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.