On the occasion of Joseph Nechvatal's upcoming exhibition at Galerie Richard in New York (April 12 through May 26), the recent publication of his new book Immersion into Noise, and a concert of his remastered viral symphOny in surround sound. Taney Roniger is an artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn.
Bradley Rubenstein: We really want to get into the new book, as well as the upcoming show, but can you take a minute and give us a little backstory? You have always slipped in and out of categories: actions, painting, sound art, writing....
Joseph Nechvatal: Well, when I was going to undergraduate art school at Southern Illinois University (SIU), I was making drawings and little gouaches and smaller-type paintings on paper, generally. And they were well-received. I was not so interested in painting on canvas at the time. You have to put it in the perspective of the post-minimalist period when people were doing a lot of installation, and process-based activities – often anti-illusion type things. But I was more interested in poetic imagery and explicitly spiritual imagery. I really was into working on paper.
When I went on to Cornell I started painting on canvas for the first time and there I was very influenced by Jasper Johns. So I started getting into stencils and maps. I really found the stencil and cut-out and spray paint dynamically interesting… Already I was interested in spraying paint, the way I paint now with robotics.
Taney Roniger: But very physical, it sounds like.
JN: Yes, you know, it was a period of action and process. That went on for about a year. Then I moved to New York City – to TriBeCA. And then I started making more minimalist paintings. I was very influenced by Fred Sandback and Mel Bochner. I started doing rather large, white canvases with very small indications of shapes – this is partly because I was studying Ludwig Wittgenstein's picture theory in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with Arthur Danto at the time. I was trying to figure out how we recognize shapes that come towards us and shapes that go in – that kind of optical reading of reality.
So the Wittgenstein picture theory kicks in, which I picked up initially from Jasper Johns, because I had read that Johns was really interested in Wittgenstein. And, happily, Danto was doing this course on Andy Warhol and Wittgenstein, and it was extremely important to me. And at the same time I started doing some minimalist paintings.
Just before that I got into combine pieces using pieces of wood and stone in relationship to a white painted field. I remember I was using a lot of white oil stick at the time. So you'd get this kind of physical, textured surface that for me became a kind of a representation of white noise. You know, it had a kind of energetic feel, a kind of suggestivity to it of physics. I was interested in quantum physics and Albert Einstein and Fritjof Capra's book The Tao of Physics – all that was really important to me that year. So we're talking 1976 now.
That was my biggest hand painting period. At that point I had quite a nice little loft situation, but all of that went away in 1980. I ended up living in an abandoned methadone center on Canal Street where I did a show called Methadone Median. For that I started making tiny collage/paintings – and drawings. And that's what led me to making the all-over gray, networky, palimpsesty drawings that I first was recognized for.
At the same time – I can't leave this out – I was doing performance dance work. I had a dance-performance art group with Cid Collins and Carol Parkinson. We went to Europe with Carolee Schneemann on an art performance tour. That was very interesting.
I found my own language, my own vocabulary, with the gray, over-all, networky, superimpositional drawings.
TR: Which are not fully abstract, in any sense. Have you ever done anything that was really abstract? It seems like you've always retained some kind of representational element in your work.
BR: Or at least the process lends itself to some concrete reading…
JN: Yeah, I think that's safe to say. I've never thought of myself as a pure abstract artist. I don't think I have done anything that's entirely abstract. I love working in between polarities – between representation and abstraction. Just as I love working in between the ideas of Dionysian chaos and Apollonian order. I think to accept these dichotomies as given is a mistake. And really, it's where they interact is where it gets interestingly adroit. So…from the little drawings, I got into media. I started photographing these drawings, blowing them up – as photographs mounted on board. I was doing posters in the street, and taking these very intimate, difficult, obscure drawings and trying to force them into the public space. Which was paradoxical, of course. But that was my interest – in attacking the logo, the political and social logos of the times.
That developed into the first Computer Virus Project (right). That's when I had my first residency in Arbois, France, and I said, okay, I'm going to start all over. This is at the height of the AIDS crisis, and all that suggested, broadly and to me personally. I uploaded onto a big computer at the Saline Royale, Arc-et-Senans, my body of work – and made that the subject of the first computer virus attacks that Jean-Philippe Massonie at the Université de Franche-Comté worked with me on.
