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Interview with Joseph Nechvatal


Notes: Cinema and the Brain Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory #2 | December 18, 2001

Martha Trivizas: What do you think of the writing trend in which the assumption is that technology is inseparable from us as human beings?

Joseph Nechvatel: I think the assumption is accurate if you think of technology as culture. Then it is self-evident. If the creation of papyrus by the Egyptians was a technological achievement, then writing developed out of technology. So maybe it’s not such a big problem if you just don’t get hung up on the association with new technology. Notwithstanding, I would say that technology is integral to us. I would accept that assumption.

MT: What is a human being, conceptually and literally?

JN: Conceptually, a human being is an ego. One person could not exist and doesn’t exist. One person cannot reproduce, so we’re already talking about a system of human beings. We exist in a kind of network of humanity. Literally, a human being is that ego exemplified by his or her actions.

MT: Relationships among human beings are now inseparable from technology. Do you believe that?

JN: I want to back off that. That makes it seem like a totally done deal. I think most of our life is like that, yes, but there are certain activities that are quite a bit outside of all that. There are still pockets of connection with nature mostly unmitigated by technology. That’s why I really enjoy gardening, sex, my dog, and certain things that you could say technology plays a minimal role in. If you go walking through a wild forest, the role of technology is limited–unless you’re walking with a global positioning device. If you’re just sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow… I don’t see the role of technology there. That is, unless the seed has been genetically modified. But to a great extent your statement concerning our inseparability from technology is true. I just believe that there are areas of our lives that have not been technologicalized.

MT: There is the conceptual approach to the association of man and machine and a more literal approach to the association of man and machine. What do you think of the conceptual construct of an ‘a-territorial’ body between biology and culture? What do you think of the notion of the classic living body made of boundaries, limits, and barriers suddenly dissolving in its surrounding systems and phenomena?

JN: I put that all into philosophical terms of the ‘subject/object’ polarity, which I believe is a fake polarity. But sure, it certainly works in terms of collecting Social Security–or however it functions within our society. I believe this separation between “I’m the subject / you’re the object,” or “This table is an object of which my subjectivity makes use”… well, I think a lot of that is not true. I think that way of ‘either/or’ cuts into our interactions with the world. Certainly this comes out of environmentalism–because the whole idea of environmentalism is that you realize the environment is part of you and you’re part of it. So you just can’t ignore your environment. I think that all of those ideas that you just laid out can be included in a new way of looking at the subject/object discourse in terms of a techno-environmental consciousness–a consciousness of now, where that divide no longer rests easily. I mean, we accept these divisions as little boys and girls, so it’s not something we’re questioning on a regular basis. This sucks not only because of the way it divides human beings from other human beings but also the way it divides us from our culture, our technology, and from our environment. In a way, it allows people to not take responsibility. If something is outside of you, well then it doesn’t have anything to do with you. That’s too easy a way to escape responsibility.

MT: What do you think of cultural ideology only existing when entangled with culture?

JN: One can say that the whole idea of nature is a cultural concept. I don’t accept that, but people say that if you didn’t have an idea of nature then you wouldn’t even know it was there. You wouldn’t participate in it. You
wouldn’t think about cultural ideology, either. So in a way, ideology is a conceptual and cultural construct. But I think we emerge out of the energy of nature too, out of these electronic vibrations which make up nature. For me, it’s not a big problem.

MT: What do you think of the notion that the contemporary body is so contaminated by non-biological phenomena that it has become unrecognizable?

JN: There’s the example of a woman named Lolo Ferrari. She died a couple of years ago. See, Lolo Ferrari had her breasts enhanced to such an extent that she was post-human. She pushed that fetishistic male thing to an extreme no one has ever seen before. You can find unbelievable images of her on the Net. She died kind of mysteriously and I was never quite certain whether she just killed her ‘character’ and just took all that silicone out and became normal sized again or if she actually did physically die. And if so, what was it that killed her? Silicone poisoning? Suicide? What was the cause of death, really? It was never revealed. Lolo’s breasts were still recognizable though–but so hugely distorted that they surpassed reality. Furthermore, what about that mechanical heart that went inside the black man, which kept him alive for a time? That’s the same post-biological principle at work: to surpass nature.

