Tom Leeser

The question “What is Viralnet?” has been floating in and around the Center for Integrated Media over the past year. In our first release of Viralnet I answered my own question “Why Viralnet?” so in this, our second release, I will answer the “What?” that others have asked.

The prescribed approach would be to answer in the affirmative and discuss what Viralnet is—but in our case it seems more appropriate to answer the question in terms of what Viralnet is not.

Viralnet is not purely an academic new media journal even though we are a product of an academic institution. We don’t dismiss or disdain academic art journals (I’m a big fan of many) rather we aspire to combine the passion of artistic practice with an intelligent discourse and a critical eye that is both discerning and insightful. Viralnet is also not a simple booster for new technology and new forms of media. We recognize that utopian desires for technology to transform the culture into a “democratic-egalitarian-networked-cyber social- paradise” are fundamentally flawed. We also understand that the majority of media today tends to reflect the limited agendas of those in power and with the greatest influence. We approach our mission therefore as outsiders, seeking artists and writers that confront the powerful while supporting the personal. We promote tendencies that express an imaginative and radical opposition to media mainstreams without limiting ourselves to a narrow didactic voice. We engage technology without romanticizing it.

Our view is rooted in the journalistic work of experimental filmmaker, curator, writer and founder of the Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas. Mekas wrote a column called Movie Journal for the Village Voice from 1958 to 1971 as well as being one of the major exponents of the diary film. When you look back at his Movie Journal columns, you’ll find that Mekas was an unapologetic advocate for a new American cinema that stood in stark contrast to the Hollywood studio movie machine. Since the 1950’s through the 1970’s Mekas sniffed out his subjects, lived with them, argued with them, shared their visions and supported their films. He was a catalyst during this very energetic and creative time for building a cultural community that continues today. His adopted English language (he immigrated from Lithuanian) is devoid of jargon but riddled with a personally based poetic style that frames his alternative practice as a celebration of the amateur. When reading Mekas one experiences his rants, peeves, praises and hosannas of his fellow filmmakers as a journal of a life, never a vehicle for a career. Mekas approaches his cultural practice as an amateur in the best and purest definitions of the word.

Here is a quote from Mekas’ Movie Journal from 1970:

“I find myself without a film to write about. Don’t I go to movies or what? No, I go. Long or short, I saw at least twenty movies last week. But I haven’t seen anything I could get excited about. Some of my friends ask me why I don’t go to “commercial” movies; I seldom write about them. I go to commercial movies, but I don’t like them. I write only about the movies I like. I have tried to write about the movies I don’t like, but I always fail at it. I totally fail at my dislikes. What’s the use of talking about something you don’t like? Forget it, let it disappear. Take your stand for what you like.”

This is an excerpt from an interview with Mekas at the Anthology Archives in 2000:

“I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. People seem to think that our lives, or the strangeness of our lives may be of some interest, but not our work. But I think the work is universal, because poetry is universal. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and seeing a film by Stan Brakhage. I wonder where ideas that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from. In schools Faulkner and Olson are taught in the same classes. In literature the kind of separation that is made in cinema does not exist.”

Analyzing these two quotes one can experience Mekas’ passion about his work. He supports and writes about the films that he likes and he questions the restrictive and narrow interpretations that the dominant culture places on works of art that don’t fit into neatly defined categories or disciplines.

It is this overwhelming sense of advocacy and opposition that Mekas champions, coupled with an impulse to investigate the alternatives and celebrate the personal. In this way Jonas Mekas and his life’s work helps us to define what Viralnet is. We dedicate this release of Viralnet to the independent spirit of Jonas Mekas.

Tom Leeser
Los Angeles, 2006