Computer-aided art

Painter’s work showing at

The Butler Institute of American Art


By Joe Pinchot

Herald Staff Writer


February 26 - June 25, 2006


Butler Institute of American Art

Beecher Center for Technology in the Arts

524 Wick Avenue, Youngstown, Ohio



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.