This essay is a reprint of the Introduction to the forthcoming multimedia book, The Progressive Dinner Party Restored. The author Kathleen Zoller is an Undergraduate Researcher in ELL who received a WSU Undergraduate Summer Mini-Grant to restore “The Progressive Dinner Party,” a special  collection created by Jennifer Ley, Marjorie Luesebrink, and Carolyn Guertin and published in 1999 by Riding the Meridian. In the essay Zoller explains the project and the method by which she restored the collection. The book will be released on September 1, 2019.

“The Progressive Dinner Party Restored”
by Kathleen Zoller

The Progressive Dinner Party is a collection of 39 works selected from Carolyn Guertin’s Assemblage, a showcase of new media art by female artists from around the world. The Assemblage contains works with a variety of genres, tones, schools and generations, though they all seek to use traditional narrative forms or language in innovative, non-sequential ways. But just as importantly, Assemblage also acts as a union of the languages, skills, visions, art, and voices of women, which were not often heard or seen in their area of expertise. At a time when women were rarely acknowledged for their participation in computer technology, the Assemblage was critical for housing digital-born works in the 1990s for women who contributed during the earlier stages of the World Wide Web. 

Celebrating 39 women selected from this collection, The Progressive Dinner Party presents many unique takes on electronic art and literature. These include popular works, such as “my body: A Wunderkammer” by Shelley Jackson, and rarer ones, like “Blood Puppets” by Mez Breeze. Other artists include Claire Dinsmore, Stephanie Strickland, Jennifer Ley, Sue Thomas and Lehan Ramsay. E-lit artists Carolyn Guertin and Marjorie Luesebrink chose these 39 creators to highlight various pioneering works of electronic literature during the momentous transition to digital media. This idea was inspired by Judy Chicago’s piece The Dinner Party, which celebrates the contribution of women to art throughout history. Included in Chicago’s work are Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Woolf, Sacajawea, and Empress Theodora of Byzantium. Like Chicago’s piece, the goal of The Progressive Dinner Party is to preserve the memory of these impactful female digital artists and prevent them from being lost to history. This took the form of a virtual three-sided table with 39 place settings linking to different’ “plates,” each displayed in a theme particular to the artist being celebrated. The Progressive Dinner Party has received positive critical response from postmodern literary theorist N. Katherine Hayles and digital author Talan Memmott, both of whom have written essays and commentary regarding the piece. These essays are currently housed in the site for anyone to view.

The Progressive Dinner Party was published in Riding the Meridian in 1999, an online journal founded by Jennifer Ley that showcased 262 works produced by many well-known artists and writers from around the world. Riding the Meridian was collected in the ELO repository in 2019. The repository contains metadata of over 1500 works from 20 collections of electronic literature owned or managed by ELO. The journal is valued for being one of the earliest spaces on the internet for sharing new forms and approaches of creative expression that were made accessible to all. Among these works were Mark Amerika’s Grammatron, Bobby Arellano’s Sunshine ‘69, Strickland’s The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, and Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia

Most of the works in The Progressive Dinner Party link externally to sites that no longer exist, are missing media, don’t function in modern browsers, or all the above. As time goes on, more of these works are lost– sometimes for good (such as Diana Slattery’s Glide, a gorgeous multimedia piece reflecting the fluidity of language and storytelling.) Many of the women in The Progressive Dinner Partyhelped revolutionize and broaden the field of electronic art and literature. And unless preserved, these 39 pieces would no longer be accessible. Therefore, the goal of my project is to keep these works alive so that the study of women’s early contributions to electronic literature are available to the public.

To accomplish this task, I used Rhizome’s Webrecorder archiving tool to capture their performance and functionality by converting the pages to .WARC files. To locate missing works, I would either use the Wayback Machine or seek it out in other locations, such as the author’s website or in online journals. If the files could not be found, Dene Grigar and I contacted the artist for a link to the work or for the local files. A spreadsheet was made to keep track of links, creator names and contacts, and other relevant metadata I found to aid my research. I then put my findings into this Scalar platform book, which was chosen due to being multimedia and interactive in nature like The Progressive Dinner Party. I also wanted the work to be open-source and easily accessible as time went on. Scalar is made with non-proprietary software and code (such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript), making its lifespan much longer than if it were made with other tools.

It should be noted that along with the 39 artists, numerous key people were involved with the original site’s creation. Jennifer Ley not only founded Riding the Meridian, she also was featured as an artist. She also created, co-founded and edited the poetry journal Perihelion in 1998, and hypertext poetry and graphics site The Astrophysicist’s Tango Partner Speaks in 1996. Ley has worked with a diverse range of media for over forty years with an interest in community building and social activism. She has worn many hats including artist, filmmaker, hypertext writer, and editor. This wide array of skills is partially owed to her schooling, which have earned her a B.S. in Art Education, studio concentration in ceramics and photography from the University of Wisconsin Stout, a background in film production from NYU, and post graduate experience in ceramics and oil painting. Her poetry has been featured in websites and magazines including Salt River ReviewBeehivePoetry Magazineand Poetry Cafe, among other places.

Carolyn Guertin has also played a key role in The Progressive Dinner Party, having devised and helped curate the site based on her collection Assemblage: The Women’s Hypertext Gallery. With a focus on feminist literary avant-garde and electronic work, she had created Assemblagefor trAce Online, a digital archive of international new media art by women on the World Wide Web. She has written several books, including Digital Prohibition: Piracy and Authorship in New Media Artand three other textbooks regarding digital media. She has taught at universities in Canada, Europe, and the United States. Guertin has also been a member of the Electronic Literature Organization and served on the Organization’s Board of Directors.

Another important contributor is Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink (also known as M. D. Coverley) who co-curated The Progressive Dinner Party. A writer of hypermedia fiction, she is also a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization and served as the Organization’s second president. She has been writing digital-born fiction since 1995, which has been published in Cauldron and NetRiding the MeridianBeehiveThe Iowa Review Weband more. Luesebrink has also written critical articles regarding e-lit and worked as editor for Word CircuitsThe Blue Moon ReviewInflect, and Riding the Meridian.

Talan Memmott wrote a comprehensive essay of commentary on The Progressive Dinner Party (specifically on the nature of web-specific hypermedia and hypertext literature), which the site includes. Having a background in electronic writing and digital art, Memmott has shared his extensive knowledge in universities around the globe including the University of Bergen, University of California Santa Cruz, Rhode Island School of Design, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden, and at Winona State University. Memmott obtained a PhD in Interaction Design/Digital Rhetoric and Poetics from Malmö University in Sweden, and an MFA in Literary Arts and Electronic Writing from Brown University, Rhode Island.

N. Katherine Hayles also offered her commentary onThe Progressive Dinner Party, sharing her thoughts on how the term “open-work” could be used to describe electronic pieces such as those contained in the collection. Hayles is a prominent literary critic and theorist who writes and teaches on the relations of science, literature, and technology. Her insights come from a background in the sciences and in writing, having received her M.S. in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1969 and her Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Rochester in 1977. Over time, Hayles has focused her writings on electronic textuality and literature, posthumanism, technocriticism, and American postmodern literature. Additionally, Hayles has shared her teachings at the University of Iowa, University of Missouri-Rolla, the California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and the University of California, Los Angeles.