Book Review: Immersion Into Noise by Joseph Nechvatal

Reviewed by Yuting Zou

Published in 2011

University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press

“Chance has its reason” – Petronius

Immersion Into Noise is an informative and alluring book that inspires readers to step into self-exploration, and to engage in an ongoing investigation of the connected self.

While most people would naturally think of noise as an audio-only disturbance, in his latest book Immersion Into Noise, digital artist and theoretician Joseph Nechvatal takes us on a rowdy conversional ride through a series of audio to visual to spatialized and networked “art noises.” (These and all following quotes are Nechvatal’s). Here I will sketch out some of Nechvatal’s innovative argument; an argument filled with examples from the history of philosophy, noise music, the visual arts, architectural history, network theory and consciousness studies.

In the Introduction to Immersion Into Noise, Nechvatal lays out his acceptance of noise as the material for an immersive art that allows the mind to transcend where it was and connect to the body through what he calls a “self-attentive unification” – as the excess of art noise triggers intensities in all directions. He does this by placing emphasis on immersion as that implies a continuum of intensity vectors, the integration of which preconditions “the ecstasy of going outside of self” without loosing connection with the self.

Central to Immersion Into Noise is when Nechvatal identifies a site of “immersive noise vision” within a little known space at the hub of the prehistoric cave, Lascaux, that he was allowed to visit. He builds his theory on this rare and powerful experience.

In the conclusion of Immersion Into Noise, Nechvatal hypothesizes an innovative theory of what he calls “immersive noise consciousness.” His theory of immersive noise consciousness proposes that the function of an “immersive art-of-noise” would be to provide for us an artistic environment of clamorous cultural information capable of expanding our consciousness, disjunctively. He further concludes that this disjunctive noise consciousness may lead us to a new ontological unification based on “self-re-programmablity.”

Also in the conclusion of Immersion Into Noise, Nechvatal maintains that, “The subsequent and ultimate aesthetic benefit of noise art then, is in attaining a prospective realization of our perceptual circuitry as a self-re-programmable operation.” This goal of an expanded human capability through art is important to him, as he feels that the substantial ability to self-modify (self-re-program) ourselves is the point of art.

According to Nechvatal, in our age of “massive electronic deluge,” we are constantly immersed in an information-overloaded virtual world of distributed networks. Art noise in this culture, as conceptualized by Nechvatal, “distorts and disturbs crisp signals of cultural communications.” Unlike normal noise, which doesn’t mean anything, aesthetic art noise, according to Nechvatal, is full of cultural meanings and becomes a dense (while confusing) assemblage of cultural ideologies and signifiers. Hence, according to Nechvatal, “art noise” as virtual environment can be considered a miniscule abstraction of our larger noisy connected world. While immersed in a “noise art environment”, the “immersant” is stimulated to experience a paradoxical (and disjunctive) state of connectivity and disconnectivity. The neural networks of the human body join with the external noisy art networks and form a body-space of “hyperconnectivity.” Thus the classical, ontological body dissolves somewhat in an art-of-noise virtual environment, collapsing the distinction between the inside and the outside. However, noise is disturbing and offensive. It is beyond comprehension and challenges our habitual way of thinking and reasoning. Noise necessarily produces resistance in the mind, and thus creates a “critical distance” via a “body/mind rupture.” But Nechvatal intends not only to make us aware of our inner ruptures. He too proposes that the “excess” inherent in the “art of noise” offers a “saturating border experience” that is expansive. By increasing art noise to that threshold, the superabundance of “ideological demonstration becomes non-representational.” Therefore, such a noise art environment becomes a private vacuole (noncommunicational cocoon) of self-reflection, where a newfound depth of self-understanding is achieved; as well as a disillusionment of social spectacles and ideologies.

