Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality 1993-2006 by Joseph Nechvatal

Austin Osman, Spare, untitled drawing, nd. Pastel on paper, 10 x 15 inches. Courtesy Caduceus Books

Austin Osman, Spare, untitled drawing, nd. Pastel on paper, 10 x 15 inches. Courtesy Caduceus Books

Joseph Nechvatal was ahead of the curve. In 1986 he was using computers and computer robotics to make paintings and from 1991-1993 he experimented with computer viruses. Nechvatal co-founded Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine in 1983, and makes audio art to this very day, using computer viruses to influence the compositional process. Nechvatal firmly believes that new technologies change the way we think and the way our senses connect to the environment. He believes that new technologies–virtual reality and computer networking, among others– expand our cognitive processes, providing us with new opportunities to explore the self.

Nechvatal invented the terms viractual and viractualism, and not surprisingly they mean the coming together of virtual space and corporeal space, the blending of technology and biology. These open-ended concepts provide artists with an ambiguous framework to approach the merging of art and technology. Nechvatal is an optimist and two essays included in this collection, “Computer Cynicism” and “Jean Baudrillard and Counter-Mannerist Art of Latent Excess,” describe how our immersion in virtual reality and cyberspace permanently contaminates reality and creates a “potential for escape”, through excess. Unlike Baudrillard, Nechvatal does not find contemporary art and the mass media to be void of all content and meaning, perpetual rehashings of simulations, and imitative through and through. Nechvatal does not believe that the mass media neutralizes reality without our consent.  He acknowledges the value of the closed system of Baudrillard’s simulations but he does think there is a way out. Borrowing from the writer/artist Georges Bataille, Nechvatal believes that the closed system of our simulation filled culture and media, can be broken free from through excess, or a process of dissolution. How would this come about?

In the essay, “Austin Osman Spare,” Nechvatal explores the potential and relevance of automatism, the practice of drawing in a trance-like state in order to tap repressed or unconscious impulses and desires. Nechvatal compares automatism to “self-initiated work with reflexive feedback loops”, which he considers “the basis of cybernetics”. In “Francis Picabia’s Singulier Idéal” Nechvatal writes about Picabia’s Dada mechanomorphic period, in which the artist made paintings of overlapping and intertwining fragments of machinery and the human body . “Jean Baudrillard and Counter-Mannerist Art of Latent Excess” is an analysis of the Abside (Apse) of the prehistoric Lascaux caves, a heavily overpainted surface filled with various layers of animal imagery, with each layer drawn as concisely as all the rest, so much so that Nechvatal refers to it as a “seductive sfumato”. Nechvatal believes that the heavy, cloud-like layering of imagery “…represents a thrusting off of optic and mental boundaries and thus is a complex mirroring of our own fleeting impressions which constitute the movement of our consciousness.” The palimpsest goes beyond the boundaries and rigid codes of realism or simulations, and generates new symbols and new concepts. By “overloading ideological representation” and creating images that border on complete dissolution, an artist can avoid the dangers of ironic Pop art. Immersive art allows the artist to go beyond an imitative art focused on simulations, one that attempts criticality but ends up wallowing in complicity. In accordance with Nechvatal’s somewhat utopian views of technology, we can enter the new world of the “meta-symbol” by exploring how our consciousness works within the realm of the virtual.

Joseph Nechvatal, Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality 1993-2006. New York Edgewise Press, 2009, 96 pp. $10 (ISBN: 1-893207-24-2)


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