VAMPIRE REFLECTIONSAN INTERVIEW WITH ISAAC SULLIVAN



It wasn’t until the command and space keys of my laptop stopped working, on the evening before my first online discussion with the artist Isaac Sullivan, that I was suddenly able to connect some of the dots that, up until that moment, had merely been floating concepts, orbiting the elusive gravity of his practice.

A few specks of sand I think, scuffed up from the beach, had found their way into the stirrups of the delicate butterfly mechanisms that underlie the haptic ripples of Apple’s keyboard. If I tried pressing on the alphabet keys, an illegible chain reaction would set off across the screen— closing down tabs, reformatting files, breezing the space bar across blank documents to create an invisible range of contoured line breaks.

In an unexpected cascade of poetics and splintering binaries, the malfunctioning object of my laptop was suddenly revealed as a broken lake; a pair of metal wings; a highly-processed rock with a horizontal split down its middle as if to assert a sleek line between input and display; software and hardware; physical and digital— a line that had now become a gaping fissure.

Technology comes from the Greek word techne, a root that informs the origin of the word art as well as tectonics. These overlaps of language, as well as those that take place between sand and pixels, are a reminder that technology is both the ground beneath our feet and the vanishing point of our perspective. It both connects us to and distances us from the world, a cleaving that can be as smooth or as jagged as words, bodies, or tectonic plates themselves.

And yet the digital direction of our lives is increasingly tending towards the point at which the ground beneath us falls away and all that is left is the abyss. Instead of hurtling downwards we are suspended there, caught in between the flatness of the screen and the illusion of three dimensions beyond it, plugged into the hypo-static moment that is machine time— an endless, intravenous scroll.

In this state of disembodiment and dilation, it might be the random glitch, a sudden moment of digital vertigo, that snaps us out of the subspace. ‘How do I drop you without gravity?’ murmurs Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Inception hotel. But if that movie was saying anything, with its whirlpool of dreams within dreams within dreams, it’s that there is no return to a single analog ‘reality’. Neither can we wait for the dust to settle to remind us what is up or down, abstract or concrete, when it comes to how we orient and identify ourselves in this world of floating mirrors and untouched grass.

Sullivan’s practice is one that dwells in this ambiguous terrain, tracing the rootless mythologies of time, space and virtual selfhood via the Pandora’s box of digital tech. His work closes down constructs, reformats old terminologies and breezes across cultures and centuries in search of higher valleys. The effect is a gradual recalibration of the senses and the language centres; the unwinding of a loose, psychedelic gravity across the horizonless flatlands of the machine.

Born in California and currently based in Dubai, he is never in the same country twice across the course of our discussions. This resistance to being pinpointed extends across his practice, from his ongoing Hypothetical Spaces project— a maze-map that charts the collapsed borders between images and urban spaces— to Echo Holdings, his series of corrupted lecture-performances that distill and diffuse the references and resonances of his research into a hypnotic cross-weaving of presence, absence and celestial synths.

These sets also happen to go incredibly hard.

A conversation with Isaac is best described by analogy, and it is Chyron, his AI proxy, that conveniently provides the closest reference for how he will respond to almost any prompt with a vivid roundabout of imagery and esoterica, as if drawn from the hieroglyphics of some arcane data-set. Chyron’s own gnomic offerings stage this at the level of grammar, enacting the ways in which the fragmentation of the unitary ‘I’ might cohere around new modes of entering into a dialogue with the abyss.

In his 1800 treatise The Vocation of Man, Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote "you could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby ... changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole”. To me this gets to the heart of Sullivan’s work, and the seismographic sensitivity that he brings to the boundless surfaces of the Anthropocene.

Because tectonic plates move as fast as our fingernails do. They glide above the earth’s mantle, as we scroll our digits across screens of melted sand— in a blurring of geologic, machinic and biological time that nevertheless registers at a tactile, immediate level. These are the fault lines of our post-digital world, and the way we go about accessing their frictions will mark the moments at which our feet are firmly on the ground.

But who knows where the rest of us will be.

S.H.

1: Fichte, Johann Gottlieb, et al. The Vocation of Man. Wentworth Press, an Imprint of Creative 1 Media Partners, 2019.



ARTWORK BY RUBY BAILEY




This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It was conducted by Sam Harding & Ruby Bailey.

TWIST: So I was at a talk given by Jon Rafman the other day, and he described the core of his practice as essentially that of an internet flaneur, someone who would roam what used to be the tangled, medieval streets of the early internet, back before web2 and its social media boulevards flattened the online experience into commercial strips of digital real-estate. I was wondering if one way of thinking about your own work, especially your Hypothetical Spaces project, might be expressed by the inverse of this analogy— where rather than navigating the digital world as a kind of city, you instead move through the physical world and uncover traces of the internet in it— the glitches that mark the intersection of these increasingly entangled realities.

