Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

"Chercher l’exhibition" Curating Electronic Literature as Critical and Scholarly Practice

Dene Grigar
This essay is reprinted from Digital Humanities Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 14, 2014


Beginning with the Visionary Landscapes Media Art Show held in conjunction with the ELO’s 2008 conference, I have, for the past five years, been on a mission to promote electronic literature through curated exhibits. I actually curated my first art exhibit in April 2005 – a media art show at a venue called Project X located in Dallas, TX. Since that time I have curated for galleries, libraries, art centers, and academic settings a total of 15 exhibits, 12 in which focused on works of electronic literature. My aim has been to raise awareness of electronic literature within academe––that is, classroom teaching, scholarship and creative activity – and beyond to the public sphere. In my work, there have been two overarching questions I have sought to answer. The first is “in this age of ubiquitous computing where net-based electronic literature is available on the web and, so, anytime – and now with wireless technology, anywhere – how can a curator make exhibits mounted in brick and mortar exhibit space vital?” The second is, “in light of rapidly changing technology where platforms and programs are rendered obsolete within mere years, what is the best way for a curator to present electronic literary works produced on systems that have been rendered obsolete?” The former question suggests, what I call, a “challenge of availability;” the second, the “challenge of presentation.” My presentation provides an overview of a select number of exhibits I have curated and provisionary answers to these two questions.Overview of Exhibits I start with Visionary Landscapes: The 2008 ELO Media Art Exhibit. Co-curated with John Barber, Visionary Landscapes took place from May 29 to June 1 in Vancouver, WA and was organized in conjunction with the Electronic Literature Organization conference, which John and I also chaired for the organization. A juried show, it consisted of three different venues: North Bank Artists Gallery located in downtown Vancouver featured “electronic literature exhibits” by 17 artists or artist teams; the Fireside Room at Clark College featured net art and videos by, again, 17 artists or teams; the Firstenberg Student Commons at the host university––Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV)–– featured early works of electronic literature created by 18 different artists and produced prior to the introduction of the internet browser. An invited show, this third exhibit utilized vintage computers and media that were either part of my personal collection or lent to me by colleagues. For the two juried shows, we received entries from 120 artists, of which the judges selected 34.


The choice of venues was purposeful. The gallery, normally used to showcase fine art, provided the opportunity to present electronic literature as both visual and sonic art forms. Until our show, North Bank had never featured media art of any kind. Its location downtown, with good foot traffic, made the work accessible to a public unfamiliar with electronic literature. The Clark College and WSUV meeting rooms, usually home to students and faculty congregating between classes, placed electronic literature squarely in an informal academic setting. The WSUV exhibit, with its vintage Macintosh computers and docents standing ready to educate visitors about the work, especially, received much attention and served as the catalyst for the article about the conference and exhibit that ran on the front page of the weekend section of the Columbian newspaper.Another important aspect of the three exhibits was the robust collateral materials that accompanied them. The exhibit’s website provided information about the artists’ works and venues. Designed by local artist, Jeanette Altman and coded by John, it offered a good account of the event, from the artists to the works and continues to serve as the exhibit’s archival site now indexed in both the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory and ELMCIP’s Knowledge Base. We also developed a catalog for the early electronic literature exhibit that documented the types of computers platforms on which the works were showcased as a way of helping visitors to the exhibit to understand the material aspect of the practice underlying the art.

The desire to promote electronic literature to a new audience also led to opening the exhibit to media artists and art forms that were new and emergent. In that vein, we accepted and showcased, along with animated narratives, flash poetry, hypertext fiction and the like, sound and video installations, “twitterature,” and VJ/DJ performances. The fact that we referred to the exhibit on the website and conference materials as the “media art show” encapsulates this strategy.

