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Joseph Nechvatal Interview

Joseph Nechvatal's Site


Many thanks for the opportunity to interview you for Biota.org. For those not familiar with your background, can you please introduce your academic background?

Sure. I took a BFA at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale first, taking design classes with Buckminster Fuller and making art in a permissive post-minimalist environment. I then went to Cornell University with the idea of getting an MFA, but found the art department there years behind Southern Illinois University, so I left and went to New York and Columbia University where I worked towards an MPhil, studying with Arthur Danto most notably.

In the late 90s I earned a Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at Roy Ascott's Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at The University of Wales College. That was a fantastic intellectual experience. My research was focused on the immersive ideals behind virtual reality. Your readers can examine the introduction and download the full thesis as a pdf file if they wish.

From your academic background, can you explain the movement from academia to creating Alife art installations?

Yes. My involvement with Alife comes out of my artistic post-conceptual background. From 1991-1993 I worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation's computer lab in Arbois, France on what I came to call The Computer Virus Project. This was my first experiment with computer viruses as a creative ploy. I created a series of digital paintings and a computer animation from this process. I worked there with Jean-Philippe Massonie at the Laboratoire MIS at the Université de Franche-Comté on the initial software - which was written in Basic. At the time I would launch a viral attack into the host image - which was my body of visual work accomplished up to that time. However there was nothing to see as the computer virus went through its procedures until I would check to see what had happened overnight.

The AIDS virus was impacting on me emotionally at the time, so it made sense to move in that direction. I wanted to overcome the fear I was feeling - and it expressed my attraction towards things beauté tragique. I think that the life/non-life idea inherent in the viral situation is fascinating. The text The Electronic Revolution by William S. Burroughs from 1970 was also key to the idea. In it he theorizes that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible.

Then in 2002 I extended that artistic exploration into the field of viral artificial life through my collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. I met Stéphane at a conference organized by Prof. Jean-Claude Heudin called Virtual Worlds 2000, which was held at Pôle Universitaire Léonard de Vinci in Paris. I remember seeing Bruce Damer talk there. The conference's goals, which, like the first Virtual Worlds conference in 1998, were to develop a discourse around the merging of Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Life (ALife) (what one might call VRALife). This involved the study of synthetic systems that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural living systems inside virtual reality worlds.

I fell into conversation with Stéphane and from that we launched into a collaboration intended on extending my previous exploration with computer software modeled on the viral. From there we expanded the project by working with an artistic group of fantastic young French people called music2eye. These are people dedicated to helping artists operating with digital technology advance their work. We expanded the project into installations form that I called Viral Counter-Attack.

Your work is an aesthetically rich inspiration to other Alife developers. One of the most powerful aspects is that Alife is a practical tool in your work rather than a study in itself. Do you consider Alife a tool like a paintbrush, or is it more abstract?

The Alife approach is only a painting tool or utilitarian expression in its manifestation. For me, my work with Alife is an abstract way of doing philosophically based art. Cyborg imagery in pop culture, I suppose, fruitfully fertilized this aesthetic effort by imaginatively inviting me to experience my ontology through losing track of my body and becoming what seems to be pure viral consciousness.

The critique of the sexual/racial body and the problems it poses are now widely understood, but I was bored by the constant stoppage, as every conceptual model of the body can be made to seem a fall-back into an older politics or metaphysics - and hence a backhanded re-affirmation of them. Thus you see the benefits of an aesthetic Alife viral ontological full of complexity via apparently autonomous computational self-modeling systems.

I found this discourse interesting because it embraces such diverse fields as advanced computer graphics, evolutionary computational systems, and the simulation of ecological systems. Here we come to a fundamental human exploration concerning the spatialization of consciousness relating to the recognition of life. OK, a working definition of life is quite important to establishing whether an artificial system exhibits life or not. But such a definition is still under debate with some biologists insisting that life can only be found in certain hydro-carbon chains while others speculated that life is best characterized as islands of negative entropy. Moreover, as we are learning through the Human Genome Project, like everything, life itself has been succumbing to digital dematerialization.

