dd: Mark, could you tell us first, why you switched from writing books to writinghypertext?
MA: The short answer is that I wanted to continue experimenting with narrative form and to expand the concept of writing beyond the print culture. I have a background in making experimental film and was interested in the potential of hypertext and other emerging forms of new media, but did not take it seriously until I started developing my practice on the Internet in 1993. There is a longer answer too.
First of all, you have to keep in mind that, for me, writing is surviving. It is not a leisurely activity that I approach in terms of »oh, one day I would like to write a novel.« Cocteau called writing a disease, and Bataille referred to it as a madness, something he could not NOT do. I can relate to those descriptions, although I may be more apt to think of writing in relation to Burroughs and his line about language being a virus and, from there, writing being an addiction.
The reason I am giving you all of these prefatory remarks is because it is actually difficult for me to compartmentalize my writing practice into different areas or genres. I write novels because I am intrigued with the idea of exploding what has become the standard model for narrative construction. Anyone who has read my books knows that my novels came into being as multi-linear storyworlds made of language play, graphical page design and fictionalized states of desire. My novels actively work against narrative closure and are intentionally created to defamiliarize the reader's relationship to conventional narrative devices like character development, plot, setting, proper grammar and/or syntax, all of the things that we expect to get from the conventional book world and its one-size-fits-all novel experience. I see narrative art as a place to work against the pull of false consciousness that we find in so much predetermined fiction writing.
My first novel, The Kafka Chronicles, received a lot of attention in both the mainstream world but also, more importantly, in the alternative culture. It was taken seriously by the underground music world and this led to my increased interest in D-I-Y culture and the so-called zine scene. I saw great potential in creating distributed communities of niche audiences as opposed to the all-or-nothing go-for-broke mentality of the big publishers. It just made more sense to me as an artist and cultural producer to take the alternative culture more seriously. So the advent of the Internet as a potential compositional as well as distribution medium seemed the perfect fit for my evolving interests in creating viable alternatives to the mainstream publishing industry and its dependency on multi-national corporate capitalism.
By the time the second novel, Sexual Blood, came out, I had already started Alt-X, perhaps the oldest surviving online art and writing network, and when I went on my 16-city book tour for SB, all of the attention was on Alt-X. I would give a reading to a large audience in Seattle or Minneapolis or New York, and then, after the reading, I would ask for questions and expect to hear from fans of my first book, The Kafka Chronicles, since it went into three printings in a very short period of time. But no, most of the questions were about Alt-X and the future of writing and publishing in a network culture. This was on my mind too, and by the time I had finished the book tour, I realized I needed to explore these options more.
Meanwhile, I had already started the first draft of a new novel called GRAMMATRON, which was spurring interest from a few major publishing houses, but I was adamant about what I wanted to do and decided to create a unique work of Internet art that would be made available for free to readers all over the world.
Also, by this time, I had already developed a relationship with Brown University as a visiting artist, attending their Vanguard Narrative Festival produced by Bob Coover and then, later, the Pong Festival which was more focused on digital art. I applied to their program so I could develop the GRAMMATRON project, and was accepted, with a Creative Writing fellowship and, with the help of Coover, George Landow, and others, spent two years reworking GRAMMATRON, which I had already started in Boulder. Now I could focus on both writing and cultural production in electronic spaces without necessarily leaving my narrative art practice behind.
dd: Your web site Alt-X is widely praised and considered »the literary publishing model of the future« (Publisher's Weekly). What does this site contain, what is the concept behind it?
MA: Alt-X, believe it or not, is now over seven years old. In net years, that feels like a millennium. At first, I thought of Alt-X as an experimental art project, one that would create a distributed community of writers and artists from around the world who could build both individual and collaborative art works aimed at targeted literary audiences around the world. But something else happened very fast: we were immediately seen more generally as one of the most happening alternative culture sites on the web which, at the time, was a very alternative medium.
This mainstream international attention was fast and intense totally unexpected. All of a sudden, what I had been used to, i.e. producing the printed Black Ice literary magazine for about 1000 core readers, exploded into an online publishing site that was attracting between 75,000 and 100,000 visitors a month. The pressure to continually create new content every month and to turn it into a profitable business model was overwhelming. But the Alt-X team stuck to our guns and focused on creating even more challenging work than we had been creating up to that time. This is when we started rethinking the entire site as a multi-linear, multi-disciplinary network where the digerati meet the literati.
To this effect we have over the years created an incredible amount of work. We started off by publishing fiction, interviews with writers, artists and theorists, virtually reprinting Postmodern classics, an electronic book review and forum, irreverent manifestos and essays, and my Amerika Online column, which has since been translated into German at the Telepolis site. Perhaps the areas of development that would be of most interest to your readers are Electronic Book Review, Black Ice, Virtual Imprints and Hyper-X.
Electronic Book Review, in particular, has continued to do things that no other serious online journal is doing right now. Joe Tabbi and Anne Burdick and the entire editorial and design team are creating an entirely new interface for critical interaction with new media and literary work, a space where critical artists of different backgrounds and interests radically reconfigure the ways in which graphic design, writing, editing and reading converge in the web-based interface. The interface itself, focused as it is on threads and interweaving, is a metaphor for what the site is doing with all of its rich content. And then there are the hundreds of contributors whose work constantly challenges our notions of writing and reading in relation to critical theory, network culture and the blurring of the visual with the textual.
Alt-X is also now about to launch its own Ebook series, mp3 label, Palm Pilot programs, and many other publishing projects. We're very lucky that our senior editor, Ron Sukenick, who has been a kind of behind-the-scenes Pomo Godfather to the site, is directing the new publishing project out of New York.
Of course, on our way to inventing new modes of writing, reading and publishing, we found that the mainstream literary art world was emphatically opposed to our vision of literature's future. Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly understood what we were doing, but not many others. Then, something changed. Something unexpected. The visual, conceptual and digital art worlds all started paying attention to what we were doing and we began getting a reputation for developing some of the early forms of Internet Art, which we were, even though we weren't calling it that at the time. In 1996-97, and especially after the release of my GRAMMATRON, the site started calling into question what had become the arbitrary differences between publishing and exhibiting, curating and editing, creating a work of hypertextually-driven narrative or poetic art and a new kind of net art or web art.
Our online exhibition, Digital Studies: Being in Cyberspace, was perhaps one of the first sincere attempts at blurring these distinctions and now, of course, everyone is doing it, from the Whitney Biennial 2000 to ZKM to gallery spaces all around the globe.
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