Islands and Waterfalls: An Interview with Artist Nicolas Sassoon

I recently had an opportunity to chat with acclaimed Franco-Canadian artist Nicolas Sassoon about two of his latest NFT projects, “Islands” and “Waterfalls”. Somehow we never crossed paths the entire time he lived here in Vancouver, and it took him moving away for us to finally connect. C’est la vie. Hope you enjoy this little peek into the mind of one of my favourite artists working today.

Jeff Hamada: You have a very specific aesthetic. When did you first feel like you had found your voice as an artist?

Nicolas Sassoon: I think it happened retroactively. The work that I do now started around 2007/2008. I went to art school in France. I graduated with my Masters in 2007 and then in early 2008 I moved to Vancouver with my best friend. When I moved to Vancouver, I didn’t have a lot of production means; I just had my laptop. I wasn’t very inspired by what I had done previously in art school. I decided to explore things I had always been fascinated with which were the visual language of early computer graphics.

I really devoted myself to trying to learn more about that visual language, its history, how to replicate it, using the tools that I use. I started a blog called, You Make Me So Happy. I started releasing GIFs on that blog that were originally intended as studies for sculpture projects or studies for installations. And at the time, I had no idea what I was doing. It was a bit of a paradox to me because it felt like I was giving up on art and just focusing on something that was inspiring and exciting to me. Whether or not it was art was a secondary question.

Very quickly the feedback was really positive. I started meeting people online who were doing similar work, like Laura Brothers, she was very inspiring and we started having a conversation online. She contacted Krist Wood from Computers Club who asked me to join. I think the early works from 2008 are when I was trying to find my voice or my language. But I only realized that a few years after. At the time I was very much like, “This is a journey, let’s see where it takes me!”

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I forget the term for it but there’s a word for having nostalgia for a time you weren’t around for. A lot of your work harkens back to the early internet days, like dancing baby GIFs on Geocities pages era. But then there’s these younger people who didn’t experience any of that. How do you think your work is read by them?

I think it has to do with something that’s slightly anachronic or can feel anachronic. To me, specifically in regards to nostalgia, nostalgia may have been a starting point in my work but I don’t think it’s ever an end in itself. What I’ve learned over the years is that what interests me in the language of early computer graphics is not at all to reference a particular point in time but more to explore that aesthetic and put it in dialogue with other aesthetics and other histories. In particular, the history of abstraction. Whether it’s in painting, video games, computer graphics, experimental film, optical or kinetic art. I’ve always looked at early computer graphics as a visual language that is autonomous — that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific time. And to me it’s a visual language that represents an important chapter in this history of abstraction. I see it constantly in conversation with painting, film, optical art…

So, as you said, depending on the viewers age, you’re going to have different reactions. Some of those reactions are going to be emotional reactions. I’m 40 years old. I grew up with an Atari 2600, an Apple Macintosh. When I see graphics reminiscent of that era, I’m going to make that connection. If I talk to a 20-year-old, that’s not going to happen. If I talk to a person who is in their 60s, that’s going to happen in a very different way. These emotional responses are things you can’t really control. The viewer is free to interpret it the way they want to interpret it. For me, the long-term goal over the last ten years has always been to create a conversation/connection between that aesthetic (that era) and a lot of other aesthetics (and eras).

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In another interview you touched on the idea that GIFs, specifically, allow you to express yourself in a way that you can’t with other mediums. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I tend to see GIFs almost as time and space capsules. When you look at a GIF it’s almost like looking at an excerpt from a movie, but it plays on a loop and never ends. I’ve come to connect it to notions of desires, fantasies and memories. How we could visualize a memory or a desire and how it could take shape. I often approach GIFs in that way. When I first made GIFs, it was for studies of sculpture projects or installations. It was already a desire: I wanted to create an installation, but I couldn’t create it right away so I would make a GIF that would bring that idea or desire to life. It would give it a visual form but it wouldn’t exist like the “real” thing.

It created a lot of connection to the concept of the virtual — something that exists on a virtual plane. Eventually I started to explore GIFs for the seamless loop aspect of it: the reading of a work without a beginning or an end — that’s something I’ve been exploring a lot. Also the formal restrictions that you deal with (having to work with 256 colours and being mindful of the size of the work). Working with these restrictions, I started to see connections with abstraction in painting and how abstract painters will give themselves self-imposed constraints. I was really inspired by looking at the work of painters and how I could approach my own practice of moving image.

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What’s your process like?

