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Cultcha? On the Web?
Jul 22, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

I spent a few hours this weekend in Serendipity, a vast used bookstore on University Avenue in Berkeley. While it may not be the largest or most popular used bookstore in the world (The Strand in New York City -- miles and miles of books -- comes to mind), it redefines the notion of encyclopedic. Room after room of floor-to-15-foot-ceiling bookshelves, filled with first edition literary fiction (four copies of Kosinski's Being There, for example), hardcover pulp detective novels (spines that read "No part of this book ever appeared in any magazine!"), volumes of Virginia Woolf criticism, and one leather bound 18th century Bible.

But the beauty of Serendipity is its (dis)organization. It's dizzying at first, because you can't orient yourself to anything that resembles alphabetically arranged shelves, much less recognizable categories like "Fiction" or "Non-Fiction." After negotiating pile after pile of newly arrived books, the first shelf I found myself in front of was an entire wall full of European bibliographies; not just books, mind you, but books listing more books. Which pretty much set the tone for the afternoon. After wandering the stacks, I realized that Serendipity has no (apparent) order, only clusters of books that seem to belong together (Roth, Bellow, Barth & Kosinski on one wall, Updike, Cheever & Irving on another). And then when I thought I had a handle on the grand scheme, it crumbled, because before me was a rack of 1950's botany texts next to a group of tomes on abnormal sexual behavior. I walked out thinking that if I could map the logic of Serendipity, I could unlock some hidden, parallel theory in quantum physics.

The beauty of Serendipity is that is represents what reading is all about for me. The sheer physical nature of books (paper, ink, type, bindings, glue, dust), the mythical theory that connects every book and every book that came before it (the theory that happens to keep university English departments flush with PhD candidates), and the realization that there are millions more to read after you put down the one in your hands.

So when I started thinking about this week's piece, in which I intended to take a look at "culture" on the Web, I had to rethink what I was after. Because what Serendipity did was remind me that I should be looking for "culture" sites which represent what the web is all about.

So when I mean "culture," I don't mean museum sites, which only tend to list hours, exhibitions and membership costs. Nor do I mean the self-promotional websites of late 20th century novelists, which lack even a shred of interactivity. (Is it any surprise that appeared in conjunction with the Didion-esque Polaroids from the Dead?) I mean sites that reflect the web -- its culture, technology and promise.

So, here are a few. Take 'em or leave 'em.

First, the grandaddy of them all, "WAX or the discovery of television among the bees," is a community creation which both mimics and transcends the CD-ROM and video of the same name. WAX is hard to describe in one paragraph, but contains stories and images guided by the original story, and extended (and extended and extended) by its members. Wired magazine wrote that WAX is a "surreal, addictive site full of enough odd corners and out-of-the-way passages to make it the Dadaist's Doom." And to keep things interesting, the beekepers have just added a VRML interface to the hive.

Along the same lines, but a bit less ambitious technically, is Brown University's Hypertext Hotel. The Hotel is a hypertext "place" jointly created by invited writers, with a feel that mirrors that of a real life in a second rate hotel. Wander the Hotel long enough, and you'll run into traveling salesmen, an over-chlorinated pool, a metaphysical (i.e. empty) ice machine and a cocaine snorting saxophone player. The Hotel feels a bit claustrophobic at present, but rumor has it a reconstruction is underway.

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid's exhibit of the Most and Least Wanted Paintings, at the Dia Center for the Arts, is playfully evil. Komar and Melamid, with the backing of Chase Manhattan, put an enormous survey up on the web back in 1994, intending to capture what web surfers around the world wanted out of their "favorite" painting. It was a delicious twist on web-based market research. Put up a five page form, ask about a hundred questions about landscape vs. portraiture, dark colors vs. light, ad nauseum, and paint the results. If you're a modern art fan, you'll get a kick out of the least wanted paintings. France's least wanted looks like a cross between a Sol Lewitt wall drawing and a poorly executed Kandinsky knock off. Don't ask.

Finally,, the companion web site to the book alt.culture (or is the book the companion to the web site?), is full of 250 word morsels describing the events, people and concepts of "alternative culture." is a self-linking monster, proving that pop culture actually does feed on itself. An entry on heroin leads to one on Phoenix, River, which leads to Nirvana, to MTV, to the Beastie Boys, to punk to memetics (yes, memetics). And so on, and so forth. The attraction of It's self-consciously hip (like the web), it's self-referential (like the web), it's full of short essays (like the web)and it's just one big advertisement (like the web).

Hmmm. On second thought, maybe I should just stick to books.



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