Johana Drucker

'Critical Pleasure'

Electronic activity has wrought a transformation on nearly every aspect
of current culture so that the very term current resonates with the
electronic pulse of active charges flowing across a continually shifting
differential. The body of the fine arts has suffered an infusion of new
processes and data manipulations so that it now lives the same cyborg
hybrid life as every other entity. Rather than reject this situation as
an aberration, Joseph Nechvatal makes use of the mutation of visual art
by electronic manipulation to reengage the critical pleasure of
aesthetics. Though seduced by the potent possibility of new technologies,
Nechvatal doesn't merely celebrate technologically driven change or flirt
with fashionable trends in image manipulation. On the contrary, Nechvatal
is endeavoring to salvage something fundamental for the visual arts
through his approach -- a self-conscious continuation of the
transgressive terms on which the avant-garde has historically functioned
as a site of strategic intervention in cultural activity. Nechvatal
believes that art may still -- in this networked new world disorder of
random connections and virtual encounters -- be able to reveal something
about the ways in which culture operates in and through images, language,
and representations. Art may be able to demonstrate an insight into the
delusions of the spectacle, the seamless simulacral, and the soulless
self-promoting hype of the virtual, through its capacity to introduce
critical thought through complex visual images.

The historical context for Nechvatal's work can be traced to the
deconstruction of the stable concept of the image which was central to
the premises of 20th century modernism. Modernism's antidote to spiritual
and cultural uncertainty was to propose that a universal language of form
could transcend individual circumstances and thus serve as a site of
stable meaning. In turn, the idea that meaning could attend to anything
(visual form, language, or human action) outside of culture and history
came under severe attack in the decades now associated with postmodernism
in which the realization that images were always part of their moment,
laden with specific cultural values, and implicated in networks of power
and repression, functioned as a theoretical impetus. An entire generation
of artists based their practice on holding a harshly mimetic mirror to
the blatant banalities and exploitative grotesqueries of a world
transformed by the commodification, commercialization, and co-optation of
every aspect of human life into representation. Nechvatal works on a
counter demonstration. He is intent upon showing the continued potency of
images as a site and instrument of critical pleasure against a visually
saturated culture matrix.

Aspects of this saturation serve as an element of Nechvatal's work. He
has archived his own image bank, a select group of visual files which
serve as his basic pictorial units excised from the massive field of
contemporary visual culture. These elements are representational in
nature -- fraught with reference, meaning, and the values which attend to
images which circulate through systems of meaning production. They are
images whose specific character is an index of Nechvatal's own concerns
with the mutative effects of sexually transmitted diseases, a comment on
the body politic as a vulnerable being whose self-representation has to
reflect the processes of transformation which have infiltrated its
tissues and networks. Nechvatal's appropriation of these motifs isn't a
pat moral judgment on either disease or policies, on the official
ignorance of and repression of information about AIDS, or a pronouncement
on supposedly self-destructive impulses. It is an attempt to affirm
excesses of pleasure and transgression as liberatory, as the means by
which an escape valve opens in the cultural code of restrictive
discipline. In this regard, Nechvatal clearly embraces the work of
Georges Bataille, for whom the principles of ecstasy were the basic tenets
of salvation. A spiritual conviction informs this position, such that
passion, sexuality, and art are all elements of the sacrament, sacred
rituals of sacrilege, pledged to transgression as a holy rite for
achieving subversive grace.

In artistic terms Nechvatal is intent upon restoring to images their
ornamental and decorative power, on returning to visuality its capacity
to fascinate outside of the limits of mere commercial persuasion or banal
manipulation. Rather than make use of the critical means by which
postmodernists wrenched appropriated images from their cultural site with
the least amount of transformation, Nechvatal insists that the tensions
between image as cultural value and image as visual pleasure be
exploited. The relentlessness of reference which disciplines visual play
by locking images into systems of meaning is the code which Nechvatal
identifies as the limit which must be transgressed. And yet the modernist
non-representational form of supposedly pure visuality, with its denial
of cultural inflection, also comes under attack in Nechvatal's work. In
place of either of these positions -- that of referential or transcendent
meaning -- he puts forth an aesthetics whose ethic is grounded in
decorative excess, in an ornate embroidered tapestry of images whose
referential value flickers through the complex texture, degenerated and
alive, redolent and resonant, but unable to be fixed with definite
certainty into any stable system. This use of the decorative in all its
excessiveness functions as a means of destabilizing the networks of
meaning supposedly held in place by and governing the terms of the social
through the symbolic systems of language and visual representation.
Critical pleasure, as Nechvatal defines it, is this act of
destabilization through visual seduction and engagement. Through this act
the rule-bound and instrumental functions of symbolic systems are
subverted, challenged, and undermined. The very terms on which their
operative functionality is insured can't be maintained against the
eroding forces of a pleasure which does not rely on certainty or fixity,
but on mutation, transformation, and change -- on that continual play of
a charge transferred across a differential.