With a lot of my abstract work, I use a process called moiré patterning where I overlap two images on top of each other to create the illusion of a third image. This sort of work happens on Photoshop: overlapping, stretching and distorting. I do a lot of experimentations until I reach a point when the work seems ready to be exported. I then use video editing software to animate the work and export it. For works that are more figurative, I use 3D modelling and video editing to compose the work, like compositing — After Effects, Premiere, exporting image sequences, creating layers. I use a fairly wide range of tools which relate both to image editing, video editing, and 3D rendering. But I adjust these tools to my specific workflow.

Island 1 by Nicolas Sassoon, music by Yu Su

The first project you sent me, “Islands”, was inspired by the Gulf Islands. You’ve made works about the Pacific Northwest before but how does it feel making work now—about a place where you no longer live?

I moved out of Vancouver this year (May). I’d been living in Vancouver for 14 years so it’s been on my mind a lot over the last few months. With Islands, I specifically wanted to make a work that deals with nostalgia, memory and archetypes. The Gulf Islands, off the coast of Vancouver, have been a very special place to me because almost every Summer I would go to there, either by myself or with family and friends. Sometimes there would be small festivals organized on one of the islands, we would go there and party for a few days. There’s something very utopic connected to these memories, and I wanted to create a work that would evoke that sense of utopia.

Island 2 by Nicolas Sassoon, music by Yu Su

The other inspiration for the project was postcards; how postcards are often archetypes and mementos of a place. Whenever I go somewhere on holiday and I’m reaching the end of the trip, I buy postcards that end up being connections to some of the experiences I’ve had in that place. I always end up keeping them because I connect a lot of memories to these postcards. When I worked on Islands, I wanted to encapsulate some of these notions. The series is made of four archetypes of landscapes inspired by the landscapes of the Gulf Islands: a horizon line and different islands of different sizes populating the horizon. The ocean and the sky are poly-chromatic, everything is rendered with a color palette of eight colours and the amount of visual information in each work is quite minimal. One of my intentions was to evoke an image of Summer, an image of utopia through a very minimal amount of visual information.

I collaborated with Yu Su on this project, who created beautiful sound compositions for each work. Yu Su is a Vancouver-based music producer and a dear friend of mine, and I feel a strong affinity with a lot of her music. She also has this common lived experience of the Gulf Islands: she’s lived on Vancouver Island for a few years and we’ve been to some islands together for festivals. When I sent her the animations and told her a little bit about the motivations behind the project, her response was very enthusiastic. I think she definitely felt that connection with the Gulf Islands, with some of the memories I was trying to evoke, and she created four incredible compositions/soundscapes for each piece.

Island 3 by Nicolas Sassoon, music by Yu Su

Is music something you’re always considering?

Over the last ten years I’ve done a lot of projections for parties in Vancouver at many different underground venues. Most of the time when I consider my work in relation to music I envision that context; where the work becomes part of an environment. It adds a layer of light, colour, motion and fantasy to these events. When the music plays it becomes part of a whole. Aside from this context, it’s quite rare for me to think of a piece and be like “this piece needs a soundtrack.”

With Islands, the work was so specific to a certain time and place, it was almost easier to work on a collaboration. Although, the last couple collaborations I’ve done with music producers, I ask them to send me soundtracks, and then I picked a soundtrack to create the visual component. I tend to be more comfortable working that way, to build my work on top of the music.

Island 4 by Nicolas Sassoon, music by Yu Su

I recently started collecting some art on Objkt and I’m enjoying how different it is than the other realms of the NFT space. I love seeing artists releasing affordable work so that other artists can actually own it—giving everyone a chance to experience being a collector. Can you talk about your experience with art on Tezos specifically?

I started minting my work on Ethereum in February 2021, then I minted my first work on Tezos in April of 2021. Ethereum was my entry point to web3 and it is a great blockchain but it’s also very costly: it’s expensive to mint a work, and it’s also expensive to collect, so aside from the technological and knowledge barrier, there’s also a financial barrier. Tezos is interesting because of its low barrier of entry financially, which makes it more accessible for many artists who don’t have a lot of financial resources. You can sell editions and works at a very low price, it’s more accessible to collect, and a lot of artists who are selling their work on Tezos also collect works from other artists. So instead of just being an artist selling your work, you’re an artist and a collector, which creates all sorts of interesting dynamics.

For example, whenever I find new artists on Tezos, I look at the works they’ve collected. From there I discover new artists, and so on. It’s a different way to connect with other creatives, and to see how they engage with the ecosystem. Everyone tends to use twitter to promote their work and so this also gives an opportunity to chat with an artist, to develop relationships, collaborations, etc. Ethereum tends to feel centered on artists from North America and Europe, but on Tezos you have large communities of artists from South America, Asia, Africa. You encounter much more diversity. The quality of the art, the financial accessibility and the general ethos makes it a very exciting ecosystem. I discovered Tezos thanks to a good friend and amazing artist called P1xelfool, who is based in Brazil. P1xel spent an entire day onboarding me, showing me works from different artists, sending me twitter profiles to follow. We started collecting each other’s works, and we’ve been talking ever since about how that act of collecting among artists is one of the most exciting things we have encountered in our careers so far.

