Joseph Nechvatal

Jay Murphy

Joseph Nechvatal's new "computer virus" paintings flicker, burn,
radiate, disappear. They are the fruits of his two and a half years as
the Louis Pasteur artist-in-residency at Arbois, working at the
seventeenth century salt warehouses of Saline Royale. Nechvatal was
provided an enormous atelier, an apartment in the Musee d'Arbois, and
became the first artist to use the new technology studio at the Saline
Royale. This computer lab, set up at the Claude-Nicolas Ledoux
Foundation's International Center for Reflection on the Future, allowed
Nechvatal to carry out an extensive type of retrospective - or a
"contamination" of his own previous artistic production by loading his
entire oeuvre onto an Apple FXII computer, and then randomly infecting
it with computer viruses in collaboration with Jean-Philippe Massonie,
chief faculty of the computer science department at the University of
Franche Comte (MIS Laboratories). These paintings were triggered by
Nechvatal's residence in Arbois, the hometown of Louis Pasteur, who
carried out crucial research into viruses. The Pasteur Institute,
founded in 1888, now pursues its historic mission to battle virulent and
contagious diseases through its present-day role researching AIDS.
Another background influence was Arbois' history as the proposed site
for Chaux, the utopian city planned by Louis XIV's architect
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux for the salt-mine workers of the Franche Comte;
one end-mark to industrial utopia.

These variously scaled works (from 1.5 x 2.1 meters to 6 x 6 meters) are
a logical development from his earlier computer-robot assisted
acrylic-on-canvas paintings that exploited the visual art potential of
computers in manufacturing paintings of scanned, overlaid images in a
truly hands-off, post-industrial manner. Much of the art of the 1980s,
in Nechvatal's eyes, suffered from repeating the pop irony of Andy
Warhol and his own industrial revolution within painting, resulting in a
servile and politically conservative replication of what Jean
Baudrillard had billed as the "simulation society". Nechvatal's intent
was to push the post-modem cycles of image reproduction and media
pollution even further, in a truly fin-de-siecle and mannerist fashion,
to achieve a new "post-industrial sacrificial sublime".

The "computer virus project" paintings tend to even more highly charge
the issues already present in the artist's computer-robotic assisted
paintings, first begun in 1986. The subjects of mass-media
standardization and the domination of corporate capitalist social
paradigms were supplemented by a strategy of excess, strongly inspired
by the vision of transgression and atheist spirituality spelled out in
the oeuvre of dissident surrealist Georges Bataille. The next
consequence of this was the work through computerization; a tool
associated with the new digitized "post-modem" social order of the 1980s
and 90s, a cybernetic replacement for the model of the factory as the
principle underlying social life. Nechvatal's "overload into overmind"
strategy sought to challenge the cold efficacy of computer logic and its
potential for a rational and pragmatic ordering of social life from
within by using computer imaging to produce such a surfeit of
near-indecipherable imagery that the sensory input would necessarily
lead to a restructuring of perception, and an ensuing gestalt that calls
into question the media code itself with its multiple, often
overwhelming concomitant associations.

That these spurious and pseudo-rational overdeterminations are
themselves humanly created, and can be collapsed, overturned, or changed
at will, is emphasized even more strongly in the "computer virus
project, " as is the spirituality immanent in Nechvatal's art.

Nechvatal forces the viewer to reconstruct the process of
image-formation, latching on for support to a detail here or there, in a
plane where figure/ground relationships are interchangeable - as if a
post-postmodern Jackson Pollock had commandeered the most advanced
computer laboratories. This visual relationship is only heightened with
the introduction of the often startling computer viruses, which in
Nechvatal's first series of experiments served only to distort the
image, as in "viral attaque: nOt fade away" while in the second series,
with works like "viral attaque: amoR foRti", the virus marks surround
and slowly eat away the larger composite image.

If the reference to AIDS is ever-present, or explicit in works like
"viral attaque: transmissioN", or "viral attaque: cOnquest Of the
hOrrible", so is the inference that AIDS, too, has a human origin. The
AIDS phenomenon serves to underline the nature of subjectivity and self.
As Nechvatal writes: "The body is not one self but a fiction of a self
built from a mass of interacting selves. " AIDS becomes a metaphor for
the permeability of the body politic - the possibility of bold and
ecstatic freedom as well as tragedy.

Behind the "computer virus project" work is human resilience, a note of
sanguine possibility, the hope that humanity can work through
constrictions and arbitrary repressions into a heightened awareness.
There is more than a touch here of that longing for what the Mahanirvana
Tantra termed the "Unbounded Consciousness". Nechvatal's
computer-induced delirium does not only seek to enter intoxication or
excess - the better to step out of it into efficacious action against
deadening social controls in the manner of the dadaists or surrealists.
It also aspires to what the Indian Vedanta described as the "highest
state" - where the seer, the seen, and the process of seeing are
revealed as a undivided, unified One. Nechvatal's "computer virus
project" works have to be placed in the ancient lineage of art that
encourages the ego to be strong enough to die.

Jay Murphy

First published in Galleries Magazine, Paris