Monday, June 3, 2013

Battlestar Galactica, by G. W. Smith

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G. W. Smith is an English Lit major turned systems engineer turned kinetic sculptor, and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems. His work has been exhibited twice, and he has two public installations; but since 2005 he has been engaged in computer animation studies of possible works based on his "Cybersign" programmable armature. He is also the author of Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine (Birds-of-the-Air Press, 2011). He lives with his wife Dianna in New Orleans.

Battlestar Galactica
by G. W. Smith ©2013

Those of us in revolt against post-Modernism – and, more to the point, in favor of the new "poetic-mythic-scientific" renaissance proclaimed by Joseph Nechvatal – will share at least two goals: first, to identify the artist heroes from our recent past who can be for us what Cézanne was for the early Modernists; and second, to remain vigilant for the wider stirrings of revolution.

And here – on both counts – we must be greatly encouraged by the latest news from Europe. A cadre of dedicated young men and women have taken charge of the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland – and they have launched to the aid of their compatriots in America no less than the Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs.

This 552-page volume lands on our desks with a thump, redolent of ink from art house Kehrer Verlag of Heidelberg; on its cover is a photo of what might be mistaken for a nuclear explosion; and from its pages emerges – in startlingly complete fashion – the work and figure of Jean Tinguely.

Jean Tinguely! – the Swiss/French kineticist whose work is to be found throughout modern museumdom, and whose clanking mechanical monuments are treasured in conservative Zurich, Switzerland and even more conservative Columbus, Indiana; the performance artist who dropped leaflets from an airplane over Dusseldorf to advertise his next exhibition, and who set off explosions in MOMA's backyard and the deserts of Nevada; the dashing figure who snatched Niki de Saint Phalle from the cover of Life magazine and helped her realize her dreams of becoming an artist in her own right; the sculptor who worked with an incredible fury – but also with an incredible discipline.

This catalog has been released with historic precision, for it is only with the passage of some time – and against the complicated background of the excesses of post-Modernism – that Tinguely's real stature has become clear; but we must be careful to distinguish between revolution and rebellion.

Rebellious artists we have aplenty – ready to flaunt every social convention, and to set themselves apart from other artists, in exchange for a quick buck. Tinguely, on the other hand, sought always to engage his fellow artists and art theorists; and his body of work represents forty years of dedication to a coherent and ever-evolving program, and one which looked both to the past and the future.

"He is one of us!" the Agglomerationists will proclaim; and yes, much of Tinguely's work was built of cast-off machine parts; and yes, almost all of it has an improvisational quality; but for these makers of balls of stuffed animal toys to compare themselves with the great Tinguely is to repeat the mistake of the countless paint-spatterers who have invoked Jackson Pollock.

Consider, in particular, the electric motor – that same electric motor which even now powers the Internet in hundreds of millions of disc drives, and which is poised, further, to do no less than to save our planet by replacing the internal combustion engine in futher hundreds of millions of automobiles. Tinguely is the one twentieth-century artist – and in marked contrast to Calder, who made an inglorious retreat from it – who consistently and successfully employed this patiently-beating heart of the modern world in his work.

Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) by Jean Tinguely,1954

It is to Tinguely, in short, that we must attribute the first comprehensive success in humanizing the machine – a program that will become only more urgent as the machine sprouts its own arms and legs; and it is thus that he re-established the great thrust of Western art history, whose role has always been to assimilate science and technology on society's behalf.

And it is thus, also, that we justify a museum catalog as the centerpiece of our own call to arms! The very words "avant garde" – the advance guard – imply some forward movement, some direction; and to use these words without a knowledge of what has gone before, and without having subjected oneself to the discipline of a particular medium, is meaningless.

As to the enthusiasm engendered among the public by such an approach, we are reminded again and again by the marvelously complete biographical section of this marvelously complete catalog that exhibitions of Tinguely's work typically drew record crowds to the galleries and museums; and we are further reminded that, in the summer of 1964, there were no less than two Tinguely-like characters on the screens of American movie theaters: one played by a young Paul Newman (in "What a Way to Go!"), and a second played by a young Jack Lemmon (in "Good Neighbor Sam").

The catalog, however, is also forthright in acknowledging the early failure of his native country to recognize his genius: Tinguely, like Brancusi, launched his career in Paris – a circumstance which the Swiss are working furiously to address.

Indeed, the resources which have been dedicated to the Museum Tinguely, and to this catalog, can have only one interpretation: Jean Tinguely – the artist of the machine par excellence – may be emerging as the great artistic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.


"'poetic-mythic-scientific' renaissance": "Our Digital Noology: Catherine Perret in conversation with Joseph Nechvatal," Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture

"Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs": Museum Tinguely Basel: The Collection, Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

"the Agglomerationists": Saltz, Jerry, "Clusterfuck Esthetics", The Village Voice, Nov. 29, 2005

Smith, G. W., Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine, 1844-2005, New Orleans: Birds-of-the-Air-Press, 2011, 2012.

Smith, G. W., "From Search Engines to Saxophones: It's the Machine, Stupid!", On-Verge, Jan. 31, 2013

Photo credits

Jean Tinguely
Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) 1954
painted steel and electric motor
174 x 81.7 x 108.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1979
©Jean Tinguely

Aesthetic States of Frenzy, by Joseph Nechvatal

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Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation's computer lab in Arbois, France on The Computer Virus Project: an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002 he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Dr. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) University of Wales College, Newport, UK where he served as conference coordinator for the 1st International CAiiA Research Conference entitled Consciousness Reframed: Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era (July 1997); an international conference which looked at new developments in art, science, technology and consciousness. Dr. Nechvatal presently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA). His book of essays Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006) was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press. (Website:

The following paper was presented at Cyber-Nietzsche: Tunnels, Tightropes, Net-&-Meshworks, a conference held at The New School, New York, NY, April 13th, 2013.

Odyssey Palimpsest #19

Aesthetic States of Frenzy: Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy and the Odyssey Palimpsest noisy mesh challenge to the post-modern tragic carnival

by Joseph Nechvatal

If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. - Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

The realm of aesthetics holds for Friedrich Nietzsche a position of supremacy. For Nietzsche, art is the unique offset to prevailing forms of nihilism. The basic role of art in Nietzsche's philosophy is that of establishing a countermovement to nihilism because art both destroys handed down nihilistic values and creates novel aesthetic values that allow for our inner intensity to flourish. This paper will address what Nietzsche called the aesthetic state - a state of being that is achieved through the intelligent sensuality of art - through a recent body of work that I have executed called the Odyssey Palimpsest.

For Nietzsche, the aesthetic state is an altered state of consciousness achieved through an artistic transcendental aesthetic. This aesthetic is the highest form of human activity, because in certain works of art opposites are conjoined. And it is through the majesty of such conjoined art that we find an optimistic path out of nihilism and towards our own aggrandizement. So we artists and thinkers need Nietzsche now more than ever - because there is so much to be nihilistic about in our mad and tragic world. Consequently, I am interested in Nietzscheian tragic aesthetic when Nietzsche emphasizes affective states – states of mind/body that we may enter into as a form of creative expression of our will to power in art.

Today the meeting of neuroaesthetics and information technology is one of the vital and pleasurable arenas in which interesting currents align for art. My endeavor here shall be to give evidence of this pleasurable meeting through my recent meshwork series called Odyssey Palimpsest – work that returns us symbolically to Homer's ancient lost hero. I will place this somewhat odd Odyssey in relationship to Nietzsche's affirmation of life and in line with his development of the tragic hero in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). His doctrine of tragedy is based in the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of false individuation may be broken in the interests of a consciousness of restored oneness. Thus it is an affirmation of the mystery of everything.

Odyssey Palimpsest is a highly elaborated ornamental scene sequence that embodies primordial joyful frenzy and primordial pain. The lyric poet that you will see in Odyssey Palimpsest identifies himself with the pain of the world and merges into the unification of the world. But perhaps it is necessary to comment briefly on two of Nietzsche’s well-known aesthetic formulations: Dionysus (the god of intoxication, orgies, forces of nature and music) and Apollo (god of individuation, illusion, form and order). This use of the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian is famously linked to Nietzsche where he wants to bring to our attention the way in which the development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian. As you know, Nietzsche's aesthetic usage of these concepts, which was later developed philosophically, first appeared in The Birth of Tragedy. His premise there was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian artistic impulses are needed to form artistic tragedies. It is through a dialectical interplay of these two opposing - and at the same time complementary - aesthetic elements that my art owes its continuous allegiance to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche famously assimilated the Apollonian and the Dionysian together under the name of an experience of art. Odyssey Palimpsest attempts an equivalent, as it fuses chaotic disturbance with classical beautiful forms. It is an attempt at situating us somewhere between the surface of empirical diverse reality and the chasm of shattering incoherence where we must each pick through the meshwork and recover figurative meaning out of entangled ground. This approach relates to my book Immersion Into Noise (2011) where I have mapped out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity I call the art of noise by tracing its past eruptions where figure/ground merge and flip the common emphasis to some extent. Immersion Into Noise concludes with a look at the figural aspect of this aesthetic lodged within the ground of consciousness itself.[1]

