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  • Michael Cook

This past spring, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicolas Sassoon over dinner about his curation of the Witchcraft exhibition at South Granville’s Initial Gallery, which featured members of the online art collective Computers Club, and a noise art performance by the group MSHR. We caught up via email to discuss his recent solo exhibition Silver Rapids at Burrard Arts Foundation, and the current exhibition Beyond the Trees, which features projections of animated GIFs by the Wallpapers collective, exhibited in dialogue with a selection of Emily Carr paintings. Beyond the Trees runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 7, 2015.

This text is synthesized from both interviews.

Exhibition view of Witchcraft at Initial Gallery. February 19 – March 21, 2015

Michael Cook: Witchcraft made an online community tangible. You could see people there. You could see art objects that could be hung on walls. Was that the driving intention of the show? Was it to bring this style of art to people who don’t navigate the Internet that way?

Nicolas Sassoon: It was about that. It was also about producing an exhibition that can be seen by people who were following this community… 6 or 7 years ago there was a wave of exhibitions that happened in New York and LA and Berlin, where a lot of Internet or Net-based artists started manifesting their work in space. The novelty was exciting, but the quality of exhibitions was sometimes low because you can’t ask somebody who works mainly on his computer to negotiate a gallery space and the production of objects right away. It takes time and experience, trial and error, to find out exactly how you want to manifest your work in space. Do you even want to manifest your work in space? Does it even make sense? That was around 2009/2010. Now we’re in 2015, things are a bit different, and many artists have had the time to deal with this question of the manifestation of their work in space.

...Walter Benjamin wasn’t on Google...

I also wanted to work on an exhibition that speaks to both a history of Internet art as well as a broader history. Witchcraft happened in Vancouver, and the level of engagement the art audience has here with Internet-related art practices is low. I wanted to take that into consideration and bring works, which can exist in multiple contexts and be perceived by a broader audience. One problematic was to make an exhibition that can be appreciated by different types of audiences. All the artists in Witchcraft have a strong online presence, but they also relate to larger questions. It was not an exhibition of digital art addressing its own field; it was more oriented towards broader questions.

Krist Wood. “Siirm Aeruah,” 2014. Laminated acrylic panels. Courtesy of Initial Gallery.

One of the artists in the show was Krist Wood, an important figure from my generation and past generations online. Krist is a scientist, and he makes a clear distinction between his scientific work and his art practice. One way of describing this distinction would be to talk about an understanding of the outside world (the scientific work) and the inner world (the artistic practice). Krist is also a composer; very often you can see musical elements manifest in his art practice. For Witchcraft, we decided to work on his series of images [Siirm Aeruah, 2012-13] which I think is based on a recurring dream he had; the series is a visual formulation of this dream. Krist has a very interesting website, and it’s quite hard to navigate. I sent his website to many people and I got so many answers saying, “This website doesn’t work.” But in fact it works—it’s just that you have to spend time finding the clickable areas. We also produced Laura Brothers’s work, the two light boxes…

Does the gallery have printing facilities?

We have worked with different print shops in town; the gallery financed the entire production. Which is pretty remarkable because it’s a big risk they took, especially in Vancouver where very few people are aware of the artists in the show.

So, Brenna Murphy made the prints and sculptures [Moon Cavern, 2013; Liquid Loom, 2014; Domain Terrace 1, 2014; Domain Terrace 3, 2014; Inertial Wave Chant, 2015; Liquid Envelope Module, 2014]. They had a similar aesthetic and some of the same manufacturing techniques as some of the noise equipment [Brenna Murphy’s noise duo MSHR performed at the Witchcraft opening. Their show included smoke machines, flashing lights, and a bizarre variety of custom gear including electrified seashells]. It looked vaguely Asian… Thai or Indian influenced, that ornate curling pattern, but made from really new materials and with CNC machines, Plexiglass… Can you talk about the relationship between that contemporary style of physical manifestation and the more traditional spiritual aesthetic?

Brenna Murphy, Liquid Room, 2014. Archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle Paper.

Brenna’s work is sort of unique for that because her practice starts from making these shapes on her computer, and I think it’s a type of meditation in itself. She does it and she does it, and she keeps doing it. It’s almost like a mantra, a meditation through repetition, a brain frequency. She keeps producing these shapes and then she extrudes them, gives them thickness, she makes a book or a print or a virtual environment that you can navigate, and my understanding of her practice is that she… some people will make that out of sand or wood or drawing on paper, but she makes it out of a laptop. She uses her personal computer for this practice, and she uses the digital tools that are available to extend this practice.

