Curatorial Statement for The NEXT

We are presenting The NEXT to the Electronic Literature Organization’s Board of Directors on Wednesday, May 8, 2021. The space goes live nine days later on Monday, May 17. Below is the curatorial statement I created for it that explains the vision underlying The NEXT as well as the process it took to build it. As I prepared it for inclusion at the space, I thought of all of the people and organizations that supported us over the three years of The NEXT’s development: the three other Co-PIs involved in Phase 1; Washington State University Vancouver; Electronic Literature Organization and its Board of Directors; my lab (Electronic Literature Lab) and lab mates; Don Waters of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the 45 seniors of the Creative Media & Digital Culture program; Ray Siemens and his Electronic Textual Cultures Lab; Compute Canada; and the authors, scholars, and journal editors who donated their works early on in the project and, so, helped to establish the need of a repository of born-digital literature. 


Curatorial Statement for The NEXT
by Dene Grigar, Director, Electronic Literature Lab


Design Challenge

How best to preserve and present born-digital art like electronic literature, which engages with language in ways that are participatory, interactive, and experiential?

That was the design challenge we faced with the development of Electronic Literature Organization’s The NEXT.

In conceptualizing the space for the thousands of works of electronic literature, we started with the premise that just as physical artifacts, like paintings and books, have required brick and mortar spaces to contain them, electronic literature requires virtual, multimedial spaces for holding it. The result from this line of thinking is a virtual space, a multimedial museum, library, and preservation environment, created to reflect the needs of its artifacts as well as assure their long-term accessibility to the public, both present and future.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The NEXT’s archives contain a wide array of digital and physical media relating to hypertext novels, poetry, and essays; kinetic poetry; animated text; Interactive Fiction; net art; literary games; virtual and augmented reality narratives; interactive novels; mobile narratives, and many other forms, as well as artist’s notes; ephemera associated with performances, exhibitions, and publications; and scholarship about born-digital literary art in the original language as well as in translation, when available. The mix media aspect of its collections, thus, necessitates the space be designed to encourage a dialectic with the art in varying “degrees of openness, access, participation” and see its art as “moments” rather than merely “works” (Dziekan 63-70). It is intended to create what Maria Lind describes as “contact surfaces between works of art, curated projects, and people, about various forms and intensities of communicating about and around art” (88). The fragility of the digital art it holds suggests that The NEXT allow us to “inhabit our past and adventure into our future (Giannachi 184).”

As a form of ‘memory architecture’ (Giannachi 60), The NEXT does not attempt to act as gate-keeper that defines the value of a work of art but rather as a space that documents a broad swath of human expression at a time, in comparison to print culture, is still in its early stage of development.

We recognize that in this endeavor we cannot archive everything, but we can provide a robust representation of born-digital literary output from the late 20thcentury onward with a diverse collection of art and accompanying materials in a way that befits their virtuality and digitality.

Design Choices

The virtuality of the space is expressed through the participatory, interactive, and experiential qualities of its design. Videos make it possible for artists to greet visitors to their collections and briefly describe what they have donated to The NEXT. Commonplace features, like buttons and icons, come alive when touched to provide a sense of live-ness. Images drawn from events associated with the ELO’s conferences, exhibitions, and performances capture the essence of the community. Visualizations produced with D3.js provide insights into the growth of the art form across the globe and the influence of publications held in The NEXT over time. Physical artifacts donated to The NEXT, like the beach ball that Richard Holeton used in his performances of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid or the packaging used for the distribution of early hypertext works, are remade as 3D models that can be either manipulated by visitors or viewed as turntable videos. Works for which we have permission to share are made accessible via download; those that cannot be shared due to issues relating to copyright or obsolescence are visualized through GIFs or 3D models.

Collection Strategies

The collection strategy began, first, with the drive to provide a permanent archival space to fragile works published between 1986-2000 primarily on floppy disks by artists working in North America or online by influential collections, like Turbulence and the trAce Online Writing Centre. The ELO’s own archives and collections were included in this early phase of collecting. The looming demise of Adobe Flash promised at the end of 2020 resulted in the collection expanding to include a wider range of artists working from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s across the globe who published works on the web and on CD-ROM as well as influential online journals that emerged during that same period. More recently we have worked to diversify the collections to include more non-English language works, focusing much attention on Latin America, francophone Canada, the Middle East, and Europe. Since its founding in 2018, The NEXT has grown from seven to over 30 collections amounting to over 3300 works, with many more to add in the coming months.

Development History

Currently in its fourth phase of development, The NEXT was originally seeded in 2018 by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation submitted by Dene Grigar, Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver; Leonardo Flores, Appalachian State University; Nicholas Schiller, Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver; and Chase Adams, Harry Ransom Humanities Center. Phase 1 saw the development of the site and the migration of the works’ metadata. Providing support during this phase was the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, led by Ray Siemens, and Compute Canada. Phase 2, begun in the fall 2020, resulted in the plans for a new user-friendly interface, the creation of new page templates, the re-organization of the archives into six collection categories, and the development of its extended metadata schema, ELMS. Phase 3, which took place from January to May 2021, saw the reconceptualization of the repository into a virtual, multimedia space and the completion of its reconstruction and rebranding as The NEXT. Phase 4 will see the enhancement of ELMS and its application to the archives so that visitors will have a clear understanding of the accessibility and platform issues required to experience individual works. It also includes the digitizing of paper archives and the expansion of the collections to include a broader international scope.

Much of the labor to create The NEXT in Phases 2 and 3 has come from volunteers, primarily from the staff of Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and advanced undergraduate students from Washington State University Vancouver’s Creative Media & Digital Culture program. ELL’s Director, Grigar, produced the vision for the project and continues to serve as its managing director and curator. Holly Slocum is the designer of the space and serves as its project manager. Six students worked during Phase 2 of the project to build the preliminary templates from the design created by Slocum and conceptualized by Grigar. But the heavy lifting was undertaken by 39 students who worked with Grigar, Slocum, and Greg Philbrook, the lab’s technical expert, to build the space and its contents. Ongoing activities to preserve the works in The NEXT becoming obsolete due to technological changes, like its Flash art, take place in the lab by all members of the ELL team.

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