At first it was the little sugar flowers that adorned family members’ birthday, wedding, and anniversary cakes. You know what I am talking about––the pink roses or yellow generic flowers one could buy at the grocery store and affix to a freshly made frosted cake. Yes, I collected those and kept them in a large, round lidded glass jar until a decade later when ants found them. My eidetic memory afforded me the ability to recall the event where each flower had come, who had attended the event, and other details that stick with me today even without the mnemonic power of the artifacts. But in those days, I would take the flowers out of the jar and study them, pondering even their design and construction. In sum, they represented for me my first archive of valued treasures.
Later it was comic books. Superman, Batman, The Legion of Superheroes (my personal favorite because of the character Brainiac 5), Archie, Jughead, Richie Rich, Dennis the Menace. Reading material one could share with one’s younger brothers in the backseat of a gold station wagon rolling down the road to Galveston Beach. We ended up with piles of them, organized by dates stacked from the oldest to the newest, until my youngest sibling decided to make a quick buck by selling them all at a family garage sale while I was away at college. Little did he know that I had stashed my favorites in a suitcase in my closet.
As a younger adult the collecting fever continued with wine, art, and books. Bordeauxs and California Cabs, mostly. Some port. A smattering of Burgundies. Old Zins from the 1970s and 80s that you could literally chew like a strap of leather. In those days there was a wine cellar in the basement of my house. Nothing fancy. Just a concrete space where crates and cardboard boxes could be stacked and later rifled through to find the right wine to accompany the evening meal. Today it is a wine wall in the dining room. And yes, my taste has not changed one iota. The way I pursued collecting art was just as purposeful: local Texas artists, contemporary European painting and sculpture, and Amerindian carvings, beaded work, sand paintings. When I divorced, I didn’t take one or more of the collections, but rather pieces from all based on the theme of spiritual art and have, to this day, continued collecting along that conceptual framework. The Mimi Spirit I bought in Darwin, Australia remains my favorite work in my collection. As for book collecting, I began building my personal home library as a child, lost it all in a flood in 1975 (along with everything I owned), started over as a young adult, and now have a fairly substantial collection of books that I have painstakingly organized into a reading library and working library.
If someone had told me back in 1986 (a great year for wine, by the way, if you can still afford a bottle), that I would be collecting computers, I would have laughed. At $5000+ that Mac II CX we bought for the family wine business (yeah, that’s how I could have a cellar full of wine) was well over the value of all of the art in my home. Even the $800 used Macintosh LC that I bought for school constituted a month of my graduate teaching stipend. The first work of electronic literature I bought––Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story––cost me $29 (which today amounts to $57 bucks) for a course I took in fall 1991, while Njal’s Saga, an Icelandic saga produced seven centuries earlier that I also had to buy for another course, cost $4.95. No, I didn’t set out to collect computers and software, but the impetus to hold on to things that I valued and organize them into a system was already well established in my psyche by that time.
Today I own 61 legacy computers and hundreds of works of computer-based literary art. They have been catalogued and organized on my shelves in the way that makes sense to me in a space given to me by my university. This collection now outstrips all other of my collections combined in size and, more importantly, in passion. It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that I needed to learn how to better steward my works. Besides joining SAA and taking courses in archiving, I am also reading books about archiving––right now I just picked up Gabriella Giannachi’s Archive Everything (The MIT Press, 2016), whose title just about sums up my personal philosophy about what to keep for posterity these days. In particular, she sees an archive as an “apparatus,” something that “cannot be read in isolation” but instead relationally (xvi). I was not thinking about this idea when I set up the lab so that computers are arranged chronologically around the room by hardware and software functionality, but now I see that the instinct she suggests was there when I was envisioning the space. She talks later about archives as works of art and points to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules (1975) and other examples, and I think about the interior of my cabinet, filled with floppy disks, CD-ROMs, chapbooks, posters, 3D works and see that it indeed functions with its own aesthetic, one that does not hierarchize one medium or platform over another and yet unfolds with a cohesive structure.
And now I am collecting for the Electronic Literature Organization. Boxes arrive each week with treasures that I know someone somewhere will want to experience at some time. This afternoon, I took the Ted Nelson’s Xanadu Project poster from 1987 that artist Richard Holeton sent the ELO last week for restoration and framing. The browning and spotted paper and its torn edges will be fixed so that it will last a few more decades so that we can preserve the memory of Nelson’s genius vision of hypertext. Alan Sondheim sent a terabyte of his works (which we all know represents a small portion of his long years of artistic output). My Undergraduate Researchers and I will spend the summer, no doubt, sussing out the contents of the files and organizing them for the ELO Repository for safe keeping and access to the public.
Years ago at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference someone in the audience of a panel I was on asked me when I plan to stop collecting. Considering that I started at the age of 6 with sugar flowers, I somehow doubt that such passion for saving things will ever die out. Do you?