A year later, in 2009, interested in the impact of the online presence of art, art catalogs, and exhibits, I mounted mediartZ: Art as Experiential, Art as Participatory, Art as Electronic. An invited show held at North Bank from October 2-31, mediartZ featured 10 media and electronic literature artists whose video, animated narratives, sound work, and net art were found online or whose interactive live performances appeared as documentation on the web. Interactive work and live performances were also part of the exhibit. As such, the exhibit made the argument that in this era where the art we choose to curate can already be accessed online, what makes an exhibit of media art and electronic literature compelling is the way the curator designs the exhibit (Grigar, mediartZ, “Curatorial Statement”). In that regard, the show was envisioned as a “happening” with live performances, audience participation through social media and other technologies, artists’ talks, and lectures, to name a few strategies. The kick off party of 450 people brought in one of the largest audiences for any event at the gallery. This was the first exhibit in which I applied curatorial approaches commonly associated with fine art shows to a media art exhibit. Unlike Visionary Landscapes where I placed computers on tables and made chairs available for “reading” work, mediartz featured computers on pedestals. I provided my first curatorial statement in association with an exhibit and published it in a catalog I produced for the show. These elements were intended to connect electronic literature to media art, but more importantly to promote both as art forms to a new audience, one who may not have readily viewed them as art.A year and a half later, I co-curated, with Lori Emerson and Kathi Inman Berens, Electronic Literature at the Modern Language Association convention. The show was a large undertaking that aimed to make a statement about literature in the 21st century, a time in which computing devices and electronic media had become both ubiquitous and well-integrated into the fabric of contemporary culture. Envisioned as an invited show, it ran for three days in the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, WA where the 5000+ members of the MLA converged for their annual meeting. The exhibit featured:

160 works by artists who create literary works involving various forms and combinations of digital media, such as video, animation, sound, virtual environments, and multimedia installations, for desktop computers, mobile devices, and live performance. The works presented at this exhibit have been carefully selected by the curators because they represent a cross-section of born digital—that is, works created on and meaningfully experience through a computing device—from countries like Brazil, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the UK, the US, and Spain, and highlight literary art produced from the late 1980s to the present. Thus, the exhibit aims to provide humanities scholars with the opportunity to experience, first-hand, this emergent form of literature, one that we see as an important form of expression in, as Jay David Bolter calls it, this ‘late age of print.’ (Electronic Literature, “Home”).

Named Electronic Literature in order to introduce the term to a potentially new audience, the exhibit coincided with the 20-year anniversary of the first session held at the MLA on the topic of electronic literature, a panel, entitled "Hypertext, Hypermedia: Defining a Fictional Form," that featured Terry Harpold, Michael Joyce, Carolyn Guyer, Judy Malloy, and Stuart Moulthrop.