As he makes clear, Nechvatal’s immersive noise theory is deeply rooted in contemporary philosophy, particularly A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In that famous book, Deleuze and Guattari describe the condition of a body without organs as an insubstantial state of connected-being that lies beyond representation – that which concerns becomings and nomadic essences. Nechvatal also draws from their concept of “becoming-animal,” where Deleuze and Guattari place great emphasis on movements of escape that cross thresholds to reach a continuum of intensities where all forms come undone. In a becoming-animal noise panorama, a feedback-loop is used as a metaphor for a psychic bouncing back and forth from comfort to distress (and loops). Nechvatal builds on these ideas when postulating noise art environments that are capable of pushing the limits of our habitual significations, signifiers, and signifieds – to the benefit of a new unformed state of de-territorialized flux.

Georges Bataille is Nechvatal’s other major influence, as when Bataille stresses the definition of excess as not so much as surplus, but as an effective passage beyond our established limits – an impulse that exceeds even its own threshold. But also considered is the French philosopher Michel Serres’s interrogation of the idea of noise in his books Genèse and The Parasite. Nechvatal then makes use of Jacques Derridia’s deconstruction of logocentrism: the once held distinction between subjectivity and objectivity. He builds his noise theory on a solid ground by judiciously using contemporary philosophy, which involves the concepts of fractals, quantum mechanics, Brownian random walk and differential structure. He then ties in Eastern philosophy (Zen and I Ching) based in the work of John Cage, as when Cage developed aesthetic theories that led to an abandonment of structure in favor of structures that become indeterminate via chance operations. Cage concluded that structure was not necessary even though it had certain uses. One wonders just what kind of noise art dynamics might be generated by the heterogenic intersection of the all-embracing Tao and the promising unification of physics superstring/M-theory (our most ambitious attempt at a unification theory)? Would it be interesting to have such an all-inclusive philosophy that allows for both self-referential differential structure and axiomatic algebraic structure? But for now, Nechvatal’s theory of noise art aims at a self-referential mode in an immersive environment which is a representation of what he calls a “conspicuously excessive, connected and collapsing society.” An immediate benefit of Nechvatal’s noise theory of “rupture-induced expansion” is its emphasis on that which “unites the apparent opposites of subjectivity and objectivity” in the interests of a networked well-being from a connectionist perspective.

Generously sharing his intimate experiences in Lascaux, Nechvatal guides us through a sequence of cavernous shelters, labyrinthine passages, and excessively decorated architectures. None of them is constructed as an ideal linear space. They are all irregular and unpredictable places that induce us to enjoy a “compressed, close-up immersive experience.” As he poetically puts it, we enter with him, “the depths of the immersive darkness to contemplate both the beginning and end of life.” Or as he more analytically puts it, “it is in the cave, generally deep within, where early immersive art attained its maximum intensity.”

This noise aesthetic of holes and caves is often exemplified in Nechvatal’s own digital art, with his use of an artificial-life computer virus program that enters and eats away his digital paintings of human retinas and anuses.  I was lucky enough to have attended the public screening in March 2011 of his Viral Venture projection at The School of Visual Arts Theatre – and it deeply affected my sense of perception and cognition, along with my sense of connected spirituality. Its spatial dynamics aroused in me the imagination of a unified macro and micro perception where black holes and anatomical human ones merge. That aspect of the show forced on me a fuller sensory perception in sharp contrast to the tradition of linear perspective, which is a linear approximation of the visible world based on two assumptions: 1) the spectator’s eye was singular, rather than as double as with normal binocular vision; and 2) the spectator stands in front of the picture exactly at the correct viewing distance with her eye opposite to the vanishing point, so that rays of light traveling from the eye to an object remain straight. As Nechvatal explains in Immersion Into Noise these two rules were used to create a plausible illusion at the price of the spectators’ freedom, since it demands the fixed position and the “singular eye” of a spectator. This affected me personally, because as a disillusioned “Arcadian” , I choose freedom, the freedom to question a linear (oversimplified) view of life (or a seemingly apparent doctrine); a freedom to retain and affirm an open belief; and a freedom to have a 360° spherical/relational perspective, in which everything reacts on everything else, with no beginning or end. This means no glib judgments. More importantly, it is a freedom from staring at an infinitely distant vanishing point in isolation and solitude. In other words, it is a freedom to embrace this moment-to-moment differentiable curve of activities – the real reality of this life.

