by Taney Roniger
autOmata libertine. 2011. by Joseph Nechvatal. 66×44” computer-robotic assisted acrylic on velvet
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 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, 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 like an avant-garde stance and then end up just being swept up inside of some kind of slick production that plays along with the themes, 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, of course, it really comes down to the imagery. I guess that’s really why I decided the anus was an important image. It wasn’t to be a sexual or provocative or funny image; it was to be a key portal to poke into the post-industrial 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 that’s almost like, water is made up of certain chemicals, but what we do with water varies drastically – we swim in it, we brush our teeth with it, we pee in it… It’s undeniable that zeros and ones make up the structure of the 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.
JN: 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 so easy to convert signals into whatever you want to. You just change the parameters. It’s very, very easy to do – almost too easy. 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 Classical Greek poetry — Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular – where things become other things, and flowers become people, and people become clouds, and this kind of super-fluidity, which we do experience in dreams sometimes, if we’re lucky. But it has to do with a symbol, a poetic metaphor, for realizing our human potentiality 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 really 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 flanked on all sides by so many determinisms…
JN: The human spirit is being tapped down and down and down. We must strive to overcome the bullshit…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.