JODI: Street Digital

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Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, collectively known as JODI, are rightfully venerated for their countless contributions to art and technology, working as an artistic duo since the mid-90’s. Generally referred to as pioneers of “net.art,” that oft-misunderstood “movement” combining the efforts of artists using the internet as a medium circa 1994, JODI is revered not only for their artistic meditations on the increasing presence of new technology in our daily lives, but also for their fuck-if-I-care attitude toward both the establishments of the technology and art worlds. JODI’s famous five-word “acceptance” speech—if you could call it that—for their 1999 Webby Award in art, simply read, “Ugly commercial sons of bitches.” 

Unlike an overwhelming majority of artists, and especially those in art and tech, JODI has managed to sustain a successful career for over 15 years, mounting exhibitions internationally. February 2011 saw the duo literally blow its audience in the face with bomb-like cans of oxygen at Foxy Production, accounting for one of the best performances of the year.

Yet, their recently launched exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) finds a flashy, overly simplistic exhibition that fails to represent the deeply important perspective that JODI has come to represent over the last two decades. Comprising work made from 1999 to the present, “Street Digital” extends JODI’s focus from the desktop computer to hardware’s broader, more public landscape including cellular phones, LED signs, and iPods. A projection split into four channels, YTCT (Folksomy) (2008/2010), combines Youtube videos of “people doing weird things with hardware,” or more specifically, the video features mostly-teenage boys destroying old iPods, cameras, laptops, etc., by throwing, bashing, or hammering them. Periodically, a legitimately strange occurrence replaces the usual simple, hormonally charged violent acting-out of an enfants terrible. (An extra special moment occurs when a young man puts an iPod in his mouth for a while.) In a 2009 interview with Motherboard, Heemskerk says that she prefers these truly uncanny and bizarre moments, to which Paesmans added, “I feel really sorry for [technology], that it needs to display information. It can do so much more.” Paesmans has seemingly stumbled into a manifesto for glitch art.

The further one traverses into “Street Digital,” the more it becomes plain that its target audience is probably a young, tech-friendly male—one who particularly enjoys playing video games. Burnout (History of Car Games) (2004–2012), a set of nine wall-mounted screens, takes screen recordings of various video games in which cars are made to perform virtual “doughnuts,” their tires screeching around in circles. SK8MONKEYS ON TWITTER (2009) provides a more participatory experience, consisting of a desktop keyboard fitted to a skateboard. Its viewer is asked to stand atop the skateboard, effectively mashing the buttons on the keyboard, which should send a series of nonsensical characters to a nearby computer. These characters are meant to be sent as Tweets, shown on the computer’s monitor, though at the time of my visit the keyboard was jammed, failing to send characters to Twitter. Bad juju for a technology museum.

Similarly nonfunctional was ZYX (mobile app), 2012, a mobile device application (first debuted this past February as part of Rhizome’s New Silent Series) acting as equal parts game and choreographer. Prompting its user to enact various postures endemic to using a cellular phone, such as looking for reception with an outstretched arm, the app is installed on two iPod touches, one of which was broken, the other’s battery dead.

While the app nods to contemporary performance (or from what I could tell), LED Puzzled (2012) provides the most gallery-specific installation within “Street Digital.” Appearing akin to a post-apocalyptic Jenny Holzer, LED Puzzled strews jumbled, illuminated LED panels on the gallery floor. Usually formed into a large grid of smaller constituent parts, the schizophrenically pulsating panels bathe the gallery walls in a brilliant blue. Elsewhere in the gallery finds Untitled Game ("Arena," "A-X," "Ctrl-Space," "Spawn") (1996/2001), a compendium of modified game code installed on a circle of monitors, as well as an “internet reading room” of JODI’s past websites.

GEO GOO (2008), video documentation of the duo’s Web-based work installed on wall-mounted monitors, is sort of an animation using Google Maps as its subject. This piece encapsulates many of the problematic aspects of “Street Digital.” The wall text reads, “’GEO GOO’ has no meaningful relationship to spatial reality. Instead, it transforms an encounter with Google Maps into an aesthetic experience, calling to attention to the fact that the tool we increasingly use to navigate the world is itself an abstraction.” [Emphasis mine.] Does anyone actually forget that a digital map is not a 1:1 depiction of ontological reality? Is this a problem that we really need to parse out through artistic or any other means? I think not. Rather, the charge here is much more simplistic and perhaps intuitive than that: to aestheticize and abstract widely used digital technologies in order to glean something from their dismantling. A problem arises when it is assumed that the pure aestheticization of digital technologies necessitates its politicization, or some sort of grand reflection on its widespread usage. The way in which GEO GOO has been aestheticized, for example, expounds not on how we use or interact with such technology, but merely creates a pretty picture with its characteristic qualities.

While curator Michael Connor may contextualize “Street Digital” as being “gleefully disruptive,” it may be better termed “gleefully simplistic.” This isn’t to cast JODI’s entire oeuvre in a negative light, but rather to assert that when the vein of contemporary art or performance is elided in the work’s contextualization--as is the case in the extremely family-friendly Museum of Moving Image--the resulting experience is one that lauds sensationalism and disregards criticality.

UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that it was actually the keyboard that malfunctioned within "Sk8MONKEYS ON TWITTER," not the Tweet function, which is automatic when the piece does function properly. It was previously stated that the Tweet component was malfunctioning. These changes have been appended.