ISAAC: Absolutely, yes. Where is the internet within the tree? Where is the internet within the architectural surface? That’s a really nice way of formulating some of the things I’ve been doing.

T: And when it comes to your Echo Holdings performances, do you find the figure of the DJ as an access point for reading the sampled techniques and visuals that you employ?

I: It borrows some elements of the DJ set and then makes it into something a bit different. Emerging technologies like AI, which makes style cloning and digital twinning possible, demand new vocabularies, new aesthetic encounters, and we can carve these kinds of encounters out of existing spaces— like those that exist for, on the one hand a DJ, and on the other hand a lecture. I’ve been calling [Echo Holdings] corrupted lecture performances because I think addressing the vapours of feeling, the vibes generated by a concept or a phenomenon—and dropping the content out from the desire to communicate— can map equally well into a club as into a museum. I’ve done Echo Holdings in different ways and it’s inevitably a little out of place in whatever context. The intention is to connect unpredictably with those who are there while transforming that space in some way. For a DJ set in a café for example, I made it into a themed hybrid live set about vandalism which sampled vocals from the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. The most recent addressed so-called AI hallucinations in a lab at an informatics research institute.

T: So this sensual experience of these concepts, stripped of their context and reduced to the sum of their pixels, to their ‘vibe’, seems to represent this forsaking of depth in favour of new, visceral forms of superficiality. The fingertips instead of the fingers, reading digital surfaces at a physical level. By weaving these sounds and images and their decayed meanings, you’re kind of providing takeaways beyond the code we normally use to read these surfaces with; the narrative forms or explanations we usually rely on to create meaning. Also AI hallucination sounds crazy. What is it?

I: AI hallucination is when a large language model— for example, ChatGPT— presents incorrect information as facts, or glitches by repeating phrases. The AI called Chyron, which I created last year, was intentionally made using GPT-3, with an older engine, because it is prone to glitches of repetition that actually do a lot of the same work as poetic tropes. Glitches in language and alternative uses of grammar can open up new pathways of meaning and thought. Back to what you said about concepts and vibes, I’d like to propose an analogy. If the concept is a ‘Ship of Theseus’ that discards broken parts and repairs them by adding new wood to the ship— which means the ship is eventually made of entirely new materials, yet carries on as itself— then Echo Holdings is gathering the broken pieces of wood that were thrown overboard so as to build, say, a zombie Ship of Theseus: one that exists in parallel, as a messy assemblage of vibes, not as a utilitarian concept. So the corrupted lecture performance is an embrace of the vibe as the ‘other’ of the concept.

T: Hahaha that’s an incredibly vivid analogy, one I’ll be keeping in mind in the wake of the vibe waves. So continuing with Echo Holdings and some of the visuals that stuck out to me— I’m thinking specifically of the SYNTHANATOS set and the candelabra held up and reflected in the window from the Olivier Assayas film Irma Vep. From this reflection and its falsity of depth, a floating, ghostly candelabra with no one holding it, to the visual and sonic repetitions and dilations of the performance, it’s like you’re taking machine time, which might be seen as flat, and sculpting a spatial and temporal depth out of that flatness. Where is the vanishing point in this perspective, both in terms of who is looking at it and what we’re seeing in this digital trompe l’oeil?

I: The vanishing point is a given here and now, because images are becoming less iconic and more textual. That is, they point us to other images and not toward truths in the world at large, and speed us along infinite chains of signification— and this is the vanishing point you’ve referred to. Going back to your formulation of sensual encounters with the digital, with the image, I think this is where something is at stake; where something seems possible beyond the glib play we’re seeing within online myth-making, which can surely also have artistic merit. But what is to be done in this scenario?   How the abyssal quality of— and again I’m thinking of Irma Vep and this character she’s portraying and this question of how and when are epistemological crises transformed into personal myth-making or collective bodies or lore. But then again we come to the fact that bodies are not just shaped by built environments —

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—which is one’s digital avatars generating something like a field, of which the body is an aggregation or an amalgam, so you could say lore crystallises [bodily] time. And again this isn’t something new, yet increasingly evident. I think that this candelabra, like the way you’ve spelled that out, is a nice way into that hope— what can be done with such a flatness? I think that what is really at stake is not in the crafting of any one image, but instead I predict that the ‘speed of fingernails’ as you put it, will compel more and more of us to mind protocols for image exchange and shape platforms that alter the timing of image encounter— that there is creative potential that remains in the choreographing of flows and the configuration of images. When is a constellation of images like a flock of starlings? How can we bend or swerve the vertical scroll of the feed? These are questions in which something is at stake.

