This text on Joseph Nechvatal’s viral infected art is by Dr. Alan Liu from his book The Laws of Cool (The University of Chicago Press 2004) (pp. 331-336 & 485-486). This is a section of chapter 11 of The Laws of Cool in which Dr. Liu thinks through alternatives to the aesthetic ideology of "creativity". In this chapter he talks about what he calls "destructivity" as an alternative principle, starting with the modernist, avant-garde "auto destructions" of art that Dario Gamboni surveys in his book on The Destruction of Art. Dr. Liu then pays close attention to four case studies: Joseph Nechvatal’s virus project(s), William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh's _Agrippa_, Jodi, and the Critical Art Ensemble.
From The Laws of Cool
Exhibit 1 is the work of the digital artist Joseph Nechvatal. In the early 1980s Nechvatal produced physical media works that recombined and recomposed “found” media images. The results, as Barry Blinderman describes, were “intimately scaled graphite drawings comprising saturated, interwoven line tracings of pictures culled from newspapers and magazines.” “Irrational juxtapositions of images and scale,” Blinderman continues, “were submerged into an all-over abstract network.”[i] Such art was not just recombinant, but also conceptually destructive. “I tend to degenerate archetypal media images,” Nechvatal said in 1984. “I rip off images from the media . . . then destroy/transform them in the interests of unintelligible beauty.”[ii] Moreover, Nechvatal’s (de)compositions alluded to the general destructivity of contemporary technologies usually fźted for their innovation and creativity. As the artist wrote in 1983, “images of mass annihilation wrought by technology now provide the major context for our art and our lives. With profoundly disturbed psyches, modern people encounter their existential fear in the atom, for when technology relieved much of man’s fear of nature it replaced that fear with one of technology itself.”[iii]
Beginning in the late 1980s, Nechvatal migrated into the digital realm by specializing in “computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas paintings.”[iv] His method is to create “digital maquettes which fuse drawing, digital photography, written language, and externalized computer code,” then to use a robotic painting machine to transform the maquettes (or small models, in this case digital) into high resolution acrylic paintings. As the robotic painting machine passes once over the canvas, pigments are “mixed computationally in real time” and an “airbrush type delivery system” yields a “smooth and lush” finished surface.[v] Yet no matter how smooth and lush the gloss, “finish” in Nechvatal’s work is a deceptive concept because the destructivity he sought to express migrated in a unique way into the digital realm. During his tenure as artist-in-residence in 1992-93 at the Pasteur Institute in Arbois, France, which now researches AIDS, Nechvatal, in collaboration with his programmer Jean-Philippe Massonie, initiated the “virus” art projects for which he has become well known.[vi] In these projects (Virus Projects 1.0 and 2.0 and his more recent “vOluptuary: an algorithic hermaphornology” [sic] series), he unleashes what he calls “computer viruses” on his original image files or digital maquettes, transforming and altering those images in unpredictable ways. Unlike the usual breed of computer viruses, however, which bear only an incomplete or casual resemblance to embodied viruses (as indicated by their incoherent species classification in hacker idiom as “viruses,” “worms,” “Trojan horses”), Nechvatal’s viruses are actually “cellular automata” whose use in “artificial life” research analogizes embodied life.
Cellular automata are a form of digital behavior (usually represented in patterns on a screen) in which complex phenomena emerge from purely local interactions. Instead of a program that from the “top down” determines what appears on a computer screen, cellular automata presuppose that there is no “god” program. Rather, there is only a simple algorithm that from the “bottom up” does nothing more than instruct individual pixels on the screen how to react to phenomena in their immediate neighborhood. For example, an instruction might be the equivalent of: “Look around and see if the adjacent pixels are switched on or off, and in what color. Then average the conditions [or perform some other calculation] and, depending on the results, move yourself eight pixels to the left, turn yourself blue, or duplicate yourself.”[vii] The simultaneous interaction of many such discrete, local behaviors over time (in multiple iterations of the algorithm named “generations” in imitation of organic propagation) results in surprising, “emergent” patterns at higher levels of organization. Indeed, in the most interesting cases, complex behaviors emerge that appear actually to “live”--that is, to create local formations that maintain themselves, move or “glide,” reproduce, and die into stasis.
