The night air swooshes through a 20-foot door into Bart Nagel's Emeryville warehouse/studio space, where almost a dozen people are busy shooting a promotional video for a new book — Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook — that takes the cyberhip clichŽ to task with an ironic smirk.
It's only fitting that the book's authors — St. Jude, R.U. Sirius, and Nagel — are sending up the concept, seeing as they were the ones who foisted cyberpunk mania upon the world with the slick quarterly Mondo 2000. Begun six years ago as a shared hallucination in the Berkeley hills, Mondo melded computers, psychedelic drugs, sex, and art into an organic whole.
Published and financed by minor heiress Queen Mu, Mondo found a nationwide audience in the hip computer culture and titillated the talk show bookers with stories about virtual sex, smart drugs, cryptology, and nanocyborgs. By 1993, Mondo was on the cover of Time magazine, promoting the editors' best-selling book from HarperCollins.
But in 1995, with cyberpunk now reduced to trite Hollywood formula, this trio from the Mondo brain trust are happy to record the movement's obituary with the snide video. As Nagel puts his “star,” former Mondo writer Chris Hudak, through his paces, R.U. Sirius and St. Jude offer directorial suggestions. Hudak, decked out in black leather — his bullet belt bristling with a Taser, laser pointer, and Star Trek communicator — re-creates his tongue-in-cheek role from the Mondo spoof “R U a Cyberpunk?” in issue No. 10.
Nagel's Fisher-Price video camera pans across Hudak's gear as he recites, perhaps a tad earnestly, from a color PowerBook:
“The term 'cyberpunk' has been used to describe music, lifestyles, and artistic sensibilities, but it really describes one narrow school of science-fiction writers,” Hudak says. “God, it was a good word … poetic, efficient, and romantic. Distance and passion. Machine and man. Technology and attitude. Cyberpunk. Great fuckin' word. And what the hell; we stole it.”
After several takes a break is called and the crew sips brew and chatters. Slouched against the refrigerator, R.U. compliments Hudak's performance and adds, “Boy, am I working hard!”
When did cyberpunk die? I ask.
“1993,” smirks somebody. “The release of the Billy Idol record.”
Although the crew continues to gab, they avoid discussing the magazine that brought them together in the first place. It's no secret they've all fallen out with Queen Mu, and haven't worked on the publication as a group for several issues. I understand their reticence, having survived a few San Francisco magazine wars myself. Since the newsstand hasn't seen a new issue of Mondo in seven months, many readers assume that it is as dead as the cyberpunk concept, so I volunteer what appears to be the obvious:
“Isn't it a shame about Mondo?” I say.
The silence that falls on the room informs me immediately that I've broached a horribly touchy topic. The seasoned smartasses avoid my gaze to stare at the floor. An uncomfortable dramatic pause says I might as well have mentioned the name of somebody's family member who died in a violent accident. After a couple of vague, sad remarks, the subject is changed and chatter picks up again. Without further comment, we return to the video shoot.
As it turns out, Mondo isn't dead: In late September, Queen Mu produced Issue 14 and placed it on newsstands. What did expire some time ago was Mondo's bragging rights, its role as the undisputed arbiter of technohip. Having nailed the new Zeitgeist with the very first issue in 1989, the Mondo crew isn't keen on acknowledging that a South of Market competitor fat with consumer ads, subscribers, a commercial Web division, and an infusion of cash from CondŽ Nast has displaced it as the magazine of the '90s digital mind-meld.
Examined at close range, Mondo's history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT. Yet the story is true. In its absurd journey from Marin to San Francisco to Berkeley, Mondo changed its name three times to avoid detection. Its staff consumed vast quantities of designer psychedelics; was plagued by vehicular accidents, some of them fatal; experienced office break-ins; suffered publicity-starved celebrities; indulged in media pranks; watched the skies during suspicious helicopter flyovers; engaged in cross-dressing; enjoyed the temporary rush of depleting inheritances; and generated conspiracy theories about the Mormons taking over the world.
And it all began at a 1984 equinox birthday party for an archdruid named Stephan Abbott in Berkeley. Ken Goffman (by this time already adopting the Dadaist persona of “R.U. Sirius”) arrived with newsprint copies of the premiere issue of High Frontiers under his arm. Subtitled “Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art” and published by a dubious organization called the Marin Mutants, High Frontiers consisted primarily of long, unedited interviews with acid veterans like Albert Hofmann, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna, the margins filled in with weird jokes and short items.
That night, Sirius met a woman named Alison Kennedy.
“She was talking about how she had been irradiated over in Germany, because she was living right next door to the Russian Embassy,” says Sirius, who turned 43 this year. “She'd been irradiated and poisoned, she was sick and dying, and she was smiling from ear to ear. I immediately fell in love with her because she was so strange. She was also the prettiest woman at the party. I said, 'Let's go take some drugs,' and it went from there.”
The long-haired, gap-toothed Sirius was a self-described “street rat” and ex-yippie musician from New York. Kennedy was the faculty wife of an Eastern religion professor at UC Berkeley, and the daughter of a wealthy Palo Alto family that claimed Noah Webster in its lineage. Her friends included the late Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey.
Despite its small print run of 1,500, High Frontiers No. 1 was well-received. The back room of Mill Valley's Flashback Pizza became the unofficial hangout of Sirius and other characters who worked on the magazine: “Somerset Mau Mau,” “Amalgam X,” and new Art Director “Lord Nose.” There, Sirius began plotting the second issue of this party-on-paper. Timeliness was not an issue. [page]
“The staff was always blasted!” laughs pseudonymous investment banker/psychedelic drug expert “Zarkov” of the pizza parlor era. Zarkov often contributed, together with his companion Gracie, to this Mondo family tree of publications. “Selling pizzas and drugs on the side — it took forever to get your pizza.”
High Frontiers No. 2 equally focused on drugs, but expanded to include interviews with yippies and physicists, reviews of art and literature, and an essay by Kennedy about datura, the common North American plant whose psychoactive qualities were rediscovered by British soldiers who accidentally ingested it in Virginia in the 1800s. (According to an 1883 citation, the limeys became extremely disoriented, blowing feathers in the air, grinning like monkeys, and “pawing and fondling their companions.”)
In its pages, Sirius and Mau Mau advertised little pamphlets touting the “Neopsychedelic Pop Party” and “cunnilinguistic programming.” Now published by Sacred Cow Mutilators, High Frontiers was right on schedule — producing a whopping one issue per year.
“My original idea was to make it a confluence between psychedelics and science and tech, but once we blasted out the first issue, which was all about psychedelics, we sort of got deep into it,” laughs Sirius. “That's the most fun I've ever had in my life, actually. It was pretty fucking carefree.”
But not very profitable. David Latimer came on board for High Frontiers No. 3 in 1987, which was subtitled “The Latest in Science and Fun.” He had worked on Sunset and Scientific American, and was co-publishing both Soma and a magazine for Asian-Americans called Rice. With Latimer (also hiding behind a pseudonym), Sirius and company opened an office in San Francisco's Financial District, launched a companion newsletter called Reality Hackers, and began sponsoring seminars and discussion forums at the Julia Morgan Theater.
“We had Terence McKenna and [physicist] Nick Herbert together talking about time travel,” remembers Sirius. “It was pretty fucking obscure stuff.”
Equally obscure were the new designer drugs, many of which were not yet outlawed.
“We tried every drug there was,” says Latimer, who today publishes the cafe magazine Cups. “Peyote, ketamine, DMT, MMDA …”
“… 2CB, 2CE, dozens of little alphabet soups,” smiles Sirius. “We were tripping pretty heavily. It was very magical, actually.”
High Frontiers No. 3 plunged still further into new technologies with strange articles on psychoactive software, nutritional memory enhancers, quantum physics, fractal geometry, and interstellar carbon clusters. And, of course, heaping quantities of drugs, and an essay on tarantula venom from Alison Kennedy, who had been rechristened Queen Mu, Domineditrix.
High Frontiers/Reality Hackers attracted not only the psychedelicized, but computer types from Silicon Valley. As detailed in Douglas Rushkoff's book Cyberia, the acid/high-tech computer geek connection extends back to the days when Jobs and Wozniak were still constructing blue boxes from which free long-distance phone calls could be made.
Sirius says that a revelation occurred to the staff “that if, for instance, we were able to change ourselves biologically, that would be a more interesting change than a million people dropping acid. … I started to become aware that the ability to manipulate information — and the huge carrying capacity of information, all that stuff that is related to silicon and digital stuff — was also going to be related to any other kind of technical change.”
In other words, getting high wouldn't change the world. But computers could. The '80s had been years of great imagination with science-fiction novelists like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and John Shirley stretching the form so far that one East Coast newspaper wag coined the term “cyberpunk” to describe this new genre. Silicon Valley nerds were hunched over tool benches, furiously whipping more, more, more out of their fledgling appliances — the 512 begat the Mac Plus, which begat the SE, etc. Desktop publishing bureaus opened around the bay. Ex-hippies like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly started the WELL computer network as an offshoot of the post-hippie Whole Earth Review. Anarchist programmers like Jude Milhon hovered around the Bay Area, inciting nerds to plot the overthrow. In Amsterdam, Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe, later to found Wired, published a magazine called Language Technology. Theorists like Timothy Leary pondered the consequences of a digital future about which nobody knew anything — except that its reach seemed infinite.
And then tragedy struck High Frontiers. One night Sirius and Deborah Smith, the magazine's office manager and fiancee of David Latimer, drove down the peninsula to Cupertino for a radio interview. Smith got bored and decided to take a drive over to Santa Cruz; on winding Highway 17, she got in a horrible head-on collision.
Smith was paralyzed. Latimer says that he and Sirius and Queen Mu attempted a peyote healing ritual in Smith's hospital room to lift her out of her coma.
“We brought a Native American Indian in,” Latimer remembers, “and brought Smitty in on a bed. We did a prayer ceremony, did channeling things — they brought witchcraft and crystals.”
To this day Smith remains brain-damaged and bedridden, cared for by her family in Texas. When Queen Mu offered to buy Latimer's shares, he reluctantly accepted and left the magazine. (Some months later, he would begin working with me on the concept of a rude little magazine called The Nose.)
Not long after, new Art Director Adam Zakin celebrated the completion of High Frontiers No. 4 by traveling to Tibet with his wife, where both died in a freak accident when their bus went over a cliff. Meanwhile, back in the States, the High Frontiers office was broken into twice under mysterious circumstances. In 1988, Sirius and Queen Mu renamed the magazine Reality Hackers to reflect the drugs-and-computers fusion they had been writing about and moved the operation to the Berkeley hills, where Mu rented a big wooden Maybeck house and stocked it full of Victorian furniture. [page]
Vowing to make the magazine a moneymaker, the pair wrote a business plan, but their meetings with potential investors ended in frustration.
“There was definitely no advertising,” says Sirius. “Acid dealers don't advertise.”
“It's just that if your lead story is 'How to Party on Ecstasy,' it's really hard to go to IBM or Macintosh and say, 'Hey, would you like to take out a full-page ad?' ” echoes Latimer.
Although Reality Hackers appeared more frequently than High Frontiers, Sirius and Mu could only afford to publish biannually. Sirius says he made the sacrifice of cutting back on psychedelic use to get more work done. Unix champ Jude Milhon signed on after meeting Sirius at a party, mutating into the sharp-tongued St. Jude. The staff bumped into Michael Synergy, who was working for AutoDesk down in Silicon Valley, and he agreed to write up some subversive articles about cyberpunks overthrowing the government. After a serious bicycle accident left Synergy temporarily laid up, Mu and St. Jude rescued him from the hospital and moved him into the house in the hills.
Reality Hackers offered the most diverse and interesting mix yet, with articles on computer viruses, virtual reality, psychoactive designer foods, high-tech paganism, alleged AIDS biological warfare experiments, Brian Eno, chaos theory, Hakim Bey, and a lengthy exploration by banker acidheads Gracie and Zarkov on Blue …yster Cult. In addition to Leary, Herbert, and McKenna, new contributors included isolation tank expert Michael Hutchison, drug authors Peter Stafford and Bruce Eisner, drug architect Alexander Shulgin, smart-drug pioneers Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, and computer whiz Eric Gullichsen, one of the original VR developers. To corral the whole concept, a new subhead was composed: “Information Technologies & Entertainment for Those on the Brink.”
But the name Reality Hackers remained a problem. Reports came in from national distributors: Retailers don't know whether to stock it next to Guns and Ammo or D-Cup Beauties.
“One distributor told them that everybody east of the Rockies thought it was about hacking people up, and that it was a Mansonite cult magazine,” cackles Sirius.
Kevin Kelly, then editor of Whole Earth Review, wanted to hire Sirius as a writer to help him produce a new magazine called Signal, which would cover digital technology and the cultural impact of computers. Sirius said no, that he had an idea of his own.
With the next issue containing a big scoop on the heretofore ignored subject of cyberpunk, R.U. Sirius and Queen Mu wanted to change the magazine's image and make a big splash. Sirius flicked on the television.
“There were all these commercials for this-2000 and that-2000. Furnishings 2000. All this really banal stuff with the name 2000 after it. Finally this show came on, which was like Future 2000. It was like an Omni magazine kind of pop-science show. I stumbled into Alison's room and said, 'We've got to come up with a name with the name 2000 on it, because everybody's using it to sell shit.' ”
“Mondo,” replied Queen Mu, explaining that the lettering would look great on the masthead, and that it had a delightfully fashionable yet decadent sound. The name was changed.
Mondo 2000 reached newsstands in 1989 with a unique new logo designed by German graphic artist Brummbär, each letter of “Mondo” containing its own separate personality. Todd Rundgren was the cover boy, the only male to grace its cover in masculine clothing (drag queen Jade made an appearance years later). Readers were treated to articles by Gibson, Shirley, and Sterling, as well as several pieces on hackers and crackers, Internet viruses, conspiracy theories, cyberspace, and cutting-edge technology nobody had heard of.
The inclusion of Gibson in particular struck a chord with readers. In many circles his seminal 1984 book Neuromancer was referred to in hushed tones, like a sacred scripture containing secrets of the future. “He was writing about us,” says St. Jude. “Drug-taking, intellectual scum.”
At the bottom of the masthead was this somber warning: “Mondo 2000 has monthly bonfires at the full moon of all unsolicited manuscripts.”
“It had arrived at a particular moment where there was at least a subculture of people in the computer community that were ready for it,” remembers Sirius. And after some money from Kennedy's family became available, it was full steam ahead. “At the time there was no competition at all. There was absolutely nothing to compare it to. It talked about how technology was important in our lives at a time when people were in denial about it.”
There was no denial about the importance of technology from the publishing industry. This same time saw the launch of several local magazines, taking advantage of the burgeoning desktop opportunities, including Frisko, SF, SF Moda, FAD, The Nose, Harpoon, and Just Go!. But Mondo 2000 took the technology to the outer limits, thanks to Bart Nagel's art direction.
A photographer and custom guitar maker in Phoenix, Nagel had followed his friend Fred Dodsworth to San Francisco. Dodsworth, who had started a new publication called The City, introduced Nagel to Queen Mu, who was in the market for a magazine redesign and in an interview asked Nagel his astrological sign.
“I'm a Pisces,” said Nagel.
“Well, I think this will work out very well,” answered Mu, and though Nagel had never designed a magazine before and had lived in California for just a month, he was appointed Mondo's art director.
“Being in Mondo is like being in a rock band,” explains R.U. Sirius. “You have to bring your own equipment.”
“I didn't think this was going to go anywhere,” Nagel says, remembering that he would arrive each week at the Mondo House to pick up editorial copy — and learn that none was finished. [page]
Besides a lack of copy, the photographer-turned-graphic designer faced an intimidating work environment — an editorial staff of the brightest, most eclectic bunch of misfits in the Bay Area. Queen Mu, the mad miscellaneous-trivia bank; Jas. Morgan, the subscriber from Georgia who came to visit and ended up as music editor; St. Jude the computer anarchist, a self-described polygamist and ex-physician's assistant with legitimate hacker connections; and R.U. Sirius, a walking Bonneville Salt Flats of pharmacology. Loitering around the perimeter were Michael Synergy, Queen Mu's former boyfriend Morgan Russell, and Gracie and Zarkov, the investment bankers who enjoyed drugs, heavy metal, and polyfidelity, and who took credit for starting the first sex club in Chicago.
As many news hacks would later trumpet, it was Revenge of the Nerds.
“We were all freaks in our high schools,” says St. Jude. “They all hated us.”
Nagel felt like he was trapped in another universe.
“In my circle of friends back in Phoenix, I always felt fairly bright. I had bright friends. And then I come into this world, and I'm starting to feel like an idiot. They just know too much about too many things. The editorial was beyond me. What the hell is an Extropian? Tell me what DMT was again?”
Nagel set about redesigning the book from top to bottom. He commissioned unknown artists like Eric White to do full-page illustrations for cheap, and discovered that collage artist John Borruso's sensibility would fit perfectly on the spine. And photographs were no problem — Nagel took most of them himself.
One such photo caught the eye of Andrew Hultkrans at a Berkeley newsstand — the cover of 1990's Mondo No. 3, portraying a sweaty Deborah Harry against a background shot of deep-space nebulae.
“What the fuck is this?” thought the 24-year-old Harvard graduate, fresh from a year as managing editor of the Zyzzyva literary journal. He thumbed through the issue, which boasted peculiar articles on producing your own growth hormones, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, cybernetic fashion, and psychotic illustrations by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes.
“They were intelligent, obviously,” says Hultkrans. “Part of the thing that seemed intelligent about it was that I couldn't understand half of it. A little bit might have been that I was just baffled, and therefore assumed it was deep.”
Sheer curiosity drove him to send in a rŽsumŽ, which earned him an interview at the Mondo House — scheduled on a Saturday morning.
Hultkrans showed up looking professional — pulled-back ponytail, blazer and button-down vest — and knocked on the door for several minutes before a nonplussed Morgan let him in without introduction, ushered him into the kitchen of this antique-crammed home, and left him to wait. Queen Mu eventually entered, but instead of asking questions, she kept a steady stream of words going all by herself.
“Five minutes later [R.U.] appears in a bathrobe, looking totally awful and pale and fucked up,” says Hultkrans. “R.U., in the morning after a big night, is pretty much of a sight. Alfred E. Neuman with long hair. He mumbled something and then left.”
To his astonishment, Hultkrans was hired, first in ad sales, but he quickly was moved to working with text, and Nagel christened him “The Tall Editor” on the masthead.
One month after he joined up, the Mondo House threw a party for staff and friends. Somebody put on a belly-dancing record, and Gracie the investment banker came out in costume and did an exotic dance routine in the living room.
“This is so fucked up,” thought the New York transplant. What had he gotten into?
Mondo was nothing if not playful. Nagel peppered the book with eye-scorching graphics and puns and wordplay. St. Jude composed witty subheads and penned a column called “Irresponsible Journalism.” Hultkrans steered the ship further into the rapids of pop culture, assigning articles on hip hop bands and writing a column about slacker culture. Morgan was essential for dense interviews with mathematicians and physicists. In addition to her interests in toxic plants and conspiracies, Queen Mu edited stories and brought a strong gender balance that attracted female readers, a subtext that said your sex wasn't as relevant as your brain. Sirius floated around as figurehead, writing and assigning articles. And new pseudonyms appeared: Mondo Connie, Lady Ada Lovelace, Nan C. Druid, Marshall McLaren, G. Gordon MIDI, and the wild conspiracy ranter, Xandor Korzybski.
Although Mondo gained enthusiastic readers, it received its share of negative notices from the press. Rather than sulk about it, Mondo wore them as badges of honor, reproducing them on the magazine's subscription solicitations. “Slightly unfathomable — The Washington Post,” read one tear-out card. Another: “Unfortunately, the hacker lingo makes this relatively new magazine indecipherable for any but the most seasoned of computer aficionados. — The Utne Reader.” Below this was the Mondo pitch: “Have this indecipherable rag delivered to your own doorstep. Stump your mailman. Confound your neighbors. Master the secret argot of the cyber underground.”
The Village Voice declaration that Mondo was an art director's nightmare and completely unreadable prompted Nagel's joke of putting “Guaranteed Read-Proof!” on a cover-in-progress. The gag was such a hit with the staff that they let it stand, and it was printed in issue No. 5.
Some jokes weren't planned. Also in issue No. 5, in 1992, Nagel accidentally transposed the names of avant-garde musicians Glenn Branca and Elliott Sharp on the cover, rendering them Glenn Sharp and Elliott Branca. Since Sharp and Branca weren't household names, few readers noticed, but Mondo obviously owed them — and the author of the piece, Mark Dery — an explanation.
Rather than apologize, Mondo proclaimed the snafu intentional. Gracie and Zarkov composed an essay about post-postmodernism and deliberate art damage. Or rather, they scribbled notes on a napkin while out having drinks. The outline was passed around to the staff, and the concept ended up as a collaborative two-page manifesto on Art Damage called “What Do You Say After Po-PoMo?” [page]
“Half the time we were trying to baffle people into thinking we were deep,” says Hultkrans, “and having it be a pop fluff rag at the same time. It was paradise.”
“You picked up Mondo and it became aflame in your hands,” remembers high-tech publisher Randy Stickrod, who acted as business consultant for the early Mondo. “It was like computers as drugs. This very cool but somehow almost impenetrable intellectual content underneath it, and yet with this edge of New Wave paranoia. It was outrageous! It was like discovering sex for the first time!”
There was little division between Mondo House living, Mondo House parties, and Mondo the magazine. Mondo partied with the people it wanted to write about and have write for the magazine: the cyberpunk novelists (of course), Spalding Gray, Timothy Leary, and John Perry Barlow, to name a few.
“Ideas for articles appeared at parties, parties happened as a result of articles, parties happened as a result of interviews, interviews happened as a result of parties,” recalls Zarkov. “It was a very integral part of how Mondo proceeded. Ken and Alison knew a lot of people that they wanted to have over, to build the scene. The scene built the magazine, and the magazine built the scene.”
A Mondo party might find a time-travel expert being interviewed in one room, people playing word-association games in another, others experimenting with weird mental mind-stimulation glasses, groups quietly chatting in conspiratorial whispers, or Bart Nagel and virtual reality theorist Brenda Laurel leaping in the air to see if they could do a complete 360-degree turn without falling down. Rude pornography or Japanese animation videos flickered on monitors, figures performed frottage on antique sofas. A journalist from GQ might have been taking a piss on the front lawn. One creature would trap people for entire evenings in conversations about how Sir Francis Bacon was actually William Shakespeare.
“It's very strategically positioned,” says Timothy Leary of Mondo House, speaking between bites of crackers. “You're almost in the country, and yet you're three minutes away from the country's top university. Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone — you can't go over to Jann's pad in the penthouse on Park Avenue and hang out.”
Mondo also partied with people whose money it coveted, throwing one affair for Joichi Ito, its Tokyo correspondent whose parents had been targeted as potential investors because they came from a wealthy big-business family in Japan. During the course of conversation, the topic turned to the Japanese language.
“You know, there are 12 ways of saying 'thank you' in Japanese,” said Ito.
“And every one of them insincere,” replied novelist John Shirley.
I recall one evening drinking and arguing in the Mondo House kitchen with an accordion player named Miss Murgatroid, and thinking that not only our conversation was passŽ, but our substance of abuse. Beer was a quaint, retro, Bill-Haley-and-the-Comets vice compared to the choline cooler smart drinks people were sipping or the experimental mail-order neural inhibitors whose molecular structure was still a mystery to the FDA.
Having defined the nascent cybersexcomputerdrug culture, Mondo assumed the role of oracle for the rest of the media struggling to comprehend the trend. Sirius appeared on Donahue and Ron Reagan's show. Reporters descended upon the Mondo House from all parts of the globe — Newsweek, Details, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and bureaus from Europe — as well as all the local dailies.
What is cyberpunk? they begged. Tell us why cyberpunks wear mirror shades and drink Jolt cola. What is virtual sex like?
Mondo obliged with catchy slogans for the journalistic pack. “We're a pirate mind station,” Queen Mu told them. “The New Edge … the alpha and omega of cyberzines.” Rudy Rucker supplied the accusatory, “How fast are you? How dense?”
” 'The convergence of technology and culture' would be the straight rap,” says Sirius. “But it got mistaken for total advocacy. These magazine people would come around, writing an article about VR. I'd be really cynical for a half-hour. I'd say maybe one positive statement, and that's what they'd put in the article, because that's what they were looking for.”
The magazine found itself described as “Berkeley-based and cyber-spaced.” R.U. Sirius became everything from “Gomez Addams” to a “balding entrepreneur” to a “long-haired leprechaun who sports some truly humongous brain banks.” Queen Mu was described as “hyper-cerebral,” “techno-yogic,” and “not a witch but may be a pixie.” Together they were “digital Druids,” working against a “pre-Raphaelite backdrop” out of a “techno-Gothic citadel.”
Mondo staffers were articulate and erudite in interviews — so articulate and erudite that reporters were too intimidated to ask for clarifications and instead ran the staff's soundbites in their goofy entirety.
“We talk a lot about the 'rupture before the rapture,' ” Sirius once told an Examiner reporter. “It's going to be interesting to see how the really advanced super-high-tekkies are going to function and evolve amidst this coming economic chaos. It just might be the garage-tech cyberpunk brigade that can carry the ball through it.”
Queen Mu added, “We're no longer knuckling under to a priest-physician class that demands belief in a model that has totally failed — a highly puritanical society where both pleasure and intelligence are suspect.”
When the Washington Post asked Sirius what he looked forward to most
in the future, he responded gleefully: “The cure of venereal diseases and the free passage of RU 486 and the orgiastic end of the 20th century!”
Eventually, being covered by the media became as intoxicating as making media. One day, Hultkrans entered the Wednesday editorial meeting to announce that Mondo was the subject of the lead editorial in the new issue of Artforum. The staff cheered, then somebody asked: [page]
“Is it positive or negative?”
“It's hard to tell.” Hultkrans scanned the text. “I think it's negative.”
The room broke into applause.
During 1992, Mondo finally lived up to its promise that it was a quarterly by producing four issues, to the surprise of all. In three years, circulation rose from 15,000 to nearly 100,000. Quality writers and artists flocked to the magazine — certainly not for the grandiose late payment of 5 cents a word or 100 bucks per full-page image, but for the joy of partaking in the magic.
“There was something really wonderful about the dangerous mind behind Mondo,” says Gareth Branwyn, author of the Beyond Cyberpunk hypercard stack, and a frequent contributor. “As a young writer, this to me was a real breakout platform. It had a similar feeling to the whole notion of punk music. There was that sense that we had thrown out all of the rules. So when I would go to interview a rock band or a multimedia producer, you could do just whatever you damn well please. The Red Hot Chili Peppers — they actually did a Rorschach on their dental records. Really bizarre shit.”
Branwyn continues: “You could be belligerent and combative, or be just conversational. If you thought what they were saying was bullshit, you could just start arguing with them. It was really this kind of Interzone, where anything was allowed. That was a real liberating feeling for me as a writer. It celebrated that you were being irresponsible.”
The success of 1992 also included a book — Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge — a 317-page compilation of previous articles and artwork, with new additions and resource listings. It was an immediate success, going into reprint and eventually selling over 40,000 copies.
In 1993, Bart Nagel rattled his peers with an editorial inspired by artist Jeffrey Koons' theory of image appropriation. Either steal it and manipulate it, wrote Nagel, or use it blatantly under the fair-use doctrine. Nagel practiced what his editorial preached with the cover of issue No. 10, in which he superimposed a photo against a background stolen from the cover of another magazine.
Nagel was immediately savaged in trade journals as the Antichrist of art directors. He retaliated with an editorial in issue No. 11 about a new technology that works on the DNA level to detect microscopic, recognizable patterns in images. He asserted that the technology encoded patterns that were invisible to the naked eye but detectable no matter how much the image was scanned or used. He further claimed that in one year hence, all scanners and copy machines would contain a built-in chip to detect these codes and notify a national computer image bank of every duplication by modem. The computer would then automatically debit your Visa account.
“I tried to make it more and more absurd, by saying these scanners would be hooked up to a neural net computer, which could actually detect if you were scanning someone's style, and that a lot of photographers were already excited about this, and that Richard Avedon and Annie Liebovitz were already offering to donate their proceeds from their style theft to a photo assistance group called We're Creative, Too.”
It was a joke, of course, yet an assistant who worked for both Avedon and Liebovitz called Nagel, asking if his bosses were actually doing it. The magazine of the Library of Congress called expressing interest in an interview with Nagel. The corporate offices of Kinko's requested permission to reprint the article and distribute it to managers. When the Australian Broadcast Company also requested an interview, Nagel couldn't stop laughing, and admitted the hoax.
“Well, just consider it a feather in your cap that you put one over on the Australian Broadcast Company!” snapped the indignant Aussies.
As Mondo was cresting, the founders of a failed magazine named Electric Word, Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe, were returning to the States from Amsterdam. They were eager to start a magazine about computer culture and had already picked out a name: Wired. A mutual friend introduced them to Mondo adviser Randy Stickrod, and after a small meeting at Stickrod's home, he showed the group a portion of his office space at South Park, a corner eventually nicknamed “The Charmed Corner” for its list of successful publishing tenants — Wired, Might, Cups, Boing Boing, and Just Go!.
Rosetto and Metcalfe liked the space, moved in, and spent the next 15 months hosting a conference on the WELL, schmoozing contributors, and working on a business plan package for investors. Stickrod even introduced them to Queen Mu at the Mondo House.
“They were kind of chummy,” Stickrod remembers. “They were swapping tips. That was the level of incestuousness we had going on there. Alison would come over to my office and bring a box of Mondos for me to hand out. She'd go sit and talk to Louis and Jane for half an hour. There was no overt tension at all.”
Throughout 1992, Mondo 2000 could do no wrong and could afford to be gracious to the young upstarts, who obviously were dull, boring computer people while Mondo was ultrahip counterculture. (Electric Word telegraphed how boring it was with the slogan “The world's least boring computer magazine.”)
Still, Wired's basic concept — the consequences of technology on lifestyle and popular culture — was very similar to Mondo. Didn't everyone know?
“Oh, of course I did,” says Stickrod. “They knew that, too. What we all tried to do was politely underplay the similarities and really play up the differences. At the time, we all put a spin on it that they were not competitors. Including Alison.”
“The only thing that was remotely connected [to Wired] was Mondo 2000,” says Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly, who wrote for the early Mondo. “It was coming along in parallel with it. We were very careful not to refer to Mondo. We didn't want to be compared to them. But they also were aware of this same niche.” [page]
In January 1993, Wired magazine debuted as a bimonthly, its billboard campaign announcing, “At last. A magazine for the Digital Age,” its promotional literature adopting the phrase “Rolling Stone of the '90s,” a soundbite used previously by Mondo 2000.