Two basic activities emerge. A person may work “on” the digital or “within” it. In the former, one’s attention is directed from the outside in, taking the medium itself as its object, while in the latter one takes the perspective of the medium itself, radiating attention outward to other contexts and environments. To generalize from this, the first position (working “on”) is labeled modern or, when applied to art and aesthetics, modernist. And the latter position (working “within”) is labeled non-modern, be it premodern, postmodern, or some other alternative.
In the modern “on” mode, infrastructure is everything. Content dissolves into context, and context itself becomes content. Hence the great mantra of modernity is “there is no content”—or, as Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “the medium is the message”—since all content is overwhelmed by context. By contrast, in the non-modern, premodern, or postmodern mode of working “within,” content is what it is, no more and no less. Here content provides its own context, and the environment grows in accordance with the emergent emanations of the inside. No larger transcendental category arrives like a conquistador to command and encompass it from outside. For the non-modern, the message is the message. And any other loftiness—from heaven above to down below—will always be legible right there within it. Indeed, only a modern would ever invent the word “content” in the first place.
Where does the artist duo Jodi (or Jodi.org) stand in all of this? The answer seems clear enough. They are moderns through and through. There is no Jodi work that is not oriented toward the digital as its object and material. There is no Jodi work that is not on and about the material. They display in abundance that great modernist virtue of self-referentiality. The material of their work is quite simply the material itself.
Jodi are thus stubbornly out of step with the dominant rhythms of contemporary art. Less obsessed with the cultural or social effects of new media, Jodi orient themselves toward the specificities of hardware and software. The resulting aesthetic is, in this way, not entirely specified by the artists’ subjective impulses. Instead, the texture of code and computation takes over, and computing itself—its strange logic, its grammar and structure, and often its shape and color—produces the aesthetic.
Infrastructure changes slowly. Even as word processors and other applications began to support Unicode, many of the internet’s internal technologies were late adopters. The IDN standard, only in use since 2010, was designed to allow Unicode characters within domain names, both top-level suffixes and server names. Thus, after the implementation of IDN, users may surf to pages with addresses ending in .рф instead of .ru (Russia) or .中国 instead of .cn (China). Likewise each server and hostname may be rendered in languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Arabic or Greek. Still, the apparent universality of IDN is something of an illusion. Certain characters are prohibited outright to help avoid phishing attacks using similar looking glyphs. And, in fact, each Unicode domain is transcoded into an ASCII string behind the scenes. ASCII's much smaller character set, consisting of the letters A–Z, the numerical digits 0–9, plus a few forms of simple punctuation, is considered to be simpler and more difficult to spoof. And, given that the Web was built on ASCII, it is easier to add Unicode support as a special form of ASCII encoding than change the Web’s entire naming technology. For instance, a browser aimed at a Unicode address like “ꈸ.net” will first translate the address to the corresponding ASCII version, in this case “xn--417a.net,” and then fetch that address instead. In other words, even if a user sees Chinese or Russian characters on the screen, it’s still ASCII underneath.
Jodi’s IDN is a series of websites using single Unicode glyphs as domain names, all under the .net or .com top-level domains. Besides the primary glyph domains, additional websites are referenced via internal links. For example, ꉆ.com refreshes to ꍞ.com which refreshes back to ꉆ.com in a continuous loop. A few of the domains are as yet still empty, and a few others proffer short messages or other information. ཀ.com and ᠐.com both simply repeat the project’s opening salutation, that “Apache is functioning normally.”
At first glance, Jodi’s IDN seems to resemble ASCII art or concrete poetry. I’m reminded of Carl Andre’s typewriter poems where text appears on the page as geometric shapes. But despite this superficial similarity, IDN is in fact doing something a bit different. Jodi have woven their geometric shapes from out of a complicated hypertextual structure. Less concrete poetry, this is a kind of infrastructure poetry. The project ꀍ.com, for instance, requires a whole series of elaborate if not absurd host names. And to a certain extent, the work itself is nothing but a series of such names. When all the names are combined in a vertical stack, they create a patterned field of text. (One can only assume that Jodi had to write a series of scripts to automatically generate these many dozens of web pages, a tedious task if attempted by hand.)
Where does the work reside? Two places. First, Jodi seem interested in isolating certain parts of the screen, even certain parts of the browser. The browser’s address bar, for instance, is treated here as a kind of miniature canvas for slow-motion animation. Like the structural films of Tony Conrad, Jodi create each animation frame by frame from discontinuous elements. A glyph becomes a single frame in a slow-motion film. When the glyphs combine in series, they give the illusion of movement. Like a form of primitive cinema, entire animations appear solely inside the address bar.
But the work resides in a second place as well. The projects in IDN are assembled not so much from discrete web pages as from the negative space existing between such pages. Jodi are interested in HTML, to be sure, but here they also display a penchant for the very standards and protocols of the web itself—how pages are assigned addresses and how servers transfer pages to clients. The “infrastructure” in this infrastructure poetry is thus the agglomeration of server software (Apache), addressing technologies (IDN and DNS), transfer protocols (HTTP), and finally, web browsers and the HTML they are designed to display.
Jodi’s infrastructural modernism, if we can call it that, is interesting because it suspends the distinction between art and technology without making one subservient to the other. Jodi are artists who insist on the importance of seemingly uninteresting technical minutiae, such as character-encoding schemes and other tedious matters. And they are technologists who insist that the beauty of code comes not from function and elegance but from a different set of virtues—dysfunction and inelegance to be sure, but also confusion and excitement, violence and energy. The result is not so much a mechanization of art, nor that clumsy concept “the art of the machine,” but a much more simple and mundane reality: the computer as medium.
