In the beginning, electricity searched for the most exalted applications for itself: miraculous medical cures, mechanized assembly lines, turbines, bulbs and radio frequencies, all the while mocking the planet’s dark past. In the beginning, Marcel Proust’s family was skeptical about keeping a telephone in the house. The writer was alarmed the first time he spoke with his grandmother on the phone, for until then he had been accustomed to following her words on the open score of her face. The line between efficiency and closeness curved confusedly on its own axis.
In the sixties, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense funded ARPANET: the network that became the basis for the web. Somewhere around the time of Madonna and the fall of the Wall, the Internet made its sensational mainstream debut and the speed of power-connected existence accelerated exponentially. The ball never stopped rolling: enter glowing screens, flashing cursors, stock market tickers, super-telescopes, stock photography and personal websites. The Internet powered low voices in computer labs, saw given names swapped for usernames and had browsers deliberating over selections of mountainscape desktops while searching the net for answers to questions they couldn’t define. Then came MSN Messenger and at some point your mother joined Facebook. On increasingly intimate terms with human bodies, the web is moving from laptops, tablets and phones to eyeglasses and watches. As technology continues to push labour towards the machine, information and ideas flow freely across international borders. It’s all a lot to take – there’s no pleading ignorance in the age of the Internet. At some point it became clear that anxiety in the modern age is Googling your own name to ensure you still exist.
Hyper-connectivity has dominated our consumption and recent understanding of relationships, images and communication.When people began signing up for their first e-mail accounts, it was only natural that art addressed the web as a medium, observing its immediacy and immateriality as productive tools. Art online has taken the form of e-mail projects, websites, games, software projects, networked installations, programming disruptions, video, audio and online performances. The introduction of peer-to-peer networking marked an important moment in the democratization of art by opening up previously set boundaries of participation. Sharing, researching and archiving became easy as the web acted as an environment for experimentation, interrogation, discussion and exhibition. By virtue of its elusive and ephemeral nature, Internet has systematically defied the boundaries of institutional bureaucracy and commodification.
In her 2007 essay “Vancouver Singular Plural: Art in an Age of Post-Medium Practice” published in Arsenal Press’s Vancouver Art & Economies, artist and writer Randy Lee Cutler outlines the ways in which artists, over the past several decades, have subverted technology to expose its naturalized ubiquity in contemporary life. She argues that Vancouver art practices have paralleled their commercial surroundings (burgeoning film and videogame industries) by using similar technologies to investigate, interrupt and impersonate cultural hegemonies. Cutler describes the post-medium condition as an outlier of conceptual art where idea surmounts material and the artist’s studio is no longer necessary for making. Similarly, the term “post-studio” loosely classifies practices concerned with non-traditional locations of production, exhibition and organization. Both are germane to art made and shown online: computer-based practices require little physical space and often cost less than creating objects. The personal computer has become a studio increasingly affordable and accessible to a larger public. Websites became a new type of gallery.
Nicolas Sassoon spends a lot of time at his computer. The Vancouver-based artist was born and educated in France and works in, in his words, “a very dark space inside a basement in a city that is pretty dark for eight months of the year.” Sassoon’s animations, wallpapers, patterns, prints, sculptures, and installations emerge from a secluded environment where his most important equipment is a laptop. He uses a variety of digital processes to generate visions of architectures, landscapes and domestic environments and while most of his work is published online (Sassoon is one of the founders of Wallpapers, a web-based catalogue of digital patterns created by artists,) his output also includes sculptures, prints, textiles, and site-specific installations. His work is largely informed by the pixellated nature of early computer graphics. He cites the “bleakness” of his aesthetic as a tool to articulate a physical quality with limited means. A computerized answer to Modernist hard-edged painting, Sassoon re-encodes information to the truly essential. The discontinued visual language that he borrows appears nostalgic to a contemporary viewer though it seemed a few decades ago remarkably futuristic. Walter Benjamin claimed that the utopian potential of a medium is unleashed at the very moment of its obsolescence. While embracing animation’s ability to present non-representational images, Sassoon’s patterns and installations also emulate the natural world. As a reaction to the necessary marriage of electrical outlets to digital art practices, Sassoon’s work often mimics the organic behaviours of earthly elements as a subsequent yearning to reconnect with nature. The flowing, wind and water-like movements of his animations seamlessly loop on the screen, offering a meditative viewing experience similar to watching the rhythm of waves.
Continuous replay is a useful strategy for capturing attention in the age of distraction. Inundated with a surplus of visual data, viewers often don’t fully digest information unless it’s exalted by repetition. This is perhaps why it’s so satisfying to watch a video on Vine as it plays over and over: the punchline is ceaselessly restated until absorbed. Keeping people in one digital location before they swipe or scroll away has become a stealthy contrivance in an era where attention is both coveted and monetized. Self-referential and born within the space of screen, Sassoon’s hypnotic animations become a place in themselves. The screen upon which they’re viewed becomes a window. Demanding nothing of us but a moment of contemplation, Sassoon’s patterns offer a singular respite from rapid browsing, tab-switching and the modern anxiety to know everything at once. His works mediate an experience of the natural world into harried, screen-based environments, offering intermissions from the pressures of an attention economy ceaselessly pushing into our shrinking downtime.
Silver Rapids – Sassoon’s piece at Burrard Arts Foundation – is a video projection across the window facade appearing only after dark. The projection structure is based on a waterfall, with variations occurring throughout a looping cycle. It begins by mimicking the natural motion of a waterfall with series of waves passing through the screen from top to bottom. After the speed crests, it changes directions, and then returns to its starting point before looping until dawn. The animation is created using digital moiré patterns; composed of pixelated textures and 6 tones of grey, forming a greyscale gradient from black to white. Pixels fall like water. The building glows. There is something seductive and terrifying about the combination of technology and nature, such strange bedfellows. I think skeptically of the Vancouver Park Board’s recent vote to implement free public WiFi in beaches and parks before nervously checking my cell phone data bill.
Text: Elliat Albrecht