Computer Virus Project II: Theoretical & Artistic Background/Context

2009 Viral Venture captured still

Computer Virus Project II

Theoretical & Artistic Background/Context

Joseph Nechvatal 2002

My Computer Virus Project is grounded in a theoretical context that I developed in 1999 called viractuality (or viractualism)Broadly speaking, it is a theory that strives to see, understand, and create interfaces between the virtual and the actual. 

The basis of the viractual conception is that virtual producing computer technology has become a noteworthy means for making and understanding contemporary art. And that this virtual production 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). This fusion motif – which tends to contradict some central techno clichés of our time – is what I call the viractual. It is the poetic welding of fusion/paradox that accounts for much of the potency and transportative agency of my art theory and the artwork that it produces. 

A key influence in the formation of my theory of viractuality was Gilles Deleuze’s consideration of Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher who merged mind and matter into one material. Moreover, it is a concept close to that of augmented reality, which is the use of transparent displays worn as see-through glasses on which computer data is projected and layered.

Digitization is a key metaphor for viractuality in the sense that it is the elementary translating procedure today. But the viractual recognizes and uses the power of digitization while being culturally aware of the glamorous values of monumentality and permanency – qualities that can be found in some previous compelling analog art that grounded itself in the spiritual value of beauty.

Viractualism signals a new emerging sensibility respecting the integration of certain aspects of science, technology, myth and consciousness. An aesthetic consciousness struggling to attend to the prevailing contemporary spirit of our age in which everything, everywhere, all at once, is connected in a rhizomatic web of transmission. This lurking viractual realm is also a political-spiritualchaosmos in the sense that new forms of order may emerge in such a way that any form of order is only temporary and provisional. 

Within viractual creation and understanding, all signs are subject to boundlessly inverted semiosis. Which is to say they are translatable into other signs. Here, of course, it is possible to find resonances and affinities between formal and conceptual opposites. My sense of creative freedom and experimentation is based in this third-fused inter-spatiality reality. A reality forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual.

The history of art and the history of technology are often marked by ruptures. Most histories overlook moments where deep fusion occurs, as I see happening now with viractuality. Perhaps another temporal model for cultural consciousness is needed: something other than the majestic, forward-and-upward thrusting model of evolution. Something more humbly folded in on itself (as Deleuze suggested). Or perhaps something even more insinuatingly penetrating. As in a viral-host model

I have chosen this viral-host model and consider the model’s activities as a surge of emergent and embedded critical consciousness that offers a formal clarity true to our age. After a long period of temporal disjunctions following the demise of the modernist project and the excessive abuses of the post-modernist non-project; I suggest that a new clarifying paradigm has emerged based not, however, on the ideals of the raw, the pure, or the reduced – but rather on the internal tic-tic-tic bomb time of the embedded and patient viral attack. 

In my theoretical writings, I have suggested that there is a seething project of critique-within-critique that re-energizes the broken gaps of temporal displacement that followed the demise of modernism and the appearance of listless, repetative, irresponsible, post-modernism. When looking at cultural production through the paradigm of the viral viractual, many former binary oppositions fail to function in a stable way. Most basically, even the definitions of life and death are destroyed by this model; as a biological virus is precisely neither alive nor not-alive as it depends for its existence totally on it’s host’s viability. A virus cannot – and does not – exist alone. It exists by entering into a host and coupling with it. So when I add the once binary definitions of virtual and actual into the voluptuous viral model of existence and observe how they interact, a form of both/and fusion difference appears dominant within the scope of the viractual lens. 

What I find exciting about this viral viractuality is the tendency here to discover and produce stuttering, nervous, discrepancies between art’s internal theoretical and external manufacturing mechanisms. For example, the instantaneous reading of reduced modernist form – also typical of Pop Art form – is problematized by buried (often cryptic) fugitive qualities of informational de-materiality. 

Unsustainable forms of opposition that are exploded by my viral viractual time bomb are the mind-body dualism typical of the Western philosophical tradition: the once held opposition between the physical and the conceptual, reality and representation, nature and culture, presence and potentiality, and (most central to my artistic production) the still and the moving. A clear enthusiasm for post-humanist (perhaps also a pre-humanist mythological) metamorphosis is evident too, where the interchange between one body and another dominates. Other exploded ruptures include the classical and romantic, carnality and spirituality, organization and vigor, simplicity and complexity, clarity and chaos, restraint and effusion, sparseness and abundance, abstraction and specificity, stability and stress, composure and imbalance, plan and chance. 

My viral-viractal art means cultivating another form of sumptuousness more concerned with inter-related passage than avant-garde rupture. Its leitmotiv may be an interest in seductive infiltrations. Yet I believe it still can be said that viral-viractality is revolutionary in that it surfs the wake of the digital revolution while, in my case, participating in the aesthetics of glitch and the art of noise. But it is revolutionary in a new non-ruptured sense (what a dreaded sense of stress waiting for a rupture that may or may never come) as it uses an inner-outer confusion (or double sense, writ grand) that is not clearly obvious on first-take by design. 

My viractual art is non-all inclusive, as its strategy clearly has no interest in art that is without compelling poetic narrative, or is too mechanical, designy, decorative or illustative. Rather, it is interested in fabricating unique artificial objects and experiences of viractual sensitivity via conflation. Here I offer, as example, my conflation of the painterly glazing tradition with genetic programming, where a very intense analog-digital difference is confronted and addressed in both directions. For anyone unfamiliar with genetic programming: briefly, it is a technique for writing code in a computer program based on artificial intelligence that uses an algorithm-based method that takes its programming cues from biology. In my case; from the biology of the virus. Indeed, for me, bio-tech genetic programming as applied to the traditions of painting and art music is so important to the ideas of viractuality that it may be said to be emblematic of it. This because it represents the seminal function of viractuality activity: that which occurs between the real-time and the captured/archived.

To be clear, my interest is not in denying differences between modes, but in investigating how two models may interact in new ways. In viractuality, energetic connections within competing forms and forces are relished. Thus the penetrating viral-viractual lends to art a sense of new beginnings, albeit absent the rush of radical rupture. It is an idea of viral temporal interruption aligned with the haunting quality of the phantasmagorical. That is what lends it its sense of authenticity in our embodied age of de-materialized informational code.

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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