an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, October 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




The A-life Undeadening of Painting via the Digital[1]



Joseph Nechvatal




“Eroticism which is a fusion, which shifts interest away from and beyond the
person and his limits, is nevertheless expressed by an object. We are
faced with the paradox of an object which implies the abolition of the
limits of all objects, of an erotic object.”

-Georges Bataille [}



diOnysus bacillus

assisted acrylic on canvas

44 x 66”

For me, the digital has brought back from the dead the practice of
painting. It has made it alive. It has made it bloom in the
enthusiastic and relevant sense of the word alive -
but it has made painting alive in a more specific sense also, as I
began mixing my digital painting practice with techniques of
artificial life (a-life). Therefore the digital as applied to painting
excites me - and this excitement allows me to work with passion.

A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the heat
of ecstasy.

I am excited to work with digital painting – which I have now been
doing for 19 years - because certainly it is true that hidden in
connected computer space, there is something so large, so astounding,
and so pregnant with the darkness of infinite space that it excites
and frightens us and thus returns us to the experimental and to a
state of stimulating desire if we do not turn from it in fear.

So I have not twisted away, and as a result I am incredibly energized
by the practice of digital painting because it is – in my opinion -
where important things are happening in art today. This is so because
digital painting is a precise reaction to critical things as they are
now in the hyperactive information age while maintaining the position
of reflective criticality found in the long tradition of silent and
immobile painted surfaces. But this is only a start.

In 1987 Deleuze and Guattari decoded for me the tradition of painting
and proposed another tack (*). A tack which leads from and back to
Artaud's Body-without-Organs (**), to swarms and rhizomes, to
processes of de-territorialization and reterritorialization through
the virtual - to desiring cyborg machines and visual lines of flight.
They enhanced my general conviction that art is first-rate when it
brings compound conceptual abstractions into the perceptual stage -
where the result really is an embodiment of real yet abstract forces.
They made it clear that painting must reflect the digital if it is to
be other than a stinking cadaver. Painting must be digital to be, as
Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation, "a new
kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and
organizing new modes of sensibility" - because our consciousness and
sensibility is largely now molded by the virtual. But of course that
raises the question: which real yet abstract forces?

For me, the power of the abstracting force of ideology in distributed
information continues to be of critical interest and continues to
supply my art with its motivational urgency. In that we live in the
information age, the essential abstract political feature now is
electronic reiteration and its role in creating psychological viruses
(memes) within our culture. In that sense, my post-conceptual digital
painting is a virtual dada (***) in its subjectivist approach towards
ideology (including the rules and ideology behind the practice of
traditional painting) within the field of reproductive technology. My
practice and craft is post-Postmodern (what I call
viractual – a term which I shall explain below)
because it paradoxically defends Modernism as well as it celebrates
the radical plurality of a form of knowing that is undeniably
characteristic of contemporary electronics. This adherence to the
electronic/digital now rejects the relativism that postmodernists
insist upon and lends the work a formal consistency that is indicative
of modernism. Specifically, this intentional stance defends
modernism’s tradition of valuing the opticality of flatness that was
established in America just after World War II.

What is valued in this tradition is the practice of so-called “pure”
visuality over material texture when it comes to painting. This value
is manifest through the strict flatness achieved in my
computer-robotic assisted paintings’ paint application where an
air-gun/air-nozzle pigment delivery system driven by a computer
program sprays and stains the canvas support. There is no 3D texture
other than the minuscule one provided by the canvas weave. There is no
“croute”, as the French say (which means crust). Thus my art creates a
single case in point based on the essential nature of digital
virtuality. Making the concept of the virtual visually perceivable in
the actual terms of natural light and real time is achieved through a
process of creating a visual integration – a process that I have
termed the viractual, which is a state neither pure nor impure – but

Through this flatness one encounters a perceptual area of virtual
space/sex/death: extensively layered, nuanced, cadenced and
unfathomable - where the primal trepidation of losing control

This state of meaningful formal completion turns our attention towards
the conceptual subject matter of the paintings. Generally, art
concepts are formed by selecting essential criteria and abstracting
away any non-essential characteristics. The resulting visual
integration consists then of only the important features and an
insistence on the virtual conditions that create them.

