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META/DATA: A Digital Poetics

Author: Mark Amerika
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: January 2008

 REVIEW 1: Vika Zafrin

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... actually, what is it? Mark Amerika's META/DATA: A Digital Poetics is memoir, artist's retrospective, a series of manifestos, scholarly treatise, a collection of stream-of-consciousness rants, and interviews by an artist-scholar of the digital as seen from most angles imaginable. The volume contains fifty-three pieces of varying length, one of which is comprised entirely of images (he is a visual jockey, or VJ, after all); the works span fourteen years, from pieces originally published in 1993 to contemporary works. META/DATA is a bleary, jet-lagged trip into Amerika's artistic mind; he seems to hide nothing.

Amerika is well positioned to write a book that explores digital poetics from both the inside and the outside. He has been a touring VJ, performing all over the world. He is a writer who has quite a way (play?) with words and publishes fiction (the latest is "29 Inches," recently released by Chiasmus Press). He is also a Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado. The multiple perspectives his various personas afford him are consciously and fluidly presented in META/DATA.

The book is broken down into six parts. The first, Spontaneous Theories, consists of the two most formally academic essays in the collection. Although the reader may peruse the book in any order, it is probably beneficial to read these two first, as they give a solid conceptual foundation to the meandering [1] writings that follow.

In "Cyberpsychogeography," Amerika muses on our arbitrary dealings with time through accounts of his travels to Australia and Asia. A carefully crafted observer walks through foreign city streets with his digital video camera, recording every too-saturated color, every too-crisp sound the overtired nomad perceives.

In-between oddly detached flashes of worlds foreign and fleeting, Amerika asks some interesting questions. Speaking of a flight westward from Colorado to Australia, he writes about unreal time: "Somehow, somewhere, I will lose an entire day of my life ... People will be born that day, and many people will die -- and yet for me that day will disappear like no other day. I want to know where it went. Where is that space of time? What is it?" (8). And how does that place-noplace map onto cyberspace? Amerika invokes the 1960s Situationists, and borrows from them the term psychogeography ("the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behavior of the individual" (9)), and studies cyberspace through that lens. "Networked virtual reality is really soft and GUI," he puns. "It's brain candy or artificially intelligent writing by any other name" (44). Add to this the concept of unreal time, and the densely written essay borders on psychoactive.

Amerika advises: "DON'T LOOK BACK. Or if you do, recognize that what you're looking at are the formal traces of an improvised style that you had NO IDEA you were creating while you were composing THIS THING (your life)" (47). The volume embodies this: reprinted early essays are edited little from their original versions. META/DATA is both a retrospective and a series of arguments all meant to be made today, with histories of varying duration. Amerika is a remixologist, he re-presents arguments born in early writings over and over, adding to and rephrasing them; META/DATA gives a strong sense -- and record -- of theory's evolution through practice.

The language in "Portrait of the VJ," the second of the volume's two long essays, is markedly more playful than "Cyberpsychogeography." Amerika presents himself to us as a "Tech*know*mad whose fluid Life Style Practice captures consciousness in asynchronous realtime and is forever being remixed into One Ongoing Text Exactly" (56). Thinking too hard about the precise terms Amerika uses, many of which he doesn't quite define, is detrimental; such passages seem to create a certain mood rather than expect the reader to follow an academic argument. The artist accomplishes the very difficult task of giving readers a sense of his internal state and its constantly morphing interplay with external stimuli. He proposes that the fluid creativity and responsiveness he clearly achieves consistently is more widely available than one might think: "Being avant-garde may be the primal state we all live in but are conditioned to ignore so that we can slog away inside the bureaucratic superstructure of consumer culture and its devout attempts to keep us aware that we are ON THE CLOCK" (70). To combat this, we are invited to consider the words of Henri Michaux, himself both writer and visual artist: "There isn't one me. There aren't ten mes. There is no me. ME is only a position of equilibirum. An average of 'mes,' a movement in the crowd" (74).