BR:I found that work to be quite interesting in that you were anthropomorphizing the digital process, which was quite new at the time. Now technology seems very friendly, we have talking phones and whatnot.
TR: You were also deeply affected by the AIDS crisis, but it seems to me that your interest in viruses has less to do with actual, biological viruses than it does with the virus as metaphor.
JN: Yes. I think art is for me deeply symbolist, and I think I can trace that back to my youth. My first real interests in any kind of artistic expression were the French Symbolist poets Stéphane Mallarmé, Comte de Lautréamont, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud, of course. I used to read them in high school after smoking a joint, and they took me out of my suburban box. So I think symbolism is an important component in my appreciation of art. Which could be seen as passé, or due for a comeback. I think art has to be conceptual, but it also has to be poetic with a metaphoric component.
TR: A lot of artists refuse to talk about metaphor these days.
JN: Well, it was a taboo, to be purged under the Greenbergian paradigm. I mean, that was to be avoided like the plague.
TR: Because then it was all about pure opticality, pure formalism…
JN: Pure materiality, pure formalism.
TR: Noise is decidedly anti-purist.
BR: And a more open-ended paradigm. You involve sound, visual thinking, literature…all the Wagnerian elements.
TR: Yeah, there's that great word that comes up again and again in the new book: Gesamtkunstwerk, the Wagnerian term for "total artwork." Joseph, in your previous book, Towards an Immersive Intelligence, you explored the shift in ontology that you saw emerging as a result of a nascent immersive consciousness connected to virtual reality. How did your interest in immersion come about, and how did it come to focus on noise, which is the subject of your new book, Immersion into Noise?
JN: It started, first of all, with my ideal for looking at most painting: that you enter the painting. Like Wassily Kandinsky said, he wanted to viewer to enter and sort of exist in, and explore, and be, and travel in a painting. So already I was on board with that. I just think it's the total use of your imagination as an artist or as a viewer of other artists, to give all and just get into it, and drop what you're doing and go there. But then it got more specific with my research with Roy Ascott for my Ph.D. There I wanted to take that immersive use of the mind and see how it could apply to new technology. So I started to study virtual reality and its ideals. And the idea for virtual reality is that you're immersed into a virtual world which you can navigate. I did my thesis on that topic, and I revisited art history and the history of architecture and ritual and different cultural manifestations through the wide lens of immersion. What I call the immersive impulse or desire for immersion. So that was where it became concrete, with the head-mounted device. And then I applied immersion to audio aspects when I created the viral symphOny.
I did quite a bit of research on audio and sound art, and anything that was non-musical in terms of audio experiments and that's what led me to the book about immersion into noise. So then I could use some of the lessons I learned from the VR research, and that idea of environment, of ambience, of surround sound, and apply it to a noisy surround vision. Pushing our sensibilities behind our head as well as in front of our eyes. Trying to use the full instruments that we have available to us to feel.
BR: Including music.
JN: I have to say, I'm very excited about the re-mastering of the audio piece, my viral symphOny, into a 5.1 surround-sound concert. Because I think when we're talking about immersion, and we actually physically re-master something into an immersive environment, we're getting closer to the book. Again, how form and content are trying to come closer together. I thought of this when you were talking about my method of writing the book. Because I think I brought my music closer to the book also, oddly enough. I realized some of the ideals in the book through this re-mastering of the symphony.
TR: And we will hear that soon?
JN: We will hear it as an audio concert, the night of the opening on the 12th of April at Harvestworks. You can take the same data that's being produced, and you can output it as a visual or as an audio production. It's easy to convert signals into whatever you want to. You just change the parameters. It's very, very easy to do. The question always comes down to: What are you doing? Why are you doing it? And not so much how you do it. But the fluidity part. So, of course when we think of the digital age, the fluidity of the internet, the networked connectivity, we think of flows of data. But for me it's an interest also in human potentiality, which is one of the reasons I got interested in cyberculture in the early '90s. It seemed like the platform for transformation. And that folded me back into my interests in Classical Greek poetry -- Ovid's Metamorphoses in particular – where things become other things, and flowers become people, and people become clouds, and this kind of super-fluidity, which we do experience in dreams sometimes, if we're lucky. But it has to do with a symbol, a poetic metaphor, for realizing our human potentiality and our full sensibilities towards our real life, the real people in our lives, our real politics – how we live our lives economically, and the decisions we make in the real world. So in that sense I'm a materialist. Actually, that's why I became interested in Speculative Realism, because they don't shy away from what they call transcendental materialism, which I really think kind of nails what I've been feeling and groping for. And it sounds of course oxymoronic, and certainly paradoxical – but maybe not! You have to dig in and dig around. Anyway, that kind of idea of human potentiality interests me. And I think that's the reason we have great art. I think art is to change consciousness.
