WIth deafening volume, hyperkinetic graphics, and copious attitude, BLAM! wants you to rethink your relationship to your computer. BLAM! is the first CD-ROM 'zine, a decade-old system for storing and retrieving computer data that is just now making its way into small offices, schools and homes. Replete with artwork, features and advertisements, BLAM! was independently issued by Eric Swenson and Keith Seward, collectively known as Necro Enema Amalgamated or NEA for short. Once the shock of their aggressive programming ('Make it stop' is the plea of the uninitiated) settles down to a banal annoyance, BLAM! reveals some more subtle strengths and weaknesses.
More hyperactive than interactive, BLAM! flaunts its pugnacity. One-bit (black and white) graphics scroll and strobe with seizure-inducing abandon. Your computer's volume is jacked up (something over which you have no control) as a continuous assault of gunshots, belches, and speedmetal commences. BLAM!'s image bank is overflowing with scanned images of gruesome medical photographs, close-ups of genitalia, and crypto-allegorical etchings. All of this aggression makes for a thrilling first ride. Indeed, it's surprising to see one's normally sedate computer shriek and spew this nastiness. With time, however, much of BLAM!'s shock programming becomes a trick, sort of like teaching a small child to swear.
As for the individual features, the artists' projects fare better than the text-based contributions. One clear standout is Fever by Rita, a Hungarian-born, New York-based rave child. Resembling a grittier version of Japanimation, Rita's drawings mix childhood naiveté with Times Square smuttiness, butterflies flitting around elfin nymphets in varying stages of compromise. Her images flash and dance to a wistful rendition of Peggy Lee's cabaret standard, punctuated by coos and sobs.
Also compelling is Swenson's interview with Lydia Lunch, which must set the record for journalistic liberty with a subject's words. The piece is a selection of film stills and found art accompanied by a barrage of sound bites from the avant-garde performer stuttered and staggered in a dizzying audio bricolage. Such manipulation goes hand in hand with this technological format, and Lunch's persona is more vibrantly distilled by this montage than by her answers printed verbatim.
BLAM!'s text-based features are comparatively straightforward. Readers can click forward or backward through short bursts of writing, like flipping pages in a printed book or magazine. What BLAM! does bring to each essay or short story is an accompanying visual and audio montage. These elements are frequently distracting, and one wonders exactly how a writer benefits from this presentation. For example, is Sheila Glaser's essay on Amy Fisher made more meaningful by its ersatz graffiti typeface? Or does the hip-hop beat really add anything to Georges Bataille's 'The Cruel Exercise of Art'? More portentous is the way the nature of prose is changed when subjected to the speed and audio-visual overload of BLAM!'s hyper-techno atmosphere. Only the simplest sentences are digestistible, and complex thought, as in the Bataille piece, is difficult to follow.
At its best, BLAM! blends traditional visual information with what the CD-ROM format can add, namely audio and motion, to create something more than the sum of their parts. Yet the chief virtue of CD-ROM and the reason this format is so anticipated by educators, publishers and business people is that it allows the reader greater speed and mobility in navigating vast amounts of information. It also gives users the potential to move through texts by highlighting elements to reach sub-strata of material.
BLAM! is a continual reminder that programmers are so named for a reason and that despite the apparent freedom, a CD-ROM user still operates under a larger sphere of control. In BLAM!'s view, 'Giving a user more and more buttons to click is like putting extra links in a dog chain,' one which Swenson and Seward delight in pulling. 'This Is Your Final Warning!' a text by Metzger, features a 'punishment supplement' in the form of an epic poem on Spam for those who try and bail out before reaching its conclusion. Similarly, Jim Goad's 'The Underground is a Lie' arrives at a dead end in which the reader is left wondering why the buttons won't allow an escape. These set-ups provide frustrating but very real moments of pause to reflect on the blind trust and enthusiasm which can accompany new technologies.
There is much to like about BLAM!: its humour, its uninhibited outlook, and the welcome dose of caffeine Swenson and Seward give the relatively sedate medium of CD-ROM. Yet ironically, despite its bells and whistles, BLAM! is surprisingly traditional, its content not unlike what one might find in other underground magazines. Perhaps that is part of the point, but with the arrival of such a spanking new format, one is left wishing for equally novel modes of verbal and visual discourse, languages which might not yet exist.