Nicolas Sassoon: Pixel Painter

By Christian J Petersen

Vancouver-based Nicolas Sassoon‘s work embraces the history of digital media, but reflects the future of art. He is a part of a small group of artists dedicated to exploring and exploding the possibilities of art in the computer age. Sassoon is discernibly a Net artist because it is hard to imagine his work existing outside of cyberspace. His abstact and mesmeric compositions are a hyper-modern reflection of traditional art, plugging painting, sculpture and architecture into the mainframe to create true art for digital universe. Sassoon spoke to us about his art and the new media art scene.

You had an interesting childhood, travelling with your doctor father. Tell us a little about your experiences.
Nicolas Sassoon: In 1991 my father created an NGO in France to provide medical formation in different countries of Africa and Central America. From the age of ten until my early 20s, I traveled with him for his assignments two to three times a year. I spent half of the time in local hospitals assisting him and the other half visiting the country.

Did any art that you saw on your travels made an impression on your young mind?
I didn’t see much art during my travels, but a lot of architectures and landscapes made a lasting impression; vernacular architectures for the most part, and volcanic sites.

What was the first art you remember making on a computer?
Drawing blocks of Arkanoid on Mac Paint for hours as a kid. The game was so hard I started worshiping it.

What is the fist work you saw by someone else that made you realize the possibilities of web based art?
The drawings of Laura Brothers were a huge momentum to create my blog and publish my first animated gifs.

Tell us about Computers Club. When was it founded and what is its aim?
Computers Club was founded in 2008 by Krist Wood and a few other individuals. It is an online collective offering its members a space online to display their work. You can read this interview of Krist Wood if you want to know more about his intentions regarding the creation of the collective. Computers Club’s website has also lots of hidden corners; the more time you spend on it, the more you will discover.

What do people have to do to become a member of Computers Club?
Anybody can apply to the Computers Club Drawing Society, which is part of Computers Club. You have to be invited by Krist Wood to become a member.

Some people call this kind of work web or Net art, some call it new media, I never really know what to call it without sounding lame, do you have a preference?
I have affinities with both Net art and new media art. My teachers in art school considered themselves new media artists, and some of my peers consider themselves Net artists; I like to think that I’m somewhere in between these categories plus a few others. Technically speaking, I make animated gifs and animations that I publish online, I also make computer generated images that I call computer drawings. I work with moiré patterns, I use textures that are specific to computer screens and I also work with 3D modeling programs. My work is influenced by early computer graphics, architecture, man-made landscape, many art forms related to landscape, painting, installation, sculpture.

When this kind of art first started to appear, I expected an explosion of people starting to work within this format. Why hasn’t that happened?
I work mainly with one group of people online, and I see that specific community as a bridge between the art world and obscure online groups or sub-cultures. It’s not really a money making activity, most of these individuals are creating content online purely out of passion. Unless you find a strategy to capitalize on it, it’s not a very profitable activity. This is why maybe the explosion you are talking about didn’t really happen; most people got a job or entered another community – the art world for example – and aren’t diffusing their work in the exact same manner.

Having said that, one of the aesthetic forms of early web art is now known as Sea Punk. This has now completely crossed over into the mainstream but without the originators getting any credit, how do you feel about that?
Pop-culture feeds on anything appropriate at a specific time. I wouldn’t expect any sort of credit since it will be forgotten and replaced in a few weeks.

Your work is often concerned with architecture, landscapes and objects, what draws you to these things?
I have experienced so many architectures and landscapes through some sort of representation — from early computer graphics to classical painting – same thing with objects. Sometimes these representations have overcome the reality of these elements, which is what interests me, especially when these representations are computer generated.

How much did early computer graphics influence the development of your style?
I was first exposed to computer graphics in the late ’80s with the Atari 2600 and the Minitel — a pre-Internet device used in France for videogames cheat codes and adult content. The graphics on both of these platforms were extremely limited, one consisted of a grid of chunky pixels, and the other one was using ASCII to display images. The results were very abstract, and I quickly developed a fascination for that abstraction. When you have so many limitations in terms of design, you cannot achieve any realistic representation, so you have to rely on other aspects to make your images feel real. It also requires a certain level of participation from the viewer, not everything is obvious in these images, and you have to fill in the gaps with your own imagination to get the whole picture. This is what I enjoy the most about these types of graphics.

Is your work partly a reaction against the lack of creativity and general blandness of modern CGI?
Part of modern CGI feels really exciting to me, especially when it comes to architecture and landscape rendering. I don’t really work in reaction to anything. Some of the computer graphics I work with are at the origins of modern CGI. I try to use their potential to stimulate one’s imagination through very limited means, as opposed to a very sophisticated image where everything is sort of given.

I read someone describe your work as ‘stylized pseudo-retro aesthetics.’ How do you feel about this description?
There is a general lack of interest for the history of computers and computer graphics. Because of that, a lot of shortcuts are made when it comes to identifying computer generated images. A computer historian will be called a nostalgic geek, but a modern design historian will be called a modern design historian. I’m by no means a computer historian, and nostalgia is sometimes a momentum for my work, but it’s never an end in itself. I see a computer screen as a format with specific properties, and some of these properties happen to be very well exposed through the use of early computer graphics. It’s definitely a very specific niche of images.

Many artists in this field have moved from solely computer based art to more traditional 2D art and installations. You yourself have started a company (Island Pavilion) to sell prints by new media artists. Why do you think web artists are making this move?
Publishing content online is really satisfying because you can easily build an audience and interact with it. But again, it’s not a very profitable activity. If people could make a living by publishing content online I think a lot of them wouldn’t bother seeking other types of recognition.

Is it possible to make a living remaining a totally web based artist?
Not yet, but soon.

What do you think is the future of web based art?
Web based art is the future.

What is the ‘new media’ art scene like in Vancouver?
There are a few people here who are making interesting things online – just to name a few: Sara Ludy, Sylvain Sailly, Chris Shier, Melissa Paget, Simon Baker, Aaron Chan, Patrick Cruz, Aaron Carpenter, Erica Lapadat-Janzen, Erik Hoff Rzepka… Other than that, Vancouver is mainly about conceptual art and photography. There are also a couple of great art centres, like the Western Front who hosted the Pro-Am conference this past September; this was the most exciting and inspiring cultural event I’ve participated in.

What’s the best thing about Vancouver?
It rains for eight months straight! If I lived in a sunny and warm location I would make way less animated GIFs.