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LITERATURE



AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK AMERIKA AT THE ICA

The artist is coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, writing music, architecture, visual art, sculpture -- you don't have to be the Everyman or Everywoman who straddles all disciplines and makes it all happen. There are some people who do have a very broad skill set -- I mean, I did most of the work for Grammatron myself -- but what I found was that if you want to make something really robust then you are better off collaborating. So just like Mike Figgis or Stanley Kubrick would have to work with a group of people in order to pull off their vision as a director of a movie I find that I too as a kind of digital screen writer have to work with a lot of different people to bring things about. Not as many as in a film production but you work with people who you trust and who sympathise with your vision as a director and who bring a lot of creativity themselves to the project and youre confident enough to give them enough leeway to contribute to the work -- things you yourself might never have imagined. It mixes up a lot of languages -- visual arts, film, writing, sound -- which brings you a new media experience. It's fascinating. It's a very exciting time to be a writer if you want to get into that scene.

Richard Marshall interviews Mark Amerika

COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



3AM: Tell us about the new show at the ICA.

MA: It's the second stop for my Internet retrospective. The first stop was the ACA Media Arts Plaza in Tokyo this summer. I've been building up this body of work for about eight years and it has become quite popular. It has started becoming, not mainstream, but at least attractive to and accessed by the mainstream over the last few years. And by that I mean literally, when you show your work at the Whitney Biennal and you get your work written up in all the media regulars and dailies and so on youre bringing it into a mainstream audience. And the nail in the coffin was when I was named a Time magazine 21st Century 100 Innovator which supposedly lists the most influential artists, thinkers, philosophers etc of the 21st century -- of what they imagine will be the 21st century. So right after that a lot of people contacted me and wanted to work with me. They included both the ICA and the Tokyo Media Arts Plaza. So when they asked me I said - sure, let's do something. Both were interested in doing large-scale solo exhibitions of my work and I suggested two things I'd find of interest. One, I would be interested in a retrospective which they both liked the idea of. Retrospectives usually happen to artists when they are old or when they are dead so the whole idea of a net art retrospective is that you're producing it on Internet time. Time is accelerated and speed almost becomes like a function of time and so the whole notion of what is a retrospective and what is contemporary becomes blurred. So let's have an Internet retrospective after eight years because what's happening with Internet art is that it's losing it's history. Things disappear, the technology becomes obsolete, therefore certain types of Internet art become obsolete etc. And the archiving process is very problematic. So, two, why don't we play with all these ideas of history, historicity, time, archiving, retrospective, the contemporary, etc.? Let's be self-conscious about it and do a show around that. So that's what we did in Japan and it's what we're doing now. If you go through the sites you'll see how we're playing around with all that. The difference between this show in London and the show in Tokyo is the Playstation 2 commission of Filmtext. Filmtext is a digital narrative across media platforms. By that, what I mean is that I am using a lot of the same data -- both video and still shots and text and sounds -- in a variety of different electronic environments. So the show here at the ICA has DVD looping on a plasma screen -- thats one version -- it has a Flash art version that I created with a couple of star collaborators (John Vega and Chad Mossholder), layered soundtracks and animated texts, special action scripting codes and integration of video and still life visual images. Then there's an mp3 concept album called Filmtext: An Original WWW Soundtrack -- so, as you see, we're playing with film language -- but packaging it as a new kind of digital cinema experience -- which it is. The idea was that when you look at and engage with the Flash piece you'll hear sound loops. You can layer or alter these sounds at will. If you interact with the Flash piece you'll hear 10 to 30 second loops that are played and that you can layer. These sound loops are elaborated into full length tracks on the freely downloadable concept album. And then the third part, no, the fourth part -- so far we've talked about the DVD, the Flash piece and concept album piece -- is the e-book which Jeff Williams and I conceived in Quark and PDF -- the current Adobe Acrobat Reader will read it. The thing is, with a traditional e-book -- and most ebooks are traditional even though they are distributed as e-books -- tradition in their writing, I mean -- nowadays all they're doing is reprinting a file and offering it on the web so it looks like a book -- what we wanted to do with this work called cinescripture.1 is completely explode the concept of ebook -- to play around with typography, the colour field, images, captioning, etc.-- and turn it into an experimental art reading experience. It's about 90 pages but a really enriched reading environment. It's a big file -- but for instance if someone's willing to download a 4Meg mp3 file to hear a music track, then they're definitely going to be able to open a 2, 2.5 MEG ebook file to get this other kind of experience. cinescripture is all about the new screenal reading spaces that are opening up in colored espace. Image space. cinescripture is a screen based fiction that can't be experienced anywhere else. So what I'm experimenting with is becoming a new kind of digital screen writer. So the notion of a screen writer is someone who pretty much composes a screen-play in traditional screen-play form and then a director interprets it and often times turns it into a film. Screenwriters often say "I wish I could be a director because I would have more control over what happens to my story." Well, now you can. This new format reinvents -- nay, empowers the screenwriter. It's just that you have to reconceive what a screen writer is. You're now writing for the interactive, computer-mediated screen environment, not for the theatre screen. Of course this brings about significant change in how we perecieve both lietarture and film -- and takes us a few steps beyond hypertext, cybertext, and whatever else the literary traditionalists would have you grasp you onto as a last attempt to save literature from itself. One big difference is that you allow the user, visitor, viewer, audience, etc., to engage with the work in a way that allows them to create their own environment. It's more interactive. So you can layer the soundtrack. You can launch different screens to read and interact with. You can watch different movies. You can decide when its time to go to the next scene. That's a big difference. My work, as I've said before, is post-pomo. Back in the mid 90's I said "No Mo Pomo!" We're talking about our notion of of Text as an interactive construction where the reader has to take on quite a bit of the responsibility to produce the meaning -- but here you don't have to necessarily theorise it as much. It's praxis. You're aware of the theoretical implications of what you're doing but really you're putting it into immediate practice.
3AM: In a weird way it becomes a very bodily, physical experience.