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It’s almost like your collection becomes your avatar, because you’re showing other people who you are based on what you collect. I’ve been doing the same thing you described — starting to follow someone on Twitter after finding someone else’s work and then looking at what they’re collecting. Buying a little piece and following them. And they’re so thankful! Some have said “It made my night!” even if it was just two dollars or something. But it’s like the exchange isn’t about the money at that point; it’s the action — the connection with the person. I haven’t experienced that other place. What do you think it’s going to look like there in another year?

I really don’t know, but what you just said made me think of Tumblr. With Tumblr you created similar relationships where you started following different people and sharing their work but then there was no financial sustainability. Here, what’s interesting, is that it brings a layer of financial support. It’s the huge difference between web2 and web3: Tumblr was making so much money from your page, from my page, from anyone’s page. We were just creating this free content for them, constantly. But on platforms like Teia, Versum, Objkt or Fxhash we monetize our choices, our taste, our creations. It can be a significant amount of money to the point that it can become a primary or secondary income.

But to answer your question, I have no idea where things are headed in the next couple of years. I have confidence in that technology in general, I think it’s here to stay, and I’ve involved myself accordingly. Rather than wondering about where things will be in a year or two, I try to think of where I would like to be in that timeline. For example, I’ve become an avid collector over the last year and a half and I try to be mindful of that. What is the purpose of this collection, how is it going to exist beyond an Ethereum or tezos wallet? I’m also having conversations about mutual support and artist collectives with my partner Kerry Doran who has lots of experience in that area as well as in curation. How can some of the dynamics and ethos we are seeing at the moment be sustained and solidified through specific structures? How can they expand into other fields, beyond web3? These are the questions that I ask myself at the moment. It’s still very early in terms of how this technology affects the world around us or how it even affects creative professionals. There is an opportunity for artists to shape part of that space, even on a small scale, to push it toward something that is much better than what is currently offered. That’s where I see myself in a couple of years, regardless of what happens to the market.

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Let’s talk about your other series “Waterfalls”. Is the idea of a waterfall—a physical, real waterfall—is it almost like the most natural representation of the way a GIF works? It just feels like it’s forever flowing. And it made me wonder what other things in the real world perfectly illustrate the way GIFs operate.

That’s great you picked up on that! There is an analogy to how GIFs work and how I approach them. Water has also always been an important element in my work. I grew up in Coastal cities in France, I’ve always done a lot of activities related to the ocean which has shaped my aesthetic sensibility: natural and atmospheric forces, sensory experiences of being surrounded by water, all of this plays a big part in my work and in “Waterfalls”. The other experience that has been very impactful in my life is the aesthetic experience of early computer graphics. “Waterfalls” is a project that combines these two influences.

“Waterfalls” started ten years ago. The first version of the project was exhibited at the Centre d’Art Bastille in Grenoble, France (curated by Vincent Verle) and consisted of 6 animations. This year, for the exhibition with Bright Moments in London, I’ve released a collection of 100 animations which revisits the project entirely. Each animation tries to evoke motions, rhythms and textures reminiscent of water using a minimal visual language of digital abstraction, generating experiences reminiscent of both the natural and the digital. In “Waterfalls” the animations appear on screen as endlessly hypnotic surfaces similar to all-over paintings or wallpapers, oscillating between depth and flatness, abstraction and figuration. The entire collection is made of GIFs in 4K resolution, so they works are ready to be displayed on a large screen or projector.

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I wonder what it might be like to experience a more ephemeral version of Waterfalls, have you thought about this? Instead of endless loops, maybe an animation that loops for a set amount of time—it could be years even—but then one day it stops forever.

 I’m starting to explore the production of works which may evolve over time, based on the time of day, or the weather forecast. I’d like to draw deeper analogies between my animations and natural forces: how they are subjected to rhythms and cycles, to predictable and unpredictable events. Maybe within those parameters, an artwork could end up idle or inactive after a while…

My final question is one I usually end with, what’s something that you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?

I’d love to run or contribute to a collective space, for exhibitions, symposiums, parties, workshops. I’d like to play an active part in terms of exhibition design and educational components. I always say that my most successful exhibitions were the projections I did for underground venues in Vancouver because there was such a strong sense of community and celebration, you don’t usually find this in a traditional art exhibitions and venues. I would love to be part of a space on those terms.

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