3 AM WORLD EXCLUSIVE
AN AMERIKAN IN PARIS
A 3 A.M. interview with emerging literary icon, Mark Amerika
The death of po-mo and metafiction? Avant-Pop? The digital marketplace? The Great Novel vs. the perpetual work in progress? Reader vs. interactive-participant? Instant fictions for PDAs? Multi-media narrative spectacles? Designwriting? DJ writing? The writer as Internet artist? The reader as shareholder? It’s fiction . . . but not as we know it. On Thursday July 6th 2000, Guillaume Destot and Andrew Gallix met the future of literature in Paris. The interview took place in a café close to Mr. Amerika’s hotel against an obtrusive techno / reggae background.
by Andrew Gallix and Guillaume Destot
Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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3AM: When you say that postmodernism was killed by the popular media engine, do you mean that it was absorbed into mainstream culture ?
MA: What happened is that there was this palette of writerly effects, artistic effects that were employed by writers and artists which, by employing them, would maybe deconstruct some of the normalcy that came with mainstream culture. Of course it took no time at all before mainstream culture looked at these practices and devices and put them to its own use so that it kind of neutralized their potential effect.
3AM: Could you give us an example ?
MA: In music, it happened with Sub Pop. In film you can look at the radical works of someone like Stan Brakhage who did scratch films in the sixties. You look at what he did and then you see that those are now inserted arbitrarily into any type of MTV music video. And with writing, the sort of self-reflexive metafictions of the sixties and seventies that were at that time considered pretty radical, yet part of a long tradition that goes back to Cervantes and Sterne.
Look at a TV show like Seinfeld, the writing there, the whole show is about itself, it's about nothing and it's about itself. It's probably more like Beckett than any novel that can be written nowadays because it's already been done, nobody can write a novel like Beckett anymore, not even Beckett, nobody would try to, because it would be ridiculous, and yet you can see its effect. I'm not saying that the writers of Seinfeld were noticeably influenced by reading Beckett, I'm just saying that the influence of that kind of writing is so absorbed into the culture that we dont even recognize its effects.
3AM: Is TV a media that you use as often as the Internet?
MA: Not anymore. It used to be, yeah. But now it's almost all on the Internet. TV and film are going to have to make their way into the Internet before I can be influenced by them.
3AM: They're starting to.
MA: Yeah, exactly. In fact my new project is going to be primarily film on the Internet, so I'm going to help make it happen.
3AM: In the Avant-Pop manifesto you say that Avant-Pop artists are the children of the mass-media.
MA: Yeah, more than even being the children of their parents.
3AM: Wasn't it precisely the fact that postmodernists were children of the mass-media which killed the movement?
3AM: Mmh . . . so isn't there a danger that you too could be absorbed into the mainstream? Do you have a strategy to avoid this happening?
MA: There is a danger, no doubt about it. There's a few things that are happening right now that I think are fun to play around with, to help escape the danger or to test it. First of all artists and writers need to establish web presence too, just like entrepreneurial businesses.
3AM: Is it a question of marketing?
MA: Marketing presence and web presence. Artists should not feel shy about that. Whether you're a commercial writer, an Avant-Pop writer, an Internet Artist or whatever you want to label yourself, this is where the marketplace of ideas is shifting. So I think writers and artists are going to have to get massive web presence, if they want to have any kind of effect on that culture. So what's happening in that space now is that there's a lot of freedom of speech and freedom to publish (which you guys are taking advantage of as well). You can also leverage what I call your network value: the more presence you have, the more attention you generate around your work, the more leverage you have in the digital marketplace.
No matter what you're doing, you don't have to compromise your work to meet the needs of a particular editor or agent who says: "this is what the publishing world is about and you have to make these alterations, so that we can then generate income from your work." You have a little more freedom to do whatever you want, you're on the web anyway, once you've made that step and you're published on the web, in a way, you're asking to be absorbed, if you don't, you should just stay away from it! To me, with writers who have the potential to have some kind of effect, to change things, there's more of a danger to hide away, to limit their potential.
3AM: You were talking of the possibility of spreading your work through the Internet without the filter of an editor. Don't you think that there may be a danger of a lowering of artistic standards because of this?
MA: Well there's definitely people who want and need editors, and those people are going to find sites where they can get that. Editorial vision doesn't necessarily have to disappear just because anybody can publish on the Internet and that's why a lot of people come to Alt-X [Mark Amerika's pioneering multi-media literary site "where the digerati meet the literati," launched in 1993] because we have a very specific editorial vision that is generated by the distributive team or network of editors all around the world, and so people who want that particular type of editorial vision will come to us for that. I'd rather have the proliferation of more crap on the Internet than market censorship as in the multinational corporate publishing industry.
