Mark Amerika on Digital Narrative


Mark Amerika, a “Time Magazine Top 100 Innovator,” is the author of two novels, The Kafka Chronicles and Sexual Blood. Grammatron, a groundbreaking work of Internet art, was one of the first web sites to be included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Amerika is also the publisher of Alt-X, dubbed “the literary publishing model of the future” by Publishers Weekly.

For more information on Mark Amerika visit:

Excerpt from Evolving Traditions: Artists Working in New Media (2002).



Mark Amerika uses computer technology to investigate new forms of writing.


My first two novels, The Kafka Chronicles and Sexual Blood are primarily about experimenting with the form of a novel. They’re about writing itself. If you read the novels you’ll see that there are also some stories going on there as well. But primarily I was interested in investigating the potential of multi or linearity writing. And the reason why I wanted to do that is because I thought that the standard forms of writing, like the novel, were getting kind of old and boring. Once you start experimenting with non-linear formats you see that there’s all kinds of ways to liberate the reader. When I say liberate the reader, I mean the reader actually comes to the web site, for example to Grammatron and they’re presented with a page that has seven links on it. When they are done reading that page they themselves get to choose which link they want to choose, which link they want to pick. And then that will automatically take them to a new page. Now just because they happen to choose one link doesn’t mean that the next reader will choose the same link. So the readers always choose different links and consequently get different stories. And to me that’s very exciting, both from the perspective of reader, who’s always getting a different version of the story, and for me as a writer who has to think of how the story will be told in these multiple ways.

The Grammatron Project is actually the first part of my new media trilogy. Grammatron, Phoneme, Film Text makes up the trilogy, and Grammatron actually started as my third novel. And when I had composed about 40 pages of the novel, which was a story about a near future world where artists and writers contributed and distributed their work over the Internet. I realize that this near future world that I was creating was actually starting to develop very fast on the Internet. So I decided I didn’t wanna do a sort of second generation cyberpunk novel as a kind of writing cop out, but I would actually create a soundtrack, animated images, video etc., for this work and also break it up into a kind of multi media hypertext and put it on the web as sort of the first kind of large scale narrative to ever appear on the Internet.


So what we’re looking at here is the opening screen to the Grammatron project, which was released in June of 1997 but was in production for four years before that. So Grammatron actually was started on April 3, 1993 approximately one or two weeks before the release of the Mosaic, the first graphical user interface browser like Netscape, or MS Explorer on the Internet. And I think that that’s significant because it goes to show that a number of us were actually trying to envision what Internet art could be like if the technology was there. As a consequence we had to wait for the technology to catch up with our ideas and our visions. As a result of that I had to, for example, develop the soundtrack of Grammatron before there was even streaming audio capabilities on the Intranet before there was Mp3 downloads, etc. Grammatron has a number of parts to it. It has a companion theory guide called Hyper textual consciousness. It has the Grammatron 1.0 soundtrack. It has a mailing list for people who want information about all my artwork. It has a brief white paper on the process of making the work Grammatron, and a little bit of information about me, as well as a place to send feedback to the artist. What’s happening in this particular scene is that you have these series of ones and zeros, and yet every one and zero is randomly programmed to come up with a link. In other words at this point in the story I have no control over where the reader is going. So for example, I didn’t know that the link to this zero is going to take the reader to this particular. If you go back…click on that one, I had no idea that that’s where the reader will be taken. So when you compose a piece like this, and Grammatron has over 1200 of these pages with lots of images and sounds and thousands of links, you have to imagine what it would be like for the reader to go through the narrative in a multitude of ways. Now of course you can’t imagine all the possible readings. You can’t imagine the millions of readings. So it does affect the way you write. And what you do is instead of creating a linear plot driven story, you end up creating something much more discrete in it’s tract and in many ways this becomes something like a work of conceptual art, but in narrative form.


Grammatron is an important work because it’s the first instance of a proven underground Avant-garde writer applying his talents to use the new medium of Internet for any kind of work, work that defies the commercial culture and extends the underground culture into a new medium.


The difference between creating a novel and an Internet art project particularly a narrative on the Intranet is that when you’re working on the Internet you have to work with collaborators or at least that’s my preferred way of working. So with my novel it’s just me writing and then sending it off to the publisher so that they’ll print it. With the Internet artworks like Grammatron and Phon:e:me I was constantly collaborating with video makers, sound designers, web designers, other writers, DJ’s, programmers, etc. And so that leads to kind of opening up with the process. And as an artist for me that means that I have to allow the influence of other artists into the project as it’s being created. And that’s something in a way that’s very liberating because – then all of a sudden things open up that otherwise might not have been there.


What we’re looking at now is the Phon:e:me project, also pronounced Phone Me, or Phony, Me. This is the second project in my new media trilogy. The first is Grammatron and the last one will be Filmtext. With Phon:e:me I was hoping to experiment more with the sound quality of words, that is to say of their phonetic capabilities. So if you were to for example as I did record the phonemes in the English language, uh, buh, chu, and then manipulate them in digital audio programming, you can actually create very unique soundtracks out of it.


Mark Amerika is of course a writer and comes from this context and it’s interesting to see how traditional writers are exploring new media such as hypertext in a completely new environment such as the Internet.


The film text project is the last piece of my new media trilogy, and it’s a continuation or a continuation of the investigation of my primary themes, exploring, again, sexuality, the commodification of art and life in general in America. And the interesting about it for me right now is that it’s exploring various cross media platforms, meaning that film text can appear as an installing in a museum. It can appear as an interactive web site. It can appear as a downloadable e-book or you can experience it as a live performance. So these are images from my work in progress called Filmtext, which is the third part of my new media trilogy.


And these fragment or you might say, shadow images will interact with some streaming text and some original ambiance soundtrack that will enable the user to interact with the site actually. So when the visitor comes to the web site or to the museum installation they’ll actually be able to steer a lot of the movement of the image, the sound and the text. Lately I’ve been really thinking a lot about bringing a performance element into my work. And with the filmtext project there was an opportunity to do that in that I was recently invited to Lucerne to give a keynote performance for their Annual Easter Literature and Music Festival. And so what I did is I invited my sound collaborators who are working with me on Filmtext, Twine, out to Lucerne with me. What we did is we created a wireless web connection. We brought a number of our sound files and sound patches with us, and we created a live performance event using a lot of the source material. I created the Alt-X Online Network in 1993 as an extension of my active cultural practice at that time.


I had been publishing a journal called “Black Ice” and had been participating as an editor in the Black Ice book series, and I found that the distribution paradigms for book publishing were really becoming an issue for alternative publisher. And I wanted to find another way, an alternative distribution model to get the work out and locate preferable a wider, larger audience. So I started experimenting with the Internet as a network publishing model and not only did it – were we able to succeed in finding that audience, we started having a pretty strong influence on the development of Internet culture because we were one of the first content sites on the Intranet. Alt-X has an online network devoted to creating alternative cultural products for the Internet audience has always been interested in a kind of you might say, radical political intervention or interventionist activity. And so one of the things that we do is we like to what we call surf, sample and manipulate. We surf the web for material that’s of use to us. We sample it in our computers. We manipulate it and then we redistribute it on the web. And so what we do is we’ll take like, for example here we took a simple barcode, and the idea of a barcode and how much they’re just a part of our life today but yet we don’t even realize that they’re there, and we blew them up and animated them so that they became almost in a way presently annoying. The only way to get away for the pleasantly annoying animation is to click on the logo which is also itself a kind of barcode and this takes you to the Altx index page.

Altx has just launched a series of e-books as well as print on demand books as part of our program. We publish hypertext. We publish net art. We publish the electronic book review also known as EVR, which is perhaps the most well designed and most popular new media forum of its kind. We also have Alt-X audio where we have Mp3 albums and streaming audio. Alt-X realize that publishing was more than publishing when you put it on the net. When you started publishing work that included music, images, hypertext links, etc., all of a sudden it also became more of an exhibition medium. So now by publishing multi media narratives we were also simultaneously exhibiting what we now have come to call Intranet Art. So Alt-X has changed through the years. It has become more of an Internet art and new media publisher. On the web a story can go on and on forever and ever. One links always leads to another.