T: So firstly I want to acknowledge that I had a wifi glitch for some of that which feels kind of appropriate. Your words were lagging and speeding up— all of it was recorded but they were dilating and splintering and reforming ironically as you were speaking about these kinds of temporalities. I will go over that section of the call to make sure it is at least semi-legible, but I kind of like the idea of threading some digital static into the text. So anyway, when you said that images are not icons anymore, they’re referential, it made me think of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, when he describes how the ‘the days of pilgrimage are over’— that because of the mechanically-reproducible image, religious icons are no longer fixed to their far-flung hilltops or cathedrals, and that here we have an echo of that moment. And in the context of Berger’s reference to religious iconography, I’m wondering in what ways these questions of religion and technology have come across in your thinking, especially when it comes to philosophical differences between the East and the West?

I: That’s an interesting question. I’m going to begin by arguing that ‘the days of pilgrimage’ are not over, that [when it comes to] the feeling of the icon encountered within the hilltop, the religiously situated icon behaves differently than the icon within the material substrates of screens or printed pages because they have different time signatures. I don’t think we’re in a paradigm of progress by which we can simply jettison religion and ritual through technological mediation— but rather, the spaces that are built around icons have their own ways of bending time and space that can be proprioceptively experienced. Maybe you can say spaces of pilgrimage are like proto-platforms, that digitally mediated spaces of encounter can— I’m not sure, but maybe they can be reverse-engineered by experiencing and attending to the time signatures of spaces of pilgrimage or architectures that are built around ritual. To address philosophical differences between East and West— a preoccupation of my Utopics project is the tension between notions of linear time and progress, on the one hand, and cyclical ways of formulating time on the other hand. I mean there is no zeitgeist, and  yet a zeitgeist can function as a salient order of illusion that influences a given time. So in a sense Utopics traces the feeling intensities of stories of linear time like apocalypse, cosmogony, utopia— situating apocalypse as an imagined end of time, cosmogony as an imagined beginning of time, and utopia as an imagined discontinuity in time, and not disavowing the feelings or patterns of meaning generated by these stories. I’m not standing outside of time and space here. I’m coming from Northern California, which is a place where people want to recreate themselves, to make a discontinuity in time and how the world is imagined. Now this is a kind of Pandora's box about the ideologies around technical innovation which we don’t need to get into, but just to situate myself in relation to the tension between Western and Eastern if that begins to answer the question.

T: I’m interested here in the idea of religion as kind of an observer controlling you, and how the idea of god kept people in place in the past, whereas in our more unbelieving times it’s been replaced by actual surveillance. Do they perform the same task?

I: Well to make matters a lot more complicated, if you meditate you probably notice something like an observing faculty; a metacognitive faculty of seeing yourself seeing, hearing yourself hearing. So there is maybe something of the spiritual dimensions of individual phenomenal consciousness within the collective surveillance power of the state. I’m pretty agnostic on this, but am willing to consider questions about authority also as creative questions. For example, if you feel as an artist that you are working like a medium— thinking ecologically in the broadest sense, the self becomes an interface or node through which lines of force pass as the artist choreographs them— then questions around collective and individual authority are very much connected.



T: I’ve always been suspicious of the phrase associated with meditation, of ‘checking in’ with yourself. In its banality it sounds somehow authoritarian, as a way of willingly registering yourself on some higher radar.

I: That’s so true because it’s a phase that can also be infantilising— let’s check in with our feelings— yet vaguely menacing too. I feel it relates to a dimension of authorship which is like, let’s hold you accountable for something you wrote.

T: I’m going to read a section from a short story called Machine Time, by Seth Price. It was published in the first issue of Heavy Traffic, the New York alt-literature magazine edited by Patrick McGraw, and has been at the forefront of my mind when it comes to articulating the particular ‘moment’ we currently inhabit at the intersection of the ancient and the ultra-contemporary.

“The Internet changed everything, but not for the reasons most people think. The reason the Internet ushered in a new age was that it confirmed something we had suspected for millennia, the thing we’d feared and prayed for, the wager on which we’d built our mightiest institutions: the idea that our world is composed of invisible lines of force which connect everything in webs of power that cannot be meaningfully touched, identified, or manipulated.” (Machine Time, Seth Price)

Does this strike anything essential when it comes to the way we think or imagine what the internet is, as an abstract, unifying, connective force, and how do you relate it to your own work?