3AM: Isn't there yet another danger in that before, all the avant-garde movements were ahead of the general public, whereas today with the Internet, there's no margin anymore and no center? Any obscure artist today can have a great deal of instant exposure through the Internet. Artists and writers haven't really got time anymore to prepare and rework their works. Isn't the immediacy of the Internet detrimental to artistic works?
MA: A lot of writers have embraced the concept of improvisation, indeterminacy, the idea of the perpetual work in progress, so that the reader also has to change, not just the writer. That's something I'm comfortable with, but a lot of writers are not, and the consequence is that there are a lot of good writers who are not experimenting with the Internet, but still trying to write The Great Novel. For me, at this point in my life, after having read all the great books, I'm not so sure that it's worth trying to write The Great Novel anymore. It needs to become something more than what you think of as the novel in book form. The great works of the 21st century that are writerly-driven will most likely take place in cyberspace.
3AM: You've got a very interesting position because you're both a traditional writer and an Internet writer.
MA: I have a sort of hybridized writing background. I'm working on my third novel now, which will only be a novel, but it need not be a book. It could be many things, for example an on-demand book. I could put it up at Alt-X and have an agreement with an on-demand printer, and have arrangements with, say, Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com. You click a few things and put in a couple of numbers and the book will be automatically mailed to you. It will be printed up, one copy at a time, to whoever orders it.
You could get it as a PDF book (Portable Digital Format document), you could get it as an e-book or a soft book. You can do it in serialization, either on your own website and/or on a more commercial site that wants to be a partner with you. You can do it through a traditional print run too, if you want.
With things moving so fast, we're in the midst of a revolutionary paradigm shift, and the level of legitimacy is changing. Only three years ago, trying any of these other options would have been considered outrageous. It's still not quite as legitimate, but it's getting closer. Look at what Stephen King is doing. So imagine what's going to happen in five or ten years' time. Will the traditional print run look anachronistic? Maybe we'll look back to those times when books used to gather dust in warehouses and just laugh at it all.
3AM: Do you like books as objects?
MA: Oh yeah, I treasure them. I'm not trying to say "let's burn all the books." But when considering the contemporary economics of publishing, there has been a kind of market censorship in place; in the past, writers who were doing very interesting work would oftentimes have someone who backed them up and nurtured their writing over a long period of time. Innovative writers are not getting that kind of support from the publishing industry anymore, and it's not because all of their writing is crap. Would you rather go with that solution of bottom-line rigidity and market censorship, or go with the one where you have lots of crap but also people who deserve audiences and who are now going to find them again via the Internet?
3AM: Is your next book a traditional novel from a stylistic point of view?
MA: No, all my novels are unconventional. They're multi-linear. The typography is very playful, the page composition is truly unique, sometimes it looks like spatial poetry on the page or, you might say, a graphical interface. They grow out of the rival tradition of literature, Cervantes, Sterne, Lautréamont. His [Lautréamont's] character, Maldoror, is the lead character in my second novel, Sexual Blood (Fiction Collective Two, 1995). The first one is called The Kafka Chronicles (FC2, 1993). Gregor Samsa is the protagonist of that one. This third one is very much an experimental novel, very much affected by my experiences as a kind of breakaway internet artist who has had to deal with all of these issues first-hand and stumble along trying to figure it out. It's kind of fun putting it into this fictional environment where I can narrativize what has essentially become one of the primary art phenomenons at the beginning of the 21st Century.
3AM: Do you intend to abandon the book form altogether?
MA: Well, traditional print ones, probably I will, yeah. I think the next step is going to be experimenting more with all the things I've been talking about. There will be a relationship between a publisher like Alt-X and for instance Microsoft, who have that PC-pocket, which is like a more easily-readable Palm Pilot. You have the PDA, a Personal Digital Assistant that you can not only use as a diary, or a phone, or an MP3 player, but also as an ebook reader. What writers are going to have to do and artists of all stripes, as per usual, is to figure out how to experiment with the formats that are made available by these new technologies and begin creating new work specifically for those formats. Which isn't that unusual if you think about it, because we've been given the short-story form, so then we work within the parameters of that form. We've been given all kinds of poetic forms, so we work within them; we've been given the novel, and so we start to write in novel form which then ceases to be novel. There's all sorts of conventions we have to work with, so why wouldn't we work with creating instant fictions for PDAs? Why wouldn't we work with more graphical and musical fictions? Or multi-media narrative spectacles? That's why I'm really disappointed in a lot of the so-called literary innovators of our time who are strictly publishing books and like to think of themselves as the hot young literary stars of our time. Some of them are writing interesting books, but in the end, they're not taking that many risks.
3AM: Who are you thinking of?
MA: I'm not going to mention any names. There are a lot of young writers who are doing tamer versions of the same metafictional experiments that took place in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even early 90s. The last breath of metafictional writing took place with the Black Ice book series, that we were publishing in the early 90s, then there was this lag, and it's coming back now into the publishing mainstream because they're grasping at straws. What else is there for them to try and hype? What else is there for them to do?
