Joseph Nechvatal:

Laminations of the Soul

Robert C. Morgan

The computer-robotic assisted paintings of Joseph Nechvatal offer a
mirage, a kind of decoy that robs us of any persuasive stability. They
are difficult paintings to guard against; they are elusive and yet
seductive images. They are techno-images, piled upon one another; the
result is an achievement by way of a lamination process. The seduction
of these webbed-fields, these networks of striated ground on which
figures may or may not reside, is given over to an erotic vision; a
sensuousness of mind. This seduction, however, does not leave us in the
same cultural gap that most advertising does; rather, it leaves us
burrowing deeper into the network of signs that Nechvatal has prepared
for us. The seduction is real. There is nothing illusory about it. The
webbed surfaces result from a process which could appear infinite. In
this sense, Nechvatal's computer-robotic assisted paintings bring us to
a chasm of doubt - one where we lean forward in anticipation, and then
lean back as our gaze relaxes. Our focus may begin to dissipate; yet
there is the desire to cling to something in the field, some
recognition, some substance whereby the passage of light through
layerings of imagery and the doubling of signs into free-floating
signifiers of another generation open up new levels of resemblance. With
Nechvatal, the layering is the lamination of the soul; the inward
investment turned outward toward the gaze. It is on the crest of the
gaze that we pass through into another territory, an oblique region
where striations of meaning evoke mystery as opposed to resolution. This
is the crux of the struggle: "In my computer-robotic assisted paintings,
the struggling soul is caught in an inexorable web of proliferation and
abused spiritual vision (...). Their look breaks down the given signs of
our time in order to liquidate their meanings. Mental associations are
liberated from the constraints imposed upon us by mass cultural
patterns. Emotions and thoughts once repressed can be freed by the
shaking of these codes. "

-Joseph Nechvatal, Lecture (February 28, 1989) given at the California
Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California

What does the artist mean when he refers to "the shaking of the codes"?
It would seem that there is a peculiar tension in the air, a tension
between ordering and disordering, a tension between the desire for
resolution and the occasion to hover - to equate meaning not with
resolution, but to forge meaning out of quantum mechanics: the
"both/and" in contrast to the existentialist's "either/or". The nature
of this struggle is profound in that it is both inwardly and outwardly
manifested in all reaches of psychological, social, political, economic,
and technological behavior. It has seeped into the domain of the
religious - not the governing institutions, but within that of the quest
for ecstatic or escetic spiritual life. This overabundance of tension,
of forces within nature and culture, has produced another level of mass
culture often referred to by Nechvatal as the "hyper-real". It is here
within the bowels of the hyper-real that the code is shaken. The
hyper-real is the storehouse of codes. Here within the hyper-real there
is no dimensionality. There is no cut within space. There is only the
single-layered topology with the illusions of layering, the deceit, the
death-like mask of an arcane secrecy, the hermeticist's code, the
involuted cycle of repetitions and re-shuffling. It is within the
hyper-real that Nechvatal locates his signs. All resemblance emanate
from it. It is the seat of a soul in question. It is the quest for
certainty even where certainty cannot be known. It is within the domain
of the hyper-real that the forces of nature and culture are dissolved,
then reconstituted. It is fort! da! all over again. It is an
accumulation of cultural and hence psychoanalytic bricolage.

There is a kind of skirmish going on in Nechvatal's robotic residue of
pigment. There are two edges of a theoretical construct in view. The
"control" aspect is expressed by Paul Virilio: "With the coming of
democratic power, we see a perversion of primitive transmigration: the
soul, by becoming individual, has become Reason, in other words the seat
of a prescriptive rule of our actions, our movements, even the totality
of our destinies."
-Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, 1977, Semiotext(e), page 87

In contrast, Deleuze and Guatteri admonish us that Reason has become too
over-determined: "The error we must guard against is to believe that
there is a kind of logical order to this string, these crossings or
transformations. It is already going too far to postulate an order
descending from animal to the vegetable, then to molecules, to
particles. Each multiplicity is symbiotic; its becoming ties together
animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy."
-Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guatteri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, 1987, University of Minnesota Press, page 250

Nechvatal appears in search of some form of unmediated experience, yet
knowing full well that such a task is futile in a culture of instant
mediation. Baudrillard's vision of the hyper-real occurs as an inflated
sign system. The reverberation of signs - the similitudes - echo back
and forth within locked chambers. There is no escape from mediation in
such a system. Yet there is some of Kierkegaard's doubt that remains
residual in the computer-robotic assisted paintings of Nechvatal, some
quest for certainty against all odds that any from of certainty can be
known. Nechvatal, as with the anti-Oedipal theories of Deleuze and
Guattari, defies the premise of a necessary repetition. In his painting
Crypt there is an obfuscation of the figures, a battleground between the
forces of Eros and Thanatos. Similarly in Destruction of the Regime (the
phallocratic regime?) there is a contest between light and shadow,
between two standing figures poised in a web of signs. Scatological Man
recalls the Hollywood version of a werewolf, another kind of
transformation where a soul is lost, ululating, mistaken in his own
identity. One may recall the struggle of Artaud in this regard. Artaud's
struggle for certainty could only be equated with an unmediated
experience; an experience free from the fetters imposed by language, as
if he could in some dumb way escape his knowledge of language and
deliberately deprive himself of westernized culture, the gilt (guilt)
and the glitz: "Where from the bottom of a nameless synthesis this
writhing, snorting soul might feel the possibility as in dreams of
waking up in a more lucid world after having perforated it knows not
what barrier - and finds itself in a luminosity where at last its limbs
relax, in a place where all worldly partitions seem infinitely fragile."
-Antonin Artaud, Anthology, 1965, City Lights, pp. 51-52