The rest of META/DATA seems like sketches in comparison to the two opening essays, and these sketches are often only a few pages long. Following Spontaneous Theories is Distributed Fictions, originally published both in print and online and ranging from short story (an excerpt from his early GRAMMATRON) to instructions ("How to Be an Internet Artist," a numbered list) to memoir ("The Random Life of VG Persona (A Mobile Medium in the Form of a Fiction)"). Whatever the genre, Amerika paints interstitial scenes, intensely corporeal but without place, or in-between places:
Jamming with the experiential memory of his deep mesh dream. [The VJ Persona's] stomach nauseated with the hunger of always wanting more. More Maya. More ruins. More image manipulation coercing him into what at first sounds like a confession but is really a pseudo-autobiographical metafiction that turns his worldwide persona into an online happening of epic proportions. Or is that just more ego-identity imagining imagination imagining itself? What had all of a sudden guaranteed him a distribution of bodily residuals pouring in from a pleasure network of engaged, loving, mortal contacts, and why was this enough to keep his dérive driving? (146)
From fiction we drift down into Academic Remixes. In the opening article, Amerika answers questions he has been asked repeatedly over the years, from "what is GRAMMATRON?" to "what happens to our notion of authorship in digital culture?" His artistic and academic success is enviable: the man seems to be living his dream. Because he makes it sound so simple, the reader may well be inspired to follow a similar path of practicing the art she studies:
Where it gets interesting for those of us researching and developing a Life Style Practice composed of nomadic narratives -- a process where we use whatever instruments are available at our moment in time -- is that writing is now becoming more performative in a network-distributed environment similar to the way that oral histories were performative in more condensed, isolated communities. This is when writing moves away from being a mere individual memory recording device and becomes a more interlinked, creative mindshare. It's driven by what media theorist Gregory Ulmer calls "the logic of invention" and requires a heuretic approach to making things with the electronic apparatus. (173)
The volume will later brilliantly present examples of such heuretic practice in Part V, Net Dialogues, in which Amerika interviews and is interviewed by several artists and researchers active in the network. The conversations explore theory alongside personal practice narratives, and will acquaint the reader with the past of networked art as well as look into the future. The voices of other electronic art digerati, including Adrian Miles, Shelley Jackson, Talan Memmott, Amanda McDonald Crowley, and GRAMMATRON's protagonist Abe Golam, provide a welcome set of diverse perspectives on net art as practiced all over the physical world.

Before all that, however, Image écriture is a section composed entirely of images. These stunning glossy reproductions are not figures referred to elsewhere; they tell their own story, and consist of screenshots and other captured images of Amerika's work, some of it developed under the auspices of the TECHNE project he leads at the University of Colorado. The images, naturally, will have to speak for themselves to those who seek out META/DATA.

The above-mentioned "interview" with Abe Golam -- written in the time-honored tradition of a philosopher speaking to himself and presenting it as dialogue -- appropriately segues into Amerika Online. This last and largest section is a relatively sober collection of Amerika's cumulative thoughts on society and art in the network, and where they might be heading. He points out that his generation of digital writers and artists, and presumably later ones, are "media vets. Our ability to angle, spin, surf, rap, digress and flow into uncharted territory is much more intuitive than the Silent and early Boomer generations because we were born the live, online citizens of McLuhan's global village and don't have to be convinced that this is where we as a race are going. We're already there" (284).

Where is "there"? "In the rhizomatic flow of network cultures" (318), he says. Amerika's electrosphere is collaborative. "Playgiarism" is encouraged and copyleftism prevails -- "defying intellectual property rights is no longer an experiment: it's the nature of the web" (339). This seemingly idealistic view is balanced by discussions of the new media economy and economics, but is ultimately focussed on openness (see particularly "Blurring Practices: The Work of Art as Public Offering").

In the last article of the volume, "Making History Up: A Serial Question Mark," Amerika nicely encapsulates what he's been trying to say all along: "I'm not trying to say anything. I'm trying to do" (422). And indeed, his agenda (helpfully provided in the same Q&A session) consists of inventing new theories and putting them into practice.

META/DATA is a whirlwind, a pleasure to read; it is recommended to anyone interested in social and artistic interactions with the digital and the network. A snapshot of a life's work in progress, it is also useful as a workbook, a collection of ideas to take and to run with.

  1. The entire volume really does meander, perhaps less in some parts than in others. This may be disorienting, but is appropriate to one of Amerika's main points -- that practice and theory are inseparable in his world. The reading process is more enjoyable the more completely you mentally surrender to where he wants to take you. A clarity runs through it.

Vika Zafrin:
Vika Zafrin received her PhD in Humanities Computing at Brown University in 2007. She is trying to understand the human species by way of the stories we tell to ourselves and each other on and off the internet. Vika has reviewed Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media and Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature  <vika@wordsend.org>

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