Memetic Flesh in Cyber-City

Arthur & Marilouise Kroker

Memetic flesh? That's the street scene in cyber-city: San Francisco, CA. Not so much an ars electronica, but an Ars California: an art of digital living. Certainly not a sociological rhetoric of evolution or devolution, but something radically different. Memetic flesh as a floating outlaw zone where memes fold into genes, where the delirious spectacle of cyber-culture reconfigures the future of the molecular body. In Ars California, memetic flesh is neither future nor history, but the molecular present. Pure California Gening.

Now we just got off the Net where we experienced data delirium with Gerfried Stocker's manifesto for memetic flesh, the one where he speculates about future memes: stochastic minds, recombinant bodies, infoskin, molecular daydreams. When we read this meme manifesto, our bodies of flesh, bone and blood sagged under the terminal evolutionary weight of it all, but the electronic sensors embedded in our nanoskin just went crazy. Like Alien 3, the electronic worms cruising the blood lanes just below skin surface heard this call of a future technotopia, flipped on their sensor matrix to red alert, whomped through the epidermal bunker, zoomed out into fresh air, and were last seen heading straight for the California coast.

And why? Because in Ars California, words are always too slow: the art of digital life exceeds new programming languages. Java, Perl, C++, awk, C shell - these are always outmoded codes for better client/server relations. Spurning new programming codes and breaking beyond all the debugging barriers, memetic flesh fast-fuses memes and genes, molecularly hardwiring information into the folded vectors of softflesh. In SF, memes have abandoned the art academy, becoming popular culture for the 21st century. Just listen to the street talk: a cool-looking city-wise Chicano in Killer Loop shades plays Tex-Mex blues on his guitar while wearing a T-shirt that boasts: "I'm a Professional Beta-Tester for Microsoft;" a businessman tucked away in an IBM suit in-lines by while dealing mega-futures of Intel chips on his cellular phone; an African-American with a hi-tech futures face gets into the elevator armoured in a red windbreaker listing the brand-name icons for "The Corporate Alliance of America's Leading Cyber-Companies;" a nano-technologist begins to tell prophetic tales of the next human migration, the one where floating slivers of the human species will be carefully wrapped in huge nanofiber skins and allowed to float away into deep space, seeding the future universe.

Or we're walking down a sun-bleached street in San Francisco right under the Bay Bridge, and we see a beat-up Winnebago with a Nevada license plate. It's got a big sign out front advertising bargain basement prices on Java/Sun computer packages. It's a sun-real California scene: an old Winnebago, hi-tech gear, hard-drivin' Silicon Valley type salesmen in a no-tech part of town, with no customers to take their coffee and donuts and hi-tech packages except for some homeless guys and ourselves. After asking us "Which way to multi-media gulch?" they realized the error of their memetic way, and closed up shop just as a couple of street people settled down for some good eatin' and sleepin' inside the chain-link fence. Memetic flesh as daily life in cyber-city, the kind of place where the virus of the tech future digs its way under the skin, like an itch or a sore or a viral meme that just won't go away.

No one knows this better than the memetic artists of SF. Not the corporate art of Silicon Valley, the "house" art of Interval, Xerox, and Oracle with their New Age visions of wetware products for the digital generation nor the subordinated aesthetics of the fine art emporiums in official culture, but unofficial outlaw art that's practiced in hidden warehouses and storefront galleries and ghetto schools and other side of the tracks digital machine shops: an art of dirty memes.

Dirty memes? That's what happens when memetic engineering escapes into the streets of cyber-city, and its scent is picked up by viral artists. Like Elliot Anderson's multimedia algorithm, "The Temptation of St. Anthony," with its brilliant psychopathology of obsessive-compulsive behavior, complete with 3-D ghostly images of emotional discomfort and stuttering gestures, as the key psychic sign of digital culture. Or Matt Hackert's dead horse flesh machines complete with belching flame-throwers and whirring chain saws and rip-snorting drills, and all of this accompanied by the robotic sounds of the mechanical orchestra. Or Lynn Hershman's memetic cinema with its application of object-relations programming to the universe of Hollywood imagery. Or the viral robotics of Chico MacMurtie's "Amorphic Robot Works" that encode in robo-genetics all the ecstasy and catastrophe of the ruling cultural memetics. Neither technotopian nor technophobic, memetic art in the streets of SF is always dirty, always rubbing memes against genes, always clicking into (our) memetic flesh.


