Joseph Nechvatal: Contaminations

review by Patrick Lichty


Beecher Center for the Electronic Arts

Youngstown, Ohio

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



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.