CYBERSPACE INSTALLATIONS: DO-IT-YOURSELF NARRATIVE COMPOSITION FOR THE 90S
One of the most dramatic lessons I've learned from developing complex hypermedia narratives for cyberspace (like my forthcoming GRAMMATRON) instead of creating a traditional manuscript bound for print-reality, is how the narrative artist of today is totally dependent on the development of new network technologies as well as the skills and talents of other collaborators working in the field. Composing in networked-narrative environments inevitably leads one to recognize that his/her forms are constantly metamorphosing 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. This sort of co-dependency on emerging technologies raises some interesting questions, like, "will all hypermedia narrative projects, no matter how politically-correct their content may think itself to be, endorse the development of commercial products emerging out of the new media industry?"
This is a significant query to ask oneself when composing in this environment, for if the political strategy behind the narrative composition is at all serious about employing, say, the Avant-Pop anti-aesthetic practice to produce new, unpackagable culture integrations that go against the grain of the efficiency oriented profit system by reintroducing disruptive forces that the system needs to exclude, then how can one proceed to compose these "subversive narratives" without simultaneously supporting the system of investments and expenditures that drive the technological apparatus through its various stages of development in late-capitalism?
Literary critic Joseph Tabbi sees this dialectic as carrying forward both the romantic tradition of the sublime and the goal of social and scientific realism, suggesting, in his book Postmodern Sublime, that "[d]esire and the human imagination run through the weightiest machinery and the most disembodied electronic forms, and these things need the imagination no less than it needs them." He finishes this thought by saying that "[t]he imagination gives technology the narrative form necessary for human significance, and technology, in whatever form, provides necessary referential constraints to the imagination." In this regard it could also be said that for contemporary artists whose programmatic reflex it is to send a critical signal into the database of noise that passes itself off as consumer culture, the need to work with the evolving network technology that drives the production of content on the World Wide Web is part of a greater struggle to build receptive audiences for their work.
One multi-media narrative artist who goes by the name Bobby Rabyd, has used these disembodied electronic forms to build a receptive audience for his network-distributed hyperfiction called SUNSHINE 69. Billed as a Web-based time machine that allows the reader to explore and contribute prose to the open-ended tale, the story was originally distributed over the Sonicnet alternative (loser-friendly) music site, an interesting occurrence in that the kind of Avant-Pop fiction Rabyd is both writing himself and encouraging his collaborators to contribute to the site is exactly the kind of writing that most mainstream publishing companies have found it convenient to ignore.
Borrowing from the independent music scenes D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) gig-ethic, Rabyds web-narrative is now located at his own, home-grown, rabyd.com site, where curious navigators looking for experimental hyperfiction can enter the Sunshine 69 matrix through a clickable image map of the San Francisco Bay area or select from multiple points of views from the dozens of protagonists surfing throughout the narratives tele-geography: a rock star, a Vietnam vet, a flower child or a CIA agent - even an oddball avatar named Lucifer. Once one has entered the visually animated world of Sunshine 69, the hypertext story that ensues chronicles the death of the 1960s through some of the major movements of what the Rabyd calls the "Summer of Hate" (a small pun on San Frans Haight Street where much of the Summer of Love was to have taken place).
Floating into this narrative space where some of the characters are real, some imagined, the navigator is turned on to a recombinant history of the Sixties whose diverse themes include the violent Altamont concert, the Kent State massacre, the Vietnam War, the comeback of Nixon, the first landing on the moon, the Manson killings, and an overdetermined infatuation with the Rolling Stones. Finally, in Sunshine '69, the premium LSD known as Orange Sunshine is personified in a flower child who, in the midst of making sense of what's happening to her generation, gets kidnapped by the CIA and turned into a deadly double-agent. Her infiltration into counter-culture happenings, from hanging out with the Hell's Angels to circulating throughout the Woodstock Festival, presents an ambiguous re-telling of the social and political upheavals we associate with the Sixties.
The navigator can begin their journey through this historical fiction via the Calendar, the Suitcase, and the Map. The Map opens up a variety of locations in the Bay Area where much of what went down in the Sixties originated or, if you prefer, you can click on the Calendar and get a more timely perspective of what happened to various characters on a day-to-day basis back during those tumultuous times. The Suitcase is a multi-perspectival hypertext that caricatures the various people populating this retro-scene of turning on, tuning in and dropping out.
