I asked artist and designer Nicolas Sassoon to participate in a model swap with me in order to investigate and explore some of his working methods and artistic practices. While exchanging the images below (and the accompanying model files) over the past several weeks, I also posed questions about the background, influences, and potential questions Sassoon’s practice poses to both netart and architecture cultures.

NS: I’m sending you a Sketchup model based from a USGS DEM file. The USGS DEM standard is a geospatial file format developed by the United States Geological Survey for storing a raster-based digital elevation model. A simple way to put it would be to say that a 2D image is used as a source of data for a 3D model. A dark zone on the image means a high area on the map, a bright zone means a low area. It is something comparable to a topographic map.

What’s interesting about this format is that it has been used to record the entire territory of the United States, which is downloadable online through an infinite number of maps at this address. Today I downloaded one of these maps. I picked a letter in the alphabetical list and went for a map called BLUEFIELDS. The name sounded very promising and romantic…

NO’B: When looking at the abundance of the UGSG DEM files that are all available, does “data” as a source material play into the work, or are you more interested in how these elevation maps represent a kind of de-contextualized space that you have been creating in your other work. In looking at the “Geodes” series for example, there seems to be a Buckminster Fuller influence that infiltrates your work. I’m wondering if there is a connection for you between the modular architecture that he constructed and designed and the ready-made landscapes that are provided by these UGSG DEM files?

These maps represent an interesting base to work with, they correspond to existing spaces, but they potentially become subject to a lot of modifications, just like a 3D model of a geodesic dome. The architecture of Buckminster Fuller will inevitably be re-used and altered when translated to a 3D environment. I’m interested by this sense of freedom and the romanticism involved in the making of 3D models. When I use a 3D program like Sketchup, I see it as a vector of fantasy, a platform to manifest any kind of utopic project.

I want to go back to the idea of modularity that has come across in the last model you sent me. Does the malleability and flexibility of these 3D environments inspire your process, or has your work always contained a element of repetition and combination?

I’ve always been excited to insert elements of repetition and combination into architectures, landscapes, human environments in general. When I started drawing architectural shapes, I realized that copy/ pasting a building was very easy. Any kind of architectural fantasy is stimulated in a 3D environment. It’s something scary and exciting at the same time, but I think it’s also something that we have a lot to learn from.

You’ve mentioned how observing and searching play a large role in the work. Are there areas of study and observance that you participate in that haven’t manifested in your work yet?

I like to observe how technology is integrated in my environment. That includes architecture, landscape, domestic interiors, industrial areas, etc. Most of these fields have already manifested in my work as digital drawings or animations, which is a starting point. A lot of my work is driven by the possibility of being translated physically.

In these sketches, and your other work, there seems to be a great demand for order and symmetry. Is this just a stylistic undertaking, or is there some other concern, like say form an architectural perspective?

When I draw architectural shapes, I find it exciting to think of a house as an abstract geometrical shape. Looking at architecture from its beginnings until today, it is something that really stands out to me.

I think I’m also interested in how the translation of the fantastic structures and landscapes you’ve made here are starting to manifest themselves in real space. Can you talk a little bit about how you are planning on realizing these virtual works into physical objects?

There is something very romantic about the potential of technology integrated in our daily environment and I would like to explore more that potential. I want to address domestic spaces and daily areas where we use technology. My work generally takes the shape of a building, a landscape or an object; these are 3 elements I’m working a lot with when it comes to physical objects.

As this exchange has developed, I’ve noticed a reintroduction of “natural” elements to counter, or otherwise balance, the geometry of the architecture. Do you view architecture and landscape as having separate or competing aesthetic concerns? Or are they more intertwined?

I think architecture is always meant to create a relationship with landscape; an articulation to a natural or artificial environment. I integrated elements of nature because I wanted to give a more specific context to that 3D model. Now it could be land art in an artificial forest, the ruin of a building, a housing project…

Do you think the copy/paste mentality you’ve mentioned before has permeated artistic expression in non-net based practices? If this is the case, what do you think we can, as you say, “learn from?”

