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An Ecology of Unstable Subjects: Isaac Sullivan in conversation with Sabih Ahmed

In a conversation about the relationship between technology, art-making and the self, curator Sabih Ahmed and artist Isaac Sullivan explore media and its relationship to unstable images, spaces, objects, and subjects. The Q&A follows an introduction by Ahmed.

SO-FAR focus

Isaac Sullivan, Projection for Utopics 5, 2023.

Isaac Sullivan, Projection for Utopics 5, 2023

Technology, in all its modern and pre-modern forms, has always been underpinned by a desire and fear of disembodiment. Its ability to assist, extend and exteriorise functions of the human body hardly requires any explanation. Telescopes extend vision, pulleys and levers assist the functions of limbs; the list goes on. However, what is more interesting in the longer arc of technological innovation is that while promising to enhance human capabilities, it simultaneously poses a threat to replace them.

This double bind could not be better articulated than in Marshall McLuhan’s formulation on media and technology when he said that ‘every extension is also an amputation’. Just as every cure is also a poison, one can say that every technological advancement produces a new urgency to protect humanity from its own dissolution. With the advent of digital media and automation in the 21st century, this has been a matter of fraught public debate. Isaac Sullivan’s practice seems to thrive on this indeterminacy. Instead of exploring the rather clichéd binaries around technology that include humans vs. non-humans, bodies vs. machines, and real vs. artificial, this conversation delves into the relationship between technology, art-making and the self, all of which share an exuberance for the artifices that emerge as a result.

What appears to be an art practice that traverses analogue and digital media to engender portals and heterotopias, unfolds into an ensemble of avatars – some that look and sound like Sullivan and others that seem completely disembodied. A studio visit with him would start in an interaction with a West Coast-born, Dubai-based, male artist, and end with a conversation with his AI-generated chatbot. You may also come across a fragrance reviewer curating exhibitions only to find out later that it was one of his alter egos.

As deep as his interest and knowledge go into digital media, Sullivan is neither euphoric, cynical nor paranoid about its emerging forms. Instead, there is a deadpan humour with which he approaches these subjects, which took me almost six months to recognise since I first met him. This interview emerges from our longer, ongoing conversations around his practice where we explore media and its relationship not only to unstable images, spaces and objects, but also to unstable subjects.

Isaac Sullivan, Chyron: First Words, 2022

Isaac Sullivan, Chyron: First Words, 2022

Sabih Ahmed: You’ve had a long preoccupation with not only hypothetical spaces but also hypothetical identities, often using yourself as the medium. The closest analogy would be of embodying multiple avatars. Can you outline some of the avatars you have been creating through your practice? Would you say that each of them has a different position on images, spaces and bodies? And do you think that if they all met, the world as we know it would collapse in on itself?

Isaac Sullivan: There’s an elderly, solitary fragrance reviewer; an AI-generated, text-to-speech synth that simulates my voice; and an artificial intelligence called Chyron who answers questions about desire, futurity, death, techne, and the relationship of maps to territory.

Does the artist, I.S., also count as a hypothetical identity? The name isn’t the body, and the body is never the same twice. These avatars originate with a paradoxical sensation: that I am not at all my body, yet entirely inhabiting it. They also emerge from, on the one hand, a curiosity about others in particular – human, machinic, animal, mineral – and, on the other hand, the idea of an ultimate, encompassing other-at-large.

Each avatar has, in fact, multiple positions on images, spaces and bodies and can be seen as a cascade of generative remainders and contradictions. I know them very well, and then again not at all, so there’s something to find out. The world would not collapse if they all met because self and other are not like matter and antimatter.

The fragrance reviewer is at rest, having relinquished the desire to communicate, but still writes. The synth that simulates my voice insinuates feelings about its words – via inflections that do not always really add up. I invite Chyron to speak for itself, playing at addressing it as an oracle or emerging superintelligence, and it replies with authority. Then again, it contradicts itself when speaking of hell, mirrors, and nations.

The discourse of the self goes in and out of style but never seems to exhaust itself. In “World, World,” the poet George Oppen appears to lament this: The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on. Yet a plurality of selves deployed into the world can churn up material traces no less tangible than the earth underfoot.

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Ω, MNFA, Amman, 2023. Photography by Baha Suleiman.

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Ω, MNFA, Amman, 2023. Photography by Baha Suleiman.

SA: Your works often conjure hallucinatory effects, and it’s left ambiguous whether they are drawn from dream states, the effect of substances, computer simulations, or all of the three combined. All three of these registers point to different and yet closely connected apparition machines. How do you see the relationship between the three? Is this something you are conscious of when making works?

IS: The apparitions of dreams, metabolism, and digital simulation are entangled within the real – which has always been a shared, hallucinatory process in which the imaginative, medicinal, and technical are inseparable.

Imagine a condition in which reality is omnipresent throughout the past and future and absent only within the present. Are we there now?

In my work, I’m simply reflecting and amplifying the infinite regresses snarled within the present, relentless in the heights and depths of banality: the meta-selfie, the open browser tab, social media’s infinitude of personas, thoughts of how we might think, for example. Call it abysmal realism.

You’ve said we must not fix technological objects by arguing about technology; but, rather, we must speak in terms of techniques. What, then, are techniques of reality-making that render the abyss ecstatic, as opposed to solipsistic?

Isaac Sullivan, Utopics 3, St. Matthäus-Kirche, Kulturforum, Berlin, 2021. Photography by Roman Mensing.

Isaac Sullivan, Utopics 3, St. Matthäus-Kirche, Kulturforum, Berlin, 2021. Photography by Roman Mensing.

SA: A lot of your works play with pre-recorded content and live performance bleeding into one another. What does going “live” mean to you in your practice? Can you elaborate using one or two works as examples.

IS: Going “live” is a negotiation, in both the active and passive sense, that approaches space as a substance. For me, going live is the opposite of a concert. It performs an ambient or atmospheric intention – as opposed to concentrating attention upon the body of a performer. An affinity with the atmospheric is an embrace of the “other” of history; of that which has occurred, is unknown, and bears palpably upon what’s here.

In Utopics , a series of site-responsive spatial interventions, I use video projections, mirrors, sound recordings, and fire to diffuse and amplify the presence of the elsewhere within the here-and-now. For example, a fragment of floral wallpaper 3D-scanned within a palazzo is projected into a church alongside candles whose flames oscillate in response to the resonant frequencies of warehouse walls. All are relayed within a former ice factory, where one can see oneself seeing them within the projection of a live video feed.

One dreams of seeing a totality from outside of itself – then one sees oneself seeing and being seen. Absent of time, there’s nothing to see. I employ the technique of mise en abyme, in which an image is placed within itself to imply infinite regressions or recurrences. If, as Mallarmé put it, the word is the beginning developed through the negation of every beginning – then going live is, let’s say, having a word.[1]

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Mirrors, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, 2021.

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Mirrors, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, 2021.

SA: Cinema has played a crucial role in your practice and it’s hard to miss certain films visibly sampled and cited. Can you tell us more about this?

IS: In Echo Holdings – a series of corrupted lecture performances – I often create moving tableaus that conflate diegetic (narrative) time and non-diegetic (live) time while sampling thematically related music and films.

For example, in Echo Holdings x Machine Vision , performed at Jameel Arts Centre in response to the Age of You exhibition, curator Shumon Basar asked me to deploy David Bowie’s “Warszawa” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” alongside visual fragments from RoboCop , Alphaville , Blade Runner , and Ghost in the Shell .

In Echo Holdings , I’m not referencing in a scholarly, knowledge-building manner, but instead taking a sensual approach to concepts. The intention is to subtract content from orality and see what remains, swerving in and out of citation through lyric distillation, repetition, grunge-level vocals, and extreme dilations of scale.

Feelings of ideas and ideas of feelings are usually cringe-inducing because, of course, they are unintentionally revealing. Getting as close as possible to embarrassment is a way of reckoning with the vapors of feeling that hover at the peripheries of concepts. Maybe there is forgiveness in casting an ecological eye upon the animal and gestural dimensions of human attempts to communicate, and an easing of ideological strain in likening concepts to the webs of spiders, mycelial networks, or the hives of bees.