The source of Artaud's agony was the impossibility of his struggle.
Unlike the legend of Sisyphus, Artaud's knowledge of the act of his
repetition was self-imposed, and it was the disdain of this self-imposed
task to escape the conditions of language that would not relinquish
itself. This syndrome between liberation and disdain is difficult to
reconcile. For Derrida it became apparent that "Artaud's entire
adventure is purportedly only the index of a transcendental structure
-Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, 1978, University of Chicago
Press, page 171 That is, Artaud functioned as a kind of cipher for
language where the essence of thought divorced itself from life; where
the theater of spectacle stood apart from, yet reflective of, the drama
of life.

It seems to me that a similar doubling effect occurs within the frame of
a Nechvatal computer-robotic assisted painting as one may acknowledge
the surface as razor thin, yet the lamination process somehow vanquishes
all traces of a depth reading. With Nechvatal we are left with a
surface, a computerized discourse. All the information has been
computer-roboticly painted according to specification. We read through
the skeins the traces of signs. The process appears completely distanced
from its source. All memory is forgotten - at least temporarily. We are
asked to concentrate upon the computer-robotic image as a whole. The
figure to ground relationship is diminished by the flatness. There is a
build-up of repression. It seethes from the fabric and seeps out into
the porous membrane from which the image barely escapes.

If we are to believe Nechvatal that "beneath the established signs (...)
another, deeper discourse which recalls a time of universal resemblance
exists" then we must accept that he has positioned himself in relation
to this discourse.
-Joseph Nechvatal, Lecture (February 28, 1989) given at the California
Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California

But how?

Has technology somehow liberated Nechvatal from the self-imposition of
his repetition? Has he relinquished himself from the modernist burden of
time, the cause-and-effect relationship where freedom and disdain
necessarily merge in the form of some new tyranny of trepidation? Is it
Nechvatal's projection of this tyranny of signs that is being replaced
by yet another form of overload resulting in the dissolution of the

As with Virilio the factor of speed has changed the notion of the
historical sign forever. We have arrived or are in the process of
arriving at another platitude in which the illusion of stasis binds us
in terror and loss of memory. In the place of memory we have nostalgia
creeping in; a false romanticism clinging to the pathetic vestiges of
another era. The romantic Other still reigns in opposition to
technological advance. And it is precisely at this juncture where
Nechvatal takes issue: "The great problem of today is to attain a
balance and wholeness in our civilization so we can command the machine
we have created instead of becoming its helpless accomplice and passive
victim. We must leave room for an answering response of an
indeterminable kind in order to allow for participation in the creative
act. We must avoid a world in which whatever seems obscure and inward,
whatever cannot be reduced to a quantity, is thereby treated as unreal.
A world that is impersonal."
-Joseph Nechvatal, Lecture (February 28, 1989) given at the California
Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California

In contrast to the agonizing doubling of Artaud, Nechvatal is unwilling
to relinquish himself in relation to the field of signs. Though he
incorporates nude bodies as part of his spectacle, the graffiti on the
body functions more within the realm of the romantic symbol, the
decadent fin de siecle phenomenon of spiritual transformation; yet we
never lose sight of the spectacle. We never enter into that theater. We
are kept at a distance. More like Brecht, we are exposed to a form of
defamillarization. The body as text is lost in the field - a field that
keeps disappearing through all its density. The ecstasy of this mode of
electronic light is caught in a weirdly constructed vapor. We are
forever in the process of its delay, forever exploring the means of its
construction and
simultaneous deconstruction. There is the very real factor of alienation
through our awareness of time. The gaze is replaced by a scan and the
scan pulsates in and out, refocusing itself at intervals, searching for
a tactile interlude, a place for the eye to hold an identifiable mark.

Other works such as Ontic Aid and Deposit further exceed the limits of
the topological field by way of positing strange diagrams built through
a sequence of pixilations on the computerized raster. These diagrams
could operate as further indexes - clues of another schemata, a possible
metalanguage infused within the shrouded plethora of simulacra. With
Ontic Aid we never forsake the totality of the screen. The red and blue
'zips' - appropriated from Newman - hold our gaze in a mode of delay as
memory invokes its automatic scanning process much in the way that
Michaux detoured from his hieroglyphic consciousness into the
unconscious vibrations of another mind network. The electronic circuitry
between mind and machine opens up another dimension of language:
Nietzschean yea-saying to the diminishing of the sign. The subduing of
the cathexic detail is persistently interrupted. We hear the crackling
charges on the wires of another synaptical order. The mind and the
machine have left the sadomasochism endemic to the industrial age.

Nechvatal's art confronts Marinetti's free-floating signifiers without
fear. The interludes are vital, yet the field is enormous and fraught
with density. The constellations suddenly begin to appear, to harmonize,
to strike new chords of equivalence. The dogged frame is removed from
the premises. The vapor is ordered within the mind/machine only to evoke
a disordering or retrieval. The power has been decentralized, taken from
the realm of the monogram, the emblem, and laminated against the field.
The depth is unknown, but the emotions are real. The soul manifests its
knowledge through its pulse, forever on the brink of language.

Robert C. Morgan

First Published in 1990