Interview with Mark Amerika: network (h)activity (III)

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dd: In your keynote address at the DAC 2000 "Reconfiguring the Author: The Virtual Artist in Cyberspace" you discussed the tensions between text and image in digital art and the model of the individual author as genius. How do you see the impact of graphic design on the web writing process? How will the fact that web art is based on technology change authorship? 

MA: Authorship is not necessarily disappearing, as in all of these "death of the author" scenarios we keep hearing about. Rather, it is being reconfigured into a more fluid, oftentimes collaborative, networking experience. Take my PHON:E:ME project for instance. Sure, I came up with the initial concepts and negotiated the funding and exhibition context for its eventual display, but the work itself was collectively-generated by both an internationally networked team of artists, DJs, writers, designers, programmers and curators who produced the work as well as a select group of artist-writers-theorists whose work got sampled into the project's Big Remix.

The idea was to use available technology in a way that would challenge various forms of narrative construction. For example, let's take the notion of "the author's voice." I am uncomfortable with this phrase. I remember my friend, the late-great novelist Kathy Acker, saying, in a radio dialogue she and I were part of, that she has no voice, that she just "steals shit." In her own straightforward way, Acker was really tapping into what so much work of the last 100 years is about -- appropriating, remixing, sampling, citing, mirroring, virtually republishing, etc. And in this way, I wanted to create a work that was fighting against notions of originality, genius, intellectual property and all of the things that bind one (an author and a reader) to a book and the political economy of meaning that we associate with such a tangible object. Of course, I had already begun investigating these issues in both GRAMMATRON and my novels, even though the latter were obviously bound by the slave-logic of the book.

So with PHON:E:ME, I started developing relationships with artists from various backgrounds and disciplines and I continued my investigations reconfiguring the writing practice into something else altogether different, an expanded concept of writing, and in so doing envisioned an mp3 concept album about concept art, where the author function becomes something more in tune with network conduction. The Author as Network Conductor has many implications and possibilities, which I won't get into here now, but the change is significant because it means that writers must make (h)activist cultural production a major part of their practice. I think this gets overlooked by too many intellectuals who are looking for the optimum comfort-zone for their theoretical musings and, needless to say, creates discomfort for many traditional writers who are bound by the book, intellectual property rights, and the big mainstream publishers and their publicity machines.  

The first step in problematizing this notion of "the author's voice" was to digitally record my voice saying all of the phonemes in the English language. These digital recordings then became source-material for DJs to experiment with in their unique studio environments, taking what was supposedly the voice of the author, his utterances, the basic sound units that form sensible language, and manipulate them for their own (DJ) uses. I also recorded some spoken word rants that were themselves surf-sampled-and-manipulated language riffs taken from other sources. The two DJs involved in the project, Erik Belgum (Minneapolis) and Brendan Palmer (Sydney), were excellent collaborators and, especially with Belgum, who came up with the idea of creating a unique speech-synthesizer that would essentially provide the backbone or scaffolding for the emerging phonemic architecture, I was all-too-happy to let them do with my so-called voice whatever they wanted. That was liberating to me!

Then there was the creation of the hyper:liner:notes which accompanied and soon became a central feature of PHON:E:ME. These textual patterns that emerged and became the hyper:liner:notes were also heavily manipulated. You can see them as hypermediated text chunks that then become randomized within a Shockwave interface. In fact, we tried to limit the so-called "hypertextual" element as much as we could, reconceptualizing online narrative space as an anti-link (and thus anti-consumer) practice. We became more interested in what we started calling "openings," "wandings," "conducting," etc. The entire design of the site, directed by L.A. designer Anne Burdick with incredible artistic and programming collaboration from Cam Merton in Perth and Tom Bland in San Francisco, was -- as far as I am concerned -- part of the story. The animation, the color scheme, the use of typography, the hidden codes, and overall visual metaphor of the interface we developed for the project, all contribute to how the story works, or more importantly how the story works against conventional narrative structure and behavior.

In fact, the more I think about it, narrative and authorship, don't even feel like the right terms here. It feels more like process-oriented network art that has a story to it, an ongoing ungoing story, we might say, although this should not be misconstrued with the sort of anything-goes, anyone-can-contribute, pseudo-utopian ideal of the Network as Author, since we all know that most of the projects that grow out of that false logic are, for the most part, uninteresting experiments in what ends up being chat-discussions camouflaged as fictitious discourses procured by hapless participants.

