Blam: the essence is speed
William Owen looks at design in the age of digital reproduction
Blam! Is a CD-ROM containing sixteen miscellaneous artworks, animated prose poems, linear texts and sampled interviews punctuated by fit inducing video flash and overlaid by tearing sound. It isn’t interactive: the user is used, driven helplessly along on a wave of brutality, obscenity and mocking humour devoid of compassion. Blam! doesn’t fit any conventional category of art, running like a video but reading like a book, a true progeny of hypertext which could not have sprung from any video-maker’s imagination. As a multimedia product Blam! is technically unsophisticated and graphically naïve, constructed in HyperCard point and click and low-resolution bitmapped black and white. Its strength lies in its arrogance, and its best moments come when the performance is allowed to run out of user control, when the taut mix of harsh monochrome imagery, clashing noise and speed invigorate communication.
Blam! is the first production of Necro Enema Amalgamated, the brainchild of Eric Swenson and Keith Seward, two sharp and articulate New Yorkers in their mid-20s. Swenson is a graduate student at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Interactive Telecommunications Program; Seward teaches philosophy at NYU and writes for Artforum. Swenson explains the name: ‘Necro being the Greek word for death – being the ultimate affirmation of life; enema meaning the medical procedure which is designed to purge people of their psychic and physical toxins.’ And there is the ironic jibe at the National Endowment for the Arts, too.
Seward defines the target: ‘There’s a lot of constipative rhetoric in this whole interactive – call it hypermedia – world and we see ourselves flushing it out.’ The brunt of their attack is the hype which equates pressing buttons to activate pre-ordained operations with freedom of choice. ‘Giving a user more buttons to click is like giving extra links to a dog chain,’ states their manifesto, the NEA Agenda. Blam!, by contrast, is openly manipulative. ‘We want to be able to affirm the fact that we are not only programmers of software but also programmers of people.’
‘By and large, we are cynical about “empowering” users in that way. The products that give people the most pleasure are the least interactive.’ This is the thrust of Blam!’s centrepiece, the satirical ‘Ode to Interactivity’, a hilarious and cleverly worked poem weaving voiceover with animated concrete typography and lurid imagery. The ‘Ode’ is one of three pieces authored entirely by Swenson and Seward; most of the other items in this digital art object are work by New York-based artists and writers transposed into HyperCard by NEA. Contributors include the artist Janice K. Johnson; Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon; Manuel Delanda, author of War in the Age of Intelligent Machines; Jim Goad, editor of the unwholesome fanzine Answer Me; and Rita, the author of ‘Fever’, an animated essay on child prostitution which puts the viewer / user in the position of abuser (51-56).
The strength of the work in Blam! and the absence of reference to the medium on which it is made is as refreshing as its rapid-fire presentation. This is not another multimedia disk about multimedia, though it is nonetheless full of useful experiments into the possibilities of digital reproduction, playing with repetition and sampling speech to create a random montage of sound and image. Much effort has gone into working out how sound combines with text and repetitive visual imagery.
‘We use type to maintain the rhythm and the pace of reading,’ says Swenson. ‘In our manifesto we quote Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “Speed is the essence of war” and we kept that in mind when dealing with typography. We were also very conscious of the syntax and rhyme and metre of the linear prose we were dealing with. All those old rules of dissecting poetry were always in my head while taking things apart.’
‘Early in the process we discovered the idea of the textbite, a way of breaking texts down that allowed a new sort of rhythm and structure to become apparent. We were respectful of the original – we weren’t trying to be little neo-deconstructionists. We were very conscious of where we broke the screens, how we broke the phrase, what would be happening as the user read that piece to him / herself and how that reading would work in conjunction with the sound.’
Seward interjects: ‘When all of a sudden you’re foregoing the page structure which is so solid and comfortable and intuitively readable (Thanks to experience), it’s as if you’re picking the text up like a string and stretching it out over a bunch of invisible screens. In many pieces of Blam! the paragraph demarcations have gone altogether and are replaced by a new rhythm that involves screens and clicking and textbites and chunks.’ The process is generally successful in works which have been written specifically for hypertext, such as Janice K. Robinson’s ‘King Tooth’ (57-68), but the drawbacks become apparent in two adapted texts – Georges Bataille’s ‘The cruel Exercise of Art’ and ‘Manuel Delanda on Speed’ – as the reader soon loses track of linear, logical arguments when presented in sentence-sized bites on a point-and-click screen.
As an experiment in augmented reading, Blam! is a qualified success; as a trial run in digital publishing it has been a lesson in harsh commercial reality. The production took two years from general concept to final implementation, starting in October 1993 with most of the work concentrated in the last ten months. Seward and Swenson estimate that the whole project cost $15,000, including buying equipment but allowing nothing for labour. When nearly broke they were saved by a sponsorship deal from the London listings magazine Time Out; Voyager, always an enthusiastic supporter, took care of distribution, but NEA is finding that though Blam! might be a top-selling title at Tower Books on Lafayette and Broadway, they will never make a mint while the number of CD-ROM outlets is so restricted.
Time Out is now putting its money into a more commercial product called Blender. ‘So we’ve got to come up with a formula we feel comfortable with and where we’re not selling out. Right now we’re trying to find contributors who will give us the balance we need, and then we’ve got to approach people for money. We also officially say that the primary theme for Blam! no. 2, should it come out, will be dogs.’
William Owen, graphic designer and design writer, London
First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4 1994
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