Towards an Immersive Intelligence|  Joseph Nechvatal (Edgewise, 2009)

To avoid unnecessary complexity, the subtitle of this impressive and provocative tome, though relatively minimal in its length (94 pages), gives us a literal transcription of what is to follow, that is: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality, 1993-2006. Frankly, I don’t think the subtitle is necessary. The author makes his point without a prolegomena. To suggest that this is a seminal book in a new or renewed field of inquiry is an understatement. Nechvatal has done nothing less than put critical theory at the threshold of virtuality, what the author synthetically claims is the juncture of evolution where the virtual and the actual will find their own homeostasis in what he refers to as “viractual.”

In the vacuous landscape of today’s software paradigms, we find unending reference to the assumption that the future will inevitably become virtual and that our tactile reality as we know it today will slowly disappear from the face of the earth. As Joseph Nechvatal implicitly suggests, this is not the only way to understand what is happening. While he is clearly an adherent of the technological revolution in advanced communications technology, he is also willing to take a distance from it all and reflect on the broadest spectrum, the continuum, that is, what is happening overall. To understand the overall picture is a matter of understanding the mechanics of cause and effect relationships. While Nechvatal—a visual artist—supports the premise that his work is bound to an immersive intelligence through densely laminated fields of imagery—hoarding hundreds of pictorial signs—the point is that this maneuvering is not a purely virtual phenomenon. For the artist and plausible theorist, Nechvatal, it is a “viractual” phenomenon.

According to Nechvatal, the viractual suggests that the world is no longer about perceiving differences between reality and illusion, but about seeing the virtual phenomenon within the actual, and the actual within the virtual. Much of this emerges in contradistinction to the writings of the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, whose theories of “simulacra” and “ecstasy” Nechvatal has pondered at some length, along with Deleuze and Guattari, the psychiatrist authors of Mille Plateaux. The latter, presumably, transformed Nechvatal’s thinking away from standard narratives and fictitious visualized composites, stuck in a draught of modernist juxtapositions, toward the postmodern notion of “rhizome theory” whereby intersessionary passageways comprise the density of information that predetermines how we feel, think, behave, and respond to the overabundant conditioning that surrounds us on a diurnal basis.

While some will regard Nechvatal’s book as overly hedonistic, even superfluous in its hypostasized intellectual tone, there is much to learn from his carefully developed arguments and insightful jaunts into unknown territory between the sexual, corporeal, psychological, and transcendent intonations. Nechvatal is an original. Both as artist and writer, he follows his own course. He is a fully matured inner-directed artist without impediments. Theory is rarely foregrounded in the work of Nechvatal, but approached from different angles, always enunciating a dialectical position, without giving way to the encumbered idealism and presumptious speculations of grandfather Hegel. When Nechvatal speaks of “immersive intelligence” he does so in the following way: “By refusing the dichotomized, utilitarian codes of representation in favor of the free associational operations, excess triggers an array of synaptic charges. “That’s synaptic, not synoptic—but the two may as well merge into one, when he says: “Aesthetic immersion’s non-linear and indeterminate latent excess facilitates our desire to transcend the boundaries of our customary human cognition in order to fell the state of unconditional being that Hegel called the absolute.”

The absolute is a conundrum for Nechvatal, who resides much closer to an omniscient fluid consciousness that would appear anathema to Hegel, at least on the surface. The introduction of the “seminal” early 20th century mystic, Austin Osman Spare, offers an ecstatic alternative to the absolute, who is quoted as: “The artist must be trained to work freely and without control within a continuous line and without afterthought … In time, shapes will be found to evolve, suggesting conceptions, forms—and ultimately, style.”

Citing Spare, Nechvatal proceeds to anoint the crown of this Blakian serpentine misfit by suggesting a prophetic impulse, namely—“that underlying everything virtual is a web of hyper connections upon which we can exert more manipulative desire than we are normally led to believe by the society the spectacle.” Still, the most energetic part of the book veers toward the conclusion with an exalted hyper-critique of his precarious ally, Jean Baudrillard. Here, Nechvatal is annoyed that the Pope of Simulacra has idolized Warhol at the expense of the Dadaists: “By ignoring such basic Dadaist dysfunctional strategies (by over-valuating Warhol’s own appropriation of them via Duchamp), Baudrillard is able to claim rather that the masses can only incorporate media content, thereby neutralizing the meaning by demanding and obtaining more and more irrational self-contradictory spectacle entertainment.” Nechvatal goes to show that Baudrillard did little more than erode “the boundary between the media and the real.” Admonishing the presumption that “Warholian reproducibility becomes the fundamental logic and code of the information society,” Nechvatal takes a clear stand with the viractual and the quest for an immersive intelligence (in spite of its neo-metaphysical aspect) and goes on to confront the lack of internal critique that has allowed this tendency to be either overlooked, sentimentalized, traumatized, or misunderstood.

The vivid viractual contribution of this book is to turn the tables on the simulacra as Sontag’s did with “camp” (1964)—and to suggest the necessity of a sensible criterion in coming to terms with ecstatic immersion of thought. By removing ourselves from the primrose path of puritan stultification where the figure is persistently delineated against a ground, Nechvatal poses a consciousness replete with space/time simultaneity. By looking equally in all directions at a virtual compendium of data without limits, through the actual history that has produced it, Nechvatal beckons the call for a vacation from all the uptightness that has pushed humanity down a narrow corridor of information storage and where few have ever considered the infinite assemblage of pleasures layered archeologically behind it.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.