Joseph Nechvatal

Interview with Joseph Nechvatal by Évelyne Rogue (Music2Eye)

Paris, February 2004.

Évelyne Rogue: Since 1986, you’ve been working with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. Your computer-robotic assisted painting and computer animations are shown in galleries and museum throughout the world. How do you explain this choice?

Joseph Nechvatal: For me, to make contemporary art, it is necessary to utilize contemporary tools and materials. However, the attraction to the computer - both as form and content for my art - was primarily a result of my working with ideologies of power - specifically the power of the media in shaping our consciousness. I already was working on this theme beginning around 1980 in my drawings and photomechanical blow-ups. This work investigated American fundamentalism under the Reagan administration and the enhanced threat of nuclear Armageddon of the time. When the computer in the mid-80s came on the corporate/governmental/military scene in a big way, it became clear to me that that was how power was to be administrated and enforced thereafter. Of course this is a few years prior to the personal computer revolution, which amended my views somewhat.

ÉR: You have written : “Dr. John Lilly, by using cognitive psychology’s computational model of the mind, defined consciousness as the human biocomputer’s “self-metaprogrammer.”1 The biocomputer’s programming, according to Lilly, is that “set of internally consistent instructions which prepare, send, store, process, and select signal information in and out of the biocomputational activity of the brain, most of which can be adjusted through a self-metaprogramming process initiated by the self-metaprogrammer.”2 How do you consider interactive art, art of process and system?

JN: Yes, I agree with Lilly. Moving sensors and enjoying a sense of limited freedom of movement do not in themselves ensure an interactive alliance between a user and an artistic environment, even if the user derives sufficient satisfaction from the exploration of the surrounding domain. Interactivity to me is not merely the ability to manipulate and modify a virtual world, but the substantial ability of the viewpant3 to self-modify (self-re-program) his or her sense of self – to become an “other”, in the Deleuzian sense. Through this appraisement my virally inflected art adheres to and fosters Kendall Walton’s theory of make-believe4 in which Walton sees art as a generator of fictional truths” which through art’s inventiveness invites ontological self-modification via the immersant’s participation in the creative process. Moreover, Walton’s theory of fictional truths reflects Nietzsche’s important assertion in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) that “logical fictions” - which he saw as “comparisons of reality with a purely imagined world of the absolute” - are indispensable to humanity. The key value of artistic fictional truths in terms of formulating a process/system theory of viral art which leaves itself open to manipulations by our interior metaprogrammer lies in underscoring the fiction behind the assumed realistic perspective on life when seen as empirically true and universally valid instead of as conventional and contingent idiosyncratic compliances. The virus as a model is neither alive nor not-alive. It is simply parasitic.

ÉR: In your opinion, can your creations, especially “Viral Counter-Attack” (2002) [VCA], modify our ideas of “life”, “life species”, and “disease”?

JN: I think that the life/non-life idea inherent in the viral situation accomplishes this modification. The text “The Electronic Revolution” by William S. Burroughs from 1970 remains key here for me. In it he theorizes that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.If the word was made flesh, as the Bible teaches us, then we are all viral beings. Richard Dawkins, in his 1993 text “Viruses of the Mind”5 supports this idea in the realm of concepts (memes). Although viruses were originally discovered and characterized on the basis of the diseases they cause, most viruses that infect bacteria, plants, and animals (including humans) do not cause disease. In fact, bacteriophages may be helpful in that they rapidly transfer genetic information from one bacterium to another, and viruses of plants and animals may convey genetic information among similar species, helping their hosts survive in hostile environments. In the future this could also be true for humans. Recombinant DNA biotechnology shows great promise for the repair of genetic defects. Afflicted persons are injected with cells transformed by viruses that carry a functional copy of the defective human gene. The virus integrates the normal gene into the DNA of the human cell.

But the real power of the virus as a life/non-life model entity in our times of body/machine interfacing is in its broad associative value. Its metaphorical value, if you will. As Bruno Latour says in his book We Have Never Been Modern (1991/ engl. ed. 1993), the smallest virus takes you from sex to the unconscious, then to Africa, tissue cultures, DNA and San Francisco, but the analysts, thinkers, journalists and decision-makers slice the delicate network traced by the virus for you into tidy compartments where you will find only science, only economy, only social phenomena, only local news, only sentiment, only sex. I want to avoid this slicing. But “VCA” focuses a bit more on ideas of war and the war game. The times seem to demand it.

ÉR: How do you consider the idea of “Media Art”?

