Saul Albert on Mon, 6 Apr 1998 16:22:48 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interactivity, Image, Text, and Context within

"Interactivity", Image, Text, and Context within
(if you have not seen, go visit now!)       

Introduction: How my computer and I fell in love with Jodi.

  What? Damn!, jump up from my desk and start hurling
abuse at the computer which looks like it is in the middle of a big,
juicy crash.) Its...Oh! mmmm! And that was it, We were smitten. It
slowly dawned on me that my computer, far from crashing was whispering
sweet bytes down my modem to a server it truly identified with: at is the creation of a group of European artists
Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans. It is a website designed to
interrogate its context and its various media. These media include:
computer generated gif/jpeg images*1, CGI programmes*2, Javascripts*3,
ASCII characters*4, and pure HTML*5.  Again and again: "What is Net
art?" instead of (for example):"Browser interface in the structure of
Net art" or "Downloading time as a means of expression in the works of
Eastern European net artists"*6 

  This initiative calling for incisive "net art" criticism championed
here by Olia lialina demands that net artists, critics, and theorists
refine their attitudes towards a fast developing net art world. There
are still 100 sites of dross for every quality art site, "on-line
galleries" of paintings, sculptures, and prints that have been digitally
photographed, labelled and presented as "glorified catalogues"*7" on the
screen at 72 dpi*8.  In this essay, I aim to show that has
marked a vital point in the development of an artistically viable
language and approach to making artwork on the net. is as much
a product of the web as a comment on it, and so it must be looked at
with reference to artists, theorists and hackers who have contributed to
the wealth of the net. I will limit the extent of this essay by looking
only at two areas within jodi's practice, "interactivity", and the
interplay of text, image, and programming.

"Not Found; unread, reply and unsent"

  One of the most apparent artistic uses of the net is its capacity for
so-called "interactivity". In Jenny Holzer's "Please Change Beliefs"
(hosted at adaweb*9 since early 96?), Holzer addresses notions of
authorship, authority and "interactivity". She posits net art publishing
as a collaborative editorial act rather than an autonomous act of
creation. "Please Change Beliefs"*10 is an adaptation of the
"Truisms"*10 which Holzer installed in Times square in 1986.  "they
["Truisms"] were short enough to get across the abyss of distraction".

  The phrases cross the "abyss of distraction", which is no longer times
square but the fragmented, multi-layered windows of a computer desktop,
and the urge to move on that is implicit in a hyperlinked page.  "Please
Change Beliefs" asks users to alter the "beliefs" presented rather than
change their own. Holzer demands an editorial act rather than the
ideological submission to "Truisms".  Users are invited to edit the
beliefs, or supply their own alternatives, and then vote on their
favourite. This creates a Chinese whispers effect, the texts flow from
Holzer classics such as "ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE" (voted
favourite) to typical anonymous web banter; "ABUSE OF FLOWER-POWER COMES
AS NO SUNRISE". The Truisms lose their didactic nature, swamped by
thousands of alternatives and revisions; they become comments or
opinions, starting points for discussion rather than declared absolutes.
The notion of the author disappears as material is added to the enormous
database, and interpolated with hyperlinks. The "Truisms" in Times
Square were public, monumental, and seemingly validated, whereas the
"belief" is presented to the individual as one line of a list, an
editable text in a textbox, or as a blinking sentence that is replaced
by another every five seconds.  The textual "interactivity" apparent in
the user input in the piece may reveal a construction of net
communications as empowering democratic technologies, promoting the
expression of self-determined attitudes. However, the seemingly endless
lists of responses are unreadable; individual entries are buried in the

  "...We must ask ourselves if these democratic characteristics actually
constitute democracy. A platform for individual voices is not enough
(especially in the Web where so many voices are lost in the clutter of
data debris)."*12 

  The Critical Art Ensemble in "Utopian Promises, Net Realities"
identifies and outlines several problems with the utopian view of a net
culture "democratised" through interactivity. These include problems of
geographical separation*13, disciplinary control through surveillance
and censorship, as well as the difficulty of voices being "lost in the
clutter of data debris". Jodi's "interactivity" scrutinises the act of
e-mail communication. The contributor's input is deliberately
re-constituted incomprehensibly to resemble, and mix with "data debris".
"Not Found" is a network of four pages. The title page displays the
words ""*14. 

When the cursor finds them, the status bar*15 announces three linked
sections; "Unread", "Reply", and "Unsent". 