To achieve this condition, Nechvatal translates image into information,
treats it as input and output, as data. The sources and final form of his
works are visual: image files, scanned and reassembled
materials which move into the condition of stored data in order to be
manipulated and then ultimately output through a robotic painting
machine. But between these two relatively stable endpoints the image is
suspended, subject to processing as information. Nechvatal's process is
thus infused with technological activity, a virtual domain of cybernetic
process. Because the image can exist in its suspended condition as
information, as a file of data, it can be acted upon through electronic
means. By writing a program, Nechvatal introduces viruses into his files,
bits of active program which act upon the file in a limited but
transformative mutation. The body of the image is literally eroded in the
process, but behind the screen, unseen, in the inner workings of its
stored condition as a file. When the virus has run its course through the
file the body of the image offers its wrecked corpus for our inspection.
The resulting beauty is not meant as a denial of the reality of damage,
but as an antidote to its terminal velocity through the culture at large.

As image becomes information and information suffers a metaphoric illness
the symbolic -- a system of relatively stable meaning production --
serves as a site within which disease is inscribed as a motif, an image.
There may be a lurking phantom in this activity, a decadently gratuitous
appropriation of the superficial signs of a culture under attack,
ill-equipped to combat the profound disorder of its own physical life,
its spiritual deficits mounting through denial and repression. But there
is also a serious investigation of the very way in which an identity or
entity maintains its borders, its distinguishing characteristics within a
network of interlocking conditions and relations. If the condition of
being -- an image, a person, a thing -- is a merely a matter of a
temporary configuration or expression of a continually changing file,
then coming to terms with instability erodes not only the premise of
ontological certainty, but also, of semiotic function. The mutating image
file performs a disintegration of the symbolic system from within -- the
elements which form terms are being changed, are unable to assume a
permanent and fixed form, and thus unable to function in the
establishment of a stable system within which meaning or identity could
be determined.

The code in the file which comprised the image of a Nechvatal work is
transformed radically through manipulations which rearrange the very site
of their identifying *differance*, the substrate which permits a traced
mark of difference to be maintained. The file functions as a receptive
but resistant body of matter/material/materiality in the sense that it
sustains writing in its residual traces. It vibrates with a continual
reawakening to the nuances of its own systemic ordering. Order suffuses
into fact, a defacto arrangement, made, intended, accidented, into a
definitive though mutable form. Form means arrangement, temporary,
constrained, configured, but not fixed. A momentary equilibrium is all
that marks the boundaries of an organism sufficiently for it to be
distinguished from the rest of the chaotic ether. In the neural map of the
electronic mind the will to form is merely a by-product of the capacity
to repeat a sequence. Meaning merely the production of a differential
analysis from one site to the next, a continual displacement. When the
sites themselves suffer continual mutation, the process allows for no
illusion of permanence at all.

From the public stock of images, then, Nechvatal transforms a select
group into a matrix of meta-information. Composed images are stored as
files whose vulnerable condition of being only echoes the impermanence of
all identity, but which can be called upon to demonstrate a new
intervention in the old myths of stable order and meaning production.
The mutated files suffer their changes and then appear, ravaged
testimonials, decorative, replete, seductively ornate with a fin de
millennial density fraught with referential angst and poetic lyricism.
Finally, through the means of a robotic arm, a painting machine, a point
by point surface is saturated with pigment, reconciling the classical
process of placing paint on a stable surface with a new cybernetic
processing in a synthesis undreamt of in our old philosophy. Nechvatal's
elaborate palimpsestic tapestry works offer an affirmative reply to the negative
images of late civilization's exhaustion and ennui. Here is a network of
visual pleasure whose critical insight resonates with a satisfying
complexity, providing a surface whose body indexes the corpus of the
social, proposing mutation as a process of reinvention and renewal.


johanna drucker