Voluptuous Viractualism

Hermaphroditic Codes, Robotic Art and Immersive Excess

My concept of viractuality-and viractualism-emerged out of the research I conducted in virtual reality at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, in the U.K..[1] It begins with the realization that every new technology disrupts previous rhythms of consciousness. I believe that the viractual realm is now the authentic domain of art in the information age. This concept is central to my work as an artist.

The basis of the viractual conception is that virtual producing computer technology has become a significant means for making and understanding contemporary art and that this brings us as artists to a place where we find the emerging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This merger-which tends to contradict some dominant techno clichés of our time-is what I call the 'viractual'. The blending of computational virtual space with ordinary viewable space indicates the subsequent emergence of a new topological cognitive-vision of connection between the computed virtual and the uncomputed corporeal world.

Gilles Deleuze's consideration of Baruch Spinoza-the 17th century philosopher who merged mind and matter into one substance-was a key influence. In Spinoza: Practical Philosophy,[2] Deleuze indicates how desires propel us to move towards greater or lesser states of exalted wholeness depending on whether the object encountered is harmonious with us, or on the contrary, tends to decompose us. [3]

The viractual recognizes and uses the power of digitization while being culturally aware of the values of monumentality and permanency - qualities which can be found in some powerful analog art. It is a significant concept, I feel, which indicates and initiates communions of the protoplasmic body to virtual spatial conditions. As Roy Ascott, in his essay "The Architecture of Cyberception" stated,

... to inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time, and to be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time is giving us a new sense of self, new ways of thinking and perceiving which extend what we have believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities.[4]

Consequently, the viractual articulates a new techno-digital sense of life and art.

The viractual has proven to be a useful conceptual operative for constructing a fuller account of my own work as well as the work of other artists. The art of Inka Essenhigh is one example. When I began exploring the viractual image in 1986 I created ridiculously complex numeric images which consisted increasingly of a mixture of drawing, digital-photography, painting, written language, and externalized computer code-all of which were submitted to computational manipulations (including viral attacks).

This viractual subject and method will be exemplified again in the new digital work which I will be showing under the title of "vOluptuary : an algOrithic hermaphornology" at Universal Concepts Unlimited.[5] The viractual will be exemplified here by mixing my artificial-life virus project with my continuing project as a post-Warholian painter. This combination of stasis and flight manifests itself in the form of computer-robotic assisted paintings which depict representations of the body and sexuality. The representations are then problemitized through hermaphroditic (alchemical) depictions achieved through algorithmic codes.

Of crucial interest to "vOluptuary" will be the origin of the hermaphroditic image. This hybrid viractual image first appears in Ovid's classic text Metamorphoses-and perhaps this emergence is well worth recounting here. The hermaphrodite initially occurs in Western culture as a son of Hermes and Aphrodite named Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus was a typical, if exceptionally handsome, young male with whom the water nymph Salmacis fell madly in love. When Hermaphroditus rejected her sexual advances, Salmacis desired him even more. One spring day Hermaphroditus stripped nude and dove into the pool of water which was Salmacis's habitat. Salmacis immediately dove in after him-embracing him and wrapping her body around his, just as, Ovid says, ivy does around a tree. She then prayed to the gods that she would never be separated from him-a prayer that they answered favorably. Consequently, Hermaphroditus emerged from the pool both man and woman.

The patriarchal construction of woman as other and the female body as object is deeply rooted in the supposed duality (opposites) of the (two) sexes. Most feminist theory questions this patriarchal construction of sex and gender, suggesting that sex is expressed through a continuum, rather than as an opposing couplet based on heterosexist male/female polarities. Accordingly, within my viractual multiverse, containments designed for womanhood/manhood are subverted by the presence of ambiguous genitalia-the mutable image and performance of pan-sexuality. Gender here is viewed as an act of becoming. Consequently, gender performance fails to sustain sex oppression by ceasing to draw the boundaries of the Other.

It is a provocation not only to male/female constructions of heterosexuality, but also to homosexual constructions of identity. This critique of "representation" in the aesthetic sense is part of a critique of "representation" in the political sense (and vice versa). Art here is seen as political in the sense that it is a site of power struggles which fail to presuppose a metaphysics which is itself a politics-a politics which establishes an order of values which often maintains the dominant order of meaning and power over breakthrough ideologies. Need I mention the war in which we are engaged against Islamic fundamentalism?

As the tale of Hermaphroditus suggests, my present work is about pansexual eroticism melded to virtuality, quixotic transformation, and, of course, immersive excess. The viractual realm is a political-spiritual chaosmos in the sense that new forms of sexual order arise such that any form of order is only temporary and provisional. But I don't think it is a chaosmos in the sense of ceaseless flux and chaos. Rather, this sphere is attained through an emergent viractual operation, and I take abundant pleasure in the forms of pan-order that arise within its algorithmic processes.

Within viractual creation all sexual signs are subject to boundless semiosis-which is to say that they are translatable into other signs. It is possible to find resonances and affinities between sexual opposites. We can always articulate new sexes within. Here a chameleon-like sexual demeanor is being built from the virtual abyss.

The viractual is a new sensibility emerging in art respecting the integration of certain aspects of science, technology, myth and consciousness-a consciousness struggling to attend to the prevailing current spirit of our age. This viractual zeitgeist I identify as being precisely an autopoietic desiring machine in which everything, everywhere, all at once is connected in a rhizomatic web of communication. Therefore, the viractual is no longer content with the regurgitation of a standardized analog repertoire of image-tropes. Rather I detect in art a fertile attraction towards the abstractions of advanced scientific discovery-discovery now stripped of its fundamentally reductive logical methodology.

Concerning this viractual span of liminality, I am reminded of two very different, yet complementary, concepts: entrainment and égréore. Entrainment, in electro-physics, is the coupling of two or more oscillators as they lock into a commonly sensed interacting frequency. In alchemical terms an égréore (an old form of the word agréger) is a third concept or phenomenon which is established from conjoining two different elements together. I suggest that the term (concept) viractual (and viractuality) may be a concordant entrainment/égréore conception helpful in defining our now third-fused inter-spatiality which is forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual-a concept close to what the military call augmented reality that is the use of transparent displays worn as see-through glasses on which computer data is projected and layered. A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged and established a seemingly unrestricted area of abundance which I call the viractual.


[1] "Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances : A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms". A URL introduction to the thesis, entitled "Frame and Excess", can be read on-line and the entire thesis downloaded in PDF at: http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/ideals.htm

[2] Deleuze, G. 1984. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

[4] Ascott, R. 1994. "The Architecture of Cyberception" in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 2, No. 8, MIT Press Journals, August 1994

[5] Universal Concepts Unlimited.

Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information and computer-robotics since 1986. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer animations have been shown in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-3 he was artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation's computer lab in Arbois, France where he worked on 'The Computer Virus Project': an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. His work has been collected by the Los Angeles County Museum, the Moderna Musset in Stockholm, Sweden and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. His work was also included in Documenta 8.

Dr. Nechvatal teaches 'Theories of Virtual Reality' and 'Viractualism' at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.