Actually, there's a lot for them left to do, not least of which would be to experiment with these other formats. They probably will once it becomes legitimate. But by then it may be too late for them.
Avant-Pop artists, working in their own indie environments, and
because they're comfortable with the new digital media and all its implications, they're the ones who won't just wait for it to become legitimate in the eyes of the mainstream marketplace. We're going to do it regardless and have fun with it, and look at it as an experiment to play with new forms of writing, to develop a cross-media platform, web-presence and keep building our distributed audience. In this way, you're not only going to get read and distributed, but you're also going to develop a social network of contacts and collaborators all around the world.
The older publishing / writer relationship in the early part of the century involved working with what they called a gentlemanly publisher, someone that supported the development of an interesting writer even when they had no audience. The publisher might lose a little bit of money, but they might be able to make it up later, after having nurtured their career for ten or twenty years, and even if they didn't, publishers were making money anyway, and supporting literary unknowns brought a little prestige to their business. They made enough money with their travel books and their romance novels. Of course that doesn't exist anymore.
What are the models of survival out there? There aren't that many that exist nowadays. So there's a few of us who've actually just bypassed that system altogether. In the music world, for instance, it's perfectly legitimate to create your own indie label, your own zines, your own audiences, to go on tour and grow from there. And when they sell out to a big company, they often lose their audience because their fan base is disappointed.
But as soon as you make that step towards DIY in the literary world, the mainstream publishing establishment says: "vanity publishing." There's a wide gap in our cultural thinking there. What's happening now with this new media is that the gap is starting to close a lot, and it's perfectly legitimate to my mind to just do it on your own, so you create your own work, distribute it, criticize it, publicize it, create your own MP3 soundtexts, mixing your voice with DJ electronica. That sort of thing is possible, and not only is it legitimate, but it's also exciting and fun. You're developing links to people all around the world.
Starting back in 1995, I was touring the world with a zip disk, and a little bag of clothes, sharing my work in art festivals, universities and techno clubs, etc. This was actually how I survived for four years. Hemingway didn't do that, Joyce didn't do that, and the writers who are still tied to the literary machine, to the publishing machine in NYC for instance, they're going on conventional tours, to bookstores. I've done that too, it can be really fun, but there's another way. And it's perfectly legitimate, because you're experiencing the joie de vivre.
3AM: Do you have a project of empowerment of the writer, in terms of commercial exploitation of his work? Do you think the writer should achieve autonomy in this field?
MA: Yeah. The Fiction Collective, who've published my novels, they were on top of this as well, they were doing this in the book world in the mid-seventies. They started as a group of writers, who were surprised to find that all of a sudden, their second and third novels were no longer considered by the mainstream publishers. There was a small window during the social and political upheavals of the 60s when they accepted more radical fiction, and they assumed that they would continue to get that support. But they shut the door pretty soon thereafter, and they didn't want to compromise the integrity of their work, so they decided to start their own fiction collective.
In the early part of the century, there were all sorts of small literary magazines that made that happen as well. You can take this notion of "editorial vision" and apply it to the development of new work on the web.
3AM: You once said that the Grammatron started out as a piece of conceptual art, and you also talk about designwriting. The new forms of Internet writing often look more like art than actual writing. Don't you think that people have a need for narrative which is missing in these new forms?
MA: These are the question that we're going to ask at the [July 2000] trAce conference [see interview with Sue Thomas, director of the trAce online writing community in our literary news archive], and that are constantly being discussed. This is where the action is. That question is a good one, it's one to which I don't necessarily have The Answer. But it's certainly worth discussing. We're very fortunate, because we can ask these questions, and they have meaning: where is it all going to go now?
For me, what I've noticed is that, first of all, the difference between literary art, visual art, performing art, conceptual art etc are all starting to blur, and I like that, because it liberates me from having to fall into a particular genre. I don't consider myself a hypertext writer just because I did the Grammatron project, which was primarily an elaborately-constructed hypertext, with sound and animated images. I know what it's like to be a hypertext writer, and I understand the process very well; I've spent years working on it. But there's so much more to being a writer working on the internet than that. It doesn't mean that you have to be an expert programmer, or an expert musician or an expert visual artist. I do think you have to be a good conceptualizer, though, and also a good director.
So now we're talking about the writer morphing into something like an Internet artist, the Internet artist being many things at once, including a Director, the way we use that term to describe an independent filmmaker. The term I was using when I made my Phon:e:me project was a network conductor, that is, an artist-networker conducting affiliate energies. I was working with web designers, DJs, curators, funders, media people. I had to orchestrate all of those effects at the same time. What I was contributing to the project, besides the orchestration, was the concepts and the writing. I did the vocals to all the soundtracks. It became something more than just sitting down with pen and paper and leaving it at that, hoping that someone would then typeset it and turn it into print-bound book.. And yes, there were certainly elements of narrative throughout Grammatron and Phon:e:me. It's just that they worked against standardized narrative behavior —which is consistent with what has gone in my novels too.
3AM: Do you ever write on paper?
MA: Yeah, I've been doing it all my time in Paris. I didn't even bring my computer. I go to the local papeterie [stationer's]. When I travel a lot from city to city, I usually take a laptop, but sometimes I'd rather just write it out on paper and check my email at a cyber caf. When I did Phon:e:me, I went to Australia for three months. The Australian Council for the Arts helped fund the project, so I went to Sydney and got an apartment there, and of course I brought my computer to work there because it's just about the perfect place in the world to work.
3AM: You speak somewhere of the death of linear narration. Are you simply describing the present situation, or actually advocating putting it out of its misery?
MA: There's so much of it around that you can't say it's disappeared, and it never will. As far as advocating it, I don't mind instigating a little bit of thought in that direction, but at the same time, you can experiment with linearity in so many ways that there's no reason to kill it off. I'm just saying that there's so many obvious and safe ways of creating linear fiction. It's a safe model.There are ways to break down linear fiction within each sentence's structure. Right now, I'm reading Journey to the End of the Night [by the French writer Céline]. That's fairly linear, but there's something going on there that makes it radical at the same time, and there's a sensibility that taps into the human condition like no other sensibility can. So I wouldn't want to advocate the death of that kind of writing.
3AM: You seem to dislike the idea of suspension of disbelief.
MA: It seems to me that it's exporting false consciousness into the reader's mind. The reader should be an active participant in the creation of the work, and that kind of writing deadens their meaning-making potential. It's too predetermined, too pre-conceptualized, too pre-digested. Of course, a lot of readers like that, they like to get lost in a book.
3AM: What do you think of those readers?
MA: I think they're just looking for an escape from reality. People watch TV for the same reason. But that's not for me.
3AM: That's not the kind of reader you're writing for?
MA: No, it wouldn't be good for them to read my books, they'd be disappointed. Then again, it's possible now to play with that kind of reader. I guess what I'm saying is that thanks to shows like Seinfeld, more people are now familiar with self-reflexive writing. Now, they can also approach a book that has a self-reflexive, humorous sensibility and feel comfortable with it, as long as those are the terms from the beginning, as long as you're not challenging them to become something other than that conventional reader who's now accepting that kind of self-reflexive, humorous writing. If you go over the line, if you go too much in the other direction, that of Céline, you're going to lose them.
3AM: Your fiction is opposed to creating a feeling of wholeness in the reader?
MA: There's this need, that I think is connected to Modernism, to pull all the pieces together, so that the reader then feels comfortable with himself, because everything comes together, becomes whole. Whereas I was saying that it might be a more interesting approach to create something that is always in flux, that is generating new materializations of meaning.
3AM: So it's flux rather than fragmentation?
MA: Well, you can use fragmentation and then create a stream with the fragments. It's like what I do with my sound experiments, they're composed of multi-level tracks, fragments, but when you put them together, there's lots of flow to them, which is deceptive, but that's what fiction writing is all about. It's almost like a DJ-writing style. There's a number of writers and DJs who are starting to experiment with that form. It's another area of development I'm really interested in, collaborating with DJs on a kind of DJ-writing style. I approach it as a novelist, they
approach it as DJs, and in the middle we learn to become something different, I become more of a DJ, and they become more of a narrative artist.
3AM: How does it work?
MA: Everybody has their own way. What I do is that I have some textual props that I bring with me, they have their equipment, I have a little bit of equipment, and then we conceptualize a lot of what we want to do. We do the recordings and then we sample from those recordings, and create soundtracks. The concept behind Phon:e:me was to digitally record my voice saying all of the phonemes in the English language and then manipulate each one of these little soundbites or phonetic fragments so that they create soundtracks. It becomes like a tailor-made synthesizer. It's language, but not as we know it. It's language defamiliarized.
3AM: A bit like what was done in the 70s with the Vocoder?
MA: Yeah, sort of. One of the ideas is: what do you want the language to say once you've created this new sound environment? With this project we wanted to create a concept album about concept art, so the focus was on conceptual art. A lot of Internet art grows out of early conceptual art, so that became a part of the subject matter of Phon:e:me that was then manipulated, using this synthesizer. The Writer's Voice as a digital software program.
3AM: Talking of areas of writing, you wrote that Alt-X works against closure. Do you have a phobia of endings?
MA: I just don't know what it achieves, because what you're doing is consciously feeding the readers’ expectations. You're fulfilling their readerly desires. So first you suspend disbelief, take them on a ride, they lose themselves in the book, and then it ends when it's supposed to end, and that seems to me like a false pretense for story-telling. I'd rather have the writing just stop, temporarily, and have the reader catch up with it later somewhere else.
3AM: You don't believe that art is there to give some sort of order to a disorderly world?
MA: Not really, no!
