By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Butler Institute of American Art
Beecher Center for Technology in the Arts
viral portraits of Stéphane Sikora
Viruses usually are thought of as destructive.
In the human body, viruses can make you sick or even kill
you. In a computer, a virus can wreck your hard drive or
delete volumes of important information.
When he started learning about computer viruses, Joseph
Nechvatal wondered if something good could come from
them. He’s spent almost two decades proving that viruses
can help create art.
Nechvatal’s aesthetic — which is shown in an exhibit at the
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown — evolved
from his drawings and paintings in the age of Reaganism.
The Soviet Union was still around and people felt the threat
of nuclear annihilation. The emergence of MTV and cable
news stations barraged viewers with information they had
never had access to before.
His works were dense landscapes of overlapping lines. He
wanted them to feel chaotic, and for the figurative images
— sometimes traced out of magazines — to be shrouded
by the chaos.
Nechvatal, 55, who lives in New York and Paris, started
using computers in 1987, during a residency in Knoxville,
Tenn. He found he could manipulate his images with
computers, a metaphorical reflection of his belief that
people are manipulated by the images they see.
The computers helped him make his images even more
dense than they already were.
“These paintings, the more you live with them, the more
you discover in them,” he said, contrasting his work to the
clear, simple images of Pop Art.
Another residency in Arbois, France, in the early ’90s had
an equally explosive effect on his art.
The Chicago native was working at the Louis Pasteur
Atelier under a program where artists were brought into
interact with local people to create new work. Because of
Pasteur’s connection with Arbois, Nechvatal wanted to
create work that had some connection to the famous
scientist, who made important discoveries about the
behavior and control of bacteria and prevention of disease.
He settled on computer viruses as a metaphor for Pasteur
and the then-newly emerging AIDS virus, which was killing
off friends and loved ones.
Viruses also gave him a chance to add randomness and
chance to his works, something he enjoyed about the art of
Marcel Duchamp and the music of John Cage, who had no
desire to strictly control the presentation and interpretation
of their works.
Nechvatal, who teaches at the New York School of Visual
Arts, elicited the help of computer scientist Jean-Philip
Massonie to create viruses.
“I’m not a marvelous programmer, myself,” he said. “I enter
into collaborative processes with other people and they
show me the tools with which to experiment.”
In 1999, Nechvatal started working with Stéphane Sikora, a
collaboration that continues.
Nechvatal sets parameters for the viruses, then sets them
loose. The viruses can “eat” colors, leaving behind different
colors and patterns. Sometimes they obliterate the image
they have just eaten; sometimes they don’t.
He also works with artificial life, in which viruses act as they
would if they were in nature. In some cases, a virus
“mocks” the rules he has set, he said.
The viruses reproduce and continue working until they run
out of “food,” or until Nechvatal tells them to stop.
Nechvatal compiles collages of dense images —
superimposed and manipulated photographs, paintings
and drawings created by himself or others — before
scanning them into a computer and unleashing a virus.
Once an image is complete, he has it printed with acrylic
paint on canvas, and calls the finished works
“computer-robotic assisted paintings.”
Nechvatal stressed that he is fully in control of what he
creates. He sets the parameters for the viruses, creates
the environments in which they work and decides when a
work is finished.
“I was never going to surrender my artistic will to any
(expletive) machine,” he said. “I was going to use and
master the machine.”
Art without human control is bad art, he said.
To remind viewers of a human touch, Nechvatal frequently
inserts a stripe. Barnet Newman was famous for such
stripes, which symbolize sublime man or the presence of
The Butler show is in two parts. One gallery displays large
paintings, and a second exhibits projected portraits of
friends and people Nechvatal admires as the images are
attacked by his viruses. The portraits change frequently,
and the viruses act differently each time.
In two of the projected images, viruses also create sounds
as they work.