Web crud

Ian Haig digs the dirt on the www

There is a lot to be said for grunge in the digital realm: the seamless perfection of much digital imagery and the regimented order of the corporate web site are very familiar and very…banal. These days when everything is so over-designed and carries with it a tasteful Photoshop blur filter, it’s refreshing to stumble across some real grunge for a change, which reconfirms that the real world is full of crap and grime just like you always thought it was. It’s often when the dirt gets in the system that things get really interesting after all.

www.jodi.org is perfect web grunge, if there ever can be such a thing. There is something about this site which makes you want to go back again and again, something engagingly low tech, simple and funky about their catalogue of web works—100cc, Goodtimes and their latest %20 (http://www.adaweb.com/context/jodi/index.html). There is no sign of the generic hand of Photoshop here, or names like ‘virtual gallery’ or ‘cyberart’, just a dizzying array of in-your-face, free-formed, computer game bitmaps and data corruption that takes control of your computer. www.jodi.org manages to capture something inherent about the web medium to the extent that the works are wonderfully self-referential: computer viruses, scrambled error messages, corrupted data and chunks of computer code make up the overriding aesthetic here. However, it’s the way in which the works have the capacity to take control of your browser the first time you visit it and infect your monitor with what you swear is a computer crash, or some serious memory fragmentation, which is the crucial element in the work. Unlike so much web art, www.jodi.org understands the notion of ‘noise’ on the web, putting back what is normally left out or relegated to the trashcan.

www.jodi.org also manages to take things way beyond the notion of ‘browsing’, a metaphor with problematic connotations at the best of times. You don’t so much browse these works; you are infiltrated by them, taken over by them and consumed. Here, there are some similarities with the acclaimed work of etoy (www.etoy.com—Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets Mondo 2000) but, ultimately, www.jodi.org is more inventive and demystifying of the medium, and manages to explode so many of the cliches associated with producing work for the web, in particular the notion of reinvesting the control to the interactive ‘user’. Sure, you’re free to explore www.jodi.org through its maze of imagemap viruses and data refuse, which is an experience in itself, but essentially you get the feeling that there is some other force at work, directing your every move and monitoring your movements. The user here is just one in a long line of guinea pigs under some weird surveillance. This is territory which many interactives rarely venture into—territory where the user is not ‘in control’, but ‘out of control’ of the work.

The scrambled error messages moving across your monitor recall much of what the web is really about: those spaces in between web sites, the files not loading correctly, the error messages, files not found and ‘error 404s’ which constitute so much of the experience of using this medium. Here, Netscape frames the work as a self-reflexive cultural interface, and, apart from the occasional hypertext link and imagemap, the notion of interface design is done away with, as something which simply gets in the way of the work. Interface is superficial window dressing, surface detail obscuring what lies below. In a very real way, www.jodi.org is the underside of the glossy veneer of the web, the underground trash and grunge, discarded and left to fester and to hopefully mutate into something even more compelling.

When Tim Berners Lee, in the early days of the medium, was thinking of what the web could possibly become www.jodi.org was probably the furthest thing from his mind; and in many ways www.jodi.org is about as far away as you can get from the bevelled-edged buttons of corporate web hell, or yet another banal ‘virtual gallery’. For that alone it should demand your attention as one of the most interesting web art works to ever come down the pipe.

One of the more interesting aspects of the web is the phenomenon of the useless web page. Sites like the Rotting Food Home Page, or The Virtual Tour of the Gas Station Toilet compel the question: Why? Why on earth did someone even produce such a web page? For me these are some of the highlights of the web, the points where the web crosses over into a kind of reality television and touches the lives of real people. The web is the perfect medium for wacked out, deluded weirdos to actually say something to the world, no matter how inane or stupid they might appear to the rest of us. While it’s easy to dismiss such pages as just ugly examples of HTML grunge, the better ones are complex, fucked-up messes of desires and opinions—perfect web crud.

If you buy into the hype which invokes this medium as the great democratising, utopian delivery system, the useless web page is probably a far more accurate realisation of such hyperbole than, say, www.sony.com. And as the experience of browsing the web increasingly becomes about as compelling as flipping through the yellow pages, these useless web pages (http://www.go2net.com/internet/useless – expired) and sites like The World Wide Web Hall of Shame (comprising web ‘abominations’) manage to break down the medium, demystify it, in ways which even more experimental, creative web projects fail to. It’s these pages that remind one that this is a web constructed by people, not corporate search engines, or infobots—give me the losers, freaks and weirdos any day. The rest of web culture is busy applying pre-existing technical models and paradigms from the world of graphic design, desktop publishing, 3D and CD-ROM based multimedia to the web, hoping that they will reveal the ‘truth’ of the medium and take it to the promised land. I, for one, think that in some ways at least the useless web page has already found the true web, encapsulated in those raw, weird glimpses of the world at the other end of the modem.

RealTime issue #19 June-July 1997 pg. 22

© Ian Haig; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1997