Joseph Nechvatal Interview Part 1 - Immersion Into Noise

American digital artist and art theoretician Jospeh Nechvatal's new book, Immersion Into Noise is out now, published on Open Humanities Press and part of the Critical Climate Change series. Immersion Into Noise "is intended as a conceptual handbook useful for the development of a personal-political-visionary art of noise. On a planet that is increasingly technologically linked and globally mediated, how might noises break and re-connect in distinctive and productive ways within practices located in the world of art and thought? That is the question Joseph Nechvatal explores". The book is reviewed by Yuting Zou in The Brooklyn Rail where Zou states: "While most people would naturally think of noise as an audio-only disturbance, in Immersion Into Noise,(...) Joseph Nechvatal takes us on a rowdy conversional ride through a series of audio, visual, spatialized, and networked 'art noises'.".

The following interview was conducted with Joseph Nechvatal by email in September 2011.

V: In the introduction you mention how 'the creative art of noise draws us closer to our inner world' - could you expand upon this? I read this as an interior aspect of creation being reflected most truly as noise, in a rather Cartesian sense of thinking about 'truth' and the 'world' - the brain in the vat example etc. Is 'noise' in this sense the most ontologically sound, or as proximal (exterior) phenomena we could hope to communicate in and witness - is this what make 'noise' so important?

Josph Nechvatal: I think that our inner world is very much unlike a brain in a vat in that such a model cuts through the connectivity that I see, hear and feel in my inner world as connecting to your thoughts - and my entire outer world. That buzzing connection is my truth. While noise is often considered as coming externally into a non-noise entity (an us), I think that a creative use of noise can also be viewed diagrammatized as an integral part of the same function of that system (us) - and so accorded a position within the diagrammatic structure (instead of residing as unmixed noise outside us).

But your question opens up so much of what I have been thinking since completing the book (late-2009) in terms of art as inner genesis. I have gone on thinking about aural and visual noise as a means of exploring difference and multiplicity as spectral material held in infinite suspense – something akin to an iniquitous spiritual ecstasy. This means for me an ontological self-as-wonder – but for all of us. Noise is what one makes of it. And what one makes with it. As it shape shifts.

V: Perhaps i'm thinking of Noise in a far to simplistic, far too solid a sense?

Would Noise (and it's inherent possibilities for creativities - interiorized and exteriorised) be more akin to a phenomena that is born from the two never meeting parallels of interiority and exteriority simultaneously (in both artist and viewer\s for examples sake)? Through multiple exchanges and inter-receptions of communication. Mind's eye, praxis, execution, viewer reception, viewer interpretation on so on? Noise as an aspect of these gaps - but nonetheless also a mode of creativities mechanics and communications? Noise as a hint that undoubtedly we are more than likely to be sharing the same world, but only existing/being visible through the spaces between both our endologics and exologics? I suppose you could/should argue that your sentiments concerning Noise are contrary to the brain in the vat idea? Noise as proof against this Cartesian doubt?

JN: You raise an interesting point about noise never meeting parallels of interiority and exteriority. But I do not agree with that. For me, art noise hums exactly in the fold between interiority and exteriority, where they do meet. Certainly I agree with you that art noise may have an aspect where gaps of creative mechanics and communication function as non-communication. That is why in Immersion into Noise I pin art noise to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the vacuole. This concept of noncommunication comes from Deleuze’s Postscript on Control Societies - a notion he pulled out of the work of William S. Burroughs. A vacuole is like a sac in a cell’s membrane, completely bound up inside the cell but also separate from it. So yes, kind of like space between both our endologics and exologics (whatever endologics and exologics is). Your fucking with me, right?

V: Well, thats, not quite what I meant actually! Hard to describe as it's juggling a few ideas at once. Ultimate Interiority and Ultimate Exteriority are parallels - they run side by side but never meet (however both are theoretical and not thinkable - but i'll leave that for now), and somewhere between the two, with the communications and mechanics, the 'tuning of a praxis', 'perception' and a 'viewers reception of art' etc etc... between all the things that go between an artists interiority and the viewers perception of this externalised interior ( this is interior itself because it's a perception) - is where noise is? So it's vital to have these two problematic poles of inner and outer, without these Noise would not be? -But it's quite etherial and ever changing - not to simplify the idea too crudely but perhaps sharing just some of the dynamics of a zeitgeist maybe - with regards to it's existence between myriad parties endologix and exologics...... maybe worth mentioning the Klein Bottle at this point...