Kathi, Lori, and I set four goals for the exhibit:
• Introduce scholars to a broad cross-section of born digital literary writing, both historic and current
• Provide scholarship and resources to scholars for the purpose of further study of Electronic Literature
• Encourage those interested in the creative arts to produce Electronic Literature
• Promote Electronic Literature in a manner that may encourage younger generations to engage with reading literary worksThe exhibit was, for me, the response to my own call to action issued in the article, published in ebr in 2008, “Electronic Literature: Where Is It?,” in which I challenge scholars “to bring elit to the classroom, to help promote it in the contemporary literary scene, and support artists who produce it so that it can foster and bolster literary sensibilities and literacies of future generations” (Grigar, “Where”). But formulating an exhibit that would, indeed, reach these goals, especially at the MLA where the notion of an exhibit of literary art was new and many of the attendees had never before experienced electronic literature, required a thoughtful strategy. We curators were, therefore, tasked with educating an audience of literary scholars, from classicists to literary theorists, about electronic literature and with providing ready access to the various works and scholarship surrounding electronic literature so that there were few, if any, impediments to including it in classroom teaching and research activities. This meant we had to provide a robust website, with whole pages devoted to “Scholarship,” “Resources,” and the “Works” themselves, as well as curatorial statements that provided insights into the curatorial design and the scholarship surrounding the works.Additionally, the new audience for whom we were designing the exhibit required us to rethink the language we used for describing and organizing the show. In structuring the exhibit, for example, we combined concepts found in fine art with those common to digital humanities scholars, whom we viewed as our mostly likely primary audience. This approach resulted in the works being divided into the three categories we named “Works on Desktop,” “Mobile-Geolocative Works,” and “Readings and Performances.” Moreover, instead of grouping works within these categories by genres common to electronic literature (e.g. hypertext poetry, interactive, fiction, generative text), we organized them on Computer Stations called, for example, “Experiments with Form,” “Multimodal Narratives,” “Multimodal Poetry” and “Literary Games.” The Computer Stations were comprised of gallery pedestals that were meant to signal to visitors that they had entered into an art space. A large poster providing the list of works found on each computer station was placed in close proximity to its corresponding station. Trained undergraduate docents were on hand to meet visitors and assist them with the computers and/or the literary works. A gallery count, a common practice at art galleries, was kept to track visitors. Imbuing a bit of the “happening” experience, members of Invisible Seattle, an artists’ collective active in Seattle during the 1980s and that produced, in 1983, the “first crowdsourced novel” (Inman Berens) attended the exhibit and provided the original costume for one of the docents to wear. This performance, in keeping with the spirit of the collective, brought a lot of attention and excitement to the exhibit. We also held an evening of readings and performances by 10 artists or teams of artists at the local literary center, Hugo House.A report, published later at Authoring Software, was generated to document the impact of our exhibit on scholarship and the field. In it we logged 503 visitors to the exhibit site and an additional 107 at the Hugo House event. Over the course of two months before and after the show, over 1600 visitors came to the website from 21 different countries. An additional 1000 people visited the curators’ individual pages or the “Readings and Performances” announcement page. The reach of our social media campaign netted over 40,000 Friends of Fans. The event also was referenced in five publications, including Kairos and Digital Humanities Now. As we curators were able to show in our “Impact Report,” the exhibit had a significant impact on raising awareness of electronic literature among literary scholars.I followed up the MLA exhibit with a juried show, once again, for the Electronic Literature Organization. This show, entitled Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, ran from June 20-23 in Morgantown, VW in conjunction with the 2012 ELO conference. Co-curated with the conference chair Sandy Baldwin, the exhibit took a cue from Windows into Art, a fine and media art exhibit I co-curated in 2009 with Vancouver artist Karen Madsen that took place in downtown Vancouver in seven different locations. I envisioned the ELO exhibit also distributed across a city in both public and academic spaces. Electrifying Literature, however, was quite larger than Windows into Art, with 55 artists (and or teams) distributed well over a mile along High Street and University Avenue instead of 16 artists (or teams) distributed over a few blocks.The sites – The Monongalia Arts Center (MAC), the Arts Monongahela Gallery, the WVU Downtown Library, WVU’s Colson Hall, & the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheater – included a mix of indoor and outdoor space, public and academic settings, and private and community art centers. Sandy and I also expanded the scope of the exhibit to include sonic art, experimental or conceptual multimedia works, and locative works. Organizing the show in this way allowed us to promote electronic literature beyond the ELO conference audience in order to grow the organization and build support for education, particularly for higher education and media art. Placing art at two downtown galleries and the public amphitheater were attempts to reach this goal.

The curatorial design aimed to match each venue to the art and, then, place the art within an appropriate, or specific, space inside the venue. For example, at the gallery and art center, we used pedestals for the computer stations, while at Colson Hall, home of the English Department, we placed computer stations on tables and provided chairs for sitting down and studying the works. In terms of site-specificity, we placed Jim Bizzocchi’s ambient video in the MAC at the turn of the marble staircase leading to the second floor – a space that allowed the delicate sound of the water trickling over rocks found in his video to echo and draw visitors’ attention as they entered the building. At the library we installed “Three Rails Live,” a video created by Scott Rettberg, Nick Montfort, and Roderick Coover at the bottom level of an atrium space that carried sound up the stairwell but not into the study areas.An exhibit website produced in advance of the event provided conference attendees with detailed information about the artists, works, venues, as well as with a site map and a curatorial statement outlining the vision for the exhibit. Five trained undergraduate docents I brought with me and the five graduate docents studying under Sandy provided assistance to both exhibit visitors and conference attendees. The exhibit also introduced a series of retrospectives featuring prominent artists whose work has inspired others. Honored in this way were Alan Bigelow, J. R. Carpenter, M.D. Coverley, Judy Malloy, and Jason Nelson.