MT: What is cyberspace?

JN: Cyberspace is the space of connectivity between every networked computer in the world. It’s a word concept that was created in science fiction by Gibson in his 1984 book Neuromancer. In it he describes, fictionally, what cyberspace is. Well, after he described it fictionally, actual programmers read his literature and said, “Hey we can make it!” So it was an example of how science fiction created reality, if you will. Because those dreamy virtual fantasies were then actualized by real programmers who took their own fingers and bodies and minds and put them on the line and created the languages to make the computers talk with each other. So cyberspace–in the most general way–is all the memory of all the computers in the world, hypothetically all connected one to the other. It’s that digital space of connectivity.

MT: Is cyberspace ‘alive’?

JN: No, but I think there can be living entities within it. I think space by definition is a void. It’s lacking behaviors that are signs of life. I think it lacks a consciousness of its own. It facilitates consciousness, but
I would say it’s empty. The way Gibson described it was black. A black empty huge space with endless connections of lights.

MT: Is artificial intelligence intelligent?

JN: Yeah, but what do you mean by artificial? What do you mean by intelligence? Certainly neuronets–which can create generative growing consciousnesses modeled on the brain’s structure–can plot how the brain is
organized within computers. That is an intelligence. Perhaps it’s an illusion of intelligence? Yep. At this point what we’re looking at are illusions of intelligence–but I think it’s hard to say that we won’t ever have real ‘AI’. I just don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think what we have been looking at are illusions of intelligences that are leading us along the path to develop real computational intelligences.

MT: Are humans programmed?

JN: To a certain extent humans are programmed. We have a genetic code that is programming what color eyes we have, our hair, how high we can jump, how thick or thin our bones are, and so on. So, in a certain way we are already genetically programmed. One can then say we are programmed by our parents and by our schools and our societies. But I don’t think that is a determinant programming. I think with cultural programming you still have free will to change. It’s the ‘free will versus determinism’ debate in philosophy. If you accept the premise that you don’t have free will, then guess what? You don’t! If you accept the premise that you have free will–even if you really are determined–you may very well have free will and be able to use it. But if you never try, you squander it. If you assume you are determined, then you are determined. So already this is a kind of digital binary self-programming, this ‘determined/free’ mindset.

MT: Can we extricate ourselves out of culture?

JN: I do believe in the power of self to re-program consciousness. I think we can mutate ourselves within our culture. We cannot totally extricate ourselves from our culture though, because we are culture–we determine it as our technology shapes us. Plus, we have the makeup of an eco system–an eco-tech system which is, at this point in time, inescapable. Given that, I think that by exploring the subject/object divides we can find mutations within our own subjectivity. Through that exploration we have effects on what used to be called the objective world. So I think there is a kind of alchemical mutation possible that’s not extrication. But that takes
a reinvention of ourselves and this, of course, has to do with art and the imagination and fantasy and all these really important things.

MT: Who would you recommend to read on the object/subject topic?

JN: Well, Henri Bergson started writing about that. Gilles Deleuze is very good on this.

MT: I just started reading Mille Plateaux. Do you recommend that?