You work has a strong social theme - perhaps this is implicit in creating Alife art. Do you consider the social themes through your work or is this an emergent property of the work?

It has been there from the start. For me, to make contemporary art it is necessary to utilize contemporary tools and materials in conjunction with contemporary social and spiritual issues. The attraction to the computer - both as form and content for my art - was primarily a result of my working with ideologies of power - specifically the power of the media in shaping our consciousness. I already was working on this theme beginning around 1980 in my drawings and photomechanical blow-ups. This work investigated American fundamentalism under the Reagan administration and the enhanced threat of nuclear Armageddon of the time. When the computer in the mid-80s came on the corporate/governmental/military scene in a big way, it became clear to me that that was how power was to be administrated and enforced thereafter. Of course this is a few years prior to the personal computer revolution, which amended my views somewhat.

The real power of the virus as a life/non-life model entity in our times of body/machine interfacing is in its broad associative value. It's metaphorical value, if you will. As Bruno Latour says in his book We Have Never Been Modern, the smallest virus takes you from sex to the unconscious, then to Africa, tissue cultures, DNA and San Francisco, but the analysts, thinkers, journalists and decision-makers slice the delicate network traced by the virus for you into tidy compartments where you will find only science, only economy, only social phenomena, only local news, only sentiment, only sex. I want to avoid this slicing. The times seem to demand it. Indeed I think that this kind of work invites an active reflection on the virus/host arrangements in terms of our current ideological conflicts.

Do you consider your exploration of Alife through art self-contained or is it referenced to external Alife theory? Do you read academic Alife research? Do you follow the Alife hobbyist developments?

Yes I do. Something exciting happens when one looks at Alife not for the perspective of a closed conceptual system, but to find an opening conceptual edge. This theoretical edge is more important today than ever after we have learned that modernist reductionist assumptions are not easily changed by mere postmodern negations. For example, postmodernists typically reject scientific reductionism, but often assume a kind of fractionated cultural reductionism. Thus people stay trapped in the scientistic objectivist model because it is largely the only working one out there. What seems to be needed are self-mutating, heterogeneous conceptual models to think differently with; self-re-organizing conceptual models that are never just the completed or inverted objectivity of the usual conceptions.

Congratulations on the European Journal's award for the Best Avant-Garde Art Exhibition of 2005. Can you please give some background to the work that won the award?

Thanks Tom. That was for a show called <Contamination> which was created at Château de Linardié - which is an art space near Toulouse, France. With <CONTAMINATION> artificial life viruses are modeled to be autonomous agents living in/off the hermaphroditic image. These attacks simulate a population of active viruses functioning as an analogy of a viral biological system. The host for the viruses are the digital files on which the computer-robotic assisted paintings in <CONTAMINATION> are based. Among the different techniques used here are models that result from embodied artificial intelligence and the paradigm of genetic programming.

The dominant hermaphroditic visual form seen throughout <CONTAMINATION> is created through the computational morphing of testicles, ovaries, female breasts, and the buttocks of both sexes. <CONTAMINATION> was chosen by me for the title of this exhibition for a very specific reason. Through the utilization of digital-robotics, the paintings on view hold in suspension aesthetic moments preserved from real-time computer viral attacks which I performed using the most recent version of my custom viral software. This C++ based software, developed with the programmer Stéphane Sikora, launches unpredictable progressive real-time virus operations that live off and transform its image hosts.

What advice can you provide to people interested in exploring Alife issues through art? Where should they start? Any advice on things to avoid?

I am not willing offer any advise along these lines other than people should always start with their heart. Alife is such an astonishingly heterogeneous field. My goal in investigating Alife in terms of fine art was to point our society towards a state of refined Paganism intuit with our profoundness as creatures respectful of our living earth. In that sense I am against too much scientific idealism in Alife.

What is your broader sense of the Alife community?

Again I don't want to generalize too much here, but in many ways it advances the Duchampian proposition for art.

Many thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.

My great pleasure. Keep up the good work.

The interview was taken by Biota.org's Tom Barbalet via email on January 27th, 2006.

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