On Joseph Nechvatal

Frank Popper

Joseph Nechvatal, originally a painter and performance artist, has worked with ubiquitous electronic information and computer-robots since 1986. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer animations have led to a particularly original research commitment, the Computer Virus Project, an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem.

One way of looking at Nechvatalís development since his first shows in New York Cityís alternative spaces in the 1970s would be in terms of the various media with which he had chosen to work, making major shifts in presentation without markedly altering his artís complex structure based primarily on telecommunications and its technology. However, the succession of pencil drawing, photocopying, photography, sculpture and computer-robotic assisted painting only tells part of the story. In fact, in order to understand fully Nechvatalís most recent artistic options one has to make allusion to Nechvatalís progressive attitude towards technology in general and his existential commitments.

In 1983, Nechvatal wrote: "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 manís fear of nature it replaced that fear with one of technology itself". Three years later, Joseph Nechvatal accomplished the first decisive step in his career by adopting frankly the latest infomatic technology into his works before introducing from 1993 onwards the biological/medical/aesthetic concept of the computer virus as a leading idea into his art work.

Before analyzing in more detail this option let me make an allusion to another aspect of Nechvatalís aesthetic commitment. He himself has stated that the focus of his painting is the interface between the virtual and the actual, what he terms the "viractual". The basic premise of his computer-assisted robotic paintings is the exploration of "omnijectivity", the metaphysical concept stemming from the discovery of quantum physics which teaches that mind and matter are inextricably linked under the influence of todayís high-frequency, electronic, computerized environment.

For Nechvatal, art is then a matter of inventing aesthetic sensations linked to concepts of technology, a mental prosthetic. And the function of this prosthetic art is to create by extenuation different technological-aesthetic percepts. Thus his art is about a personal investigation into the conditions of virtuality - conditions which are not quite historically assessable yet.

Nechvatalís highly original computer virus project first exhibited at the Saline Royale in Arc et Senans, France in November 1993, is closely linked to the spread of biological viruses, notably HIV. The artist has digitized his pictorial work, adjusting the images on the computer screen before introducing a computer virus into the iconographical database. The images are then subject to alteration.

At the end of the year 2000 Nechvatal took a further important step. At that moment he finished the first phase of the reworked Computer Virus Project and brought it into the realm of artificial life, i.e. into a synthetic system that exhibits behaviors characteristic of natural living systems - in this case viruses. The new project actively propagates viral attacks on Nechvatalís image-files from the "ec-satyricon 2000 (enhanced) + bodies in the bit-stream (compliant)" series in real time and so, one might say, address some fundamental questions about the nature of life and death by simulating life/death-like phenomena on the computer. Here viral algorithms - based on a viral biological model - are used to define evolutionary processes which are then applied to the image-files from Nechvatalís "ec-satyricon 2000 (enhanced) + bodies in the bit-stream (compliant)" show which were exhibited in New York City at Universal Concepts Unlimited in 2000.

In Nechvatalís virus project, essentially a grid composed of colored cells, each virus is localized on a cell and can perceive the color of the cells close to it. Each virus has an energy level and at each turn a small amount of energy is lost. If the energy of a virus is too low then the virus dies. A virus has its own program that defines its behavior and each program is initially randomly generated, employing a user-defined instruction set and these instructions govern the chromatic, luminous and resonant behavior of the virus.

Like his earlier computer robot-assisted paintings of the mid-1980s, Nechvatalís current work creates immersive saturated space dominated by pattern. Fragments of soft human form are more clearly visible now, emerging from patterns of text overlay. Here the lines provide a sharp and vigorous opposition to the deterioration of the virtual body through viral infection. Such recent paintings as Ďviral attack: transmissioNí, Ďviral attack: the cOnquest Of the hOrribleí, Ďviral attack: regretSí or Ďviral attack: piTyí express fully Nechvatalís existential, as well as his artistic, commitment.

The general Fin-de-SiŤcle ornamental excess of Nechvatalís work gives to us a metaphor for the current computational conditions of seeing - and perhaps for our expansive conditions of technological-aesthetic being. In the rising and collapsing of alternative visualizations and unordered revelations encountered in his work, the circuits of the mind find an occupation exactly congruent with todayís techno-informatic structures. In fact, Nechvatalís preoccupation with fear, mental anguish, illness and death have never entirely disappeared from his projects, even while their artistically prospective realization within an up-to-date technological framework allows him to come to terms with present-day lifeís complexity.

Frank Popper, 2001, Paris