Applying the principles of cellular automata, Nechvatal’s virus projects start with his digital images, set a cellular automata program to work on them, and then capture the result at generation n after the algorithm has eaten away at the original images and transformed them (and their acrylic realizations) into something not just visually interesting but often hauntingly beautiful. The “finished” works expose to view the action of interminable mutation. In vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. from the “vOluptuary: an algorithic hermaphornology” series, for example, an original image of aggregated red balls--something like molecules in the lattice structure of a crystal--has been acted upon by a cellular automata “virus” to create after 7.5 minutes of iteration a drama of decomposition and recomposition at four different scales of vision from the microscopic to macrocosmic.[viii] The phenomena glimpsed at these perpeptual scales may be described as follows:
Most obviously, the original has rotted away microscopically until individual pixels of white contaminate the whole like mold cultures starting in a petri dish. Or perhaps even the metaphor of mold forming over the image is too sanitary to describe the true depth of the damage. If we look closely, we note that the eye-catching white pixels merely distract us from the deeper pixel-rot: not just the pseudo-organic red balls but the entire visual continuum in which they are embedded is decomposing as if from the inside out into individual pixels of various colors.
2. Such decomposition into atomic dust, however, is merely the opening act in a larger narrative of recomposition. Observing at a slightly larger scale, therefore, we see that individual pixels that have been freed from the original image do not just wander off in pure entropy. Rather, they form small clusters or patches (of black, red, green, and so on) that resemble the “jaggies” of type fonts displayed on an early computer screen. Or to overlay upon Nechvatal’s viral metaphor an astronomical trope, we may say that the interstellar dust formed by blasting apart old stars recombines into myriad, new solar systems.
3. Indeed, the grosser our scale of vision becomes, the more we see that recomposition is the story of the picture. At a still more expanded scale of perception, the solar system<n>like clusters of pixels create larger nebulae or swirls as if beginning to accrete into a galaxy.
4. And at the largest macro-scale of perception (marked out by the vertical bands of distortion seeming to sweep across the whole image), it is as if the entirety of the scene were being rescanned for some great, transcendental Photoshop in the sky that will subsequently crop, resize, mask, filter, and so on through all the other recombinant effects in our contemporary graphics repertory.[ix]
vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min.
Hauntingly beautiful, I called vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min.--or, to apply a phrase from Nechvatal himself, a work of “unintelligible beauty.” But really, perhaps, we are dealing not with the pleasure of beauty (despite the work’s title, a play on Latin voluptas, “pleasure”) but instead with the sublime or its near relative, the tragic. It is not stretching too far to say that vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. is indeed what I called it above: a “drama” of decomposition and recomposition. If the original, crystalline image of a well-ordered world is the protagonist of this work (its Lear, we may say), then there is a fateful way in which the antagonists on the scene--the viral agents of decomposition and recomposition--are ultimately integral with the protagonist in a way that is classically tragic. It is as if all the action of the work followed the Aristotelian plot: decomposition and recomposition are a “reversal” that do no more than “discover” the hero’s deepest, darkest fear, which descends upon him not from outside but in the final analysis from within as a tragic flaw. vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. thus reveals a frightful, if fractal, symmetry in relation to its original image of order. It is “self-similar” through and through: the disassembled pixels, clusters and patches, nebulae, and so on, are simply a strange, or estranged, way of reseeing the red balls at different scales. The balls, that is, were from the first the giant archetypes of pixels, and the mission of Nechvatal’s “viral” art is no more than to defamiliarize those archetypes so that we see revealed the recombinant possibilities of destruction and re-creation hidden within the illusion of their gridlike order.