JN: Media Art is much too loose a concept to function for me anymore. It would include technical-optical apparatus that painters have used for centuries periodically along with photography and everything that followed from that! It is far too inclusive. I much prefer Frank Popper’s term “Virtual Art” or my own term, “viractual art”.

ÉR: Do you think that art would rob itself of its own most important possibility if it did not participate in the global scope of the electronic media?

JN: Not necessarily. I think that the grounded local is of equal value.

ÉR: Pleasure related to net art pieces cannot be understood as an aesthetic emotion given by the contemplation of beauty, as it was in the past. What are the components creating aesthetic emotion in your pieces?

JN: My goal is to position the metaprogram towards a state of genteel paganism, which is intuit with our profoundness as creatures respectful of our earthiness. In that sense I am against the idealism of beauty.

ÉR: During a recent conference in Paris of the Université de tous les savoirs, Louis Dandrel said that, if music is the most commune art, it is also the most reactive one in relation with the milieu and with the mood of the society, because of its original fusion with life. Music reveals, imitates or opposes. In “Viral Counter-Attack”, a multi-user immersive computer environment, we find an atmosphere of the technological world, maybe in order to make people think about computer war-games. Do you believe, like this musician, that sound as well as light are necessary to form a global architecture?

JN: No. Silence can be equally effective. Indeed, silence is as magnificent as noise or music sometimes. John Cage has demonstrated that.

ÉR: Do you think that art could have an influence on the future orientation of virtual life, artificial life perhaps, and how?

JN: The great thing about art is that it works best by having no purpose whatsoever. However, through no purpose many influences or functions might emerge. So, yes, it could have an influence.

ÉR: Robert C. Morgan has written that you are “an imagist more than a painter”, you are “a major artist, an artist of supplement stature, whose poetry ascends into the electronic network of images long forgotten, assiduously displaced”.6 Do you think that new media are able to show reality in the same way or better than older media?

JN: Better only in that it is more concurrent with our times. But this may be a very little importance to the volume of insight we can gain from the great classic works of art. Reality requires that we understand both.

ÉR: What do you think about the term of “total work art”? Odo Marquard clearly worked out the potential risks in the catalogue of Harald Szeemann’s seminal exhibition “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk” (1983) [The Tendency Towards The Total Artwork] when he established the typology of the total work of art: “Thus it appears useful not to let the multimedia linkage of all the arts into a single artwork stand as the sole identifying characteristic of the total work of art, but rather to include above all another linkage, that of the art and reality; for the tendency is, and how disastrous the results of an ‘artificialization’ of the reality can be – I will deliberately refrain from using the word ‘aestheticization’.”7 Are you agreeing with him? Why and/or why not?

JN: The concept of the gesamtkunstwerk (total-artwork) is a proposition rooted in the neo-Platonic heritage of Romanticism. For Richard Wagner however, it took on a narrow and precise meaning as he re-theorized it in his 1849 hypothetical essays “The Artwork of the Future” (”Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft”) and “Art and Revolution” (”Die Kunst und die Revolution”, 1849). “The Artwork of the Future” has two principal themes: the first proclaims the doctrine of an “art of the people” which idealized art in a way which would necessarily engage the masses (inasmuch as it was a narration of the masses own thoughts, feelings and aspirations) as Wagner had imagined existed during the period of the Greek dramas. This is the gesamtkunstwerk ideal in the kind-hearted political sense. In order to attain this level of idealized democratic-communist amiable social blend, the formal characteristics of the gesamtkunstwerk were theorized as necessarily being the product of a fusion of the separate arts in pursuit of a “total effect” which would be achieved through a total synthesis in which all of the individual arts contribute.

In “L’art romantique” [The Romantic Art], after quoting at length from Wagner’s program notes for a performance of Lohengrin, Baudelaire tells us that Wagner provoked him to clearly sense the progressive expansion of his daydream, up to the ultimate point when the ecstatic immensity that is born intimately is dissolved and absorbs into the perceptual world. It is beneficial here to recall that Baudelaire felt while watching Lohengrin a sense of being suspended in an ecstasy compounded of joy and insight. This special suspended, engulfing, ecstatic consciousness is for Baudelaire what immersive consciousness basically must be: excessive. But this excessive consciousness does not abdicate depth, as it seeks correspondence with what is beyond, above, behind, and below it through various frequencies of intensity and lucidity reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ideal synaesthesia, which he advocated in his text “Correspondences”. Here, Baudelaire addressed this excessive gesamtkunstwerk-like ideal of feeling and smell and sight, all mingling together in an entranced, intricate, astonishment, and,indeed, Baudelaire’s poetic attestation to the ecstatic - and yet languorous- weaving of all the senses into one gesamtkunstwerk-like excessive singularity is certainly important to the further development of the gesamtkunstwerk ideal.