In aiming to succeed within the essential characteristics of
viractuality, I have come to work over the last four years on the
subject of the hermaphrodite. Specifically a hermaphroditic
pre-bifurcation moment in human development called oogenesics.
Oogenesics is a moment in the development of the fertilized egg where
both female and male potentiality exists simultaneously. This moment
of potentiality exemplifies the viractual concept brilliantly - indeed
virtuality, viractuality and code have myth status in terms of my
oogenesic hermaphroditsm. The hermaphrodite is an important viractual
image in that it suggests the truth in life that a thing can be both
one thing and its opposite: that two opposites can exist
simultaneously and not cancel each other out.

Such peacefully sustained conflict can be the agent of transformation
and the creator of something new. Peacefully sustained conflict
engages the audience in a play of contradiction and excess that
encourages active critical thought and moves us away from sole
positions of passive emotion.

This oogenesic moment seizes a reflection from the electronic flux
with which I work – a flux into which it’s results may or may not be
subsequently transformed by viral a-life infections. If an oogenesic
moment is launched into the “actual world” by being painted it
performs a peculiar incident in its own right. Through this working
method I avoid seeking the pursuit of endless electronic stimulation
and rather seek out satiation. Such satiation supplies me with a chain
of pleasures in which the delights of the body are not subordinated to
the virtual - but rather dominate and hence shape the virtual towards
the living –yet classical - ends of painting and its functions.


[} Bataille, Georges. Erotism, Death and Sensuality, p. 130
Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986 ©1962)

*Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press

** In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari
describe a shift towards boundlessness as one's becoming a
body without organs (BwO) in terms of our
self-shifting representational planes emerging out of our field of
compositional consistency. The BwO (according to them) is an
insubstantial state of connected being beyond representation
which concerns pure becomings and nomadic essences.
& Guattari, 1987, p. 510) Deleuze and Guattari go on to say that the
BwO "causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a
spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension.
It is not space nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space
to a given degree - to the degree corresponding to the intensities
produced". (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 153) According to Brian
Massumi, the translator of A Thousand Plateaus, the
BwO is "an endless weaving together of singular states, each of which
is an integration of one or more impulses". These impulses form the
body's various "erogenous zone(s)" of condensed "vibratory regions";
zones of intensity in suspended animation. Hence the BwO is "the body
outside any determinate state, poised for any action in its repertory;
this is the body in terms of its potential, or virtuality". (Massumi,
1992, p. 70) : Massumi, B. 1992. A User's Guide to Capitalism
and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari.
Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press

(***)My ex-centric practice of sending digital files on-line over the
telephone lines to a hired computer-robotic machine for painting on
canvas follows the dada proposition which is found in Richard
Huelsenbeck's (ed.) "The Dada Almanac" (****) that an
artist could order paintings over the phone and have them fabricated
by a third party. Of course this idea was famously realized in 1922 by
László Moholy-Nagy when he ordered his "Telephone
by phone from a sign factory. (*****) Tony Smith,
the American sculptor, is relevant also to this emerging tradition
with his 1962 steel 6 by 6 by 6 foot cube minimal masterpiece entitled
"Die"; a composition he ordered over the phone by
calling in the specifications to his fabricator.

(****) Huelsenbeck, R. (ed.) 1920 (1993). "The Dada
, p. 95

(*****)Moholy-Nagy L. 1947. "The New Vision and Abstract of an
, p. 79



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, October 2005, ISSN 1552-5112


[1] This short position paper was delivered at the “Photography, Painting and
Sculpture: Working Digitally” conference organized by Saul Ostrow at
The Cleveland Institute of Art on February 23rd, 2005.