Copying/pasting a building is one of many changes that computer technology have brought in the process of making architecture. Today most architectural projects are promoted through animated walk-throughs, 3D panoramic views, CNC scale models, etc. I feel like this has also influenced a lot the process of conceptualizing architecture. I don’t think for example that the buildings of Zaha Hadid would have been the same without computers. Every technological revolution brings new aesthetics; 3D environment has a huge seductive energy, it has the potential of making dreams visible. What we can learn from that probably resides in the possibility to define what part technology plays in our dreams and what part we actually play in these dreams.

You say that the work has an inherent drive for physical translation, do you think that there might be certain qualities of the work that would be lost in that translation (ie some of the fantasy)?

Some qualities and intentions within the work can actually be enhanced with a physical production. The programs I use are meant to send images to print, models to build, objects to assemble, and I enjoy following that process. Some of my work can also find a form ‘in between’, like Hot Springs, which were printed on mirrors and to the scale of the physical objects they represented.

In mentioning the interest in exploring specific environments, do you think that you’d be interested in site-specific installation? Or do you consider the work you are already making as a kind of site-specificity?

A large part of my work is already site-specific, but I’m also drawn to work with contexts of other natures. I see the evolution of my work off-line as a natural order of things, still fed by my online practice. Projects expanding both online and off-line is also something I’m excited to think about.

I often wonder whether a given piece of architecture enhances the landscape, or does anything to respond to it, especially because of the cut-paste cooperate architecture that emerged out of the designs of the Bauhaus. Are there contemporary architects or buildings that you think achieve that balance?

I look at architecture as something that can potentially generate ideals and fantasies, which makes me look more towards utopic or excessive projects that aren’t always realistically successful. As an example, I have been very curious of the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe, which seems to have influenced a lot of contemporary architectures and ideals of modern living. Dan Graham mentions this house in his essay Kammerspiel, saying that the house was a source of stress for its original owner. The building is placed in the middle of a huge park, and the windows give the house a feeling of vulnerability, especially at night. The inclusion of human habitat within a landscape seems to have its own limits; it often implies changes in terms of comfort, lifestyle. I feel like a successful architecture would be a building that takes in consideration those types of changes.

When showing your work, is it important that viewers acknowledge that these spaces are meant to be fantastical or otherwise impractical?

When I draw a shape that looks like a house or a building, I enjoy that it can be interpreted as something fantastical or realistic. I name a lot of my drawings Studies. A study is something potential, transitory in the process of making. It either leads to a final project or to another study.

What do you think the largest hurdle for translating online/screen based works into a gallery/physical space? 

Online/screen based pieces are working in a specific context, showing them in a gallery seems to imply the information of that context. I’m always excited about that perspective, but it is something that really depends on each work and each artist to me.

What is coming up for you in the next couple of months?

I’m showing a new piece this month in a show called GETTING CLOSER at Fe Arts Gallery in Pittsburgh (curated by Lindsay Howard) and in show at Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver. It’s a really exciting project based on a new format for me, and it’s also a collaboration with Sara Ludy and Krist Wood. Many online and off line projects too, the only issue being to be able to make them all.

Nicholas O'Brien

Nicholas O'Brien is a new media artist, curator/organizer, and academic living and working in Chicago. Since getting his BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nicholas work has been included in multiple national and international venues including The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Xth Biennial in Lyon net art project mybiennialisbetterthanyours.com, Lampo, Tank.tv, and the Centro Multimedia in Mexico City. He has also curated many screenings and live audio-visual performances within the Chicago area under many different projects including co-founding an alternative artist-run space called BUSKER which operated between 2005 and 2007. Currently, Nicholas is an adjunct faculty in the Department of Interactive Art and Media at Columbia College teaching media theory. More information about his work can be found at doubleunderscore.net