This month, Upfor gallery has two exhibits. Inside its physical venue in Northwest Portland, there's Brenna Murphy's Axis Spread—small 3-D-printed sculptures of tangled, colorful designs spaciously displayed on the gallery's floor.
Then there's Mark Amerika's new work, Detail(s) from GRAMMATRON (Animated GIF Remix), which only exists on the gallery's website. It takes about three minutes to get through.
Detail(s) is on Upfor's website in advance of the British Computer Arts Society's symposium in September that will be centered around the 20th anniversary of GRAMMATRON. It begins with black words that flash onto an all-red screen: "I am a writing machine. Not this tragic dream that mourns the loss of unity. A writing machine. Now here's the story."
From there, it's not so easy to follow. A deluge of proto-internet-quality photos on brightly colored browser pages appear and disappear on your computer screen faster than you can keep up with.
It's not that digital artwork is particularly topical—Upfor regularly publishes online-only exhibits. But Detail(s) is the self-described remix of Amerika's seminal 1997 hyperlink labyrinth GRAMMATRON. Over a decade before the format became ubiquitous among webcomics like Homestuck, GRAMMATRON was one of the first long-form hyperlink narratives to be published on the internet. Built out of nearly 2,000 links, it follows Abe Golam as he wanders disassociated, like a digital Ulysses, though the city Prague-23. Embedded into words on each page are links you can click to advance the story. Some pages have just one link, others have several that are each a different path through the narrative.
When it was released in '97, Wired heralded GRAMMATRON as "a model for a whole new level of reading." The New York Times wrote "GRAMMATRON is Amerika unbound from convention." Ominously, it also quoted Amerika saying "It's a project that in my mind has tremendous potential, but at the same time can never really reach its potential."
So perhaps it's not surprising that Detail(s) feels like squashed dreams.
Composed of images and text sampled from GRAMMATRON, it's a highly condensed version of the original. Instead of a hypertext, Detail(s) is a roughly three-minute video—this time, you don't even have to move your cursor to get to the end.
Calling it Detail(s) seems ironic in the bleakest way possible. With the same lo-fi production values of the original, the show hurtles through a series of flashing images, bright backgrounds and text you want to read but can't keep up with. You're forced to take in so much information at once, it feels impossible to take in any information at all. One of the most legible parts of Detail(s) is a sample from the first hyperlink page of GRAMMATRON: "Abe Golam, legendary info-shaman, cracker of the sorcerer code and creator of Grammatron and Nanoscript, sat behind his computer, every speck of creative ore long since excavated from his burnt-out brain, wondering how he was going to survive in the electrosphere he had once called home." The video then loops back to the beginning. In GRAMMATRON, that's where the story starts. There are several links scattered throughout the sentence, each a different way through Prague-23. But Prague-23—a seemingly limitless realm of digital pathways—doesn't feel like it exists in Detail(s).
Twenty years after the launch of GRAMMATRON, it feels like Amerika is weary of what his creation has become (It's like Commander Adama says in Battlestar Galactica, "You cannot play God, then wash your hands of the things that you've created."). GRAMMATRON was never optimistic, but in 1997, it must have at least felt full of wonder and possibility, a world unbound by reality and fabricated out of ones and zeros. In Detail(s), the sprawling dreamscape of GRAMMATRON is a claustrophobic nightmare.
SEE IT: Axis Spread is at Upfor, 929 NW Flanders St., through July 22. Detail(s) on upfor.digital through Sept. 30.