JODI – Goodtimes (1996)
Just to start from the top, the title “Goodtimes” is important, here. The “Goodtimes virus” was a hoax that began circulating on AOL in December of 1994 and reached the height of its popularity the next year. There is no virus, per se; what went around was an email warning about the existence of a supposed “Goodtimes” virus, that was supposedly spread by opening emails with “Good times” in the subject. It didn’t take long for canny observers to notice that the email itself, as it was endlessly forwarded and reforwarded between worried users, acted as a virus itself. Goodtimes, the artwork, references on the same fears that circulated the “Goodtimes virus”.
After a series of frightening warning messages in hacker-aesthetic green-on-black, each of which the user must accept to continue, Goodtimes opens up onto a home page of sorts filled with indecipherable pseudocode, out of which three buttons arise, labeled “EXE”, “SEMI”, and “TDOOG”. Of the three, “TDOOG” and “SEMI” are pretty boring; “SEMI” leads back to the warnings, while “TDOOG” leads to a navigable series of pages full of broken images, self-referential alt-text (in one case, “IMG SRC=HTTP:”), more green-on-black, and some visual play with the browser’s image scaling.
None of the pages feel particularly compelling. That might be because their HTML elements aren’t fixed; they expand to fill your browser, and whatever system JODI may have had in mind when designing the page, it certainly wasn’t my 1366 x 768 pixel laptop screen. It’s difficult to say what the intended size was, so the viewer’s left to play around, shrinking and enlarging in the hopes that, out of chaos, they find something that looks nice. I, for one, didn’t.
“EXE” is a meatier section. Clicking it presents you with, among other things, a green briefcase, and clicking that takes you to a series of pages filled with more, and more threatening-looking, pseudocode. The sensation is one of losing control, particularly in pages like capture2.html, where the user is forced to watch helplessly as their browser scrolls through a series of UNIX commands. It feels a little bit like a hijacking, and that’s great; Goodtimes does a good job of looking like the popular image of a virus executing (complete with paths like “/hack/hackdir/rumors”).
Despite its complexity and the amount of work involved, it's hard to see Goodtimesas anything more than a joke—a joke most internet users in 2012 aren’t going to get. It’s not just that the historical references fail to communicate; it’s also the fact that we simply don’t use the web in the same way we did when JODI were working on this project. In 1996, we were not yet in an era of multi-threaded, tabbed browsers with background processes that remember your browsing history; a browser window scrolling uncontrollably might actually have been a worry, and closing it might actually have been a loss. Today, you kill the tab’s process and move on.
Goodtimes is an odd inclusion in a show that’s otherwise fairly tightly organized around money and distribution. It’s not obviously connected, unless one considers the passing similarity between its warning prompts and the single warning prompt in the next work, Greg Leuch’s G.R.E.E.D.. In one warning, I suppose, we are warned not to “re-sell, decompile, reverse engineer, or disassemble the Software”. It’s not quite Rafael Rozendaal’s contract, but it’s a stand for the status of the artwork, even if it is meant as a joke. One possibility is that we are intended to read the warning messages as applying to the show as a whole. If so, that might have been a temptation better left aside.
In a Facebook chat, artist and curator Jennifer Chan pointed out another problem: Goodtimes has a high bounce rate. That is, whatever the merits of JODI’s work, the way it works—by opening a new set of windows and then giving you a good reason to close them—leads exhibition viewers away from the rest of the show. It is therefore, in a very practical sense, a poor choice for the first work in a linear exhibition.
Greg Leuch – G.R.E.E.D. (Glom & Restrict Entities on Existing Domains) (2012)
Greg Leuch’s browser plugin G.R.E.E.D. (2012) monitors the user’s activity and occasionally steps in to censor or block specific domains. Placed next to Goodtimes, it reflects changing fears online: today, we’re not afraid of anarchic hackers or celebrity viruses, but the calculated extortion of corporate control. Its self-description is acidly bureaucratic: “a license utility for your web browser that enables you to immediately comply with online license and copyright restrictions.” More than that, however, G.R.E.E.D. tries to turn its control into cash. When you visit a blocked site—in my case, Facebook—G.R.E.E.D. offers you the opportunity to pay $1 for a two-day license for unrestricted browsing; if you do, G.R.E.E.D.agrees to stop monitoring your activity.
It’s an interesting gesture—funding art through extortion—but one G.R.E.E.D. doesn’t seem particularly interested in capitalizing on. Leuch’s most well-known art plugin, Shaved Bieber (2010), was great because it simultaneously spoke to a popular desire (the elimination of Justin Bieber) and unveiled a relatively unfamiliar power (you can control your browser and what it shows, without limit, so long as you have the tools). Shaved Bieber had the tone of a joke, but it also offered the material tools to enact the great postmodern dream of editing the media to your liking.
G.R.E.E.D., by contrast, is heavy on rhetoric but light on execution. It’s one-sided, too; we’re offered the dystopic possibility of extortion and surveillance, but never forced to face the potential benefits of such a system. There’s no real reason to install the plugin, which offers too easy an out. Ultimately, one suspects the work is less morally nuanced than, say, making a decision about whether to “upgrade” your iTunes songs to DRM-free versions.
Another issue is the practical invisibility of the plugin. Maybe my browsing habits are unusual, but after most of a day of having the plugin installed, I only ever noticed G.R.E.E.D.‘s existence when I tried to use Facebook. True, there’s probably some insidious merit in remaining undetected, and it’s interesting to have an artwork reach out to you only on its own terms; that said, G.R.E.E.D. is sneaky to the point of not existing at all. Looking at the instructions G.R.E.E.D. gets back from its server (see left), it’s clear I’d stumbled near a few features I wouldn’t have triggered on my own; if you were to Google “monopoly”, for instance, you’d find the word blacked out in the results. Trying a few other likely sites (4chan; Rhizome; the website for F.A.T. Lab, at which Leuch is a “Virtual Research Fellow”), I struggled to come up with much else. If you visit Apple.com, I guess, a lot of stuff gets blacked out. Uh, cool?