The Viractuality of Post-Conceptual Art

The Viractuality of Post-Conceptual Art


the birth Of the viractual, 2001, 70×70”, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas (c) Joseph Nechvvatal


Post-conceptual art is that contemporary art that builds upon the legacy of Conceptual Art, where the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. Post-conceptual art has been traced to the work of Robert Smithson,[1] and the intermedia concept employed in the mid-sixties by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins,[2] but is now more often connected to digital art production,[3] where the computer code sets the conceptual rules for a physical production. I have identified this post-convergent and post-conceptual trend in 1999 as: viractuality.[4] [5]

Conceptual Art focused attention on the idea behind the art object and questioned the traditional role of that object as the conveyor of meaning. Subsequently, those theories cast doubt upon the necessity of materiality itself as conceptual artists “de-materialized” the postminimal art object and began to produce time-based and ephemeral artworks. Although total dematerialization of the art object never occurred, the art object became flexible – malleable – and that malleability, coupled with semiotics and computer processing, has resulted in the post-conceptual art object.

As general condition, Conceptual Art at the end of the 20th Century spread to become a general tendency, a resonance within art practice that became nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of the term post-conceptual as a prefix to painting such as that of Gerhard Richter and photography such as that of Andreas Gursky.[6]

British philosopher and theorist of conceptual art Peter Osborne makes the point that “post-conceptual art is not the name for a particular type of art so much as the historical-ontological condition for the production of contemporary art in general …” [7]

The post-conceptual art object shows us that a lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art that correspond to how we now live: in an open area of vast connecting links.

With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics, the virtual now co-exists with the actual (thus the term viractual)[8] as the digital links with the organic.  Consequently, the post-conceptual art object demonstrates an interlaced sense of artistic viractuality that couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. 

Viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body, so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here, flesh is undone by digital disturbances they cannot contain. Here, thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.

The post-conceptual art aspect of viractualism is concerned with the matter of visualizing aesthetic sensations linked to techno-culture. It is essentially a visual prosthetic then for both the machinic and the corporal dominion – post-conceptual circumstances that are not historically fully conditioned yet.

Essentially, the foundation of viractualism as post-conceptual art is that computer technology has become a significant means to making (and understanding) contemporary art. Consequently, with post-conceptual art we are investigating art in its many forms of addressing the merging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This merging in post-conceptual art is what I call the post-conceptual viractual. It begins with the realization that every new technology disrupts previous rhythms of consciousness. For me, the viractual realm is now the authentic domain of art in light of the information age.

Thus, the post-conceptual art object can be further inscribed as a thing of viractual liminality – which according to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (based on his anthropological studies of social rites of passage) is the condition of being on a threshold between spaces. I wish to suggest that the terms viractual (and viractuality) may be concordant conceptions helpful in defining the post-conceptual art object as a third fused inter-spatial place of the emerging arts – forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual.

Concerning this viractual span of liminality, I am reminded here of two very different, yet complimentary, concepts: entrainment and égréore. Entrainment, in electro-physics, is the coupling of two or more oscillators as they lock into a commonly sensed interacting frequency. In alchemical terms an égréore (an old form of the word agréger) is a third concept or phenomenon that is established from conjoining two different elements together. I suggest that the term viractual may be a concordant entrainment/égréore conception helpful in defining the post-conceptual art object as a place of third-fused inter-spatiality which is forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual – a concept close to what the military call augmented reality, which is the use of transparent displays worn as see-through glasses on which computer data is projected and layered.

The keystone of the post-conceptualness of post-conceptual art is that virtual producing rule-based computer technology has become a significant means for making and understanding contemporary art and that this brings us to a place where one finds the merging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This blending of computational with the object indicates a subsequent emergence of a new topological cognitive-vision of links between the computed virtual and the uncomputed corporeal world.

Gilles Deleuze’s consideration of Baruch Spinoza[9] – the 17th century philosopher who merged mind and matter into one substance – points us towards a recognition of our desires’ productiveness, as he indicated how desires propel us to move towards greater or lesser states of exalted wholeness depending on whether the thing encountered enters into composition with us, or on the contrary, tends to decompose us.

Digitization is a key metaphor for post-conceptual viractuality in the sense that it is the fundamental translating system today. But I think that in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest the art tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it.

The post-conceptual art object recognizes and uses the power of digitization while being culturally aware of the values of monumentality and permanency – qualities that can be found in some powerful analog art. This indicates and initiates communions of the protoplasmic body to virtual spatial conditions. Consequently, the post-conceptual aspect of art articulates a new techno-digital sense of life.

Of possible interest to the viractual aspect of post-conceptualism was the origin of the hermaphroditic image. This hybrid viractual image first appears in Ovid’s classic text Metamorphoses – and perhaps this emergence is well worth recounting here. The hermaphrodite initially occurs in Western culture as a son of Hermes and Aphrodite named Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus was a typical, if exceptionally handsome, young male with whom the water nymph Salmacis fell madly in love. When Hermaphroditus rejected her sexual advances, Salmacis voyeuristically observed him from afar while desiring him fiercely. Finally, one spring day Hermaphroditus stripped nude and dove into the pool of water that was Salmacis’s habitat. Salmacis immediately dove in after him – embracing him and wrapping her body around his, just as, Ovid says, ivy does around a tree. She then prayed to the gods that she would never be separated from him – a prayer that they answered favorably. Consequently, Hermaphroditus emerged from the pool both man and woman.

The patriarchal construction of woman as other and the female body as object is deeply rooted in the supposed duality (opposites) of the (two) sexes. Most feminist theory questions this patriarchal construction of sex and gender, suggesting that sex is expressed through a continuum, rather than as an opposing couplet based on heterosexist male/female polarities. Accordingly, within my viractual multiverse, containments designed for womanhood/manhood are subverted by the presentation of ambiguous genitalia – the mutable image and performance of pan-sexuality. Gender here is viewed as an act of becoming. Here gender performance fails to sustain sex oppression by ceasing to draw the boundaries of the Other.

As such it is a provocation not only to male/female constructions of heterosexuality, but also to homosexual constructions of identity. This critique of “representation” in the aesthetic sense is part of a critique of “representation” in the political sense (and vice versa). Art here is seen as political in the sense that it is a site of power struggles which fail to presuppose a metaphysics which is itself a politics – a politics which establishes an order of values which often maintains the dominant order of meaning and power over break-through ideologies.

The point is that within viractual creation with post-conceptual art, all signs are subject to boundless semiosis – which is to say that they are translatable into other signs. Here, of course, it is possible to find resonances and affinities between sexual opposites. Here we can always articulate new sexes within. Here a new-sprung chameleon-like demeanor is being built from the virtual abyss.

So the post-conceptualness of art is a new sensibility emerging in art respecting the integration of certain aspects of science, technology, myth and consciousness – a consciousness struggling to attend to the prevailing current spirit of our age. This viractual zeitgeist I identify with post-conceptual art as being precisely an autopoietic desiring machine in which everything, everywhere, all at once is connected in a rhizomatic web of communication. Therefore, the post-conceptual art object is no longer content with the regurgitation of a standardized analog repertoire of image-tropes. Rather I detect in post-conceptual art a fertile attraction towards the abstractions of advanced scientific discovery – discovery now stripped of its fundamentally reductive logical methodology.

Personally, my guiding avatar into post-conceptual viractualism has been Janus – the two-faced Roman God who faces both directions simultaneously. Janus is similar to the ancient Egyptian God Aker, a two human-headed deity who surveys the western and eastern gates of duat (the underworld). As Janus has eyes on both sides of his head, a Janus-like viractual model would be able to see on every side. Hence he is the symbol for viractual dehabituation, open-mindedness, and for taking an even-handed view, as Janus was able to look backward into the past as well as forward into the future. Moreover he represents a question that has two sides to it.

The reason that I have chosen Janus as the guiding presence in post-conceptual viractualism is that the one-directional explanatory mode of cause and effect does not fully pertain to my argument in that I do not put forward arguments which purport to explain one phenomenon as the monolithic result of another in a one-to-one relationship. Rather with viractual post-conceptual art, I put forward discursive suggestions, as is the province of culture. Moreover, in janusian thinking opposites and antitheses are proposed as being simultaneously valid.

This appreciation of valid antithetical simultaneities is very useful in reaching nonreductive synthetic conclusions concerning the whirr of information processing which takes place within the aesthetic viractual body. Viractual constructs integrate opposites and antitheses and in this respect differ greatly from typical dualistic thinking; the tendency to formulate concepts in terms of two exhaustive categories (in viractuality’s case the actual and the virtual).

Dualistic causality, bolstered by the seductive powers of linear narration (hence appearing clearer in terms of its authoritative explanatory closure) appears unsophisticated to me in the realm of post-conceptual viractuality. Indeed, particularly in the realm of post-conceptual art, the post hoc ergo proper hoc (after this, therefore because of this) logical error of assumed causality is notoriously ticklish.

Thus in order to author an explanatory yet non-reified investigation (free from the deceptive certainties of conjectural cause and effect) and instrumentally place the emphasis on viractual capacity with post-conceptual art, I find it necessary to examine the post-conceptual art object from two directions at once: one direction starting with an inquiry into the larger philosophical and technical concepts of viractualism (what might be referred to as the metaphysics and technological ideology surrounding the details); and also from the other direction, through the examination of specific artistic events and details. This dual method is a post-conceptual searching for a dynamic equilibrium of equivalents, not a disanalogous mechanical cause and effect historicism, which often thwarts the radical newness of artistic enterprise in an effort to historicize and make what is radically new familiar and comfortable by placing post-conceptual art into a smooth, evolutionary continuum where vanguard art is made to seem to have evolved out of the past, thereby mitigating its newness by homogenizing differences into a false perception of sameness. In this sense then, my study of viractual post-conceptual art strives to be an addition to the developing field of cultural analysis through its multiform and interdisciplinary aesthetic approach to techno-cultural phenomena, with a view towards exposing previously unarticulated viractual promulgations.

So the form of post-conceptual art is an important topic because of what has happened to our visual tendencies with digital immersion. Within post-conceptual art, the horizon-line and vanishing-point are unmistakably exhausted tropes that are no longer needed. Indeed the horizon-line and vanishing-point within virtual space in general appear to me more and more only as an inappropriate habitual holdover from the Cartesian mentality which has nothing to do with the specificity of virtuality. The space of post-conceptual art is an emergent space of vast all-overness and spread-outness quite remote from the customary Western pinched perspectivist mentality.

Probably what we are exploring with post-conceptual art is a sense of viractual feeling experienced within the scope of a vast range; be it cultural, digital, or even natural. As we gain experience and sophistication by moving more and more through vast areas of aesthetic input, we are no longer satisfied with boxy, constrained, framed aesthetic data. Rather we desire viractual data-material space that we can feel an mentally enter into. We desire aesthetic data space that at least on some level surrounds us in all-directions. Then we want to be sensitive to that data and respond to it profoundly.

This entails the question of visuality, but it also entails questions of peripheral cognition. And this field of peripheral cognitive-viractuality, a field of artistic endeavor laced with the juicy strands of imaginative and visionary optics, I believe, is a field that is now open wide to artists with the advent of virtuality: the meeting place between virtuality and actuality.

With the post-conceptual art object we might speak of a personal sense of viractual beauty in relationship to visualizations of the infected mutant. But perhaps instead of the concept of beauty we are here talking about the notion of attraction. Perhaps beauty doesn’t work after all as a meaningful value in post-conceptual art. Perhaps what we are all trying to set up instead are situations of viractual attraction.

Seduction, quite obviously, is an important element in setting up such a domain, particularly in the realm of viractuality. That is why I find the notion of the techno-sublime an interesting one for post-conceptual art. It interests me because it contains in itself the dialectical opposite of its attractiveness – as it contains an aspect of horror too. Without an element of horror there is no sublime function, no sublime beauty, if you like. With the viractual sublime you have an attraction and repulsion at work simultaneously which can only be fully embraced with the utilization of the conscious element of cognitive dissidence. Such a viractual consciousness yields a very enticing and complex emotion.

