There is a point, of course, to attaching names to the periods stacked
back to back in time like dusty books on a shelf, no matter how nitpicky we
get when it comes to defining the distinctions between them. We lived
differently in each and we thought differently - the technology of each
period pretty much defined the way we lived; art serves as evidence of how
we thought. Each succeeding wave of technology ate the last. Most of the
art is still around.
One of the most ferocious transitions between one period and the next was
sparked when technology staged its Industrial Revolution. You could slice
art's response in a variety of other ways, but in sum, Romanticism was
against, Modernism for.
Urbanites, more than half the world's population for the first time in
history, lived their daily lives in an environment suddenly devoid of
organic form, all ninety degree angles cut from concrete and steel and
Written deeply into Modernist aesthetics are the squared-angled boxes that
had become the building blocks of life in the twentieth century, the
buildings themselves, the cars, trains, telephones, and eventually, radios
and televisions, washing machines and electric ranges.
Other than the relatively minor changes in the design of these boxes,
the face of the world looks pretty much the same now as then, only more so.
If these are the waning days of post-modernism, and I suspect they are,
we have to keep in mind that post-modernism itself embodies the waning of
Modernism. That is, we're still living in Modernist times, albeit at the tail
end of the tail end.
Or: If post-modernism isn't simply a subset of the Big M, and truly
represents a r/evolutionary break, that r/evolution has taken place not in
the external environment, but inside the boxes Modernism built. In part,
this is a result again of a move on technology's side of the dialogue
between it and art, the shift in focus toward getting really big things
really small, which in turn made them cheaper and aided in their
proliferation into households around the world, making possible an almost
globally understood set of signs and giving rise to the whole idea of
cultural literacy. Progressions such as tubes to transistors to chips put
into the palm of a hand what used to require an entire room - a television
studio (now a featherlight video camera) or a computing machine (now a
If all this seems a ridiculously roundabout way of approaching what you see
when you open the URL http://www.jodi.org, it is. Here's what happened:
I was sent and I went. The screen fills with letters, numbers and other
typographical symbols like the ones that scroll on the faces of computers
in old science fiction movies when they're thinking madly about something.
As it turns out, here it's just one lengthy blinking link. You go in, the
index is next. It's quieter in there, but it, too, starts with a bit of
code-like print-out-looking lines, as if quoting from a chat one computer's
been having with another - like maybe your own with some server somewhere
way else in the world.
Then, under that, the menu, and I quote (isn't cut-&-paste grand?):
Above that, by the way, is the closest thing to a signature I found anywhere:
After a while, it sinks that each menu item is something like a separate
room at an exhibition; as far as I know, there are no links from any one
item to any other, and only a few of them will take you back to the front.
"message.HQX" was blinking and I entered via that door first. It's very
pretty in there…already I was having thoughts that would lead to the
mumbo-jumbo preceding this description, but the real watershed rained down
while I was touring the second item, "Reflector".
First, the background rolls down, and essentially, it's a collage, snippets
from the interface that hasn't changed all that much since Steve Jobs and
his crew introduced the Macintosh over ten years ago. Even the Apple logo
is there and all your old Chicago-fonted friends, "File", "View", the whole gang.
Naturally, the urge arises to pull down those menus, but of course, though the colors
are just as bright, the resolution just as clear as the line-up above this one
("your" "File", etc.), you can't, it's just part of the scenery.
Once the background's all there, you see that it's comprised of layers of
windows looking a bit perhaps like the clutter on your own desktop when
you're multitasking, but cut up in impossible ways, that is, overlapping so
that the effect is really only slightly more cluttered. Over this
background come rectangles with corner-to-corner X's, looking like the
spaces in passports where you're to place your photo.
And indeed, photos come in when you click on the squares, photos snapped
during a CU See Me session, which is no surprise since this is "Reflector",
an IP address you connect to to run such a session. I went back on another
day just to double-check, but no, these are not live sessions.
At any rate, it was here that for some reason I thought: Rauschenberg. An
extremely clean, almost sanitized, electric Robert Rauschenberg. Let me
leap to say that I seriously doubt Rauschenberg even wisped briefly through
the minds of Jodi's creators, but he wisped through mine - it was the
collage thing, touched up with noise.
It's the differences, of course, that make the point interesting. Picasso
and Braque did some cutting and pasting before Rauschenberg came along, and
they used the materials that were mighty contemporary at the time,
newspaper clippings, cigarette packages, items so contemporary that from
the distance of the present, they seem atmospheric, historical, or quaint.
Further, compared to Rauschenberg's cutting and pasting, they seemed to
have made a fairly neat job of it, "outrageous" as the very idea was at the
time. Rauschenberg was messier, but then, he worked in messier, noisier
times - and here, we're back at the Mo/pomo delineation pondered above. And
the thought, wondered out loud here: When has enough time gone by for the
context to have changed enough, how essentially different must a set of
materials be, and above all, how "other" must another set of signs be from
those used in artworks of a previous period before you declare a stop to
one period and the dawn of the next?
At the time, you probably can't; Ezra Pound was forever declaring the dawns
of new ages right there and then, and that rapid fire succession of brave
new worlds seems laughable now that Vorticism or Imagism aren't the
household words he was sure they'd be, but still, to give credit where
credit is due, he did almost inadvertently orchestrate the overall arc of
Modernism itself, a combined effort of a flock of movements within it.
Take the first page of "Reflector" (it does lead onto others) and set it
next to your basic Rauschenberg creation with, say, a JFK, some more
photo-rubbings, some money and a lot of paint washed together - first of
all, you can't. "Reflector" doesn't actually exist in physical space. Our
first vital difference.
But if you could, and you can in your mind (not a minor point), the
cleanliness of "Reflector" leaps out at you, even with its snapshots of
disorderly geek living rooms framed and set off by windows within windows.
The Rauschenberg is dripping with the liquid memory of its time,
"Reflector" hacked off into pixeled rectangles of a ghostly land where
there are only two dimensions and none of the 256 colors are really real.
If that last bit comes off like a value judgment in Rauschenberg's favor,
it isn't meant to be; all in all, I've had an absolute blast at Jodi and
I'm psyched about the whole new area of art-making it's a fine example of.
Each of these "rooms" explores a different function the Web is capable of
and makes a stab at doing a piece on every single one. "Surgery" may be the
silliest, running a search on some naughty words (granted, it may be a bit
a grandstanding for free speech, but frankly, the Net is steeped in all
that), while "Flock" is one of the nicest works out there: a very simple
shot of a pigeon with Web-form dots laid out over it and a clock; choose a
dot, click, and you've submitted a form taking you to another pigeon, the
clock denoting another time zone. That pigeon may or may not have been
photographed on another continent, but the concept is a complete and
What makes me wonder if all this represents just another movement within
the postmodern period or the inklings of another just now breaking might be
best illustrated with yet another compare-&-contrast, this one maybe a bit
more fair. Pick a music video, any music video…the one showing right now
on MTV as you're reading this.
It, too, doesn't exist in the physical world (though, as opposed to the
works at Jodi, many of the materials that went into making it do). It, too,
lives in a box, but unlike Jodi to an extent, it's calling on you to
complete ideas it suggests in eight-frame cuts with your life-long
experience in, one, the actual physical world, and two, watching movies and
That video playing right now, which to some, is the pinnacle of postmodern
art, has a couple of decades of television and an entire century's worth of
movies to jostle, reshuffle and regurgitate back to you to the beat.
Jodi, has, what? Three years? This entire site, a Web art project primarily
about the Web, and by extension, the Net and all of online technology,
fulfills the post-modern criteria of self-referral so well it has a very little
material to call upon and can count only on just the passing acquaintance we all
have so far with the new medium.
Yet the visit can take hours. That's amazing. The world you enter in those
hours is still very thin but all signs point to its thickening into
something utterly new very fast. I wonder what our kids will be calling it.