Joseph Nechvatal was born in Chicago. He studied fine art and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale,Cornell University and Columbia University, where he studied with Arthur Danto while serving as the archivist to theminimalist composer La Monte Young. From 1979, he exhibited his work in New York City, primarily at the Brooke Alexander Gallery and Universal Concepts Unlimited. He has also solo exhibited in Paris, Chicago, Cologne, Los Angeles, Aalst, Belgium, Youngstown, Senouillac, Lund and Munich.
His work in the early 1980s chiefly consisted of postminimalist gray graphite drawings that were often photomechanically enlarged.During that period he was associated with the artist group Colab and helped establish the non-profit cultural space ABC No Rio. In 1983 he co-founded the avant-garde electronic art music audio project Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine. In 1984, Nechvatal began work on an opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-5) with the no wave musical composer Rhys Chatham.
He began using computers to make "paintings" in 1986 and later, in his signature work, began to employ computer viruses. These "collaborations" with viral systems positioned his work as an early contribution to what is increasingly referred to as a post-humanaesthetic. 
From 1991–1993 he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois, France and at the Saline Royale/LedouxFoundation's computer lab. There he worked on The Computer Virus Project, which was an artistic experiment with computer virusesand computer animation.  He exhibited at Documenta 8 in 1987.
In 1999 Nechvatal obtained his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology concerning immersive virtual reality at Roy Ascott's Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), University of Wales College, Newport, UK (now the Planetary Collegium at the University of Plymouth). There he developed his concept of the viractual, which strives "to create an interface between the biological and the technological." According to Nechvatal, this is a new topological space.
In 2002 he extended his experimentation into viral artificial life through a collaboration with the programmer Stephane Sikora of music2eye in a work called the Computer Virus Project II,  inspired by the a-life work of John Horton Conway (particularly Conway's Game of Life), by the general cellular automata work of John von Neumann, by the genetic programming algorithms of John Koza and the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger.
In 2005 he exhibited Computer Virus Project II works (digital paintings, digital prints, a digital audio installation and two live electronic virus-attack art installations) in a solo show called cOntaminatiOns at Château de Linardié in Senouillac, France. In 2006 Nechvatal received a retrospective exhibition entitled Contaminations at the Butler Institute of American Art's Beecher Center for Arts and Technology.
Dr. Nechvatal has also contributed to digital audio work with his noise music viral symphOny, a collaborative sound symphony created by using his computer virus software at the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University.
Joe Lewis wrote:
|“||in the artist/theorist tradition of Robert Smithson, Joseph Nechvatal is a pioneer in the field of digital image making who challenges our perceptions of nature by altering conventional notions of space and time, gender, and self. [...] Nechvatal successfully plunged into the depths where art, technology and theory meet.||”|
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- Robert C. Morgan, Nechvatal’s Visionary Computer Virus in Gruson, L. ed. 1993. Joseph Nechvatal: Computer Virus Project. Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans: Fondation Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, pp. 8-15
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