3AM: Many traditional short stories are based on a kind of reversal at the end, a twist in the tail. Would you dismiss this literary device as a kind of fraud?
MA: Well, it's just one device. It's been done to death. If someone writes that, it's ok, I mean it's like someone who likes that same disco beat, they like that particular band, the way they do that disco beat, but it's not really anything new.
3AM: You don't think there's anything new to do in that direction?
MA: Maybe there is. Maybe, as I say, through the process of defamiliarization, we can take that form and make it strange, but there's so many other forms. Like in The Kafka Chronicles I take the pop quiz form, 1 through 20 with statements A, B, C, D. That's in the middle of the novel, and it continues to tell the story. So that's a very common form, one that we're all used to—we know the way it's supposed to look and the way it's supposed to work—I used that in a creative, fictional way.
But why not experiment with new technologies too? When you think of the Palm Pilot and how small the screen is, you could have something like haiku narratives, you could attempt to tell a story in the Palm Pilot window formatting your work for that particular interface. There are so many ways to experiment with writing, that's just one of many.
I'm not saying those conventional writing styles are not valid. I've written some short stories, some with twists at the end, and it's ok, but I don't know where to go with it next. And I imagine there's a lot of people who haven't experimented with short-story writing enough to feel comfortable with the idea that it's time to move on. Some will never want to break out of that form. Donald Barthelmewas a master of the short story. He experimented with the way it looked and brought in pictorial collage. There was never really any need for him to do much else. Although he did a couple of really interesting novels too. Once I'd read his novels, I didn't think I had to try to one-up him, he had really done a lot in that form, and I wanted to do other things in writing.
3AM: Do you think there's a direction in literary history, or in the history of art? Do you think we're moving towards the next stage now? I mean, you can either see art as a succession of movements or as individual artists . . .
MA: I definitely think we're heading in a different direction. Everything is changing because of the influence of the Internet. I experience it in my own life, but I also see other people's lives changing a lot because of it. You can't really blind yourself to it. A lot of writers are trying to, and they're missing out. Everybody has to find out what's right for them, and pursue their own pattern of growth.
When they were developing Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, those things were happening here in Paris and elsewhere and there were a lot of people who weren't paying attention to it, who were missing out on what was going on then. That's their deal. It's the same with the Net. A lot of innovative writers were asleep at the wheel of culture. Now it's a phenomenon that's out of control. The amazing thing is that it's not just affecting the arts, it's affecting the global economy, there's so much money being invested in it. The lessons one can learn by being a conceptual artist, a practicing writer, speaker, and thinker on the Internet are ones that you can use to generate a great deal of income if you want to. I'm an Avant-Pop writer of books and an Internet artist, and a Professor of Digital Art, but I'm also a consultant in the new media industry, and that's because I'm so familiar with the medium and I think about where it's going next, because I'm imagining what I want to do with my writing, and so people want to know what those ideas are, because there's lots of people out there also trying to figure out what's going to be developing next and artist-practitioners working the medium are a good source of prophetic knowledge. That's very rewarding.
And that's also what makes it more Avant-Pop than avant-garde. You wouldn't think of Pablo Picasso or James Joyce sitting on a panel with the media moguls of their time, but last month I was in New York City, sitting on a panel with the president of CNN on my left and the former president of NBC to my right, talking about authority and content.. What you find out is that you have a lot in common with the media moguls of our time, if you're a writer, artist, thinker, new media manipulator, creating fiction and distributing it on the web, or trying to gain mindshare and attract eyeballs to your site. You find out that that's what they're doing too, and they recognize that that's what you're doing as well. Your practice is different from theirs, with totally different agendas, but our joint appearances were not disconcerting to me—it was fascinating. Other writers might find that disconcerting, though.
3AM: To come back to Internet art and writing, you seem to give a lot of importance to reader participation. Do you think that the reader of a conventional novel is passive?
MA: The ones who read the more conventional novels, that employ suspension of disbelief and conventional closure, those readers are more likely to be passive, I think. I've had this kind of argument with people who like that kind of writing, and they all say: "I like to be a slave to the writer, to the book." There are a lot of reader-slaves in the writing world and this can be fun to experiment with at times, but in the end, passivity gets old and you want a more interactive Other engaged with your growing body of work.
3AM: Do you think readers really want to participate?
MA: Well, there's all kinds of readers. What I do wonder is why there aren't more readers of serious fiction. There really aren't that many. I think it's because they don't feel liberated, they don't feel like it's a liberating experience. They'd rather do something else that's more liberating. So I'm trying to find a way to create narrative experiences in whatever form or whatever media that will liberate the reader, so that they feel it's worth spending time interacting with this storytelling interface I'm creating for them.
3AM: So to a certain extent, you'd like the reader to become a writer?
MA: Yeah, sure. Or an interactive-participant.
