Interview with Joseph Nechvatal – Part 1

by Taney Roniger

Virus Video Projection. 2012. by Joseph Nechvatal

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

Taney Roniger (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?

Joseph Nechvatal (JN): It started, first of all, with my ideal for looking at most painting: that you enter the painting. Like Kandinsky said, he wanted to viewer to enter and sort of exist in, and explore, and be, and travel in a painting. 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, and 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 head-mounted device. And 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 audio and sound art, and anything that was non-musical in terms of audio 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 it 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: 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.

JN: 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 human being and a wiser human being.

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