Few champions of online technology have expanded the medium to fit their brave idealistic vision as far as Mark Amerika. The Miami-born Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado at Boulder began his manipulation of identity with a change of name. After writing two postmodernist cult novels on paper, Amerika composed "Grammatron," a pioneering work of hypertext fiction that was the first Internet-based artwork to make the Whitney Biennial. The 2000 Biennial catalogue describes it "a story about cyberspace, Cabala mysticism, digicash paracurrencies and the evolution of virtual sex in a society afraid to go outside and get in touch with its own nature." Amerika followed this work with "PHON:E:ME," an mp3 concept album with hyper-liner notes, which cumulated in the multi-media "FILMTEXT," presented as part of Europe's first net art retrospective and the most expensive example of net art to be purchased in 2005 (albeit for just $10,000). Now Amerika is working with smaller machines on a larger project intended to make cell phone cinema into a legitimate high-art form.
Here, we discuss both the 3D setting for "CODEWORK" a video currently screening in the Seoul W Hotel, and the artist's foray into cell phone recording with Immobilité, the world's first full-length film, which he shot on a cell phone in Cornwall. Incorporating subtitles and fields of lush abstract color into a loose narrative with improvising amateur actors, Amerika has turned a ubiquitous bit of DIY technology into a cinematic tool to poetically express his interest in academic post-structuralist theory and experimental film history. Launched at the Tate Modern, Immobilité is currently on view at New York's Chelsea Art Museum.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: So far, the most famous cell-phone films are the "Happy Slapping" evidence movies of kids performing acts of violence. Were you hoping that the beauty of your film would redeem the medium from its associations with "Happy Slapping," amateur porn and DIY recordings of other anit-social behaviour?
MARK AMERIKA: Yes. Having lived through both postmodernism and poststructuralism, I think it's safe to say that we are on the verge of something that feels much more intense and requires a new attitude about our approach to life in an age of aesthetics. Instead of feeling jaded by everything there is now this feeling that we need to tap into this enormous creative potential that we're just beginning to connect to via the network. One word that people keep using to describe both Immobilité and my role as the artist who made it is "romantic." At first, I was suspicious of that term, but now I embrace it. We are definitely living in a pre-romantic era and the "pre" is disappearing quickly. The election of Obama has totally verified that.
Stills from Immobilité
AFH: When deciding to undertake Immobilité, were you initially attracted to the aesthetics of the cell-phone's recording functions, or did you approach it more as a conceptual tool?
MA: It was both. Using a mobile phone was easy and the quality was actually quite good but just low-tech enough to make a difference.
AFH: How did the phone function differently from another low-tech recorder?
MA: I am really interested in experimenting with the camera as a prosthesis—and I mean literally, using the micro-camera as if it were a part of my body. At one point in the film, the subtitled character refers to how the eye touches rather than sees. At times it felt like I was holding my eyes in the palm my hand. This led to new discoveries: For example, that the phone would enable me to approach the wild landscapes I was capturing as potential source material that would then, as a result of some of the experimental hand-held techniques I was employing, turn the images into something much more painterly yet still connected to contemporary forms of visual art like experimental video or even VJ performance.
AFH: Would you compare this work to the text-novels popular in Japan ?
MA: In a couple of ways; for sure. First, you have to literally re-invent the aesthetic measure of the piece so that it fits the display device one is using to experience the work. Also, there is the way the work gets distributed to its networked audience.
AFH: Why show this work in a museum?
MA: It's the best venue for the limited edition feature-length version of the work. It's difficult to get auteur-generated art films into the theatre. If you do, it's just for a few weeks. Film artists tend to devalue their work by sending out all of these DVD screeners in hopes that 40 people will watch it if it gets accepted into the Podunk Film Festival. You may as well as put it up on YouTube and give it away for free.
AFH: Why didn't you just do that?
MA: We actually do stream some of the remixes over the Web for free and the iPhone App Remix is also a free download. But the museum is a cultural space that exhibits and at times collects and preserves works of art. It even offers educational programs as to why the work is important. The museum offers a value-added proposition. Look at it this way: my DIY mobile phone art film has a five week run in NYC that plays from 11 AM–6 PM, five days a week. There are films that cost millions of dollars that don't get that kind of play.
AFH: When designing CODEWORK, the abstract videos that are being shown on several screens and walls of Seoul's Woobar, were you thinking of it as moving decor, or ambiance—like club's visuals, or were you interested in infusing it with content and other meanings?
MA: That's a really good question. I think the work takes on different meanings depending on its exhibition context.
AFH: Explain what might be missed while potential viewers are focused on socializing in Woobar.
MA: My style of VJing only uses source material that I myself have captured. With CODEWORK, I remix scenes that I have captured from desert locations in places like the Haleakala Crater atop the island of Maui and that I use as a kind of "empty canvas" or backdrop that then gets saturated with color fields of light and energy from night locations in places like Tokyo or Hong Kong. I distort the moving images in-camera while I am capturing them so that there is a painterly quality to the source material right from the start. Then once I have that source material, I experiment with it in the VJ software that I am always tweaking. During my live VJ performances, I was so taken with the aesthetic quality of some of the images I was generating that I decided to bring them into my digital studio and began composing what I think of as painterly video.
AFH: How has the development of Internet art measured up to your expectations of it as a pioneer in the medium?
MA: Let me confess something: I never really had great expectations for net art. My reason for getting into it in 1993, before most people even had an email account, was to experiment with the network as a conceptual art space. The explosion of interest in net art coincided with the rise of the dot-com which then led to all kinds of wild opportunities. Having a lot of work on the net when all of this was first happening meant I was well positioned to distribute my early work in that nascent community space.
AFH: How have you seen Internet art change, in fact?
MA: Artists would be well advised to not identify themselves as a "net artists"—all that would do is lead to self-ghettoization and who needs that? When the bottom fell out of that highly speculative dot-com market, the growth spurt in net art kind of dwindled away too. Today there is a kind of net art 2.0 that has become more about social networking and Web 2.0 tools that focus on more narcissistic behaviour like Twittering—which is fine, but it definitely feels like we are seeing less experimentation with the Web as a conceptual art space. My sense is that the Next Big Thing will be hybridized works of art that spread themselves across various media and platforms, everything from e-books to VJ performance to museum installations to urban screens to iPhone apps. But, of course, I'm biased since that's exactly what a lot of my current work does.