Arthur & Marilouise Kroker

Scanner’s in town from London, and the outlaw cyber- crowd driftworks its way to No Innocence, a dance bar on the corner of boul. St-Laurent and Prince Arthur in Montreal. It’s the usual kind of 21st century medieval bar gone recombinant: blue lights, particularly in the toilets and stairwell, so that patrons can’t see their veins when trying to shoot up heroin, stagey gothic shields of stained glass and iron fifteen-feet wide on the ceiling, dungeon walls, belching woofers of artificial smoke (probably to dry out our oral secretions all the faster and thus sell more beer). And the crowd was great, a real bodily pitch- bender: some were there for the trance music, others for filling. up the orifices of hungry cyber-ears, and yet others seemed to just want to travel with Scanner to that nowhere state of death- head ambient sound cut with the sudden static bursts of live scans of the city’s electronic envelope. Scanner appears on the high altar of the DJ stage six feet above the dance floor, surrounded by smoke and strobes and mesmerized scanner flesh fans. The music was fantastic. Not just for the warps and blends and displacements and time- compressions of the forbidding dark anti-melodic sounds, but also for what wasn’t there in the sound architecture: no 4/4 rock beat, but an unpredictably phase-shifted sound to produce dance music perfect for our android future. And profoundly emotional too: deep displacements of heavy sounds five octaves down are randomly cut with live scanner electronic discharges.

pimps and prostitutes
sex lines and cops
hospital emergency rooms
suburban chatter and night-time dream voices and runaway express trains
heading straight for a date with the atrocity museum, but most of all,
just plain folks, bitching and pushing and shoving and’cyber- grovelling and
whining across the field of the electronic sky,
trying to get through one more night,
trying to connect in an empty galaxy of dead sound.

For one cabalistic moment of scanner magic, the No Innocence crowd stops dancing, the chatter suddenly falls silent, and even Scanner steps away from his midi processor. We’re all caught up in an electronic nowhere trance, drifting at the edge of scanner sounds that our bodily registers are not equipped to pick up with normal bio-sensors and the deep bass phasal-shifted cyber-thunder of Scanner’s musical reply to the electronic sonic gods of cyber-city. We realize that we’re practitioners of a more ancient religious festival, cyber-ears opened up by the tech voodoo of Scanner to primal sounds for the electronic age.

We shake our heads to clear out the electronic spell that’s invaded bodily flesh, look at Scanner and are stunned to see that his skin is washed in a silver-tinted glaze. We think these surely are slide images projected on his skin and shaven head, but then look around to disc:over that Scanner’s a musician of tech flesh. Given the right circumstances and the right auditory mood, he doesn’t just do live scanner performances, but he actually becomes a scanning machine. Random images of his past and probably of ours too begin to metamorphose on his flesh like 3D hologramic images, seduced out of their hiding- place in the body by the siren-call of electronic discharges until they leak outwards onto Scanner’s skin, like beautifully mutating sonic spores. It’s a truly spectacular sight: images of a ten-year- old boy (that’s the early Scanner) hanging a microphone from his bedroom window to capture the sounds of passing cars which are then played back with a ten-second delay, panic scenes of pilots having their very last scan by waiting airplane recorders as they sequence into a crash-scene, John Cage and Scanner caught up in floating sonic drift as noise flips between the extremes of idle boredom and excess speech.

And it’s just the way it should be because Scanner has never been interested in noise and certainly not in music as much as he’s obsessesed with voices disappearing into the electronic vortex: voices with working class accents, voices neutered to fit upper-class body types, voices that come right out of the soil of the British midlands, American midwest or Chiba City - voices cut and spliced and randomly discharged across the cellular telephone net, abuse voices, seductive voices, no-go dead voices on all the desperate answering- and phone sex machines of the world.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the cyber-party at No lnnocence is over. We all gather at Fear’s apartment in Old Montreal for a millennial version of the good old jam session. Except this time nobody pulls out an instrument. All the composers’ reach for their DAT tapes, flip scanner selections into a black Cuisinart of a machine, and settle back for a pure exchange of scanner sounds: a woman who calls herself Kosmic plays sounds recombinant of android music fresh from Stockholm, Latex Lagoon reaches into his case of 240 hours of tapes and splays us with low static bass reverbs cut at the wavering boundaries of ecstasy and dread, and Scanner gives us a bonus track: an intense drone-like scan of big thunder voice sounds pitched downwards into infinity mixed with the soft sighs of phone sex. A “Sound Spore” of an evening with the Scanner crowd. The kind of scanner body wash where the skin peels off the face to reveal disintegrating flesh and skulls and brain tissue,’ arms are scanned into dead-air pixel imagery, and bodies arch upwards in bursts of high-energy sound waves as they evaporate into the Net. Scanner is an assembler of the electronic past in our digital future. Forsaking improved vision, he provides us with improved hearing for detecting the sounds of our own disappearance into the electronic grid of dead space.

30 Smoke-Free Days in California

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

Zero Tolerance

I'm driving through the Sacramento Valley, listening to bible belt preachers on the radio cut with some patches of harp rap, thinking of Foucault in his Death Valley days, and smoking a Camel. Suddenly, a California State Trooper on his tech-customized Harley pops his flashing light and pulls me over. Fourteen antennas reaming from his Bladerunner helmet, no shades 'cause he's wearing contact lenses encrypted with the American flag, and with his left cheek tattooed, "It's all in the Good Book," the trooper pulls his sun-baked beef off the bike, stoops to wipe a speck of Interstate dust from his S/M hi-top black leather boots, and steps over my rent-a-car with that peculiar "It's not just a good idea, it's the law" attitude.

I do an instant Catholic examination of (highway) conscience. Haven't broken the speed limit, my seat belt's tucked up tight to my belly, haven't been drinking for at least an hour, I've got no unconcealed weapons, my blood's drug-free and my mind is (pretty) pure, and unlike most of the teenage spirits and maybe some of the agri-business farmers in the Valley, I'm not sky-high on speed and whacked out on Prozac. I've got a cheery smile, an upright face, no cheesecake flesh, and a life-affirming attitude and I might be in the California midwest but I still believe in Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Techno-Culture, so help me God. But just to be sure, I reach in my pocket and pull out my rights: I've got a 1st amendment mouth, a 4th amendment vehicle, and a constitutional iron-clad guarantee to a zone of middle class white boy privacy.

Feeling pretty confident, I press down my window, and say: "What's the problem officer? I haven't been speeding."

He answers: "Speed's got nothing to do with it. Look what you're holding in your right hand."

So I say "Yeah," as I flick the ash from my Camel.

"Sir, there's zero tolerance for smoking in this town."

When I protest, "I'm just driving through," he hands me a $100 ticket and says: "I don't make the law - I just enforce it." And then, with just a little nod towards his Presbyterian past, he hands me a nicotine patch and smirks: "This should be enough to get you out of town."

Red's Java House

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

Down on the San Francisco Bay along The Embarcadero, there is a place called Red's Java House. It's right across the wharf from the Jeremiah O'Brien, the last of the Liberty ships, and just down the way from a sidewalk plaque commemorating the "Lost Ghost Ship: Lydia." Lost, that is, because its remains have been buried forty feet beneath The Embarcadero, probably along with some tourists, since the last earthquake.

So it's a sunny day in California and we're sitting outside Red's Java House. The kind of place where the food is so bad and the bird shit's so heavy, it makes you want to puke. The longshoremen have fled long ago, and now it's been taken over by the khaki crowd and the Silicon set looking for a bit of True Grit. But not just techie bodies. Retro Hell's Angels are steady customers, a pickup truck for construction workers wheels in, complete with a bumper sticker that reads "Workers in the USA are best when they say Union Yes," guys with dreadlocks and Oakleys, bike messengers poured into data suits studded with digital comm-gear, ex-CEOs, from what the SoMa crowd calls "Multi-Media Gulch", slipstreaming their Chili Dogs and wondering whimsically where it all went wrong, a teal-haired woman in a blue leather US Highway 101 jacket, retired couples, and there's even some bunko artists in the corner cashing in their chips.

Red's Java House was really hopping that day: lunch-time crowd pigeon roosting, tooling Buds and vacuum-eating cheeseburgers. In the noonday sun, my body might be in San Francisco, but my thoughts are with the Germans. I'm reading Heidegger's essay on anxiety, looking, I suppose, for a philosophical encryption chip to the malaise of the hyper-media mind. And it's a curious thing. Heidegger says that anxiety is about confronting nothingness. I don't bother to think that one through, but feed Heidegger's insight directly to my stomach neurons, probably to get a quick take on what my eating intelligence has to say about the relationship between anxiety and nothingness.

Now crazy-ass seagulls, pure Clorox white, are circling in the air, cheeseburgers are being lazily chomped all around me, the Red Java crowd is at that edge of late morning tiredness and lunch-time happiness, and I know, I just know, that Heidegger is wrong. It's not nothingness that people are afraid of, at least the California crowd down on The Embarcadero, but just the opposite. What really hardwires the anxiety gene directly into the California cellular structure is not nothingness, but hyperactivity. Always having something to do like an ulcer-weight coming down heavy on your mind, and your body is rattled tight, and you can't walk except at a trot with face muscles pulled taut, and running shoes with your working clothes that you don't really want to wear, and you're on the run baby run treadmill at the high tech street level display-window gym speeding to nowhere; but time is money, appearance is everything, and you just can't afford to miss that nifty power walk up and down San Francisco Bay. Gogol's "dead souls" as 90s repressed young professionals. And not just the Silicon boys and girls either, but everybody in San Francisco has gotten into the act: the suits on Market street put on hypermedia flesh to autodoc every morning at their cyber-work stations, homeless guys along the Bay do hard-edge military style calisthenics, complete with one-arm pushups with legs suspended three-feet off the air on park fencing, the Ferry building is a fast vector blast of cyber-muscle rolling in from the night-time dreamworld of Marin county, and there's not a word spoken here that's not a paean to promotional culture with a capital P. But then again, maybe Heidegger is right. Maybe the anxious self reaches pitch velocity running from nothingness, and really loving it.

Red's Java House is about as close to Heidegger's nothingness as you're going to get on this side of God's green acre. It's the kind of place where the Bay is on your mind, the sun is in your skin, and you're sitting there with a Bud and a cheeseburger and your cool shades tucked in tight. But your thoughts have drifted away to that quiet place we all have inside us where the horizon narrows down to a beautiful circle, where life and love and worries and just plain lunch-time eating vector together into a forget-me-not kind of day. If Heidegger could have just done some writing at Red's Java House, I'm pretty sure that he'd want to rethink nothingness. And why? Because in California, the hypermedia body has already blasted through to the other side of nothingness, to that crazy edge of end-of-the continent energy cut with a little earthquake hysteria, where what's really desirable is the panic anxiety that comes from riding the abyss, just between hyper-stress and flat-ass inertia, lazy days are here again, I'm OK and so are you, as long as you're not in San Quentin. Hedonism, San Francisco style.

In California, nobody fears nothingness. It's what people eat for lunch, and in San Francisco they get it every day, for the price of a True Grit cheeseburger and a Bud at Red's Java House.

Singing the Blues in Cyber-City

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

Chaos time. It's 6:30 p.m. on Market Street in San Francisco, just down the way from the Virgin Megastore. Business people are fleeing homeward, office towers are shutting down, security guards and cleaners are moving in, coffee shops and stores are locking up their doors, and smokers hurry by, lighting up first cigarettes since the afternoon break.

There are no street people in cyber-city, but there are plenty in SF. They might occupy different worlds, but when chaos time comes, when it's that dusky cusp between light and dark, between cyber-city at work and SF at evening play, sometimes, just sometimes, the two populations meet.

