Nechvatal's Visionary Computer Virus

Robert C. Morgan

There is a poignancy in these new computer virus paintings by Joseph
Nechvatal that is rarely discussed; yet it is an essential aspect of
their message. Embedded in his canvases, one may discover an
authenticity that is disappearing, perhaps already forgotten. It is an
authenticity about the structure of seeing images, an authenticity that
is vanishing, folding in upon itself, as history is being sucked into
time capsules and sound bites. Nechvatal's art has the capability to
imply a transcendence into the spiritual galaxies of the mind - an
ascendance that reaches far beyond the banalities of our strictly
utilitarian, computerized society.

To speak of poignancy in relation to these canvases by Nechvatal is to
suggest that they are immersed in feeling or that they are given to the
metalanguage of visual poetry. They are "paintings" not so much about
the history of art, as about a network of historical images. To feel
something - a sensation, for instance - in relation to one of these
grandiose image-works by Nechvatal is to become engaged in a special
kind of experience. It is an experience directly related to the dense
overlay of information that we perceive on a consistent basis. Yet
instead of sensing frustration over the consumption of so many images,
one might feel in Nechvatal's art a particular solace and harmony, an
ability to flow into the stream of images, to let oneself become
immersed, baptized, chastened. It might be compared to driving an
automobile into a nightmarish fog where even the hood over the engine
disappears. There is only the glowing windshield in front of one's
eyes. The headlights depict a certain ambiance, a dispersal of imagery,
where it is impossible to detect anything in particular. Yet the
automobile continues to roar through the fog on a solitary highway at
night. The direction is unknown, the visibility is scarce. Such an
experience would naturally incite fear and trepidation, a sense of being
lost in some unknown territory, caught in some relentless terror. There
is another possibility, in fact. It is the possibility that the
territory is not unknown, it is only forgotten, subjugated and repressed
somewhere in the primal subconscious - the place where the mind used to
travel, but has over the centuries forgotten its direction.

This new possibility is related to an infinite visuality - a type of
seeing that depends on the intuition of the mind's eye - an intuition
that does not fear the limitless boundaries of the image overlay, but
instead, learns to accommodate the structure of their density. To
experience these computer virus images is to conceptualize reality
rather than to categorize it - to come to terms with the infrastructural
basis of the image - the fluctuation and fluidity of the image - as if
all images were a single constellation, a single repository without
limits or constraints.

Given this condition of seeing, the mind is capable of traveling without
fear and with a rejuvenated visual intuition at its sensory disposal.
The mind travels through the eye, and again, back to the mind, as an
infinite reverberation, contingent upon the consciousness of seeing and
the recognition of its own thought processes.

These inextricably intertwining processes of seeing and thinking
contribute directly to how the emotions are stirred. They are not
stirred by hysteria or fear but by subtle passages, like music, like
architecture, in fact, like the rhythmical staccato movement found in
the buildings at Arc-et-Senans. For it goes without saying that
Nechvatal has become acculturated by these buildings over the past three
years and to the inexorably beautiful regions of the Jura - the gradual,
bending hills where Claude-Nicolas Ledoux first envisioned his
architectural fantasy over two centuries ago.

Nechvatal is fundamentally a conceptualist more than a simulationist;
yet he implies in his computer viruses a poetry that is fully
democratic, completely anti-autocratic. It is a metalanguage of the
soul - a concept, by the way, also confused by leading postmodernists,
especially in America. Nechvatal is an artist whose work needs to be
seen, and considered beyond the boundaries of the computer terminal and
beyond the theoretical limits of the postmodern. He is an imagist more
than a painter, yet he is a major artist, an artist of supplemental
stature, whose poetry ascends into the electronic network of images long
forgotten, assiduously displaced. Indeed, there is something poignant in
knowing that when the artist first visited Paris several years ago, he
spent his evenings reading Deleuze and Guattari and his days at the
Louvre studying the great paintings of David. This suggests that
Nechvatal was intent upon inventing a new language of art through this
conjugation of these experiences. It further suggests that he saw the
need to re-introduce the romantic impulse back into art and into the
excitement of image making and reflective thought. The computer virus
paintings are the result of this venture.

Robert C. Morgan

First Published in the book Joseph Nechvatal: Computer Virus Project,
Saline Royale d'Arc-et-Senans and FRAC Franche-Comte, 1993