JN: It like changed my life. It’s a fabulous book! The way that it’s Structured–it’s structured like a hyper-text, like how you would expect a CD-ROM to be structured! You could surf in and out of it. You could jump around in it. It’s non-linear, which is the way they, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, wanted us to look at our own epistemology and then at our own beingness. It is about the way we learn and grow, that it doesn’t have to be a linear progression. This whole idea of looking at history only as a linear progression is not useful within this new epistemology. So for me, it’s an absolutely fantastic book! It’s rather abstract in some parts, you know. And funny! I didn’t really get it all the first time–you don’t have to, you’re not expected to–so you go back and back. Yes, for me Mille Plateaux is a big thing. It took me about three months to first read it. It was a very important book in my development as an artist and thinker.Another very significant book by them for me was What is Philosophy. Deleuze and Guattari again go with a collaborative enterprise here. Things get a little more specific when they talk about artists and the creation of art. It’s a little bit more comprehensible if you’re a little uncomfortable with the endless open-endedness of Mille Plateaux. It’s a little bit more nailed down. Do you know that Foucault called Deleuze the greatest philosopher of the 21st century? I agree with him, and I would say that Mille Plateaux is Deleuze’s masterpiece. It’s huge. But in general, Deleuze is very good at talking about polarity, and about dualisms we’re expected to take at face value. He sets up conceptual deconstructing machines that deal with these dualisms–these binary things that we’re expected to just accept. That’s exactly why in my work I’m now dealing with the male/female poles as a more spun, hybrid thing–something that’s never going to actually happen, but is important in the history of alchemy, for example, and is an important imaginative space for us to explore today. The femaleness in me and the maleness in you. Let’s break with these silly binary rules and actually find out how we’re really a little more complicated than that.Also, Heidegger writes on the subject/object question from a Germanic perspective. Now it’s mostly a new-ish, techno concept that’s being articulated, developed, studied, and scrutinized. Pierre Levy is working on this. You’re not got going to find much in Hegel or Kant about it. A little in Spinoza, though.

MT: Do you think that there is something that will save the world?

JN: I do. I think that a real global communication that doesn’t play games of fundamentalism will do it. I think the biggest problem for the world right now is fundamentalist thinking.

MT: What does fundamentalist mean?

JN: It’s a term used in religion a lot. It’s supposedly like the foundation of a building. Fundamentalists believe the words of their texts, literally. And that they have the exclusive truth… that in their texts lay the truth. Anything outside their texts is wrong. That’s the basis of fundamentalism:you are cocksure that you have the right way and everyone else is wrong! It’s these aspects of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, et al. that are driving our country and our world to hell today. Basically it is 9/11. I think a real communication based on person-to-person–not just government-to-government or church-to-church–communications will help transform and save our world from our own self-destruction–a self-destruction that the fundamentalists are destined to bring on us if we fail.

MT: What do you think about virtual reality?

JN: I like it. I think it has two applications. One is as a tool that can be useful in medicine and industry and all that. But I think that for us, as artists, its other application is fantastic; we are able to make total virtual environments where you can put the person into a fantasy space and really explore creation and desire. I’m very favorable to that usage. I’ve actually a broader view of it, though. I recommend that you see the videotape called Synthetic Pleasures. What it shows is how virtual reality can also be considered as Las Vegas and various theme parks in Japan. It’s also, for me, the same thing as going into a rococo ballroom in Versailles. For me, that’s virtual reality, too. However, I have this broader application of the term based on real VR experiments with headsets. Headsets put you in contact with the expectations of total immersion. Then you can lose self-consciousness and get totally absorbed into fake environments. That’s a very important aspect. That immersive effect can be created through installation art and through land art, too. It can be created many ways, physically as well as virtually. But I think you have to understand what real, classic, virtual VR is first.

MT: Is there a paradigm shift?

JN: I think we’re always shifting. That phrase makes it sound like some huge rupture is taking place. Like there’s been some revolution! Rather, I think we’re constantly moving through changes and synthesis. I think it’s a process of movement in space and time. Time is a continuum–not some little boxes we jump in and out of. I think it’s more fluid than the term ‘paradigm’ suggests.

MT: What did technology empower you to see that you never saw before?

JN: Personally, it allowed me to see what was inside my art. I could see potentialities inside my art that could have gone by undiscovered. It showed me a profundity in the work I was doing even before I uploaded everything into the computer and started manipulating it. It just showed me what was possible given speed, new tools, and a computational power that was unknown to me. So it unleashed a kind of potentiality in my work. It allowed me to discover over and over new aspects in the work for myself, which then I show to others.

MT: What is beautiful to you?