MA: I think so. One of the key phrases that appears throughout the piece Filmtext is Bodytext and what I'm getting at there is that espace creates a more robust environment for one to interact with and this changes our perception of the real -- it means putting body and soul into the interactive reading process. Virtual reality is really tedious in its older forms -- if you look at the work of some of the artists here at the ICA -- I appreciate all the work they've done in the past but when one of them did his presentation I was talking to people afterwards and they said they were bored because what he was showing us were these ugly geometric shapes that didn't really mean that much. They weren't really telling a story in any significant way and as he was showing it it seemed way too representational for what these screen based fictions could actually bring to the user. We have to be aware of the possibilities offered by the medium and offer some sort of complex narrative shape that no longer depends on the techno-tricks per se and that create meaning through both design experience and story-data -- and in doing so you will ideally create a kind of metamediumistic immersion. Story itself is where the immersive environment is and that's what leads to a greater sense of the real. So VR is having to go through a lot of changes and growth because of what we can now do with the Web and in the network environment. You don't have to rely on that old kind of cubist, geometric model to represent reality -- you know, here's a spinning cube, this represents so and so and the more you spin it this way the more it takes on this sort of a meaning and if you trigger a sound then its going to cause this shape to turn into a different colour etc. etc. At a certain point this starts to look old and predictable. Imean, if you can tell a story, then tell a story. And yes, experiment with the tech as much as possible -- or as much as is necessary. We have to try and enrich this environment. How do you do this? Thats what I'm exploring here.
3AM: An implication is that you're bringing together what traditionally is kept separate -- the fine artist and the novelist say.

MA: The artist is coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, writing music, architecture, visual art, literauture, sculpture: you don't have to be the Everyman or Everywoman who straddles all disciplines and makes it all happen. There are some people who do have a very broad skill set -- I mean, I did most of the work for Grammatron myself -- but what I found was that if you want to make something really robust then you are better off collaborating. So just like Mike Figgis or Stanley Kubrick would have to work with a group of people in order to pull off their vision as a director of a movie I find that I too as a kind of digital screen writer have to work with a lot of different people to bring things about. Not as many as in a film production but you work with people who you trust and who sympathise with your vision as a director and who bring a lot of creativity themselves to the project and you're confident enough to give them enough leeway to contribute to the work -- things you yourself might never have imagined. It mixes up a lot of languages -- visual arts, film, writing, which brings you a new media experience. It's fascinating. It's a very exciting time to be a writer if you want to get into that scene.
3AM: Do you think this is the sort of ICT that should be taught in schools?

MA: Yes. We need to break away from the book, TV, visual art separation and find ways to build individual and collaborative projects that allow students to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are and give them an opportunity to collaborate in a team work environment so they understand networking skills, working with others and how to support what they want to produce without seeming too aggressive. These are the skills that transfer into the economy and which are also necessary for this new media environment -- especially ones that relate to film media. As a teacher I'm developing what I hope to be a pretty state-of-the-art digital art curriculum at the University of Colorado so I'm getting to rethink what it means to be an artist in a digital world. That requires understanding the recent history of digital art, particularly Internet art, as well as locating some of the earlier precursors of digital art and digital theory -- everthing from Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction" to some of the experimental projects put out by various Dada artists, or Fluxus artists, or those affiliated with Situationism -- artists who either used technology literally or who used technology as a theme to realize their piece -- of course the Futurists did this as well so it goes back a long way -- even further back to the invention of typography, photography etc. So making those kinds of connections and ensuring that you know it didn't come out of nowhere really matters. Then seeing the significant changes that have come about since the introduction of the network culture really in the beginning of the 60's. Bush, Engelbart, Nelson, etc. It starts taking off into hypertext protocol in 89 and changing really fast in the 90's. So you're going to get that history and theory down and understand some of the basic technical tools -- know what the latest software is and know it from the inside out -- know the implications of the programs that you're working with -- and then create really innovative studio arts workshops which allow students to grow individual and collaborative works. That's kind of where it's at. And also investigate the implications of the immediacy of publishing these works of art on line.
3AM: Is it possible to make money yet from this kind of project?

