Joseph Nechvatal: Contaminations
Beecher Center for the Electronic Arts
Feb 27, 2006 Through Jun 25, 2006
Viral media has taken on the connotations of videos and websites that spread
their ideas across large demographics quickly; for Joseph Nechvatal, his
idea of viruses and media take a more literal meaning that predates the
World Wide Web. This is because Nechvatal’s work incorporates media that
use live computer viruses as part of the image creation process.
Contaminations, his show at the Beecher Center for the Electronic Arts, is a
collection of static and dynamic works incorporating the viral process to
transform digital collage into surreal abstractions.
What is remarkable is that Nechvatal has been doing computer-robotic
acrylics since 1986, that is, 20 years. Such a time span is almost
geological in digital terms, and to maintain a continuity of work in digital
media for the same span is equally unique. But for Nechvatal, it is perhaps
he has found a deep vein of inquiry that he has yet to exhaust. The acrylic
canvases, most of about 8’x10 in span, and robotically created with wall-
mounted apparatus that apply the paint with a process similar to pointillism
writ large, sprawl before the viewer with a formal grace seen in few other
2D digital artists.
The series of ten or so static pieces constitutes a mini-survey of
Nechvatal’s large-scale viral canvases. In these works, the piece begins as
a digital image, which is then fed to a virus that corrupts the image over
time, creating colored blooms and tendrils throughout the piece.
Controlling the number of iterations that the code operates on the graphic
controls the virus’ effect on the image. The resulting image is then output
on canvas with the aforementioned technique.
In addition to the static works, Contaminations has an adjoining room where
four 6’x8’ projections feature live viral degradations of Nechvatal’s
interpretations of numerous New Media theorists, curators, and artists. The
installation complements the static works well, providing an expository
reference to the process that created the works in the adjacent gallery.
The viruses sparkle across the surface of the portraits, varying the colors
of the images, snaking across the walls. The irony of some of the images
emerges in that some personalities seem to take longer to degrade than
others. While John Klima degraded sooner than MoMA curator Barbara London,
or IA publisher Christiane Paul, French media theorist Edmund Couchot took
nearly an hour for the virus to dissolve during my visit. I seriously doubt that
the computer’s selection of celebrity has anything to do with the length of time for
viral dissolution of an image, but speculation upon correlations are entertaining…
Contaminations represents a fine representation of works from a long-
standing member of the New Media community who has contributed for over two decades. It continues his work in the concept of Viractualism, or the
realization of the virtual, in providing references to the physical and the
electronic in this survey. In addition, the beautiful, formal nature of the
work meshes well with a Midwestern audience who are anxious to see the new
Digital work, but are also interested in interpreting the work through the
vocabulary of Western contemporary art traditions. Contaminations provides
a solid representation of a deep body of work in the electronic arts which
spans over two decades. It also places this body of work firmly in the
contemporary tradition in a venue presents technological works in a region
of the United States that is emerging as a zone for the advocacy of this
genre of art.
Patrick Lichty is a digital intermedia designer, artist, writer, and independent curator of over 15 years whose work comments upon the impact of technology on society and how it shapes the perception of the world around us. He works in diverse technological media, including printmaking, kinetics, video, generative music, and neon. Venues in which Lichty has been involved with solo and collaborative works include the Whitney and Venice Bienniales as well as the International Symposium on the Electronic Arts (ISEA). He is Editor-inChief of Intelligent Agent, an electronic arts/culture journal based in New York City, and featured in the new documentary by the makers of American Movie, called The Yes Men.