Avenues of Access: An Exhibit & Online Archive of New “Born Digital” Literature IMAGE 15

The MLA invited Kathi, Lori, and I back to curate an exhibit for its 2013 convention taking place from January 3-5. Lori was unable to join us, but Kathi and I, along with six undergraduate docents traveled to Boston, MA to mount the show. This one, entitled Avenues of Access: An Exhibit & Online Archive of New “Born Digital” Literature, was intended to be different from the previous MLA exhibit. Playing off the theme of “access” stated in the MLA’s convention title and having already established the previous year electronic literature as an artifact for exploration by humanities scholars, Kathi and I aimed at providing more opportunity for in-depth study of electronic literature. So, rather than 160 works organized into 10 categories, as found in the previous exhibit, we offered 30 organized into five. And instead of mounting computers on pedestals, we placed them on large, round tables with accompanying chairs on which to sit and comfortably study.Also available was a special “Antecedent Station” that showcased Ian Bogost’s literary game, A Slow Year, and the book, 10 Print Chr$(205.5+Rnd(1)); : Goto 10, written by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, and Mark Marino. Visitors were invited play Bogost’s game on an Atari Video Computing System and run the book’s titular command themselves on a Commodore computer. A “Creation Station” also made it possible for visitors to construct their own poems with a JavaScript Poetry Generator. An evening of readings and performances were held for the second year, this time at Emerson College. Eight artists as well as the authors of 10 PRINT performed for an audience of 200 people in the Bordy Theatre.“The Impact Report” for the 2013 exhibit documents a growing interest in electronic literature and an understanding of its potential for creating new knowledge: 14 scholarly references, 12 reviews of works on I ♥ E-Poetry, four reviews of the exhibit, itself, in journals in the U.S. and Europe, and 10 essays and presentations by the curators. Our findings also revealed that visitors purposefully sought the exhibit out, expecting it to be offered at the convention and that when they came, they “lingered for upwards of an hour, even two, immersing themselves in the various generic stations and talking with curators and other scholars about connections between their own research and the exhibited e-lit.” We found that “the natural affinity between e-literature and digital humanities manifested itself in conversations that . . . spark[ed] scholarly collaboration on projects, speaking invitations and publications” and discovered that “young scholars [were thinking about revising] their courses of study and dissertation plans to account for electronic works they encounter[ed] at MLA e-lit exhibits” (Grigar and Inman Berens, “MLA 2013 Impact Report”). Following the exhibit, I received an invitation to give a public lecture about curating electronic literature for the Digital Cultures series hosted at Bowling Green State University the following May, reaching yet another audience for electronic literature.Probably the most challenging exhibit I have ever mounted was Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms for the Library of Congress, held from April 3- 5, 2013. Co-curated with Kathi Inman Berens and held in the magnificent Jefferson Building at the library, the exhibit – featuring a long bank of tables stacked with books from the library’s vast holdings comprising a “Context Station,” five computer stations featuring 27 works of electronic literature, and a second long bank of tables comprising the Creation Station, daily artists readings, a rare book exhibit, a keynote, and panel presentations – also had one of the shortest runs of any show I had ever done: only 15 hours. As expected from an exhibit held at such a popular tourist site in Washington D.C., it also saw the most traffic of any other exhibit I had curated: over 750 on-site and 5000 online visitors, all within a few short hours. It was also the first show I had ever mounted at a public library, and since it happened to be the most important library in the U.S., the exhibit was designed to make the biggest splash possible for electronic literature, its art and scholarship. No costs were spared, and no holes were barred to achieve this big goal.

