Emerging from two poles — the machine’s mechanistic logic on the one hand and the fetishistic objectivity of surrealism at the other — the works in Difference Engine explore the art of contradiction.
André Breton’s surrealist doctrine of objective chance drew inspiration from a now well-known, singular quote by the young poet Comte de Lautréamont who tragically died at the age of twenty-four: “The chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Difference Engine explores a similar conceit, ripe with the undercurrents of our twenty-first-century technological narcissism set in stark contrast to its utopian possibilities.
The exhibition’s title is taken from Charles Babbage’s name for his invention of a calculating engine powered by a cranking handle that, upon its completion in 1832, would be the first automated mechanical calculator. Furthering the allusion, a 1990 sci-fi novel of the same name by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling would play a significant role in the setting off of the genre of steampunk through its envisioning of a speculative reality sprung from this historical turning point.
The works in Difference Engine embrace an uncanny or nauseated condition that is nonetheless replete with humor and comic relief. The miracle and misery of the information age are explored. The beauty and grotesque of pop syncopates against a curious and contradictory surrealist imaginary. Artists include Dutch collective JODI, and Cory Arcangel, Carol Bove, Jacob Ciocci, Aleksandra Domanović, Lonnie Holley, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Konrad Klapheck, Guthrie Lonergan, Michel Majerus, Jaysson Musson, Deborah Remington, Hayley Silverman, Jessie Stead, Paul Thek, and Ernest Trova.
JODI, or www.jodi.org, is a collective of two internet artists: Joan Heemskerk (born 1968 in Kaatsheuvel, the Netherlands) and Dirk Paesmans (born 1965 in Brussels, Belgium). Their background is in photography and video art; since the mid-1990s they started to create original artworks for the World Wide Web. A few years later, they also turned to software art and artistic computer game modification. Their most well-known art piece is their website, which is a landscape of intricate designs made in basic HTML.
In 1999 they began the practice of modifying old video games such as Wolfenstein 3D to create art mods like SOD. Their efforts were celebrated in the 1999 Webby Awards where they took top prize in the category of “net art”. Further video game modifications soon followed for Quake, Jet Set Willy, and the latest, Max Payne 2 (2006) to create a new set of art games. JODI‘s approach to game modification is comparable in many ways to deconstructivism in architecture, because they would disassemble the game to its basic parts, and reassemble it in ways that do not make intuitive sense. One of their more well-known modifications of Quake places the player inside a closed cube with swirling black-and-white patterns on each side. The pattern is the result of a glitch in the game engine discovered by the artists, presumably, through trial and error; it is generated live as the Quake engine tries, and fails, to visualize the interior of a cube with black-and-white checkered wallpaper.
Since 2002, they have been in what has been called their “Screen Grab” period, making video works by recording the computer monitor’s output while working, playing video games, or coding. JODI‘s “Screen Grab” period began with the four-screen video installation “My%Desktop” (2002), which premiered at the Plugin Media Lab in Basel. The piece appeared to depict mammoth Mac OS 9 computers running amok: opening windows cascaded across the screen, error messages squawked, and files replicated themselves endlessly. But this was not a computer gone haywire, but a computer user gone haywire. To make this video, JODI simply pointed-and-clicked and dragged-and-dropped so frantically, it seemed that no human could be in control of such chaos. As graphics exploded across the screen, the viewer gradually realized that what had initially appeared to be a computer glitch was really the work of an irrational, playful, or crazed human.
Lisson Gallery is one of the most influential and longest-running international contemporary art galleries in the world. Today the gallery supports and develops 59 international artists across two exhibition spaces in London and two in New York. Established in 1967 by Nicholas Logsdail, Lisson Gallery pioneered the early careers of important Minimal and Conceptual artists, such as Art & Language, Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long and Robert Ryman among many others. In its second decade the gallery introduced significant British sculptors, including Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Anish Kapoor, Shirazeh Houshiary and Julian Opie, to the public for the first time.
In addition to a number of renowned artist estates, including Roy Colmer, the Leon Polk Smith Foundation and the John Latham Foundation, the gallery represents leading international artists such as Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, John Akomfrah, Susan Hiller and Tatsuo Miyajima. It is also responsible for raising the international profile of a younger generation of artists led by Cory Arcangel, Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Ryan Gander, Haroon Mirza, Laure Prouvost, Pedro Reyes and Wael Shawky.