However, in the widest possible sense of the excessive gesamtkunstwerk, Schelling, the central metaphysical philosopher of German Romanticism, saw the universe itself as a perfect work of art and he ends his philosophy of art with the demand for a combination of all the arts. Complimentarily, Richard Wagner spoke often of his ambition to plunge himself into philosophy, just as he had done into music. Moreover, Wagner had studied Schelling’s system of transcendental idealism in his youth and Schelling’s thought shows an influence on the idealism endemic to the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept [concept of the total-artwork]. However, Wagner dedicated his 1849 essay “The Art and the Future”, which concerned the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept, to the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), author of Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830), in which Feuerbach describes true immortality as that which is conferred solely on sublime deeds and inspired works of art. Feuerbach, who followed Hegel and subsequently was influenced by the theoreticians of socialism, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), conceived of philosophy as essentially an invitation to Hegelian revolution. Hegel had taught Feuerbach that history has a rational end following the characteristic dialectic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. Wagner encountered and read “Thoughts on Death and Immortality” during a spell in Zurich, as the book had been banned in Germany.

Friedrich Schiller himself theorized and experimented with the gesamtkunstwerk ideal in his play Die Braut von Messina (1803) though he was never able to achieve it in that he was unable to supply the music (Schiller was characteristically a dramatist and poet, known for his 1781 drama of political revolt Die Räuber. The majority of Schiller’s aesthetic essays, however, were written between 1793 and 1795 and were steeped in the language of Immanuel Kant’s critical writings, especially his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement” (1790). Schiller’s influential 1795 essay On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) was instrumental in the development of romantic theories of art, despite the fact that in it, Schiller’s arguments oscillate between both diachronic and synchronic planes of thought.

Even though Goethe and Schiller maintained idealistic concepts concerning the gesamtkunstwerk, it was Richard Wagner who channeled the two dominant streams of experimentation, the musical (practical) on the one hand, and the literary (theoretical) on the other, into an holistic oneness. Wagner was able to achieve this fusion in a fuller way than his predecessors were able to do, because he was a composer of music, a poet and a theorist with an - albeit derivative - body of theory on synthesis (which he followed with a succession of theoretical counter-positions). The two initial Wagnerian theoretical essays were followed by another, more detailed essay in 1851,”Opera and Drama”, in which the substantive plan for Wagner’s subsequent artistic presentations emerges by subordinating the individual arts into a “total drama”.

Truly, Wagner’s “Opera and Drama” is a remarkable admixture of Romantic ideals in and of itself, where the aesthetic rationalism of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the materialistic sensationalism of Ludwig Feuerbach blend in the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk. The uniting does not end there however. Later, Wagner attempts to superimpose upon this hypothetical structure Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music. And still later, Wagner abandons his original ideas on the limitations of the various arts (and his Feuerbachian materialistic sensationalism) to swing over entirely to Schopenhauer’s metaphysical view of art and art synthesis.

In The World As Will and Idea (1819), Schopenhauer accepts the Kantian ultimate reality behind the world of phenomena and identifies it as human metaphysical will. Furthermore, Schopenhauer holds that music alone is independent of the world as representation (since it does not derive its material from phenomena) and is therefore an expression, not of ideas, but of the metaphysical will itself. With his acceptance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy Wagner assumed a philosophic position which contradicted the very essence of “Opera and Drama” as Schopenhauer ruled out the prospect of artistic synthesis. It was Wagner’s quandary in the ensuing years to form a compromise amid Schopenhauer’s theory of music as an inevitably lone art and his preceding compulsion to achieve an ideal union of all of the arts. Friedrich Nietzsche writes brilliantly of Wagner’s fundamental shift in aesthetic belief in his book On the Genealogy of Morals (1887).

Since Wagner, however, the gesamtkunstwerk concept has been expanded and given different colors of meaning as the idea took on a broader and less formally synthetic sense of unity. Indeed, the post-Wagnerian concept of the total-artwork has taken on two meanings which need be differentiated, as I wish to stress one sense (the less Wagnerian sense) of this concept and not the exact, precise sense which Wagner intended. Rather, I am interested in using the more generalized sense of the concept which the notion attained as it circulated and mutated throughout Europe and the Americas. To further complicate things, Wagner’s theoretical conception of the gesamtkunstwerk is double, as one sees when reading “The Artwork of the Future” in tandem with “Art and Revolution” in which Wagner, under the influence of Mikhail Bakounine’s (1814-1876) revolutionary writing, connected aesthetic-spiritual optimism to anarchist force as a way to combat the encroachment of efficiency and productivity endemic to the instrumental logic of the Industrial Revolution.