MA: Yes and no. The market has its own way of operating, as we know, to distinguish what has value and what doesn't. Some things are not changing right now. We can name a group of British artists working over the last ten years who have risen to prominence and who are making a lot of money and there's another segment of the artistic population that really isn't making money at the moment even though they're doing interesting work. Will the digital network culture change that? Immediately, probably no. But does it change your ability to actually locate a distributive community of like-minded people who are in a similar situation and who may find intangible value in your work and help you create other ways to further your development, then the answer is yes. So experimental work defies the commerciality of the web anyway, and there is a kind of divided practice with a lot of net artists. That is they make net art work that doesn't make money and some commecrcial work that does. And I think we need to be real clear about what the differences are because just because you might explore and learn how to work with Dreamweaver and Photoshop and Flash and then got a job to make web pages for somebody and made a lot of money which is what happened very recently in the 90's -- some people thought well, that makes me an artist. Well no, that just made you a kind of web design hack. There are some interesting creative people doing agency work but at the same time -- and I don't mean to sound elitist it isn't art. Art is something that pushes the boundaries, challenges our notion of, in this case, what an interface is, that's what an artist does. The word we use is Avant-pop, not avant garde. The difference is what I mentioned with Andrew Gallix when I talked to him in Paris, yes there's an affinity to and a connection with the avant garde -- look at what Man Ray and John Cage and Fluxus and so on did with technology and performance art -- they were challenging the genres and they were at the cutting edge of their practice in their time. But there's a difference between doing just that, growing up in the culture that they grew up in, and being aware of that and seeking the avant-garde edge in your own work and at the same time being born into a digital pop culture and being aware of that also. And having a love hate relationship with it. That's where the avant pop comes in. So for me I grew up watching a lot of TV, going to the movies, listening to the radio -- totally immersed in the pop culture and at the same time I had this bug in me that was having to write and create music all the time. And as I was creating them I wasn't strategically focused upon creating a pop song that would make a lot of money or writing a TV programme that would be the next big TV hit. In a way I was responding to that culture and trying to defamiliarise and create an alternative version of it. Just as an experiment. There wasn't a goal, it was just what I did. I was engaged with it but I had a different take on it. In that respect it was kind of avant garde. But because I was engaged in that subject matter and not art for art's sake, I was aware of the pop culture -- in fact the creative part of my work was pop -- so it became avant pop -- subverting the forms of mass media. Avant pop takes on the form of pop culture and subverts it for its own uses. It can't help but have an element of pop to it. So if you're on the web and you look at a piece of work like Grammatron or a work like Filmtext it's not pure pop but at the same time there's a sensibility of pop there that has been subverted. Now, I was aware of punk, it wasn't as big where I was as in the UK. You look at people like John Lydon and Patti Smith and you saw as you see within any genre you know, gradations -- between say the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith or William Burroughs and JG Ballard. There are these resonances of difference going on. Kathy Acker kind of was in both camps. She was early Avant Pop. She saw the connection from the punk scene to cyber-punk and also, towards the end of her life she was investigating the potential of the electronic media. She was really interested in the potential of hyper-text in the mid 90's. She was a guest editor of my magazine Black Ice which was a print magazine in the mid 90's. She also came to Boulder to teach at what was formerly the ^Jack Kerouac School Of Disembodied Poetics and we hung out with her a lot -- like five days straight -- nonstop. We worked out together, went to the mountains (she on her motorcycle), etc. We found out that we had a lot in common. When you're young and struggling and you know what you're doing has very little commercial potential and you're wondering if you're on the right track it's important that you have the right people behind you. It could be anybody but for me I was very lucky to have someone like Kathy Acker. I was at UCLA in 1979 to 1981 going to film school - I studied film as an undergraduate in Hollywood and one of my roommates was Nile Southern who became a good friend of mine -- still is -- his father is Terry Southern -- Terry was also a big influence and a friend of mine both he and Kathy wrote blurbs for my first book The Kafka Chronicles-- Terry was very aware of what was happening and participated in Alt-X towards the end of his life -- and thanks to Nile I was able to hook up with a lot of interesting people including Harry Nielson, Ringo Starr, Pablo Ferro, Roger Vadim -- loads of people -- literally great.
3AM: So is the scene inspiring positive or negative things at the moment?