3AM: Don't you think that the writer or the artist has a gift that most other people don't have?MA (drowned out by reggae in the background): There's this idea about the writer and the artist having a calling or something. It's hard for me not to imagine that anybody, if they want to, can tap into their creative potential. I see it all the time, really creative people who have brilliant minds, working in this or that profession. In conversations, for instance, you can just hear them come up with stuff that you would never find in book. It's so brilliant, and you think: "why aren't they writing a book?" And that's just because they're not setting up those parameters for themselves, to manifest that kind of practice. But I don't know if it's a calling, it's more like it's a sickness, that's what Cocteau called it. Why would someone want to write books, especially in this day and age?
3AM: So why did you become a writer?
MA: Because I had to. I had no choice, I was just writing. Writing is surviving.
3AM: Do you find writing easy, or is it a painful process?
MA: Easy, because I'm used to it. I mean it's hard work, but it's easy to do once you get into the groove. When I saw John Zorn at the jazz festival last night [in Paris, July 5th 2000], he was working so hard. And maybe it was difficult for him to get to the point where he could actually go on stage, pick up a saxophone and
improvise or play music with these other incredible musicians like Bill Laswell and Fred Frith. Maybe it wasn't difficult, but whether it was or wasn't, once he was there, and he started blowing his sax, you could tell that it was hard work, but that it was easy for him to do. It's his practice, he just knows how to do that. I left there feeling that those guys are so way out, and yet, they were so comfortable doing it, it was magic. I would hear these extraterrestrial ghost notes and think: where did that come from?
3AM: What about the collective identity of many of these Internet works? Do you think that the notion of the artist as an individual who signs his work is on the way out?
MA: Yeah. You're getting rid of the individual artist or author as genius, and putting in its place more of a collaborative network composed of teams of artist-writers who work together, to create these constantly changing, in-flux, works in progress, that don't have any closure to them. Ideally, they're really engaged with the political realities of the day.
3AM: Isn't that going to lead to commercial problems, in that it's probably easier to market a writer as an individual, who may be good looking, etc?
MA: Yes. "The days of the lazy artist are over," says Chuck D on another panel that I was on. "The days of the lazy artist are over" because, as he says, the commercial environment in which artists operate in order to survive is changing rapidly, so they're going to have to find new ways to create value that will generate comfortable livelihoods. And it can be done. If I can do it, anybody can!
3AM: What do you think of the distinction between high and low culture, between art and entertainment?
MA: Especially on the Internet now, we're seeing the blurring of the distinction between art and entertainment, so for example, two months ago, you could have opened up an issue of Time magazine and have a feature article about a writer-animator who had a site called doodie.com, that had a daily episode of this strange, Simpson-like animated creature, sitting on a toilet, doing something different everyday. That artist started his own site and he had so many visitors that Time Warner tried to sign him on to do animation for them as well, because he was attracting more visitors than them! You can take really way-out scatological humor that might have had no audience five or ten years ago due to no distribution, and think of it as your art form, but at the same time it's entertaining, and you're bypassing the traditional means of finding an audience, and perhaps you might even find yourself absorbed into the mainstream if that's what you want. So you have to be willing to deal with those issues. Personally, I resist it . . .
3AM: The avant-garde dimension of the Grammatron is quite obvious, but the pop dimension isn't so much.
MA: For me it started as an experimental conceptual art project. First of all, there's a pretty large audience for cyberpunk, and Grammatron, has a connection to that sort of writing, and there was a feeling in the air at that time that a new storytelling form created especially for the Net needed to begin to emerge. So as a consequence, thanks to good timing, it became readable to a lot of people who had access to it on the web and immediately a lot of the mainstream media jumped on it as a good story, which it was. The day that I released it on the web, publishing it myself, it was reviewed in The New York Times, and soon thereafter articles apeared in Time, MSNBC, Reuters International, The Village Voice, Wired etc., and then there was this nonstop media meme or virus aroud the project for what seemed like two solid years. So it got a lot of mainstream international media attention as soon as it came out which, to me, signifies a connection to all things pop.
I should say that the Internet enables the artist to locate a more globally-distributed popular audience for works that experiment with popular forms. The idea behind Avant-Pop wasn't so much that avant-garde work would became pop, but that it worked with popular forms, so Grammatron worked with cyberpunk, modernism, movies, and with pornography too: you take those genres and you subvert them, and that's where the "avant" comes back in, and once you've distributed it over a medium like the Internet, there's a lot of people who are attracted to it.
3AM: If you subvert pop, does that mean you're against it?
MA: It just means that you're using it as source material. We have an ambivalent relationship: in America, you're spoon-fed pop culture from the time you're born.
3AM: Joyce also used popular culture, but the end product isn't pop. What are you trying to achieve ?
MA: The influences are remixed into the narrative itself. There are references to commercials, popular magazines, popular songs or popular literary figures, ones that everybody has heard about. They just get remixed, so that they actually tell a different story, a story that's not conventional, that fights against conventional forms of closure, plot etc.
