New York


An innocent visit to brings immediate, alarming results: A hoard of mini browser windows, each completely black except for the standard white menu bar, manically proliferate on your desktop; they’ll persist until you close your Internet browser completely. In a sense, artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans (collaborating as JODI since 1994) are the Dadaists of Internet art: Like those early members of the avant-garde, their work employs strategies of rupture and subversion to create an estrangement effect, jarring viewers for a moment out of their everyday lives online. Though I reassured myself I was witnessing an artwork, it could easily have been a virus ready to decimate my hard drive.

A harrowing encounter at a personal computer used to be the only way to experience JODI’s 1998 project <OSS/••••>. Now, in addition to its ongoing presence on the duo’s website, it’s also one of six works featured in “INSTALL.EXE,” a kind of midcareer overview of Heemskerk and Paesmans’s collaborative endeavors. % My Desktop, 2002, on view here in the form of recorded video projections, constitutes another group of desktop operations gone haywire. Like much of JODI’s art, these works are based on software that mimics computer malfunction, thereby foregrounding our uncertain mastery of increasingly unruly technologies. The specter of impotence also looms large in the artists’ transformations of popular “ego-shooters” like Wolfenstein and Quake; the pair modifies the games’ software programs, transforming their graphic interfaces into abstract patterns and shapes. The outcome: games that can still be played, at least in some sense, but that can definitely never be won.

With “INSTALL.EXE,” Paesmans and Heemskerk have handled the first presentation of their work in physical space with the utmost sensitivity. To their credit, they don’t attempt the impossible: to re-create, within a gallery context, an invasion of one’s personal computer (and by extension, the security of one’s home, office, or personal space). Instead, they’ve chosen to highlight an engagement with obsolescence—a less apparent but equally compelling aspect of their work. The show’s centerpiece is a new project composed of eight distinctly old-fashioned-looking ’80s-era TVs sitting in a row on a long table. Each plays a slightly different modified version of the shooter game Jet Set Willy (chosen by the artists for the year in which its popularity peaked: symbolically charged 1984). In another savvy bit of exhibition design, the pair hung ethernet cables from the gallery’s twenty-foot ceiling. These can be used to play the exhibition’s eponymous software project (installed on laptops available at Eyebeam’s front desk), but most of the time they dangle forlornly as if abandoned. There’s an elegiac quality to this piece, and to the exhibit overall—one that rhymes perfectly with both Eyebeam’s cavernous gallery space and JODI’s long-standing challenge to the utopian assumptions that permeate Internet discourse. Most Web art tends to operate in an imagined future tense, perpetually envisioning the “unrealized potential” of the Internet. JODI’s work, by contrast, makes up a far more complex and accurate reflection of the online world we actually inhabit. As the dreams of technology’s future rapidly dissolve into the ghosts of its past, they navigate a present that remains permanently unresolved.

Margaret Sundell