Electronic Literature

Electronic Literature Preservation

A few of the 24 vintage Macs in ELL

I began collecting Apple computers when it occurred to me that some of the electronic literary work that I liked so much would not be accessible one day without vintage computers.  This idea came to me, unfortunately, after I had given away my own LC II and Performa and did not make an attempt to ask for the CI a family member no longer wanted.  But once the awareness set in, I collected with a vengeance:  I now own 24 vintage Macs dating back to 1983.  Yes, I have to admit I am a fan of the design, particularly of the computers that Steve Jobs had a hand in developing (see photo of G3 iMacs, to the right).  But my passion for Macs is more about access to the art produced on and for them––electronic literature––than simply the machine itself.  iMac G3

But what is electronic literature?, you may ask. It is generally defined as a “digital born” literary work––that is, “a first generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” (Hayles 3).  In a world dominated today by smart phones and tablets, the term computer has come to include also a computing device.  Electronic literature was not digital born yesterday but rather has been in existence for over five decades, starting with Théo Lutz’s 1959 computer generated poem, entitled “Stochastische Texte” (Kac 273; Funkhouser xix), and has been available commercially since the early 1990s with works published by Eastgate Systems.  Its history has been inextricably linked to and enriched by experimentation generating from various art forms including literature, the visual arts, sonic art, performance, and cinema, and it is influenced by code and platforms associated with computer science.  Thus, electronic literature is a hybrid art form that requires its readers to utilize various sensory modalities, such as sight, sound, touch, movement, when experiencing it.  Just as one does not expect music to play when opening a book, one does come to expect it, for example, in web-based work like Erik Loyer’s “Strange Rain” or Thom Swiss’s “Shy Boy.”  Its development is also inextricably to the technology that existed alongside it and made it possible for artistic expression.

The Classic used for Moulthrop’s Victory Garden

Because electronic literature of the late 20th century has essentially grown up alongside Macs, I have carefully sought out and found computers that can run most all works of e-lit.  The Pathfinders project requires, for example, an Apple II for Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger:  The Blue Notebook, a CI for McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, a Classic for Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Performa for Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.  I have a former student Jeff Grisso to thank for helping me locate these computers and for keeping them running.

The Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) constitutes, therefore, a living archive where one can engage “hands-on” with the works of e-lit in the media library.  What keeps me up at night, however, is the fact that no matter what I do to keep the computers in ELL functioning, they will one day become obsolete––parts will no longer be available; Jeff and I will be gone from this earth.  This is where Pathfinders comes in.  The project aims to capture the experience readers have with this art form for posterity through videotaping that experience and publishing the videos in a web-based book environment, free to the public and readily available via international databases and websites.  The Columbian newspaper published an excellent story about the project in today’s edition.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.