But we must address noise aesthetics and the art context within our broad-spectrum data-monitoring info-economy environment of background machine-to-machine gigabyte[2] communication murmur - and think through and deploy noise art as an embedded subject within the larger environment of ubiquitous computing cognitive capitalism.[3] To do so, I will be examining Odyssey Palimpsest along with some trends and vivid prospects for what I have been speculatively calling noise art - that is visual art as compared to noise music.[4]

In brief, noise art aesthetics[5] is an unbound zone (where qualitative shifts of coordinates takes place) in which it is possible to carry out art experiments that would be unachievable in a different place. What noise art aesthetics has to offer is the possibility to understand things in a different way, shifting boundaries, departing from established functions. Of course art itself has recently ossified into some established functions that might provoke a nihilistic response. For example, I have been following the public proclamations on art of The New School philosopher Simon Critchley. Critchley described in 2010 contemporary art’s dominant trend as an in-authenticity of “mannerist situationism” based in rituals of reenactment.[6] Critchley goes on in 2012 to describe the circumstances further, as the “cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.”[7] So things have gotten no better. Clearly something deep-seated must be reevaluated. And art aesthetics is more interesting when it does the work of shifting meaning. So I am declining here Critchley’s urging for contemporary art to focus in on the monstrous, as, in my opinion, that parody of gloomy general dystopia only plays into the extreme spectacle aspect of mannerism. To be fair, Critchley doesn’t explain what or who he means by the monstrous[8] but when I think of the monstrous today I think of the high visibility of Lady Gaga (and her little monsters), extreme Hollywood lowbrow movies and grotesque far right political claims and postures. And in art (commodified and co-opted by the socio-economic system that is its life blood) we have had the work of Eduardo Kac, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Orlan and Paul McCarthy.

No, here I am only interested in a new contemporary aesthetic labor based in a certain exquisite untouchablity, and unseeablity – a monster sacré affinity of disconnectedness, that focuses on an impregnable diva-like commitment to a nihilistic aesthetic of becoming imperceptible.[9] I am interested in an exquisite monster sacré aesthetic (where personal anthropomorphic eccentricities and indiscretions are tolerated) that is bent on combining the neo-materialist[10] vibrant world with a wider vision of political awareness including private spiritual, ecstatic or numinous themes accessible through the generative subjective realm of each individual; an aesthetics of perception politics based on resonance - not a politics of visibility - which reveals in minute particulars the full spectrum of the extensive social-political dimensions.

This monster sacré affinity is a materialist nihilism of no that (if it goes far enough) can transform a metamorphosis (subject to the flickering formative forces of emergence)[11] into an all-embracing yes of delicate abhorrence. So I am advocating here with Odyssey Palimpsest not the passive and thus incomplete nihilism of form, but a generative and virulent and curative nihilistic frenzy that unleashes forces of reverberation to emerge and resonate like a web of inter-connected, molecular and viral relational affects and intensities of dissonance, deviation, and the incidental. I believe this to be in accordance with Nietzsche’s aesthetic state.

Such noise frenzy makes use of the key notion of eternal return – an access to an appreciation of the eternal through analogy - that is at the heart of great art and enables art to express hope within the reality of current tragedy. It is, indeed, the access to the eternal that is the key motif of The Birth of Tragedy as is suggested when Nietzsche writes that any artwork is worth only as much as it is able to press upon experience a stamp of the eternal.

My project Odyssey Palimpsest is situated in my immersive noise theory of turmoil exchanges of figure/ground relationships: an agile art that emphasizes human and non-human entanglements. This is an art that depends on playing out nihilistic negativity by intensifying its forces into an affirmative nihilism. This nimble nihilist bracketing pushes us towards open de-familiarizations, challenging us to think outside of the normal system of human consciousness. So Odyssey Palimpsest as nimble frenzy is implicated in the very type of problematic instability that the ‘self’ undergoes in Nietzsche’s thought: the cohesiveness of the culture/state distinction, like the cohesiveness of the ‘self/other’ distinction disintegrates with the ontological instability produced by the annihilation of the real as distinguishable from the illusory. With a nimble art of noise - based in the distinction between active nihilism and passive nihilism (or monstrous nihilism) - Odyssey Palimpsest can depict the underground vigor of form as an active verve that can only be speculated at by thinking beyond the discursive. And that enacts a shift away from the subject-object dualism that is currently much lauded by Object-Oriented Ontologists.

The embeddedness of our inner world - the life of our imagination with its intense drives, suspicions, fears, and loves - guides our intentions and actions in the political-economic world. Our inner world is the only true source of meaning and purpose we have and exquisite frenzy-gazing[12] (that involves self-investigation) is the way to discover for ourselves this inner life. So we might consider now that, in contrast to our frenzied data market surveillance culture,[13] that which trains us to fear the atrocious eyes of outer perception, a protracted gazing art practice based in absorption could encourage the development of agile clandestine exchanges based on the embedded individual intuitive eye in conjunctive contact with an abundant optical-mnemonic commons (not cloud)[14] that shares a sensibility for building a defensive force.

Of course this sphere of anti-purist gazing-commons (essentially a cooperative rejection of the tyranny of labels, essential identities, privileged abstractions and fixed ideas) is what allows art to construct unstable distinctions between subjects and objects that embraces the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces; from the infinitude of actual forms to formless voids of virtuality. Subsequently, Odyssey Palimpsest requires a challenging exchange of the hierarchy of figure and ground (figure and abstraction) through a struggle between noise[15] and invisibility.[16] So I want to argue for an agony of style of logo invisibility - and the importance that should be given noise art aesthetics.

The principle of constructing patterns of infinite becomings is perhaps inherent in avant-garde artistic tradition (avant-garde values). But this avant-garde now, I think, should be considered in terms of noisy invisibility not ontology, as deviating from the regularities of visible normality provides the avant-garde new sources for artistic production. Certainly, the values of the avant-garde have always been interfering with the channels of artistic production and reception - and these values are responsible for expanding the forms and definitions of art itself.[17] But like in nature, noise in art plays a productive role in the invisible life of a system when it stresses becoming-imperceptible.

But a becoming-imperceptible-invisible monster sacré, today can no longer be a form of enfant terrible with-drawl, akin to Marcel Duchamp’s strategic invisibility,[18] but rather a phantasmagorical plunge into what Félix Guattari expresses as the chaosmosis.[19] Odyssey Palimpsest marks such a qualitative transformation into a non-place where being and non-being reverse into each other, unfolding out and enfolding in their respective outsides. This short-circuit causes a creative conflagration typical of the art of noise.

Let’s consider the difference between noise art (based on an individual’s inner vision) versus the monstrous mass machine data market,[20] with its digital functionalism. For me the difference is in looking into and projecting onto something - thereby discovering an emerging manifestation based in invisibility - as opposed to looking at something. In that sense it requires an active slow participation on the part of the viewer - and the noise style of Odyssey Palimpsest demands as much. For me this requires use of hidden mental participation and, as such, is now essential in our climate of monstrous mass media (mass-think) in that it plays against the grain of given objective consensus visibility. In that sense Odyssey Palimpsest is more like a service product (or a server).[21]

However, my main interest in invisibility with Odyssey Palimpsest lay in a texture of emerging claims of art-as-politics - with its emphasis on the production of individuality based in a political physiology (a political function of living systems) with a strong proposition of emergence as the key aspect. So, I will continue the work done in Immersion Into Noise by looking at the art of noise as an emergent property rooted in obscurity. This comparison relates to my palimpsest work as an indeterminacy-based noise artist.

Now I would like to look more specifically at the possibility of further developments in noise art aesthetics concerning where becoming-imperceptible and becoming-perceptible nimbly interact. As sketched out in my book Immersion Into Noise, the evolution of visual noise art develops from certain pre-historic cave areas and baroque grottoes, to certain levels of mannerist and counter-mannerist complexity, to noisy spatial renderings in various exuberant architectural styles, then into cubism, futurism, dada, fluxus and other 20th century avant-garde movements, into the screech of technological noise art, and into the softness of software noise art aesthetics.

As noted above, what is important in the art of noise aesthetics is its intentional and elongated invisibility[22] and enigma. That is why this subject is so hard to write about. The very topic is a very difficult one to pin down and make intelligible for good reason. The art of noise is an art of disbelief in habitual codes of practice and understanding. You must take the art of noise on its own terms or risk doing violence to the art.

Noise art is not a set of homogeneous practices, but a complex field converging around perceived weaknesses in the art system. Such a noisy hyper-cognitive stance[23] happens when the particular of electronic connectivity is seen as part of an accrual total system by virtue of its being connected to everything else - while remaining dissonant. Noise aesthetics is a complex and ambiguous political gazing, and its theory of an art of resistance and investigation would be increasingly valuable to an analytical social movement based on skepticism while undermining monstrous market predictabilities, as it strengthens unique personal powers of imagination and critical thinking. This is so as it counters the effects of our age of simplification: effects which have resulted from the glut of consumer oriented entertainment messages and political propaganda which the monstrous mass media feeds us daily in the interests of corporate profit and governmental psychological manipulations.

