Vancouver-based Nicolas Sassoon was one of the first artists from the new wave of digital artists whose work I enthusiastically embraced. We clearly shared a love of vintage computer graphics, but his mesmerizing GIFs truly transcended any predictable “retro” nostalgia. In the years since then Sassoon has expanded and refined his aesthetic and subject matter without compromising his original vision.
His art might evoke a specific moment in the history of digital art but it is not defined by it. It is his manipulation of that history that makes the work truly timeless.
The mathematical, sculptural, and architectural forms of Sassoon’s earlier work have recently evolved into something more painterly, humanistic, and personal. The constant that connects all of his work is his undulating waves of endless hypnotically looping pixels. They give the work an organic warmth that both compliments and contradicts their fundamentally digital nature. These waves are what makes Sassoon’s work a beacon of originality in the sometimes predictable world of new media art.
We asked Sassoon about his love of early computer graphics, his connection to GIFs, and the challenges of showing digital art in physical spaces.
Christian Petersen: What are you first memories of computers and the internet?
Nicolas Sassoon: First memory of a computer is my father’s Apple Macintosh when I was 10. First significant memory of internet is much later, when I was 18 or 19. I was collecting horror movies and would buy them on Priceminister or download them on peer-to-peer file sharing platforms like KaZaA.
CP: When did you first discover GIFs as a format? Did they have an instant impact?
NS: I got into GIFs when I learned how to make them. In the early 2000s I got a VHS/DVD box that could be plugged into my computer and I started saving sections of films—mainly the horror movies I was collecting. I was mostly focusing on the “filler” shots or stock footage: fixed shots of natural landscapes that were looping very nicely.
CP: Where does your interest in early computer graphics stem from? Was nostalgia a part of the development of your style?
NS: I became interested in early computer graphics for their materiality on screen, their simplicity, and their level of abstraction—amongst other things. Screen-based graphics exist on their own plane; they are different from photography or painting, they’re made differently and they exist in space differently. I am interested in that, in the uniqueness and limitations of this imagery and the range of experiences which can be generated from it. Some form of nostalgia was an incentive to start but overall it has much more to do with being slightly obsessive and enjoying to work with limitations.
CP: What were early influences and inspirations for you in net art?
NS: Computers Club and other platforms like JstChillin, Rhizome. The work of Laura Brothers, Sara Ludy, Brenna Murphy, Sylvain Sailly, Rick Silva, Travess Smalley and Krist Wood also had/still has an influence.
ISLANDS, 2015, with WALLPAPERS, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver BC
CP: Can you talk about how your own relationship with the GIF developed?
NS: In art school I started making GIFs as birthday cards for my friends. It was more of a hobby and whenever I would show it in class I would get bashed by my teachers so I kept it to myself. After graduating in 2008 I moved to Vancouver from France and began experimenting more with computer animation. I discovered the work of Laura Brothers and started my own blog: Youmakemesohappy. Then I was invited to join Computers Club; things kept growing from there.
CP: Have you ever been frustrated by the technical limitations of GIFs, or do they help define your work?
NS: I enjoy working with limitations. Some technical limitations can be challenging but they push me to learn new skills, which is good. If I ever get tired of it I will move on to something else, but I don’t think it’ll happen. These limitations have been a conscious choice. I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into. I’m enjoying GIFs for their practicality, but if another format seems more appropriate I will just switch over.
CP: When did you first realize that there was a “net art” scene that you could be a part of? How has that scene changed since you started making art?
NS: I discovered net art communities pretty late—around 2008 when I was invited to join Computers Club. I exchanged with this community very intensely from 2008 to 2013. Since then, some have moved towards a material practice, some others have stopped making art, and some are still publishing works online. It seems natural to me that things have changed. I feel lucky for the experiences I’ve had during these years because they’ve brought many friendships and significant moments in my career and personal life. The fate of most of these communities has always been tied to the individuals that organized them.
CP: Where do you think the general perception of net art stands now, both within and outside the art world?
NS: It depends on who you are talking to and where you are geographically. Net art is pretty specific; it’s only going to speak to particular audiences. Many net artists have moved towards a material output and brought elements of their online practice along the way. This has definitely helped to spread a general awareness of net art within a wider audience. I’ve also met a lot of younger artists and art students who have completely integrated net-based art in their influences and/or references.
LOST HOURS, 2016, Installation view at House of Electronic Arts, Basel
CP: When did you first start showing your work in physical spaces? Was it an easy transition or were there particular challenges for you?
NS: I began showing my work as projections for music events in Vancouver, and this led to a couple gallery exhibits. My experiences in the music scene really helped to translate my practice at first, especially with projections. With online publication everything is almost instantaneous and it’s easy to get things finalized. With material production you have to be patient and learn about the materials and techniques you’re dealing with, while not losing track of your primary objectives. This has been the main challenge for me in the beginning.
CP: How have you approached the issue of monetization in your career?
NS: It never works out for me to overthink the commercial viability of my projects. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work across various disciplines which has been very helpful financially. If I had an exclusive net-based practice it would be much more difficult. I never expected my art practice to be commercially viable, so I’ve always been open to other opportunities aside from the art world.
CP: Your past work felt very sculptural but lately it feels more painterly—do you agree?
NS: Looking at painting is very influential in my practice; it’s a completely different process but there are compositional elements, questions of representations, and plenty of other things that feel related to me. After looking at paintings for so many years maybe it’s finally starting to show in my work.
CP: What interests you about representing physical objects in a digital space?
NS: I’m drawn to digital space as a platform for sculptural and material experiences, or for experiences emulating a physical presence. The first animations I published online were initially sketches for sculptures and installations. Lately I started referencing existing spaces and environments that are significant to me. It gives me tangible elements to translate in a digital space, within the context of a computer screen. With works like PATTERNS, natural forces and atmospheric phenomena are the reference points. Each project brings different elements into play, but it typically has to do with the materialization or dematerialization of something.
Detail of INDEX, 2016
CP: Why are there never any people in the spaces you create?
NS: In my experience human figures always generate a narrative of some sort, which is why I avoid them: why are they here? What are they doing? What do they look like? I wouldn’t know where to start. With recent works like INDEX, the piece acts as a record of an existing space and it didn’t make sense to have human bodies within it. The work is a space to be filled rather than a stage for specific actions by human figures. I like to keep things very minimal in terms of narrative; I see it as leaving an empty seat for the audience.
CP: How would you describe your relationship with and use of color?
NS: It’s pretty experimental; I always do a large amount of color tests and versions before selecting a particular tone. I have endless color variations of most of my works.
CP: What do you have coming up?
NS: We have a new website coming up with WALLPAPERS (with Sara Ludy & Sylvain Sailly) and a new SIGNALS exhibition with Rick Silva in Belgrade this spring at Resonate Festival. I’m working on a large piece to be released with Link Cabinet this spring, and I’ll be showing works at NARS Foundation in New York, Peer-to-Space and Cerma.de online, House of Electronic Art in Basel, and Chronus Art Center in Shanghai.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: SIGNALS, with Rick Silva, @ Wil Aballe Art Projects. All images: Courtesy of Nicolas Sassoon)
Tags: Nicolas Sassoon Computers Club Wednesday web artist gif art, sculpture, installation, digital