Certainly with post-conceptual art we cannot use the word viractual in any homogenetic fashion. There are too many levels and types and aspects to viractuality. However, I believe we in general are drifting away from the preference towards a viractuality which is valued in terms of its harmoniousness – and more towards what François Lyotard called the technological sublime. This technological sublime contains a notion of viractuality connected to a more expansive art pedigree; a sensibility more fully stated through all manner of post-conceptual art created along the lines of what I have connected to the lineage of viractuality.

Joseph Nechvatal


Partial installation view of combine paintings by Joseph Nechvatal in nOise anusmOs show at Galerie Richard, New York City (2012)

[1] Peter Osborne, Anywhere Or Not At All : Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso Books, London, 2013. pp. 99-11

[2] Peter Osborne, Anywhere Or Not At All : Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso Books, London, 2013. p. 99

[3] Peter Osborne, Anywhere Or Not At All : Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso Books, London, 2013. pp. 125-131

[4] Joseph Nechvatal, 1999 PhD thesis Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances. Published in book form with LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, in 2009, p. 56

[5] Christiane Paul, in her seminal book Digital Art, discusses my concept of viractualism on page 58. One of the images she chooses to illustrate that section of the book is my painting entitled the birth Of the viractual (2001). Joe Lewis, in the March 2003 issue of Art in America (pp.123-124), discusses the viractual in his review Joseph Nechvatal at Universal Concepts Unlimited. John Reed in Artforum Web 3-2004 Critc’s Picks discusses the concept in his piece #1 Joseph Nechvatal. Frank Popper also writes about the viractual concept in his book From Technological to Virtual Art on page 122.

[6] Terry Smith, “One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art” e-flux journal

[7] Peter Osborne, Anywhere Or Not At All : Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso Books, London, 2013. pp. 3 & 51

[8] I developed further the concept of Viractualism in an on-line seminar I held from November 1st to the 15th in 2002 that was conducted as part of the Virtual Construction project at the Empyre Forum I thank Christina McPhee again for that opportunity here.

[9] Deleuze, G. 1984. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights

About josephnechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American post-conceptual artist who creates virus-modeled artificial life computer-assisted paintings and animations. Themes he has addressed in his art include the apocalyptic, communication excess, the virus, and gender fluidity. In 1975, he moved from Chicago to the downtown Tribeca area of New York City. He began studying at Columbia University with the philosopher Arthur Danto while working for the Dia Art Foundation as archivist to the minimalist composer La Monte Young. In 1980, he moved from Tribeca to the sordid Lower East Side where he found artistic camaraderie and politically inspired creative energy. There he became closely associated with Collaborative Projects (Colab), the influential post-punk artists’ group that included Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer, among others. Those were glory days for the famous Colab projects, such as Just Another Asshole, The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show. He also helped establish the non-profit cultural space ABC No Rio, where exhibitions were animated by political purpose. In the early 1980s, his art consisted of dense post-minimalist gray graphite drawings (that were sometimes photo-mechanically enlarged), of sculpture, of photographs, and of musique concrète audio collages. In 1983, he co-founded the famous avant-garde art music project Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine. In 1984, he created an opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-6) with the no wave musical composer Rhys Chatham that was presented in Boston and New York. In 1986, Nechvatal began using computer-robotics to make conceptual paintings. Some were exhibited at Documenta VIII in 1987. In 1992, when he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois and at the Saline royale d’Arc-et-Senans, he created computer virus codes that he used as an artistic tool. This work was a reflection on his personal experiences of risk and loss with the AIDS epidemic. In 1999, he earned his doctorat in the philosophy of aesthetics and technology in England and soon wrote two art theory books: Towards an Immersive Intelligence and Immersion Into Noise. In 2001, he extended his initial experimentations into the virus as an artistic painterly tool in a series of artificial life works. These works include various series of paintings, animations, and a lengthy audio composition entitled viral symphOny. He has created a series of virus-based themed exhibitions of artificial life paintings and animation projections that explore the fragility and fluidity of the human body. You can follow him on Twitter at @twinkletwink Homepage:
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