Jody Zellen: Public Discourse
In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.Marshall McLuhan
Sometimes carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.Albert Camus
Written by Gary Brewer
The platforms upon which art has been displayed- from the cave walls of Paleolithic art to the white cube of contemporary art, has influenced and shaped the way that we see and interpret our experience. It also reflects the society in which we live and how we have shaped the world and been shaped ourselves by this shifting environment.
Jody Zellen is an artist who uses her computer and the Internet to extend the reach of her art to the world at large. The white cube dematerialized and limitless space became the venue through which an audience can engage and interact with her art.
I asked Jody if this was in part, a political statement, referencing how early conceptual artists sought to dematerialize their art as a way to counteract the market forces of commodification. Jody replied, “When I was in art school those ideas were being expressed; performance art, installation and conceptual art were what was being taught, so that was an influence. When I got out of school, I hoped I would become a successful artist with work flying out of galleries onto the walls of collectors. It was my dream to be on the cover of Artforum (laughs). But when that did not come to pass it was really important to me for my work to be seen. I started by publishing and disseminating limited edition artist’s books that incorporated the photo collages that I was making. Then in 1996, I was introduced to Net Art [art projects made to be viewed online that were more than the posting of photographs of preexisting artworks] and realized that I could combine my images and animations into interactive artworks that could be viewed online as Net Art. I loved that anyone with an internet connection could view them. I saw Net Art as a form of public art and that is very important to me- to have the work accessible for the largest possible audience.”
Jody has created a spare visual language of ciphers that represent anonymous human figures and city environments of buildings and avenues. These depictions are done in a simple graphic style that is immediate; our mind quickly sees and understands the silhouettes and linear depictions of the cities and spaces that the figures inhabit. Jody says that graffiti has influenced her style of representation.
I asked her a little about the early beginnings of her internet projects- what she was doing and what motivated her. “I wanted to create something contrary to the clear linear logic of how information was presented. My early Net Art works were meant to confuse and frustrate the viewer. Rather than unfolding in a clear linear path from one point to another, I wanted viewers to have surprise links that would take them to something unexpected. I wanted viewers to get lost… I was trying to bring something poetic into the experience.”
Jody has been working on a major new piece, Avenue S, that is a reflection of the isolation and aloneness that we are collectively experiencing during this time of the Coronavirus.
To quote Jody’s introduction to Avenue S, “Avenue S is a new addition to Ghost City, a Net Art project I began in 1998. It will be an ongoing creation of Net Art pages containing fragmented images and texts that are a poetic meditation of isolation. Because of COVID – 19 and the mandate to shelter in place, it feels like a ghost town everywhere. The streets are empty, the beaches and parks are closed. As we stay at home or walk alone wearing masks, I wanted to provide an alternative experience.”
It is a long piece- at two hundred and eighty pages thus far. The pacing and cadence of these interactive pages induce a meditative state of mind. All of the pages unfold in silence. Her graphic ciphers of an anonymous human figure are a metaphor of one’s individual experience and the pan-personal experience of this collective moment in time.
Jody’s drawings are animated doing simple things: rearranging, assembling and disassembling, becoming a part of a pattern; all in the meandering free-floating state of consciousness of a doodle unfolding. This adds a poignant quality to the poetry of the piece. There is something in the slow pace and purposelessness to the figure’s activities that reminded me of Waiting for Godot: the aimless tasks of her figures, moving to the cadence of this strange period of time that the entire world is experiencing.
As one moves through the pages, fragments from the world appear: photographs that Jody has taken herself or found online are intertwined: headlines from the day’s news; a poem from a friend; another friend’s Haiku about our Coronavirus existence. Jody has used media for years as a way to archive the moment in time when a work was made or to add political content to the narrative of a piece.
In Avenue S, all of the images and texts included in the pages refer to our collective plight. Jody said of this, “Early on, during the stay at home order, as I went on my daily walks, I noticed chalk drawings on the sidewalks. They were suddenly everywhere as bright hopeful expressions. I began to document these messages and created an expansive grid of these photographs as a page in Avenue S. Later, as the George Floyd protests broke out, I made photographs of those street markings and created an animated web page to capture that moment of political unrest. Avenue S also includes many photographs of nature — cactus and other flora as well as their shadows –- made on trips to the desert and mountains. I created interactive grids with these images that change color as your cursor goes over them.” Each of these images and animations captures intimate moments from the dynamics of the world and of the interior life of the artist. They are in a sense, a diary of this time we are all experiencing and a record of how we cope with it.
Jody said that her early photographic pieces were more impersonal expressions, but that she has allowed the works to become more personal with Avenue S because of the shared experience of living with Covid-19. This aspect of the work gives it a strangely disembodied visceral power. Never before has the entire world simultaneously experienced the same threat, with the same means of attacking us. It is our most vulnerable need: to be social and to be close, to kiss and hug each other, to shake hands and to speak intimately in each other’s ears. To try to restrain our selves from this most intimate existential need is a profoundly difficult task for our species to achieve, and sadly the number of deaths and infections reflect how hard this is.
Jody Zellen’s Avenue S is a quiet walk through a hall of mirrors, mirrors within which each of us can identify with the reflection we see. It archives the emotional tone of our current world, in a language whose simplified images communicate their messages in a clear and direct means. There is a mournful tone to this piece that can be understood by each of us living through these difficult times.
Art is a way to express our thoughts and feelings, the ideas that move us, or to chronicle momentous periods of history. In Jody Zellen’s Avenue S, this strange pause in the energy and pattern of our existence is captured in a spare visual language whose meditative pulse slowly carries us through the images and photographs that reflect our world- a world silently held in the invisible force of a virus without boundaries.