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JODI's current installation % MY DESKTOP at Eyebeam Atelier raises everyday machine disfunction to the level of the sublime. Occupying one long wall in Eyebeam's cavernous raw space, four standard computer screen desktops are projected side by side: two Windows on the left and two Apples on the right. The screens tower over the viewer at about ten feet in height. Invisible users appear to click the menus and desktop icons in real time, but what you see are actually recordings of these activities, presumably on DVD. To stand before the screens is to be immersed in an elegant chaos.
On the far left, a user attempts to move groups of icons to other positions on the same desktop. The new positions don't "take," but instead leave grey silhouettes, which gradually become cumulative, tangled masses of icon-shadows. In the middle left, the user methodically clicks unintelligible lists of wingdings, opening dialogue boxes full of more wingdings, and so on. In the middle right, sound files are randomly triggered, filling the space with a cacophony of clicks, martial arts grunts, and punching noises. And way over on the right, the letters underneath icons become long, conjoined strings of verbal gobbledegook, which are superimposed again and again.
There's nary a pigment stroke in sight, but the scale and handling of these pieces is very painterly, specifically Abstract Expressionist. JODI's process of cyber-vandalism--tinkering with browser software and then further abusing it through excessive, mindless icon-clicking--recalls strategies of "creative destruction" familiar from the work of the de Kooning generation (build up, wipe away, leave a residue, build up again...) It's also a cyber-critique, specifically playing on our legitimate fears that information-processing technology will break down when we're using it the hardest.
The messy visual record of "incorrect," panic-stricken choices is the kind of disobedient, Dionysian use of the computer sadly lacking in "BitStreams," the Whitney Museum's 2001 survey of computer art. If % My DESKTOP could have somehow been included in that exhibit, the focus and tone would have dramatically shifted from the utopian magic of thinking machines to their ad hoc, poorly-understood nature. With its size, ambition, and (refreshing) lack of reverence, it would have been a much stronger centerpiece than, say, ecosystm, John Klima's gee-whiz videogame salute to the raptor-eat-raptor world of global capital.
Check out Paper Rad's music video Bubble Puppy (Flash animation, takes a few secs to load--but worth it!). The tune is actually "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" (1968), by the Texas psychedelic band and one-hit-wonder the Bubble Puppy (more info on them below). Mixing '60s hippie mysticism with '70s bad taste, Paper Rad envisions the band riding (and playing) on top of painted vans with names like "Green Shock" and "Midnight at the Oasis" while the Egyptian desert scrolls in the background. The eponymous dog suffers from some sort of magical mystery hydrophobia that causes blue bubbles to hover in front of its mouth and ass. The animation has a nice dirt-style feel with lots of gratuitous gradating and sunburst effects--like van painting come to life. Of course, it's also completely self-aware, recycling all the MTV moves in a hilarious, inept-but-not-really parody style.
Back to the Bubble Puppy itself, here's a cached text from an apparently defunct web page (really takes you back to the days before corporate control clamped down on the music biz, when you could still have spontaneous regional hits):
Memories of Bubble Puppy
by Roy Cox
THE "HOT SMOKE AND SASSAFRAS" BOYS
I instigated the formation of the "Bubble Puppy" in 1968. We were four of the best available musicians the State of Texas had to offer. I had worked with Rod Prince in the Bad Seeds.
From a Metropolis magazine review, discussing the "French theoretical architecture show" at the Guggenheim Soho a few years back:
The fascination of French artists and architects with surrealism may explain why they're so often charmed by postmodernity in its more kitsch incarnations. Take, for example, one of the artists featured in "Premises," Bertrand Lavier, who contributes a suite of work called "Walt Disney Productions," life-size replicas of the phony abstract paintings and sculptures in a 1947 comic strip in which Mickey Mouse visits a modern art museum. The catalogue is worth quoting for its summary of the show's own delirious critical stance:
"Rather than making a painting that was a copy of a cartoon (as a number of his contemporaries did), and rather than reclaiming some tired abstract painting under the pretext of simulation, Lavier took directly from the cartoon itself. [Meaning he hired a fabricator to turn the drawings into objects. Not that there's anything wrong with that.] Since the cartoon precisely simulated a body of images prevalent in Modernist art, he simultaneously succeeded in resuscitating abstract painting. Although he did so without theoretical effort and--since his short circuit was photographic--without an excessive quantity of turpentine."
It's hard to know which failure of nerve is greater, that of the artist toying with the simulacra of the simulacra to "resuscitate" abstraction by yoking it to an Arp-like lexicon of cartoon shapes, or the too-clever-for-words tone of the catalogue and its dumb disdain for turpentine and technique. Not only is the art dopey--and this is a show about dopey art if ever there was one--the feeble character of its critique is revealed in its slavish replication of the original image. Disney is simply too much loved by all concerned for this kind of work to pose a threat to the battalions of imagineers who blanket the world with what can only be described as the real thing.
Oh, lighten up. Catalog writer, reviewer, you're both wrong. Lavier's installation isn't meant to "resuscitate abstract painting"--who really believes that?--nor to threaten Disney's "battalions of imagineers." It's a meditation on historicization, to use a rather ugly word: refracting capital-A art through the lens of a pop culture artifact to show how taste and vision change from era to era. The images in the comic strip (and by sly implication, the art referenced) are clearly from the '40s, but it takes a few decades to see that conclusively. What things from our own time that we take to be immutable will seem this "period" in 20X3? (Candidate: Matrix "bullet time" effect.) Lavier tackles the subject with wit and polish, and it's depressing to read such a grave debate surrounding this work.
Cats vs Dogs: left, Carl D'Alvia, Ratdog, 1996, carved plaster and rope, 40" X 25" X 23"; right, Sigurd Engerström, The Nightmare Cheetah, 2003, pencil drawing.