TR: What I see underlying your whole project is a kind of syncretistic vision in constant search of destabilizing rigid polarities. But it's not like you're bringing the two poles together in order to form some third neither-here-nor-there thing; you're putting the two together in a kind of dynamic tension.
JN: Dynamic tension! Beautiful. That's the noise aspect. It has to have a tension, a kind of provocational element. It's not trying to say "Everything is everything." That may be true on one level, but we don't live on that level. I think it's more intellectual to perceive the minute differences, and that's what a connoisseur does.
TR: I think that's a really important distinction to make. It's not the unification of the two, it's the tension between them.
JN: I do think that's the real payoff for this – the knowledge that things can be contradictory and true simultaneously. If you've got that, then your life opens up and you're far more tolerant and understanding, and a better human being and a wiser human being.
TR: Another thing that I definitely want to ask you about is digitization. You've called it "the universal technical platform for networked capitalism." It's also your chosen artistic language. Can you talk a little bit about what makes it the ideal language for you?
JN: Okay. It's the idea of the Trojan horse. If you're going to be an agent of political consciousness, of resistant awareness, of non-acceptance, you still have to work within the language of the power. Otherwise, you're immediately marginalized and cast aside and have no subsequent contribution that's recognizable. So I think, again, you have to be driving a Trojan horse; you have to enter the dialogue, the vocabulary, the system, the semiotics, and then from there subvert. In other words, you can't subvert from the outside. You have to subvert from the inside. This is Jean Baudrillard. And I don't like a lot of Baudrillard, but I do think he was right in this case. Yeah, it's subversion from within. And that's really why I started doing the big blow-ups and got into the computer. If you read my artist's statement from Documenta 8, it's all about this subversion. Yes, I'm using the computer because the computer IS the dominant language of military economics, and we have to confront it head-on. So it is a kind of realism. Of course, you have to be very careful with that, but that was my intension. I mean, it's easy to make like an avant-garde stance and then end up just being swept up inside of some kind of slick production that plays along with the themes, so that all of your criticality is glossed over. And it's hard enough already to maintain criticality in cultural production, but once you're inside the slick game, you have to really be subversive. For me, of course, it really comes down to the imagery. I guess that's really why I decided the anus was an important image. It wasn't to be a sexual or provocative or funny image; it was to be a key portal to poke into the post-industrial information age.
BR: There is that element of subversion there, but do you think that it ultimately has to be perceived as subversive, or does it have greater implications in the long run…looking back over the last two decades, when it comes to things like CGI or RP work, that has kind of become the norm now…
JN: We are always in need of perceiving the act of multifarious and allusive searching for something antithetical to the established norm. I see that possibility in the digital's morbid deviation and subversion of the concept of individuality and authorship. It plays well upon today's desire to egregiously delimit signification through art and magic. Digital forms can enmesh and contravene, alter and disrupt the mundaness of communications in an inexorable, unrecognizable and chimerical way.
TR: You've talked about things like "digital fluidity," which is in some sense an oxymoron. You know what I mean? Because digital language is binary. So it strikes me as curious that if what you're after is in some sense exposing the fallacy of rigid binary thinking that your chosen language is itself binary.
JN: The string of zeros and ones underlying everything – you can't get more binary than that. I totally agree. But then it is like water. Water is made up of two kinds of atoms, but what we do with water varies drastically. We swim in it, we brush our teeth with it, we paint with it, we drink it, and we pee in it… It's undeniable that zeros and ones make up the structure of the digital medium, but I think it's almost not important because the medium is so fluid. The human spirit is being tapped down and down and down. We must strive to overcome the bullshit…It's a metaphysical battle. And each person, each woman and each man, is a soldier, and we all have to fight. And art I think is the domain for that.