The first sense of the word, the precise sense which Wagner prognosticated for us, is the idea of an artwork made up of a synthesis of all the arts: a fused combination of music, poetry, dance, architecture, sculpture, and painting into a multimedia-spectacle. Here all of the individual art forms would contribute to the whole spectacle under the direction of a single creative mind. That is the first sense of the term Wagner envisioned. The second is that this synthesis was to be achieved through what he called “the genius of community”, through the free association of artists lead by a director-writer-composer-performer. Thus Wagner meant two senses of the concept: 1) a totality through synthesis of the art forms, and 2) a revolutionary total communal synthesis of artists. Wagner perceived the Greek Dionysian ritual as a fruitfully rich model for the art of the future, because, as he explained in “Art and Revolution”, it involved the full community in a fusion of the arts, all embodying one singular ideological dramatic purpose. He perceived this Greek unity as the ideal, or to put it succinctly, unity is the ideal. The goal and fulfilling telos of art is to embody this singularity of unified thought and (implied) unified identity, even though the binary opposition between the recognition of Dionysian and Apollonian consciousness would seem to a priori conflict with such an imagined unity if not resolved in synthesis. Regardless, unity was the ideal state of consciousness which Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk is meant to propose. As Wagner saw it, Greek unity had been lost in human consciousness and the arts had been splintered apart and removed from their collective community function which further participated in the break-up of a joint consciousness.

This conception came to Wagner while in political exile in Paris (1839-1842) as he was sitting in the Café Littéraire where he was, as he wrote, “dreamily surveying the cheap wallpaper covered in scenes from classical mythology” when suddenly a picture he had seen as a boy flashed before his mind. The picture was a water-color by Bonaventura Genelli (1798-1868) entitled “Dionysos Among the Muses of Apollo”. As Wagner wrote, “There and then I conceived the idea of my artwork of the future”. That said, Martin von Amerongen in his book Wagner: A Case History suggests that it was the outrageous and extremely popular musical productions of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) - such as “Orphée aux Enfers” (1858) and “La Belle Hélène” (1864)- which were the “real protagonist of the gesamtkunstwerk”, even though Offenbach’s productivity follows Wagner’s period of exile in Paris and Offenbach left us no penned theoretical doctrine.

Regardless, what Wagner had loved so much about the pictures of Bonaventura Genelli (for example his “Bacchus Among the Muses” which he saw at the home of Genelli’s patron Count Schack in Munich) was the fact that they suggested to him a new conception of Greek classical culture that went beyond the classical ideal of noble simplicity which was the reigning conception of the classical ideal as presented throughout Germanic culture by the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his widely read book The History of Ancient Art (1764). Winckelmann’s codification of classical ideals as those being primarily uncomplicated and Apollonian in their logic had become reified into a legislative code. In Genelli’s paintings Greek classical culture was presented rather as a dramatic conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian ideals. It is significant that the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept der zukunft (the concept of the total-artwork of the future) was established under this sign.

Pertinent to these concerns is Friedrich Nietzsche and his acute criticism of the static culture of the bourgeoisie via similar terms, particularly as it relates to the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept in Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872) [The Birth of Tragedy], Nietzsche’s account of classical Greek drama and its merits. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche procures the concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles out of Greek tragedy. The Apollonian principle - reasoned, restrained, self-controlled and organizing -, is subsumed, according to Nietzsche, within the Dionysian principle, which is primordial, passionate, chaotic, frenzied, chthonic and creative. This dialectical aesthetic tension allows the imaginative power of Dionysius to operate in that the products of this operation are kept intelligible by Apollonian constraint. Hence Nietzsche examined the dialectic between an Apollonian calmness in relation to an antecedent Dionysian non-restraining tragedy which has its origins in the chants of the Greek chorus. By invoking the power of the Greek drama, Nietzsche implied a pejorative judgement on subsequent dramatic forms of realism and inert spectatorship. Generally speaking, this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought participated then in the widespread ideal embedded in Romanticism of a popular recovery of the mythic precondition necessary for a unified/total cultural consciousness based on, in most cases, the sublime excess of the infinite.

