Interview: Mark Amerika

An email interview with Mark Amerika, June 21-23, 1999

Steve Dietz: How do you pronounce the name of your new project?

Mark Amerika: Usually I pronounce it "PHO-neme," like the sound unit it is. But there are other pronunciations, like "phone-E-me," with an emphasis on that middle E.

SD: You refer to PHON:E:ME as the new-media version of a "concept album." If you were presenting the concept to Tim Robbins' character in The Player, what would it be?

MA: It's DJ electronica meets Firesign Theater meets Marcel Duchamp.

SD: You've identified your work to date as being "the endless short story" (Ron Sukenick) or in the vein of Joyce's "exactly one text." Situate PHON:E:ME in relation to your previous work and what you have in mind for the future.

MA: I've often thought that all of my work is part of the same text, or work-in-progress, and that everything I do, in the end, comes down to writing or a writing-practice. And PHON:E:ME is no different. Looking back on my recent work, I can see how GRAMMATRON was quite literally the pivotal project that was both the end of one trilogy and the beginning of another. That is, >GTRON began as my third novel (after The Kafka Chronicles and Sexual Blood), but the content of the story was so caught up in the radical changes taking place in network culture that I had no choice but to make the project a web-based narrative that worked against the old book production model. That is, I wanted to practice what the story was metafictionally preaching.

At the same time, GTRON was the start of a new trilogy of work that focuses on the interrelationship of text, image, and sound in network-distributed environments. Clearly the emphasis in GTRON was on text, particularly hypertext and randomly generated text. With PHON:E:ME the emphasis is on sound-writing, with hypermediated text (in the Shockwave design) and very little attention placed on imagery per se.

The third project in this electro-trilogy is tentatively entitled FILMTEXT and will be a (streaming) video installation that explores writing in a more image-oriented narrative space. A sort of Godardian language experiment meets Chris Marker La Jette cinescripture experiment meets Nanook of the North pseudo-documentary experiment. In fact, FILMTEXT will also investigate the use of symbolic media in that I now have access to the same 35mm Victory camera that [Robert] Flaherty used to shoot Nanook :-) If all goes well, it will "take place" in the American desert and Australian Outback instead of the freezing north of Canada.

SD: You collaborated closely with Erik Belgum and Brendan Palmer on the soundtracks and with Anne Burdick and Cam Merton on the design and programming. Is this collaboration more like a film, where everyone has his or her skills or is it something else--a new kind of culture-jamming?

MA: Yes, absolutely, this is a collaborative culture-jam, and more like a team network experience than a filmmaking experience, though clearly there are some similarities. Basically, I think it's necessary for artists who primarily consider themselves writers to break away from this "individual author as genius" model. Throughout the creation of PHON:E:ME I felt more like a director or project leader, one who knew where the project needed to go but who also left a tremendous amount of flexibility in the organic design of the whole so that the various collaborators could bring their own vision into its development.

All of the artists involved in PHON:E:ME bring totally different skills to the project. Erik brings in the experimental sound-writing experience, Anne brings in the state-of-the-art design/writing experience, Brendan brings in the sonic youth DJ experience, and Cam brings in the artist-as-programmer angle. Meanwhile, everyone's work on PHON:E:ME is informed by the conceptual design that I brought to the project and that ultimately manifested itself as writing. Writing as text, writing as sound, writing as interface design, writing as experience. By writing as experience I mean to say that I was able to work closely with the collaborators in their various locales, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Perth.

SD: With PHON:E:ME, even more than with GTRON, the relationships between what a user is reading and hearing is arbitrary--random. At times, I read you more as a filter or medium than an author or even performer. Which character in PHON:E:ME do you identify with most strongly and which the least?

MA: That's a good read. I've always thought of writing as filtering, especially in the mediumistic sense. Writer as techno-shaman: filtering the white noise exploding in his skull and digitally editing it all into some on-the-fly re:mix.

As far as the interface goes, the random or arbitrary nature of the various elements at the users' control is intentional so that they too can "conduct" a "remix" to their own liking. What we offer is the source material, albeit a very stylized and specific set of source material, where we control most of the parameters.

As you hint toward the end of your question, in the hyper:liner:notes there are lots of concept-characters and I must admit that I can relate to them all. In many ways, they really are the same "person," or make up one concept-character. The Hearing Ear Man is your wise old self, whatever your age is. The New Media Economist is the ever-adjustable You figuring out a way to survive in the electrosphere. The Network Conductor is so in tune with her life that she just needs to organically orchestrate her life-work into being. The Web Jockey and No Mo Pomo are artist-freaks looking for a way to maintain their integrity while playing on the fringes of the mainstream culture. The Spiritual Unconscious, who makes infrequent appearances and who always seems to be around when the TV is left on, is a kind of silent partner whose purposeless play plays tricks on your mind. Not to mention all of the other sonoluminescent concept-characters of nonspecific gender traits....

SD: What is Alt-X?

MA:Alt-X is an online network I started back in late 1993. It began mostly as a conceptual art experiment, one that challenged the basic formula for getting work done by a group of writers to an audience they knew was out there. It actually started as gopher site. But once the GUI web browsers (i.e., Mosaic) became a reality, the site transformed itself into a space where hypertextual investigation was key--still with an emphasis on writing. Our review forum on all things new media and theoretical, ebr (electronic book review), is perhaps the most intricately designed and hypertextually self-reflexive journal on the web.

When Real Audio became a reality and our program, Alt-X Audio, came into being, we began experimenting with sound-writing. Recently, we launched a very controversial 3-D (VRML) site called Holo-X in conjunction with Berkeley Interactive Design, which experiments with narrative in ways still very new to the web. We also have scores of interviews with well-known writers and artists and are growing a digital archive of postmodern literary classics.