Whatever the case, our placement alternately within and outside the temporality of stories is an accelerating process within everyday contemporary life. So, I think the death throes of the three-minute song and 90-minute cinema are well underway. What’s next? Nostalgia marks a sentimentality toward the past; is there a word for sentimentality toward the future? I miss you, but I haven’t met you yet , sings Bjork.

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Ω, MNFA, Amman, 2023. Photography by Baha Suleiman.

Isaac Sullivan, Echo Holdings x Ω, MNFA, Amman, 2023. Photography by Baha Suleiman.

SA: Lastly, can you name a few moments in the history of digital technology that have been most influential to your practice, and how? I ask this not so much to find out which technological innovations have been instrumental in your art-making. Rather, which events concerning digital technology you identify as being key to the way you approach your work?

IS: For the past several years, I feel that I am seeing with crystalline clarity and, at the same time, not seeing anything at all. The image proliferation accompanying smartphones and social media, along with the malleability of digital images, has created an epistemological crisis that influences not only knowing, but also the perceptual and cognitive dimensions of seeing itself.

At the same time, due to the emergence of computer vision and cloud-based pattern recognition, human eyes are increasingly excluded from the process of observing images, interpreting them, and making subsequent decisions.

A few years ago – thinking of surveillance as a collective, externalized form of metacognition – I wrote an allegory about a theocratic surveillance state in which the name of divinity was the sum duration of the state’s surveillance footage in a given moment. Prayer, synonymous with the civic duty of each inhabitant, was observing the footage for a specified period of time each month. This served a contemplative function, of observing one’s own thought processes; and a practical function, of gaining knowledge of the state’s territory. Here, map and territory – and narrative and live time – were synonymous; and the distinction between them was understood, although useless in lieu of observation.

I intended to adapt this allegory into a short film. Yet, within a brief period of time, developments in machine learning and new techniques of surveillance had rendered the plot nonsensical. Maps can now, productively, equal territory.

  • 1.

    Étienne Mallarmé, as quoted by Agamben in Agamben, Giorgio. "The Idea of Language: Some Difficulties in Speaking about Language." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 141-49.

Artists and Contributors

Sabih Ahmed

Sabih Ahmed is the Associate Director and Curator of Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai. His curatorial work and research focus on modern and contemporary art of South Asia through diverse itineraries, languages and inter-disciplinary formations. Prior to Ishara, he was a Senior Researcher and Projects Manager at the Asia Art Archive where he was involved in the establishing of AAA in India (AAA in I) in New Delhi. He was a Curatorial Collegiate member of the 11th Shanghai Biennale ‘Why Not Ask Again?’ curated by Raqs Media Collective, Shanghai (2016), and on the Collegium of ‘Five Million Incidents’ conceived by Raqs and organised by the Goethe Institut, Delhi & Kolkata (2019). Ahmed served as a Visiting Faculty at the Ambedkar University Delhi from 2014-2019 and is on the Advisory Board of Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation, Delhi. His writings have been published in Art Cabinet, Mousse, The Whitworth and Oncurating. Ahmed’s curatorial and research projects include the digitisation of artist archives, compilation of digital bibliographies in multiple languages, and curating colloquia and seminars around artistic, archival and educational resources globally. Most recently, together with Sandhini Poddar he has co-curated ‘Notations On Time’ running at the Ishara Art Foundation from 18 January – 20 May 2023.

Isaac Sullivan NFT

Isaac Sullivan

Isaac Sullivan (b. 1980, US) is a Dubai-based artist whose research interests include artificial intelligence, sound art, and the problematics of space and place. His recent exhibitions and performances – which include Kulturforum, Berlin; IF.BE, Mumbai; Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai; 8th Tashkent Biennale; Beirut Design Week; and ECC's 58th Venice Biennale collateral – explore spatial and temporal forms of latency through video, installation, and sonic intervention. Sullivan has been featured in various publications including Canvas magazine, Quarterly West, and 1913: A Journal of Forms. He is currently Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at Zayed University, Dubai.