TR: And you feel that – this potential to change – when you're with not only your own work, but when you have a profound experience with another work? You feel that it's changed you in some way?
JN: I do. Almost chemically. And it stays with you. And not that we don't outgrow our appreciation of certain artworks, particularly when you're young. In my case, I had a passion for Jasper Johns. I just couldn't get enough of him. I was in love with him, you could almost say. But then I outgrew it, you know? So that's part of the maturation period, I guess.
TR: Let's turn back to Immersion Into Noise. I just want to say that I found the chapter on Paleolithic cave art, where you describe your descent into the Lascaux cave (among others), so moving and so powerful.
JN: Thank you. I do think that's sort of the core of the book, and I try to make the case for the art of noise visually based on that, because I think it was the most concrete example – in immersive terms – that I experienced and that I could write about first-hand. I mean, as you can tell in the book I tried to write about visual noise from my travels and experiences. But yes, the cave of Lascaux was a transformative moment.
TR: One of the things I was struck by in this chapter was the element of danger inherent in making the descent into those caves. I mean, it wasn't exactly like stepping into the studio for a day's work for these early artists. I wonder if there's something of that element of danger, or fear, or incomprehensible enormousness that attracts us to the internet. I think you've touched on this somewhere.
JN: I have talked about how computers stimulate us almost like sublime vastness, which is both enticing and scary. Your typical sublime reaction to enormity is a mix of attraction and fear. There is a reinterest in sublime art, as you might know, in Brooklyn with the metal group Liturgy and the movement called transcendental black metal music. I like what they do, as well as Wolves In The Throne Room. They're connecting music back to the vastness of nature. I find that very moving. They are an influences on my nOise anusmOs show at Galerie Richard.
BR: In terms of Black Metal, those are pretty recent—more granola-based groups. Did earlier bands like Bathory or Mayhem have any influence on you? I can see how the reductive aspects of the music achieving maximum effect might…
JN: Not really. No. I was much more influenced by Merzbow and industrial noise groups like Current 93, Hafler Trio, Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Laibach, Steven Stapleton, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Smegma, Nurse with Wound and Einstürzende Neubauten.
TR: What were some of your other influences? How did you come up with the theme for this show?
JN: I was also listening to a lot of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, and late John Coltrane -- all this avant-garde sax. I was reading Manuel da Landa's breathtaking book Philosophy & Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason in which he explores simulations of emergence in systems of different scales, from the atomic to the social. He goes into the cellular automaton as a general principle as the basis of geology and tribal organizations and much, much more. A whole historical re-analysis through the cellular automata principle, which is, again, using simple elements with enough frequency that emergent properties pop up. I was reading that as I was listening to the music while I was in the south of France staying in a house in the country. So I would look at the flowers and the seeds all around at the same time.
TR: And Speculative Realism? Did that play a role?
JN: Yeah. I'd already been reading Speculative Realism well before because my neighbor Lauren Sedofsky had brought it to my attention. Actually I mention Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude, which is the book that got me started into Speculative Realism, in a couple of footnotes in Immersion Into Noise.
TR: It seems there is, with Speculative Realism, a reintroduction of metaphysics into a climate that's been hostile toward it for some time now…Metaphysics is now okay again.
BR:Or Steampunk even.
JN: Yes. I think that's the key thing. It's a hodge-podge. And in fact, Ray Brassier, who is the translator of the Quentin Meillassoux says that it's not a real movement, and that you can't lump these philosophers together. I've read Brassier's Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, a book on new nihilism, and his piece on noise music called Genre Is Obsolete, and I think he is right. With Speculative Realism you have speculative materialism, object oriented ontology, transcendental nihilism,neo-vitalism, transcendental materialism, and you have an interest in music, art and science fiction – which I think is just grand. But depending on how rigid you are as a philosopher, people could be put off by that. I was prepared for this by Deleuze, because for him philosophy is the creation of new concepts.