The noise art aesthetic of Odyssey Palimpsest is that of dissonant immersion into a maelstrom of glossolaliaic unintelligibility, chaos and exaltation. Such an art of noise style is a way of seeing that reverses the order of figure/ground[24] to ground/figure. It collapses being into non-being (ontological implosion). It creates ambivalent aleatory[25] processes that are true to our inner essential world: dynamic pools of expansion and disintegration.

Odyssey Palimpsest refuses easy consumption then and encourages love, because a love for visual noise art will make perturbing events in your life more tolerable. It will make you able to see more and make you more adaptable to disturbance, rather than being torn up about them. It will help you to avoid psychic ossification by your loving the space of latent expanse. This is what suggests referring Odyssey Palimpsest to the aesthetics of the sublime, which, in the 18th century, was linked to the grandness of natural phenomena. But Odyssey Palimpsest is an innovative version of the sublime in which, for the first time, the embeddedness that we recognize ourselves in concerning nature matches up with our subliminal inner orb. This embed awareness can be suggested and promoted by noisy artistic becomings such as Odyssey Palimpsest - as its generative aspect serves to produce unpredictable results based on arithmetic instructions contained in its code.

Poetically, the hyper-noise dense texture of Odyssey Palimpsest, along with its uniform rhythms, suggests to me a possibility of connecting ourselves psychically to the great chain of being (that which precedes us and of which we are a part). However, this requires an active imagination that is aided by the visualization properties offered up. Perhaps Odyssey Palimpsest then is a psychotic outburst that disrupts smooth image operations with an explosion of buried visual hysteria that promises a highly diverse world. Its incomprehensibility by design connects the commons to unconscious frenzy through what I think to be a type of chaos magic.[26] It creates the visualization bridge between form and intuition, as its uncertain images have more information in them than a clear certain image (or sound) where the information quickly becomes redundant. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest gives rise to new thought. It promotes the emergence of new forms of an old story: art.

As mentioned above, what is important in Odyssey Palimpsest is its intentional enigma. It needs to be obscure to the degree that its codes cannot be discerned. This phantasmagorical obscurity and mystery is increasingly desirable in a world that has become increasingly data-mined, mapped, quantified, specialized and identified in a straight-forward matter of fact way. This will for enigma is the basis for discovering and entering into an immersion into the art of noise, even.[27]

Its goal is to disrupt instrumental logic and contradict, counteract, and cancel out false reason and hollow feeling. Suffering and joy, like figure and ground, are here tied together in frenzy, neither one without the other. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest suggests and produces stress in us; one might even say an urgent anxiety of disintegration. So dedication to its merits, if there are any, might well be described as vaguely heroic, because Odyssey Palimpsest suggests the revelation of a plentiful nihilistic life force. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest implies a cul-de-sac of ill communication (vacuole)[28] – the communication of enigma itself as experienced by the lyric poet.

Thus Odyssey Palimpsest has something that words risk diminishing. Nevertheless, I obviously have felt that I must take that risk because if we are to continue to live among electronic vibrations that mine us, it may be helpful to talk back against them. But yes, Odyssey Palimpsest is the transmitter of unspeakable secrets. That is why art noise matters. It wants more from us. Moreover, it teaches us to want more from art. It teaches us to look deeper, to hear more, and to trust the inner noise.

There are now many artists who see the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of a work as of little importance. I am not one of them. For me, the real worth of vigorous contemporary art is in its ability to deliver to the commons excessive sensually-embodied implications. As noise art aesthetics are indistinguishable from that which it produces as Odyssey Palimpsest, in might be considered as a panpsychic[29] sphere that contains systems of chance operations within it.

So, as you can see, for Odyssey Palimpsest I eagerly identified with Nietzsche's Dionysian attention to the frantic painful beauty of primal unity. For as he wrote, “The brightest clarity of the image did not suffice us, for this seemed just as much to reveal something as to conceal something.” My urge with Odyssey Palimpsest has been, in his words, to “tear the veil and to uncover the mysterious background” of life through the powerful analogy of art.

Such a Dionysian approach to art includes the notions that The Birth of Tragedy emphasizes in its title - eternal recurrence - and the realization of “the eternal joy of becoming” that is the creative act.

The Dionysian embraces the frenzied chaotic nature of experience as all-important; not just on its own, but also as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies us, but only so far as we realize that it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one’s chaotic experience. Such a thinking of frenzy through the prism of Dionysian aesthetics was agitating my inner logic during the summer of 2012 when I did the lion's share of Odyssey Palimpsest in Corsica[30] and Provence.[31]

Nietzsche sees in eternal harmonious unification the genesis of the highest expression of art: tragedy that allows us to sense an underlying essence of primordial unity, which revives our Dionysian nature. This is an almost indescribably pleasurable feeling to try to capture, but it was my goal for Odyssey Palimpsest: art as means of self-transcendent turbulence.

Art is the great poetic stimulus to radical life, so from an aesthetic viewpoint we need not to look for purpose, for art is purpose in itself: the purpose of life. Indeed for Nietzsche, art is the supreme delight of existence. With the eternal return at the heart of Odyssey Palimpsest, I hope to articulate a turning to ecstatic frenzy within the current construction of contemporary tragedy.

Joseph Nechvatal

[1] This involves a question of the qualities (and levels) of awareness of our own consciousness within aesthetic realms which we are capable of attaining through noise art. Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 210

[2] Data storage is measured in bytes. A gigabyte is a billion bytes of information. The New York Stock Exchange, produces up to 2,000 gigabytes of data per day that must be stored for years.

[3] Stupendous amounts of data generated by nearly one billion people are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s Web site, send e-mail with files attached, buy products, post on Twitter or read newspapers and art theory papers online.

[4] Noise Music in general traffics in dissonance, atonality, distortion, incidental composing, etc. This music begins with Russolo, Luigi’s reti di rumori (networks of noises) music that he performed on his intonarumori noise instruments and his text ”The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto” in Cox, Cristoph & Warner, Daniel (ed.): Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum (2004) For more of the history of noise music, see Hegarty, Paul: Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum (2007) and pp. 39-47 in Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011)

[5] For a full investigation into this topic see Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011)

[6] At his talk “The Faith of the Faithless, Experiments in Political Theology at the Dance Politics & Co-Immunity Workshop” in Giessen, Germany, November 12th, 2010

[7] Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much”, Brooklyn Rail, Summer issue 2012

[8] Given his age and Englishness I would guess Throbbing Gristle.

[9] “Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. […] If becoming- woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula. […]” Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translation by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press (1987) p. 279

[10] Manuel DeLanda coined the term neo-materialist in a short 1996 text “The Geology of Morals, A Neo-Materialist Interpretation” where he treats a portion of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus in order to conceptualize geological movements. For more on neo-materialist see Manuel DeLanda’s interview in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies by Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2012) p. 38

[11] In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

[12] Gaze; to look long and intently. Gaze is often indicative of wonder, fascination and revelation.

[13] For example take the fact that now under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, is the blandly named Utah Data Center, being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital transactions. It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy. For more on this trend see James Bamford’s book The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Anchor (2009)

[14] The term “cloud” is often generally used to describe a data center’s functions. More specifically, it refers to a service for leasing computing capacity.

[15] As I have done with my own work while also collecting examples of many other artist’s work that can be placed in this continuum.

[16] Perhaps this should not be surprising given the hidden complexity of a basic internet transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.

[17] For more on this read my essay Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age that was published in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #5 25th Anniversary Edition (2011)

[18] Duchamp's entire artistic activity since the "definitive incompletion" of the Large Glass in 1923 was an exercise in strategic invisibility, giving rise to objects and events which--because they were apparently too impermanent or unimportant or insubstantial, or because they eluded established genre conventions, or because they confused or diluted authorial identity--evaded recognition as "works of art."

[19] Félix Guattari said in his noteworthy book, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, the work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment that leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subject itself.

[20] To support all that digital activity, there are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide, according to figures from the International Data Corporation.

[21] A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process data. For security reasons, companies typically do not even reveal the locations of their data centers, which are housed in anonymous buildings and vigilantly protected. Each year, chips in servers get faster, and storage media get denser and cheaper, but the furious rate of data production goes a notch higher.

[22] This parallels the fact that in many data facilities, servers are loaded with applications and left to run indefinitely, even after nearly all users have vanished or new versions of the same programs are running elsewhere. At a certain point, no one is responsible anymore, because no one, absolutely no one, wants to go in that room and unplug a server.

[23] Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 32

[24] The characteristic organization of perception into a figure that 'stands out' against an undifferentiated background, e.g. a printed word against a background page. What is figural at any one moment depends on patterns of sensory stimulation and on the momentary interests of the perceiver.

[25] Aleatoricism is the incorporation of chance into the process of creation, especially the creation of art or media. The word derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice.

[26] Some common sources of inspiration for chaos magic include such diverse areas as science fiction, scientific theories, ceremonial magic, shamanism, Eastern philosophy, and individual experimentation.

[27] As an example, see/hear Marina Rosenfeld’s Cephissus landscape (2002), an immersive noise work that undermines the central notion of "surround-sound" technology by locating viewers in an environment with no fixed center and numerous temporary sonic sweet spots where short bursts of mingled electronic and acoustic sounds intersect and decay in expanding concentric circles that suggest oscillate landscapes.