Like on the corner of Powell and Market, we hear a blast from the pre-MTV past. Hard drivin' 60s R&B tunes are being played by a guy who looks like Fats Domino and sounds like him too, putting down a heavy beat on a set of rusty blue drums, singing with a deep bass voice that puts into song the wail of America that has travelled from the plantations of the southern delta to the slaughterhouses of Chicago, and met futureshock in SF, this city at the end of the western continental migration of the body. He's got two sidemen, both sitting on speakers, the car battery for their electric guitars inside a white plastic garbage can.

A compact, wired guy steps up front and yells: "Just tell the story, brother, tell the story, tell the story, tell the story..." There was something about the music that just pumped the cynicism right out of the air. And it did tell the story. All of America was there: punks with torn Misfits and Fugazi T-shirts, a homeless white guy with an enormous hunting knife in an aluminum taped scabbard in his back pocket, somebody just to our side is drinking limegreen alcohol straight out of the bottle, a guy with a Cherokee Nation sweatshirt circles around the band, pulls a harmonica out of his pack and begins to play along, the shopping crowd carrying parcels from Macy's and Armani and GAP put their purchases down and listen, and, all the while, those gigantic posters from Virgin of k.d. lang and Tony Bennett look down on us from their multimillion dollar high-in-the-sky window perches.

But it doesn't really matter. Because for one twilight moment the American song is on the streets of SF, a kind of swirling charged-air energy vector that sweeps its way into your belly and your mind and your eyes, takes you suddenly to places sad and sorrowful and beautiful, and you stand there at this street scene, knowing that for one moment the continent has truly ended here, that it is the end of the road. Now, this is an old story that has been told again and again, in the founding myths of the country, in film, in music, in videos, in idle chatter, and sometimes even in writing. All the energies of the continental American migration are pushed up against the blue sheen of the Pacific. It's as if the massively shifting tectonic plates far under the ground with their eleven fault lines crisscrossing the Bay Area have their fleshly equivalent in the streets of cyber-city. And sometimes, just sometimes, the body plates rub up against the end of the continent just a bit too hard, all that pent-up, screwed down pressure inside the street bodies looks for an opening, an unstable fault line, and when it finds one, the result is a shuddering music quake. Like this dirt-poor outlaw street band. It has exited normal space, the space of SF that Jack Kerouac once described as a "police state." It's a kind of open fault line through which all the rage and the anger and the sorrow and the ecstasy of a street society at the end of the road, explodes out of rasping mouths and rusty drums and beat-up Fender guitars.

The R&B sound is a big rumble at the end of the continent, and so when the band flips into Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay with the words: "I left my home in Georgia... Headed for the Frisco Bay... Got nothing to live for 'cause nothin's been going my way," we can just feel the keening of the words inside our skin, and when Fats cuts the words down to the naked-edge line of "Nothin' to live for... Nothin' to live for... Nothin' to live for," which he rasps over and over again like a mantra of the dead, we know that we have mutated beyond music, and are present at a dirge, SF style: end of the continent, end of the road, end of the body, end of life, end of hope. It's just that moment when a song becomes lament, and the city streets are a dance of the dispossessed.

Sounds crazy? Maybe. But everyone on that dusky corner, punks and grunge and rockers and homeless women and too-poor-to-be-just-down-and-out-guys and destroyed bodies and digital faces and panhandlers pleas and salaried smiles and AMA conventioneers straight out of the "internal medicine" show at the Hyatt just down the street, and alcoholics, and tourists and office workers - all the demented and the happy and the sad and the lonely and the tired and the frenzied and the dead - just everyone fell into a common magical spell. You could just see it register in body rhythms. Street people began to dance, sometimes fell down hard on their asses but clawed their way back up to air again, punks dropped the Misfits alien-zone stare for a brief moment, and even the tourist folks just couldn't leave, and just wouldn't leave, and just didn't leave. For one brief instant, we were listening to those silent tectonic plates shifting inside of our deep-down feelings, really hearing R&B on the hard luck streets of SF as the intense, ancient song of lament that it was always meant to be.

In the usual way of things, all this led to a no-time time and to a no-place place. The darkness came and the group of pilgrims on a dusky street corner in cyber-city dropped some quarters in the box and went their separate ways.