3AM: In your ”Amerika Online” column, you wrote that originality is dead. Don't you consider your work as original ?
MA: Not really, no. I'm catching these content streams that are coming in from all directions, and I'm remixing them on the fly, and as I remix them I am manipulating them so that I can create the narrative experience of the moment. To me, it's not necessarily original, it's just that I'm performing a function. It's like a new author function. It doesn't feel original to me.
3AM: Do you still believe in creating ex nihilo, in brand new fields of inspiration?
MA: I have difficulties with this idea of inspiration. I rarely feel inspired. I just feel more like what [Julio] Cortazar talked about when he wrote that he all of a sudden finds himself becoming a story. And that takes us back to that idea of Cocteau's where he equates writing with a sickness. Cortazar was saying that he could be on a plane, in a library, on the toilet, and voilà!, he's becoming a story again, it's just something that's happening, and he has to write it out. Not necessarily inspiration. It's just like the residuals of all the effects that have taken place at that particular moment in time are converging and turning him into a writer.
3AM: When did you realize that the Internet would completely change the way you write?
MA: When I started publishing Alt-X in the early nineties. There
was this incredible amount of feedback I was getting from all parts of the world.
3AM: Did the word processor mark a step forward in your artistic process as well?
MA: Yes, because it saved me a lot of time.
3AM: A lot of people say that the word processor has actually changed their way of writing.
MA: Yes, it changed my style in that I write a lot more and my work has become much more visual, although visual in a conceptual sort of way. My online narrative interfaces require more scientific visualization and/or cognitive mapping whereas my earlier novels required the right kind of energy-stimulation and a will to improvise. To me that's a stylistic change. I really write more now, so my work becomes more elaborate. On a computer, you can just write forever.
3AM: Don't you mind reading on a screen?
MA: I don't have a problem with it, unless it's linear. I don't want to read a thirty-page document on a screen.
3AM: Do you consider your computer as a fellow artist?
MA: As an accomplice.
3AM: A partner in crime! Do you think the progress of artificial intelligence could bring something new to art?
MA: Yeah. Artists can program artificial realities, and what they do is that they set the parameters of what those programs can do. So setting the parameters becomes the principal method in creating an artwork. It's like when Duchamp set the parameters for his ready-made selections, his gestural logic, whether intuitive or counterintuitive, informed his art-making practice, and you can do that with programming too, that is to say exhibit an artistic gesture.
3AM: Could you imagine a computer working autonomously? Would you be interested in its productions?
MA: Not if I didn't have control over the parameters.
3AM: Many of the experiments people are making on the Internet today seem very similar to experiments that have been made before with Dada and Surrealism, and it's only the technical aspect that changes. Do you agree with that?
MA: Well, they're borrowing from those earlier movements, but it is different because a lot of the most interesting Internet artwork is, as far as I can tell, approaching the Internet as a unique medium unto itself. When you look at a specific piece of Internet art that has some value to it, you might say to yourself "I can see the resonances with Dadaism or Lettrism, but could it have been done then?" The answer is no. And it's not necessarily just because it's made on a computer, but because it operates or distributes itself in an online network. Networking is an artform in itself and the computer is just a tool.So net artists are experimenting with interfaces and networking protocols. Did the modernists experiment with interfaces? You'd have to say yes, but they were different interfaces. You can't just say it's the same thing.
3AM: You emphasize the notions of network, of collective production and of participation in the collective work of art, and at the same time, you advocate a stronger role for the writer in the commercial exploitation of his work. Isn't there a contradiction between these two projects? The one is individual, and the other is almost communist
MA: It's not an either/or situation. You can have both. I'm consciously trying to build up the value of my network practice, so I can leverage it in the market place in a way that will not only benefit me, but also the network of writers I'm working with. One other artist who did that in an earlier movement was the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. With Ginsberg, you had someone who was clever at marketing and also had his own creative practice that he was measuring his development with. But at the same time he was leading or directing, helping to promote an entire scene of other writers who maybe didn't have the same skills-set he had, and finding ways of making it benefit the social and artistic network of which he was a core part of.
3AM: Was it an Adam Smith-like conception of helping oneself to help the community?
MA: Well that's interesting. I'd never thought of that. With Alt-X, you have an online network. For example, what I'm supporting at Alt-X are hundreds of writers and artists and musicians, so when my work, Grammatron, gets accepted at the Whitney Biennal, and then CNN want to do an interview with me, feature me in a ten-minute segment on international TV, and at the end of the segment they want a URL to plug and I know
millions of people around the world will see it, I don't send them to markamerika.com, I send them to altx.com, so when they go there, they can read my writing if they want, but there's so much else to look at as well. So yes, as an individual I benefit from that, but more importantly the network that I'm supporting and that supports me benefits from that exposure as well. I talked about that in my very first ”Amerika Online” column written in 1993. The two contradictory themes were: "this is all I do now," and "we are all in the same boat together." With writers, you mostly get people who have only self-interests, they're not really cultural producers who evolve in some sort of collective social experience that's going to benefit large numbers of collaborators. That kind of practice is just not common at all.
