Amerika Online

Minutes To Go: Fast-Forwarding The GRAMMATRON Package

Mark Amerika

As I've already stated here, the case for GRAMMATRON is different than the conventional novel-as-book-object created by "an author," in that it is a "public domain narrative environment" that first started as a piece of conceptual art and has since developed in a variety of storyworld forms that are constantly metamorphosizing into different projects depending on what new ensemble of participants the hypermedia team consists of as well as what new technologies are being integrated into the web-development scene.

The flexibility of the GRAMMATRON project to distribute itself as "a public domain narrative environment" has produced a number of interesting events. For example, at the end of my week-long appearance at the 1997 Ars Electronica "Fleshfactor" Festival in Linz, Austria, I was approached by a couple of DJs from London who proceeded to tell me that a few of the more underground dance clubs in the UK were using the opening GRAMMATRON screens as the "projection-of-choice" for some of their late-night dance-mixes. Here was pure proof that the network-distributed fiction could now seep into social environments like never before.

Two days later, back in Boulder, Colorado, I received a phone call from my long-time sound-art collaborator and now co-editor of Alt-X Audio, Erik Belgum, saying he was passing through Boulder and wanted to do some DAT recording. When he came to town a few days later, Belgum, who had no idea about my encounter with the London DJs, expressed interest in mixing down a dance-mix of GRAMMATRON that would integrate an eerie drum and bass groove with a performative-vocal track that I would read from the opening "Interfacing" section of GRAMMATRON (the same section that the DJs in London were already using for their own dance-mixes). The result of this coincidence of activity is the development of the GRAMMATRON CD, portions of which will soon be featured at Alt-X Audio.

In looking back at the first few months after having released GRAMMATRON on the WWW, the most unexpected development concerning the project has been the international mainstream media attention it has attracted. By foregoing the conventional law and order approach to publishing (the one we all associate with the literary world and its system of agents, lawyers, editors, foreign and movies rights, establishmentarian ass-kissing, book parties, etc.), and allowing the story to distribute itself in the chaotic, less controlled (some would still say anarchic) Internet, something happened that no one, least of all the "author," could have expected: the first week GRAMMATRON was officially released, there were reviews and/or articles in The New York Times, Time, MSNBC's The Site, Reuters International News, Wired and many others who syndicated the stories all over the planet. The popular search engine, YAHOO who, during the days of my commute between Brown and Boulder, fed my appetite for news-junk via up-to-the-minute updates in their Today's Headlines section, had this series of headlines in their International News section distributed in conjunction with Reuters (see 5:25 pm):

International News

* Toronto stocks end firmer ahead of Canada Day - 5:39 pm

* Hong Kong Internet market crowded, hopeful - 5:37 pm

* Resumen de Noticias de Reuters - 5:37 pm

* Mexico stocks pare losses amid bargain-hunting - 5:27 pm

* Grad & Walker says no statement until Wed. - 5:27 pm

* Toronto stocks end firmer after dull day - 5:26 pm

* JP Foodservice to buy Rykoff for $1.4 billion - 5:26 pm

* Virtual Gaming wins operating license - 5:26 pm

* Pop writer launches Internet narrative site - 5:25 pm

* Platforms Intl wins $10 mln contract - 5:24 pm

* North Atlantic Tech defaults, lenders to foreclose - 5:23 pm

* Clinton transfers Hong Kong trade offices to China - 5:23 pm

* Chino labor union may seek talks with Phelps soon - 5:16 pm

It was at this moment that the Avant-Pop strategy I had been curating for four years reached the apex of its development. The Warholian 15 minutes-of-fame was now, thanks to the speed with which data was being distributed over the newtork, compressed into one minute, a minute that could be recorded at 5:25 p.m. (prime news time) on June 30, 1997.

As we can see, the space GRAMMATRON is being distributed in, that is, hypertextual cyber-space, is situated such that the project can take on a life of its own. Not only that, the project will, due to its "liquid architecture," (a term used by VR artist Marcos Novak) constantly upgrade itself by employing many of the emerging software features that are being developed especially for this cyber-space environment. It should also be noted that to my mind, the development of new web-based software features instantaneously creates the development of new hypermedia narrative devices (this is why I see GRAMMATRON as a kind of aesthetically-driven research and development platform -- it scans for useful developments within the new media industry and uses whatever new features it finds of interest to further explore its own narrative or network potential).

Meanwhile, how will the virtual artist in cyberspace generate the necessary revenues one needs to maintain viability in the mega-cult of late-capitalism? GRAMMATRON's floating avatar, Abe Golam, "survives in the electrosphere" by sending multi-media hyperdocuments to various groups of subscribers who have signed on to his many works-in-progress. The other avatars in the electrosphere send him "digicash paracurrencies" as a form of sponsorship which he then exchanges for other goods and services including the delivery to his home of organic health food. This GRAMMATRON distribution model is a creative mix of both the Wired mantra of "give your content away for free and the rest will follow" and Ted Nelson's Xanadu system where "publishing is principally based on selling copyrighted materials in small amounts" (for an updated discussion of the effect Nelson's work is having on contemporary hyperfiction and criticism, see the Miracle Device discussion at FEED magazine featuring Brown's Robert Coover, M.I.T.'s Janet Murray and myself).

Interestingly enough for me, I feel very protective of my print works. I would not want to see anyone illegally printing, distributing, selling, or otherwise making a profit on my writing. But with my net.writings, I am much more flexible to give permission to others to "virtually republish" my work as long as they too agree not to use it to make a profit (although with more commercial sites, we usually come to some agreement wherein they pay me for my work and can then use it on their ad-filled "pages").

To this effect, if I ever actually publish a "novelization" of GRAMMATRON (instead of adapting from film to book, this would be a web-to-book adaptation that would require the artist to license, say, paperback rights), I'll actually agree to publish it with copyright, as that's the system the Gutenberg-inspired print world revolves around. Nonetheless, I'm still happy to see this outmoded medium and its institutionalized commitment to preserving the proprietary rights of multi-national corporations, being forced to change as a result of the fluidity with which text can move in cyberspace.

My position on this is, surprisingly not, similar to the one Abe Golam takes in GTRON wherein he sees the old-styled "copyright maximalists" attempt to reshape the existing copyright laws to the fit the new digital reality as completely out of touch with what this new distribution paradigm does to the concept of "intellectual property" -- yet he still accepts the incoming, sponsorship-generated paracurrencies as a measured response to his work while using this response to further solidify and expand his niche audience. He gives most of his stuff away for free and as a politically active "copyleftist," he allows others to redistribute his data for free too (they are not entitled to make any money off of his work without his permission). There is also the fact that other avatars in the Net occasionally invite him to a well-paid fleshmeet or sponsor his program by joining one of his special content-delivery lists and paying for the content by way of digicash transactions (this isn't happening at Amerika Online but perhaps will one day soon).

Golam's use of a state-of-the-art email publishing program which automatically manages his many lists and sublists enables him to track the ever-changing "niche audiences" his work is creating and the vast amounts of hypermedia art he gives away for free eventually help him build revenues by enabling him to accumulate the most scarce commodity of all, that is, attention-itself.