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Hypothetical Spaces: A Conversation with Isaac Sullivan

Dubai-based artist Isaac Sullivan speaks to Guy Mackinnon-Little about “non-digital glitches”, the intelligence of photographs and how generative NFTs can reshape the relationship between artist and viewer in our image-saturated present.

SO-FAR studios

Isaac Sullivan NFT Niagara Falls

Isaac Sullivan, Niagara Falls, 2022. Courtesy the artist and SO-FAR

The explosion of image making and sharing technologies in the 21st century has not only resulted in more images being produced, it has also fundamentally changed what an image is. In his ongoing project Hypothetical Spaces , Dubai-based artist Isaac Sullivan seeks to chart the increasingly tenuous relationship between place, photography and perception in our accelerated visual culture.

Built around an ever-expanding catalogue of in situ photographs that appear within and upon architectural spaces — pixelated billboards which bleed into the rough concrete beneath or architectural renderings propped up within dusty construction sites — previous instantiations of the project have seen Sullivan replicate and remodel these pictures of pictures to vertiginous effect. He has amplified their ephemeral nature through a labyrinthine website mirroring the disorientation of the urban space, and stabilised them through commissioning a series of oil painting reproductions from a copyist factory in south China. Photographs are not static objects here, but lively entities which transform the viewer and are in turn transformed by where and how they are viewed. They are playful collaborators, encouraged to behave in unexpected ways.

Sullivan’s latest iteration of the project with SO-FAR is a series of generative NFTs which use smart contract mechanics to create artworks that are transformed by weather conditions at specific times and places. Ten core images of locations across the globe — five photographs and five oil painting reproductions — are overlaid with a range of visual assets generated by the weather conditions at the location where the original image was first encountered by Sullivan. A series of magnifications and displacement maps then further alter the image in response to the weather conditions in the viewer’s location at the time of the image’s generation. The result is a hybrid artwork shaped by the humidity, temperature and wind conditions under which it is conceived and perceived, a map connecting the artist’s past with the viewer’s presence through an image that accrues across contexts.

Sullivan spoke to SO-FAR’s Editor-in-chief and the project’s curator Guy Mackinnon-Little about the origins of the Hypothetical Spaces project, how Web2 transformed the nature of photography and his concept of a “non-digital glitch”.

Isaac Sullivan, Tashkent

Isaac Sullivan, Tashkent, Hypothetical Spaces, 2020-2022. Courtesy the artist and SO-FAR

Guy Mackinnon-Little: Hypothetical Spaces is a project that’s evolved over many years and multiple iterations. Is there a core interest or concern of yours that holds the whole thing together?

Isaac Sullivan: The alpha version of this long-term project emerged from a fascination with images that appear within materially navigable spaces: an architectural rendering on the edge of a construction site that shows what that space is hypothetically going to become, or an advertisement on a wall which is functioning as a node for focusing desires or behaviours. It’s a curiosity about material substrates of the image, of pictorial space. No matter how seamless digital technologies become, we must not pretend that materiality and the image can be extricated from one another. I love reading these speculations about early prehistoric humans making cave paintings in an effort to control the movements of prey. Maybe that was completely ineffective, or maybe it gave them placebo confidence, yet in a way there is an intelligence in that gesture. Today, it’s immediately apparent that images shape material realities and vice versa. Next to a canyon, you can feel the gravity of the canyon pulling on you as vertigo. Similarly, the presence of an image can create a kind of glitch in your proprioceptive awareness. It can nudge your sense of balance and dislocate or relocate you. There’s something fascinating in imagining an intuition within prehistoric people to work with the image as a tool in that way.

GML: When did you start collecting these images? And how did the sprawling archive that now defines the project’s edges take form?

IS: The earliest image in this archive I can remember getting interested in was taken in Darjeeling in 2007. It was a real estate advertisement affixed to the side of a building, and it showed this rendering of a white stucco house behind an uncannily green lawn which had these pixelated artefacts in it, all of which were interacting with the rough texture of the building beneath. Something about it really grabbed me, and I’ve since been cataloguing these in situ images pretty much everywhere I go, whenever I can.

I began simply with the impulse to document these images, not knowing really what I would do with them. I was most interested in how the practice of photography could serve as a magnet for attention and a way of digging into curiosities. But the more I photographed these images in situ, the more I wanted them to exist as an archive. Then, as Web2 sped up, the experience of photography, and of looking at photographic images, changed radically for me. With that, my sense of an archive changed too. Before, I felt that I had not photographed enough or seen enough. That preoccupation transformed into the feeling that I had photographed too many things, that one’s own archive could seem as large as the world. As Web2 began to take shape and insinuate itself into the everyday, the archive felt less like a hermetically sealed box and more like something porous, inexhaustible, and time-based.

At this point, I wanted to create a digital archive given to material happenstance. I wanted to be able to look at my archive of images and see something that felt like a meaningful coincidence. You can run into a friend moving through the city and that chance encounter can feel meaningful because of the body’s intuition, but you can’t really run into an image on the internet, because you know that there’s an algorithm which sent it to you.