In your essay accompanying the Witchcraft exhibition, you mentioned the easy outs of the Internet now, and continuing to do things the hard way, “Everyone will get to experience the joys of the Photoshop lens flare, and similar software trends. Given this context, it seems fair to wonder what’s left for artists who want to develop a unique and thorough voice without hiring a Hollywood CG crew.”

One of the main reasons I wanted to do this show is because I find these artists under-evaluated. Recently, there were a lot of conversations happening online about Internet Art & Post-Internet Art & so on—to the point that it became nauseous. These conversations were solely centered on artists informed by corporate aesthetics, branding strategies, consumer culture. I’m usually on board with this kind of work; it’s very relevant to our times and it speaks to our culture. But sadly, I find that these conversations over-shadowed a lot of other Internet-related art practices. Witchcraft was an opportunity to highlight some of these other practices originating online which produce very different objects and experiences.

Sara Ludy, Rose, detail, 2015.

I would also add that there is a normative figure in the art world today: the artist as a lead hand in a factory. It makes perfect sense in regards to the development of a career, but it becomes problematic when this figure is celebrated as cool and positive. I don’t always see factory standards as something cool and positive, especially when they become a norm. I’d rather look at peculiar journeys and particularisms—individuals finding their own voices through experiments, through practices that take some risks in regards to the norm.

The term avant-garde is really oppositional and militaristic. The rhetoric around it has been politicized and even violent sometimes. I heard several people say “avant-garde” after MSHR performed at the Witchcraft opening. You know it was in the sense that it’s engaging new media and contemporary practices, but I also didn’t think it was so oppositional. It didn’t seem to be so reactionary.

Laura Brothers, CARL IN CRAGS, 2009. Courtesy of Initial Gallery.

One particular thing about some of these artists—like Laura Brothers and Krist Wood—is that they rarely participate in exhibitions. They rarely do, but they publish their work online and that is somehow self-sufficient to them. They have day jobs, they make their art “on the side”, and that’s fine. When your art practice occupies the space of a personal hobby, and I mean hobby in the nicest way, you don’t necessarily feel any sort of pressure towards trends, the need to show your work in physical space, the need to sell your work. When your work is published online, you are potentially freed from these questions. That’s another figure that has emerged with Internet Art but that isn’t really talked about: artists with day jobs! They operate within a different set of problematics. Whereas, when you come fresh out of art school like I have, you’ve been brewing yourself with these ideas of how you’re going to make a career and how you’re going to talk to the right people, and how you’re going to be so contemporary.

Sara Ludy, Spectral Pond, 2015. Still from computer generated animation.

It’s self-sacrificing in a way to put all your art on the Internet for free.

NS: It’s not; you actually gain a lot from it. Many artists have integrated the art market based on the aura of their online presence. I also want to talk about the work of Sara Ludy. In her practice, there is a question of aura, but it’s more about where to find it, and where exactly does it occur. When you look at computer screens, some people still have Linux and Windows 95 icons on their desktops because they’re into that. These icons have an aura. But if you print them, well, they don’t really have the same aura anymore.

The images need to be taken in context.

Walter Benjamin wasn’t on Google.

He is now.

Yeah, now he is. Art online is often focused on formats, distribution, and what happens with the medium, the reproduction, etc. It’s interesting of course, but there are other art forms online which aren’t focusing on that, and are equally exciting in terms of content.

Nicolas Sassoon Mountain, Wallpapers Series 3, 2015.

Let’s talk about the content. It’s actually pretty overwhelming how much work there is from these artists. It’s almost hard to talk about because there’s so much. I’ve been going through computersclub.org and w-a-l-l-p-a-p-e-r-s.net, and it’s so overwhelming. Like you said, these pages don’t necessarily navigate in conventional ways, and the way the images move across the screen is unique. It really engages the medium of the screen and of the browser window. You know, at the same time it references modern abstract art, traditional drafting techniques, isometric views, Euclidian geometry.