3AM: What if an artistic movement developed in opposition to the Internet?
MA: It must be happening somewhere already. I'm sure it exists.
3AM: Would you be interested in knowing about it?
MA: Not particularly. It already does exist, there's a whole network of people who are still in denial.
3AM: Could an artistic movement with an anti-technological stance be valid today?
MA: I guess so, but I don't think it would be smart.
3AM: Are local forms of art condemned to disappear?
MA: Will English become the only language? Will it be more like an Internet English? One language, one currency? That's where it's heading.
3AM: Is that something that sounds good to you?
MA: It sounds inevitable. So as an artist, you just have to figure out how to make it strange.
3AM: Do you feel more like a witness or a prophet?
MA: More like a shaman, a filterer of the white noise, that's why writing is easy for me, you have to align yourself with the role of the shaman, of the medium. But it's not like you wake up one day and say "Oh, I think I'll align myself with the role of the shaman."
3AM: So you do have a special gift after all?
MA: No, no, it's a skill, a practice. I have a friend who's an entrepreneur, who made a lot of money, and he said if he put all the time and energy that he put into making his Internet business successful into music, he could have developed into a special kind of musician. One thing that's interesting, possibly dangerous, is that we're losing a lot of creative artists into the commercial side of the Internet because it is absorbing creative types, because they need provocateurs, people who are ready to challenge the system. That's what's driving the global economy right now.
3AM: That's basically what George Steiner says: the great writers
of today are writing sitcoms or working in advertising
MA: or developing websites.
3AM: So perhaps the Internet is going to reconcile those two branches? Perhaps the new forms of Internet writing are going to bring back all that talent to more artisitc pursuits?
MA: Yes, we're only at the beginning of this huge change. Some of us are comfortable with the speed of change, we've gotten used to it, but really it's so brand new.
3AM: Where does the name Avant-Pop come from?
MA: It comes from a Lester Bowie jazz album, I think 1986, where he takes popular tunes and gives them a decidedly avant-garde jazz spin.
3AM: Did you actually borrow the name?
MA: Yes, the writers affiliated with the Black Ice books, Larry Mcaffery, Ron Sukenick, and myself decided that that would be the phrase we would use to describe what we saw as a changing phenomenon in the world of writing, and then we traced it back to see where the earlier influences of this kind of writing were located.
3AM: Did you launch the Black Ice imprint?
MA: No, it grew out of the Fiction Collective. I was editing a magazine with Ron Sukenick, called Black Ice in the late 80s. It was at this time that a definite audience, in literary terms a large audience, composed of very interesting writers, started coalescing around the journal. That's when we started trying to figure out what it meant, what it was, and we decided to take that extra step to try to contextualise it with a term like Avant-Pop, and try to understand what that meant just so we could attempt to get a grip on the phenomenon that what developing around our zine. There was so much interest around the work we were doing at the Fiction Collective, that they asked us if we wanted to do an alternative paperback imprint that would be focused on Avant-Pop, and then we came up with the idea of the Black Ice book series. It kind of took off as soon as we launched it, with good sales coming in for about about five years. It has since subsided, because the Internet came along and provided the Avant-Pop phenomenon with a different direction to go in, so you could say that Alt-X picked up where Black Ice Books left off.
3AM: Tell us what lies beyond hypertext.
MA: It's hard to imagine what it would be, but as far as I can see, it would include more spacialised, perhaps 3-D narrative environments you could actually navigate through. You could navigate your way through a 3-D story that others are also navigating through, creating this collectively-generated work in progress, this in-flux story, and it would include film, DJ remixes, animated texts. You could navigate into an area where you might read a short story if that's what you wanted, but you could also navigate into an area where you could collaboratively improvise a story with a small group of people that would include all
sorts of media. You could also go to a writer's studio and download their mp3s, or their haiku narratives, their on-demand books, it would all be a sort of package, you wouldn't have to go to amazon.com, for instance.
3AM: Apart from your next novel, what are you working on at the moment?
MA: I'm working on a film for the Internet, that will include an original soundtrack, an mp3 album, there'll be an on-demand novel, a film clip that you can watch and a hypertext that goes with it. There'll be some sort of IPO (Initial Public Offering), but I haven't quite structured it yet. I'm interested in the connection between an initial public offering and the desire of the writer to get published, to make public offerings of their work, some sort of equity. There's some connection there, so I want to experiment with that.
3AM: So the readers would become shareholders?
MA: Yes, shareholders. I call it mindshare.
Mark Amerika’s novels are available from:
Don’t miss our interview with Alt-X writer Adrienne Eisen in our next issue.