Artbyte (New York) 2, no. 1 (April-May 1999), pp. 22-23
Deconstruction or Distraction?
Cascading sheets of green ASCII text over a black screen, flashing 404 error messages, proliferating form buttons and text boxes--this is what awaits the unsuspecting first-time visitor to jodi.org, perhaps the single best-known artist Web site today. The brainchild of "net.art" charter members Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, jodi strip away the reassuring navigation bars and identifiable pictograms of the everyday Web site to let loose the HTML behind the facade. Feel free to click on what looks like a help button, but don't be surprised if your browser *shows* you the code for that button instead of executing it. Feel free to vent your frustration in a text box on the site, but don't be surprised if jodi's code pounces on your sentence, eats the vowels, and spits a skeleton of consonants back in your face. With its indeciferable interface, unpredictable sequences of links, and simulated error messages, jodi.org is a theme park of computer misbehavior. "Deconstruction or distraction?" is actually the second question viewers are likely to ask themselves once they visit jodi.org. The first is, "Has my computer just crashed?"
But the question of meaning lingers. Is there anything to be learned from these HTML hijinks? What does jodi's blinking HTML mean that the same code working behind the scenes on another Web site doesn't? For now let's leave aside the question of whether the programming itself is an art form, and concentrate instead on jodi's peculiar habit of unleashing that programming from its typical function. In the extreme form, this can mean merely quoting the raw code itself. In such cases it's important to remember that a viewer is most likely to find out about jodi.org not at a site designed to teach HTML, but at such online art resources like Rhizome or Nettime. By exposing naked and tags in an art arena, jodi appear to be displaying the electronic equivalents of Duchamp's bicycle wheel and urinal: readymade mechanisms transformed into art by context.
But jodi's mechanisms aren't physical, they're diagrammatic--and because of this Duchamp's readymades are not nearly so cogent a precedent as Mel Bochner's Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art. This work, originally installed at the School of Visual Arts in 1966 and restaged by the artist collaborative Parasite last spring at the Drawing Center in New York, is often cited as the first exhibition of Conceptual art. The installation consisted simply of four binders on pedestals; each binder contained Xerox copies of a seemingly random selection of notes and diagrams from such disparate fields as art, algebra, and accounting. Bochner's installation provokes comparison with Internet culture on several levels, from its cross-contamination of art, science, and business to its use of a mechanism of replication as a mechanism of delivery. Clearly, however, the strongest parallel to the jodi case is Bochner's invitation to the viewer to see mathematical formulae or electrical diagrams as art. Of course, technical documents like the ones Bochner copied only convey information in their proper context--mathematical journals and the like--where there is an implied convention for translating those particular formal marks into symbolic content. Since he didn't provide that context, Bochner's photocopies were as unfathomable to the lay viewer in 1966 as jodi's code is to the lay viewer today.
The important question is whether displaying diagrams or computer code outside their original contexts tends to push viewers toward more radical--or toward more conservative--ways of looking at images. It is here that Bochner's and jodi's projects diverge. The concept of uncertainty is central to Bochner's work from the 60s, and his re-presentations of "scientific information" always contain an implicit question lurking just beneath the surface. For example, one of Bochner's photographs shows his arm next to a strip of tape on the wall marked "12 inches"; the photograph looks straightforward enough until we realize that there is no guarantee that just because the scale looks 12 inches long in the photographic print that it was really a foot long on the original wall. Given his thesis that "language is not transparent," Bochner may have chosen to present technical diagrams in a gallery precisely in order to draw critical attention to his viewers' tendency to read them aesthetically. The clue lies in the installation's title, which isn't "Things on Paper That Are Perfectly Legitimate As Art," but "Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art." Despite all of the discomforts jodi present the viewer--jarring colors, elliptical navigation, simulated or actual computer crashes--Bochner saddles the viewer with a greater epistemological burden simply by entitling his work so as to thwart the easiest interpretation. Bochner is careful to present his conundrums in as clear a form as possible so as to leave the viewer squirming; jodi, on the other hand, thrive on obfuscation and illegibility. Ironically, this tactic allows those viewers who don't understand the code behind jodi's digital larks the convenient alternative to read them as formalist abstraction--albeit abstraction from an interactive interface rather than from a static image.
To be sure, some approaches to formal abstraction can lead to radical questioning. Perhaps it is in jodi's act of revealing the code, rather than the code itself, that the meaning lies. When the painter Robert Ryman reduced his imagery to white brushstrokes and employed magnets, bolts, and other unusual means of affixing his supports directly to the wall, he drew his viewers' attention to the architectural and physical constraints that easel painters usually take for granted. Here is what's behind the frame, he said, and here is how it could be different. But if computer programming is the context for jodi, then that fact is both their strength and their undoing. The lay viewer understands the physics of brushstrokes and bolts; a lot more of us have hammered a nail in a wall than triggered a core dump. What are non-programmers to do when faced with jodi's free-floating code--except admire the dazzling patterns and pretty colors?
In the final analysis, I think the closest offline parallel to jodi is neither Bochner's interrogation of aestheticization nor Ryman's deconstruction of the medium. Jodi are simply the electronic equivalent of a "painter's painter," an artist like Albert York or Robert Beauchamp appreciated by a select group of practitioners for a particular dexterity with the medium. If you're an aficionado of net.art or an expert HTML coder, the meaning you get from scrutinizing jodi's elaborate mechanisms will be worth the effort. If not...well, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Some of the ideas in this essay were stimulated by online Nettime discussions with Robbin Murphy and Saul Albert. A compendium of commentary about jodi can be found at the online exhibition Beyond Interface. The contents of Bochner's Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art were published in 1997 by Cabinet des estampes (Geneva), Walther Koenig (Cologne), and Picaron (Paris).