When your work is on a screen, the screen becomes your first obvious limitation, so you’re going to try and get the best out of it. The artists in Witchcraft are definitely taking this into account. Art online can be very transient, that might be why very little is written about it. Computers Club and Wallpapers are two different platforms with a different framework around them. Computers Club was founded by Krist Wood in 2008, and it was very prominent during its first 4 years. There are maybe 20 members, all invited by Krist, and then the platform opened up to more members on various sub-platforms. Computers Club is also very cryptic, and very little has been written about it. Wallpapers is a more recent project, founded in 2011 with Sara Ludy and Sylvain Sailly. It’s a much smaller platform in terms of scope and it functions differently, and unlike Computers Club, Wallpapers materializes often through physical installations; like Beyond the Trees at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Were the works in Beyond the Trees composed specifically to address Emily Carr? There seemed to be visual references to her motifs. Is that a coincidence resulting from working in the same region? Did it feel like a forced juxtaposition to exhibit the Wallpapers work alongside early twentieth century paintings?

Nicolas Sassoon, Islands and Arches, installation view from Beyond the Trees: Wallpapers in Dialogue with Emily Carr, 2015. Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery.

For Beyond the Trees, we didn’t focus on Emily Carr motifs specifically, but more on the archetypal landscapes that we both shared in different eras. In regards to my work for the exhibition, the animations were based on moiré patterns. They are quite figurative and also very atmospheric, which is where most of the moiré pattern work becomes effective. I tried to create a series of landscapes and scenery that could appear alternatively desolate or idealized. When I picture earth landscapes after mankind, I always imagine barren reliefs with nothing but dust. The juxtaposition with Emily Carr didn’t feel forced mostly because none of the works were physically juxtaposed. The Wallpapers exhibition happened in two rooms while the last room was reserved for Emily Carr works. It’s an interesting experience to enter a painting room after being immersed in two rooms filled with screens and projections.

Can you talk about the location of the image object in relation to Silver Rapids? Initially it seemed like a work that was meant to be viewed from outside the gallery looking in, but walking into the gallery was so disorienting. How was the position of the projector meant to affect the audience?

Nicolas Sassoon. View of Silver Rapids, 2015. Courtesy of Burrard Arts Foundation.

When I do projection-based installations, my work is always site-specific. I try to spend time in the exhibition space prior to the show, and usually during that time, I outline a few installation options. For Silver Rapids I wanted to create a projection that would manifest in a similar way to a waterfall—a waterfall that visitors would have to pass through when they enter the gallery space. The projection screens were made of light fabric hanging from the ceiling right behind the front windows. Once visitors entered the space, the analogy of the waterfall continued, but this time from the inside. The disorientation is perpetual with my work because of the nature of the visual language I use and also because of the motion. In a physical space, the projection becomes a foreign object, an artificial environment that requires adjustment. In general, screens or projections take us away from a physical space. With projects like Silver Rapids, one of my intentions is to make the projection embrace physical space, with us in the middle.

Some of your projection setups are very elaborate. Is there a barrier in your mind between the work of making a wallpaper file and the work of setting up the room and the projector to show it?

With Wallpapers the work always exists in two separate spaces: online and in physical space. The work online is tailored for screens and the work in physical space is tailored for the architecture in context. One of the goals with Wallpapers is to show a consistent level of care in the approach of both spaces. What usually works at the scale of a screen rarely works at the scale of a projection in architecture. I wouldn’t say there is a barrier, but there is a different methodology to creating and scaling works during physical installations. For the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we spent two weeks in the gallery to tailor each animation, make a selection of works and scale everything. It’s a necessary step for us to produce a physical exhibition; we need this time to adjust our digital work to the scale of human architecture.

Sylvain Sailly, AC_11, 2015.

In the course of these interviews, I’ve gained a better understanding of Internet-related art practices and the effect of mediating visual works through screens and projectors. As complex as the ideas around these media can be—employing digital file formats that are both ephemeral and ubiquitous—it is the continuing role of the gallery that grounds my experience. Wherever online art may exist, and wherever its aura, the recent Internet art exhibitions in Vancouver provoke visceral reactions in the gallery space. For this reason, it’s important for gallerists and audiences to continue exploring this area of work.

Sara Ludy, Acid Cloud, installation view from Beyond the Trees: Wallpapers in Dialogue with Emily Carr, 2015. Courtesy of Vancouver Art Gallery.

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