Selected Sound Works Reviewed by Dave Mandl in The Wire

Joseph Nechvatal Selected Sound Works (1981-2021) Pentiments

Reviewed by Dave Mandl in The Wire November 2021 (Issue 453), pp. 70-72

Selected Sound Works brings together 40 years of the sound art recordings of noise composer and conceptual artist Joseph Nechvatal. Arguably a pioneer in the field, Nechvatal was cofounder, in 1983, of the seminal experimental cassette series Tellus; collaborated with such Downtown avant garde mainstays as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Barbara Ess in the early 1980s; and produced work at Harvestworks’ Public Access Synthesizer Studio (PASS) in its formative years, around the same time.

Nechvatal’s early sound collages and musique concrète pieces evoke a grittier and more hyperactive Pierre Schaeffer, with the occasional more recognisably musical stretch along the lines of the hybrid music/tape work of early 70s Franco Battiato. Field recordings and snippets of decontexualised dialogue from films and television, often contorted beyond recognition, crop up in random spots and at blinding speed, alongside samples of Nechvatal’s own guitar and synthesizer playing, and other sources we can only guess at. While Nechvatal seems to use the term plunderphonics rather loosely, “How To Kill”, a frenetic assault on Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, is unmistakably John Oswald-esque, as is “Excerpt I From Reckless”, a wildly stuttering James Brown cut-up. “Excerpt II From Reckless”, presumably an anti-war piece, includes an extended audio blitzkrieg via gunfire and whizzing missiles, striking me as a kind of contemporary sonic counterpart to Picasso’s Guernica.

Most of Nechvatal’s more recent work, like the visual art he has been producing in the last couple of decades, employs custom written computer software and viral techniques – for example, using algorithms to control the replication and decay of various sonic elements in his compositions. Not to denigrate the early work, but the 2000s pieces, which are more obviously electronic and world fit comfortably in the category of computer music, seem more mature in their clearly advanced use of technology as well as their more laconic pace and less jagged, digital sound. But Nechvatal’s thumbprint can be detected just as clearly in these, and the two broad periods of his work complement each other nicely.

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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