Viral Attacks: The Work of Joseph Nechvatal
by Seth Thompson
While some artists seek precision and control with their work, Joseph Nechvatal unleashes a virus on his computer-based imagery as part of his philosophical approach to making art. His work embodies both biological and technological elements drawing metaphors between the two. While his production utilizes a similar set of rules as the Abstract Expressionists whose aesthetics are built upon a collection of defined parameters and who are more concerned with process, Nechvatal deviates when he lets his computer virus program influence the outcome of the image. Sometimes beautiful and at other times disconcerting, his work engages and challenges the viewer to go beyond the surface.
Nechvatal received his Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Art at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, The University of Wales in 1999. However, since 1986 he has incorporated the use of computers and computer-robotics into his work.
An example of an early work is Hyper-Body II (1988), an emotionally charged large scale work that utilizes a dominant blue monochromatic-like color scheme, where after close observation one can make out a weakened form with its head and shoulders slouched. During this time of production, Nechvatal had known many people who were inflicted with the AIDS virus. In an email interview with this author, Nechvatal writes, “The AIDS virus was impacting on me emotionally at the time, so it made sense to move in that direction. I wanted to overcome the fear I was feeling and mark the impossibility of going further in the direction of complete spontaneous sexual freedom.”(1)
From 1991 to 1993, Nechvatal was as an artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale/Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois France where he developed the Computer Virus Project with the assistance of Jean-Philippe Massonie. In an email interview with Tom Barbalet for Biota.org, Nechvatal writes, “At that time I would launch a viral attack into the host—which was my body of visual work accomplished up to that time. However there was nothing to see as the computer virus went through its procedures until I would check to what had happened overnight.”(2) It wasn’t until 2002 when he began collaborating with Stéphane Sikora, that he began to see the viral results in real time. In an email interview, he writes, “we launched into a collaboration intended on extending my previous exploration with computer software modeled on the viral. Instead of waiting to see what had happened in the computer overnight, as with the Jean-Philippe Massonie software, I could see what was occurring in real time on the screen. That was a major advance.”(3)
VOluptuary drOid décOlletage (2002) is an example of a viral attacked computer-based image “painted” onto a large canvas. The piece, which utilizes a bright and colorful palette, is divided into three parts that has been morphed or transformed by the viral attack. A yellow band looks as though it is in the process of smothering or transforming the central part of the image that depicts a collection of close-up views of microscopic organisms. The right part of the canvas features the backside of a rubenesque nude woman laying face down. The multilayered pixilated imagery abstracts the form. Semi-transparent code is layered on top of the woman. Overall, the technological virus looks as though it has been eating away at the images transforming and manipulating the once possibly crisp-like images. Nechvatal writes, “I think that the life/non-life idea inherent in the viral situation is mesmerizing. Most all viruses have the same general behavior characteristics (a virus invades the host and draws existence from it; wildly reproducing itself, thus killing the host) and I designed my computer virus to follow those characteristics.”(4)
AndrOpathOlOgynite cOntagio, (2003) is a beautiful and colorful diptych. Yet upon closer examination, the beautiful work becomes disturbing. On the upper part of the canvas are two large egg-like objects depicted in a painterly fashion. On the bottom half a multilayered collage of imagery includes what appears to be a woman’s mid-area from the bottom of her rib cage to the top of her pelvic region with the tips of her knees are slightly exposed. On top of this base image are translucent and repeated medical drawings of the female reproductive system. Nevertheless, the elements look as though viral organisms are eating away at the imagery—consuming or ingesting the woman’s reproductive biological matter—connotating cancer or some other disease.
Nechvatal’s Computer Virus Project 2.0 (Portrait Attack Series) (2005) is a time-based immersive environment where the viewer is surrounded by large-scale projections of portraits on all four walls. At times the disconcerting sound within the installation becomes loud and overwhelming which mixes well with the imagery. The projected moving imagery is being constructed and deconstructed in conjunction with the sound by the computer-based virus, so it is an ever-evolving piece with no beginning, middle or end. The participant watches virus-like elements slowly eating away at the multilayered portraits of such “new media” notables as Cory Arcangel, Tina LaPorta, Mark Tribe and G.H. Hovagimyan. Nechvatal writes, “The emotional punch of seeing the virus gnawing away at the faces of prominent people in the cyber arena was impossible to resist.”(5)
Nechvatal’s work offers much more than simply drawing a parallel between a computer and biological virus. His work is the sign of the times. We live in a time of AIDS, cancer, war, and computer viruses that are inflicting our cultural and biological sanctity. Nechtaval’s body of work abstractly and philosophically addresses these issues as we search for a remedy.
SETH THOMPSON is an educator, media artist, and writer based in Akron, Ohio. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Author email interview with Joseph Nechvatal, April 2006.
2. Barbalet, Tom. Joseph Nechvatal Interview. January 2006. http://www.biota.org/people/josephnechvatal/
3. Author email interview with Joseph Nechvatal, April 2006.