Finally, I would point out that Alt-X is recognized as the premiere site on the web for net art developments that grow out of the rival tradition in literature and, as such, we have been major free speech activists promoting a censor-free cyberspace. With this in mind, I should say that I am once again (like in New Mexico last year) a plaintiff in a major case against the government, this time in Michigan, to stop an unconstitutional net censorship law from going into effect ( briefs/cyberbrief.htm).

SD: Given that you have your own publishing network and that you are intellectually and philosophically invested in net culture, what are the pros and cons of working with an institution like the Walker for you and for net artists in general?

MA:It's a good question because, since Alt-X has such a huge audience, the idea of locating an audience via an institutional mediator is not as important as it once was. Still, the Walker has a different audience than Alt-X and has a different set of resources than Alt-X. So it makes sense for net artists who have been fortunate enough to build their own popular sites to collaborate with some of the more far-thinking institutional sites, like the Walker.

As I said in the Shock of the View, "we might go so far as to say that the institutionalized art world, once confined exclusively to the continuous exhibition of various art objects and installations in physical space, will need to start radically reevaluating its ability to maintain social relevance while branding its cultural imprint on the screenal spaces connected via the net." So on one level, our collaboration is less about the artists per se and more about "audience development"--so with that in mind, maybe what we're really doing here is "co-branding," which from what I can tell is a very popular way of building market share in the e-merging new-media economy :-)

SD: Who are your heroes?

MA: Well, as you can imagine, they're mostly antiheroes. Henry Miller, Count Lautremont, Artaud, Burroughs, Acker, etc. This is the writing lineage my work springs from. Contemporary writers like Ron Sukenick and Ray Federman. And a lot of my best friends, some of whom have very little to do with the arts, are the people I look up to most. They respect me for what I'm doing, although most of them think I should be parlaying this net art thing into a successful business enterprise.

SD: Given the success of Alt-X, I would assume that you do not feel the commercialization of the Internet overwhelms its more radical possibilities. But "support" of net artists continues to be a problematic issue. Is "" the answer? How can individuals and institutions sustain net practice?

MA: This is a huge question and requires a long answer, even at the risk of sounding long-winded. And my answer may surprise you.

The commercialization of the net is a double-edged sword. In one sense, it's been a total drag because most users' expectations of what a website should do for them is now in large part being predetermined by the corporate aesthetic (oxymoron?). So that when users come to a website that presents itself as a work of art, a lot of times, whether they like it or not, they have assumptions that have been molded or shaped by previous interaction with corpo sites. One example of this takes place at the level of links, or linking, as a consumer process. Users expect to have choices and these choices manifest themselves as link options. But is linking really the way to create D-I-Y ontology?

The dictum I invented, "I link therefore I am," is more subtle than most people would believe in that it mocks the idea that only by linking, by consuming, by pointing and clicking and thus consuming, can we really BE. There is a danger in all of this, particularly as it relates to the illusion of control, or choice.

That's why institutional support of alternative net practices is essential not only to artists, but to the culture at large. Works that challenge the corpo aesthetic's "illusion of control" can cause the user to reflect on the nature of the medium he or she is using and perhaps point the way to a more proactive model of cultural production, instead of passive consumption (this is what Alt-X, I'd suggest, is a great model of). Net art as an antidote to a society drowning in information sickness.

Projects like GTRON and PHON:E:ME or the viral interfaces of are always playing with the idea of user-interaction, bringing to the surface questions of control and the idiotic connection between empowerment and convenience. On the other hand, defamiliarizing the corpo web interface is almost standard routine in net art practice these days and, although there is value in that, it's almost as if net art as commodity terrorism, or as a deconstruction of corporate culture, is becoming clichéd. That is to say: boring.

But the real problem I see with most net artists working today is that they are almost too eager to try and raise their value in the speculative art markets all in the name of "success." I mean, does selling a web artwork for $500 or even $2,000 suggest a huge breakthrough in the slow-to-emerge net art market? When it comes to the net economy, working the corpo sphere and initiating IPOs is where the money is. I'd go so far as to say that the net entrepreneur who has a great idea that attracts investment dollars that he or she grows into a multimillion-dollar public company is in many ways the 90s version of a conceptual artist, one with much more relevance, value, and earnings potential than a series of net art gimmicks being played out in the overfunded media centers of Europe. I mean, if you want to play the market, then play the market. That's what it's there for. If not, then just focus on developing your practice and accept the sacrifice you've made to humanity by following through on these admirable pursuits.

I know this seems harsh. But if net artists want "support" that will enable them to survive in the electropshere, it doesn't seem logical to depend on major art institutions for that support. Sure, artists should always try and negotiate that support (more power to them), and there will be a few of us who can build brand-name identity via our net projects and who might be able to squeeze a minor living out of it, but in general I'd say the support for net art is decreasing right now instead of increasing. Maybe it will all change for the better and works like GRAMMATRON will sell for six figures on e-Bay one day. But I'm not banking on it.

Here's an idea for a new work I've been thinking about for a few months now. In light of what I've just been saying, it's something to mentally gnaw on:


CONCEPT: Institutional sponsor (could be a major museum or online broker or both working as partners) gives a $50,000 commission to the artist for the direct purpose of investing it in the stock market for one year. Artist metafictionally documents his experience "playing the market" by creating RETIREMENT FUND website. At the end of the year, the sponsor gets the website and the artist gets whatever is left in his online account.