[28] This is a reference to Gilles Deleuze’s (1925-1995) notion of the vacuole. This concept of noncommunication comes from Deleuze’s Postscript on Control Societies. Deleuze’s notion of control is connected to information-communication technology—a concept he pulled out of the work of William S. Burroughs (1914-1997). A vacuole is like a sac in a cell’s membrane, completely bound up inside the cell but also separate from it. Vacuoles play a significant role in autophagy, maintaining an imbalance between biogenesis (production) and degradation (or turnover) of many substances and cell structures. They also aid in the destruction of invading bacteria or of misfolded proteins that have begun to build up within the cell. The vacuole is a major part of the plant and animal cell. Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 14

[29] Panpsychism is the view that all matter has a mental aspect, or, alternatively, all objects have a unified center of experience or point of view.

[30] Thank you Dominique and Isabelle Roussy.

[31] Thank you Jean-Charles and Jacqueline Blanc.

nymph palimpsest

siren 7

bOdily blue satyr palimpsest

cyclOps pOlyphemus 2

The Map is Not the Territory, by Taney Roniger

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Originally published in Anti-Utopias, an international contemporary arts platform curated by Sabin Bors, the following is an essay I wrote recently about the ideas that inform my work.  I am re-posting it here with additional images.

The Map is Not the Territory
(But Neither is it Nothing)
On Knowing and Voiding in my Work

by Taney Roniger

Taney Roniger, Shadowscape Series (Bifurcations Square), 2013. Steel nails on painted wood panel, 30" x 30".

For the past decade and a half, my practice has been deeply informed by questions about how the digital computer is transforming our conceptions, attitudes, and outlooks about the world. Of particular interest to me are questions about the “shape” of our knowledge – the structure of the means by which we know the world – and the significant role digital technology is playing in this shaping process. What is the nature of the relationship between the analog world – the continuous, seemingly unbroken world we experience with our senses – and the digital world of pixels and bits presented to us by computers? Can computer models, with their binary language of separate, discrete units, accurately illuminate to us the real world? Or is there a fundamental gap between the digital and the real – the virtual and the actual – that can never be closed? Implicit in these questions is, of course, the perennial question of representation itself: To what extent can human beings know the world by means of thought? And, of paramount importance for the visual artist: What is the role of visual representation in this endeavor?

Korzybski was right: The map is not the territory.  Our cognitive models – our theories, pictures, and paradigms – are not the same as the things they represent, and to mistake the two is a grievous error. (Anyone unsure about this is advised to try eating a picture of a sandwich and see if it sates his appetite.) But, while nobody is denying the use-value of our constructs in helping us navigate the world, perhaps there is something more to them – something more substantial, more meaningful – than their failure to be that to which they point. What is certain is that with the digital revolution the map has been rendered, if not more earthen and edible, clearly more interesting – and, arguably, more profound.

The current ubiquity of images both in culture in general and specifically as vehicles of knowledge in the realm of science is unprecedented in human history. Central to this transformation is the figure of Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician whose invention of fractal geometry constitutes nothing short of a historic epistemological shift – and one whose relation to our current image-based society is not incidental. When Mandelbrot began generating and studying images in the 1960s as a means of pursuing mathematical insight, he introduced mathematics – that paragon of abstraction – to the realm of the actual, where our experience and understanding of the world are guided by observation and experimentation. Before him, Western thinkers had assumed an immutable affinity between truth and idealized forms – the Platonic solids and other perfect characters that populate Euclidean geometry – which, with a certain degree of irony, made the study of truth tantamount to the study of elsewhere and otherwise. (Has anyone ever come across a perfect dodecahedron in the woods?) Rejecting this otherworldly paradigm, Mandelbrot turned his sights on the world, and in so doing discovered that the realm we actually inhabit is far more complex, convoluted, irregular, and mysterious than our transcendence-seeking forebears had ever imagined.

Starting with the careful observation of natural forms such as clouds, Mandelbrot began to map what he saw with schematics (first, hand-drawn, and later, computer-generated, using his equations). Gradually, the images began to speak for themselves, and what they said was unequivocal: The old Euclidean geometry we inherited from the Greeks is inadequate to the task of describing the real world. If it was real-world truth he was after, Mandelbrot would have to discard the old map and forge a wholly new one. Guided by his intuition that there must be a universally valid principle behind the various phenomena he was observing in nature and in his schematics, Mandelbrot invented a new geometry (a “morphology of the amorphous,” he called it). Crucially, what began with sight led to insight – from vision to “vision” was the trajectory – and Mandelbrot would spend the rest of his life exploring the vital conduit between the two faculties.

As Mandelbrot discovered – and as further developments in computation have borne out – complex pattern and intricate interrelatedness rather than a host of separate, autonomous, and clearly defined entities constitute the underlying structure of the world. Significantly, repetition figures prominently in this structure. In his pioneering computer-generated schematics, shapes appear not once but repeatedly, and with slight variations, often at multiple scales within a single image (hence the “self-similarity” that has become the catch-phrase of fractal geometry). The persistence of certain structural entities (e.g., nested forms, spirals, waves, bifurcations) across time and multiple experiments suggests a universal morphology or language of form that is not transcendent to nature but is rather immanent in it, inherent in matter and energy. Further, the primacy of pattern both in organic form and digital simulations suggests that it is quality and not quantity – shape rather than number – that is more consonant with the structure of reality.

Benoit Mandelbrot, portion of the Mandelbrot Set (©Benoit Mandelbrot)

My fascination with fractal geometry and its implications for knowing led me about ten years ago to the study of cellular automata, a species of images that has been my source of inspiration ever since. Like Mandelbrot’s, cellular automata are computer-generated images used by scientists and mathematicians to study the behavior of complex systems (biological, ecological, social, etc.) as they evolve over time. Whereas Mandelbrot used mathematical equations as input, cellular automata are algorithm-generated (i.e., rule-based). Essentially two- or three-dimensional grids of  “cells” (simple black and white squares or cubes), cellular automata begin when sets of rules – often very simple in nature – are fed into powerful computers and allowed to run through millions of iterations at high speeds, the whole process being enacted visually on a screen. Since each cell is either black or white, each represents one unit of information at any given time, and, in accordance with the rule, each is subject to change to its opposite state in response to the states of its nearest neighbors (to whom it sits adjacent by way of edges and corners). As the rules are enacted one iteration at a time, a process of complex interaction unfolds, and the arrays of cells morph into fields of pattern that range from relatively simple (homogeneous states or periodic patterns) to exceedingly complex, where structures and configurations that cannot have been predicted by the initial input begin to appear. Essentially, cellular automata are populations of extremely simple computing machines (hence “automata”) that individually know only two states, but that together, as sensitively interconnected agents, create tapestries of great complexity that wholly exceed their limited binary intelligence.

The phenomenon of emergent properties – the strange features that arise unpredicted by the rules – is what is of principal interest to the scientists who study cellular automata (the real-world implications for ecology or meteorology or social studies are clear enough), but I suggest there is more to these images than their utilitarian applications. First, there is their exquisite beauty. When confronted with the most complex of them, one cannot fail to be captivated by the extraordinary intricacy and delicacy of the patterns, the subtle rhythms and pulsations that seem to course through them, and the uncannily organic integrity of their part-to-whole relations. Often, the strange localized structures that occur resemble features of an exotic landscape: jagged mountains, sinuous rivers, cascading waterfalls, billowing clouds, and aggregates of islands with inordinately complex coastlines. The preponderance of landscape-like features throughout cellular automata is so striking that it can hardly be coincidental. One feels it almost somatically: some underlying principle is at work here that is deeply resonant with nature. 

Cellular automaton by Stephen Wolfram (© Wolfram Science)

Detail of above image (© Wolfram Science)

But while we may infer “scapes” of all sorts from these images, they are clearly not representations of any actual, physical places. Neither, however, are they to be read as pure abstractions. Indeed, the inherent ambiguity of their representational status constitutes a large part of what makes these images so intriguing.

In the realm of art – particularly within the modernist paradigm – “pure abstraction” implies the absence of real-world references; a shape is a shape, a line a line, and a composition is to be analyzed and appreciated strictly on its own terms (i.e., in terms of the interrelations of its parts, those of the parts to the whole, the tensions and harmonies between the various formal elements, and the corresponding somatic, cognitive, and emotional resonances these induce). Without doubt, cellular automata can be appreciated on a formal level, but because they are inseparable from both the mechanical process by which they are created and the unique apparatus that makes them possible, they cannot be “nonobjective” or “nonrepresentational” in the way that an abstract painting insists it is. By virtue of this ontological dependence, they are endowed with a dimension of meaning (or reference) from which we cannot extract them. What is more, the conspicuous absence of human agency in their formation introduces another layer of meaning into the fold. In art, the artist behind the image is an ever-present, if muted, given; there is never a composition without a composer, a creation without a creator, an act without an actor. With cellular automata, by contrast, the agent behind the action remains resolutely ambiguous. Fundamentally, cellular automata are self-composedcompositions, and to our command-and-control-oriented minds (“Who’s responsible?” we impetuously demand) this makes them profoundly mysterious.