It is consequential to note the failure of the strict Wagnerian concept of the gesamtkunstwerk; an ideal which never reached fulfillment even within Wagnerian aesthetics. If one conceives of the gesamtkunstwerk as a fusion between all of the arts, as Wagner did when he first published it, its weakness as an aesthetic ideal becomes immediately obvious. By fusing a successful work of art, say T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) poem “The Wasteland”, with music and drama and dance, is it necessarily a stronger and better work of art? Is even contemporary music always improved by the MTV video which accompanies it? The obvious answer is NO, not necessarily so. Furthermore, is anything less like a Dionysian celebration in conflict with Apollonian aesthetics than a Wagnerian opera? In my estimation, a punk rock performance by the Ramones came far closer to this proposal than Wagner’s own productivity.

Wagner himself, when writing later in life on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), leaves behind his own strict gesamtkunstwerk ideal and places music above the role of poetry, drama, and the visual arts. In his text “On Beethoven” (1870), Wagner celebrates music’s “unique powers in realizing supreme accomplishments” in the arts and reveals, in terminology close to Arthur Schopenhauer’s, his belief in music’s power to reveal the perfect embodiment of the objectification of the will. Thus music resumed its role as daemonium through what he perceived as its sublime intensity over and above the other arts and any hypothesized polymedia fusion between them.

The subsequent non-strictly-Wagnerian Modern meaning of the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept, however, indicates an experience of inexorable entirety, and this definition is the appropriate meaning for me, as it was this sublime sense which emerged in Romantic philosophy and subsequently in Neo-Gothic and then Neo-Rococo architecture and art theory, which spread through the Arts and Craft movement and flowered as the reason d’être of the Art Nouveau movement. Stripped down but smoothly persisting, it became the central motivating ideal of orthodox Modernism’s unified reductive model. This objective was ruptured only briefly during the Post-Modernist period as now it is thoroughly resumed with immersive VR technology, as shown. Indeed it is the insignia of the World Wide Web (WWW): the net.

This sense of the gesamtkunstwerk as inexorable entirety is the objective and means of total-immersion, but it also recedes backwards into prehistory where the ideal of total-immersion begins as inexorable entirety for me, well before the supposed Greek unity with which Wagner began his theory. As Wagner himself stated in his essay “Religion and Art” (1880), “The Science of Aesthetics has at all times laid down Unity as a chief requirement from the artwork.” Though his statement is problematic if not patently false, as the fragmentation (albeit unified in collage/montage) intrinsic in various forms of unorthodox Modernism (and explicitly in Post-Modernism) has shown us, I think it true to say that this conception of art as a unified exemplification of overriding mind-sets/world-views holds much in way of inquisitional material.

For me, the stress lays less with the fusion of normally discrete art forms and more on the totalizing, harmonizing and engulfing immersive effect of the art experience within any given art form - the notion attained in, for example, Adrien Henri’s important book Total Art, a book which concerns Environmental and Kinetic Art, Performance Art, and some Happenings of the 1960s and early-1970s. Henri adapts the term gesamtkunstwerk in historically contextualizing a stream of art in the 1960s and early 1970s as work which “sets out to dominate, even overwhelm; flooding the spectator/hearer with sensory impressions of different kinds. It is not meant as information but as experience”. With this sense of a seamless union, we can immediately see here how immersive “VCA” with its potentially overwhelmingly 360° FOV qualifies as an inexorable entirety gesamtkunstwerk. So, rather than further hypothesizing polymedia fusion, with all of the weaknesses and gaudiness that that idea may entail, I have adapted this inexorable entirety concept of the gesamtkunstwerk and further defined it as an art which cedes a unified total experience expressing a dominant ideal, regardless of the fact that Wagner did not desire this type of encounter for his audience, or, if he once did, he repudiated it later in life. In fact, Wagner later dropped the term gesamtkunstwerkkonzept from his vocabulary altogether. Evidently he lost interest in a unified art experience which overwhelms the audience, as he wrote the virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) on August 16, 1853 that, there is no reason why there should be “this wretched ’special’ and ‘total art’” and he bade Liszt to make “no more mention of that wretched ‘total art’!!!”.

So, as explained, I adapt the concept of gesamtkunstwerk as a unified total experience expressing a dominant ideal in search of an inexorable entirety as the pertinent one. This understanding of the inexorable entirety gesamtkunstwerk can be traced retrospectively to ancient times; within prehistoric caves, the Greek nymphaea, and Roman grottoes. It is this inexorable entirety sense of the gesamtkunstwerk, in conjunction with Charles Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences which was avidly taken up by the Symbolist and Post-Impressionist circles and which coiled its way into the orthodox Modernist ideal of unity through reduction in an attempt to unite the various art forms so as to arrive at an all-embracing universal language of art.