Their whole jumping off point is refuting Kant. Correlationism is the big thing they're trying to escape – where we can only understand the world because we have this human spectrum of perception, and so that's Being. And they say no to that, that being is post-human – it's much bigger than us. Again, that brings us back to the sublime and transcendental metaphysics and all that. So, in a nutshell, they basically say: We have to explore philosophy and being – ontology – outside of the Kantian strictures.
TR: And that we can do that; it's not beyond our capacities.
JN: And science fiction and speculation and art are all part of that. It's highly inspirational to an artist like myself and to some scientists because we are all into linked systems like the body, the environment, a-life, the cosmos. That's why I named my show nOise anusmOs, as in it anus and cosmos are linked to other systems.
TR: I see so many parallels between what you're talking about and your working process. Here's my understanding of the process, and correct me if I'm wrong: You and your programmer, Stéphane Sikora, author a piece of viral code, which is then inserted into a selected image from your database of previous works. As the viral code transforms the image by altering its colors and configurations, you select captured stills from the process and play with them to make final compositions from which paintings are made. During the painting process, your hand does not touch the canvas; rather, the application is made by a robotic device acting on commands issued by the computer.The whole thing strikes me as a sort of wonderful dance -- a dialectic, perhaps -- between human agency and non-human processes. You don't seem to privilege one over the other; it's just this back and forth.
JN: I would not ever say dialectic, because I don't believe in dialectics. Deleuze does away with dialectics. It's too limiting. You have all the little differences in between the polarities – all those micro-areas that are far more rich and interesting and complex. So I would say: dialog, but not dialectic. A conversation or dance.
TR: When you're selecting your host images for a viral attack, is it significant that they're always your own images, your own prior works?
JN: Yes. The only other example I used in an attack was two paintings of Andy Warhol's money paintings, which I just did for a short little YouTube thing, because that was a specific thing for the Occupy Wall Street blog that I was happy to participate in. Otherwise, no. It's got to be within the family. It's not applicable for all things, in my mind. Or it would lose its meaning, it would dilute its usefulness.
TR: You mean if you took an image from…well, from anywhere out there in the culture. You could conceivably do this to any image, right? And interesting things would happen.
JN: Absolutely. It could be any image. And then the question is why. That's why when I talk about losing focus and the impact getting lost, that's exactly what I'm talking about. If it's any image, then why any one image? So I'm trying to maintain its function as art. I think I talked about that in the introduction of the book that it's important to maintain this – even if artificially constructed – definition of art as something other. As a form of ideology. That's what artists are supposed to do: challenge ways of thinking.
BR: But you get two different metaphorical situations, one is you attacking culture, the other is more an interrogation of your own history.
JN: That would be creative destruction.
TR: In either case -- whether it be directed outward or inward -- thinking about thinking is really important to you.
JN: I think so. That's why I try not to make too much of a division between my philosophizing and my artistic creation. I mean, I'm not a philosopher, hard-core. But even Nietzsche himself said that the ideal philosopher would be an artist. And I'm trying to live that out on a mini-scale by keeping it moving back and forth between categories. Again, not looking for mush, not looking for homogenization, but looking for those differences which make for creation, that suggest new avenues of creation. Difference is novelty. I believe that art should try to be something novel, and I believe in innovation and invention. And I don't fall prey to these postmodernist myths of stasis and decay and repetition and simulation. That's a trap you can fall in if you want to, but I don't want to go there.
TR: You clearly traveled a lot while doing research for Immersion Into Noise. Travel is incredibly immersive.
JN: Yes, it's inherently immersive. Couple that with reading about what you're doing, the history of where you've been. I think that's true knowledge. And then having physical experiences in space, and the cultural things -- the wine and art. The art is key for me. Looking at this painting here [points to painting in studio], it's easy for me to wrap it around my head. It's very easy. It's like this rectangle becomes a bubble that goes behind my eyes. And that's what I'm hoping that people can project when they look at the work – is to get into it.
TR: That's the thing. It doesn't have to be an installation environment for you to experience immersion.