I hope we are thinking about Noise along the same lines? Endologics and Exologics - ha, yeah, I'm a devil for making up my own portmanteau instead of actually explaining the notion fully! Endo=Inner, Exo=Outer, Logics= thinking linear, reason... Personally I find it easier and more concise to use these weird terms rather than get bogged down in descriptions over and over again...

JN: No problem with the made-up lingo so long as we don’t speak past each other. I enjoy your terms now that I understand them. You have pulled off a state of externalised interiority.  But I think that, yes, we are thinking about noise along different lines. I am thinking about it as I defined it (mostly visually) in Immersion into Noise – that is, with an emphasis on perception and reception in art. One way to apprehend a theoretical ambient noise art field's felt scopic atmosphere is to think of it in terms of a study of cognitive-visual acoustics. This is equitable in that sight itself is nothing other than a continuous pattern of perpetually changing light-data recorded on the retina which we process through the aggregated internal acts of discerning.  This idea of a form of cognitive-noise-perceiving is continuously allocated by tones of recognition, ranges of totality, and distributed visual echoes as humans produce a full interpretation of the plethoric information which hits their retinas in order to assign it cultural meaning. More precisely, such an acoustic-like cognitive-visuality would involve the equivalent of what in acoustics is called envelope - as visual attention has characteristics of attack, growth, duration, and decay in terms of peripheral spatial intelligence (when self-attended to). Such attention calls for the viewer’s active and self-conscious engagement with art. V: I think I understand now - so Noise is really very very similar to regular 'acoustic Noise', not sound outright but the strange phenomena that occurs in the world it's sounding in etc...Noise is definitely the right word you chose! Seems very very apt. Thinking about Noise as a cognitive and visual phenomena following a not dissimilar dynamic to regular 'acoustic noise'. I'm a wannabe hi-fi geek so do have some appreciation of the slippery nature of acoustics, some things one senses, some things one actually hears for example.
Could perhaps you talk about works that are strong examples of how 'Noise' is present, how that rely on 'Noise'? As culturally loaded or ambiguous as you like! Or, to get a little more deeper into things, talk about an example of art that you feel changed it's envelope over time, as history and the (cognitive) space it inhabits morphs?

JN: It is exactly this slippery aspect of all types of noise that interests me. Binary positions of in and out don’t last long when thinking about noise. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (1825) sounded like noise to his audience at the time of its creation. Beethoven’s publishers persuaded him to remove it from its original setting as the last movement of a string quartet. He did so, replacing it with a sparkling Allegro, and they subsequently published it separately. Would anyone think of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as noise now? No.

As for examples of works that make a strong case in point of how cognitive and visual noise is present: the entire mid-section of Immersion into Noise goes through my history of such works, starting with the Apse of Lascaux. I should perhaps mention a slightly more recent audio example here: that of Luigi Russolo, a futurist painter who was perhaps the first noise music artist. His 1913 manifesto, L'Arte dei Rumori, translated as The Art of Noises, stated that the industrial revolution had given modern men a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. Russolo found traditional melodic music confining and envisioned noise music as its future replacement. He designed and constructed a number of noise-generating devices called Intonarumori and assembled a noise orchestra to perform with them. A performance of his Gran Concerto Futuristico (1917) was met with strong disapproval and violence from the audience, as Russolo himself had predicted. None of his intoning devices have survived, though recently some have been reconstructed and used in performances. Many artists are now familiar with his manifesto. 

But as far as art that changed it's envelope over time, as history and the (cognitive) space it inhabits morphed: I would pick the prime example of anti-art; Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917. Of course, anti-art is the definition of a work of art that may be exhibited or delivered in a conventional context but makes fun of serious art or challenges the nature of art. Yet it cannot help itself from being considered art. So it moves from being not art into the envelope of art. Such was the noisy mechanamorphic impulse of Duchamp's works from 1911-1912, and the machine works that follow his exposure to Raymond Roussel, are an inescapable point of reference for avant-garde noise of the 20th century. The machine in that century, for Duchamp, was the symbol of total bliss through pure mentality and auto-sexual autonomy in contradiction to the horror that mechanized war had brought. By hypnotizing attention, the noisy machine freed Duchamp from troubling obsessions and personal hang-ups through the alternative model of android life; intimating both a rush of desperation and an ecstatic release, refracted through a web of glazed impersonality. If the machine, as a representative of noise, was a fascination Duchamp used to balance out ineptness, whether of the mind or flesh, his mechanamorphic production and machine forms refigured the human body into an almost mechanized substance. In The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, which positions a central bride machine over a bachelor apparatus, Duchamp, with the strictness of machinery, applies fantasy to seduction and masturbation. In a way, Duchamp suggests that we (as viewers) can use his art as a vehicle for self-transcendence into a kind of dream world of nonsense sex. By mechanizing sex and dreams, this nonsense of the sex machine converts sexual energy into artistic noise energy.But the preferred decisive point in understanding immersion into noise in the context of art is its facilitation of a more potent conscious-totality in the art audience produced by merging the audience's perceptual circuitry with the artwork. Ultimately for me, though, noise is just a rupture signifying transmission of excess and/or negativity for the artist to employ or disregard at will. It can be lavish and thrilling. It can be incredibly tedious and boring.

