Just as I’m about to hit the "End Meeting" button on Zoom on my call with Nicolas Sassoon, he stops me, telling me he wants to add one more thing. At the heart of his work, he explains, is a question about the relationship between virtual and physical landscapes: "I always look to find the connections between physical experience of landscape and how you represent that through abstraction, an endless exploration of the language of abstraction." This may sound a bit, well, abstract, but the idea becomes clear looking at Sassoon's work, from his Liquid Landscapes project to his work with Rick Silva, Cores, that uses geologic forms as the basis for digital sculptures.
Sassoon's abstracted memories share more than a passing resemblance to the work of the musician Yu Su. Her Polaris Prize-nominated album, Yellow River Blue, was also a dance between real and virtual landscapes. Written during a tour through her native China, each track—moving through downtempo, Krautrock, dub, and house—was written as a snapshot of a time and place. The album changes genre and tone quickly: just as we get our feet grounded in a musical environment, we’re drawn into a totally new world, only to move to another one. As Yu Su points out in our conversation, she isn't trying to create realistic still lifes, but short vignettes of "imaginary kinds of landscapes." “When you travel a lot to different continents," she continues, "your memory makes things up, especially when it comes to landscape."
More than just a shared aesthetic sensibility, Su and Sassoon also both had their artistic coming of age in Vancouver in the early and mid-2010s, when the city was going through a musical renaissance. Both Sassoon and Yu Su were key figures in what would become known as the sound of the "Canadian Riviera." Yu Su, as both DJ and producer, was pushing a hazy take on house music that had a punk edge to its DIY ethos, but a stoner's mellow in its love for color and melody. Sassoon was equally as involved in the scene, working as a visual artist for many of the parties taking place in underground venues across the city.
This inevitably led to collaborations between the two, most notably an exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. Now they have come together again for ISLANDS, which will drop as an NFT on June 22. The piece explores the way we represent memory through place and, in turn, place through memory. As Sassoon explains, "One really important inspiration was postcards. Whenever I go to a place, I buy a ton of postcards. There's something really poetic when you look at an image [that] doesn't have a ton of information and you tend to project so much on that singular image. On ISLANDS, I tried to work that way."
Postcards are a near-perfect analogue for the project, composed of four coastal images set to Yu Su's music. The sound and the images can be arranged into a quadtych or viewed individually, but in any combination the piece centers on deceptively simple renditions of a sun setting behind an island. The designs evoke the kitsch of a hotel gift shop, but imagine it through the pixelated art of the early internet where it looked a bit like every image was still buffering. Offsetting the Club Tropicana tones, however, Sassoon's muted color palette adds a level of complexity and melancholy. Each of the rectangular pixels changes color in time with Yu Su's music, making the images, like our memories, both crystalline and fuzzy.
Yu Su's compositions have a similar duality. The minute-long piece accompanying "Island 1," for example, is centered on a bright, plucked synth as a wistful arpeggio in the background slowly comes into focus. The reverb drenched "Island 2," is somber by comparison as a patina of reverb and echo coats its barely-there drum. The final two compositions feel like mirror images of one another as both tap into a sense of childlike wonder. On "Island 4" this wonder is rushing and hopeful, but on "Island 3," the organ-like synths have a creepy, carnivalesque tinge.
The ultimate feeling of the series is the same one that lingers behind the imagery of so many postcards: a reminder that holidays always come to an end. It’s often only the postcards (or other kitschy souvenirs) that are left to bring us back to our memories. ISLANDS, in other words, plays with the idea of a postcard as a chronotope, a site that can transport us across time and space.
ISLANDS’ effectiveness is partially in how open the images and musical compositions are to interpretation. In part, they require the viewer to project their own memories into them. ISLANDS is based on Vancouver's Gulf Islands, very real and beautiful places that both artists have spent time exploring. This creates an interesting tension in the piece: the images are both material and abstract renderings of an actual location, creating landscapes that are simultaneously real and unreal, mediated through Su and Sassoon's respective memories.
Releasing ISLANDS as an NFT is a collaborative endeavor to try and build alternative ways to harness the energy that both Sassoon and Su experienced during their formative years in Vancouver, before the cycles of gentrification led so many artists to leave the city and shuttered so many of the already precarious venues. This is particularly true of Sassoon, who believes Web3 tools could offer a new chance for underground culture to avoid the pitfalls of an unfriendly economy.
"I've always been very enthusiastic about projects that are community-led and community-run, whether it is artist studios or underground venues. I've always seen that as the foundation of what we call culture. But this sort of foundation is not always sustainable because people who are running artist-run centers or underground venues are running it from the kindness of their heart. It is not financially viable," he explains.
"We see this in every city with underground culture, there are waves. But eventually these disappear. What I see really exciting is that, from a financial and structural standpoint, [Web3] offers something that appears more sustainable. More sustainable because it is more transparent — more fair. There is the potential to bridge something that happens online and happens locally."
While not all of us are able to visit the Gulf Islands or experience either Su or Sassoon's work in person, we all have our own memories of both real and imagined places. And while there are plenty of money-hungry tech bros looking to penetrate every corner of Web3, there are just as many community spaces that are thinking of creative ways to resist that gentrification, both online and IRL. Looking at and listening to ISLANDS, you can begin to see a bit of the utopian in the project. It's an unreal landscape that is best experienced virtually, not so much a grand narrative for how to build a more accessible and sustainable economy but a passing postcard of an imagined future digital underground.
On June 22nd, in partnership with Nicolas Sassoon, Refraction will be holding a private sale of 50 of Nicolas Sassoon x Yu Su's ISLANDS NFTs series for holders of our Season 0 Pass. 50 editions of each will also be available for auction directly through Nicolas Sassoon on June 23. See here for more details.