Artist's digital exhibit at Butler Institute proves provocative, innovative

By Dorothy Shinn for the Beacon Journal



We know what a virus is. You catch one, you come down with a cold, or as the medical practitioners would have it, an upper respiratory infection.


Most of us know what another kind of virus is -- the kind you can get on your computer that can wipe out all your data, what computer programmers call hell on Earth.


There's a great deal of similarity between the two types of viruses -- the biological one and the virtual one -- and it's nothing to sneeze at.


So if you thought that the term ``computer virus'' was just a metaphor, think again.


Better yet, go to the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown and see Joseph Nechvatal: Contaminations, a digital art exhibit on view through April 23 in its new Beecher wing.


Nechvatal teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and at Stevens Institute of Technology. He also writes periodically on art and new technology for Artforum, The Thing, Intelligent Agent, Tema Celeste and Zing.


In Nechtaval's computer robotic-assisted paintings and computer programs, it's possible to see, among other things, how similar in behavior and structure the computer viruses are to the ones that make you feel crappy.


Nechvatal has created paintings from images that he's infected with computer viruses, modeled to be autonomous agents living in and/or off the image. In other words, his computer viruses simulate a population of active biological viruses functioning within another biological system.


``A virus will pick up information from its environment, decide on a course of action, and carry it out,'' Nechvatal explains in gallery notes.


``A virus will perceive the pixel it is on and the eight adjacent ones... In order to decide on a course of action, each virus is programmed with a set of randomized instructions of different kinds; some relate to direction, others to a change in the color of the current pixel (the one the virus is in). Others control the implementation of the program and carry out tests.''


The program executes random actions, moving to adjacent pixels and changing them, even reproducing itself. In order not to die, the virus needs to gain energy, which it does by degrading the image. The more it changes a pixel's color, the more energy it acquires.


Does this begin to sound familiar? It's what kids playing computer games are indoctrinated to do: Their character can destroy other characters only so long as it keeps a certain amount of power (i.e., energy) and it gains power by acquiring (eating) certain objects.


Thus, by examining Nechvatal's work, we can see how viruses work; how a creative mind can take something abhorred by legions of computer programmers and make it create new images; and how through games our children are being programmed to do the work of the future.


This latter observation is not news. Many books and papers have been written on how each new technology has spawned new games to train children to enter the workplace.


What is new, however, is how Nechvatal offers up an image to a virus that he's programmed to degrade and transform it into a new image. These new images he enlarges and prints in acrylic inks on canvas.


Part of the exhibit is concerned with these ``paintings,'' which are in their own way quite engaging. The exhibit is also trying to provoke the viewer into considering the implications of what he has done.


``We can see from a virus's behavior and direction whether it will be more or less adaptable, more or less able to survive,'' Nechvatal writes.


Each time a virus divides, it mutates. The newly created viruses behave in ways different from the parent. Some of these differences are more successful than others. All of this points to behaviors that correspond to Darwin's theory of natural selection.


But the fascinating part of the exhibit is in the back of the gallery, where viewers can watch a projection of a computer image that is being attacked by a virus.


There are four computers running, with infestations, degradations and transformations occurring at different stages on each. Eventually, the virus eats up the entire image, at which point all the viruses die, and the program begins again. It's quite unsettling to see a little blinking thing on a screen eat a hole in someone's face.


All the while in the background viewers hear something that sounds like many large mouths chewing. That's not the sound of the virus eating the image, but the magnified sound of a computer processor crunching databits.


This is an affecting exhibit, for it not only gives us yet one more way in which computers can be used to make art, but it also expands our understanding of how computer viruses have come to be.


One of the images being projected on the wall started out as a photograph of a man, which was, when I saw it, almost all gone, looking uncomfortably like one of those grisly discoveries on CSI in which a corpse's face has been eaten away by maggots.


As the image declines toward total destruction, its colors change from the subtle, almost bland tints of an old magazine photo to the glorious, unmitigated CMYK colors that bloom like tropical flowers wherever destruction is most intense.


In essence Nechtaval's art depends on both irony and chance operations of a sort. He programs a virus, lets it loose, and at a certain point he may stop it, print up what he's got, or decide to let it continue.


Chance operations have their origins in Dadaist activities, philosophies and approaches to art making.


Dada, a nonsense word that some say is French for hobbyhorse, was the term attached in 1916 to the activities of a group of nonconformist artists who wanted to express their disgust with materialism, narrowness and lack of culture, as well as a certain unfortunate blind faith in the politics of power, in particular the military type.


There are other interesting parallels between Dada and what Nechvatal is doing. Dada artists experimented with new media also, which in their era was photography and film. They created stop-action film animation, photomontages, and spinning disks on which spirals hypnotically rotated, all of which was said to be intensely disturbing to audiences of the day.


Naturally, Nechvatal has a Web site:  where he not only provides a complete overview of the Butler exhibit, but also presents visitors with his views on the current state of politics and the shame of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.


His work is provocative and requires an openness to new ideas, but then so do the works of most artists. New ideas, after all, are what art is all about.