V: I suppose that Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is perhaps another example of Noise/noise and also another example of classical music riots.

Using art as a primer, a space to generate such "potent conscious-totality in the art audience" brings to mind a number of works that are only completed upon the viewers active engagement - for example Rirkirt Tiravanija's works or the recent Piccadilly Community Centre - both only function upon viewer engagement, but also neither strictly create the conscious-totality in the audience  (that you mention), just requiring active participation is not really the criteria here.

Biophilia by Mark Cypher may create noise, I imagine the participants endless reflexivity upon the fact that they are moving the art, they are the art and that they are an intrinsic part of the art - thinking around the artists intentions but putting them in the epicentre of visuals and consequences.

JN: Yes. Even if when we narrow our scope just to classical music, it is still quite interesting. Another early example is Parade, a performance produced at the Chatelet Theatre, Paris, on May 18, 1917, that was conceived by Jean Cocteau, with design by Pablo Picasso, choreography by Leonid Massine, and music by Eric Satie. The extra-musical materials used in the production were referred to as trompe l'oreille sounds by Coctueau and included a dynamo, Morse code machine, sirens, steam engine, airplane motor, and typewriters. 

In Futurism and Musical Notes, Daniele Lombardi discusses the mysterious case of the French composer Carol-Bérard; a pupil of Isaac Albeniz. Carol-Bérard is said to have composed a Symphony of Mechanical Forces in 1910 – but little evidence as emerged thus far to establish this assertion.

Arseny Avraamov's composition Symphony of Factory Sirens involved navy ship sirens and whistles, bus and car horns, factory sirens, cannons, foghorns, artillery guns, machine guns, hydro-airplanes, a specially designed steam-whistle machine creating noisy renderings of Internationale and Marseillaise for a piece conducted by a team using flags and pistols when performed in the city of Baku in 1922. In 1923 Arthur Honegger created Pacific 231, a modernist musical composition that imitates the sound of a steam locomotive.

Another example is Ottorino Respighi's 1924 orchestral piece Pines of Rome, which included the phonographic playback of a nightingale recording. Also in 1924 George Antheil created a work entitled Ballet Mécanique with instrumentation that included 16 pianos, 3 airplane propellers, and 7 electric bells. The work was originally conceived as music for the Dada film of the same name, by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, but in 1926 it premiered independently as a concert piece.

In 1930 Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch recycled records to create sound montages and in 1936 Edgard Varese experimented with records, playing them backwards, and at varying speeds. Varese had earlier used sirens to create what he called a continuous flowing curve of sound that he could not achieve with acoustic instruments. In 1931 Varese's Ionisation for 13 players featured 2 sirens, a lions's roar, and used 37 percussion instruments to create a repertoire of unpitched sounds making it the first musical work to be organized solely on the basis of noise. In remarking on Varese's contributions the American composer John Cage stated that Varese had "established the present nature of music" and that he had "moved into the field of sound itself while others were still discriminating 'musical tones' from noises".

Your other art examples amply make my point that visual-cognitive noise is a hidden key component in visual and electronic art today. I might include my own recent work as another example: asstrOnOmical affected autOmata

V: I noticed that your linked video of work 'asstrOnOmical affected autOmata' is used as a video response to Thou Art That talking about Speculative Realism. Noticing this just boosted a notion I had at the back of my mind regarding Noise. Speculative Realism explores the metaphysical 'aspects' of the empirical/sensory data world around us, or raises the questions about the dynamics between these things... I remember seeing Hecker's Speculative Solution at The Tate Britain/Urbanomic Event - The Real Thing and thinking that if I believe, if I apply myself (standing with a group of people who aslo want to experience the same revelation as myself in a large hall, a massive established public space), then it's there in two respects - endo-logically but also via sensory - exo-data (and here the two concepts of pareidolia and apophenia raise their heads). Noise could arguably operate under a similar syndrome of onto-mechanics? So does religion in many ways - do you have any thoughts about the macro-context of Noise with regards to the secular space we are inhabiting today, in some ways i'm asking if Speculative Realism 
and/or Nechvatalian Noise quenches (perhaps for some) a theo(god)philic(love/r) thirst?

