In the early 1980s, Nessim’s vigorous artistic curiosity led her to become one of the first artists of note to produce digital artworks. At a time when computers were mostly restricted to major academic and research institutions, Nessim gained access to a IPS-2 Telidon by Norpak system owned by Time Video Information Service in Manhattan. After being appointed as an artist in residence for Time, Nessim was able to access the system from 5 PM to 9 AM, when it was otherwise unoccupied. Over two years, Nessim taught herself to program using scant documentation available in manuals and a running log of her work - at a time when many lines of code to render a simple line. Nessim was allowed to use the Norpak at night only if she kept the arrangment confidential: she could not discuss what she was doing or show the images to others. On the final night that she worked on the Norpak, Nessim documented the work by creating an intriguing video of herself demonstrating her illustrations entitled Face to Face, which is viewable below.
Nessim was one of the first artists - if not the first - to bring illustration and book design into the digital age.
- Douglass Dodds
Nessim became a regular participant at the annual Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH), which was dominated by engineers rather than visual artists. Cynthia Goodman, curator of the watershed Computers and Art exhibition, highlights Nessim’s courageousness in embracing the nascent field of digital art at that point in her career: “At the very moment where her work as a graphic artist was achieving world-wide acclaim, [Nessim] chose to go in a challenging new direction and into a domain where she was virtually unknown.” Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Nessim undertook a series of pioneering digital projects. In her landmark 1991 gallery show Random Access Memories, Nessim devised a system whereby visitors could create and print their own unique catalogues in the gallery, with over 48 million possible variations. Groundbreaking digital art curator Douglas Dodds of the London’s Victoria & Albert Museum cites Random Access Memories as the first foray into what would become the field of generative printing and book design, noting that “Random Access Memories was perhaps the first fully-realized computer-generated artist’s book to be produced interactively, with input by the intended viewer…Nessim was one of the first artists— if not the first—to bring illustration and book design into the digital age.”
In a 1986 exhibition at Shiseido Ginza Gallery in Tokyo, Nessim worked directly with the NEC corporation to utilize new technology in the gallery. While in Japan, Nessim also gained access to the first prototype of a color inkjet printer: the Jetgraphy 3000 system by Digex. Nessim created a series of five digital works using this technology. Hand Memory (1986) was inspired by a Japanese television documentary on ancient cave paintings, in which spray paint was used to elucidate the handprints of the cave art creators. In the resulting work, Nessim incorporates the silver handprints into a figurative portrait with an aura of radiating digital strokes - thereby evoking the span of human visual creativity from the earliest mark-making to cutting edge digital image production. Unfortunately, the paper and inks used in the three NEC works - Hand Memory, The Gift and Flowers in the Wind — are non-archival, and thus the unique prints are extremely fragile at this point. As part of Stargirl, we are offering these three digital works in the form of unique NFTS, thus recalibrating Nessim’s position as a digital art vanguard to the present day.
Hand Memory was one of the first of my digital artworks that I was able to print in color. I did it while I was in Japan for a gallery show of my work at the Shiseido's Ginza Gallery in Tokyo. I was given a chance to use a prototype of the first color digital inkjet printer: the Jetgraphy 3000 printer developed by Digex. While I was producing the image, I was thinking about energy, specifically the energy that went into making the work. I wanted that sense of radiating energy to be conveyed visually. Looking at the work four decades later, the figurative image is not even the most important part to me. It is the coded information in the work that intrigues me. I can alway see the binary dimension. Every element is really just 0s and 1s - the information is the image. Those digits represent coded energy used to produce the work, and I wanted that sense to be discernible to the viewer. Whereas I had been trained to make a drawing by just picking up a pencil, using the energy of the computer to make a picture was incredibly exciting - both challenging and liberating. I felt that I was able to harness this new type of power that I had never experienced, and I wanted to depict that power through the drawing. The energy lines are electricity also represent the flow of electricity in the air and through our bodies.
While I was in Tokyo, I saw a fascinating documentary on cave painting. It showed how the cave painters would use reeds with a silver pigment, which they would blow onto their hands to make images on the walls of the cave as if they were using stencils. This is where the idea for depicting the white hands in Hand Memory originated from. The cave painters used one type of energy to make art with their hands. Now I was making artwork without even really using my hands (except to type and manage the computer inputs). By including the silver hands in the image, I was alluding to the span of art making from cave paintings to using what was the cutting edge technology at the time. The continuity arises from the translation of energy into an image through radically different conduits that evolved over centuries.
When I was showing in Japan, I had the chance to meet many wonderful artists and other people. The act of giving a gift occupies a central place in Japanese culture. If you visit anyone in their home, you always give a gift. The idea of constantly extending "gifts" to others, even if they are not material things, made a strong impression on me. I had the opportunity while I was in Japan to work with some new hardware from the NEC corporation that had not yet been released. Being immersed in the Japanese culture at that moment, creating a work that embodied the notion of a "gift" just seemed very natural.
Like the other works in this series, Flowers in the Wind was shaped by what I was experiencing being exposed to Japanese culture. I was fascinated by the artistic ways that the Japanese present flowers - particularly the Ikebana tradition. The methods by which flowers are arranged and presented are so integral to Japanese culture. Their approach demonstrates an appreciation of nature and an incredibly long tradition of developing creative but formally codified ways to bring nature into the home. My incipient sense of how flowers are integrated into Japanese society on a personal, intimate level inspired me to do this portrait of a face surrounded by flowers.