But it was also intended to achieve another, more subtle, goal – that is, to establish electronic literature as Literature, without any modifiers attached to its name. As I wrote in my curatorial statement about the exhibit, it was designed to: build on scholarship by Eduardo Kac and C. T. Funkhouser to make the argument – one expressed experientially rather than in written form – that electronic literature is a natural outgrowth of literary experimentation and human expression with roots in print literary forms and, so, constitutes an organic form generating from the dynamic human spirit that is evolving, will continue to evolve through time and medium. No matter the medium – orality, writing, print, electronic, mobile – give an artist something, anything, to create with – air, animal skin, paper, computer screen – and she or he will find a way to use it for making art. This impulse is, after all, a feature of our humanity. (Grigar, Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms, Curatorial Statement)The overarching conceptual framework underpinning the exhibit centered, therefore, on the experimental nature of electronic literature and its connection to print literature, in general. There were five impulses toward experimentation reflected in the stations: from concrete to kinetic, from cut up to broken up, from pong to literary games, from the Great American Novel to multimodal narratives, and from artists’ books to electronic art.The curatorial design I produced served to visualize this point. As mentioned earlier, the exhibit was laid out into three main sections. Print books and other analog materials from the library’s collections were displayed on the “Context Station” located on the left hand side of the room. The works of electronic literature were displayed on five “Electronic Literature Stations” arranged down the middle of the room. Finally, writing supplies and other media were made available for hands-on experiences on “Creation Stations,” or maker stations, found on the right hand side of the room. This layout encouraged a visitor, for example, to explore a concrete poem by ee cummings found in a book at the Context Station, walk across the aisle to the “Electronic Literature Station” directly across from it and see Dan Waber’s kinetic poem, “Strings” and, then, walk across the aisle to the “Creation Station” where a typewriter and paper (with shapes already provided for filling in with text) were available for making his or her own concrete poem. Once again, I brought trained undergraduate docents with me to greet visitors and assist them with the computers and works and to help with monitoring the room and the media. The exhibit was reviewed at I ♥ E-Poetry and by The Huffington Post and referenced in eight essays by scholars in the U.S. and Europe. As mentioned, over 750 visitors came to the exhibit during its 15-hour run, with an additional 55 people attending the keynote by Stuart Moulthrop and panel presentations by Nick Montfort, Matt Kirschenbaum, Kathi and me that took place on Friday afternoon following the exhibit’s closing. During the two months surrounding the show, the exhibit averaged a weekly reach of close to 2500 visitors at its Facebook page. It was featured in three Library of Congress publications, and the website remains archived at the library.I followed the Library of Congress exhibit two months later with a small show for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), at Victoria, Canada, that was open for one night only on June 6. Exploring the Electronic Literary Landscape of the Pacific Northwest, co- curated with time-based media artist Brenda Grell, consisted of nine works by six artists, all of whom were born and/or currently working in the Pacific Northwest. This was the second DHSI I had attended, and in the year between my experience in 2012 and 2013, the event had grown to 400 participants. Occurring alongside DHSI was the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ “Congress,” which brought in hundreds more scholars to the campus. So, our visitor base drew from a large number of people working in the area of the humanities and digital humanities, many of whom had come specifically to network with colleagues and learn more about digital technologies needed for undertaking their research. Although some of these scholars overlapped with those who frequent MLA conventions, the addition of the Congress expanded the audience for electronic literature.
Held at the opening night reception for DHSI, the exhibit, for reasons stated previously, garnered much traffic. In fact, in its short two-hour run, it saw twice as many visitors as the MLA 2013 exhibit did in three days. The trained undergraduate docents Brenda and I brought with us proved a necessity and a valuable resource for us. They helped field questions and assisted the hundreds of visitors who crowded into the hallway that served as our exhibit space. The event resulted in an invitation to Hamilton College, to give a workshop in the spring 2014 about how to teach electronic literature, as well as an invitation to teach a week-long course on the topic of electronic literature that at DHSI 2014.

I end my talk with a quick description of the next exhibit I am curating along with Stuart Moulthrop for the MLA 2014 convention. Pathfinders: 25 Years of Experimental Literary Art will take place from January 9-11 and generates directly out of our research project, Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. The Pathfinders exhibit features the work of the pioneering experimental literary artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s whose work Stuart and I are working to preserve in the Pathfinders project. The exhibit also highlights innovative contemporary artists experimenting today with computing technologies for literary production. In sum, the exhibit is intended to make the argument that literature is not relegated to paper and ink, but transcends all mediums and is expressed through technologies available on hand” (Grigar and Moulthrop, Pathfinders, “Exhibit”).

The show will be laid out into two main sections. The first presents three of the four early works of digital literature that comprise the current preservation efforts of the Pathfinders project: John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger: The Blue Notebook, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. These works will be made available at the exhibit on the computers on which the works were originally experienced by readers at the time of their publication. The computers are part of my personal collection from the Electronic Literature Lab, the site where the Pathfinders research is taking place. Also highlighted in this section will be the raw video footage of the artists’ traversals that our research team has produced for the Pathfinders project. The second section of the exhibit, entitled “Current Directions,” features contemporary electronic literature artists who have produced narratives, poetry, drama, and essays via physical computing technologies, augmented reality, social media, mobile media and other innovative approaches. The exhibit is devised to illustrate that just as hypertext authoring systems like Storyspace and Hypercard were seen as new technologies that allowed for highly experimental writing in the 1980s (Bolter 23), these contemporary technologies also lend themselves to compelling experimental literary art. The idea of “experimental literary art” found in the title intentionally moves electronic literature squarely into literature with no qualifiers needed to explain the absence of print and the presence of the computer medium.

To sum up this section of my presentation: Each exhibit I curated required a clear critical eye in regard to the works selected for presentation; the space at which to present the works; the way in which to present the works in the space; the technology needed for displaying the works, the collateral materials for distributing information about the exhibits, artists, and works; and potential ways to enhance the audience’s understanding of the work and involve them in the exhibit in meaningful ways for promoting intellectual growth and artistic enjoyment.

3. Overarching Questions

I mentioned previously, there are two overarching questions my curatorial work seeks to answer: 1) “in this age of ubiquitous computing where net- based electronic literature is available on the web and, so, anytime – and now with wireless technology, anywhere – how does a curator make exhibits mounted in brick and mortar exhibit space vital?,” and 2) “in light of rapidly changing technology where platforms and programs are rendered obsolete within mere years, what is the best way for a curator to present electronic literary works produced on systems that have been rendered obsolete?” The former question suggests, what I call, a “challenge of availability;” the second, the “challenge of presentation.”The challenge of availability for curating net-based electronic literature lies in the fact that it is a digital object whose natural habitat is the digital space of the web. This quality subverts the need to visit a venue to view it.
To overcome this challenge, curators of electronic literature can take advantage of the affordances of the “mixed medium nature of museums” (Bal 3) and other venues of exhibition, by combining “stag[ed] virtual experiences” with “events that bring values, beliefs... into the public domain” (Dziekan 63). Leonardo Electronic Almanac curator Vince Dziekan draws from the work of Mieke Bal, when he suggests the concept of a “multimedial” (63) exhibit, an idea that itself generates from André Malraux ‘s musée imaginaire. As Dziekan points out “[c]ontemporary art museums of the future will exhibit the virtual and the real alongside one another, crossing and overlapping each one’s boundaries, creating an amazing visual and interactive experience within and without walls” (Dziekan 66). Malraux (himself influenced by Walter Benjamin’s views of mechanical reproduction) argues in “The Museum without Walls” that “the primary value of artworks may no longer reside in them as physical objects, they are remunerated through the process of reproduction” – a view that may be articulated as “moments of art” rather than “works” (55), and what I refer to in my work as “happenings.”
In The Tate Handbook, Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson build on this idea when they suggest that “[w]orks of art are rarely encountered in isolation” but rather “are experienced in relation to each other and articulated by the architectonics of a building and the unconscious choreography of other people” (qtd. in Dziekan 31). Synthesizing these ideas, Dziekan argues for a “dialectical approach” that:

move[s] away from what might be termed as a broadcast model of distribution (entailing a one-way communication approach) by introducing degrees of openness (access, participation) and feedback (exchanges, transactions). Importantly, the realisation of this aesthetic is not achievable only through multimedia – although multimedia does offer a distinctive way of exploring this mode of exposition. This shift entails ideological choices that challenge the [museum’s, gallery’s, etc.] ability to respond to a changing mandate, from one founded on its presentation role to that of providing an infrastructure for aesthetic experience. (70)

to curating that provides a strong foundation for exhibiting digital native objects that are readily accessible online like net based electronic literature.