JN: So many people have demonstrated that you can take something dirty like a crummy ashtray, and if you photograph it (I’m talking about Richard Avedon, now), blow it up, put it on a gallery wall, then an ugly, dirty ashtray is suddenly very beautiful. I think the old canons of beauty can be dropped–forget about them! To be honest, for me what’s beautiful is what interests me. So it’s not specifically a purely aesthetic judgment. It has to do, too, with the conceptual power of what I’m looking at…of what it suggests to me even more than what it directly shows. That is a big question. David Hickey is doing a lot of work in redefining what is considered beauty because, as you must know, the whole idea of beauty and the word beauty was removed from the discourse of contemporary art. It was considered not serious art if you were talking about beauty. I suppose over the last 40 years–but maybe even starting with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism–one can see those early cubist works as ugly, brown-gray paintings and not particularly beautiful as one might see an impressionist painting. Yet they’re maybe more significant in terms of art. So my definition of beauty is conceptual. And it’s what touches me personally. I wouldn’t say what’s beautiful to me should be beautiful to you, or vice versa. On top of that, it’s somewhat of a cultural model. I mean to talk about ‘a beautiful woman’–are we all talking about the same woman? Not generally, but probably to a certain extent, yes. So again it’s a kind of social programming mechanism that I don’t particularly like. But it’s out there.

MT: What is art about for you?

JN: For me, art’s about exploring inter-subjective and object/subject experiences through exquisite communications. You find art deep inside individuals. Products of this exploration become significant in the culture at large, though. I think that is what makes strong art that lasts. Art is a social activity, too. But to start, it’s an incredibly personal inner exploration. It’s a way of externalizing really private, sometimes scary, sometimes bizarre, inner obsessions. I think it’s important that you the artist identify your obsessions and sort of go deeper into them _ perhaps, if only, obliquely. You can pull art out of these explorations of obsession and excess. Then it hits the society and has a social vibration. It’s literally a movement from inside-to-outside, like a pebble dropping into a still lake. You, the artist, starts in a very deep subjective space and that space moves outwards through society. There’s a lot more to what art is than that, of course. Anthropologists have a certain idea of what art is. Artists have a certain idea. People in the art market, art historians, even little girls with their coloring books–all have different ideas of what art is.

MT: What do you tell students who have hesitations about technology and art?

JN: I tell them to leave their hang-ups behind. They’re not obliged to dig it. It’s not an agenda that I’m trying to impose on anybody. The way I was trying to structure my “Viractuality” class was just to lay the information in front of people like a smorgasbord. The information must correspond to the artist’s personal interests–but I think we have to know what other artists are doing, regardless. What our culture is doing. Otherwise, we’re missing out on that second part of art, which is how subjectivity functions out in the world.I think there are certain preconceptions and hang-ups people sometimes have. I don’t know whether they learn these from other aspects of art–like the legacy of modernism with its supposed ‘purity’ of medium. It’s that legacy of defining a medium in its ‘essentiality’. That, too, is a kind of fundamentalism, where the art of painting became only color on a flat plane. I think we’re still living under that legacy somewhat.

MT: Is man’s very soul due to machines–in terms of our 9-5 habits, 2 week vacations, and consumer habits?

JN: One can say that the clock is a machine and that the calendar is a machine. Don’t forget that the new millennium was a new millennium for us, sure, but there are other calendars out there in the world where that was just an average day. So why assume that our clock, our calendar, is the way time has to be organized, or the way it is with our soul? We live under those time rules, most likely, but it’s not imposed on us by nature. I think the only time law of nature is that you get old and die, eventually.

Note: The basis of Dr. Nechvatal’s class is that computer technology has become a significant means to making and understanding contemporary art. Consequently, we investigated art (in its many forms–including sculpture, performance, painting, video, architecture, literature, Net art, electronic music, and more) that addresses the merging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This merging is what Dr. Nechvatal calls the “viractual.” Hence, the title of his class: Viractualism.

Joseph Nechvatal has made art with electronic visual data and computer-robotics since 1986. His next exhibition "vOluptuary : an algorithic hermaphornology" opens May 22nd in New York City at Universal Concepts Unlimited (see: http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/algorithic.html and http://www.U-C-U.com). Dr. Nechvatal earned his PhD in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CaiiA). His web site is located at: http://www.nechvatal.net Martha Trivizas is pursuing an MFA in Computer Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York.