Alexander Koch: I liked the idea that there might be historical skepticism about the artworld’s ability to inspire social hope. And I liked to imagine that this skepticism might have remained unnoticed exactly where it had become most coherent: in the decision not to make doubt-in-art yet another object of art, not to give mistrust in “visibility” in the art field still more visibility.
You are right to ask to what extent this decision has a critical dimension. Remember all those classical gestures (sic) of refusal in art: empty canvases, closed galleries, silent artists. I see that sort of silence as a fundamental mistrust in arts’ contribution to social and individual change. I wondered if emptiness, silence or announced attacks on museums (who ever fired a bomb on anything?) were already the radical peak of such distrust. And I found that there was a possible step further to imagine: just leaving the canvases, museums, and artworld as a whole, alone with themselves and seeking out other endeavors. But then – as you mention – how would we know about such steps, once they were taken? That was the most challenging question for me on the methodological level.
With regard to different notions of the critical dimension of artists’ dropping out, in my latest lecture on the subject I suggested separating the progressive dropout from the regressive dropout in order to separate those forms of withdrawal from the artworld that were looking for an encouraging perspective elsewhere, from other forms of withdrawal that were not looking for such encouragement. In my case studies Charlotte Posenenske stands for the former type, Lee Lozano for the latter type of withdrawal. Whereas Posenenske chose social science to pursuit her enquiries on participatorial practice, Lozano ultimately chose retirement in resignation.
I see no sense in attributing to individuals a self-understanding of artists after they have quit an artistic practice and the role model it relates to. The whole point of my proposal is to de-naturalize the notion of “being an artist” by saying that you can stop with it at any time. The future is open – even if you were an artist. We should see artists as people like everybody else. People with an education, a profession and an evolving biography that includes choices and changes of one’s’ profession, changes in what one believes in and what endeavor one goes for, including changes of one’s self-understanding. Why should anyone be condemned to be an artist, only because he or she had had that role for a while? If one quits a profession or a passion for another, past experiences will give a certain color to any future activity of course. But whether these might be helpful or not cannot be answered in general.
And there is nothing in general to be said about “competences” here. If a dentist and a mathematician become filmmakers, would we expect their films to make a difference because of their competences in dentistry and mathematics? And if we assumed their films to look more scientific, more rational, less poetic than films of non-ex-dentists and non-ex-mathematicians, wouldn’t we only show how limited we believe other peoples’ minds are and how little chance we see for their lives to develop?
c) sound like an attempt to find something essential about what artists are, exactly in the very moment of their disappearance, whereas my theoretic proposals of the artistic dropout try to contribute to an anti-essentialist perspective on that disappearance.
Rather than strive to perfect authority, Beer’s management cybernetics was an in fact an impediment to the managerial ego, emphasizing its potential for distributed authority rather than autocracy.
As Medina emphasizes, Cybersyn was distinguished both from CNC and Soviet cybernetics by placing the knowledge and skills of workers at the heart of the system, at least in theory. Cybersyn and the VSM did not need to act on different individuals for each role in the system: in principle, they could be used as tools for self-management or leaderless organizations, comparable to Edward De Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats.”
Quality control is cybernetic: it feeds back analysis of the products of manufacture (or labour) into the ongoing development of that process of manufacture (or labour). Quality assurance is homeostasis; continuous quality improvement is homeorhesis. But quality control is a closed loop of business processes in the CNC tradition rather than a Cybersyn-style system for balancing self-management with system integrity. Cybernetic analysis of the system as a whole, its social as well as its technical elements, provides us with the intellectual resources to criticize and transform these processes of production in forgotten but useful ways.
As Medina demonstrates with the examples both of Cybersyn’s international reception and the ultimate fate of technological elements of the project, it is very hard to embody politics in technology. Both proponents and critics of Bitcoin and of socialist alternatives to “Stacks” would do well to remember this. And developers of Smart Contracts and Distributed Autonomous Organizations can take Cybersyn’s non-monetary measurements of economic activity as an example of resource management without tokens, but should look closely at the project’s experience of interfacing algorithmic management with the pressures and temptations of the external, social world.
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The phrase “acoustic inertia,” struck a chord in me; I liked the ring of it, how it seemed to imply a sense of energy and forward propulsion that is echoed in the meaning of the words themselves. It was still stuck my head when I came across a reference to Visible Speech somewhere online. What most drew me to Visible Speech in that first encounter—and what has kept me fascinated with it —is its potential to translate the exact particularities of a dialect from one person’s mouth to another’s. When Bell’s sons read back a translation of a sentence or paragraph written in Visible Speech, they would read it exactly as the original person had said it—accent, intonations, cadence, rhythm, the rise or fall of the voice, “all the possible shades of sound,” as Bell wrote. Bell meant for Visible Speech to be a system of notation “by which all sounds of any dialect might be represented intelligibly to readers of whatever country or tongue.” The incredible thing about the language is its ability to capture that “inertia” of speech so precisely in writing.
But Visible Speech is also language that you could speak without ever actually knowing what you were saying. Bell describes one of his pupils, Theresa Dudley, who was deaf and mute, as not stumbling a “solitary instance” when reading words from several languages translated into Visible Speech. But she also “does not know that she uttered words at all.”
Whatever the reasons Bell’s Visible Speech was never funded and never took hold, it’s now a forgotten part of history. Without the animation of sound, Bell’s utopic vision for a universal language is locked up in a cryptic set of symbols that vaguely resemble physiological diagrams, which no one today can read.