Hovering somewhere in between representation and abstraction, cellular automata can be regarded as instantiations of information expressing itself in “information space” – a space that is neither strictly “out there” in the material world, nor strictly limited to the confines of human abstract thought, nor attributable to any otherworldly, transcendent realm. The “space” of information pervades all other spaces. For several decades now, advances in science have suggested that ours is fundamentally an “informational” universe – that everything we observe empirically and all the immaterial realities we infer from experience (such as consciousness itself) arise from the continual energetic flux and exchange of patterns of information. The physicist John Wheeler, summarizing his “It from Bit” doctrine, puts it this way:

… Every “it” -- every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely – even if in some contexts indirectly – from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. “It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom – a very deep bottom, in most instances – an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe. (John Archibald Wheeler, 1990: 5)

Echoing the self-organization evident in cellular automata, Wheeler describes the universe as a “self-excited circuit.” If this essentially computational model of the universe is correct, then the digital computer has provided us – and will doubtlessly continue to provide us – with enormous insights into the nature of reality. Perhaps we have at long last found the language of the universe.

But then, the map is not the territory. Given sufficient human passion, the territory will invariably begin to resemble whatever map it is we happen to have become enamored with. Are we deluding ourselves with our current enthusiasm for all things digital? Is the computational model of the universe yet another projection – another imposition of our constructs on to an agonizingly elusive Nature? Will Nature forever remain impervious to human knowledge?

If all intellectual knowledge is subject to the tragedy of distance (it can point, but it cannot touch), then doubt may be the most rigorous – and indeed the most honest – means of arriving at truth. Nowhere is this practiced more wholly and completely than in the various forms of apophatic reasoning, which in its strongest form insists that nothing affirmative can be said about truth, but rather that it must be arrived at by negation (“not this,” “not that”, etc., until there are no more words or concepts).  By means of this process of voiding or cancelling, one eventually arrives at a kind of emptiness, of no-thingness, in which the glaring absence becomes interpenetrated by presence, and in this expansive silence another kind of knowing sets in.

Something of this via negativa is implicit in all visual art, one might argue, in that the latter’s primary distinction is its discursive silence. Visual art does not tell; it shows. In embodied images, meaning is made manifest – as one inseparable whole – rather than delivered analytically, and indeed this is what has drawn philosophers to art’s domain since the first philosophers. Art begins where logic and language leave off, in the “whereof and thereof” of Wittgenstein’s famous dictum (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”). If art offers a different way of knowing – a more holistic, synthetic epistemology that puts us in contact with the deepest realities – we might imagine it was this that Mandelbrot intuited in his strong attraction to images.

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #5, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 36" x 60"

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #2, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 50" x 28"

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #6, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 32" x 53"

While I find the source of my inspiration in science and technology, my work is emphatically neither. It is art, and as such, it traffics in ambiguity and polysemy rather than in facts and declarative statements. In working with cellular automata, my process always begins with a period of close observation, of prolonged looking. After immersing myself in an image I am drawn to for some time, I begin a series of rough drawings in which I explore selected features of the original image – abstracting, altering, simplifying, and distilling as I go along. During the rough drawing phase, I am primarily trying to discover what it is about the chosen image that so captivates me and draws me to it. It is a period of intense physical activity coupled with acute concentration. Hand, eye, and mind deeply engaged, this phase of the process is a kind of exploratory thinking unlike any other. Eventually an “answer” is arrived at in the form of a visual idea, a schematic, though the verbal center in my brain would be at pains to articulate its question.

After the drawing process is complete, I begin translating the marks on the drawing into whatever mark-language I have chosen for a given piece. In the paintings, the mark is always an empty circle – a zero or cipher – which ranges in scale but never changes its shape. In other works (such as the works on paper and wood panels), the mark is constituted by a literal void – either a hole that pierces all the way through the paper, a deep puncture that penetrates into the surface of the wood, or a dark shadow produced by a protruding steel nail head. In all cases, the same mark is repeated dozens or hundreds of times, forming patterns and configurations that echo those in the image that inspired the piece. Often, the compositions that result bear little formal resemblance to the original image, but something essential of the latter always remains. Typically, this process of marking-by-voiding yields compositions that are so delicate as to be “barely there”; if one is to see anything at all, close looking and sustained attention are required.

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #4), 2009. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas. 60" x 40".

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #5), 2010. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 40" x 70".

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #1), 2009. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 36" x 72".

Like the images that inspire them, my works are neither abstract nor representational but something in between. I do not consider them fully abstract, because they certainly refer to things beyond themselves (most obviously, to the source imagery and its mechanical origin, but more interestingly, to the patterns of information that the latter make visible). At the same time, I do not consider them strictly representational, both because I have subjected them to a certain degree of abstraction (literally: to draw away) from the originals and because their more interesting “referents” are not objects or actions in any conventional sense. Above all else, my compositions and their various modes of embodiment are meant to evoke a sense of wonder – and then, perhaps, a sense of recognition.  When the rhythms, textures, and structures inherent in the works achieve a certain correspondence deep within me, I recognize myself in them, and a sense of wholeness and connectedness – of  belonging to the world – that is generally absent in ordinary consciousness permeates my awareness.

Whether the universe is or is not fundamentally digital (and we may never have an answer), there is something implicit in the rhythmic yes/no, on/off oscillation of digital circuitry that, I suggest, resonates deeply with human physiology and consciousness. Further, there is something about the extraordinary patterns made visible to us for the first time by our powerful computers that seems to echo the structure of human thought. Spirals, swirls, bifurcations, waves, undulating filaments, amorphous clouds, islands with erratic edges – all arising, interpenetrating, dissolving, and repeating themselves in a ceaseless process of becoming: how better to describe the invisible reality we call, somewhat misleadingly, “thought”?[i] If thought itself has a dynamic structure similar to Mandelbrot’s “morphology of the amorphous,” it seems clear that its constructs – its theories, pictures, and paradigms – will be the more attuned to truth the more they reflect this structure. No map will ever be the same as the territory it describes, but this does not preclude the possibility of a deep morphological resonance between the two. There will always be a gap, a chasm, between them, but let there also always be voids to remind us of the ground from which all else arises.

Taney Roniger, Stone Series (Stone #1), 2007, oil on stone, approx. 6" x 4"

[i] I say somewhat misleadingly because “thought” is both a static noun and a past-tense verb, neither of which seems adequate to describe the process it refers to.


Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977).

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

Nina Samuel (ed.), The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking. (New York: Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design & Culture, 2012).

John A. Wheeler, W.Zurek (ed.), "Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links," Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. (Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley, 1990).

Interview with Joseph Nechvatal, by Taney Roniger

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On the occasion of his exhibition nOise anusmOs at Galerie Richard in New York (April 12th through May 26th, 2012), the publication of his new book Immersion Into Noise, and a concert of his remastered viral symphOny in surround sound, Joseph Nechvatal sat down with me to discuss his work. The following interview took place at Nechvatal´s studio in lower Manhattan on Sunday, February 26th, 2012.

euphOric anus & anus cOsmOs
each 44x66” computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 2011

Taney Roniger (TR): Thanks for giving me this sneak peek at your latest paintings – the ones we’ll be seeing soon at Galerie Richard. Looking at these paintings, which are of course digital paintings, I’m struck by the lushness of the surface and by how rich the colors are. Have you ever made actual paintings? Tell me about your history with painting.

Joseph Nechvatal (JN): 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. So anyway, I really was into working on paper.

Untitled drawing on paper with gouache 1973

And then 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.

Untitled 1974 oil on canvas 2x3'

Woman (Erica) 1975 oil on canvas 4x6'

Nature Non-Morte 1975 oil on canvas 2x2.5'

TR: 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.

Untitled 1979 4x6' oil on canvas

Untitled 5x7' oil on canvas 1979

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.

Combine #1 1976 15x8.5” oil stick on wood with stone

Combine #3 1976 15x8.5 inches oil stick on wood with stone

Combine #5 1977 3x3' oil stick on metal with stone

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.

Butch 1979 11x14” graphite on paper

When Things Get Tough on Easy Street, 1981 Real Art Ways, Hartford, Ct.
photo blow-up of 11x14” drawing

Hawk as Hawk 30x40” 1986 graphite and chalk on paper

But 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.

Trouble Light by Joseph Nechvatal: Carol Parkinson (spinning the light)
Joseph Nechvatal (dancing in background), European & American Performances, 1977

TR: So you were exploring everything, it sounds like.

JN: I think so. 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.

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. This is now early- to mid-80s.

TR: So the era of the palimpsest drawings was the ‘80s. What came after that?

JN: Early computer-robotic paintings based on drawings, first, and then a character I created called The Informed Man.

Informed Man 1986 82x116" computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

Integrating Web 1987 computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 71x98"

Serenade 1989 91 x 137" computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

Subsequently, the research into the first Computer Virus Project. 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.

Viral attaque transmissioN 1993 196x286 cm computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

TR: Before we get too far ahead, I want to jump back for a second to your college days. I love the story of your conversion to art during these years. That’s such a great story. Would you mind recounting that here?