  "Unread" is a horizontally bisected window. On the bottom half is a
text input area with an e-mail response button "Re-". The frame above
displays a text of consonants and punctuation marks. The user can write
a message in the text box, and send it. Jodi's CGI programme writes the
message into the top window, minus the vowels. The e-mail is fragmented
into unpronounceable strings of gutturals and sibilants, articulation is
negated, strangling the text encoded voice of the user.  "Interactivity"
is frustrated. When viewing "Unread", it is not unusual to find a string
of consonants followed by "fck! fck! fck!".  Whereas the user is
independent in editing Holzer's truisms, Jodi performs an act of
censorship. On many mainstream "chat" sites, user input which is
considered inappropriate is edited by the CGI used to write the user
input causing people to find interesting variations of the spelling of
expletives. Users have found a similar loophole in Jodi's CGI, using
vowels such as , , , ,  and sometimes .

  "Reply" has the same frameset*16, but the result of sending mail is
different; the top window records the information sent by the user as
hidden text, but overtly displays only the location of the user.  The
user's identity is broadcast as a vibrant green text. The loss of
anonymity, having identifying details stored on a database is jarring.

  "Unsent" again consists of the same frameset, but the top window
contains the vowels that were left out of the initial mail, as if they
have been filtered out and left there as a residue "unsent". The vowels
form long vocal lines of text "aaeeeeeiooooooooo".  The notion of
"Interactivity", one of the buzz words used to great effect in selling
the internet is fragmented and problematized. Jodi censors and conceals
user input, records details and negates the communicative impulse. The
phonetic, the wailing voice of the message; "aeeeeioooooyuuu" remains

Text as image, Images of text. 

  On entering "GoodTimes"*17, another section of Jodi, the user is
confronted with a dense mass of text flowing across the page (made to
scroll vertically down the screen by a Javascript autoscroll*18). There
are two levels of text present on the screen, a surface text, varying in
size and colour and containing links, and a background made from
tiled*19 images of text. This convolution of text, and images of text
constantly shifts from text to texture, as a word or phrase is read, and
then automatically scrolls on, merging with the shifting mass of light
and colour. Rudolf Freiling, in "Hot Spots, Text in motion and the
Textscape of Electronic Media"*20 cites the work of Joseph Kosuth as an
example of this interplay between text and texture, between foreground
and background. The phrase "It was It" written in neon is mounted on a
wall in front of another text. Words are abstracted into form. Freiling
posits the meaning of the work in the spatial relations of the two
texts. The texts in "Goodtimes" can be examined in relation to Kosuth's
piece. The screens of flowing text negate textuality and frustrate the
urge to decipher. There is a dialogue set up between surface (text) and
background (image). This interplay between text and image highlights the
element of tautology inherent in the use of HTML.  The page presented on
in browser window is fragile and permeable. The workings and marks left
by the author are not usually shown on the surface, as is the case in
certain forms of artistic practice, such as the fingerprint in a Rodin,
for example.  To rupture the surface of the web page, all one has to do
is "view document source" and the user can read the HTML code used to
write the page. This code contains file references*21, Javascripts,
notes, and, tautologically, the raw text used in the page. However, this
text is displayed uniformly, the HTML tags containing positional and
typesetting references still show*21.   Jodi's texts, images and
hypertexts merge into one. The positional references and various codes,
( often graphically similar to those used to generate the page or the
Javascript behaviour) create the surface texture as they scroll across
the screen. The use of ASCII characters to form an image is not limited
to "smileys", or characters used to "emote" in a text based
communication. For example:

the plebeian, simple smiley:   : )    a more complex character:   *<|:o)

It is also a time honoured hacking/phreaking*22 tradition, used in
text based communication (usually hack/phreak bbs's*23 ) to describe
how to wire up all kinds of illicit telephone security bypasses and
other fantastic criminal creations.

                   (green wire)

    (Telephone wire)         /                         | 0  |
                            /                          \___/
      ==================|    (headphone wire)             
                                 (red wire)            | 0  |
                                                       \___/  see note

This is also used in heading, or personalising documents :*25

          _   _                                            _   _
         ((___))                                          ((___))
         [ x x ]           cDc communications             [ x x ]
          \   /                presents...                 \   /
          (` ')                                            (` ')

If the text is transferred into a different format, it can screw up the
spacing and syntax (unless you are reading this as e-mail in which case
it will look fine - try viewing it in word... *27):

    [1]           [2]       [3]     [4]   | S |  [5]       [6]      [7]
     ________   _________  ______         | w |         ________  
    |        | |        | |      |   __   | i |   __   |        | |     
\/\/|Sampling|-|Quantize|-|Encode|__|  |__| t |__| 
    |________| |________| |______|        | c |        |________|
 |            |                       |   |_h_|    |
 |           PAM                     PCM         
PCM                       |
Analog Signal (You Talking)             /      \             Analog
                                   /               \
                              /                        \
                         /                                 \
                    /                                          \
      Blow Up /   of the Switch                                     \
           _____       |                           |       _____
   1    T |     | T  1 |                           | 1  T |     |    1
   -------|  T  |------|                           |------|  T  |-----
          |_____|      |                           |      |_____|
           _____       |                           |       _____
   2    T |     | T  2 |            S              | 2  T |     |    2
   -------|  T  |------|           mxn             |------|  T  |-----
          |_____|   o  |                           |  o   |_____|
           _____    o  |                           |  o    _____
   m    T |     | T  m |                           | n  T |     |    n
   -------|  T  |------|                           |------|  T  |-----
          |_____|      |                           |      |_____|

