about environmental context. Do you make your works bearing in mind these variables in advance or you have a more open attitude towards casualty?
Nicolas Sassoon: My screen-based work is calibrated on my laptop screen and a couple other screens in my studio. But if I publish something online there is no way to control all these variables. I enjoy seeing my work on other devices, I find it stimulating and surprising. If you can’t embrace this uncertainty of context with online publishing, things become too stressful. It’s like swimming against the current; you always lose at the end. I regularly go to AV/Apple stores to look at specific works on various devices; it’s one of my many ways of keeping up to date with these variables.
Filippo Lorenzin: Almost all your works don’t feature any sound, which makes them stand out. To give you an example, when I watch a silent movie I can’t do anything else: if I don’t watch the film, I miss what’s going on. On the other hand, there are many movies featuring sound that you can “watch” without really paying attention to them – they can function as a background sound, basically. Now, do you think your works must be watched as silent movies or can be experienced as parts of the never ending fluxes of moving pictures on our monitors?
Nicolas Sassoon: I think any artwork wants to grasp the attention of the viewer for a certain amount of time, and then the strategies used to achieve that and the range of generated experiences vary. I don’t see my work as an experience that needs to be isolated from sound – quite the opposite actually – but I like to think that a work can span a certain amount of time. A little bit like watching a landscape and giving yourself enough time to let it sink in, or a wallpaper pattern on your bedroom wall that you see everyday. A lot of my animations – Patterns specifically – recall past experiences of landscapes which are often connected to water: rain falling onto glass, patterns drawn into the sand by the tides, the visual noise of snow storms, etc…I seem to connect abstraction with natural patterns and atmospheric forces. There is a specific temporality associated to these visual experiences, and I’m always hoping viewers will get lost in the animations for short periods of time to emulate the experience of a landscape onto a screen.
Filippo Lorenzin: You make rendered looped animations – do you think there is any salient difference between this practice and coding?
Nicolas Sassoon: There is a huge difference in terms of process and approach. Most of my animated work is conceived visually through computer imaging techniques that are very close to analog animation techniques: frame by frame, stop-motion, image retouching… I believe coding images is a very different process, where one uses systems and languages generating images. The tools are fundamentally different. My tools are already coded; they are programs that have been designed by programmers. Coding seems to be more like developing your own image making tools…
Filippo Lorenzin: This discussion reminds me something artist Julian Oliver said in an interview about the fact that in the past artists used to make their own tools (brushes, colours, etc.) and that he himself rejected ready-to-use programs. Evidently, this approach is political and it’s coherent with his research and, even if I don’t want to compare two artists following such divergent paths, I can’t help but asking myself how the employment of third party tools shape your practice.
Nicolas Sassoon: I use mainstream programs because I find them more reliable than specific software that may disappear over time or become unsupported on a new OS. When I began my current work with early computer graphics, my main challenge was to reproduce 30 years old graphics with today’s imaging software. After some research I realized the graphics I was trying to recreate were at the very basis of most imaging programs; they were embedded in them since the version 1.0.
Then, it has been a slow process of learning fundamental functions that are at the core of these programs. Alternatively, I’ve found ways to recreate graphics that were originally conceived through coding. Technically speaking, I see my practice as a craft between analog and digital technology; software are used for very precise and simple tasks, in tedious and repetitive ways similar to analog animation. I like the idea of inventing your own tools, but I don’t believe the tools make the work, it always comes down to the user.