I: Absolutely. I mean this is a fascinating way of formulating it. This moment demands rigour in discerning a field of possible action. I think the death of content comes after the death of photography, and we are in it. Content is dead, long live content. Of course digital content as an attractor of personal data exerts immense economic force and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Content is a zombie and I’m thinking here of SYNTHANATOS as a zombie death drive. And although content is not a medium like painting or photography, I would say that hopes for socially-mediated images’ veracity and expressive potential remain, proliferating at ferocious speed. So here’s where anxiety about invisible forces comes into play, because one desires to create and consume content, even as one understands that any and all of its variations are flattened into capital-producing data. So again I return to the question of what is of consequence in the crafting of any one image. It seems agency is still possible at the level of the platform, at the level of speed vis-a-vis the image. This is how I see it now. I’m allergic to false consolations but I wouldn’t be practicing if I thought these lines of force were impossible to touch or manipulate.

T: So, a degree of faith.

I: This may all be baked in in the near future. But I don’t think it’s naive to say that some things are still at stake.

T: I want to return to that image of a zombie death drive as an analogy for content and the desire to become inanimate. Could you elaborate?

I: Maybe it would help to propose a hierarchy of monsters, with the vampire at the top and the zombie at the bottom. Forgetting all this class stuff about the vampire— I think what puts it at the top is not the vampire’s good taste. It’s because the vampire anticipates when it will drink the blood. The vampire bides its time and there’s a process of planning, maybe seduction, maybe some kind of connection; there’s an intersubjective space that the vampire creates and negotiates, however nefariously. And I think the vampire actually takes pleasure in drinking blood. I think the zombie does not take pleasure in eating the brains of its victim. [It] does not plan ahead or anticipate its consumption of the other, and it is in an incessant state of hungering and eating without enjoyment, without attunement to what it is experiencing. I’m now thinking about the dualism of Samkhya philosophy— it’s not a Cartesian dualism, where mind and body are separate, but instead you have a seeing principle, a consciousness principle, as separate from a material principle, with mind as the finest stratum of matter. Anything subject to change in time is part of the material principle, while the consciousness principle imbues materiality. And consciousness without matter would have nothing to see; while matter without consciousness would be blind, no existence could be perceived. Without perception there can be no desire, no evolution. So if we plug the zombie into this, the zombie is the lowest because it is the furthest from the vanishing point at which the seer and the seen dissolve into one another time and again. The zombie is bound, say, satanically to the material world in a way that feels sorrowful.



T: There was a pause there where I thought you were going to do a 180 and say that the vampire doesn’t enjoy drinking the blood, or that having performed the aesthetics and rituals of seduction, all the buildup to the actual act of consumption, that that is where it derives its pleasure, by garlanding and deferring the act itself.

I: If the vampire does not enjoy drinking the blood, then the vampire is basically a metaphor for the LARPing that we’re doing 24/7 or feel we often are; do it for the feed, no pun intended. I think that the vampire does enjoy drinking blood. The vampire embodies multiple points in time simultaneously, by enjoying blood and enjoying the process of anticipation and seduction. The zombie can only embody one point in time. Or no point in time really. In a way you can say the zombie has no time awareness at all, while the vampire transcends linear time. The vampire also can probably remember— I mean if you think about something that you enjoy so much, like if you’re trying to cut back on eating ice cream, and you were to recall the most delicious bite of ice cream you’ve ever had. If you took enough joy in that bite, you would not need to ingest another. Because what’s happening neurochemically, if you were to achieve the superhuman feat of remembering it perfectly, is synonymous with what would be happening without you ingesting the material itself. I think the vampire can embody multiple points in time. Maybe the vampire is a quantum monster.

T: It's strange because might occupying different points in time not be what the zombie would be doing, essentially not engaging with their reality by occupying those multiple points in time rather than the moment it’s in.

I: If the Greek gods envied humans for their mortality, then maybe the vampire is cursed with a long, suffering life, precisely because it cannot access the void. It gets up to those moves, occupying multiple points in time with absolute concentration, edging towards the void— on the way there but never reaching it. The present is cobbled together, right? It’s kind of a pastiche. The speed of light and the speed of sound are different; and the cognitive processes of seeing, listening, etc, they all take time. I guess you could say that tuning into this pastiche is a waypoint en route to the void.

T: It’s sort of like when you’re in pain you’re not really in pain, because if you’re aware of it that means it’s already happened. Hunger is just a sign that you should probably go eat soon. You’re not dying, it’s just a little check-in. Maybe that’s where the vampire’s lack of reflection comes in, because it’s seeing the truth that it is not really there at that moment.

I: I didn’t really answer that question at all. 🧛🏻‍♂️

2: Price, Seth. Machine Time. Heavy Traffic. 2022. https://heavytrafficmagazine.com/machine-time


Vampire Reflections is featured in Issue 3 of TWIST