Mark Amerika Discusses Corrupting Lake Como, His Inspirations, And The Spy State Economy
One of net art's early practitioners, the artist talks us through his new exhibition and why he works with transmedia narratives.
Lake Como Remix
Today we're all familiar with the term "net artist"—whether there's a defining answer to exactly what one is, or does—is another question, but we know the phrase. But it wasn't always so, back when dial-up ruled the web artist Mark Amerika was experimenting with this new (but painfully slow to load) digital world, writing pioneering hypertext novels and exploring the possibilities of narrative art in the information age.
His GRAMMATRON (1997) project, the first in a trilogy of works, is one such artwork which merged ideas of the novel, net art, gaming, and cinema to create a transmedia narrative. It's a format and approach we're much more familiar with now in an age of increasingly sophisticated viral marketing, where alternative reality games have long been used as promotional campaigns for TV series and films.
But Amerika has explored many different styles in his career and currently has an exhibition of some of his glitch art on at the Furtherfield Gallery in London, which are part of his Museum of Glitch Aesthetics (2012) project. Complimenting this is the work of his contemporary Shu Lea Cheang, whose work transgresses web-based installations as well as film.
To find out more about the exhibition and also what Amerika thinks of the current state of net art, I emailed him a few questions.
The Creators Project: Are there any over-arching themes or concepts being explored in your current exhibition at Furtherfield?
Mark Amerika: Both Shu Lea and I are partly rooted in cyberpunk culture as it relates to storytelling and media hactivism. The works on exhibit, though very different in content and execution, are remixes from larger narrative works we have made. In my case, the Furtherfield exhibition showcases three works from the over 25 artworks collected in my recently commissioned Museum of Glitch Aesthetics. MOGA, as it's sometimes referred to, tells one version of the story of The Artist 2.0, a kind of net artist/hacker who, over time, evolves their own glitch aesthetics across a variety of media formats.
Gallery entrance. Photo courtesy of Mark Amerika
How did you decide on what works to exhibit?
As with other curatorial remixes of MOGA, the pieces were selected in consultation with Ruth and Marc, the directors of Furtherfield. Given the size of the venue and that it was a two-person show, we came up with the three works. The first piece is Lake Como Remix, a wild trip through Google Street View in that part of Italy that the title refers to. You might think of it as a kind of cyberpsychogeographical dérive through a beautiful landscape that's made even more beautiful by corrupting the software functions that would otherwise create the illusion of actually being in northern Italy.
The second piece is The Comedy of Errors. MOGA is a commission of Abandon Normal Devices, and although most of the story takes place in the Northwest of the UK, at one point The Artist 2.0 is teleported to Boulder, Colorado, where he meets up with the artist Mark Amerika and, together, the two of them produce this full-length comedy album that transforms the artist-professor into a stand-up social commentator. He delivers his contemporary art shtick before a completely made-up audience that is actually a new sound composition by Chad Mossholder. The composition is made out of laugh tracks and sound effects. At a certain point, it ceases to become a comedy album per se and instead becomes an experiential concept art album.
"8-Bit Heaven (London-Soho 3)" by Mark Amerika
The last pieces we're showing at Furtherfield are from the 8-bit Heaven series. Once again, I have captured images from Google Street View but this time they were produced last year on April Fool's Day when Google offered navigators an alternative 8-bit filter for all of their psychogeographical drifting. For them, it was a fun joke, which I liked. But for me, it was also a chance to expand my aesthetic investigations into portraits of city life, beach life, and isolated landscapes. For the show, two of the images, one from Manchester and one from Morecambe, have been enlarged and transformed into large vinyl wall prints.
What do you feel the appeal of the glitch aesthetic is? What does it mean to you both?
I wouldn't want to saddle Shu Lea with the glitch aesthetics framework. She's doing her own thing, as always. But for me, it's a way of challenging the false consciousness of high-definition video. There's this tendency to think that if you can get a perfect high-def image, then you are getting closer to portraying reality. But as the 20th century process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who I write about in my last book, remixthebook, suggests, reality is less about false representations of high definition data and has more to do with the process of taking hold of the data and creatively remixing it into the reality of the moment. Glitch is a powerful way of foregrounding that process and can also lead to some remarkable stylistic effects that oftentimes challenge the viewer to feel the sublime tendencies of the digital image. There's a kind of vital beauty to it and I have been able to share these kinds of images in a lot of different contexts including the largest video screens in any US airport and with Sedition where two limited edition video works have been released as a featured curation and are now available.
"Lake Como Remix, MOGA (2012)" by Mark Amerika
The world of digital art has no doubt changed since you both began, but has also built upon its past and legacy. What are some of the changes/differences you've seen between when you started and now?
The big difference is that when we started, everything felt so open and free. It was like you were reinventing art and writing and curating and exhibiting all at the same time, and that you could do it with other net artists and the networked intelligentsia who were all discovering the Web's amazing potential with you. You really got to feel what it was like to be totally ahead of the institutions which meant that you did not really even need them. Now that has completely changed. Now all of your data is for the most part owned by corporate entities who willingly or unknowingly—they claim innocence—allow the spooks in the Spy State Economy to turn you and the demographic you represent into more cyberwar fodder. It's as if all the dystopian cyberpunk fictions were right and it's no longer purely fantasy sci-fi to watch your most private thoughts become part of the spy machine. It's your Big Data Condition.