  This diagram is more than reminiscent of Jodi's lines of flowing
characters and text. Every now and then the viewer catches a word, but
meaning is dissolved into a bewildering image composed of ASCII
characters. "Are we still reading, or are we looking at images that
appear and vanish before we have had the time to grasp their potential

  Freiling could be answered aptly by Mcluhan's observations on "hot"*29
printed text and "cool" televisual, or computerised texture. 

"Print asks for the isolated and stripped down visual faculty, not for
the unified sensorium"*30 

  Mcluhan created the mosaic script as a way of bypassing the strictures
of text. For Mcluhan, the fragmentation of the word into elements which
could be re-assembled by the viewer "cooled" the medium of print. The
word became an arrangement of images that allowed the user to access the
concept by re-assembling the image into text and then internally
vocalising the word. The fact that the first graphical browser was in
fact called "Mosaic"*31 is probably no coincidence. Jodi incorporates
sound, image and "cooled", pixellated*32 text in this "unified
sensorium". Meaning is absorbed almost by osmosis. Jodi's texts as such
are dysfunctional. They cannot be "read". A word or phrase permeates
through the mesh of textures and simultaneously is caught in the
constant lapse of text into "tactile" image. 

Programme as Context
  Jodi's creative use of CGI and Javascript programming is, as far as I
can tell, unique. The overwhelming use of programming in net art is very
functional, and I suspect borrowed from other Javascript and CGI
libraries. This I attribute to the poor provision of high level
technical skill training for artists, who must make do with scripts and
programmes written and edited by computer scientists for entirely
different ends. Jodi has used or edited it's own programmes, and this is
one of the most convincing aspects of the work.

  "The cathedral leaves it's locale to be received in the studio of a
lover of art, the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in
the open air, resounds in a drawing room."*33 

  As Benjamin points out in relation to the mechanically produced
representation of an "original", context is central to meaning of a work
of art. The difficulty in making art for the net is foremost a problem
of context. In Benjamin's analysis, the reproductive apparatus 

"substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence"*34 

  The work of net art has no unique existence to substitute. It exists
in part as data stored on the server at, but is viewed,
edited and curated fleetingly and simultaneously by remote users in any
number of contexts. How can a work be put it into context, when that
context may be simultaneously a gallery, a bedroom, an office and a
laptop in a caravan? Jodi has found an answer. The art work exists in
the computer and builds relationships relative to that framework. The
image, or text on a computer is alien to the computer. Only the
programme can serve as a method, and as a context of communication
between the user, the computer, and the artist. Jodi writes programmes
(such as the e-mail CGIs mentioned above) designed to create
dysfunctional models of computer behaviour. Much like the endeavour of
the hackers, phreakers, and virus merchants that Jodi associates itself
with, the work of net art becomes an act of investigation and discovery,
programming for programming's sake perhaps.

"We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge...
and you call us criminals" Just substitute "artist" for "criminal"
(no-one will notice) in the Mentor's immortal, if ideologically flawed
"Conscience of a Hacker"*35.  


"Artist after artist has taken up the grid. peeling back layer
after layer of representation to come at last to this schematised

  In "Originality and the Avant-Guarde", Rosalind Krauss identifies one
of the projects of Modernism, to free artistic communication from the
strictures of representation. She focuses on the use of the grid as a
starting point; 

"[a] newly evacuated space of an aesthetic purity and freedom."*37 

  This stripping down of representation, and a notion of finding the
fundament of the craft could be likened to the project of
Jodi does not remove, or "evacuate" representation, but negates. Image
is negated as it becomes text, text is negated as it dissolves into
texture, and context is situated and contained as programme within the
body of the computer. It is with this identification of a basis that
Jodi facilitates its bizarre and compelling communications. 

Saul Albert. 4/4/98


if you are familiar with web authoring, then sorry for the patronising
technical notes.
I do not consider my interpretations of jodi to be in any way "correct"
they are my personal views.

 1. "gif" and "jpeg" are two types of computer generated images that
can be displayed over the internet through most popular browsers.

 2. A CGI, or "Common Gateway Interface" programme: programmes used
to process data sent via e-mail from a visitor of a website to the host

 3. "Javascript" is a simple programming language that can be written
into a webpage to create interactive behaviours and functions that would
otherwise need a programme based in the user's computer.
 4. "ASCII", "American Standard Code for Information Interchange" -
text characters. You are reading ASCII characters at the moment. 