Clicking around the different screens here introduces us to Rabyds zine-inspired writing style and suggests that the web itself is rapidly becoming the most popular venue for the dissemination of more home-grown enterprises that are totally prepared to assert themselves as serious, yet fun, projects dead-set on bypassing the unwritten laws and logic of the "taste-controllers" who run the mainstream culture business (ironically, many of these "taste-controllers" were themselves once Sunshine 69-like characters and Rabyd is happy to give both these oldie-goldies as well as the new cyberkids on the block an equal opportunity to tell their own stories in the Sunshine 69 guestbook).
But this isnt just Bobby Rabyds vision of the Sixties teleported into a hypertextual narrative environment. Most interestingly, this project is created by a web-connected hypermedia team composed of many artists, each with their own skills and talents, lending various levels of expertise to both the hyperfictions graphical design and navigational complexity. For example, Richard Schulers hallucinogenic graphics, reminiscent of much of the cool album-cover art of the era, take on a signifying character of their own as the various avatars whose perspectives we tunnel our reading through, become associated with ultra-mod design objects that represent their placement within the dispersed space-time discontinuums offered by the multi-linear routing of the narrative. The minimalist drawings of the Sunshine 69s characters like Lucifer, the Glimmer Twins, Alan, Ali, Murdoch, and Sunshine herself, are all head-less, but the threads they wear clearly indicate their affinity for a sexier, more flexible social environment that fashion-hounds will immediately identify as very Sixties.
The production team at Sonicnet that originally helped create the site before it moved to Rabyds own domain name, led by producer Alison Dorfman, has used these graphics and the Sunshine 69 story-elements to great advantage, and has also found a way to further develop the trippy interface of S69 by interweaving Rabyds inclusion of an original soundtrack of made-for-the-Web music that he, with musician Will Oldham, has composed especially for the storyworld by way of state-of-the-art RealAudio technology that streams packets of sound-data into your hard-drive and can be played via the RealAudio plug-in. Under the section heading entitled 8-track (a tribute to that fleeting technology of yore), the navigator will find tunes from three fictional bands linked into the Sunshine 69 matrix: Dij, The New Mutants and Heavy Water (all with their own accompanying graphics). The most interesting of these bands is Dij, whose lo-fi, garage-band aesthetic, dishes out psychedelic riffs like Micks Mind, Alans Brain and Tims Time, all of it reminding us how it was the rock and roll phenomenon of the Sixties that initially brought into view the revolutionary potential the technology/pop-underground interface, a potential that was narrativized in the cyberpunk novels of the 80s and that we now try to affiliate with the advent of network technology as experienced via the rapid development of the World Wide Web and the concurrent rush of self-proclaimed new media artists to its more flexible, open system of production and distribution.
And yet, just as rock and roll has become the most commercial of contemporary art forms, there is a rising concern that the Web itself is on the verge of losing its edge too, perhaps becoming so absorbed into a WebTV or WindowsTV environment that, lately, one has been hearing many complaints that this is the beginning of the end of the Web as we know it and that soon it will all be an endless flow of bad TV-programming with no alternatives to turn to. But are these fears really necessary? The main thing we have going for us now is that the loosely termed anarchic quality of the Net itself, that is, its ability to support a many-to-many distribution model that points toward a continued leveling of the distribution playing field, still rules the day, despite the fact that so much commercial activity has already infiltrated the once-undeveloped regions of cyberspace. For those of us attracted to the Web as indicative of a major paradigmatic shift in the way we disseminate cultural productions, there is a basic understanding now that this model of delivery is different than the one we associate with the broadcast-spectrum. In fact, it can be said that the Net is without spectrum, or, to be more rhetorical, has the potential to continually evolve its own endless form of Virtual Ubiquity: and this, of course, is what makes it out-of-control.
The Cyberspace Ur-Spectrum, one might say, is infinitely expandable, and its flexible environment system may, in the end, enable multitudes of home-grown artists, philosophers, theorists, writers, infopreneurs, and political activists, to evolve their own niche communities of support and feedback thus enabling them to survive in the electrosphere. (Mark Amerika)