JN: No, I don’t mind. To be honest, I was more interested in music in high school. I played in a band, and, you know, I thought of myself as more of a musician. And I liked doing art as a goof. And I never would have identified myself as yearning to be a visual artist back then. I think I wanted to be either a musician or a lawyer. Because I also had this political interest, with what was going on back then with the liberation movements. So I started studying sociology. And I thought that would probably be it: I could make music for fun or professionally, and follow my political passion in a career. And that went on I think until sophomore year. And then I was becoming more and more depressed about that, and about the political landscape because of the George McGovern loss in 1972. And one night I was driving a motorcycle around Chicago, and I was in a deep funk, and I happened to see the light from a beautiful stained glass window shining in the corner of my eye, and a kind of voice spoke to me saying something like: “Be an artist.”

TR: You actually heard words? Or was it kind of an intuitive jolt?

JN: I’m going to assume it was my unconscious. I mean, I’m not a schizophrenic; I’ve never heard voices ever again. So I’m going to assume it was sort of a combination of my emotional state and the sound of the motorcycle [laughs]. But I had kind of an acoustical perception of words in a masculine voice. And it was very brief. But it caught my attention, and I said: maybe I should take that seriously. And I decided I would. I didn’t know how to go about it. It was still the summer; the university hadn’t started up again – this is Southern Illinois University. I decided I should probably go around and photograph stained-glass windows in Chicago. I did. I don’t know really why, but I did. I went and started studying what it is to look at pictures, what can pictures say to our feelings, and how does that work. And, you know, I was not religious. I grew up a Catholic, but I stopped going to mass when I think I was fifteen. You know, I wasn’t a believer in traditional religion anymore. I did believe in a spiritual path, or…that discovery was individualized, and that institutionalization of religion actually suppressed individual revelation.

TR: So maybe it’s not so significant that it was actually the stained glass from a church that was the catalyst. Or is it?

JN: I can’t separate that out, because I think it certainly had to do with the color. Because it was gloomy, I was in a funk, and this color was joy. This color and light was joy. You know, when I think of light and color now I think of the computer, of course, and it makes me think of virtuality, which is potentiality. You know, it’s like anything’s possible when you’re in the realm of light and color. They’re just the building blocks for almost any future that you could imagine. So, that’s all I can tell you. And then I went back to SIU, I immediately signed up for Jimmy Wright’s drawing class. That was key. Michael Onken and Robert Paulson were excellent art teachers for me, and I was deeply impressed with the lectures of Buckminster Fuller. I excelled in art. And I continued to study philosophy and sociology courses, but I dropped my ambitions to be a sociologist or a lawyer and decided that I was meant to be an artist and that I would take that route, which I did. And I’m so happy I did. I ended up being awarded the Rickert-Ziebold Trust Award – the top art student prize-grant at graduation – which helped me get to Cornell and start my post-grad life on the east coast.

TR: That story seems significant to me, because it’s clear from your telling that at the time you felt profoundly moved…

JN: It changed my life.

TR: Yes. And – correct me if I’m going too far – that perhaps it occurred to you in that moment that your interest in social justice could better be pursued in art. I say this because I see you as a deeply political artist, at heart.

JN: Yes. Because the frustration I had mentioned before was the frustration of trying to social-manage change, and particularly liberational movement. Because how do you dictate liberation? There’s no way. It’s an emergent quality, and you can nurture it. “Culture” is a nice word here, because it creates a kind of viral, emergent capacity within a Petri dish of a-life. And that’s my approach – that my art and my social activity should be united, yet I never really wanted to become didactic. But I did feel that the political was important. And actually that’s why I never really wanted to be a pure abstract artist. Because when I was coming up in the art world…You know, you did have really great artists, like Robert Ryman, that are wonderful in their purely abstract art, but it seemed in the context of any social turmoil, it does seem like a rich boy’s toy or a luxury item. You know, I think art is stronger if it has more levels of complexity where you can see political implication that’s not directed.

TR: Yeah, when I’ve read the story I’ve thought about something that comes up again and again in your new book, which is the “secret I,” the state of the “secret I.” Art – great art – brings you back to the state of that secret I.

JN: I think the important part is the incomprehensibility of it. The enigma of our I. Good art throws you into your own enigma. And you’re the one to dig yourself out of the enigma. And that is a great journey, a great pleasure. And that’s how people grow – not by being patted on the back and saying “you’re great,” but by saying: “Deal with this.”

TR: Or…by being told what to do. That’s not how people change.

JN: Correct.

TR: That’s the link here. You had this profound experience, where it really brought you to that place, and you said: this is the way to achieve action.

JN: I agree. That’s a good, correct reading of my experience at that time. That did lead me to being involved with Colab (Collaborative Projects), and ABC No Rio, and the 80s art and political mixture for a while. I did take a specific didactic political issue for a while in the early 80s, which was my position against nuclear proliferation and the Ronald Reagan military build-up. That was the closest I came to direct political statement, because people would see my complicated, weird images and, okay, they could see the end of the world. That was the idea – it was an apocalyptic imaginative moment: you better think about it, folks. It could be around the corner lurking in the dark; if we don’t do something, it could be coming our way. Because it did feel like that, in the early 80s. In New York it was palpable. I mean, you had not only the decay of New York City… You had this apocalyptic boulder hanging over the head, with the Cold War being heightened, and nuclear missiles being put in Europe by Reagan and all of this conflict and hype and freaked military consciousness. Happily, we escaped that doom. But it did feel like a very strong possibility. I was trying to bring that to public consciousness. And to have my audience deal with it.

Death of Culture 1984 11x14” graphite on paper in the collection of the RISD Museum

That’s the closest I came to didactic political statements in my work. Then, when I got involved with the AIDS issue with my first computer virus work, I really wanted to avoid any didactic statements.

TR: I know you were 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: It saddens me a bit that 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, pure opticality, yeah. Pure pure purity.

TR: The whole “project of purity”…

JN: It’s fine in your drinking water, but that’s not even going to happen [both laugh]. No. Not part of my interest spectrum.

TR: Noise is decidedly anti-purist.

JN: Clearly. I mean, we’ve had enough of pure. What we need are contaminations.

TR: So, back to the virus as metaphor. Can you talk about some of the metaphorical implications of the virus? Are we a virus living symbiotically on our Earth host?

JN: Seems so, and the more we reflect on that the better virus we can be by avoiding killing our host.

TR: 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, with the ideal of looking for a post-pure-painting-as-object approach. Looking past that. Rather, where you visually enter the painting by projecting yourself into it. Like Wassily Kandinsky wished. He wanted the viewer to enter and explore a painting. That is what I was looking for. A way out of the painting-as-object. So, in my case I came up with the gray drawings that invite the viewer to visualize content from the murky overload of representational imagery presented in conflict. 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, to 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 VR head-mounted device. Then I applied immersion to audio aspects when I created the viral symphOny. Then I started to write the Wikipedia page on the history of noise music. I did quite a bit of research on anything that was non-musical in terms of audio musical 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 them 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. And that was the basis of the book Immersion Into Noise.

TR: So, I believe it was during your Ph.D. years that you coined the term viractual to connote the interface between the virtual and the actual.

JN: Yes. It first came to me when I was studying how performance artists were starting to try to use virtual tools, and they always wanted to have it be this toggling back and forth, so that you had something physical and real and performative and confrontational, but also virtual at the same time. So they were looking to blend and mix. It was when I was studying that material that I formulated that concept, which did immediately seem to have many ramifications for art and society at large. That was really the nut, or the kernel of the nut, I was looking at people like Stelarc, and performance artists that were then going into networking and virtual aspects of computers.

TR: Of course, that’s not the only instance in which you’ve merged two terms. This seems to be a central part of your practice. I remember in the Kandinsky symposium [an online symposium moderated by Roniger in which Nechvatal participated] you coined the term “viewpant” as a possible replacement for the limiting term “viewer” – i.e., “viewer” plus “participant.” We see it in the title of your upcoming show, too – “anusmOs,” which is presumably “anus” plus “cosmos.”

JN: Yes. Well, again, as I said early on in our conversation, it’s interesting to look in between polarities. Sometimes it produces new ideas, and new points of view that are valid. It’s not just smooshing stuff together uncritically. Occasionally there is a rich middle ground that is important. I mean, I say that because I’m fearful of being accused of downplaying difference, and that’s far from the truth…Because I’m a Deleuzian, and for us difference is everything. We look for differences everywhere. So I’m not at all looking for homogeneity, unity, transcendence. No. Difference and immanence is what I’m interested in.

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. Are you familiar with Freud’s essay “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words”?

JN: No.

TR: What he did was he discovered that in certain ancient languages – Egyptian, for example – there exist a lot of words that mean two opposite things at once. They’ll have a word like lovehate….

JN: See, I think that’s the value of this whole thing. Brilliant. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I do think that’s the real payoff for this – the knowledge that things can be contradictory and true simultaneously.

TR: Right!

JN: If you’ve got that, then your life opens up and you’re far more tolerant and understanding, and a better and wiser human being, for understanding that. I have to read that text.

TR: Yeah. It’s really interesting. The early Egyptians seemed fine with concepts like “farnear,” “lovehate,” “inout,” whereas today this would be anathema. For Freud, of course, it was that there was something therapeutic about recognizing this. You can interpret the symbolism of dreams in this way. A dream image can stand for both a thing and its opposite, and both are simultaneously valid.