JN: I don't feel it has to be. It can be, and that's obviously the most literal. But the literal way isn't always the only or the best way. For me, I tend to use all-over compositions – not always, but often. That suggests that it could go on forever. I think in the chapter on Jackson Pollock I tried to make that clear. With the two museums that were proposed of his work. One by architect Peter Blake and one by Tony Smith, a hero of mine. But they took that idea -- the derogatory comment that Aldous Huxley made about Pollock's work at the Museum of Modern Art, saying "Oh, but it's quite a bit like wallpaper. It could go on forever!" You know, disdainfully. That's what Allen Kaprow saw in Pollock's show at Betty Parson's gallery, where he said, "Okay, I understand. It goes around the whole room, meaning it's all the world, meaning it's the street, meaning it's a happening." That's where he got his idea to create the happening, it was from seeing this exhibition of Pollock's. So this idea of expansion, of distribution, of availability all around us is really a suggestion that has many applications.
BR: Can you talk a little about the work in this show?
TR: Yes, to what extent is it important that people know how the paintings are made – your process, your involvement with artificial intelligence, etc.?
JN: Very important, and then I hope they'll forget it. I want them to go to their own place with them. I don't want to over-determine the interpretation of the work. At the same time I don't want to deny where it came from or how it's done – the viractual materiality it's embedded in. But it's more than that, so I don't want to be self-limiting, and I don't want to limit the viewer. It's complicated.
TR:I see such a consistency across all your various media. Your prose style in Noise, for example, is characteristically syncretistic, non-linear, "all-over" -- in other words, it's noisy.
JN: Yeah. I thought it would have been silly to do a strictly academic style, when you're exploring something that is the opposite of that.
TR: It's not like it's stream-of-consciousness, with no punctuation. There's certainly a structure there, but the voice is ecstatic, personal, mercurial, even. And the text moves in unexpected directions.
JN: I think it's my allover approach to life that provides a moveable aspect that we're talking about.
TR: You make it explicit that your subject matter is ideology.
JN: Yeah. That started back with the early drawings. And that's why I started to draw these cliché images. When you look carefully at some of those – most of those – early gray drawings, they're pile-ups of biblical imagery and Playboy imagery and military or "macho man" cowboys. Because I was trying to work on cultural ideology and the visual language in which it's spoken.
I think we're talking about our own upbringing, our childhood, our relationship to our parents. Our relationship to our church, or synagogue, or whatever. Whoever – our boy scout master. Baseball coach – what else is there? All the adults that teach us how to live. Which is not a bad thing, obviously, but it's something to be scrutinized. Particularly when you reach maturity. That's just the power of scrutiny, of self-reflectivity. That's how you can get to reprogramming yourself. First you have to get to what you don't want to do, and stop doing that.
TR: So that's what self-transcendence means to you -- moving beyond our unreflective cognitive habits, our conventional notions of the self, our utilitarian consciousness…
JN: Yes. And a kind of connection to the immanence of nature and materiality, the full vibratory spectrum. That is where it gets back to Speculative Realism, to understanding the limits of our perceptual spectrum and at the same time acknowledging that reality and being are beyond us while we still try to understand.
BR: Is it important that the viewer experience that transcendence the same way you do, or are you leaving that open-ended?
JN: I think that's an important understanding, particularly in urban life, for people to reflect on. I hope that's what they'll get from this show. That's what my intention is: that urbanites, sophisticated art viewers, will for one instance think about the grander beyond that and have appreciation of it. The great outdoors, indoors, inside them. Yeah, connecting the anus to the cosmos is for that purpose. To place an extremely personal, sensitive, human aspect, in a poetic marriage to that divine humongous "beyond us."
TR: Huston Smith comes to mind: "The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder." Always expanding, but with full knowledge that there's always that "magnificent more," as you say.
JN: I see it in some young artists who are really trying to work with getting back to respecting the enormity of nature. And of course it has everything to do with a kind of dialog with cyberculture. The insufficiency of cyber-interactivity and networking and all that. No one ever said that would be the be-all and end-all. - Bradley Rubenstein
Galerie Richard is at 514 West 24th Street in Manhattan.
Shown: "Web" (1984), unique lithograph on paper (1/1) 19" x 21"
Computer Virus Project (1994), Galerie In Situ, Aalst, Belgium, partial installation view
"euphOric anus" & "anus cOsmOs" (2011), each 44" x 66" computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas
"Exuberant Corpus" (1990), computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 275 cm x 204 cm
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.