A labyrinth of cryptic digital aesthetics, the website of the Netherlands-based collective JODI is a singular piece of internet art. More than 20 years removed from its launch, the experience of surfing wwwwwwwww.jodi.org remains as confounding now as in decades past—maybe even more so in a present reality defined by the rigid aesthetic templates of social media. Given the site’s makeup, it is no surprise that YouTube is home to videos featuring confused users from around the world trying to make sense of it all. “I have a whole collection of them—I think there are over 200 videos if you search ‘JODI’ and ‘the weirdest websites,’ ” Joan Heemskerk, who along with Drake Paesmans makes up the two-member JODI collective, told me. “I can’t really know what they are talking about,” she said of the videos, which are often in a foreign language. “But they think there is some kind of conspiracy going on.”
Heemskerk, in her late 40s and dressed unassumingly in a black shirt with dark pants and sandals, was in New York installing a piece for “Difference Engine,” a group exhibition at Chelsea’s Lisson Gallery curated by the artist Cory Arcangel and Tina Kukielski, the executive director and chief curator of Art21. Her answers to my questions were affable, a bit unexpectedly given JODI’s prankster spirit and mysterious lore. Talk started around OXO, the collective’s contribution to “Difference Engine” and a work that first appeared earlier this year at the Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery in conjunction with the larger Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston exhibition “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.”
Presented via a large digital display, OXO is JODI’s take on the game of tic-tac-toe. As Heemskerk noted, tic-tac-toe has featured within the history of technology over the past half-century; its simplicity makes it a natural fit for testing out nascent digital forms. Take, for example, OXO, a 1952 creation by the British computer scientist Alexander “Sandy” Douglas that counts now as one of the first video games. (It also happens to be the source for the title of JODI’s piece). More recently, tic-tac-toe has been used as a proving ground for more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems.
JODI’s take on the game pits viewer against computer, using a podium with buttons and a large screen displaying nine games at once. Five of them are played by virtual contenders—one of which is a chicken, a reference to an early arcade tic-tac-toe game from the 1980s that deployed an actual live chicken—and four others demarcated for visitor interaction. Each panel has a block for a text advertisement set to correspond with each of the game’s 9,000 possible combinations of Xs and Os. Originally, JODI tried to source real ads for this function. “I tried three times with Google and they said, ‘No, there is not enough content,’ ’’ Heemskerk said. “So now I make my own advertisements.” The ads include excerpts of movie dialogue that in some way relate back to tic-tac-toe, other games, or chickens. One is taken from a scene in the the 1984 film Falling in Love, in which Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep compete against a live fowl in an arcade game.
Taken all together, JODI’s OXO could be seen as a sly commentary on man-vs.-machine narratives that have dotted everything from contemporary cinema to military activity for ages. But it is also just the newest iteration of a game so elemental that its roots can be traced back to ancient Egypt.
In addition to the work in “Difference Engine,” JODI currently has an exhibition at And/Or Gallery in Pasadena, California, for the collective’s first solo showing in the Los Angeles area. The works on view include a three-dimensional floor plan that sculpturally mirrors the gallery’s own grid-like ceiling. Prior to the exhibition, JODI inverted the ceiling’s design onto the gallery’s floor in Photoshop for an image that would became the blueprint for the installation. “In the case of the grid, the visitor becomes the performer,” Heemskerk said, “because it’s a silly walk you have to do. You have to be part of a grid structure. You move, let’s say, one pixel by another pixel.” Viewers’ moves are traced by a 3D-image scanner and projected on a monitor elsewhere in the gallery; in certain ways, this awkward, confusing movement could be seen as a real-space approximation of the feeling one gets when navigating JODI’s chaotic website.
Given the ways that JODI’s anarchic aesthetics exist in direct contrast to the bland formal parameters of so much social media, I asked Heemskerk if she could imagine a rise in work that stands in reaction to the continued consolidation of the internet by a small number of powerful tech companies. “Oh, definitely,” she said. “It’s almost too easy now, and too unsatisfying that you only can put your work in a community full of advertisements and full of tracking,” she said. “I think there will be this urge, on the one hand, to have a local internet of small communities, and, on the other hand, a decentralized internet again.”
In any case, making new nodes of the internet—however far they may or may not reach—remains an option for programmers working in the do-it-yourself spirit of bedroom musicians or self-publishing projects. “You can still make websites nowadays,” Heemskerk said. “People think it’s complex, but it isn’t —you just register your domain and make your website and that’s about it.”