Isaac Sullivan NFT Palm Jumeirah

Isaac Sullivan, Palm Jumeirah, Hypothetical Spaces, 2020-2022. Courtesy the artist and SO-FAR

GML: I’m really interested in that comparison. On the one hand, there’s an obvious affinity between the disorientation of moving through a city and the disorientation of doomscrolling through this deluge of images, but as you say, there’s little capacity for surprise or synchronicity in the digital context. All you can do is move further along this algorithmically determined path.

IS: We have all of these 20th-century theoretical tools for thinking space and place, which don’t necessarily map neatly onto the present, and which glitch in fascinating ways. In some sense, not only are we living through transformations in what reading, photography, and archiving entail, but also what an image is or how it behaves. If I think back to looking at an image in 2005, I remember feeling that the image was showing me somewhere that’s elsewhere. But when I encounter an image now, I don’t feel that it’s pointing me to a place, I feel that it’s pointing me to other images, and those images are pointing me to more images still. It’s an endless chain of signification.[1] Images are becoming less iconic and more textual.

GML: You get a sense of that hyper-referentiality drifting through , but it also doesn’t seem like you’re setting out to uncritically replicate that condition. Are you interested in altering the topology of this landscape of networked images to allow a different quality of experience to emerge?

IS: Yes. It’s this question of what constitutes a non-digital glitch. How does a non-digital glitch arise? What does it do? When do we want to create such glitches? Abetted by digital tools? Or not? How can a glitch reshape our thinking of the present or of presence? I do not deny that this project is, to some extent, a mimetic response to the everyday, I don’t feel that I’m necessarily creating anything new, per se, by producing these artworks in different material forms. I suppose it’s a sense that the new no longer inhabits content, yet appears occasionally when one careens through familiar territory. So it’s more wanting to zoom way in and zoom way out, make extreme contractions and dilations in time, and see what happens. Carl Jung said that people don’t have ideas, ideas have people. And Context's Adam Ludwin paraphrased this recently, referring to PFP NFTs, in proposing that NFTs have people .[2] Well, what if images have me, or are making me, and we’re in collaboration? What happens if I play with images as active collaborators, simple forms of non-human agency? One way of playing with an image is to let it behave in ways that it usually doesn’t instead of instrumentalising it for rational purposes — speeding it way up or slowing it way down. In , which was commissioned by Nation 2.0 in 2020, I accelerated and multiplied images to make them even more ephemeral and slippery. In terms of technique, I took an Arte Povera[3] approach to the digital. Instead of asking a coder to make something that looked really cool, I worked with a very basic website template making site and completely misused or repurposed it to multiply the images thousands of times and make the worst possible site in terms of navigability. On the other hand, the paintings I had commissioned by a copyist factory in south China slow the image way down. Oil on canvas felt like the slowest way of altering the speed of the image.

Isaac Sullivan NFT Palm Jumeirah

Isaac Sullivan, Ruwais, Hypothetical Spaces, 2020-2022. Courtesy the artist and SO-FAR

GML: The latest form of the project with SO-FAR adds another layer of intervention in the form of smart contract mechanics, which reshape the image in response to the weather conditions at both the viewer’s location and the location depicted. How do these new tools fit into the broader framework of the project?

IS: I’m from California, so I’ve run into a lot of surfers, and there’s a certain kind of gaze that a lot of them have. It’s a gaze cultivated by scanning a moving horizon and responding in real time, which almost inverts to an interior distance. You encounter somebody who has that practice, and their eyes fall upon you differently than those of somebody who has been looking closely at a screen for many hours. What’s the connection? It’s in the gesture of letting the person seeing the artwork know that what they’re seeing is constituted by the weather where they are, in the moment of seeing. In a way, the artwork is asking you what you are feeling when you see it. Is it humid? Is it hot? The body is called back into the encounter with the image, and that allows different potentials for casting a gaze. For someone who acquires this artwork, I don’t exactly want it to evoke sentimentality, in the years to come, about where and how they were feeling in the moment when they collected it. I want there to be an immediacy of feeling, a sense of how the elsewhere depicted is palpable within the present. It’s making a path in time and place between the viewer in the moment of viewing and the origin of the image as far back as I can trace it. There’s something intensely personal and impersonal about that at the same time, which is a tension I’d like to explore.

  • 1.

    Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 2016.

  • 2.

    “Making Web3 human legible, constructive speculation and the shock of the nude with Context”, Interdependence, 2022.

  • 3.

    Arte Povera — meaning “poor art” or “impoverished art” — was an Italian art movement in the 1970s which responded to elitist aesthetic conventions through the use of commonplace and unprocessed materials.

Artists and Contributors

Guy Mackinnon-Little

Guy Mackinnon-Little

Guy Mackinnon-Little is a London-based, Cape Town-born writer and editor. Prior to joining SO-FAR, he spent several years at TANK Magazine — a quarterly journal of ideas and images exploring the bleeding edge of aesthetics, fashion and technology — joining as an intern and leaving as Deputy Editor. He has lectured about his editorial practice at Central Saint Martins and has worked with various artists and writers to explore ideas around culture, communication and other critical technologies. He is Editor-in-chief at SO-FAR.