JN: Excellent.

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 in 1987, 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 an avant-garde stance and then end up just being swept up inside of some kind of slick production that plays along 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 it all comes down to the structure of the imagery. I guess that’s really why I decided the anus was an important image. It wasn’t chosen to be a sexual or provocative or funny image. It was chosen to be a key portal to poke into the information age.

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.

TR: Well, talk about the fluidity, then. As a medium, it does lend itself to a certain…

JN: Transformation, metamorphosis.

TR: Yes.

JN: Yeah. 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. 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 the Classical Greek poetry of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where things can become other things – flowers become people, and people become clouds, and this kind of super-fluidity, which we experience in dreams sometimes, if we’re lucky. It has to do with art as a poetic metaphor used for realizing our human potential 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 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: That was actually going to be my penultimate question. Because I feel like it’s so important to your project, this idea of self-reprogrammability. I mean, that is such a crucial insight – that we can change, that we can be liberated from our conditioning. At a time when we’re cornered on all sides by so many determinisms…

JN: The human spirit is being tapped down and down and down. We must strive to escape that hammer. 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. I believe in evolving through our tastes and getting more sophisticated. I believe in connoisseurship.

TR: What do you mean by connoisseurship?

JN: People developing their own tastes by challenging them.The act of people who know why they enjoy things and why they don’t through self-consciousness. I think that self-consciousness is the key for the re-programming that I discussed in the noise book, both on a material level and on a psychological level. So I guess it has to do with loving the subtlety of noise, an art noise that makes you challenge your barriers. You have to open yourself up to a new frontier, not necessarily always accept it, but always allow yourself the possibility of accepting it. So it’s an expansive-immersive force-field.

TR: So, always furthering, never arriving?

JN: I think it’s arriving and furthering. I wouldn’t go so far as to say never arriving. I think we arrive, and then move again. In eccentric circles, I should say. Moving out and out and out. I think that is the basis of real connoisseurship. Knowing what for you personally works the best and what the historical context is, of course. You know, an aficionado has to know history but also has to know everything that’s going on right now.

TR: That doesn’t sound to me like snobbery or elitism. I guess what you’re saying is that it’s available to anybody who wants it. So, go out there and get it!

JN: I’m living proof of that! I came from a middle-class family. I mean, my mother had a reproduction of The Gleaners on the wall, and that’s all the art we had. I got all of my art inspiration from public libraries. My father was a more or less a commercial photographer. He didn’t introduce me to the work of Man Ray or any other fine art stuff. But I would go to the Art Institute of Chicago. I remember seeing a Max Ernst show when I was very young. It had a strong effect on me. Again, because of this image of transformation and metamorphosis, which I saw in his work. And the Dada impertinence of it all, which appealed to me as a young teenager.

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 think that’s the core of the book, and I try to make the case for the art of noise visually based on that, because it was the most concrete – in immersive terms – example 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: Yes, even reading it was. Honestly, something that had never occurred to me before was the element of fear, of danger, involved anyone’s descent into that cave. That was so pronounced in your description.

JN: There were bears living in there!

TR: Many carnivorous predators!

JN: And it was dark.

TR: Really dark – and cold, and damp, and silent.

JN: And maybe you lost your way. Because it’s very complicated under there. These caves, they go on and on, sometimes for miles and miles and miles, branching. The other huge misconception people have is they think that people lived in there. You know, like these paintings were the wallpaper that they had in the family room. Nothing could be further from the truth.

TR: Right. These people – men, women, we don’t know – they went down in there knowing perfectly well the risk to life or limb. And whatever they did down there, it was worth that risk.

JN: And their society supported it. Researchers determined that these people that did these engravings and paintings probably did them full-time. Meaning that they didn’t have to hunt. Meaning that the society deemed it worthy of their support. People think, “Oh, it was so hard back then.” They didn’t work that many hours! They’d go pick a few berries, the guys would go hunt for a few hours, and that was your day! Then you could start…

TR: Living.

JN: Living. Talking – and, you know, trying to learn how to make a language.

TR: And other such frivolities [laughs].

JN: Yeah, that took a lot of time.

TR: And thinking and wondering – all that stuff. One of the things I wonder about is 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 attraction and fear.

TR: Horror…

JN: Horror, yes. Fear of loss of ego, of identity. And just the impressiveness of the scale of it all. Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?

TR: Yes.

JN: There you go.

TR: Nothing can prepare you for it.

JN: No. All the pictures, all the movies – no. Walk up to the edge, and then we’ll talk! Words, pictures, do not do justice to what you feel with your body and your eyes in a situation like that. I think the sublime is very much pertinent now. There is a re-interest in it, as you might know, with the metal group Liturgy and their 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 influences on my nOise anusmOs show at Galerie Richard.

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 (who I saw perform live when I was at Cornell), Pharoah Sanders (who I saw live in Chicago the summer of my conversion to art) 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.

nOise anusmOs 44x66” computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 2011

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: I think we touched on Speculative Realism before, but I want to jump back to that a little bit. It seems there is, with this movement, a reintroduction of metaphysics into a climate that’s been hostile toward it for some time now…Metaphysics is now okay again.

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.

TR: I recently read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and I was struck by what seems to be a movement toward becoming a little bit more friendly toward the object world – the non-human realm. It’s not entirely off limits to us anymore, in other words – with our subjectivity “over here,” and it “over there.” That this dualism was just another fiction generated in the name of that “project of purity” we touched on earlier....

JN: Yes, that is central to the Speculative Realists. 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 through our 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 being – ontology – outside of the Kantian strictures.

TR: And that we can do that; it’s not beyond our capacities.

JN: Perhaps. 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.

autOmata retinal 66x44” compter-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 2011

JN: I would not ever say a dialectic, because I don’t believe in dialectics. Deleuze does away with dialectics. It’s too limiting. Because 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: dialogue, but not a 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 of Andy Warhol’s money paintings, which I just did for a short YouTube animation, 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. And that’s what I’m trying to maintain with the use of my custom viral software that Stéphane Sikora and I developed.

TR: The idea of disembodiment, as it is linked with the ecstatic and liberated, seems integral to what you’ve described as immersive noise consciousness. How do you see that playing out in the future? What do you think of the idea of “radical disembodiment,” of our eventual liberation from nature, from the flesh? I’m thinking of figures like Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec. That’s their stated goal.

JN: No, we’re not going to be able to upload our psyche into digital eternity. And worse than that, Kurzweil says that artists will become obsolete, because there will be software that will produce art all by itself while our music will be produced by algorithms. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? And it might be possible. But it will SUCK!

TR: So the body is important to you.

JN: Obviously. I’m a sensualist! A bon vivant!

TR: Absolutely.

JN: I don’t see why you should decide between one and the other. That’s my objective, to avoid these kinds of cleavages and these decisions. Like mental/conceptual/digital or intuitive/physical/analog. No, these things must be in dialogue with each other.

TR: Right. But it’s just shocking, almost, the degree to which that’s such a thoroughly ingrained conceptual habit – this constant dichotomizing.

JN: Yes. Habits of thought. Mental clichés. Because we’re lazy as thinkers. And we take things for granted. We don’t challenge these given concepts. That’s why there are artists. That’s what artists are supposed to do: challenge ways of thinking.

TR: That certainly comes across in your work.

JN: You know, I was talking to a student yesterday. He’s more brainy and conceptual, and we get along very well. And he said: “I have a roommate who just says ‘No, you’re just supposed to do it! Don’t think; just do it!’” And I said, “Well, you know what that means? It means you’re doing what somebody else has already done, because you’re not thinking about it because it came to you through osmosis or through exposure, so you’re non-reflectively repeating what someone else has done.” How is that superior to thinking about what you’re going to do and trying to do something new and knowing what you’re NOT going to do because it’s already been done before?

TR: I love David Bohm on this – his idea that the word “thought” is past tense for a reason. What we should really be having are “thinks.” If you’re having “thoughts,” they’re all from the past, they’re inherited. Similarly, we should try to have “feelings” rather than “felts.”

JN: Yep. Fascinating. Good example.

TR: So thinking about thinking is really important.

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: I was fascinated by the part in your book about Renaissance perspectivalism and the value system implicit in it.

JN: Trompe l’oeil, three-point perspective and all that?

TR: Yes. The Renaissance “picture-as-window” approach to images that’s become the conceptual or optical habit of our culture. And you suggest it’s perpetuated by…

JN: The camera. Capture technology perpetuates it. And it makes it seem natural.

TR: Your pointing this out underscores the fact that every approach to art, every imaging system comes with an implicit worldview, which comes with a distinct system of values.

JN: And for me it’s even more complicated. Because I have kind of an Oedipal complex about it, my father being a photographer. And I was taking a lot of pictures when I was very little. I’ve always been taking photographs. But I had a kind of Oedipal complex about it. I think it helped me as an artist, actually, because I wanted to resist representation as given in a photographic means. You know, it’s a father-son thing.

