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Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age


Joseph Nechvatal, scOpOphilia, 2009, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas & screen with viral attack animation, 20" x 20"Joseph Nechvatal, scOpOphilia, 2009, computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas & screen with viral attack animation, 20" x 20"
Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age published in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #5 25th Anniversary Edition (2011)

Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age

This essay will investigate the idea of the emergence of the viractual era in lieu of the age of digital corporate conglomerates and the web 2.0.1 First, I will formulate an argument for what the viractual is and what viractualism is about.2

Viractuality is a theory that strives to see, understand, and create interfaces between the technological and the biological. The basis of the viractual conception is that virtual producing computer technology has become a noteworthy means for making and understanding contemporary life (and thus art). This virtual production3 brings artists to a place of paradox where one finds increasingly the emerging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This fusion motif4 — which tends to contradict some central techno clichés of our time — is what I call the viractual. It is the poetic welding of fusion/paradox that accounts for much of the potency and transportative agency of the theory — and the art that it produces.

Digitization is a key metaphor for viractuality in the sense that it is the elementary translating procedure today. But the viractual recognizes and uses the power of digitization while being culturally aware of the glamourous values of monumentality and permanency — qualities that can be found in some previous compelling analog art that grounded itself in the spiritual value of beauty.

For me, viractualism signals a new emerging sensibility respecting the integration of certain aspects of science, technology, myth, and consciousness — an aesthetic consciousness struggling to attend to the prevailing contemporary spirit of our age in which everything, everywhere, all at once is connected in a rhizomatic web of transmission. But the lurking viractual realm is also a political-spiritual chaosmos in the sense that new forms of order may emerge in such a way that any form of order is only temporary and provisional. Within viractual creation and understanding, all signs are subject to boundlessly inverted semiosis — which is to say that they are translatable into other signs.5

Now, what it means for our webbed digital age.

The history of art and the history of technology are often marked by ruptures. Most histories overlook moments where deep fusion occurs, as I see happening now with viractuality. Perhaps another temporal model for cultural consciousness is needed. Something other than the majestic forward and upward thrusting model of evolution. Something more humbly folded6 in on itself. Or perhaps something even more insinuatingly penetrating: as in a viral-host model. I choose the viral model — so let us now consider the activities of the viractual as a viral surge of emergent and embedded critical consciousness that offers us a formal clarity true to our webbed digital age.

After a long period of temporal disjunctions following the demise of the modernist project and the excessive abuses of the post-modernist non-project, I wish to now suggest that a new clarifying paradigm has emerged based not, however, on the ideals of the raw, the pure or the reduced — but rather on the internal tic-tic-tic bomb time of the embedded and patient viral attack.7

When looking at cultural production through the paradigm of the viral viractual, many former binary oppositions fail to function in a stable way — thus transfusing consciousness. Most basically, even the definitions of life and death are destroyed by this model; as a biological virus is precisely neither alive nor not-alive — as it depends for its existence totally on its host’s viability. The seeing-power of the host/parasite model alone must not escape us. A virus cannot — and does not — exist alone. It exists solely by entering in and coupling. So when we add the once binary definitions of virtual and actual into the voluptuous viral model of existence — and observe how they interact — a form of both/and fusion difference appears dominant within the scope of the viractual lens.

What I find exciting about this viral viractuality is the tendency here to discover and produce stuttering, nervous discrepancies between art’s internal theoretical and external manufacturing mechanisms. For example, the instantaneous reading of reduced modernist form8 is problematized by buried (often cryptic) fugitive qualities of informational de-materiality.9

So viral-viractality means cultivating another form of sumptuousness more concerned with inter-related passage than avant-garde rupture. Its leitmotif is an interest in seductive infiltrations.10 But it is revolutionary in a new non-ruptured sense (what a dreaded sense of stress waiting for a rupture that may or may never come) as it uses an inner-outer confusion (or double sense writ grand) that is not clearly obvious on first-take by design.

It is an idea of viral temporal interruption aligned with the haunting quality of the phantasmagorical — and that is what lends it its sense of authenticity in our age of de-materialized corporate informational codes.

1. Web 1 or Web 2: what is the real difference here? In 1999 I already sketched out a theory of a post-electronic art in which what matters is no longer clear identities, or logos, or distinctive characters but rather dense hidden phantasmagorical forces developed on the basis of inclusion: where things are represented only from the depth of an inclusive virtual density — perhaps adumbrated and darkened by its obscurity — but bound tightly together and inescapably grouped by the vigor that is hidden in its digital depths. Such dynamic, semi-abstract representational forms (with their rhizomatizing connections) and the non-blank space that never isolates them (but rather surrounds their outline with excess) — all these might be presented to our gaze in a post-corporate matrix where only an already vivacious virtual state is articulated in an insinuated nether darkness that is reprogramming our eyes towards a phantasmagorical visual discourse which is both capricious and, paradoxically, informationally honest. See: Henri Michaux’s Mescaline Engendered Drawings (and their diagrammatic relevance to RHIZOME’s “STARRYNIGHT” programming) @

2. As I work on this idea in my own work, I will illustrate my argument with examples from my own art practice. But by no means is the concept of viractualism limited to my art activity alone. On the contrary, it is a widely used, perhaps dominant technique, even if it has not yet been fully recognized as being so, yet.

3. A digital production that has been going on for a long time now.

4. A key influence in the formation of my theory of viractuality was Gilles Deleuze’s consideration of Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher who merged mind and matter into one material. Moreover, it is a concept close to that of augmented reality, which is the use of transparent displays worn as see-through glasses on which computer data is projected and layered.

5. Here, of course, it is possible to find resonances and affinities between formal and conceptual opposites. Hence, I wish to suggest that the term and concept viractual (and viractualism or viractuality) maybe helpful in defining our now third-fused inter-spatiality reality — a reality forged from the meeting of the virtual and the actual.

6. As Deleuze suggests.

7. So I am suggesting here a seething project of critique within critique that re-energizes the broken gaps of temporal displacement that followed the demise of modernism and the appearance of now listless — super fragmented — irresponsible — glut of post-modern de-construction.

8. Also typical of photography and pop art form.

9. Unsustainable forms of opposition that are exploded by the viral viractual time bomb are: the mind-body dualism typical of the Western philosophical tradition, thus the once held opposition between the physical and the conceptual, reality and representation, nature and culture, presence and potentiality, and the (most central to my artistic production) still and the moving. A clear enthusiasm for post-humanist metamorphosis is evident here, where the interchange between one body and another dominates. Other now exploded ruptures include: the classical and romantic, repose and energy, carnality and spirituality, organization and vigor, simplicity and complexity, smooth and rough, clarity and chaos, restraint and effusion, sparseness and abundance, abstraction and specificity, stability and stress, composure and imbalance, plan and chance.

10. Yet I believe it still can be said that viral-viractality is revolutionary in that it surfs the wake of the digital revolution while, in my case, participating in the aesthetics of glitch and the art of noise.

Joseph Nechvatal has worked with computer painting and computer animation since 1986. His book of essays Towards an Immersive Intelligence was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press.

Net-Art 2.II republishing of Viractuality in the Webbed Age

Net-Art 2.II has republished my Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age here: