The writers of Cyberia underwent a similar evolution. The literary culture of Cyberia began as a dark, negative worldview but later developed into a multimedia celebration of timelessness and designer reality. Today, the literature of Cyberia - like its music - has become personified by cyberians themselves, who adopt into their own lives the ethos of a fictional designer reality.
'Beat' hero William Burroughs didn't start the cyberpunk movement in literature, but he foresaw it, most notably in his novel Naked Lunch (1959). Although written long before video games or the personal computer existed, Burroughs's works utilize a precybernetic hallucinatory dimension called the Interzone, where machines mutate into creatures, and people can be controlled telepathically by 'senders' who communicate messages via psychedelics introduced into the victims' bloodstreams.
Burroughs's description of the psychic interface prophesizes a virtual reality nightmare: Senders gain "control of physical movements, mental processes, emotional responses, and apparent sensory impressions by means of bioelectrical signals injected into the nervous system of the subject The biocontrol apparatus [is] the prototype of one-way telepathic control." Once indoctrinated, the drug user becomes an unwilling agent for one of the Interzone's two main rivaling powers. The battle is fought entirely in the hallucinatory dimension, and involves 'jacking in' (as William Gibson will later call it) through intelligent mutated typewriters.
Burroughs's famed 'prismatic' style of writing - almost a literary equivalent of Brian Eno's Ambient Music - reads more like jazz than the narrative works of his contemporaries. Each word or turn of phrase can lead the reader down an entirely new avenue of thought or plot, imitating the experience of an interdimensional hypertext adventure. But as the pioneer of nonmimetic hallucinatory and even pornographic literature, Burroughs suffered condemnation from the courts and, worse, occasional addiction to the chemicals that offered him access to the far reaches of his consciousness. Unlike the cyberian authors of today, Burroughs was not free simply to romp in the uncharted regions of hyperspace, but instead - like early psychedelic explorers - was forced to evaluate his experiences against the accepted, 'sane' reality of the very noncyberian world in which he lived. The morphogenetic field, as it were, was not yet fully formed.
This made Burroughs feel alone and mentally ill. In a letter to Allen Ginsburg, he wrote that he hoped the writing of Naked Lunch would somehow 'cure' him of his homosexuality. As David Cronenberg, who later made a film adaptation of the book, comments, "even at that time ... even these guys, the hippest of the hip, were still capable of thinking of themselves as sick guys who could be cured by some act of art or will or drugs."'
Burroughs's early pre-Cyberia, as a result, became as dark, paranoid, and pessimistic as the author himself. It was three decades before cyberian literature could shake off this tone. In the current climate, Burroughs has been able to adopt a more full-blown cyber aesthetic that, while still cynically expressed, calls for the liberation of humanity from the constraints of the body through radical technologically enhanced mutation:
"Evolution did not come to a reverent halt with homo sapiens. An evolutionary step that involves biologic alterations is irreversible. We now must take such a step if we are to survive at all. And it had better be good ... . We have the technology to recreate a flawed artifact, and to produce improved and variegated models of the body designed for space conditions. I have predicted that the transition from time into space will involve biologic alteration. Such alterations are already manifest."7
It wasn't until the 1990s (and close to his own nineties) that Burroughs gained access to other forms of media, which more readily accepted his bizarre cyberian aesthetic. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy; My Own Private Idaho) collaborated with Burroughs on a video version of the satiric poem 'Thanksgiving Prayer', which later appeared in freeze-frame form in Mondo 2000. But long before Burroughs had himself successfully crossed over into other media, his aesthetic and his worldview had found their way there.
Cyberpunk proper was born out of a pessimistic view similar to that of William Burroughs. The people, stories, and milieu of William Gibson's books are generally credited with spawning an entirely new aesthetic in the science fiction novel, and cross-pollinating with films like Bladerun-ner, Max Headroom, and Batman. Taking its cue from comic books, skateboard magazines, and video games more than from the lineage of great sci-fi writers like Asimov and Bradbury, cyberpunk literature is a gritty portrait of a future world not too unlike our own, with computer hackers called 'cowboys', black market genetic surgeons, underground terrorist-punkers called Moderns who wear chameleonlike camouflage suits, contraband software, drugs, and body parts, and personality imprints of dead hackers called 'constructs' who jet as disembodied consciousness through the huge computer net called 'the matrix'. The invention of the matrix, even as a literary construct, marks the birth of cyberpunk fiction. Here, the matrix describes itself to Case, Gibson's reluctant cowboy hero:
"The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games," said the voice-over, "in the early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks." On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights ... receding ...""
The matrix is a fictional extension of our own worldwide computer net, represented graphically to the user, much like VR or a video game, and experienced via dermatrodes, which send impulses through the skin directly into the brain. After years away from cyberspace, Case is given the precious opportunity to hack through the matrix once again. Gibson's description voiced the ultimate hacker fantasy for the first time:
He closed his eyes.
And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, laces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.
Please, he prayed, now -
A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding -And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-paintecl loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.1'
The invention of cyberspace as a real place is the most heralded of the cyberpunk genre's contributions to fiction and the arts. William Gibson and his colleague/collaborator Bruce Sterling paint vivid portraits of a seamy urban squalor contrasted by an ultra-high-tech web of electronic sinews, traveled by mercenary hackers, digital cowboys, artificial intelligences, and disembodied minds.
These authors acknowledge the discrepancy between the promise of technological miracles, such as imprinting consciousness onto a silicon chip, and their application in a real world still obsessed with power, money, and sex. Their backs are the literary equivalent of industrial music, exploring a world where machines and technology have filled every available corner, and regular people are forced to figure out a way to turn these technologies against the creators and manipulators of society.
Contributing to the pessimistic quality of these works is another idea shared with the industrial movement - that human beings are basically programmable. "I saw his profile," one character remarks about another. "He's a kind of compulsive Judas. Can't get off sexually unless he knows he's betraying the object of his desire. That's what the file says." And we know that means he can't act otherwise. Characters must behave absolutely true to their programming, having no choice but to follow the instructions of their emotional templates. Even Molly, the closest thing to a love-interest in Neuromancer. leaves her boyfriend with a written, self-defeating apology: "ITS TITE WAYIM WIRED I GUESS.""'
Like Burroughs's reluctant hero in Naked Lunch, Case's addictive personality is exploited by higher powers, and he must pay for the joy of jacking in by becoming an agent for a dark, interdimensional corporation.
Also like Burroughs's prismatic style, the feeling of these books is more textural than structural. Like fantasy role-playing, computer games, or Nintendo adventures, these books are to be appreciated for the ride. Take the opening of Gibson and Sterling's novel, The Difference Engine:
Composite image, optically encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunei: aerial view of suburban Cherbourg, October 14, 1905. A villa, a garden, a balcony.
Erase the balcony's wrought-iron curves, exposing a bath-chair and its occupant. Reflected sunset glints from the nickel-plate of the chair's wheel-spokes.
The occupant, owner of the villa, rests her arthritic hands upon fabric woven by a Jacquard loom.
These hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman. Her name is Sybil Gerard."
Like the characters in Fantastic Voyage, we move through a multitiered fractal reality, enjoying the lens of a camera, the dexterity of a computer design program, the precision of a microscope, the information access of an historical database, the intimacy of a shared consciousness, and, finally, the distance and objectivity of a narrative voice that can identify this entity by its name. The way in which we move through the text says as much if not more about the cyberpunk worldview than does its particular post-sci-fi aesthetic. Writers like Gibson and Sterling hate to be called 'cyberpunk' because they know their writing is not just an atmosphere or flavor. While this branch of fiction may have launched the cyberpunk milieu, it also embodies some of the principles of the current renaissance in its thematic implications.
Even the above passage from The Difference Engine demonstrates a sense of holographic reality, where identity is defined by the consensual hallucination of a being's component parts. Similarly, like a DMT trip, a shamanic journey, or a hypertext computer program, reality in these books unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. A minor point may explode into the primary adventure at hand, or a character may appear, drop a clue or warning, and then vanish. Furthermore, these stories boldly contrast the old with the new, and the biological with the technical, reminding us that society does not progress in a smooth, curvilinear fashion.
Sterling's Schismatrix, for example, pits the technical against the organic in a world war between Mechanists, who have mastered surgical manipulation of the human body through advanced implant technology, and
Shapers, who accomplish similar biological manipulation through conscious control over their own DNA coding. This is the same metaphorical struggle that systems mathematician Ralph Abraham has explored throughout human history, between the organic spiritual forces - which he calls Chaos, Gaia, and Eros - and the more mechanistic forces embodied by technology, patriarchal domination, and monotheism. In fact, Sterling's own worldview is based on a nonlinear systems mathematics model.
"Society is a complex system," he writes for an article in Whole Earth Kevieiv, "and there's no sort of A-yields-B business here. It's an iteration. A yields B one day and then AB is going to yield something else the next day, and it's going to yield something else the next and there's 365 days in a year, and it takes 20 years for anything to happen."12
Just as these writers incorporate the latest principles of chaos math, new technology, and computer colonization into their stories and milieu, they are also fascinated by exploring what these breakthroughs imply about the nature of human experience. William Gibson knew nothing about computers when he wrote Neuromancer. Most of the details came from fantasy: "If I'd actually known anything about computers, I doubt if I'd been able to do it."" He was motivated instead by watching kids in video arcades: "I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pyn-chon novel: you had this feedback loop, with photons coming off the screen into the kids' eyes, the neurons moving through their bodies, electrons moving through the computer. And these kids clearly believed in the space these games projected. Everyone who works with computers seems to develop an intuitive faith that there's some kind of actual space behind the screen."1'1
Gibson's inspiration is Thomas Pynchon, not Benoit Mandelbrot, and his focus is human functioning, not computer programming. The space behind the screen - the consensual hallucination - is Cyberia in its first modern incarnation. Gibson and his cohorts are cyberpunk writers not because they're interested in hackers but because they are able to understand the totality of human experience as a kind of neural net. Their stories, rooted partially in traditional, linear fiction and common sense, mine the inconsistencies of modern culture's consensual hallucinations in the hope of discovering what it truly means to be a human being. Their permutations on consciousness - a cowboy's run in the matrix, an artificial intelligence, an imprinted personality - are not celebrations of technology but a kind of thought experiment aimed at conceptualizing the experience of life.
As ushers rather than participants in Cyberia. Gibson and Sterling are not optimistic about the future of such experience. Most criticism of their work stems from the authors' rather nihilistic conclusions about mankind's relationship to technology and the environment. Gibson's characters in Heuromancer enjoy their bodies and the matrix, but more out of addictive impulsiveness than true passion.
Gibson admits, "One of the reasons, I think, that I use computers in that way is that I got really interested in these obsessive things. I hadn't heard anybody talk about anything with that intensity since the Sixties. It was like listening to people talk about drugs."15 The cyberian vision according to these, the original cyberpunk authors, is a doomed one, where the only truth to be distilled is that a person's consciousness has no spirit.
In a phone conversation, Bruce Sterling shares his similar worldview over the shouts and laughter of his children: "If you realize that the world is nonlinear and random, then it means that you can be completely annihilated by chaos for no particular reason at all. These things happen. There's no cosmic justice. And that's a disquieting thing to have to face. It's damaging to people's self-esteem."
Both Sterling and Gibson experienced the 'cyberian vision', but their conclusions are dark and hopeless. Rather than trashing the old death-based paradigm, they simply incorporate chaos, computers, and randomness into a fairly mechanistic model. Sterling believes in systems math, cultural viruses, and the promise of the net, but, like Bruce Eisner, he doesn't see technology as inherently liberating. "I worry about quotidian things like the greenhouse effect and topsoil depletion and desertification and exploding populations and species extinction. It's like it's not gonna matter if you've got five thousand meg on your desktop if outside your door its like a hundred twelve degrees Fahrenheit for three weeks in a row."
While they weren't ready to make the leap into cyberian consciousness, Gibson and Sterling were crucial to the formation of Cyberia, and their works took the first step toward imagining a reality beyond time or locational space. These writers have refused, however, to entertain the notion of human beings surviving the apocalypse, or even of real awareness outside the body. ITyperspace is a hallucination, and death is certainly real and permanent. Even Case's friend, the one disembodied consciousness in Neuromaiicer, knows he's not real: his only wish is to be terminated.
It has been left to younger, as-yet less recognized writers, like WELL denizen Mark Laidlaw, to invent characters whose celebration of Cyberia outweigh the futility of life in a decaying world. One of his stories, 'Probability Pipeline', which he wrote with the help of cyber novelist and mathematician Rudy Rucker, is about two friends, Delbert, a surfer, and Zep, a surfboard designer, who invent the ultimate board, or 'stick'; one that, utilizing chaos mathematics, can create monster waves.
"Dig it, Del, I'm not going to say this twice. The ocean is a chaotic dynamical system with sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Macro info keeps being folded in while micro info keeps being excavated I'm telling you, dude. Say I'm interested in predicting or influencing the waves over the next few minutes. Waves don't move all that fast, so anything that can influence the surf here in the next few minutes is going to depend on the surf-space values within a neighboring area of, say, one square kilometer. I'm only going to fine-grain down to the millimeter level, you wave, so we're looking at, uh, one trillion sample points. Million squared. Don't interrupt again, Delbert, or I won't build you the chaotic attractor." "\bu're going to build me a new stick?"
"I got the idea when you hypnotized me last night. Only I'd forgotten till just now. Ten fractal surf levels at a trillion sample points. We model that with an imipolex CA, we use a nerve-patch modem outset unit to send the rider's suriest desires down a co-ax inside the leash, the CA does a chaotic back simulation of the fractal inset, the board does a jiggly-doo, and ..." "TSUUUNAMIIIIII!" screamed Delbert, leaping up on the bench and striking a boss surfer pose."'
Laidlaw and Rucker's world is closer to the cyberian sentiment because the characters are not politicians, criminals, or unwilling participants in a global, interdimensional battle. They are surfers, riding the wave of chaos purely for pleasure. To them, the truth of Cybena is a sea of waves - chaotic, maybe, but a playground more than anything else. The surfers' conclusions about chaos are absolutely cyberian: sport, pleasure, and adventure are the only logical responses to a fractal universe. Like the first house musicians who came after Genesis P Orridge's hostile industrial genre, dispensing with leather and chains and adopting the fashions of surfwear and skateboarding, these younger writers have taken the first leap toward ecstasy by incorporating surf culture into their works.
Laidlaw first thought of writing the story, he explains to me in the basement office of his San Francisco Mission District home, "at Rudy's house, where he had a Mandelbrot book with a picture of a wave. I looked at it, and realized that a surfboard can take you into this stuff." Laidlaw rejects the negative implications of Gibson's hardwired world and refuses to believe that things are winding down.
"The apocalypse? I see that as egotism!" Likewise, abandoning the rules of traditional structure ("Plot," Laidlaw explains, "merely affords comfort in a hopeless'situation"), Laidlaw follows his own character's advice, and surfs his way through the storytelling.
"Get rad. Be an adventurist. You'll be part of the system, man," explains the character Zep, and eventually that's what happens. Like Green Fire, who on his visionquests must control his imagination lest his fantasies become real, Del accidentally sends too many thought signals through his surfboard/chaotic attractor to the nuclear power plant at the ocean shore and blows it up; but, as luck would have it, he, Zep, and their girl Jen escape in an interdimensional leap:
"The two waves intermingled in a chaotic mindscape abstraction. Up and up they flew, the fin scraping sparks from the edges of the unknown. Zep saw stars swimming under them, a great spiral of stars.
"Everything was still, so still.
"And then Del's hand shot out. Across the galactic wheel a gleaming figure shared their space. It was coming straight at them. Rider of the tides of night, carver of blackhole beaches and neutron tubes. Bent low on his luminous board - graceful, poised, inhuman.
"'Stoked,' said Jen. 'God's a surfer!'"17
The only real weapon against the fearful vision of a cold Siber-Cyberia is joy. Appreciation of the space gives the surfer his bearings and balance in Cyberia.
This is why art and literature are seen as so crucial to coping there: they serve as celebratory announcements from a world moving into hyperspace. No matter how dark or pessimistic their milieux, these authors still delight in revealing the textures and possibilities of a world free of physical constraints, boring predictability, and linear events.
Toasters, Band-Aids, Blood
Comic book artists, who already prided themselves on their non-linear storytelling techniques, were the first to adopt the milieu of cyberian literature into another medium. Coming from a tradition of superheroes and clearcut battles between good and evil, comics tend to focus on the more primitive aspects of Cyberia, and are usually steeped in dualism, terror, and violence. While younger comic artists have ventured into a post-nihilistic vision of Cyberia, the first to bring cyberian aesthetics into the world of superheroes, like the original cyberpunk authors, depicted worlds as dark as they could draw them.
Batman, the brooding eaped crusader, was one of the first of the traditional comic book characters to enjoy a cyberpunk rebirth, when Frank Miller created The Dark Knight Returns series in the 1980s. As Miller surely realized, Batman is a particularly fascinating superhero to bring to Cyberia because he is a mere mortal and, like us, he must use human skills to cope with the post-modern apocalypse. The mature Batman, as wrought by Miller, is fraught with inconsistencies, self-doubt, and resentment toward a society gone awry. Fie is the same Batman who fought criminals in earlier, simpler decades, who now, as an older man, is utterly unequipped for the challenges of Cyberia.
Miller's Dark Knight series interpolates a human superhero into the modern social-media scheme. Commentators in frames the shape of TV sets interpret each of Batman's actions as they occur. Newsmedia criticism running throughout the story reminds the audience that Batman's world has become a datasphere. Each of his actions affect more than just the particular criminal he has beaten up - they have an iterative influence on the viewing public.
For example, a Ted Koppel-like newsman conducts a TV interview with a social scientist about Batman's media identity. The psychologist responds:
Picture the public psyche as a vast, moist membrane - through the media, Batman has struck this membrane a vicious blow, and it has recoiled. Hence your misleading statistics. But you see, Ted, the membrane is flexible. Here the more significant effects of the blow become calculable, even predictable. To wit - every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input. Given this, the presence of such an aberrant, violent force in the media can only lead to anti-social programming.18
The iterative quality of the media within the comic book story creates a particularly cyberian 'looking glass' milieu that has caught on with other comic book writers as a free-for-all visual sampling of diary entries, computer printouts, television reports, advertisements, narratives from other characters as well as regular dialogue and narration. In addition, the comic books make their impact by sampling brand names, media identities, and cultural icons from the present, the past, and an imagined future. Comics, always an ideal form for visual collage, here become vehicles for self-consciously gathered iconic samples. This chaos of imagery, in a world Batman would prefer to dominate with order and control is precisely what causes his anguish.
In the Batman comics we witness the ultimate battle of icons, as Batman and Joker conduct a cyberian war of images in a present-day datasphere. They no longer battle physically but idealistically, and their weapons are the press and television coverage. This becomes particulary ironic when the reader pauses to remember that Batman and the Joker are comic book characters themselves - of course they would behave this way. They are their media identities, which is why their manifestation in the datasphere is so important to them. Their battle is a metaconflict, framed within a cut-and-paste medium.
So poor Batman, a character out of the patriarchy (he is, after all, avenging the murder of his father), finds himself caught in a nightmare as he tries to control post-modern chaos. In Frank Miller's words, "Batman imposes his order on the world; he is an absolute control freak. The Joker is Batman's most maddening opponent. He represents the chaos Batman despises, the chaos that killed his parents."19 Living in a comic book world, it's no wonder that Batman is going crazy while the Joker seems to gain strength over the years.
This is why the experience of Miller's world is more like visiting an early acid house club than reading a traditional comic book. Miller initiates a reexploration of the nonlinear and sampling potential of the comic-book medium, pairing facing pages that at first glance seem unrelated but actually comment on each other deeply. A large, full-page abstract drawing of Batman may be juxtaposed with small cells of action scenes, television analysis, random comments, song lyrics, or newsprint. As the eye wanders in any direction it chooses, the reader's disorientation mirrors Batman's confusion at fighting for good in a world where there are no longer clear, clean lines to define one's position. The comicbook reader relaxes only when he is able to accept the chaotic, nonlinear quality of Miller's text and enjoy it for the ride. Then, the meaning of Batman's story becomes clear, hovering somewhere between the page and the viewer's mind.
Even more grotesque, disorienting, and cyber-extreme is the work of Bill Sienkiewicz, whose Stray Toasters series epitomizes the darkest side of the cyberpunk comic style. The story - a mystery about a boy who, we learn, has been made part machine - is depicted in a multimedia comicbook style, with frames that include photographs of nails, plastic, fringe, packing bubbles, toaster parts, leather, Band-Aids, and blood. This world of sadomasochism, crime, torture, and corruption makes Neuromancer seem bright by comparison. There is very little logic to the behaviors and storyline here - it's almost as if straying from the nightmarish randomness of events and emotions would sacrifice the nonlinear consistency. In essence, Stray Toasters is a world of textures, where the soft, hard, organic, and electronic make up a kind of dreamscape through which both the characters and the readers are moved about at random. As Bruce Sterling would no doubt agree, an accidental or even an intentional electrocution could come at any turn of a page.
Finally, though, cyber-style comics have emerged that are as hyper-textual as Miller or Sienkiewicz's, but far more optimistic. Like the characters of Marc Laidlaw and Rudy Rucker, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are fun-loving, pizza-eating surfer dudes, for whom enjoying life (while, perhaps, learning of their origin and fighting evil) is of prime importance. They are just as cyberpunk and nonlinear as Batman or the Joker, but their experience of life is playful. While the characters and stories in the subsequent films and TV cartoons are, admittedly, fairly cardboard, the original comic books produced out of a suburban garage by Eastman and Laird are cyberpunk's answer to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Four turtles, minding their own business, fall off a truck and into a puddle of ooze that turns them into human-size talking turtles. They are trained by a rat to become ninja warriors, and then they go on an interdimensional quest to the place where the transformative ooze originated. Throughout their adventures, the turtles maintain a lighthearted attitude, surfing their way through battles and chases.
The violence is real and the world is corrupt, but the turtles maintain hope and cheer. The comic itself, like the Toon Town atmosphere, is a sweet self-parody, sampling nearly all of the comic-book-genre styles. But instead of creating a nightmarish panoply, Eastman and Laird use these elements to build a giant playground. Challenges are games, truly evil enemies are 'bad guys1, and the rewards are simple - pizza and a party. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series offers the only optimistic response to a nonlinear and chaotic world: to become softer, sweeter, more adventurous for its own sake, and not to take life too seriously.
The multimedia quality of cyber comic books spills over into cyberian video production, which has begun to reinterpret its own dynamic in relation to the fantasy games, novels, and comics. While these media borrow from video's quick-cut electronic immediacy, videographers now borrow back from the cyberpunk style and ethics to create a new graphic environment - one that interacts much more intimately with the viewer's body and consciousness than does the printed page.
At any Toon Town house event, television monitors throughout the club flash the computer-generated imagery of Rose X, a company created by Britt Welin and Ken Adams, a young married couple who moved to Petaluma, California, to be close to their mentor, Terence McKenna. Global Village enthusiasts, they hope their videos will help to awaken a network of like-minded people in remote regions throughout the nation. Their vision, inspired in part by McKenna, is of a psychedelic Cyberia, where techniques of consciousness, computers, and television co-evolve.
Like McKenna, Ken and Britt believe that psychedelics and human beings share a morphic, co-evolutionary relationship, but they are quick to include technology in the organic dance. As they smoke a joint and splice wires in their garage-studio (where else?), Ken explains the video-psychedelic evolutionary model.
"Psychedelic experiences are almost like voices from your dream state. They call you and they seduce you. People are also constantly seduced by psychedelic techniques on TV that have to do with fluid editing and accelerated vision processing. People love that stuff because it strikes them in a very ancient place, something that spirals back down into the past for everybody whether or not they're using psychedelics. It's there already."
Like MTV videos that substitute texture for story and quick cuts for plot points, Rose X videos work on an almost subliminal level. Meaning is gleaned from the succession of images more than their linear relationship. Viewers process information moment to moment, thus the amount processed increases with the number of cuts, even if the data is less structured, Rose X takes these techniques a step further by intentionally appealing to the viewer's ability to experience a kind of morphic resonance with the patterns and data flashing on the screen. Even their subject matter - their most popular videos are talks by Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham - is intended to awaken dormant zones of human consciousness.
Britt, a perky, dark blonde with a southern accent, pops in a video collage and details her take on the relationship of technology, psychedelics, and consciousness. The images swirl on a giant video screen flanked by banks of computer equipment and wires. It's difficult to figure out the difference between what's around the screen and what's being projected onto it.
"We work in a psychedelic state when we're able to. And then we have a different relationship to our technology. We're into a concept called 'technoanimism,' where we really think of technology itself as an animistic dynamic that filters through the individual machines, bringing an overspirit to them - an animistic spirit that's way beyond what humans are comprehending on their own level."
Britt, like Sarah Drew from the music world, has developed herself into a cyborg. Both women unite with their technology in order to channel information they believe is new to humanity. Just as house musicians start with a sound, then go where the sound takes them, Britt allows her video and computer equipment to lead her into artistic discoveries. "When you are functioning at a high psychedelic level and you go into a cyberspace environment, you lose your parameters and you find yourself entirely within the electronic world. It breeds its own surprises."
Unlike most men in the cyber-arts scene, who tend to think of themselves as dominators of technology, Ken, like Britt, strives to become 'one' with the machine. "Our video-computer system's set up to ease us into a level of intimacy where we can use it in a transparent sense. II I enter into a trance relationship with it, then it ends up having a spiritlike existence."
Rose X's current project, a feature-length video called Strange Attractor emerges out of their interest in the relationship of technology to organic interdimensional consciousness. In the story, a reversal of the Adam and Eve myth, Rose is a 'strange attractor' - a person who, through lucid dreaming, can access the vast network of artificial environments normally entered through computers or virtual reality. On one of her journeys into cyberspace, she befriends another strange attractor - a young man who has gotten lost in the consensual hallucination. Her task is to rescue this lost soul by getting him to experience his body - through virtual sex - or his spirit - by getting him to eat a psychoactive apple. On the way, she is helped by an interdimensional sect who use organic methods to access Cyberia, and thwarted by an evil race of authorities, who hope to curb interdimensional travel and trap the human race forever in its earthly, single-dimensional reality.
The battle is typically cyberpunk, but here the forces of chaos are the good guys, and those who put a lid on interdimensional travel are the bad guys. The good guys are true cyberians, who use ancient techniques, psy-chedelics, and computers in a nondiscriminatory cybersampling of whatever works. Britt and Ken believe Eve was right, and that had Adam followed his own impulses rather than God's orders, everything would have been okay.
Unlike earlier voyagers like Burroughs, Britt embraces the ambiguous impulses that can feel so unsettling:
"Westerners tend to try to suppress them and ignore them, probably out of fear of insanity. If there are voices or beings in your mind that you don't seem to have any control over - that can be a terrifying prospect."
Similarly, rather than be afraid of technology's influence over them, they lovingly embrace their machinery as an equal partner in the race toward hyperspace. The printed, 'official' version of Britt and Ken's psychedelic and technological agenda equates the experience of drugs with the promise of technology and the lost art of ecstasy:
"Strange but efficient organic forms appearing and disappearing resemble visions before sleep when two worlds touch. This is computer video signal compression. Like peyole, like psilocybin, silicon has songs to sing, stories to tell you won't hear anywhere else."
Likewise, the Rose X company is true to cyberian ideals of tribal, open interaction - a new garage-band ethic based on pooling resources and hacking what's out there. Britt trained herself on the Amiga Video Toaster after she convinced her employer to buy one. Ken bought his with money from an NEA grant. But even without elaborate social hacking, the Video Toaster's low cost makes it as available now as a guitar and amplifier were in the sixties. The device links the personal computer to the television, giving the viewing public its first opportunity to talk back to the screen. Britt explains enthusiastically: "Look how many bands got formed since the Beatles."
Low-cost guerrilla production techniques have also led artists toward the cut-and-paste aesthetic. No longer concerned with making things look real, videographers like Ken and Britt do most of their work in post-production, manipulating images they shoot or scrounge. Like house music recording artists, their techniques involve sampling, overlaying, and dubbing. Ken is proud that his work never tries to imitate a physical reality and is especially critical of filmmakers who waste precious resources on costly special effects. Video art in Cyberia is cut-and-paste impressionism. Just as comic-book artists include television images or even wires and blood in their cells, videographers include pictures of the Iraq bombings, virtual reality scenes, and even old sitcoms.
"We're much more like a cyberpunk comic book. We don't want it to look like it takes place in a natural setting. We want it to all be self-contained in a conceptual space that's primarily videographic - like virtual reality. It'll be the reality of the imagination. We've quit trying to mimic reality: we try to mimic our imagination, which is the root of all reality anyway."
Again, the final stage in the development of a cyberian genre is the designer being, mated both with technology and with psyehedelics in the hope of creating a new territory for human consciousness. But what the designers of the new literary milieu may not realize is that around the world, thirsty young minds absorb these ideas and attempt to put them into effect in their own lives. The fully evolved cyberian artists aren't making any art at all. They're living it.
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