 5. "HTML" : "Hypertext Mark-up Language" is the language in which
webpages are written. Html is basically normal text, but it contains
positional, and formatting instructions which enable the browser to
display text and image in a graphically organised designed window.
 6. Extract from "cheap-art", an e-text by Olia lialina
( dated mon 19th Jan. 98. - available on-line from
nettime. In her text she considers the emergent structures of the "net
art [sic]" world 

 7. Extract from "Net Art is Not Art???", an e-text by Carey Young, on
nettime Thurs 13 Mar 1997.
 8. (dots per inch)The highest resolution workable on the internet
because of downloading time, and screen resolution, inadequate in terms
of high definition visual reproduction. 

 10. Images from adaweb artist biography, and from Holzer's "Please
Change Beliefs" at 

 11. Quoted in Michael Auping, Jenny Holzer (New York: Universe, 1992),
73, from Rudolf Freiling, "Hot Spots, text in motion and the textscape
of electronic media", in Clicking In, Hot Links to a Digital Culture,
ed. Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Bay Press, Seattle 1996.
 12. Extracted from "Utopian Promises, Net Realities, Promise #5,
Democracy", Critical Art Ensemble, Berlin, 1995. Distributed on
nettime: ( 

 13. "In the case of information gathering, the information is only as
useful as the situation and the location of the physical body allows.
For example, a gay man who lives in a place where homophobia reigns, or
even worse, where homosexual practice is an illegal activity, will still
be unable to openly act on his desires, regardless of the information he
may gather on the net. He is still just as closeted in his everyday life
practice, and is reduced to passive spectatorship in regard to the
object of his desire, so long as he remains in a repressive locality."
(extracted from "Utopian Promises, Net Realities, Promise #5,
Democracy", Critical Art Ensemble, Berlin, 1995.)

 14. Immediately recognisable as the "404 not found" default text which
most servers will send to your computer if the document you are
requesting from the server does not exist or has been withheld.

 15. The "status bar" is the bottom edge of the browser window in both
Navigator and Explorer. It tends to be used to give information on the
contents of links, or simply display the file source or title of that
 16. A frameset is a positional reference document which will open
several frames ( in this case a top half and a bottom half) which may
have many separate or interconnected web pages displayed in them. 

 17. This title refers to the title of a hoax virus, the news of which
was spread as the virus itself claimed to - via e-mail. This alarmist
spreading of anti hacker/phreaker, and virus merchant material, forms a
subject matter in "Goodtimes" and Identifies jodi's project of
artistic discovery and expression on the net very much alongside that of
the hack/phreak community.

 18. A Javascript (see note 3) programme which causes the page to scroll
vertically down the screen as soon as it has loaded.

 19. When creating the background to a web page, it is possible to
specify not only a colour, but also an image to be tiled on the

 20. Rudolf Freiling, "Hot Spots, text in motion and the textscape of
electronic media", in Clicking In, Hot Links to a Digital Culture, ed.
Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Bay Press, Seattle 1996.p. 270 

 21. For example, references to the location on the server of image
files which may not be available to save from the foreground of the
document. Having been located, these can be downloaded and saved onto
the user's hard disk. positional references might be<center>- - -
- </center>, anything between these captions or "tags" would be centred
 on the page, but the browser will not display text contained within
"<>" symbols. 

 22. Learning about and using telephone systems, but not legally.

 23. Bulletin board servers, just as it sounds, a text based forum for
debate. A bbs is where most people learn hacking, phreaking, etc.
 24. Diagram taken from "Hackintosh #3", by the Weasel. Available at
 25. ASCII graphic from "Frankie's Fireside Phreak Primer"(c)1987 cDc
(cult of the dead cow) communications by Franken Gibe. Available from
 26. A diagram of TST topology From "The fine art of Telephony", by
Crimson Flash, Phrack 40, file 7. Available from
(the graphic worked fine on Netscape, I screwed it up by saving it in
 27. Freiling, Ibid., p275.
 28. "Hot", can be described broadly as high-definition information that
requires little work from the viewer, such as print, which is self
contained as a linguistic system of deferral. "Cool" is the opposite, a
low-definition medium which requires the viewer to fill in the gaps- a
multi sensory experience. 

 29. "Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man", Marshall Mcluhan, MIT
Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England. 1964. 

 30. Available to download free from
 31. The word "Pixel" is actually an abbreviation of "picture element".
 32. Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations Walter
Benjamin, Schocken Books, NYC, 1955 p. 221
 33. Ibid. p. 221
 34. "Conscience of a Hacker", The Mentor 1986 Available at just about
any Hack website including my favourite :
 35. Rosalind Krauss, in "The Originality of the Avant Guarde", 
October, no. 18, Cambridge, Mass. Fall 1981, Art in Theory, p. 1061
 36. Ibid, Art in Theory, p. 1062

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