Paul Crowther, Digital Art, Aesthetic Creation: The Birth of a Medium

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From the Paul Crowther book Digital Art, Aesthetic Creation: The Birth of a Medium, Routledge Creative Media & the Arts (2018) pp. 130 – 134

We start with the work of Joseph Nechvatal. His computer-assisted paintings date from 1986. They derive from his interest in ideological issues raised by communications media, an interest arising from studies in philosophy and Walter Benjamin’s theories about art and mass-production. As Nechvatal puts it,

‘My interest in the ideology of media led me to using the possibilities of computer-robotics as a timely alternative art tool, a new way to make conceptual paintings that addressed issues of distribution through excess. There were no PCs then, of course, this was 1986. But the studio I was working with in Midtown had access to a big computer painting machine that had been developed in Japan. So I started making computer-robotic assisted paintings like The Informed Man.’ (1986) [FIGURE 5.1]

Informed Man 1986 82x116 acrylic on canvasInformed Man (1986) 82 x 116 inches, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

The Informed Man is physically embodied on a large scale – 82 x 116 inches. It used the Scanamural process to create an image from acrylic paint on canvas. This was done by a computer-driven robotic apparatus. The apparatus was fitted with airbrush nozzles and directed electronically on the basis of information patterns extracted from a scanned small image maquette.

Nechvatal’s rationale for creating the work was set forth in a theoretical document that accompanied the Documenta exhibition of 1987 in Kassel, Germany, where it was exhibited. In this text Nechvatal argues that computers are attractive to users because of the apparent total control they offer. However, he also emphasizes that this comes at a price, insofar as computer technology places constraints on what can be expressed and transmitted. It standardizes patterns of knowledge and communication within a general managerialist ideology. The problem then is the finding:

‘an answering response, of an indeterminate kind in order to allow for participation in the creative act…Creators must place themselves above the level of the mechanical through the integration of art and technics – resist the quantifying of life in the interests of power, prestige and profit – resist the fashion of idealizing mechanical forces.’

For Nechvatal, accordingly:

‘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 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.’

The Informed Man performs an immediate aesthetic dislocation through its size. Computer technology since the silicon chip transformations of the 1980’s is usually associated with compact hardware and software whose creative energy operates in largely imperceptible terms. Nechvatal’s painting, in contrast, presents the realm of computer activity through a physical space where it has to be reflected upon.

The central figure in The Informed Man is a human form that is both embedded in, and emergent from networks of surrounding visual substance. The substance seems primordial like the rock of a cave, but its materiality also appears consistent with the physicality of the figure itself. This consistency is accentuated by patterns that animate the surface of both figure and context. On closer inspection, the patterns show themselves to contain other figurative elements such as faces, and human profiles and gestures. They are a combination of realistic and caricature schemata. However, these lose their individual identity within the manic linear energy arising from their conjunction.

This impacts directly on how we read the main figure. Unlike the other elements it is manifestly – almost heavily – three-dimensional. Its lumbering physicality is rendered through both the shadows it casts, and the concentration of forms that compose its ‘flesh’. The figure gives the impression of emergence – but with weariness, and/or hesitancy – a sense of  Heidegger’s ‘The Deadful has already happened’. In this case, however, what has happened is not a realization of our being-towards-death, but that knowledge has become a plethora of information which we inhabit and which inhabits us. This is not a benign reciprocity, it is one which threatens ultimate annihilation.

But at least, Nechvatal’s painting does not present this as inevitable. The inevitability is subverted by four manifestly recognizable visual features – the truncated words ‘weapo’ and ‘threate’; the picture of a dagger (or bayonet), and the figure’s eye-patch.  It is the relation between these and the image’s other elements that is important. The suggestion of randomness involved in the latter is contradicted by the realistic artifice of the former. This sets up a reflective position for the viewer wherein he or she, can understanding how information enables and disables simultaneously, carrying the threat of destruction. And, most decisive of all, is the understanding that the creative strategy in the image – combining, chance and decomposition as well as deliberate choice – has turned computer technology into a means of critical aesthetic reflection. The Informed Man does not document Nechvatal’s understanding of the ideology of IT, rather, it makes it emerge through the particularity of the image – where specifics and uncertainties weave in and out of one another in an interpretative unity available only to aesthetic perception.

In Nechvatal’s subsequent works, this takes on a sharper edge, as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic – wherein the artist experienced distressing loss first hand. This led him to the creative use of computer viruses. In his words:

‘In 1990, my Computer Virus Project’s initial goal was to produce physical paintings by using algorithms implementing “viral” processes. It’s based on a simulation tool which allowed me to virtually introduce artificial organisms into a digitized reproduction of an earlier artwork, the host, and let them transform and destroy that original image. During these “attacks” a new still image can be extracted and painted on canvas, which is a way to realize them—to bring back the virtual into the real. [Indeed] The negative connotations of the HIV virus as a vector of disease is reflected in the principle of degradation of the image. But here, the virus is also the basis of a creative process, producing newness in reference to the major influence of the virus on evolution in biological systems.’

To carry out this process, Nechvatal sends his files over the net to a computer-driven machine which paints the work robotically. It is a product of telepresence. A key work in this respect is the birth Of the viractual (2001). FIGURE 5.2

the birth Of the viractual (2001)70x70in Joseph Nechvatalthe birth Of the viractual (2001) 70 x 70 inches, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

In this work, (as Christiane Paul describes it):

‘parts of the (intimate human body are intermixed with flower or fruit ornaments into a virally created collage. The hybrid image suggests an androgyny that Nechvatal traces to the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which depicts transmutation as a universal principle driving the nature of the world.’

In these remarks Paul, in effect, identifies Nechvatal’s major creative insight – an intuitive feeling of a monism at the heart of visual and other transformations. This monism finds unity even within potentially destructive conflicts. Whatever formulaic distinctions shape our experience of the world, these only work through cognitive linking – that embraces recognition, memory, and imagination. There is a primal unity wherein the stuff of the world and ways of giving it form are in harmonious reciprocity. This is not only ontological, it is also aesthetic.

Nechvatal’s notion of the viractual gives this a specific expression:

Viractuality is a theory that strives to see, understand, and create interfaces between the technological and the biological. The basis of the viractual conception is that virtual producing computer technology has become a noteworthy means for making and understanding contemporary life (and thus art). And that this virtual production – a digital production that has been going on for a long time now – brings artists to a place of paradox where one finds increasingly the emerging of the computed (the virtual) with the un-computed corporeal (the actual).’

In this theory Nechvatal perfectly exemplifies the way in which art gives expression to the techno-habitat of Postmodern culture. Indeed, in the viractual’s mutual absorption of the real and the virtual we find also an expression of those post-digital values wherein electronic media and non-electronic phenomena blend in the creation of new behavioural patterns. However, it is also important to bear in mind, the way in which some of these interactions – in the form of social media – are bringing about a truncation of thought processes into simplistic forms of the kind that enabled Donald Trump to be elected. This suggests that viractuality needs to be developed in more sustained critical terms, and to be more sharply focussed in how it is applied.


About josephnechvatal

Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software 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. Dr. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) University of Wales College, Newport, UK and occasionally teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA). His book of essays “Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006)” was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book “Immersion Into Noise” was published by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press You can follow him on Twitter at @twinkletwink Homepage here:
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