As Joseph Nechvatal points out in Immersion Into Noise, “in the Renaissance ideal of linear trompe l’oeil perspective, infinity, mathematics, and theology met on a unified plane whose grandeur and rational perfection symbolizes a faraway, mighty and incomprehensible God.” This statement led me to reflect on the five points of Calvinism and the double-predestination (Canons of Dort) found in Reformed Theology that models the total sovereignty of God in Cartesian coordinates. Reformed Theology makes one conscious of the huge gap between one’s actual state and ideal states, without providing a practical solution to connect the two. The difficulty of this problem has been described by Paul’s own body/mind duality (Romans 7). In reading Immersion Into Noise I realized that by using a cross-disciplinary application of immersive noise theory, this dilemma could be solved by the use of “immersive noise” – with its overflow (excess) of Spirit (the formless) – so that an expanded consciousness of identity was made possible. Immersion Into Noise gave me an elegant answer that Reformed Theology alone could not offer. Because the Spirit has no form, it can hardly be confined in the Reformed structure, just as a basket cannot hold water. In fact, Paul also turned to the use of Spirit (Romans 8), which not only confirms the applicability of the theory, but further suggests a Diformed (differential form) of theology as its analogy.

With developments in the study of physical reality, now we can say that though chaos is usually considered as disorder, completely without order, the binary opposition of chaos and order has been reconciled in the sense that the real world is better described between the two. Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise also involves this idea, as the concepts of noise and chaos intersect. We know the complexity/unpredictability of natural or experimental systems is modeled by stochastic chaos (chance), or deterministic chaos (chaos), or a combination of both. “Chance has its reason” – Petronius. While the result of tossing a coin once is completely uncertain, a long series of tosses produces a nearly certain result. This transition from uncertainty to near certainty (when we observe long series of events, or large systems) is an essential theme in the study of chance. Deterministic chaos, (simply known as chaos), is even more paradoxical: very simple and completely determined rules or equations, with nothing random in them, can have outcomes that are entirely unpredictable. Moreover, a system of unpredictability also exhibits self-organizing patterns and structures (order). One of the most interesting examples that allow order and chaos to coexist is the chaotic attractor. It is an attractor (thus it implies an order) that has sensitive dependence on initial conditions: a small change in the state of the system at time zero produces a later change that grows exponentially with time. Can a chaotic attractor take that epistemological leap into an ontological model? A small mistake (or something out of control) in the beginning may result in a later irrevocable disaster, however, no matter how many or how severe (within a certain tolerance) the initial mistakes are, eventually, the pattern of your life remains unchanged. No matter where you started, you will never get back to exactly where you were (though you can be infinitely close). You will never repeat yourself anytime anyplace (implied by topological transitivity). There is a strong and genetic self-programmability inside each of these attractors. I find that Nechvatal makes similar points in the conclusion of Immersion Into Noise. Induced by chaotic “art noise”, an order of self-reflection and “meta-re-programming ego” may emerge.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying human happiness, moral judgment, and even moral truth as subjects of intense interest. For example, Marc Hauser suggests that we have an innate moral faculty that consists of a set of principles that constitute the universal moral grammar, and thus, we have innate ability to make moral judgment. Carrying that theory a step further, Sam Harris argues that human values (innately exist) can be (universally) translated into scientific facts, and consequently, the well-being of conscious creatures may be maximized by scientific operations. It seems that a common goal of art and science is to improve human well-being, which is to do with life’s purpose, meaning, pleasure, satisfaction, morality and so on.

If we look at – and then beyond – the realm of aesthetics, it is not hard to discover the great benefit of Joseph Nechvatal’s art of noise as copiously explored in Immersion Into Noise: the common good of humanity.