Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Traversal of Judy Malloy's "its name was Penelope"

This live stream Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope took place on Friday, April 27, 2018 at in the Electronic Literature Lab. It was performed by Dene Grigar, Director of the lab and President of the Electronic Literature Organization. The Traversal documentation includes five video clips of the performance itself along with introductory comments and the question and answer session with the audience that followed the performance. For the Traversal we used a Macintosh SE (circa 1987) running System Software 6.0.7 and the signed copy of the work from Grigar's collection. Grigar rehearsed during the weeks leading up to the event. Handling the technical setup on YouTube was Greg Philbrook, the Creative Media & Digital Culture program's technical and instructional assistant. All four of the four research assistants––Vanessa Rhodes, Mariah Gwin, Veronica Whitney and Katie Bowen––oversaw the social media engagement and photographed the event.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Introduction
The live traversal for Judy Malloy’s its name was Penelope took place in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) on the campus of Washington State University Vancouver on April 27th 2018 between noon and two in the afternoon. Before the traversal proper took place, a pre-show was broadcast with a live video feed from ELL overlaid with a soundscape created by Dr. John Barber.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Part 1
The live stream of the traversal opens with ELL director Dr. Dene Griar welcoming the online and in person audiences to the sixth of seven in the born digital media preservation series. Today’s traversal will cover Judy Malloy’s generative work of electronic literature its name was Penelope. Grigar continues to thank the sponsors of the event, Washington State University Vancouver, WSU’s Louis E. and Stella G. Buchanan distinguished professorship, and the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). First time viewers are introduced to the concept of a traversal: a recorded walk-through of a work of electronic literature. It’s name was Penelope will be read by Grigar today, using a Macintosh SE from 1987 and running System Software 6.07. Grigar goes on to acknowledge Judy Malloy, the author of today’s work who is participating in the traversal online and through YouTube chat. ELL staff Nicholas Schiller, Greg Philbrook, Vanessa Rhodes, Veronica Whitney, Katie Bowen, and Mariah Gwin are also acknowledged. #elitpathfinders is the hashtag used for conversation threads from today’s traversal on Twitter and Facebook.

