Fast and Beautiful: The A-life Undeadening of Painting via the Digital

Joseph Nechvatal, New York and Paris

[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.]

"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

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?

bucOlic drOiddrOp. 2004 computer-robotic assisted acyrilic on canvas/ [Click for larger image]

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.

sOlipsisO gratOs. 2004 computer-robotic assisted acyrilic on canvas/ [Click for larger image]

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 complete.

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 dominates.

cirque OmegO. 2004 computer-robotic assisted acyrilic on canvas/ [Click for larger image]

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.

elfematic flâneur cOmbO. 2004 computer-robotic assisted acyrilic on canvas/ [Click for larger image]

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 Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986 1962), p. 130

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

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. (Deleuze & 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" (Brian Massumi, A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992], p. 70)

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" (1920 [1993]) 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 Làszlò Moholy-Nagy when he ordered his "Telephone Pictures" by phone from a sign factory (Huelsenbeck, p. 95; see Moholy-Nagy, "The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist", p. 79). 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.

The author's website:

Cyborg OV

Last modified 6 March 2005