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Artist "Paints" with Artificial Life and Computer Viruses

Joseph Nechvatal's video and large-scale works explore the relationships between the technological and the biological.
Joseph Nechvatal, vOluptuary drOid décOlletage, 2002. Images courtesy the artist

With the help of computer viruses, Chicago-Born artist Joseph Nechvatal creates painted works that blur the lines between new and old media. Now on display at Art Laboratory Berlin, bOdy pandemOnium: Immersion into Noise, a new exhibition created with custom artificial life software and computer robotics, features both recent and past works from the artist.

Two large, computer-robotic assisted paintings take center stage: frOnt windOw retinal autOmata (2012) and rear windOw curiOsites (2012). The images, which feature paintings of intimate body parts (the retina and rectum) corrupted by a computer virus, are intentionally enigmatic. Nechvatal tells The Creators Project that this is an attempt to address concerns surrounding surveillance, encryption, safety, privacy, identity and objectivity.


On view is a famous 2011 viral computer software de-generative work titled Viral Venture. This piece is accompanied by a musical score for 200 electric guitars created by the composer Rhys Chatham. Nechvatal likes to describe these works as exercises in his theory of “viractualism,” a movement which seeks to create and understand interfaces “between the technological and the biological.”

Joseph Nechvatal, viral attaque transmissioN, 1993

“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),” Nechvatal explains on Living Gallery. He pioneered this artistic practice between 1991—1993 as an artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale and Ledoux Foundation's computer lab in Arbois, France. Thus, in the hometown of Louis Pasteur, a pioneer of germ theory and vaccination, Nechvatal began experimenting with computer viruses as an artistic strategy.

“The AIDS virus was impacting me emotionally at the time, so it made sense to move in that direction,” says Nechvatal. “I wanted to overcome the fear I was feeling, and it expressed my attraction towards things [of] beauté tragique (tragic beauty).” He became fascinated with viruses, which replicate but are not living things. He also credits William S. Burroughs' 1970 essay "The Electronic Revolution" as a key to his idea of making art with computer viruses. (Burroughs, in his writing and interviews, described words and writing as part of a virus.)


“After my first computer-assisted paintings were created using robot-assisted means in 1986, I sought to create paintings around the concept of the virus,” Nechvatal explains. “I developed this idea by considering an image as a host that is used to host viruses: active agents whose role it is to manipulate and degrade the information contained in the image.”

Joseph Nechvatal, Viral Venture at Oltre il sublime show in Trieste, 2013

“The negative connotations of the HIV virus as a vector of disease is reflected in the principle of degradation of the image,” Nechvatal adds. “But here the virus is also the basis of a creative process, producing newness in reference to vector genetic information in biological systems.”

In 2002, the artist, in collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora, began exploring artificial life. Their goals were to merge virtual reality with artificial life by studying how synthetic systems show behaviors similar to organic life inside virtual worlds. “For me, this 'ALife' approach became a painting tool and a way to create viral animations that involve cyborg pop culture, I suppose,” says Nechvatal.

It is this mutation of Nechvatal's work that is on display at bOdy pandemOnium. He says that art and the history of technology are often marked by ruptures, and most histories overlook moments where “deep fusion” occurs: “I felt that we need now another model for cultural consciousness, other than the majestic forward and upward thrusting model of evolution. Something more humbly folded in, on itself. bOdy pandemOnium is about insinuating penetration—as in a viral-host model—as it focuses on the human retina and rectum exclusively. The idea is to surge emergent and embedded consciousness.”


Orgiastic abattOir flawless ignudiO, 2004

To create the new works in bOdy pandemOnium, Nechvatal used a custom virus program created by Sikora in the C++ programming language. Sikora's virus invades, destroys, and transforms Nechvatal's painterly images, which are based on intimate parts of the body.

Nechvatal believes this gives the work a “digital clarity” true to our techno age. “For bOdy pandemOnium, bio-tech genetic programming is applied to the traditions of painting and art music. This is important because it represents the seminal function that occurs between the wild real-time and the captured/protected.”

Joseph Nechvatal's bOdy pandemOnium: Immersion into Noise is on display at Art Laboratory Berlin until June 21. Click here to learn more.


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