JN: Yes, that Speculative Realism has been wetting the parched dryness of a mislaid metaphysical inquisitiveness recently - a metaphysical inquisitiveness that art has been (since its beginnings) continuously jacked into. Certainly an art of noise, by its very nature, must retain its speculative character because of the impossibility of attaining conclusive experimental data in art. But I am especially interested in what I perceive as Speculative Realism’s ties to Pataphysics. I discuss pataphysical noise in my book’s Conclusion: Noise Against Oblivion. What I find relevant here is Speculative Realism’s yearnings to surpass, as you say, the “empirical/sensory data world around us” in that Pataphysics is involved with the anti-scientific realm beyond metaphysics that examines the laws that preside over exceptions—an attempt to elucidate an imaginary cosmos. Alfred Jarry specifically defined Pataphysics as the “science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” Pareidolia and apophenia are salient concepts here - and I am pleased that you raised their weird heads. I wonder if you saw Richard Wright’s Turner Prize show at Tate Britain (London) in 2009-2010? For me viewing Wright’s pareidolia-like no title (2009) set in motion a collection of considerations about the contemporary condition of noise in art. I think I can sum it up for you by saying that the success of Wright’s large, but delicate, wall mural signaled to me the return of magical immersive noise thinking into mainstream art at the expense of the pop icon/logo. Its gold, monochromatic (but kaleidoscopic) ground dominated its configuration, producing an all-over fervor that needed to be interacted with imaginatively. 

I felt immediately a sense of languor in the room. People were in no hurry to move along. Rather, they seem immersed in their own mirrored filigreed realms. Clearly we were in the presence of an invitation to noise reverie. The composition has a distinct resemblance to the kind of work I was doing in 1991-92 when I first uploaded my drawings into a computer and began mirroring them with Photoshop. My companion at the museum also pointed out that Wright’s mural shares its structure with pioneers of algorithmic art, such as Roman Verostko, especially his series Epigenesis: The Growth of Form from 1997—pen and ink drawings executed with a multi-pen plotter coupled to a PC—or the mirroring manipulations in the early 90s work of the British artist Carl Fudge based on the Durer etching, Resurrection. I was slightly annoyed by the uneven lighting that produced distinct hot spots on what should have been a unified undifferentiated field. But nevertheless, this golden work (not at all typical of Wright’s other temporary murals) made opportune a re-appropriation of my finer senses in a way similar to the experience of my listening to the prepared piano Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage. It was more noise affective than discursive, more enigmatic than dogmatic. The work was full of complex inter-relational transitions and rhythmic overlapping, interlacing perceptions. It displayed noisy elasticity by coupling sameness with difference. Forms emerge from other forms, both up and down in scale, and nested within larger units, so that things became component parts of other things. Image-formations surfaced from the depths of our mind.  If the primary feature distinguishing aesthetic noise consciousness is glitched imagination, it is worth recalling that imagination’s two components, visioning and symbolizing, are integral to heightening perception and intuition. Indecision, ambiguity and conflict became dynamic and useful. The apparitions and angelic visual pleasures concealed in the florid ground of no title turned apparent “flaws,” such as the all-over ambivalence of the mural’s superficially illusory groundlessness, into affirmative values. That was the interfering shift I detected in what I think of as the responsibility of looking—a shift towards (and into) visual noise. Here I could re-appropriate my fragile capacity to visualize in a field where the noise of bewilderment and indistinctness govern. Here was an interiorly reverberating resonance that could not be appropriated by capital. Here one feels oneself feeling as a first person singular. This is a shift towards an anti-pop, no-logo emancipatory labor. One that is indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. Here I could take back my head. Caught in the cognitive interactions of its florid web, I drifted off into the Tate’s permanent collection and was rewarded by a similarly mirrored and webbed enticement in the lace collar depicted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in his Mary Rogers, Lady Harington. So Richard Wright’s no title seemed to be pointing me at a reevaluation of how to look at high art, and to the necessity of our re-conceiving it in our time as an art of inner noise.

Would you be more specific about “macro-context of Noise with regards to the secular space we are inhabiting”? Which macro-contexts have you in mind?

Part Two Following soon

London Riots 2011 Analysis

Too much text has been spewed around the media and blogosphere about the London riots, so instead here are two  meme generator images that sum up the most salient political revelation to come out of the whole mess.