JODI and the art of deprogramming

by Josephine Bosma

The marketing machine surrounding new media has always wanted us to believe that there is no greater perfection than that achieved with the aid of computers, because computers are efficient. They don't get sidetracked, unless they are told to do so. They make no mistakes, unless we load a bad program or ask the wrong question. This line of thought has only reinforced our own sense of fallibility. We have become dependent on people who can work with computers, can input the right instructions and information. Computers are the heart of the contemporary search for perfection.

There is marketing, and then there is reality. In reality, a computer is a thing that can be tied up in all kinds of knots; despite its complexity the computer is a simple extension of ourselves. We are however so used to looking at computers through the eyes of the firms that produce the software we use that we have begun to see their applications, their forms, their sounds, their construction of texts in the machine as its purpose, its language and its essence. Everything that appears on the screen can be different, and a computer can be employed in ways that are never, ever suggested in adverts or instruction booklets. The Belgian-Dutch artist-duo JODI are well known for years now for their playful use of this knowledge. In effect they pile up game upon game, experiment on experiment, and do not leave the computer unscathed. Or better yet: they do not spare the image of purity and perfection that has attached itself to the computer, but look at what it can do. This way they not only demystify the computer and new media in general, but also give us back our place in new media.

JODI is Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans. Their collaboration as JODI began in 1995. In that year they produced their first website, and also began to send mails as JODI to online forums such as mailing lists. Their work took the media art world by storm, but also gained recognition outside of it by being shown at for instance Catherine David's Documenta (dX). JODI's work is obsessive and somewhat destructive by nature. There seems to be a connection with some underground movements, especially with punk. The unrestrained appetite for a proletarian re-appropriation of property (stealing, taking something without paying) and the aggressive, creative reinterpretation of existing symbols and texts from punk culture was rawer and more dynamic than that of the vast majority of the present digital 'cut and past' generation. A very important factor in both punk and JODI's work is however humor. JODI's work plays with expectations: their own, and those of others. Whether these are expectations about the computer and the browser's conduct or expectations about genres and disciplines of art. But expectations about the conduct of internet users and how the computer or a game must be approached are also called into question. This is not always intentional, or the result of a well-thought through process. These are no cheap tricks to stun the audience either. The intention is not to lead the audience down the garden path every time. JODI's work is a matter of investigating the material and of having fun.

The computer, internet and software offer a fantastic range of possibilities for cultural interventions and reinterpretations of forms and languages. Now and then it has even been suggested that the computer makes the creation of a Gesamtkunstwerk a standard procedure. What is certain is that art made with computers is always to be judged from various art disciplines or specializations. This is also true for the work of JODI. In their work there is an element of film and video, which reveals itself in moving, jumping or linked web pages, and lately also in their DVD's of manipulated games. There is an element of poetry and even working code or underlying code text can be regarded as poetry. With JODI's work with and on the internet, and also with the distribution of their software art, a whole new meaning is given to the concept of 'art in public space'. But their work can also be approached from the point of view of installation art, from performance art, and, last but not least, from the difficult to define field of interactive art. For JODI, none of these are separate disciplines any more; they intermingle, they are simultaneously present.

An installation at FACT in Liverpool involving a computer game that was altered by JODI, the 'Max Payne Cheats Only Gallery', saw to it that the spectator was very subtly manipulated to experience the limitations of the digital environment in the tangible world. By depriving the public of the common means of interactivity in a computer game and at the same time directing the action, the audience itself suddenly became a character in a game. The space was the theatre and the grid, matrix. For the individual in the audience, the experience of watching through holes in a wall as a distorted scene from a computer game played itself out is of course predictable: this is about voyeurism, looking at things from a distance and not participating, an almost perverse state of being within new media. This is a peepshow, a 19th century look at the 'noughties' (the first decade of the 21st century), the supposed perfection of the digital world transformed into a pathetic fun-fair attraction. The strong man, a man without a head, Max Payne, displays his prowess as the public peeps. The feats that he executes are without exception tricks, cheats. This hero deceives us; he is no real hero. Just as in a dream we can fly when the monster gets to close, in this virtual world we also need stunts to save us, to realize our dreams. The digital world is a history that is also a new reality, what Villem Flusser called the essence of film, only here we are having our nose rubbed in our own influence. This is no longer just about a physically distant but emotionally involved viewing, a motionless absorption in a flowing image, but about the experience of an intervention in the loop of a story that is always frustrated by ourselves or through circumstances. The compelling malleability of the digital environment emphasizes an almost painfully realistic consciousness of what it means to be human. We always end up back where we started. We cannot escape, neither by our actions nor by their opposite: a recovered passivity.

The exhibition at the Netherlands Media Art Institute could almost be called a retrospective. It is, however, more of an impression. As a survey it is rather complete, but in order to be a retrospective the old work would have to be more accessible, and that is not really possible with JODI's early work. It is almost impossible to recover the circumstances and forms of JODI's early work, simply because the media in which it was done has changed so much. For instance, an important component of JODI's work is timing, just as in theatre, film and music. The slowness with which on old webpage was loaded into the computer was an important part of the work. Just as today not everything comes up at the same time when loading a webpage that is full of pictures, tunes and text, as early as 1996 JODI was playing with this to create cinematic effects in their work. The download time for the symbols and shapes they used then is now many times faster - or nil. The intended effect is lost. The 'evolution' of software, constantly renewing itself with updates, has also altered the form and content of their old work. One can still get a rather good impression of JODI's early work, but no more than that.

As a result of this the exhibition places a relatively strong emphasis on newer work, which is primarily about software modification and changing applications for software, while it was particularly the art that JODI made for the internet that gained them their almost mythical status. JODI doesn't regret this; the medium is what it is, and they long ago accepted its instability. This is one reason that the internet work by JODI (and other artists too) is something like performance: it often eludes documentation, and is time and place specific.

Thus this is no retrospective, but still a very representative exhibition, which offers at least a little bit of all sides of JODI's work. Only one aspect remains unseen, and that is their live performances. Traces of it can be found in the video installation 'My%Desktop'. This work consists of four screens showing the record of an experimental session - or is it a game? - with an Apple Macintosh computer. Nothing seems to be human anymore about the apparently mechanistic chaos, the image of a computer gone bonkers. JODI sketches, as it were, with the icons, sound, warnings, questions and error messages of the Apple system. The result is a disconcerting video installation in which the artists appear to almost be fighting with the computer, but in fact display an at times near ecstatic absorption in commands and possibilities for interaction with the desktop. It is an almost childish game, something that is reinforced by the idiotic quacking sounds of the Apple. The noises have a semi-musical function: they form the soundtrack for a landscape of folders, pop-ups, trashcans and labels. In a performance they become music.

Sketching with existing images or shapes is also employed in a manipulation of an car racing game, in which the possibility of leaving traces behind by 'burning rubber' with your tires offers JODI a new canvas, this time not on a desktop, but on the asphalt in the computer game. This way JODI regularly finds new applications for clichéd elements in computer games and software, from using the original sound to emphasize the abstraction of a new JODI game design, to the use of an e-mail program as a sketchpad and sending the result in 500 mails in one night to the Rhizome internet and media art mailing list.

JODI has no higher purpose, no ideology. They are not adherents of the techno cult, nor are they leaders of a new sect. Their deprogramming is a side effect of their unscrupulous redefinition of new media as material, stage and object. The perfection for which JODI themselves strive lies in the pleasure experienced in the experiment itself, achieving a subtle but remarkable deviation from the norm, and creating new forms in the process. The figure in a game becomes a small cube, awkwardly manoeuvred in impossible landscapes. An entry form mangles your input and obscures half your text. A superhero loses his head, but simply carries on with his battle. A web address, a source code and the speed of the connection with the internet have just as much significance as the content of a webpage, just like an outdated computer and an antique programming language are as important as the newest computer and software. There are no distinctions in the digital environment other than those we, individually and collectively, make. JODI make their own selections, and have created their own formal language.

As the founder of the German hacker organization Chaos Computer Club, Steffen Wernery, once seems to have said, 'the intelligence sits in front of the keyboard and not behind the computer screen'. JODI's work makes that abundantly clear, by magnifying the stupidities and simplifications in much of the visual language used on computers, and employing it as a theatrical element or malleable object. JODI does this mercilessly, but also with tenderness. All is illusion. JODI seems to have merged with the computer, but JODI does not control it. There is no desire for technical excellence. In the final analysis, the computer, the software, leads a life of its own, in interaction with the world, with other people, with other computers. In this the computer is only a façade behind which the work is to be found. That's how it ought to be, that's how it is. JODI's work is for the audience, without which it cannot fully exist.