Susan Sontag has identified this all-embracing tendency, which she characterizes as a “breaking down of the distinction between artistic genres”, as one of the two major radical positions of early (mid-1960s) Post-Modern Art (the other trend stridently maintaining those distinctions). This all-embracing gesamtkunstwerk ideal, which Sontag goes on to identify as a desire for a “vast behavioral magma”, though under serious attack within authoritative Post-Modernism, as previously mentioned, penetrates certain aspects of Post-Modernism itself. For example, this gesamtkunstwerk ideal of “breaking down of distinction” is detectable in some aspects of Fluxus and Actionism and clearly in the Happening movement and developments in the Expanded Arts which flourished throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in today’s Art Installation Movement. In fact, the basis of the Post-Modern sensibility arises from an acceptance that reality is understood as a congruous region where various complex levels of meaning interrelate.

It had been suggested that the Expanded Cinema was the successor of Wagner’s ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk, with its tendency to provide an apparent seamless fusion between the visual and the aural, and by providing the spectator with a cathartic emotional involvement, but with this I do not agree. VR is the real successor, but not because it fuses sights and sounds together. It is so because its total-immersion cuts us off from the world and plunges us into a homogeneous (even if manifold) mono-world without external distraction. It is precisely this sense of radical aesthetic transcendence through an intimate totality which immersive experience offers, as it provides a complete alternative reality to the immersant for exploration and contemplation. It is due to this sense of immersive art’s production of a consummate whole that the term holosthesiatic gesamtkunstwerk holds relevancy to your question. “Holosthesia”, a word coined by Dr. William Martens, describes any medium which produces the all-embracing perception of an event through several (or all) sensory modalities in a self-consistent manner. The term “holosthesia” has its roots in the Greek word “holos” (whole) and “aisthesia” (to feel or perceive).

ÉR: Is it true to talk about your work “REAL TIME” as the “death of artifice and the birth of Artificial Life”?

JN: No, because artificial life is artificial. The artifice has not died. In fact, it has come to life.

ÉR: From 1991-1993 you worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale/ Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois, France on “The Computer Virus Project”, an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. It seems to me with scientists you share the understanding that the viewing subject, by choice of the measuring system employed, creates the reality that is perceived out of that infinity of possible states that all objects of our perception possess. Are you agreeing with this interpretation? Why or why not?

JN: I abide by the concept of “omnijectivity”: the metaphysical concept stemming from the discoveries of quantum physics which teaches us that mind - previously considered the subjective realm- and matter - previously considered as the objective realm- are inextricably linked. Omnijectivity is possible only with the conflation of polarities; a stance which recognizes the mutual interpenetration that unites the apparent opposites of subjectivity and objectivity. This makes for good art.

ÉR: In 2002, you extended your artistic research into the field of viral artificial life though his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Do you think with Chris Langton that “Artificial Life (employing a synthetic approach to the study of life-as-it-could-be) views life as a property of the organization of matter which is organised… The key concept in Artificial Life is emergent behavior”?8

JN: Yes the emergent is what fascinates me and holds my interest. In many ways it advances the Duchamp/Cage proposition for art.

ÉR: About “REAL TIME” Langton writes, “Nechvatal proposes that the shop worm term Post-Modernism be retired when describing his work, in preference to what he calls “Viractualism”. In an age of networked incredulity, where hierarchies are put into crises by the digital, the hermaphrodite becomes harbinger of a new creative viractualism by maintaining a flickering position between stationary boundaries”. We know that “Natural life emerges out of the organised interaction of the great number of non living molecules, with no global controller responsible for the behaviour of every part. Rather, every part is a behaviour that emerges from all of the local interactions among individual behaviours.” Do you agree with this thesis: “It is the bottom-up, distributed, local determination of behaviour that Artificial Life in its primary methodological approach to the generation of likelife behaviours”?9

JN: Perhaps Stéphane Sikora should answer this one.

ÉR: With “Viral Counter-Attack” it seems to me that you attempt to show, on the one hand, that we sometimes forget that your view of nature as inherited metaphor through the artistic and scientific metaphor of the previous two centuries is essentially artificial, and, on the other hand, that “Nature” is not unlike the “Self”. The more you really look for it, with fresh eye and uncontaminated perceptions, the less likely you are to find it. Is it true?

JN: One can say that the whole idea of nature is a cultural concept. I don’t accept that, but people say that if you didn’t have an idea of nature then you wouldn’t even know it was there. You wouldn’t participate in it. But I think we emerge out of the energy of nature too, out of these electronic vibrations which make up nature.

ÉR: You say with Deleuze and Guattari: “We form a rhizome with our viruses, or rather, our viruses make us form a rhizome with other creatures”. But it seems to me that with your computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas works you try to show us that it is in Artificial Life that we might yet encounter living nature. That is to say that we shall only be in touch with nature when we end our futile attempts to dominate it, withdrawn from it, viewing it, as O.B. Hardison Jr. has so well argued, in the middle distance, at a cultural remove. Do you agree and why?

JN: Yes, I agree because of omnijectivity.

ÉR: From your point of view, could Artificial Life by contrast be the attempt to collaborate with life, to interact with it and with ourselves as part of an infinite network of connectivity in which neither nature nor ourselves are separate or independent?

JN: Such a syncretistic visuality would adhere to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s assertion that the history of the human world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen. Such an approach to visuality automatically undermines what Hal Foster calls the “rhetorical conventionality of sight” and this conventionality’s “perseverance as an epistemological model”. I feel at work a widespread human desire to pursue extended consciousness through immersive excess. This is not remarkable in that Georges Bataille showed us that sanctioned excess is generally inferred in much of art’s perceptible richness and that the syntax of art is inner excess.

ÉR: What is your purpose in “Viral Counter-Attack”?

JN: My purpose for “VCA” is multiple and will remain unstated other than saying that one of its purposes is to invite an active reflection on the virus/host arrangement in terms of our current ideological conflict.

ÉR: Do you think that your creations anticipate new language and new behavior and will contribute to the evolution of new environments, even new realities?

JN: Perhaps Stéphane Maguet can answer this one.

ÉR: About your exhibition “Computer Virus Project” Jean-Philippe Massonie wrote, “Joseph Nechvatal asked me to introduce viral transformation into his paintings. Localized transformations were needed which would spread and gradually ‘eat’ the work completely”.10 In short, this excerpt brings together all the constituents of an algorithm: first, there must be carefully regulated steps, following each other in succession; second, certain conditions must be fulfilled, to permit specific consequences; third, the frequently repeated steps must not be formulated explicitly, but written as loops; end above all, the way the output of the algorithm will look in the end – the phenomenal side of the formulaic coin – must be completely open. Therefore, do you think images are singularities which as such can only be made over again, reproduced, while the algorithm in its formal abstraction not only can be repeated, but can also be reproduced in any desired context or medium?

JN: No. An aesthetic algorithmic viral logic of non-linear and indeterminate latent excess facilitates our desire to transcend the boundaries of our customary human cognition so as to feel that state of unconditionality which Hegel called the absolute (our absolute sense as an unalloyed being akin to non-being) by way of a neuro-metaphysics conveyed through art’s necessarily singular experience. This dispersion, which presuppose a loss of fixed reference points within fixed points, implies a diaphanous neural-metaphysics constructed around the disembodied psyche’s enhanced identity as non-site consistent with Jean-François Lyotard’s assertion that metaphysical concepts have been realized in the contemporary world. By the synthetic psyche taking up in algorithmic viral art an anti-position of circuitous non-site, we can ascertain that the viral sensibility is essentially non-logocentric, ecstatic, variational, non-hierarchical, and excessive.

Indeed, instead of nicely proceeding along towards an expedient comprehension and appraisal, algorithmic latent excess actually opens up an oppositional anti-mechanistic space of self adumbration for the self-re-programming ontologically minded by revealing the loose limits of our solipsistic and hedonistic inner circuitry. The latent excess necessary for triggering such an immersive keenness offers to the self-re-programming immersant a scope of sensibility beyond that which Jacques Derrida identified as typical of the consolidated, passive, spectator/consumer.

Indeed in our heavily materially oriented, technologically accelerated, information saturated culture, where experience is increasingly prescribed, facile, and fast, thoughtful languor coupled with dynamic immersion in the discursive circuitry of perspicacious excess satisfies an essential need for immersive cognitive-visuality consistent with the interpretative theories of both hermeneutics and the phenomenology of perception. In this respect algorithmic viral art fulfils the negative dialectical ideal of art as affirmed by Theodor Adorno. Adorno upheld the view that the radical potential of art lies in formal innovations which refuse to allow its passive consumption, demanding instead an active-critical intellectual involvement in opposition to unthinking assimilation. It is for this reason that algorithmic viral art possesses a negative dialectical felicity of its own. What we sense is our being becoming subliminal and of use to forces inside of us.

