Caricatures of Knowbotic Research: jodi

published: October, 2002

In 2002 the Dutch Belgian artist duo Jodi (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) had their first big solo exhibition at Plug-In gallery in Basel. In preparation of the text I met up with the artists, and it became clear they wanted me to write a light text. They came up with the title themselves: Caricatures of Knowbotic Research. Knowbotic Research is a German-Swiss electronic art group, known for their extensive collabortions with media art labs and technologically complex works.

Catalogue cover of install.exe, ed. Tilman Baumg√§rtel 

Sometimes the image of an artist precedes her or him. When I was about to meet the artist duo Jodi for the first time a friend of mine said: "They are very hard to approach, very difficult to talk to! You would be lucky if you could interview them at all." So when in January 1997 I stood there in the hallway between the Backspace cyber cafe and Internet provider Obsolete in the London wharf district with Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans for the first time I braced myself. Would they say anything at all? They did. They answered my questions for a full fifteen minutes. I felt rich.

The people behind Jodi have the image of being difficult. Their art too is hard to understand. Their behaviour at presentations is very unorthodox. Jodi are amongst the most conscientious, most honoured and most envied net artists. They are at the top and hated for it. After the first wave of interest for net art had passed in 1998 the first anti jodi (and other net.artists) messages started to appear on mailing lists like Rhizome. It was a strange thing to witness, artists booing down fellow artists for no real reason at all. It was a sign that net art was now established and that real stars had emerged. From that moment on the experimental environment of net art, its presentations and conferences, entered a period of inescapable institutionalization nobody of the net artists really wanted (but which they knew would happen anyway). Jodi were suddenly amongst the net art stars.

  With stardom come assumptions and prejudice. For instance, everybody assumes a media art star is a technical wizard. Media art has long been dominated by formalism and technical excellence. Fact is however that with the development of cheap and easy to use technology a new breed of media artists has emerged. Media artists of today do not necessarily respect the tools they work with and they do not always control them either. Also do media artists not always work according to a carefully designed work plan anymore: a work can evolve intuitively. Jodi know the code they work with, but they do not design every feature of their work in a careful and precise manner. It confuses audience, colleagues, critics and curators, on and off line. This confusion creates a great number of anecdotes around appearances of Jodi or Jodi's work.

Jodi like to think of themselves as "Caricatures of Knowbotic Research", whereby the word caricature is used in the ironic sense of the word. When Jodi were installing their work OSS*** one of the Knowbotic Research members (who were in the same exhibition) came over to ask "how Jodi managed to capture those radio waves so well?". Knowbotic Research are a media art group who work with media labs to develop hi tech art pieces, yet the OSS*** cdrom is mostly aestheticized noise. Jodi have designed an artwork out of coincidences, glitches and possibilities of the software and computers they work with. The work appears to react to its environment, but it simply has a mind and structure of its own. The confusion this can cause make Jodi also like to compare themselves with a cargo cult like entity. The cargo cult was a semi religious (and maybe even freedom) movement across the Melanesian islands in which natives tried to obtain the wealth and power of their colonial oppressors by copying their manners and tools in a superficial way, like building a miniature airstrip out of sticks and stones where wealth and power would then subsequently descend on them.  

In circles of software writers cargo cult coding is usually seen as a negative act. Cargo cult coding is "a style of (incompetent) programming dominated by ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. A cargo cult programmer will usually explain the extra codes as a way of working around some bug encountered in the past, but usually the bug nor the reason the code apparently avoided the bug was fully understood (compare shotgun debugging, voodoo programming)." But for Jodi this term is not at all negative.

Just as easily as one reads too many complexities into Jodi's work it can also seem to fail. From the first Jodi web pages till now Jodi receive emails with corrections and pitiful remarks from their audience concerning 'mistakes' in their work. Even ZKM director Peter Weibel once approached the artists after a presentation to ask emphatically "what went wrong?". When Jodi borrow a laptop from another presenter at a conference it often happens that after the first appearances of OSS*** there are sudden cries from the audience, where the helpful fellow presenter thinks his computer is going to hell. It is this ability to confuse of Jodi's OSS*** which have also made the crdom a hit in Dutch (not media art related) offices, where it was used to scare innocent typists and secretaries.

To me it seems Jodi's work is related to the tradition of 'sovereign media', a term coined by writer's collective Adilkno (one of which is Geert Lovink) for which they were inspired by the Amsterdam free media scene (2). In sovereign media the media have lost their need to be practical and useful tools. Sovereign media simply exist. Jodi's work is media art which does not feel the need to be media art. It plays with being it.

But the most significant examples of the Cargo Cult and sovereign media traditions are Jodi themselves. At media art events they are notorious for being rude and seemingly uninterested in both the audience and their host. There is no attempt to present the work in the usual slick manner, on the contrary. They are every presenter's nightmare. At a recent symposium on net art criticism they wheeled their daughter's buggy roughly through the chairs of the other panellists, throwing the entire event upside down. At Transmediale 2000 the contrast between serious presenter and disinterested Jodi was so extreme the audience laughed itself into a stupor. One man even threw himself of his chair and, while kneeling, started banging his hands on the wall, crying with laughter. The appearances of Jodi are highly recommendable, but they can also be disappointing. Just like Jodi will not conform themselves to media art traditions (or any art tradition, for that matter) they will not conform themselves to the way media artists usually present themselves. Media art mostly is no laughing matter. Corporate interests or political ideologies often dominate the scene, whereas corporations aim to push first and foremost the products of their company and political activists make the art inferior to the message of the day. The Jodi strategy to deal with it seems to be bringing presentations down to a kind of clash between individuals and bureaucracies, bureaucracies as they are represented within the formal and hierarchical structures of the average conference presentation. The dry humour of Jodi guarantees that these clashes do not become too much like political actions or interventions. There is a big disadvantage to the Jodi strategy though. The audience seldom gets to see or experience Jodi's true intentions. For this the audience will have to turn to written publications and interviews with those infamous cargo cult coders: Jodi.