Curatorial Statement for “Beyond GRAMMATRON: 20 Years into the Future”

First, some background . . .

This curatorial statement explains the conceptual framework that grounds the exhibit, “Beyond GRAMMATRON: 20 Years into the Future” curated on September 15, 2017 at the British Computer Society, London, England. Sponsors include the Computer Arts Society, Electronic Literature Organization, British Computer Society, Ravensbourne College, UC Boulder, and Washington State University.

This is truly a pop up exhibit set up a mere hour (yes, one hour) in advance to its opening and disassembled on the same day. Works and computers for the show were organized at a distance (from Vancouver, WA to London, UK by way of Boulder, CO) with the help of Nicholas Lambert, Head of Research, Ravensbourne University and Mark Amerika, UC Boulder. Nick himself purchased many of the computers needed for the exhibit from eBay and donated the use of others from his own collection. Three days before the show’s opening, a small team comprised of Nick, Laura Kim, Mark Amerika, and I assembled in the basement of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology to image computers and check the works’ performance in advance of mounting the show. In effect, with much advanced planning and hard work, we literally threw together a one-day exhibit aimed at giving participants to the symposium a hands on experience with works discussed during the day. More importantly (IMHO), the exhibit celebrates net art (1995-2002) for what it was: Ground-breaking. Visionary. Exciting. Intellectual. And very, very influential. So much of what was been produced thereafter owes much to what had been done in a past not-so-very-long ago by some amazing artists who dared to publish their works on a new platform called the World Wide Web.

To go back to the exhibit website, you can click here. Or you can read on . . .

Those of us who cut teeth tunneling with gophers named Archie and Jughead to far-flung spaces on the net or communicating textually in BBSs or even in rooms dug in MOOs and MUDs that we adorned with fireplaces created with black and white ASCII graphics, the web, in contrast with its colorful browser environment and––thanks to Geocities––dancing gophers and talking cows, appeared garish and, somehow, loud. Many of us were already well familiar with the phenomenon called linking through our forays into reading and writing hypertext literature produced with authoring programs like Hypercard and Storyspace. But the art of the link rose to prominence with the World Wide Web, where spiders spun threads into an interconnected web of information and what we wanted was just a few clicks away––and when it wasn’t, we’d consult Alan Liu’s list of static webpages published as Voice of the Shuttle (1994-2001). Yes, believe it or not, once we could inventory the contents of the web. By 2001 media theorist Jeff Parker had identified eight different types of links, dividing them into two categories: functional and literary. Knowing the art of the link meant we could deftly guide readers in and outside our work. Knowing how to code for the web meant we could by-pass publishers and reach these readers directly. Knowing how to make gifs (and later work in Flash) meant we could make our words and images move on our readers’ screens. Despite the fact we made this art with web tools for delivery via the World Wide Web, our work was referred to as net art because at the time the web had not yet superseded the net as the overarching conceptual framework for the digital age. But it did and still does. Such was the state of things when Mark Amerika’s statement, “I link therefore I am,” grounded GRAMMATRON philosophically and culturally in the “hypertext consciousness” of 1997.

Mark began his career as a cyberpunk writer, publishing The Kafka Chronicles in 1993 and Sexual Blood in 1995. Two years later he gave us GRAMMATRON, what may be described as the first cyberpunk-digital-novel/theoretical-work of net-art. Landing on the opening screen his audience is greeted by the title looming in gritty red typography and a graphic pulsing in continual motion against the black background of the interface, indeed recalling the mood and tone of the covers of his two print novels and at the same time reminding us of Rave Culture. Clicking on the image delivers to us a table of contents coded in stark white lettering where we can select among eight different items, all underlined in the way we used to call out to readers, “click here or here or here . . . .”

And readers would, and in GRAMMATRON’s case readers did: The New York Times tells us that “GRAMMATRON is grappling with the idea of spirituality in the electronic age.” Time-Warner’s Pathfinders claims that the work is “a colossal hypertext hydrogen bomb dropped on the literary landscape.” The Village Voice says that it is “the first major Internet-published work of fiction to produce an experience unique to the medium.” And there are more accolades. Exhibited in galleries (41, as of now) rather than published in one of the many web journals specializing in hypertext literature that were popping up beginning the late 1990s and onward (i.e. BeeHive, 1998; frAme, 1999; Cauldron and Net, 1999; Poems That Go, 2000; The Iowa Review Web, 2001) GRAMMATRON set its sights on the art world and achieved that goal when it was selected for inclusion in the Whitney Biennial of American Art in 2000. Despite its pedigree as a work of art, GRAMMATRON’s reliance on words for retelling the Golem story––a “metafiction” Mark calls it––for the digital age saw the work embraced also as a work of electronic literature. Thus, straddling the art and literary worlds and the print medium Mark first experimented in and digital he had come to master, GRAMMATRON stands as a classic work of net art that captures the seismographic shift in consciousness as we moved from the dominance of print in the late 20th century to that of the digital in the 21st. Other net art works pre-date GRAMMATRON, but none managed to broach so broad an appeal.

Tech Specs: Shown on an iMac G3 Power Mac 2, 400 MHz, 512 KB, 128 memory, with a screen resolution of 1024 x 768 32-bit color. Running on Mac OS 10.4.6 (“Tiger,” 2006) and Safari 2.0.3 (2005).

Following GRAMMATRON in the gallery is Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope 1.0 produced in 1995. Already established as a preeminent author of hypertext fiction with the publication of Victory Garden in 1991, Moulthrop migrated from the hypertext authoring environment of Storyspace to the HTML space of the web with this work. While it tells the story of a road trip involving two people and the exchange of letters between two characters, Hegirascope itself is an exodus––hence, the title––from the world of simply clicking on links for moving about a work to one where moving comes from pages that prompt other pages to appear for the audience. Thus, it plays with this binary by both defying the notion of reader interaction and making such an experience possible. Gamefully, it is a hypertext narrative that uses hypertext to meditate on hypertextuality.

Tech Specs: Shown on an eMac (“Education Mac,” circa 2002-2006) LCD iMac G4, 256 KB cache, 1GB memory, 133 MHz, 17-inch display, with a screen resolution of 1024 x 768. Running Mac OS 10.4.11 (“Tiger,” 2007) and Firefox 3.0.7 (2009).

Judy Malloy’s The Roar of Destiny, a hyperpoem hailed by Richard Kostelanetz as “Malloy’s most technically and visually sophisticated work for the web to date,” was released one year after Uncle Roger, Version 5.0 was published on the web and a decade after she published Uncle Roger, Version 1.0, as a serial novel on the Art Com Electronic Network. Thus, The Roar of Destiny is a direct response to the changes Malloy and others of the time were experiencing as they moved from the net to the web. Focusing on the character of Gweneth, the poem was created “publicly over the course of four years” as a series of hyperlinked phrases “radiating” from a “primary interface” (Malloy) and relays the character’s “struggle with the real and the virtual” and “despair and depression.”

Tech Specs: Shown on an Apple iMac 5.1, Intel Core 2 Duo, 2.16 GB. 667 MHz, 4MB Cache, Memory 2 GB, 20-inch display, with a screen resolution of 1680 X 1050. Running Mac OS 10.4.11 (“Tiger,” 2007) and Firefox 3.6.28 (2012).

Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 (1996) is, as the author tells us, “a mind-blowing grope through time, penned by the infamous Bobby Rabyd.” It captures the zeitgeist of the late 1960s from the perspective of nine characters traveling through California in 1969, recounted “bravely and un-nostalgically” in what Lisa Ciccarello calls “the Web’s first interactive novel.” The narrative unfolds through a series of lexias, or story fragments, organized around four categories: a map of Northern California, a calendar representing the time the travel took place, music via an 8-track tape, and the characters themselves, while Home is conceived metaphorically as the “car” carrying everyone including the audience through the work. The tumult of the 60s Arellano captures in this work does not end with that decade, as Ciccarello points out, but is instead embodied in the publication date itself: Human nature being what it is, 1969 or 1996, little has changed.

Tech Specs: Shown on a MacBook Air (2013), Intel Core 17, Intel HD Graphics 5000, 1024 MB graphics,  1.7 GHZ, 256 KB, 13-inch display, with a screen resolution of 1440 x 900. Running Mac OS 10.8.5 (“Mountain Lion,” 2012) and Safari 6.1.3 (2014).

Giselle Beiguelmann’s The Book After the Book (1999), originally developed for the exhibition, “Ex Libris/Home Page” in 1996 and now collected at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Sao Paolo, is “a hypertextual and visual essay about cyberliterature and the net reading/writing condition” (Beiguelmann). One of the first works to lay bare HTML tags and characters underlying net art, it instantiates the changing nature of human expression, as it has moved from the codex to code, from static to moving text, and from linear to multilinear text.

Tech Specs: Shown on a Dell Inspiron Small Form Factor Computer (2016), Intel Core i3-7100, 8 GB, 2400 MHz, 64-bit. Running Windows OS 10 (2015) and Chrome.