ÉR: I’d say with Heidegger about your works “Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate within it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction.”11 Do you agree, and if, why?

JN: The answer to this question, which I inevitably put to myself, was found when reading Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. In it Deleuze points us towards a recognition of our desires’ productiveness, as he indicates how desires propel us to move towards greater or lesser states of sublime wholeness depending on whether the thing encountered enters into composition with us, or on the contrary tends to decompose us. That persuasive quintessence of art which agrees with our inner tendency to model ourselves as vast but whole hyper-beings beckons us to form a ripe neuro-philosophical totality (inexorable entirety) with the suggested hyper but accordant possible world experienced in model form. This forming of a developed neuro-philosophical hyper-totality, however, requires overcoming the dominant esprit of our time, which has been deconstructive of totalities.

In that I am evoking the word “hyper”, and the phrase hyper-linked, in relationship to being and art here, I shall briefly summarize the basis of the hyper-concept as adapted from the procedures of hyper-text, hyper-media and hyper-reality. The strategy of hyper-anything includes principles of networked connections and electronic links which give multiple choices of passages to follow and continually new branching possibilities to imagine and follow.

ÉR: About “Viral Counter-Attack”, you say, “‘Viral Counter-Attack’ is a multi-user immersive computer environment which follows certain conventions of the computer war-game precedent.” And, “The individual virus attacks, which feed off these visual fields, are color coded to identify them with each player’s body.” You use the term “player”, and not “spectator”. Why? How do you consider the relation between “game” and “work of art”?

JN: The coextensive situation designed into “VCA” has piquant implications for art in that this viractual space initiates the proclivity to solicit the theoretical viewer/participant (what I call the “viewpant”) to respond to the work in both a contemplative and physical way, or at least in an implied tension between these two poles when one side outweighs the other. It is important to remember that the viewpant is involved often with a series of different levels of activity in a dynamic emergent continuum.

- Transcription: Évelyne Rogue -

1. Joseph Nechvatal, “We form a rhizome with our viruses”, in http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/virustxt.html ^

2. John C. Lilly, Programming and Meta-programming in the Human Biocomputer, 1972. ^

3. “viewpant”: term coined by J. Nechvatal to refer to the viewer/participant; see, for example: http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/nervous.html ^

4. Kendall L. Walton, Mimesis As Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990). ^

5. Richard Dawkins, “Viruses of the Mind,” Free Inquiry (Summer 1993): 34-41, http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/
Articles/1993-summervirusesofmind.shtml ^

6. Robert C. Morgan, “Nechvatal’s Visionary Computer Virus,” in Joseph Nechvatal: Computer Virus Project, ed. Robert C. Morgan et al. (Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans and FRAC Franche-Comte, 1993).
see also: http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/morgan2.htm ^

7. Harald Szeemann (ed.), Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk: Europäische Utopien seit 1800, [The Tendency Towards The Total Artwork. European Utopias since 1800.], (exhib. cat. Zurich: Kunsthaus Zurich, 1983). ^

8. Christopher G. Langton (ed.), Artificial Life (Redwood City: Addison-Wesley, 1987). ^

9. Langton 1987. ^

10. Robert C. Morgan et al. 1993.
see also: http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/massonie.html ^

11. Martin Heidegger: “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 47. ^

Joseph Nechvatal
Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale/ Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab in Arbois, France on “The Computer Virus Project”, an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002, he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora.
Nechvatal, who was born in 1951 in Chicago, Ill., studied at Cornell and Columbia University and completed his PhD in the Philosophy of Art and New Technology at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at University of Wales College, Newport, UK. From 1999-2003, he taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
He lives in New York and Paris.

· Homepage
· Biography
· Articles
· joseph_nechvatal@hotmail.com

· REAL TIME {a procedure of ignudiO excess}
· Joseph Nechvatal and Musci2Eye: “Viral Counter-Attack”
· Joseph Nechvatal and Musci2Eye: “Red Ovoid Attack -
  Computer Virus Project 2.0″ (2001)

Èvelyne Rogue
French theorist and critic Èvelyne Rogue holds a PhD in philosophy and is a professor at la Sorbonne, Paris. She is the editor of the French online-magazine Artcogitans which focuses on emergent art forms. As a member of the Paris-based artists collective “Music2Eye”, she has collaborated on the realization of projects exploring the implications of artificial entities as part of creative and interactive processes.
Rogue lives and works in Paris.

· Artcogitans
· artcogitans@wanadoo.fr

· Publications

· Music2Eye
· stephane.maguet@music2eye.com


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