In classical tragedy, we remember, it was Fate that acted upon the inner, tragic flaws of heroes to disassemble their tidy worlds into the primary, even tidier orders nested secretly within them--for example, the strict binary, utterly cruel order of life vs. death. In Nechvatal’s work, however, a little, godless algorithm plays the part of Fate, disassembling order into free pixels whose apparent anarchy is merely a symptom of a purer knowledge of the brutal clarities of order: on/off, white/green, and so on. In such a drama, what level of order, macro or micro, is “creative,” what “destructive”? Nechvatal’s art refuses to say, which is to say that it ultimately includes the binary of “creative” vs. “destructive” within the recombinant logic of on/off, white/green, and so on, in which everything is up for grabs. We are all Lears whose life is staked on the creation of a certain vision of order; we are all therefore also hosts for multitudes of destructive agents that imagine the possibility of other orders. “Creative” or “destructive” is not a decision that can be made from a deus ex machina perspective; it is an equivocation that is part of the inner logic of the system.[x]
[i] Blinderman, “Ghost of Electricity.”
[ii] Quoted in McCormick, “On the Ecstatic Excess of Joseph Nechvatal.”
[iii] Quoted in Popper, “On Joseph Nechvatal.”
[iv]. Joseph Nechvatal, home page www.nechvatal.net. See also his Ecstasy of Excess, which reproduces selected works from 1987 to 1991.
[v] This description of Nechvatal’s working method is based on a personal communication from the artist of 9 June 2003. My thanks to Nechvatal for correspondence about his art.
[vi]. Murphy, “Joseph Nechvatal.” See Nechvatal’s home page www.nechvatal.net and Nechvatal, Joseph Nechvatal.
[vii] See the technical explanation titled “The Model: Notes” by Stéphane Sikora and Joseph Nechvatal on Nechvatal’s Web page for Virus Project 2.0. For the code of the cellular automata program in Virus Project 1.0, see Nechvatal, “The Computer Virual Formula..”
[viii] vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. was sent to me by the artist in December 2001 as a high-resolution photographic reproduction for use in my book (for high res version see: http://polaris.english.ucsb.edu/ayliu/nechvatal/). At that time, the work was still conceptually part of Virus Project 2.0. Since then, Nechvatal has gone on to create his new “vOluptuary: an algorithic hermaphornology” series, for which he has written “An Artist’s Statement.” Created for the exhibit of works from the series at Universal Concepts Unlimited in New York City, 22 May to 3 July 2003, the artist’s statement interprets the visual recombinations performed upon his initial images of human genitalia and intimate body parts in terms of a theory of hermaphroditic recombination inspired by Ovidean myth. Because my discussion of vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. was written earlier, I have not been able fully to integrate the terms of Nechvatal’s own intepretation. For example, in retrospect I would have played further variations upon Nechvatal’s metaphors of organism and sexuality rather than superimpose my own astronomical metaphors below. However, it is fortuitous that my analysis of the transformations imposed by viral action upon the pseudo-organic “red balls” in vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min. (morphologically related to the bulbous, organic compositional forms in several of the works exhibited at Universal Concepts Unlimited) is essentially homologous with Nechvatal’s discussion of sexual transformations.
[ix]. It is unclear from the evidence of the image whether the vertical distortion bands were actually caused by the action of cellular automata or were instead an additional transformational effect (or perhaps part of the original image). Cellular automata programs, in the examples that I myself have run or seen run, either do not produce regular geometries or--when they do produce such geometries--create patterns more symmetrical and/or recursive than that seen in the asymmetrical vertical lines in vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min.
[x] To quote Nechvatal’s “Artist’s Statement” accompanying the "vOluptuary: an algorithic hermaphornology" exhibition at Universal Concepts Unlimited in New York City, these works show “incomprehensible transformation, and, of course, immersive excess.” They aim “to depict an imagined realm of political-spiritual chaosmos where new forms of sexual order arise such that any form of order is only temporary and provisional.”
Dr. Liu teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara