Documenta VIII text (1987) by Joseph Nechvatal

Documenta VIII text (1987) by Joseph Nechvatal

As published in the Documenta VIII catalogue 




Theoretical Statement Concerning Computer-Robotic Paintings 

Nuclear/Electronic overload has smashed the narrow limits of assigned meaning. A doorway has opened. We have the power to shape our own meaning. We have the tools and the weapons for our own personal, magical transformation. With deconstruction, re-contextualization, non-conformity and destruction we take symbolic control over given hierarchical systems. This allows us some simulated personal dignity in light of our actual relative helplessness. The resilience of the human spirit is at stake. It is not a question of demystification. It is the task of absorbing, annihilating and desublimating. We turn it around and in effect reject the dialectics of the herd’s mass meaning. We take control. We take the power as social conditioning is liquidated, and we are liberated from the constraints imposed upon us by mass/pop cultural patterns. We destroy and return the tired concepts of dominant culture in the creation of freer thought. We are the autonomous subject making free choices.

The computer is the social organizer of production in the 80s and it frees us from the psychic condition of the 19th Century factory worker, which has been the universal condition of the 20th Century. The computer’s work is free from sweaty compromise, self-doubt and human fallibility. The computer-robotic paintings address this faith in the infallibility of computer technology which is rapidly changing all of society. Through the theme of control and release, they confront the potentially totalitarian technology of the digital society, which symbolizes and appeals to both external order (efficiency, hierarchy, security) and internal order (tidy compartmentalization, strict logic). Information technology is meant to make all of society run on time through control under the guise of benevolent connectedness. The mode and manifestation of this control is the fragmentation of collectivity and the isolation of the individual, the tendency to identify people with machines and the parallel tendency of individuals to internalize this implicit description of themselves and therefore behave as machines. Computers are compulsive to people in that they offer a form of apparently total control, yet the user is also compelled into a form of submission to the limitations and constraints that the computer’s design imposes. The user willingly accepts the tyrannies of the computer because they traditionally provide a model of clarity. However, they also traditionally limit what can be expressed and transmitted, thereby standardizing knowledge and inference through efficiency, planning, rationalization and managerialism.  The great problem of today is to attain a balance and wholeness in our civilization so we can command the machine we have created instead of becoming its helpless accomplice and passive victim. We must leave room for an answering response, of an indeterminate kind in order to allow for participation in the creative act. We must avoid a world in which whatever seems obscure and inward, whatever cannot be reduced to a quantity, is thereby treated as unreal. A world that is impersonal.

Creators must place themselves above the level of the mechanical through the integration of art and technics – resist the quantifying of life in he interests of power, prestige and profit – resist the fashion of idealizing mechanical forces.

The computer-robotic paintings symbolize a society that has freed itself from total rational utilitarianism through the symbolism of poetry in technology; and by linking the primordial horrors to the technology of today. They are in great measure a reaction against the organizational harness of post-industrial society, the technocratic mind view. By detaching the signifier away from the signified, the subjective spectacle of ecstatic spirituality is simulated. Since spirituality cannot be signified (no signifying unit refers to spirituality which is a mode of being, of feeling) the images of authority in the technetronic society can be used against themselves, and thereby keep us from the curse of single vision/new sleep. Western cultures privileged reason has divided the world into rational, calculating “objective” and the intuitive “subjective.” A holistic culture would balance reason and intuition and challenge the dualism of science and art at the level of production. The potential impact of computer technology as an integrator of art and science is well known. Yet if we contrast the computer’s compulsion for order with the primal retentions in the social unconscious, a dreamier, more subjective use of the computer revolution becomes obviously needed.

Today everything is spread over, blown apart, simultaneously known, shared and forgotten. No media mysticism can relieve our bloated media millennium. Inner lives have become impoverished through the mechanization of the overdisciplined orbital society due to lack of spontaneity. The trend to an information-centered society threatens to collapse the categorical mind of fixed images into a mono-world of abstract overloaded imagery spread. This unconscious conspiracy of heady technological freedom promises to transform human-machine and human-human relationships for better or worse.


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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