From Amerika’s “8-Bit Heaven” series of vinyl digital prints. Photo courtesy of Mark Amerika
And what are some of the similarities?
Net art is still doing its own thing. It has not been recuperated by the art markets or the cronyistic infrastructure that buttresses so much of the rest of the art world. But, having said that, each new generation of twenty-something net artists—and how many have there been now?—somehow believe that for them it will be different, that they will find a way to crack the market and edge their way into the art market infrastructure. It seems to be a goal. So this really relates more to what I was talking about when looking at the differences.
Like I was saying, in the early days—which were actually not that long ago at all, about fifteen years—we were ahead of the institutions and now there seems to be this succession of follow up net artists who actually are chasing the institutions in pursuit of—what? Success? The truth is that net art is already a success story. It's been in the Whitney Biennial, is in major institutional and private collections, and has entire books written about it and that have been published in places like the Thames and Hudson World of Art series. Besides, the market always has a way of catching up with those who stick to their guns and perhaps this is why now I may be the most financially successful net artist in the history of the genre. That's not saying much, compared to other successful artists who were actively involved in new movements, but still, sometimes it feels weird.
Still from "Lake Como Remix"
Your pieces in this exhibition are said to be the "latest work in [a] collaborative series of transmedia narratives". Can you explain a bit about what these are? And why you choose to work using a transmedia approach?
Basically, I work across media platforms and am constantly experimenting with narrative structure, writing style, story content, technology, and the field of distribution. So Immobilité, my feature-length "foreign film" shot entirely on mobile phone, was really an experiment in mashing up the European auteur approach to filmmaking with the Web 2.0 amateur's approach to net art making. The work centers on the 78 minute version but also includes an elaborate web site with video and audio remixes, a director's notebook, digital images, and an early iPhone app. That's one kind of transmedia narrative.
Then with MOGA, I decided to focus on the story of the amateur net artist from the perspective of sanctioned culture, particularly foregrounding museum directors, curators, art historians, and media critics—essentially the core roles that make up the commercial art market's infrastructure of value and legitimacy—and satirically portray them all as doing everything in their power to canonize and historicize this eponymous figure who defies them all. The transmedia element, though, really explodes in this work because the nomadic net artist's work and the museum catalog are distributed across a lot of online platforms. Of course, this goes against the grain of the Hollywood system that tries to use transmedia to market its media entertainment complex.
Still from "Museum of Glitch Aesthetics" located at glitchmuseum.com
The other cool thing about working with the various transmedia elements in MOGA is that when I was invited to exhibit the work at the AND festival and the Harris Museum, I knew I could open the work up to the various curators so that they essentially became remixers and accomplices in the story. This idea of the curator as a remix artist who then because another character in the MOGA story proved fruitful. Omar Kholeif for the AND festival and the team at the Harris Museum for Digital Aesthetic, and now the minds behind Furtherfield, have all embraced the idea of using the exhibition to remix the story of The Artist 2.0 in conjunction with my own personal narrative as an artist.
The exhibition context for the work goes through an interesting admixture process where it's being experienced both online/offline, in print and on the Web, part of an open gift economy but also encased within institutions open for public viewing. It's net art, wall art, tablet art, book art, etc.—and I've been remixing it into both live performance art events as well as keynote presentations where I'm invited to present my current thoughts on the state of contemporary art and media theory.
Still from "Museum of Glitch Aesthetics" located at glitchmuseum.com
What are your thoughts on how you think network culture is affecting culture-at-large, now that we can be almost permanently plugged in through phones and tablets (and potentially wearable tech)?
I think it's a very challenging situation that we're in right now. We're unconsciously addicted to the devices that connect us to the feed and feel we have no choice but to leave our data traces while simultaneously tracking the movements of all of the transient others who populate our social networks. Meanwhile, the networked nipple keeps pouring its fountain of formulaic milk into the mouths of its hungry babes and if you're a socially conscious artist, you've got to be thinking, "How am I to negotiate collaborative forms of networked creativity in an all-pervasive Spy State Economy?" It's time to dust off our old copies of Pat Cadigan's Synners.
Who are some of your own influences and inspirations?
It's an interesting question because, these days, I find myself less inspired by people and more stimulated by things, moods, and places. But people turn me on too, sometimes more than I would otherwise like. And as the saying goes, "I don't care who I'm influenced by as long as it's not myself." Still, a list of stimulants would include metafiction, cyberpunk, situationism, hard bop, noise, ambient, silence, loop, repetition, filter, Beatnik, zine, grammatology, écriture feminine, accidental promiscuity, open content, free strangelove, kale chips, raw chocolate, quinoa pilaf, organic goji berries, Mallarmé's Book, Roussel's fictionalized performance art installations, Duchamp's green box, Acker's transgressions, London, Portland, Boulder, Melbourne, Sydney, Kailua Beach.