Yael Karanek’s World of Awe: A Traveler’s Journal, Chapter 1: Forever (1999) is the first of three chapters that chronicles, nonlinearly, the journey of a character through her letters and logs and “evokes the ever-present longing, isolation, and ruin that are the repressed remainders of digital culture” (Rhizome). From the interface the reader selects among four files: Silicon Canyon, Pirate’s_life, moodRingBaby, and Collection alias. Clicking on the first one, we find a travel log detailing a trip down the canyon. The menu at the top of the screen includes “file” and “navigation,” both providing access to other logs and the main character’s letters. Each of the four files opens to more choices that the reader can delve deeper into. The gorgeous graphical interface and complex structure makes it clear why it was selected for the Whitney Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2002.

Tech Specs: Shown on a MacBook Pro (circa 2012), Intel Core i5, Retinal Intel Iris 1536 MB, 2.6 GHz, 256 KB/3 MB cache, 16 GB, 13-inch display, with a screen resolution of 2560 x 1600. Running Mac OS 10.9.5 (“Mavericks,” 2013) and Safari 7.1.8 (2015).

Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia (2000) has been called “a rich and complex exploration of the relationship between human consciousness and network phenomenology” (Hayles et al). Forging new terminology and playing with source code, the work pushes against the constraints of language of past technology in order to articulate that of the new. At the same time, it kludges graphics and text into a common interface in a meditation about the visual nature of textuality and the way in which humans struggle to make meaning.

Tech Specs: Shown on a Lenovo Thinkpad (2011), Intel Core 2 Duo, 32–bit, 1.60 GHZ, 2 GB memory, Windows OS7. Emulated via “oldweb.today” in Netscape 4.08 for Mac (1997-1998).

Mark’s FILMTEXT 2.0 frames the exhibit, giving visitors the opportunity to consider the impact digital technologies had on the artist’s work. Unlike GRAMMATRON, whose images were produced as gifs, FILMTEXT 2.0, created five years later in 2002, utilized Flash software, which by that time had grown in prominence as an artistic tool for producing cinematic net art. Thus, as the title suggests, Mark experiments with the notion of film as text and text as film. It marks the first in his exploration of interactive cinema and remix culture and stands as a cross platform work that involves also a concept album, printed book, and game commissioned for the Playstation 2. Set in a desolate and futuristic landscape, FILMTEXT presents nine scenes where words slide across the screen. It is the third piece in the trilogy introduced by GRAMMATRON, following after PHONE:ME.

Tech Specs: Shown on a Mac Mini Power PC, 1.42 GHz, LC 512, memory 1 GB, 167 MHz, with a resolution of 1152 x 870; Running on Safari 1.3.2 (2005).

 

***

This exhibit, which accompanies the symposium of the same name, is at its core a celebration of the 20th anniversary of GRAMMATRON’s release. The others in the show are also seminal works by important authors circa 1995-2000 and, so, help to make the case that the net was a space of intense intellectual and creative experimentation and the computer was a growing medium finding its way, distinctive of print, yet making it possible for artists to push the boundaries of artistic forms, most notably visual art and literature. As such, the exhibit probes Giselle Beiguelmann’s notion of the Internet as “no more than a big text” and her question, “is this literature or not?”

The title also suggests an opportunity to look at “20 years into the future.” Herein we have gained a perspective that may help us answer Beiguelmann’s question.

We are living in an age where network news is delivered in 140 characters, video is shot from our phones, and music is downloaded and played from a cloud, to mention just a few strange phenomena that we may not have been able to predict back in 1997. But considering the achievements and risks these artists took with their art two decades ago, what we are experiencing today is no surprise, really. The combinatory forms––the mixing up and remixing––of art involving visual, literary, and sonic art produced 20 long years ago prepared us, though we may not have realized it at the time. It is born from the same impetus to link text, ideas, and the forms themselves, to associate one thing with another, to avoid the separation of things in that Cartesian way that made our bodies and minds alien to one another to the point that recognition is painful and shocking. The world we live in today is one where both/and exists simultaneously. We who have lived through all these explorations can answer Beiguelmann’s question, “is this literature or not?” with, yes and no: It is literature; it is not literature. It is neither. It is both. It is this. It is something else entirely. It really doesn’t matter what we call it because we know, as amorphous as it is, that it simply is a salient form of human expression no matter what form it takes, and we take great comfort in the sublimity of it all. Most, importantly, we understand that we link, therefore, we are.

 

Works Cited

Ciccarello, Lisa. “Swiveling My Hips Through the Interbunk.” Pif Magazine. Issue 32, January 2000. http://www.pifmagazine.com/2000/01/swiveling-my-hipsthrough-the-interbunk/.

Hayles, N. Katherine, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland. Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1. October 2006. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/memmott__lexia_to_perplexia.html.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Dictionary of the Avant Gardes. NY, NY: Routledge Press, 2000.

Liu, Alan. Voice of the Shuttlehttp://vos.ucsb.edu.

Parker, Jeff. “The Poetics of the Link.” ebr 12. Fall 2001. http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr12/park/park.htm.