As I mentioned, I began thinking about the challenge of availability in 2009 and designed features into mediartZ to address them. Notable among were the use of social media to compel the audience to interact with each other and the work and the inclusion of live performances, like the one given by Williamette Radio Project that took place during the show, what I referred to as a “happening.”Happenings took a decidedly more scholarly focus at Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms, curated for the Library of Congress, with artists’ readings occurring in the space during the lunch hour and the keynote and panel discussions occurring at the closing of the show. The Creation Stations also did much to involve the audience and encourage participation in the making of art. All of these elements served to build the experiential, participatory, and interactive components of a multimedial exhibit for a show for which most of the electronic literary works were found online and, so, readily available beyond the walls of the Library of Congress. They also speak to the potential relationship between critical practice and scholarly endeavors involved in curatorial design. The conceptualization of the five Stations that provided a logical flow between the printed books and the electronic literature and, then, from the electronic literature to activities located at the Creative Station exemplifies the “filter[ing], organiz[ing], craft[ing], and ultimately, car[ing]” that Anne Burdick et al suggest in their book, Digital_Humanities, are part and parcel of curating in the digital humanities. The inclusion of the print and digital materials in the exhibit reflected a “cultural record of humankind” – in this case, literary artistic practices in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Ultimately, the purpose of scholarship, as pointed out by Burdick et al is to “create value, impact, and quality” (34). In that regard, the event was reviewed by two publications, has been the subject of nine essays and three lectures, indexed in two international databases, saw over 750 visitors in its 15 hour run, and has had over 5500 visitors to its online archives.

The Challenge of Presentation My second question focuses on obsolescence and the challenges it poses for presenting works in exhibits – what I refer to as the “challenge of presentation.”Christiane Paul addresses this issue for media art in her seminal essay, “The Myth of Immateriality.” Here she reminds us that “the digital is embedded in various layers of commercial systems and technological industry that continuously define standards for the materialities of any kind of hardware components” (252) and suggests that the constant upgrades of hardware and software may be addressed, in varying degrees of practicalities, by collecting technologies (hardware and software) for the purpose of display, emulating code on newer systems, and migrating works to the next version (269). We can extrapolate much from her ideas, but need to be aware of the unique aspect of electronic literature as it has emerged with its own theories and methods.

Paul’s view that the “lowest common denominator for defining new media art” is “its computability” (253) bears attention in that it signals a difference in aesthetics between media art and electronic literature and explains why she values one strategy (emulators) over others (collecting and migration). Unlike media art where “media” is anchored in the tradition of cinema and “art” is associated with terminologies found in fine art and performance, electronic literature generates from a wide variety of disciplines and practices, among them digital humanities, which itself is described as a “mode of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and dissemination” (Burdick et al 122). Additionally, electronic literature embraces the technological origins of both coding and writing technologies, declaring this heritage in its genres’ naming convention. Computability – functions made manifest by characters expressed in written code and which drives the words, images, video, animation, sounds, etc., of the work is the point – is the common denominator connecting hypertext fiction with flash poetry, generative poetry with interactive fiction. So, what is the best way to present electronic literary works produced on systems that have been rendered obsolete?ArtCom Electronic Network located in the WELL (“Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link”) in 1987. It was contemporary with the Apple IIE and was, in fact, produced on this model. Version 1.0 was originally written in BASIC and delivered as a serial novel comprised of 100 lexias over the network. The version that was eventually sold commercially through the ArtCom catalog, however, was Version 2.0. It was made up of three 5 1⁄4 floppy disks on which Judy organized the material from 100 lexias of the previous version into three parts: “A Party at Woodside,” “The Blue Notebook,” and “Terminals.” Version 2.0 made it possible for readers to navigate the story by selecting and typing keywords on the command line. Each combination would result in a lexia or series of lexias relating to the keywords typed. Typing “David” followed by “Jenny” in the next query, for example, brings up episodes about the relationship between these two people: David’s messy apartment that Jenny recalls, the picture of David’s former lover that Jenny tears into tiny pieces and places back into his wallet.Judy sold Version 2.0 from her home as a hand-made artist package. As far as she knows (Malloy, Pathfinders), only three copies of the complete work exists: two that she donated to Duke University along with other materials that now comprise the Judy Malloy Collection, and one divided, a the moment, between Judy and me. So, to present all these parts of this historically important work in the Pathfinders exhibit in at the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, IL in January, I need to ask Judy to lend me the floppy I am missing (“Terminals”), then, ship my Apple IIE to Chicago in order to show them. Recognizing these two constraints would limit her readership, Judy did produce an online version in 2012, Version 3.0, that runs on contemporary computers. 1

Having access to Uncle Roger online sounds like a good solution to the problem of shipping a vintage computer across the U.S. and risking a rare work of electronic literature, but let’s step back for a moment and think about the qualities that may be lost if I blithely show Version 2.0 on any Apple IIE or Version 3.0 on a contemporary computer without thinking critically in advance about my choices.