(Note: there is a slight problem with the video feed at the beginning, Video I and the first few minutes of video II are presented with a still image.)
Grigar begins her traversal by making connections between the Penelope referred to in the title, which is a sailboat that figures prominently in the narrative, and Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey. Grigar notes with appreciation Malloy’s use of Penelope in her work, stating that it re-invigorates Penelope’s status, which has been muted by English translations of the Odyssey.
The story begins in the file called Dawn. Grigar introduces us to the narrator, Anne Mitchell and also describes the interface the reader of the hypertext. The work is generative, meaning the order in which the lexia are arranged in this reading will not be the same as the next reading. In Dawn, the work evokes images of a childhood in post world war II America.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Part 2
As Grigar traverses Malloy’s hypertext, she notices that the Dawn chapter is a mixture of childhood memories and dreams, even nightmares. The Odyssey and the sailboat named Penelope make early appearances in the work. Malloy’s use of descriptive language is noted as bringing depth and emotional reach to the work. Grigar breaks down a particular scene where the small details of a family outing to a baseball game. The descriptions of a boy reading a dictionary, dirty concrete, peanuts, a father’s discipline, are noted as exemplars of Malloy’s style. Also noted are childhood references that can be both a little whimsical or even naughty and also a little scary. Grigar continues exploring the lexias of Dawn and notes that food figures prominently in Malloy’s work. Food connects to memory and helps frame the story’s setting.
At this point Grigar leaves the book Dawn and moves on to the book Sea. Again, she points out connections between the structure of Malloy’s work and the Odyssey. Each of the sections of this book begin with a quote from the Odyssey. Grigar chooses Gathering of shades to read from. In the lexias that the work generates, we learn that Anne Mitchell has grown into an adult, moved to the Bay Area, and is moving in an artists’ crowd.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Part 3
Grigar’s traversal continues, as she reads through more lexias. We encounter descriptions of the Avant Gard art and we start to encounter the ravages of the AIDS epidemic that was wreaking havoc in San Francisco during that era.  In the several lexias read through in this section we are given glimpses of the social and professional lives of Anne Mitchell as she moves through the San Francisco art scene.
Next, Grigar leaves the Sea book and jumps over to Far Off Island. We are greeted with another quote from the Odyssey “If you knew what troubles you have before you get to Ithaca, you would stay where you are and keep this house with me.” Grigar notes that the work was distributed as an individual physical copy, which had a much more specific audience than work that is disseminated over the open web. This less public audience gave early works of elit the opportunity to have more personal or sexual content than works directed at a larger public audience. The lexias in the Far Off Island book recount Anne Mitchell’s artistic, social, and romantic experiences.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Part 4
Grigar is now reading from the book A Fine Work and Wide Across. The story of Anne Mitchell’s life continues into her fourth decade and Grigar notes that the character’s lack of children is taken note of by those she encounters and is treated as not normal. In the lexias that are read we encounter similar memories, items, and themes from other books in the story. There are conflicts between professional and interpersonal areas of her life. The recurrent ideas and concepts change as the character moves through her life, we also see that interruptions and disruptions of Mitchell’s life are ever present in the work. Next, Grigar returns to the Sea menu and selects “Rock and a Hard Place.” As Grigar chooses the last of its name was Penelope's books, we see Anne Mitchell later in her life and struggling in her art, struggling with her day job, hungry, and bleak.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Part 5
The lexias in the book “Rock and a Hard Place” continue Mitchell’s life. As time passes, fortune has not been kind to Anne Mitchell. Grigar reads a series of lexias that relate small stories of struggle. Mitchell’s work continues to be rejected. Her day job in an insurance company comes with small scenes of daily gendered disrespect. We see poverty and hunger feature more and more prominently in Mitchell’s world. She drinks creamer from the office refrigerator, she searches pockets in her closet for forgotten change, her car is unreliable and fails her. Next, Grigar returns to Sea and selects the book Song. She gives an accounting of the lexias she has encountered in multiple readings of its name was Penelope, but she also acknowledges that it is unknown whether all of the lexias have been discovered. She encountered two, previously unknown to her, lexias just that day. In this new book of it’s name was Penelope we encounter a change of setting. Anne Mitchell is no longer in San Francisco. She is in the country. In place of young people wearing black we have pick-up trucks full of men who stop to buy beer from the general store. Grigar notes that the intimate scenes that appear in this book are more tender than the more passionate encounters we saw earlier. As we reach an ending of the work, Grigar notes that it feels like something of a happy ending.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Q&A, Part 1
This video clip marks the beginning of the Q & A session with Dr. Dene Grigar for Judy Malloy’s “its name was Penelope.” The first question is from an audience member who asks how it felt to rediscover this piece of pioneering electronic literature. Grigar goes on to explain how she wrote about this work on the ELL website. She then continues, stating that she learned of the piece through, as she recalls, Stuart Moulthrop’s “Victory Garden”. Grigar begins to display the folio of the work to the audience in the room and online, and shows the Storyspace poster within where people could order more works which is how she came across and ordered “its name was Penelope.” Since at the time she was working on a dissertation regarding the Odyssey and Homer’s Penelope, after her discovery of the work, she also used Judy Malloy’s “its name was Penelope” in her dissertation as well. She answers that reading the work again after having done all the Traversals throughout the year is an amazing thing. She charted out the lexias in the work and read silently, and then to read it aloud and hear the words spoken, she feels, brings across the poetic nature of the work more strongly than reading it silently. Grigar elaborates on her background teaching and studying various works relating to the Odyssey and Greek mythology, and states how she enjoyed that Malloy used two very different translations of the Odyssey. Grigar then asks if the audience has any questions for Judy Malloy herself. Malloy compliments Grigar’s performance of the work via the Youtube chat to which Grigar goes on to explain how she felt performing the work, knowing the author was there and watching, and finished her thoughts by thanking Malloy. An audience member asks about the generative nature of the work. As they wait for Malloy’s response, Grigar begins talking about various translations of the Odyssey. Malloy states that she, as a writer, spends a lot of time reading and rereading. An audience member then asks about Malloy’s choice of turning Penelope into an object rather than to recreate her. This video finishes up by Grigar explaining how the sailboat represents childhood and innocence.

Traversal of Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, Q&A, Part 2
This video clip presents the final portion of Dr. Dene Grigar’s Q & A session for Judy Malloy’s “its name was Penelope.” An audience member asks if Judy Malloy always writes so vividly. Malloy responds to the prior question regarding why Penelope was made into an object, and explains that she wasn’t comfortable naming the protagonist Penelope, so she used the sailboat named Penelope to key the metaphor of the whole. Returning to the question on vividness, Grigar gives a firm yes and goes on to say that detail is very important in the works Malloy has done. The same audience member continues by asking how Malloy developed that skill and asks if she was always good at writing in a detailed manner or if it was something she learned through trial and error or from a class. Malloy responds by explaining her studio background in art and artist books and photographic artist books. Another audience member asks, given Malloy’s background in studio art, if jumping into the technology provided her with roadblocks as she continued her work. Malloy responds by saying how she does have some history in programming. Grigar then goes on to explain further than Malloy taught herself how to code and she did her own coding and programming. Judy finishes up by explaining a bit more about her history and classes she took and then Grigar moves onto her finishing words and explains why the Traversals are important for preserving these works. The Traversal concludes with Grigar informing the audience of the last Traversal of the year and that the Traversals for the next year have all been selected and are to be announced at the last Traversal.

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