Amerika Online

Digital Densities: An Attempt At Contextualizing The Ongoing Ungoing Story of Being In Cyberspace

Mark Amerika

So much of our commercial and potentially-subversive art today is being developed with software application programs that encourage the liberal usage of Modernistic practices (particularly sampling, collage, technological gimmickry and other "engineered" behaviors), we tend to forget that what we are doing is not necessarily all that new and that if we're looking for deep structural changes in the art work of today as opposed to even ten or twenty years ago, then we're more likely to find these changes in the mediums through which contemporary art gets distributed and how the emerging network culture radically transforms the way in which we participate in the dual worlds of art-making and art-appreciating. We might go so far as to say that the contemporary art world, once confined exclusively to the continuous exhibition of various art works and installations in physical space, will need to start radically re-evaluating its ability to maintain social relevance while branding its cultural imprint on the screenal spaces connected via the Net.

In this regard, there is also the question of so-called "literary art" and the growing popularity of the network-publishing model that not only allows writers to locate their audience on net-connected machines all over the world, but that also enables the development of more flexible multi-media environments for storyworlds to take place in. One question that keeps arising, as in the case of contemporary network-narrative art, is what happens when the initial concepts thought up by one artist, are eventually expressed by a network of other artist-associates (collaborators) as a fluid work-in-progress whose transdisciplinary digital mix is forever-in-flux? What happens to our sense of a "creative self" or "autonomous author" when multiple hosts are responsible for distributing the Collective Net-Object? Isn't this already happening today on the World Wide Web?

The once "novel" idea of recording stories so that they can then be bound by the rigid spine of book-media and its enslaving copyright law, is morphing into the Avant-Pop practice of "surf-sample-manipulate," a pro-active practice of collage-generation that reconfigures the author into a virtual artist who navigates cyberspace so as to engage him/herself in the improvisational mix of digital objects being distributed on the World Wide Web. In this scenario, the author-cum-virtual-artist places special emphasis on reconfiguring narratological practice by focusing on both content and source-code, appropriating select bits of data for an evolving network of interactive-participants all over the geopolitical spectrum. This post-novel network-narrative environment is infinitely expandable and is always already being updated. Network protocols barely available to artists even three years ago are now partly responsible for creating an evolving storyworld production whose self-reflexive narrative form is being crystallized into a continuous presence that is finding a home in the electrosphere. Of course, Neo-Luddite social commentators and high-brow media critics would have us believe that this is The End of Something Terribly Important (maybe their late-capitalist hold on the right to own ideas that are really Everybody's?).

One of the promising developments that has emerged as a result of having morphed the Alt-X Online Publishing Network from a print-oriented scrollable text-environment (Alt-X started as a gopher site in 1993) to an ongoing hypermedia construction with state-of-the-art hyperfiction, web-art, new media theory and now audio streams, has been its ability to once again ask the crucial questions posed by writers and artists throughout the 20th century and which still resonate with us as we enter the networked-environments of the 21st century: for example, "why should 'art' still designate that which already breaks away from art -- away from what has always been conceived and signified under that name -- or that which, not merely escaping art, implacably destroys it?"

For those of us who have spent a considerable amount of time practicing novel-writing as a powerful, text-centric subversive activity, the question is disturbing. Perhaps Ronald Sukenick, in the context of literary art, has the best answer when he says "the struggle of literature is to move constantly beyond literature, beyond the definitions of particular linguistic realities, beyond language itself, to change the world we live in." This 20th century desire to move beyond literature, books, the transparent use of language and the various linguistic frameworks which work against our creative impulse to shatter the rules of conventional behavior so as to change the world we live in, can be seen as the driving force behind many of the activities associated with both Italian and Russian Futurism, Dadaism, Lettrism, Situationism and the Pop Art movement. It is a desire that Richard Lanham, in The Eletcronic Word, says "brings a complete renegotiation of the alphabet/icon ratio upon which print-based thought is built."

The struggle between icon and alphabet is not new and, as W.J. T. Mitchell claims in his book Picture Theory, "if writing is the medium of absence and artifice, the image is the medium of presence and nature, sometimes cozening us with illusion, sometimes with powerful recollection and sensory immediacy." By actively curating the Digital Studies: Being In Cyberspace network installation, Alt-X hopes to further problematize this dialectic and in so doing asks, in a frank hyperrhetorical gesture, "how do we say what we see, and how can we make the reader see?"

Perhaps Raymond Federman, in his eye-opening "Surfiction -- Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction" has the best answer to Mitchell's question when he says "the whole traditional, conventional, fixed, and boring method of reading a book must be questioned, challenged, demolished. And it is the writer (and not modern printing technology) who must, through innovations in the writing itself -- in the typography and topology of his writing -- renew our system of reading."

Alt-X accepts the Federman challenge along with all of the other challenges posed by network culture by foregrounding its use of local programming language, visible word constructions, keynote essays, state of the art hypercritiques, streaming audio installations and curatorial links to accentuate the liquid architecture the network technology has enabled us to develop, and in so doing features some of the more adventurous topo-icono-graphical performances taking place in cyberspace.

Perhaps the problem I am perceiving with the "dominant exhibition model that still drives the visual arts establishment" can be best expressed by having you imagine a gallery director or museum curator putting a printed literary novel of say, 300 pages, in an institutionally-supported gallery or museum space and then inviting the patron to get lost in the dynamic (anti-)aesthetic environment that unravels within its pages. Most art-appreciators would have a problem with this, for who has the time to sit or, worse yet, stand, in such a space and read an entire novel. Even if the work were a kind of narrative art consciously moving beyond literature and presenting itself on a computer screen as an elaborate hypermedia construction, yet still located in the same institutionalized, physical space, how long would the art-appreciator stay with the complex narrative system before shifting into another room with more stable objects?

One of the alternatives that the Hyper-X section on Alt-X, which the Digital Studies project is the latest incarnation of, intends to explore, is what I have previously called "Creative Exhbitionism," a situation where the net-artists' work-in-progress is being exhibited in a virtual space as a network installation that the interactive-participant, vis-a-vis the hypertext transfer protocols now available to most computer users, can continually come back to. Our most recent Hyper-X exclusive, Patchwork-Grrrl Shelley Jackson's My Body, blends fiction, autobiography, confession and primitive self-portraiture into a hypertextual melange that undeniably affirms her position as one of the most exciting artists emerging in the web-culture.

And what if the artist(s) responsible for the development of the network-art experience were to constantly use the fluidity of the digital medium to build-on, subtract-from or otherwise alter the work whenever they wanted to? Does the virtual art object, forever morphing in the network environment constitute a new form of aesthetic becoming that makes being in cyberspace an art in and of itself? Have we reached a point where the network itself cannot be commodified and only certain brand-name artists have the potential to generate the kind of network-value that Big Cultural Institutions will want to buy into? Exclusive shareware? Fleshfactor licensing? Love for sale? Sooner or later, questions like these must be addressed, and I can only hope that all of the recent developments at Alt-X force us to confront them faster than we really want to.

As I've grown the Alt-X Online Publishing Network over the last four years, it's become apparent to me that, in this rapidly changing new media terrain, the contemporary writer cum virtual artist is not only an electronic publisher or hypermedia narrative engineer, but a digital art curator and network programmer too.