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Noisy Viral Threat - Joseph Nechvatal

Noisy Viral Threat - Joseph Nechvatal

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Published by Joseph Nechvatal

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Published by: Joseph Nechvatal on Mar 20, 2011
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Published in Digitalarti Mag #4
October 2010
Noisy Viral Threat : Joseph Nechvatal
Review of 
Art rétinal revisité: histoire de l’oeil 
byManuela de Barros
On September the 11th, Joseph Nechvatal was in his parisian gallery, talking to friends,journalists and scholars about his exhibition and more generally about his work. That day isno longer the same as other days for many, and being a New Yorker it might even be moresignificant to him. Especially if we have a look at his works and the layers of history, signsand meaning they convey.His exhibition in Galerie Jean-Luc & Takako Richard, is entitled :
Revisited Retinal Art :History of the Eye
. There starts the reflection : painting, representation, perspective, and other important aspects in art history are revisited and reconsidered - as it ought to be with the kindof works Nechvatal is presenting and because he is a pioneer in digital art. In 1986, he startedmaking images with computer technology but as the same time never gave up with the idea of 
classical representation. And he goes far in the decision to put nothing aside, as the canvaseshe shows can be printed pictures of ancient art reminiscences perpetuated by the digital. ARenaissance sculpture can then appear, or the specific flooring of a demonstrative perspectivepainting in its beginnings, put in an historical convex mirror by its recomposition with theinsertion of computerized deformations.The link is not just with classical art, as the concept of 
Retinal Art 
comes from MarcelDuchamp’s repulsion for painting and the fact that art offers satisfaction, he thought, to visiononly ; art for the eye and not for the mind. Then to a certain degree, art as object of beautyhad to disappear and leave place for concept and meaning. Nevertheless Nechvatal links thisto the
History of the E 
ye, Georges Bataille’s philosophical novel; the vision in art he callsupon is consequently quite different: the body is there, powerful in desire but mortal byessence. The animal rage shown by the protagonists in Bataille’s text is tamed but the vision itbrings is still there.Along with Walt Whitman, Nechvatal “sings the body electric”, where the body is also souland the soul is echoed in Nature. But the electricity has changed its quality and is nowvirtualized in the form of pure data. And if representations of eyes welcome us to theexhibition, anuses are there as well, doubling the vision, strengthening the troublesomenessand blurring the boundaries between what is presentable and what is hidden, between theoutside and the inner space, across what we see and what actually is, and in what we showversus what we are. In that logic, the scientific images (the eyes and anuses come frommedical archives) coast along an evocation of the
Black Eye
, his representation of shadowsevoke metaphors of Plato’s cave and of Chinese traditional theatre, and are mixed with theappearance of computed data on the canvas.Images - the representational - are there in force, but always merged into an abstract vision.Several iconic dialectics are combined, mixing periods, styles and domains. We get other examples when, in a number of works a colored vertical line appears on the surface,invokeing a subtile reference to Barnett Newman’s strips, and the American style and itspredominance of abstract theory in Modernism.
Double Entity Identity
is examplar of the search Nechvatal embarked upon in 1986 that henever stopped : from a large abstract canvas, actually the printed result of a computed image,emerges a Lazarus face ; on one side a red strip recalls the modernist rhetorics on purity andautonomy in painting. Is painting dead? Robotic painting commences and can perfectly standamongst former models, all in the
image. Not renewal but rebirth.
The hermaphrodite is another theme that Nechvatal has used from the beginning, crossing theline through time and space. It goes back to Plato’s mythology and Ovidius’
,but is also a highly contemporary figure that speaks to the transformation of the human bodyby way of genetics, modern medical techniques, and post-humanist considerations. Nechvatalrealizes this with a poetic sensitivity not common in the field of computer-mediated art, albeitwith the efficiency of concrete demonstration in the flesh.There is a final and drastically important step in all the stratum of references andsignifications, techniques and mediums. Since 1991, the artist has worked on computer depictions of viruses, and from 2001, in collaboration with Stéphane Sikora, he has combinedthe notion of computer virus with that of artificial life. The viruses are introduced into animage and literally eats it. The eye and anus presage the allegory of this virtual chemistry. Thedepiction on the canvas is an instant in the process of destruction of the heterogeneous figure.He shows the
modus operandi
on the iPad screen as canvas.Viruses are indeed a metaphor of destruction. Put alongside virtualization, abstraction andcodification, it also emerges as a political metaphor. Not only does the body explode in theseprocedures, but the mind as well by its total immersion into noise. For Nechvatal, themultiplication of image has a corollary in the merging into noise. We can mention DonDeLillo, another New Yorker, whose novel
White Noise
evoked the persistent rumor createdby the constant presence of media in our lives since the 60s. Or his other novel,
Mao II,
named after the Andy Warhol painting, where he explores the place of the artist in a world of violence and intolerance.The noise created by those means is a form of deep solitude buried in seemingly apparentmultiplicities. Here, the artist wants it undeviated from its original purpose and has created a
Viral Symphony
, generated with sounds eating the image (performed on September the 26
inthe Galerie Richard), an exploration of what noise is, and what it does deep inside.This is art with a brain, for sure. But when a mutitude of visions, Plato’s cave, the end of art,virtual data, viral destruction, and environnemental noise are put side by side, the messageand meaning of Nechvatal’s work becomes clear: How can we step up from illusion tounderstanding ? How do we go from shadow to light? And how can we break the chains thatretain us? In the recycling of all the subjects he says, by a historical understanding; to copewith complexity directly with a refusal to fall back on the facileness of duality. We have topeel away layers of the cultural onion, enter into noise, and face the enemy.

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