History,  Updates

Celebrating 10 Years of the Electronic Literature Lab, Part 1

The exhibition space for “Early Authors of Electronic Literature,” WSUV, May-June 2008

As I mention in the History section of this website, the idea for the Electronic Literature Lab was born out of the successful “Early Authors of Electronic Literature: The Eastgate School, Voyager Artists, and Independent Productions—Special Collection on loan from N. Katherine Hayles,” exhibition that I curated at ELO’s Visionary Landscapes conference held at WSUV in the summer 2008. Using legacy computers that I had collected and those lent to me by a former student in my program, Jeff Grisso, I was able to provide conference participants with the opportunity to experience, first-hand, hypertext literature and other forms of e-lit published on floppy disks on computers for which they had been originally used.

ELO colleagues urged me to continue making this kind of space available to scholars and so, in July 2010 I put in a request to my university and received approval for a lab dedicated to “the advanced inquiry into the curation, documentation, preservation, and production of born digital literary works and other media” in VCLS 210, located on the second floor adjacent to the Psychology Department and a floor below the College of Business. The Electronic Literature Lab, or ELL, was born.

ELL as it looked circa 2011 in VCLS 210, WSUV
The Arduino workshop in ELL

By January 12, 2011 the door’s entry keypad was functional; chairs, tables, and other inventory were issued; and the 17 computers that I owned were moved from the cramped quarters of my home and office into the space.  The room was perfect for my needs. Originally outfitted for a classroom where a colleague had taught a video class, it had counters and cabinets that wrapped around the room and electrical sockets strategically placed so that each computer station had access to one. The room was also large enough to arrange tables into a square in the middle of it so that I could roll back and forth from computer station to table to work. It also meant that the room was ideal for workshops, seminars, and preparing for exhibitions. One of the first events held in ELL was an Arduino workshop that my Canadian colleague Justin Love hosted. Other events followed. It was over a year later when, on July 16, 2012, the lab’s name showed up on the university’s reader board, and it was properly logged as a research lab at WSUV.

Jeff Grisso fixing one of ELL’s Macs. Jeff has been instrumental in helping to find and maintain ELL’s computers

From the beginning I had collected computers so that I could access the born-digital art produced for them. But people who often stumbled into the lab when the door was open would ask if ELL was a computer museum. I would open the cabinets and pull off the shelves the real impetus driving the lab’s founding: to study this remarkable, experimental form of literary art. 

One of the first scholars to visit ELL and the person who encouraged me to find ways to open it up to the field for others was Anne Basalmo. I had suggested her as the guest speaker of the university’s Research Showcase taking place in April and as an outside evaluator of the academic program I directed. When on campus, Anne toured ELL along with other spaces associated with the CMDC program and faculty. Delighted with what she experienced in ELL, she emphasized in her report that the university should continue to support this line of research. Behind the scenes though she discussed the lab with hypertext artist and theorist Stuart Moulthrop and the program officer of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jason Rhody, and suggested she, Stuart, and others formulate a grant around the use of ELL. I was unaware of these discussions at the time. 

Student docents at “Electronic Literature” from left: Hunter Crawford, Greg Philbrook, Margarete Strawn, Nicole Buckley, & