It takes courage to embrace the shapelessness and nonsensical of the digital universe and take it seriously. Hardware and software are constructed according to rules and expectations that have little bearing on the broad potential of computers and their ‘users’. Artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, better known as Jodi, have this courage. They fully welcome the irrational, amorphous side of computing. To them it offers potential new aesthetic and economic pathways. It offers a chance to reach new audiences, to break institutional codes, and to simply surprise others as well as themselves. Jodi look upon new media and their content as heaps of matter, as raw materials that are just screaming to be mined and (re-) shaped. Software especially is tested to its physical, but also to its social, limits. Jodi challenge its purpose, search for the essence in each individual mathematical machine, and take no prisoners when building new objects and new worlds out of a game, a browser, or an operating system. Jodi are the 21st century version of the artist as explorer of concepts and materials. Nothing is sacred, neither the pre-determined usage of computers and software nor the ‘creative’ work ethic of the digital age.
It’s very clear that Jodi are not media artists in the traditional sense of the word. Their work is more related to the collages of Raoul Hausmann, the poetry of Paul van Ostaijen and the deconstructivist attitude of Nam June Paik than it is to the hermetic installation art of Jeffrey Shaw or Bill Viola. The digital domain clearly is a point of reference, but Jodi do not use it as a medium, but as an environment. In this hybrid environment Heemskerk and Paesmans take a radical position. They insist on their place as free and independent actors in this still relatively new, broader cultural landscape that exists both on and offline. Jodi see how the Internet is turning into a territory that is increasingly claimed and controlled by the media industry. Actions and experiences are predefined and built into software and hardware. Instead of submitting to the role of ‘users’ or consumers Jodi hold on to the ‘hacker’ attitude, in which technology is a language we all need to learn to ‘read’ and ‘speak’. Yet Jodi’s digi-literacy is not that of the hacktivist or engineer. It is that of the rebel poet. To paraphrase the Ramones: Jodi is a punk. They are manic, at times. They are noisy. Jodi playfully and boldly claim a place for art on the Internet, in software, and in any other dimension of the new media sphere. They do so on their own terms.
Jodi have intrigued me from the very first time I saw their work. My fascination started with Automatic Rain System, a poetic hyperlink ‘film’ in blue cyphers on their website in 1995 (no longer available in its original form) (*1), continued with their map of art (and anything else they liked) in cyberspace (*2) and consolidated with their incidental crosses between ASCII art and concrete poetry in mailing lists (*3). From this they first moved to creating and modifying software.
Jodi’s CD-ROM, OS/****(*4), freely distributed with Mediamatic magazine (*5), contained software art that took over a computer’s system to create what looked like complete chaos, as for example windows and files were opened and copied randomly, and at great speed. The work easily induced panic attacks in the owner of the computer it was opened on. Though shutting this work down requires switching off the power to the computer that runs it, the software ultimately causes no harm to computers or content of computers. It just temporarily turns the computer into a work of art.
In the second half of the nineties, when all this happened, Jodi’s ruthless approach of the very boring and basic functionality given to personal computers was completely unprecedented, particularly coming from an art context. OS/**** was its culmination. Not only a small inner circle was fascinated now: Jodi became living legends in the broader ‘Internet art’ scene and beyond. When their work untitled-game, a heavily abstracted modification of Quake, was released as a mini-CD-ROM with Mute magazine in 2001, Jodi became an example for artists and designers worldwide, which alone calls for an acquisition of their work by a Dutch contemporary art museum. Yet their more recent works are very interesting as well.
After the artists moved back to the Netherlands from Barcelona, where they had lived for many years, their work changed. It became broader, more free, and in some ways more contemplative. After saying Jodi’s work stood in the Net ‘like a brick’ before, now Heemskerk said she saw the work of Jodi very much as performance, due to the unstable and fleeting existence of art on the Internet. Though Jodi still creates art with computers, like their playful adaptations of a classic game Jet Set Willy (*7) (originally for the ZX Spectrum, pre-pc), many of their works of the last few years are clearly performance based. Sometimes these performances take place online. Paesmans for example spent a whole night drawing one single quivering vertical line through different emails, which were all sent to the un-moderated Rhizome mailing list, filling up the inboxes of all the members with a simple sketch divided over hundreds of mails. Jodi also tested the limits of the blog platform. Some of their blog postings were thought to be malicious, and got deleted. Seeing the remaining blog posts it is clear that Jodi made glitch art avant la lettre (*8). The characterless blog template is torn to shreds and used as a canvas for a literally moving collage.
But Jodi now also explore the physical reach of the Net beyond the Net. They consider the way the new media affect us. They are not alone in this. Many so-called net artists have moved beyond the Internet, often making performance type works (For example internationally: Heath Bunting, Graham Harwood, The Yes Men, Annie Abrahams, Übermorgen, Eva and Franco Mattes. In the Netherlands: Peter Luining, Karen Lancel, Debra Solomon). Since a few years the relation between the digital universe and the offline world, which was always a popular theme in new media art, has become an important subject. As a result, performance art, the oldest art practice online, dating back to forerunners of the Net, is having a true revival. The entire performance art revival, starting with the so-called relational aesthetics art, could be seen as a reaction to the arrival of digital media floods. Central to performance and the Internet is the new physicality of bodies and locations as they are connected (or disconnected) or ‘morphed’ through the media. In the art of Jodi this has expressed itself first and foremost as criticism of new media that represent presence and physical locations: the new world maps of for example Google and Bing. GEO GOO (*9) consists mostly of different pre-recorded Google maps performances, in which the artists make colourful drawings with all possible location tags on the earth’s surface. GEO GOO works strangely liberating to its audience. It shows a flat, limited, but hugely influential view of our environment for what it really is: a map like any other, presenting the world from its makers’ perspective, full of gaps and projections.
At the opening of an exhibition of their work GEO GOO in Brussels, Jodi for the first time used one of their own bodies as a prop in a performance. Dressed in many brightly coloured layers of full body spandex suits that were peeled off one by one, Paesmans went from looking alien and dehumanized to returning to himself (*10). Though Jodi had done performances before, mostly as ‘software jockeys’ extracting unbelievable sounds and visuals from some desktop in a concert setting, this highly theatrical performance seems to denote a break with their earlier work. Needless to say I got intrigued once again, since never before was the work of Jodi so personal and never did it have such a dark undertone. Jodi seem to want to reshape the stealthily approaching offline forms of Web aesthetics, described by Italian critic Vito Campanelli, outside the computer as well. Looking at other recent Jodi works, one can see a pattern of uncovering invisible structures and shattered screens (*11).
A few years before GEO GOO, Webcra.sh (*12) was a physical exhibition of some of Jodi’s favourite links, in collaboration with Dutch artist Dennis de Bel. They were printed on colourful banners and carried in a small parade through the streets of the Dutch city Dordrecht. “A Web address is the first line of code to activate a program,” Jodi explain webcra.sh in an interview, “It filters out all the other sites. It is a piece of functioning code that is part of the work itself. It brings us from real space to the net.” Jodi juxtaposed these Web addresses with other, more indirect roads into new media art.
At the opening of the exhibition of these banners in a gallery, visitors were offered a cup of soup. This soup was cooked by the artists on site, and handed out from behind a little stall. On the stall hung the remains of the soup’s ingredients. The soup was made of torn up new media art books and ‘seasoned’ with technical manuals. This was a performance called del.icio.us/the soup.is, and its title refers to the well-known social bookmarking site delicious.com and Miguel-Ángel Cárdenas The Soup is Delicious from 1977. In Cárdenas’ video the artist is slowly climaxing from being given fellatio, hidden from below the table, while eating his soup. Books and other intellectual approaches, Jodi seems to say, are only a second hand approach to art. New media art especially has to be experienced rather than seen in print. Yet though tearing up books and cooking them to a soup seems an aggressive way to make this point, it can maybe also be seen as an act of desperation. How to relate to all this easily paralyzing analysis as an artist working in the contradictory flux and vacuum of the Net? How frustrating is it to see books survive when Websites crumble?
The art of Jodi is highly varied, but steady. In the work of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans the poetry and strife of contemporary art and the astonishing flexibility of the non-commercial digital sphere meet. Their work deserves to survive beyond books alone, as it was and is pivotal in the development of art in the context of the Internet, in our new cultural landscape. Yet in the Netherlands only the now closing NIMK, the Dutch media art institute, made a serious effort to keep Jodi’s art for posterity (*13). Art in the hybrid digital domain is not an imposition of modernist practices on the cultural field of today. It is not generative art gone digital. Young artists from all over the world have discovered and still discover Jodi’s imaginative and groundbreaking work. There is a clear legacy and continuation of Jodi’s practices in software art, digital poetry, glitch art and also in art beyond the computer. Let’s fill this huge gap in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum.