Author Archives: Dene Grigar

Traversals Is Released!

Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing has been released. The book, published by The MIT Press, applies the pathfinders methodology and traversals process that Stuart Moulthrop and I developed in our Pathfinders project, to four works of electronic literature: Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, and Bill Bly’s We Descend. This first stage of our work resulted in a multimedia, open-source book, called Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Writing.

The research for Pathfinders took place in ELL, the lab that I direct here at WSUV, with two of the traversals––McDaid’s and Jackson’s––also videotaped here. To write my chapters of Traversals, I spent much of my time reviewing the works on the computers in the lab and consulting the data Stuart and I collected in the Pathfinders book, even fine tuning that information as I delved further into comparing versions and conducting archival research at Duke’s and MoMA’s libraries.

What the project suggests, therefore, is that thorough research of electronic writing––specifically research involving digital textual analysis of born digital texts involving multimedia and interactivity––requires access not only to library collections like The Judy Malloy Papers at the David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library but also to what Abigail De Rosnik calls “rogue archives” like ELL where electronic literary works can be experienced on computers they were originally published and intended to be viewed.

More importantly, our project shows that our methodology and process are well-suited for application to any kind of born-digital work, including video games.

Book Cover for Traversals

Yesterday Stuart and I received the art for the book cover for Traversals. This book, published by The MIT Press, follows the open-source book, Pathfinders, both of which the result of the research we undertook for the Pathfinders Project. Traversals is scheduled to come out in less than 6 weeks. I will take no breather after this, but rather plan to plunge right into the next projects–Volume 2 of Pathfinders and the completion of Electronic Literature: Contexts, Forms and Practices, with James O’Sullivan, for West Virginia University Press.


Preserving Visceral Media

The excerpt, below, comes from the keynote I gave at the 2016 International Digital Media Arts Association Conference.


You’re watching a video of Amaranth Borsuk demonstrating Whispering Galleries, a work derived from a diary dating to the 1850s. The work itself is an interactive narrative that allows Borsuk to erase words from the screen by gesturing over a Leap Motion device. Doing so reveals words that comprise a poem. To change the diary’s pages, she gestures a swipe over the device. What you many may not notice right away is that the computer’s camera is capturing her image and incorporating it into the interface of the work, in essence, resulting in her becoming part of the work as she experiences it.

So my questions to you are: How does one preserve a work like Whispering Galleries for posterity? How do we preserve any creative work of art that requires us to interact with it? That involves a media rich sensory experience, involving movement, sound, and gesture that cannot be captured in print? That has been published on and for digital technologies that are no longer available––I mean, how many peripherals like joysticks, game controllers, power gloves have been abandoned because they no longer work for the systems we now use? Leap Motion may very well be another. These are some of the questions that have shaped my research into preservation of electronic literature for the last eight years and that form the topic of my talk today.

Part 1 Why Preserve Visceral Media
Since 1991 I’ve collected a type of digital creative art known as electronic literature. Many of you recognize this art form as digital narratives, kinetic or animated poems, hypertext fiction and poetry, interactive drama, literary games, and many other born digital forms that possess a literary quality and are produced for and intended to be experienced with/on digital devices. To date, I own over 200 of these works in my personal library at Washington State University Vancouver.

Besides being digital, this kind of work is also visceral with viscera associated with the body’s internal organs––the heart, liver, and gut––which are both physical and fragile.

By physical, I mean they’re works that involve kinestheti­c activity––that is, they elicit non-trivial physical intervention by the user. Whispering Galleries serves as an example, but so do many others. Even early electronic literature like Judy Malloy’s database novel Uncle Roger, created with Applesoft BASIC and published on a 5 ¼-inch floppy from 1986 to 1988, required users to intervene physically in a non-trivial way in order to access the narrative programmed in the database.

They may also be kinetic, with images being made to move due to physical intervention of the user. Along with Borsuk’s piece, I am thinking here of others, like Jason Edward Lewis’s The Great Migration. Developed as an app for mobile devices, it consists of strange creatures swimming across the screen. When they are “tamped down” by the user’s finger, they writhe and spin in resistance, responding to the user’s touch by emitting tiny bubbles into their habitat.

Though Whispering Galleries doesn’t utilize sound, many others do. In fact, electronic literature artists have worked to incorporate sound from very early on. One of the first is John McDaid’s hypertext novel Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse created with Hypercard 2.0 and published in 1993. It came packaged with two audiocassettes that augmented the narrative with musical compositions by the titular character, Uncle (Arthur) “Buddy” Newkirk.

Like Whispering Galleries, they may also produce an embodied experience. Kate Pullinger’s interactive novel, The Breathing Wall, published in 2004 on CD came packaged with a headset whose mouthpiece users breathed into in order to access portions of the story. In effect, it incorporated the user intimately into the work, turning the human body into one of the media of its multimedia.

Also like Whispering Galleries is Erik Loyer’s literary app, Breathing Room, has users gesturing with their hands over a Leap Motion device and so controlling the story with their actions.

. . . And so on and so on and so on. To sum up, visceral media are physical media involving non-trivial user interaction, media rich experiences, and embodied action. They are not limited to electronic literature. They can also include video games, media art, and other digital forms.

Any of us who has had a floppy disk fail, a computer crash, a website disappear know that visceral media can also be fragile media. They’re reliant upon supporting hardware and software. It was a rude awakening to discover the 3 ½-inch diskettes I bought in 1995 were no longer readable three years later on the G3 iMac I was given to teach with because Apple no longer offered a floppy drive on that computer. My many CDs are today unreadable on my current iMac, a situation that actually began when Apple omitted the disk drive on its MacBook Air and Mac Mini earlier. Recognizing this problem I began collecting, along with electronic literature, the hardware and software needed to continue accessing my collection. The result is the development of the Electronic Literature Lab, or ELL, where I’ve amassed 47 computers covering every operating system and a robust collection of vintage software needed for accessing my collection. These are Macs, for the most part, dating back to 1977––and a few PCs running Windows 95 and 2000.

You may wonder at this juncture why I have been concerned about documenting this art. I mean, it’s one thing to keep 200 floppies and CDs from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s around, but another to commit one’s self––one’s research and resources––to saving them from extinction. But let me frame the problem this way: Only three poems of Sappho’s nine books are left to us due in part because the medium with which they were produced––papyri––is fragile and, so, rotted over time. Also contributing to their loss were better and easier writing technologies that were developed and implemented for disseminating literary art.

Bits also rot. Physical objects corrupt. Better and easier digital technologies have been developed and implemented for disseminating digital literary art since the introduction of floppy disks, CDs, Flash and a whole host of other abandonware. Like Sappho’s lyrical poetry, which spoke to the cultural output of 8th Century BCE, thousands of hypertext narratives and poems, kinetic poetry, animated text, interactive fiction, flash-based art, literary apps, and other forms of digital literature that speak to the experimental cultural output of the late 20th and early 21st century period will very soon no longer be available to the public. My lab staves this problem off––but only for a time. The general idea is to document as many works of electronic literature as I can before there are no parts left to fix my computers when they break and no back up software available for reading the works when my copies finally all fail.

[Part 2 and Conclusion followed but are not included.]


Pathfinders at Whittier College

Pathfinders is being taught at Whittier College this semester in a course called Digital Textuality. Students in the course are reading the chapter on Shelley Jackson and watching the videos from her Traversal. Here’s the link to the syllabus:

Judy Malloy’s Motifs

its-name-was-penelope-5During my visit to the MoMA Library to document its version of Uncle Roger, I had the opportunity to examine other works by Malloy that pre-date Uncle Roger, some by as much as six years. I had written in my chapter on Malloy in Traversals that she explores similar motifs in her work––both Uncle Roger and its name was Penelope, which she produced later, for example, include references to boats and water. But it was enlightening to see the extent of her exploration in earlier works.

Below is the list of art works studied. I have noted motifs in those that are also found in Uncle Roger. The most interesting can be found in “Eschew Gluttony,” which features a character named Roger who is as Falstaffian as Uncle Roger. Also note the focus on cats, computers, card catalog cards,sex, food, potato chips, cockroaches, and a blimp. These motifs are fully developed in Uncle Roger.

This discovery underscores that Uncle Roger was many years in the making, the logical culmination of her visual art practice, and at the same time the beginning of her experimentation with new digital media that came into full flower with its name is Penelope.

Come Back, Kitty Kitty Kitty (1979)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative
This is the only early work that had a sales price on it ($.75)
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#6 in the book)
***Includes references to cats

Honesty Is the Best Policy (1979) Hand-drawn graphonesty-croppedhic narrative
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#1 in the book). Includes references to cats, cockroaches, sex, a computer, card catalog cards




Eschew Gluttony (1979)  Hand-drawn graphic narrative
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#2 in the book). Includes a ceschew-gluttony-cropped-2haracter named Roger, who is very much like Uncle Roger; also references to food, potato chips



is-everybody-done-now-3Is Everybody Done Now? (1980)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative
Looks like it was intended for card catalog
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#7 in the book)
***Includes references to a character named David; references food

500 3 x 5 Cards (1980)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#4 in the book).
Includes references to cat, sex

A Year in Reno (1980)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative, organized around the conceit of a calendar
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#10 in the book).
Includes references to a cat

And Then (1980)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative, organized around the conceit of a calendar
Looks like it was intended for card catalog but is not (missing dots for holes)
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#11 in the book).
Includes references to cats, food

Dallas Berkeley (1981)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative, organized around the conceit of a calendar
Appears in 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (#8 in the book)

super-lucy-coverSuper Lucy (1982)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative
Includes references to computers, sex, tweed jacket

 500 3 x 5 Cards and Other Stories (1984)
A compilation of many of the hand-drawn graphic narrative that Malloy had previously made:

  1. Honesty Is the Best Policy (1979)
  2. Eschew Gluttony (1979)
  3. Forget It! (?)
  4. Private Parts (1980)
  5. 500 3 x 5 Cards (1980)
  6. Private Parts (1980)
  7. Come Back, Kitty Kitty Kitty (1979)
  8. Dallas Berkeley: Technical Difficulties (1981)
  9. The Big Zucchini (1981)
  10. A Year in Reno (1980)
  11. And Then (1980)

Lucy Comes Back! (1986)
Hand-drawn graphic narrative, organized around the conceit of a calendar
***Includes references to cat, blimp

bad-information-cards1-6Bad Information (1986-88)
12 catalog cards, each with a truism, reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s work.





Visit to MoMA Library Nets Insights into Malloy’s Uncle Roger, Version 3.1

The version of Uncle Roger held by the Museum of Modern Art Library consists of one 5 1/4-inch floppy disk containing “A Party in Woodside” created in 1987. As Stuart and I document in Pathfinders and in the forthcoming Traversals, Version 3.2 is the version that corrected theAPIW-Disk-Label bugs in 3.1. Version 3.3 is the one that includes three floppies, each one containing one of the three episodes of Uncle Roger: “A Party in Woodside,” “The Blue Notebook,” and “Terminals.”

Version 3.1 has a white label (now yellowing), 4” x 1 ¾” in size, affixed to the top left hand side of the floppy. On the label reads:


+ + + + +     BAD         INFORMATION   + + + + +
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +


The typeface may be Berkelium (BSW), one commonly used for Apple II computers. The number “10” is hand-written (in Malloy’s hand), suggesting at least nine other copies of this version were produced. Because we have no definitive accounting of the number of Uncle Roger, Version 3 produced, this information is useful to know. The Museum of Modern Art Library is stamped on the left hand side of label. It is also marked in pencil “87.0203,” the library number.

APIW-Front-DiskIts sleeve differs widely from that produced for Version 3.3 we documented in Pathfinders in that rather than the entire sleeve being hand-made, only the label is. The label, 4 13/16” x 4 13/16”, is affixed to the front of the sleeve that the floppy had originally been packaged in. It is of the same paper type and texture––light copier paper––as that used for Version 3.3, so it stands out against the heavy card stock of the floppy disk’s original packaging.APIW-Back-Sleeve

The design of the label shows ‘WOODSIDE” repeated four times in each of 22 rows. Rows 1, 2, & 22 frame the label and show all the words repeated across it. However, in rows 3-21 “SIDE” in the first appearance of “WOODSIDE” and “WOOD” in the fourth are covered by a second label that Malloy had xeroxed onto the first label. On that second label she has typed “PARTY” in five columns. Evidence of the copier is seen in the light black shadow running on each side of the second label. A third label had been placed on top of the second after the 7th row, hiding three rows and three columns of “PARTY.” On this label we see:


The words are centered on that label and evidence of the copier is found in the shadow on the top, right, and bottom. The design, the word “party” in “wood” and “side” cleverly emulates the work’s title.

The xeroxing process renders the three labels into one, which is what we see here. A black border runs along its edge.

The MoMA Library’s conservator, Ben Fino-Radin, worked yesterday to provide me with the files from the disk so that I can compare them with Version 3.3. A special thank you also goes to Jenny Tobias, Librarian of Reader Services, for kindly providing me access to the many files I researched.


Pathfinders Mentioned in Malloy’s Social Media Archaeology & Poetics

social-media-archaeologyThe Pathfinders project is mentioned in Judy Malloy’s book, Social Media Archaeology & Poetics, just released this week from The MIT Press. In her Introduction to the book, Malloy cites Stuart’s and my work on the project as “bring[ing] electronic literature to a wider public” (xiv-xv). Stuart and I are now in the midst of preparing  Volume 2 of the work and have 50% of the work on done it.

Review of Pathfinders Published in Digital Literary Studies

Today is the 1st anniversary of Pathfinders. A year ago today Stuart and I published our NEH-supported project on the Scalar platform, making it available in a book-like webbed environment for free for anyone with an interest in electronic literature, experimental writing, literary history, and preservation. The project, for me, was the culmination of over 25 years of study and active collecting. So, it brings me much joy to read Elika Ortega’s view in-depth review of Pathfinders, entitled “Preservation Paths,” for the inaugural issue of Digital Literary Studies, edited by James O’Sullivan.

Here is my favorite passage, which comes at the last paragraph of the review:

As a result, Grigar and Moulthrop open the door for renewed studies of the works included in Pathfinders and set the ground for a subfield of E-Lit reading studies (my emphasis). The description and study of E-Lit reading like the ones found in the traversals might in time be explored further. Ultimately, these protocols propose and invite the development and establishment of a novel approach to E-Lit preservation.

Okay, so why did I emphasize “reading studies” in Elika’s excerpt? Because I believe one of the most exciting aspects of reading literature is analyzing the way it is constructed. The question I was trained to ask when reading lit was, “How does the work come to mean what it means?”

In analyzing the four works of e-lit for Pathfinders, Stuart and I used a combination of literary theory, traditional literary analysis, and digital-based platform studies. This approach, I find, provides a very robust way of making sense of born digital writing. With various theorists like Nicholas Carr, Cathy Davidson, and even N. Katherine Hayles  telling us that engagement with digital environments is changing the way we think, it seems to me a good direction to go with teaching reading in the late 21st century involves the deep reading practice that Stuart and I argue for with Pathfinders, one that takes into account both the literary features of a text along with its mechanic practices. So, yes, “reading studies” is exactly what we suggest.

10 Things I Learned about afternoon: a story

Michael Joyce conducting a practice Traversal of afternoon: a story

Michael Joyce conducting a practice Traversal of <i>afternoon: a story</i>

As I wrote on ELL’s blog this morning, we hosted noted e-lit authors and theorists Michael Joyce and Carolyn Guyer yesterday in the lab. Joyce read from his 1987 hypertext novel afternoon: a story, and both he and Guyer talked about their involvement in the early development of the field. Additionally,  Joyce and Guyer walked the audience through items from both Marjorie Luesebrink’s and my archives and provided background and context on the works and events they represent. We documented over two hours of conversation and plan to include it in the upcoming Pathfinders, Volume 2.

Here are 10 things I learned about afternoon: a story yesterday. You may already know this information, but after years of studying the work and Joyce’s theories myself, it was new to me:

  1. There are four different versions of the folio that contains the diskette, and one version of the cover for the CD jewel case. I am missing the first version in my collection. Once he described it to me, I recalled seeing it at some point of my career. If you Google the title, the image of this version does not appear––in fact, only two of the four do: numbers 2 and 4.
  2. The symbol on version 2’s folio front  (and perhaps on version 1––I don’t know since I do not have access to it) represents the yoni, the Hindu symbol of the womb. afternoon: a story, according to Joyce, is, among many things, an exploration of women and man’s relationship to them.WINAfternoonAStory-1-200
  3. The 3rd version of the folio contains an anomaly: the work’s title is capitalized. Joyce does not know why it was. He stated that his intention was for the title to be represented uncapitalized. While it is a cardboard folio fashioned with the same design as version 4, it differs from the 4th version in that it consists of a white background instead of a blue one.
  4. Joyce created the art for the opening screen himself, using MacPaint (he believes) and repurposing an image of reporters filing out of the Pentagon.
  5. When asked about the novel’s inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Literature, he said that he found the notion of a postmodern classic to be “ironic.” The Norton’s website, consisting of only 10 lexias of the novel, was not working when I tested it yesterday.
  6. In afternoon: a story Joyce pays homage to hypertext author and theorist Jane Douglas. He  pointed out in his comments about Douglas that she viewed the lexia, “The Lady or the Tiger,” as the pivotal one in the novel.
  7. He also referenced his collaborator Jay David Bolter in the lexia entitled “Turing’s Run”––an obvious allusion to Bolter’s book Turing’s Man. I should have known this bit since I read the book when I was a grad student years ago.
  8. Interestingly, he found a typo yesterday in the lexia, “Peter, Peter,” that he had never noticed before. I will see if it appears in the other versions I have in my library and report back.
  9. He wrote afternoon: a story in Jackson, MI. He remembers the sounds of winter he describes in the opening screen’s text.
  10. He also said he wrote inside the computer, meaning that he did not write out the plans and text first on paper and then build them for Storyspace.

All of these comments will appear in the documentation video. As we did for Pathfinders, Volume 1, Stuart and I will make the rough cuts of the videos available as soon as possible.

Michael Joyce & Pathfinders

michael joyce invitationI am very pleased to announce that Michael Joyce, author of important e-lit works like afternoon: a story and Twelve Blue as well as numerous books of media theory including Of Two Minds and Othermindedness, is coming to WSUV on May 3 to prepare for his Traversal and Interview for Pathfinders, Volume 2. I will be traveling to the Harry Ransom Center this summer to study the Michael Joyce Papers for Pathfinders, but I have to say a visit with Michael as Stuart and I prepare for the next phase of the project will be extremely helpful.