Curatorial Statement: "The Electronic Literature Exhibit—Literary Works for Desktop, Mobile Devices, and Performance," by Dene Grigar

General Introduction

It is with great pleasure that we curators welcome you to the "Electronic Literature" exhibit at the MLA. The works we have selected represent a broad cross-section of born digital literary writing, both historic and current. As you visit the various computer stations, access the mobile works on your smart phones or tablets, or listen to the performances at the special event on Friday night at the Hugo House, you will experience works that sit at the intersection of literature, art and design, and digital technology.

We see our function as curators to be "authorial," and like any curator (or anthologist, for that matter), each of us has carefully selected individual works in a way that makes sense for the overall work—in our case, the exhibit. We have arranged the works so that each is displayed to its advantage, and that there is flow, interaction, and participation between visitors and the works and among the visitors in the physical space. And of course, as the Latin root of the word "curator" (curare) suggests, we have cared for the work, seeking to connect and explain it to readers by being present at the exhibit to answer questions and provide insights and by leaving behind this archival website to preserve its memory as an organized whole, make it easily available, and promote an ongoing discussion of it. But there is another reason why we offer this exhibit: We are concerned about the future of the literary arts. According to two recent studies by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), young people are reading social media sites, texts, television ads, websites—writing other than literature. We contend that works, like Electronic Literature, that take advantage of the new text technologies made possible by digital media have the potential to resonate with readers for whom those technologies are native and, thereby, alter the course of contemporary reading habits.

New Text Technologies & The Literary Works

Electronic literature shares with its analog counterpart many of the characteristics of traditional literature. Works in this exhibit were selected for their sophisticated use of language (Stephanie Strickland's "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot" and Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar's "Cruising" epitomize such craft) and for their choice of subject matter common to the human experience, such as the death of a loved one (in Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story) or the destructive power of nature (in David Theo Goldberg and Stefka Hristova's "Blue Velvet"). Like traditional literature, electronic literature compels us to think deeply about human behavior, with the addition of additional layer of interpretive possibility occasioned by the code running beneath the work's interface. Like Henry Jenkins, we also believe that video games have the potential of the literary and can be "a serious art form in its own right." In this regard, Ian Bogost's "A Slow Year," Nick Montfort's "Ad Verbum," and Reiner Strasser, Dan Waber, and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher's ">>oh<<" included in this exhibit all demonstrate this promise.

What makes the work in this exhibit—and, so, electronic literary work, in general—a potent agent for enlarging reading habits, especially of young people, is that they make use of the affordances of the electronic medium for which they are uniquely built and that young readers have come to expect in their everyday experiences.

In 1992, for example, when Stuart Moulthrop published his novel, Victory Garden, web browsers did not exist, but proprietary authoring programs that offered the ability to make information hypertextual and available to large audiences through mass production did. Thus, Moulthrop's story took full advantage of that affordance possible at the time and was—and still is—accessible through its publisher, Eastgate Systems. Another example, John Kusch's "Red Lily," published in 1999 just a few years following the introduction of the web browser and the availability of Flash software, meant that it could take advantage of sound and movement and make itself available for free to a wide readership due to these technological developments. Works published today can be built for mobile devices and, so, take advantage of touch technology, like Aya Karpinska's "Shadows Never Sleep," and participatory practices of Web 2.0. In each of these cases the text technologies that undergird the work align with practices of the developing media and with the interests of a public that interacts with that media.

As internet media have grown to overtake other forms of mass media, so have the expectations of the public for the affordances with which they have become comfortable. With this in mind, it should not be surprising to learn that, according to Association of American Publishers, the sales of e-books readers have tripled in 2011 while that of paperbacks have "dipped." Also telling is that, according to CTIA, a wireless communications industry group, in the current year 2011, Americans own over 5 billion mobile phones and have downloaded over 15 billion mobile apps. While an e-book is not an example of Electronic Literature because its literature is not born digital, its popularity does suggest that the reading public is primed to read literary works on computing devices. Certainly, those works that utilize the GPS technology found on mobile devices tie the reading experience to a particular site and build immediacy into the work and have the potential to tap into the expanding readership of mobile phone users. The bottom line is that the sensory modalities we use to make sense of texts have been expanded by internet technologies, and literary works that meet these expectations may be able to build interest in literary forms that have lost popularity with the general public.

Electronic Literature is generically diverse; some of the works you will find in this exhibit include a video that requires the reader to interact with a character in order to move the plot along; a documentary of an event told as a mosaic of 3200 images; a graphic novel that unfolds in real time; a poem revealed through a play with voices, sounds, and images— experiments with the written and spoken word that constitute the spirit of innovation underlying works of Electronic Literature.

Each curator has provided a statement about the works selected for her section of the exhibit. These, as well as this introduction, constitute our rationale for selections and our perspectives about electronic literature and this exhibit.