MA: I'm really concerned about where we're going because of all the hype about the super commercialisation and dot bomb crash associated with the Web. Our notions about what the Web can be have been perverted by the commercial marketpace -- especially as an art form or as a literary form -- just what was possible? To change the curve of culture or just get rich quick? Anybody who had just the slightest creative inkling would feel immediately validated going to the market place and getting a web job and make a lot of money without thinking about it and assuming that that was the right thing to do. In a way all of the creative energy was being wasted. The rapid development of the WWW shows us that it is a pretty piss-poor economic model to build off of so instead of thinking of the Web as a place of creativity ushering in a all sorts of new art forms growing out of whatever discipline, it kind of became a place of transaction for e-commerce solutions. But now it's crashed and people have to rethink their notions of what the Web can do and be. We can now ask what it can do and what it's for, what it's potential is. In a way we need to look back to five, seven years ago before the commercialisation took over and then take into account what happened in that time. Earlier today in London I had a very good conversation with the owner of a business who told me about his priorities which are very commercial but in a post dot com crash environment. He was talking about very similar things to what I'm actually doing here with this Filmtext exhibition. The whole idea of creating work for cross-media platforms. We were speaking the same language. And contrary to what was happening five or six years ago, these guys are not asking How do I get rich quick?, but rather, How do I create a sustainable business environment that takes advantage of what this media has to offer now and in the future? -- and he was finding out that artists such as myself are already working out those issues and that our discoveries are fully applicable towards where he wants to go with his business model.
3AM: So do we need to rethink the relationship between the artist and commerce?

MA: It's an inevitable thing I suppose. As artists we have to be aware of it and try and have influence on how it develops. We're in a position to do that because the other model - which was the old model shaded under terms like 'e-com solutions' - doesn't work. We know that. So that means that something else could work, has to be given a chance to try to work, something that artists should contribute towards making work. I'm fully comfortable that Playstation are sponsoring my new art work -- so long as there's no influence on the development of my art work then I'm happy to work with them because I think it will benefit themselves and me and my colleagues in the Internet art world who are looking for ways of funding their projects and ideas.
3AM: How will what you're doing affect other art forms such as theatre, cinema, the novel?

MA: We're not going to lose them. We're going to find more opportunities for different artists from different media backgrounds to converge on different art projects to create interesting and engaging environments. It's a hybridisation of the digital and the non-digital that we can look forward to. For example, I've just come back from Germany where last month we put on a 2 night digital theatre installation which involved huge screenal projections of a 3-D avatar that we created and gave a natural language to - a kind of Golem meets Max Headroom type of thing - to be a character in a play engaging with live actors and actresses who spoke in German and English but it was German based and we were manipulating sounds in the environment as well. We were working with lots of designers and sound engineers, lighting technicians in a really unique space and it created this very, very interesting live performance venue where the digital actually had a role ( If you'll excuse the pun) . It will happen more in the immediate future too -- we'll integrate more live net based action into that kind of environment as well. I'm just beginning to structure a performance that we will do a world tour of in 2003 and that will allow me to go on stage with a very ramped up but very basic laptop, and I'll write a story, improvise, live on stage, with images and sounds being generated by input from a net audience in front of a live audience. So this will allow a live remix of images, sound and text that are going to get triggered by a net audience input and a live one. And my own improvisational input. So that's an example of performance and where we might be heading. Theatre, the Internet, literature - the whole idea of a live writing event is unique and that's what we did in Lucerne and we also had shows in New York and Boulder earlier this year. So instead of going out and giving a reading you go out and give a writing. But instead of it being a matter of watching someone jotting down some notes you make it an engaged multi-media performance.
3AM: Do you recognise a kind of pamphleteering, underground, democratic ethos to the work you're doing?

MA: The Beatniks were very inspirational to me. Growing up in the 60's and 70's is where it began for me-- and Colorado is where The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is and every summer they have a writing festival there and different people pass through so I spent enough time with Alan Ginsberg who headed the charge of Beatnik poetics and integrating the counterculture into the mainstream. One can learn a lot from Ginsberg. The way he conducted himself in public and the way he marketed the Beats into the general culture. I respect his writing but it's the way he embodied what Benjamin referred to as 'the author as producer' that most interested me about his work. He was more like a producer of a poetic activity. In Grammatron one of the characters describes himself as the director of narrative activity. So it's kind of like that. As Guy Grant says in The Magic Christian 'You want to make things hot for people'. Certainly Ginsberg was very good at that.
3AM: Is that how you see your role?

MA: Yes. But I'm not the only one doing it. Still, a venure like the ICA is perfect for my work at this point in my life. As soon as large institutions start to figure out ways of bringing it in and sharing it with a large art-tourist public, then you know that you're starting to have an effect.





Check out Mark Amerika's Alt X website.

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