Still, though, coming to terms with language and meaning in this new media context is beginning to feel useless. For example, the term ebook. I don't like that term at all, and yet, if I think of PHON:E:ME as a heavily manipulated ebook -- well, when measured against the general usage of that term, i.e. repurposing book content in electronic format -- all of a sudden, it feels very far removed from old modes of cultural production like conventional book publishing, especially if you now think of an ebook as an mp3 concept album that is being exhibited as Internet art in traveling shows like the Walker Art Center's "Let's Entertain" or big industry shows like SIGGRAPH 2000.

dd: One of your considerations at DAC 2000 was the blurring of the lines between art, entertainment and what the corporate media industry likes to call content. How do you see the future of digital art? What role will 'Avant-Garde Capitalism', as you term it in an essay, play in this setting? 

MA: Digital art distributed or taking place on the Internet can play a more (h)activist or interventionist role in the evolution of this new medium. The time it takes to get online and locate a unique cluster of interlinked, distributed communities (networked-audiences, online markets) is much less than what we had to deal with when developing cultural productions within the confines of older paradigms. One of the interesting things going on right at this moment is that the gold rush mentality that came and now went with all of the hype surrounding e-commerce has proven to many of us that the effects this medium will have on our international culture is very hard to track right now.

I was recently on a panel with the President of CNN, the former President of NBC and a few others, and when the TV correspondent who was moderating asked us all what we expect to see in 10 years, I deliberately suggested that "perhaps 10 years from now we will have found out that the network cannot be properly commodified by the big corporate enterprises and that there will be this move back to using the new media technology as a way to create alternative forms of art and communication." Now, some may immediately say "where is Amerika's head? he must be dreaming..." -- that I don't see the way the web has become overly commercialized. But even my students too are now beginning to create their own (h)activist Internet art practice, wherein we see all of this slick corporate net media as just more source-material, more source-code, to surf-sample-manipulate.

The main part of this (h)activist strategy is to blur the lines between fiction and faction, the Truth and the truth, content and advertising. This last blurring I mention, the one between content and advertising, is perhaps the most salient to me now because we are essentially playing the same game that the big corpo sites are playing. That is to say, many net artists are using their ingenuity to become serious players in the attantion-economy, especially as it exists on the WWW. 

If, for example, Phillip Morris wants to distort the truth by creating web content that basically lies about their mission and, in so doing, falsely advertises how responsible they are as a multi-national corporation, then we can easily access that data and manipulate it to our own ends to tell a different story -- a kind of Phillip Morris remix that then gets distributed or channeled to our own elaborately networked communities -- although our version is fictional too, albeit a more robust, intellectually-provocative fiction. And we can not only get that out into the public domain in the time it takes to hit the Put button in our ftp program, we can also unleash an online media campaign that may increase the amount of traffic we get to our site. This isn't to say that the major corporations are not aware of these parallel strategies. The President of CNN came up to me after our panel and told me that he totally understands our strategy and that we essentially are delivering to our audience our version of the Truth, our version of history-in-the-making, the one we as Internet artist's are making up as we go along. Of course, we pose no threat to CNN or other mainstream news organizations, at least not yet, but our ability to actively "version" the (hi)stories of our contemporary lives on the Net changes things significantly. Artists/writers want a piece of the "reality-programming" action too. 

dd: Alt-X and trAce have organized an International Hypertext Competition in 1998. In 2000 it is called Competition for New Media Writing. Have we already passed the Golden Age of Literary Hypertext, as Robert Coover has complained in his essay early 2000? The term New Media Writing does not refer to a specific structure of writing but to everything what can be done in the digital realm. What is this competition looking for and how is it going to judge who deserves the £1000? 

MA: Good question. We are "feeling our way" through the cultural upheavals that are taking place in and around the evolving network culture, and have decided to use this competition as an event that celebrates an expanded concept of writing in online culture. New media writing could still be hypertext, but it could also be animated typography or experimental/poetic imagetext, like one of our winners last time, Jenny Rice's project called Rice. A good example of what I mean by New Media Writing can be found at the trAce incubation site by clicking on the "Salon Exhibitors." There you will see a summer show I curated entitled "ink.ubation" -- there is a wide range of work there that I contextualize in my curatorial statement "What in the World Wide Web is Happening to Writing?" As I mention there, much of the excitement being generated around online writing has to do with our ability as writers to use the net as a medium to 

1) experiment with formal issues that have been exhausted in book form,
2) pioneer new modes of cultural production and distribution,
3) problematize the individual Author-As-Genius model by way of collaborative authoring networks that sustain non-hierarchical group production and teamwork.

I find a lot of this work infectious, like some kind of language virus I want to continue spreading...

dd: I look forward to reading the winner of this year's competition and all the new project which will appear in the future. Thank you very much for the interview.


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