TR: “Capture technology” is an interesting term. It sounds aggressive, like something you impose on some “other,” on something that’s definitely not you. The very opposite of immersion/participation. I guess it would be too simplistic to say that that capturing has been the only approach in art for the past five-hundred years – this detached spectator gazing out at the world rather than participating in it…Because there have been moments when it’s been emphatically different.

JN: Yeah, but they’re usually the exception, not the rule. And what locked in the rule is television, which gave us this little shiny box to look at.

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 – 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.

anus cOsmOs 44x66” computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas 2011

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: Right. 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 Pollock I tried to make that clear with the two museums that were proposed for his work. One by architect Peter Blake and one by Tony Smith, a hero of mine. They took seriously 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.

TR: Aldous Huxley said that? Wow.

JN: Unfortunately, yes. And actually that’s the power of the work. That’s what Allen Kaprow saw in Pollock’s show at Betty Parsons’ 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.

TR: So these new paintings, these are still part of the Computer Virus Project.

JN: Yes. Almost everything is now to some extent. Everything has something to do with the technique. It’s my vocabulary. I don’t necessarily forefront that aspect of it all the time, but it’s impossible to leave it out. Because I just find the artificial-life viral techniques very valuable for creating unexpected results.

TR: 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. Because 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 I don’t want to be self-limiting, and I don’t want to limit the viewer.

TR: Speaking of titles and press releases and so forth…

JN: Yeah. My titles. They’re crazy.

TR: I was just going to point out that holes figure prominently in your work. I’m thinking of your images of the human anus, the retina. But then there are these ubiquitous graphical holes – the gaping graphical holes – in your titles.

JN: I decided that each O would be capitalized, and nothing else would be capitalized. It became a kind of symbol of opening, expansion, opportunity, ecstasy – all that. And it just became a habit, a trope – a stylized thing. Maybe it’s pretentious, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. But I like it, and I’m stuck with it. But I work a lot on my titles. I think that it’s important to be creative in titling just as much as in imaging, just as much as in technique and how it’s done. It’s all one and the same. It’s my statement. And I come more or less out of Conceptualism – vis a vis the body and sensualism and all that as we discussed. But I usually have an idea first, before I start on a body of work – a theme. And so I’ve kind of been in that tradition of Conceptualism up to a point. “Conceptualism Plus.” Language is important to me, the theory of what I do, why I do it, its historical ties. The ancestors that I honor. You know I love Dadaism and the Dadaists particularly, and that tradition of the avant-garde particularly as it came through New York, and Duchamp and Cage and Fluxus. That’s what I love! Those are my ancestors that I want to honor. And the whole beginning of art and technology coming from that, coming from EAT and from Rauschenberg’s involvement with art and technology – the Cagean/Cunningham/Rauschenberg/Post-Duchampian aesthetic. It’s Conceptualism materialized, actualized, viractualized.

TR: Is that what you mean when you say “Post-Conceptual”?

JN: Yes it is. But I think that’s an inadequate term. I haven’t found a better one yet, however. It’s like when you’re talking about Post-Minimalism as a coming after Minimalism. It’s not an adequate term. It defines what you’re not, not what you are. But I still haven’t found the right way to say how I see myself. And maybe it’s not that important for me to define myself. It’s how other people see the work – that’s more important. But I don’t shy away from speaking out as an artist. I really did get that from Conceptualism. Joseph Kosuth said the artist’s role is to define – and actually, before him, Ad Reinhardt, who of course Kosuth got a lot of inspiration from, said that the artist should be saying what he or she is doing, that we’re not dumb animals to be herded and exploited and sold like cattle, that we have a voice as cultural producers. And that’s politics, of course. It’s our obligation to use our voice. That’s why I write sometimes – when I can. I don’t shy away from that opportunity. But I’m not a prodigious writer.

TR: I see such a consistency across all your various media. Your prose style in Immersion Into Noise, for example, is characteristically syncretistic, non-linear, “all-over” – in other words, it’s noisy.

JN: I thought it would have been silly to do a strictly academic style, when you’re exploring something like cultural noise.

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: Nervous in the way it moves. I agree with you. But you’re right. I think it’s my allover approach to life that provides that mercurial aspect.

TR: Speaking of your “all-over approach,” you’ve also been involved with music…

JN: I’m very excited about the re-mastering of my viral symphOny into 5.1 surround-sound. 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 themes of the book. Again, form and content are coming closer together. I realized some of the ideals sketched out in the book through this re-mastering of the viral symphOny.

TR: And we will hear that soon?

JN: We will hear viral symphOny in concert the night of the opening on the 12th of April at Harvestworks.

TR: You make it explicit that your subject matter is ideology.

JN: That started back with the early drawings. And that’s why I started to draw these cliché images. When you look carefully at most of those early drawings, they’re pile-ups of biblical imagery and Playboy imagery and military or “macho man” cowboys and lots more. This was the same period that Richard Prince was shooting the Marlboro Man, and it had something to do with “Morning in America” and looking at the imagery that was used to manipulate the populace. Which ties in closely with the history of fascist art – let’s not mince words. I would go through tons of magazines and cut out the stupidest, most cliché imagery, like the blond bimbo, the macho man, all the most cliché stuff I could find, and that became the source material of those drawings. Because I was trying to work on cultural ideology and the visual language in which it’s spoken.

TR: It’s such a tricky word, ideology.

JN: It is. But it forms the underpinnings of our ideas.

TR: It’s tricky “out there” in the broader culture. But also for artists. A lot of artists don’t even want to touch it. I know a lot of artists who wouldn’t want to admit that their work carries with it an ideology.

JN: Why is that? Is it painful? Is it dangerous?

TR: I think it’s more dangerous. Scary. Talking about values is scary. But there’s also this fear of making grand statements. I mean, we’ve seen where that got us with the utopian dreams of modernism.

JN: Right. Because 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 start reprogramming yourself. First you have to get to what you don’t want to do, and stop doing that.

TR: Yes, you’ve really got to take a look inside.

JN: Yes, because if you don’t take a look you’re going to keep going like you’ve been going.

TR: Speaking of tricky words. Do you shy away from “the spiritual”?

JN: I shy away from the “the,” not “spiritual.” I think it’s the “the” that mystifies me. It’s too singular. For me, spiritual is multivariant and extremely immanent – it’s embedded in everything and all reality. And so to put the singular on it makes it too much like a transcendental godhead thing for me. And I much prefer an embedded immanence approach.

TR: Yes, “the spiritual” is fraught with problems, I agree. One has to use it with caution. But you do use the term “the sacred” in your book. How is that different?

JN: I think when I speak of the sacred, I usually speak about it historically – in terms of sites and locations. It’s more like a historical reference, embedded in architecture and in the grotto, the nymphaeum, and of course in the caves.

TR: Ecstatic – now here’s a word you certainly don’t shy away from. It’s in the same family as those other words, but it’s much more interesting, more open.

JN: It’s a little bit more abstract, so people can fill in how it feels to them. It doesn’t seem like anything can be imposed. It can be an emergent property that one feels and experiences for a moment. But I’m quite certain the capacity is in every human being to experience it. One needs the right conditions. I think art is one of the proper vehicles for allowing the possibility of that experience. I deeply believe in that.

TR: So that’s what self-transcendence means to you: moving beyond the conventional notions of the self, the conventional ways of thinking, our utilitarian consciousness…

JN: Yes. And a kind of connection to the immanence of nature and materiality, the full vibratory spectrum. Early on, as I said, I wanted to express this with the early white paintings with stones. I was reading Werner Heisenberg on quantum physics at the same time and trying to understand the deep structure of the material, which is uncertain vibrations. But how to bring that into the art was not too easy. Although symbolism did give me a possible tool. But it’s not too easy to go there. But it is almost impossible to visualize this stuff. And then, that’s 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 – and us!

TR: That seems crucial.

JN: Yes. 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 the nOise anusmOs show. That’s what my intention is – that urbanites, sophisticated art viewers, will feel and think about the grander beyond and have appreciation of it inside them. 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.” You can call it spiritual, or godhead, or void, or nothingness. We don’t know what to call it. It’s beyond our full comprehension - thus ripe for artistic expression.

TR: So certainty doesn’t have to be the goal.

JN: Even if it is, it’s impossible.

TR: My sense is that a lot of people find that repulsive – the idea that we can’t know.

JN: They’re arrogant. They think, “Well, I’m so smart, I should know.” Well, you know what you know, but there’s so much more we don’t know. Just look into black holes and dark matter. Amazing stuff.

TR: So if the goal of science and technology isn’t to know the universe, what is it?

JN: I think that is the goal; it’s just impossible to achieve. But goals by definition should not be achieved. They’re directions for the search. Yeah, I think enlightenment and knowledge is still absolutely the goal. It’s not like we’re going to tumble back into some dark age, some primitive non-knowing. I think I said that about noise, even – that that’s not really the point. It’s the function as Thermidor, which takes you to the point and then turns you back. I think that’s the key contribution noise can make to culture. Not pushing you over the edge, but taking you to the brink, seeing it, and then knowing where you are in relationship to it. That’s what the Thermidor does.

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 other young artists. I’ve seen a few examples of artists who are really trying to work with getting back to respecting the enormity of nature, and trying to bring that into their work. And of course it has everything to do with a kind of dialogue 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.