Uncle Roger centers on the semi-conductor chip industry of Silicon Valley of the 1980s, a time in which floppy disks and an Apple IIE computer with its black screen and green dot matrix type were familiar technologies. This particular computer is one of the most robust that Apple ever produced, lasting 11 years on the market. When Judy began posting Uncle Roger on the WELL, the computer was only three years old. In fact, Judy wrote Uncle Roger on a version of the Apple IIE that constrained her lines to 50 characters, resulting in a narrative poem and Judy finding herself a narrative poet. Later iterations of the computer cause the lines to wrap in ways Judy did not plan for them to, but Version 3.0 running on a contemporary computer keeps the line lengths in tact. What is lost in moving to the newer version, however, is the look and feel of the period – the cultural context of the work itself. On the circa 1988 Apple monitor, the aesthetic of computer and story design meet seamlessly, the time- stamp of the work’s technology making sense in the context of the material presence of the computer. Thus, in showing Uncle Roger at the Pathfinders exhibit at the MLA where over 5000 literary scholars convene, I need to be aware that I am doing more than showing content of a work – I am actually providing a context for understanding and interpreting the work.

Additionally, as curator I am taxed with highlighting the unique features of Uncle Roger, such as its interactivity and ability to compel audience participation. In fact, the work may very well be one of the first social media narratives, presaging twitterature and other familiar contemporary forms today. With Version 1.0 Judy posted one to two lexias every day, in serial style, to friends in her network, who then responded by chatting with her about the story and riffing off to other topics. “Great stuff, Judy,” one reader wrote on December 2, “the ideas and the content are both up to ridiculously high standards. Thanks for the fresh air.” Another: “What jacket are you wearing?” (Malloy, ArtCom). This means that readers of both Versions 2.0 and 3.0 are missing a crucial feature of the work found in Version 1.0.Translation theory holds that translation is ultimately a betrayal of the text by the translator. Tautologically speaking, the best we can do to bring a work to a reader is just our best (Biguenet and Schulte). So, for the Pathfinders exhibit, I will be carting my Apple IIE computer to Chicago since it wraps Judy’s text properly and, so, provides a better cultural context for the work than the Mac Minis or iMacs I generally use for exhibits does. I will also provide examples of the conversations that took place at ArtCom between Judy and her audience, materials Judy has allowed me to photograph for my research.

4. Conclusion

The work I have been doing for these last five years to promote electronic literature through curating works has involved reading and studying, designing and building, writing and thinking, organizing and structuring, innovating and inventing, judging and assessing, and negotiating and coercing. I have created my own curating lab, replete with 26 vintage computers dating back to 1983, to experiment with ideas. I am involved in preservation activities, like the Pathfinders project (Grigar and Moulthrop), to discover methods of maintaining electronic literature through time. I have devoted time and energy to developing best practices unique to electronic literature curating, and I have mentored others – like scholars Kathi Inman Berens and Lori Emerson, not to mention the many undergraduate students who take my course on the topic of curating or work with me in my small gallery in downtown Vancouver – so that they can learn to undertake this work, as well. The critical and scholarly practice that make up this kind of work involve a deep knowledge of the field as well as a wide array of methods, many of which I have invented. Like the authors of Digital_Humanities, I see these two activities as research – no matter if one comes at them from an art or humanities background.


  1. 1. The Bergen Electronic Literature Research Group’s first forays into using the Knowledge Base as a data source for macroanalytic visualizations are documented in “Mining the Knowledge Base: Exploring Methodologies for Analysing the Field of Electronic Literature”, Rettberg and Walker Rettberg, 2013. back

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