When I visited JODI’s current exhibition, Street Digital, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I wondered how the notorious duo would take their earlier net art practices into the “street” (or gallery). Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans of JODI became well-known in the 1990s for upending traditional internet experiences with their online artworks. From wwwwwwwww.jodi.org to http://404.jodi.org/, they presented abstract code and programming glitches as art, bringing the background source of digital works into the foreground. Their work looked more like a crash of your web-browsing program rather than a coherent, readable text.
“Untitled Game” is the work in Street Digital that best represents JODI’s 1990s aesthetic. It captures code dysfunctions in the video game Quake and recombines them to create a visual and sonic field of explosions, mechanical gasps and falling patterns. Within four scrims, the player is presented with joysticks to interact with the nonsensical bursts of sound and light. The experience is uncanny: You are literally immersed in the “game.” You are part and parcel of an attractive glitch.
“GEO GOO,” a 2008 net art work exhibited on three screens, scrambles Google Maps so that the familiar images we’re used to seeing become abstract, rendering any sense of direction useless. As with “Untitled Game,” “GEO GOO” disassembles, dissects and rearranges individual parts of a new media experience. I was struck by how well the work illustrated what I try to teach my undergraduate students every semester: that we navigate space surrounded by the arbitrary colors, animations and shapes designed by a single corporate entity, that our grasp of the world is anchored by someone else’s construction.
JODI’s disruption of mapping and video games reminded me of Situationist artist Guy Debord’s calls for a “renovated cartography.” For Debord, when we blindly follow the same directions over and over, using the easiest paths, we get stuck relating to the world in “functional” ways and imagination withers. Debord wanted people to use the wrong map in the wrong place — to get lost in order that we might see our surroundings anew. Similarly, JODI strips away the usual instrumental goals of our engagements with digital media — to win a game, to communicate information, to navigate quickly. What we are left with is a bare awareness of the random components of our digital lives and a glimpse at the other possibilities for technology.
In “YTCT (Folksomy),” JODI edits and manipulates a series of YouTube videos of people violating technology, exhibiting them in a quadrant display. Kids and adults stab glowing desktop screens, throw laptops against houses, ax them into pieces and set once-valuable software and hardware on fire. Males are responsible for most of the destruction, sometimes even beating each other with keyboards. It’s interesting to note that when females do appear, they tend to violate their machines by dominating them in sexually suggestive ways. One woman lifts her skirt and sits on top of her computer. Another steps on her cell phone gently with gold high-heeled sandals and polished toenails, another does so assertively with sparkling silver stripper heels. Yet another does serious damage with the spike heels of her thigh-high boots.
The world of digital art is rife with artists reappropriating found materials, as JODI does here with user-generated YouTube videos. But this practice can conceptually short-circuit. Artists are often smitten with wonder at emerging tools and technologies, and they cut and paste without a vision. In contrast, JODI shows how this strategy can be used to study a transnational historical moment. Treating YouTube as an archive of cultural data, “YTCT” documents computers’ shift from scarce, precious technologies to obsolete, ubiquitous objects, too worthless to be respected. When my family got its first computer in the 1980s, we bought a special desk for it. My siblings and I weren’t allowed to eat or drink near it, and we fought with each other for sacred “computer time.” “YTCT” shows that our twentieth-century veneration of powerful machines has turned into a mass of e-waste. With JODI’s intervention, we see how YouTube users can act out this transformation for us dramatically.
Street Digital includes “ZYX,” an iPhone app that directs users to perform a series of movements, and “SK8MONKEYS ON TWITTER,” through which participants stand on a keyboard-skateboard to type with their feet. I never got a chance to engage either of these decidedly more simple works: a group of kids was so excited to be playing with them that they wouldn’t share. But both projects read as minimalist jabs at the “feature bloat” of mobile operating systems and software: one pairs down apps to primitive body gestures, the other tweets gibberish.
Lastly, “LED Puzzled,” JODI’s newest work: Curator Michael Connor describes this piece as akin to “the giant screens in Times Square run amok,” though “LED Puzzled” lacks the language of advertising. There is no product, no discernable image, no lifestyle being sold. We are presented with only an accumulating trash heap of cheap and ubiquitous consumer technologies. “LED Puzzled” displaces the disorientation performed cognitively by “GEO GOO” onto the senses. Its blue and white lights blink so brightly and chaotically that you must, at once, somehow both stare and look away, looking for meaning — much in the same way that one is drawn to play “Untitled Game” even though it leads nowhere.
In the two decades since JODI arrived on the digital art scene, a lot has changed, technologically and culturally. Street Digital continues JODI’s signature practice of exposing the behind-the-scenes workings of our daily interactions with computers while performing updates that respond to Web 2.0 and mobile computing. However, JODI does not only shift technologies, moving from yesterday’s desktops to today’s handheld devices and social media; the duo also examines the hidden assumptions and psychic transformations that the ubiquitous screens and networks in our lives have imprinted on our imagination. JODI plays with new media but not without awareness about the way it plays us.
Street Digital runs through May 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens).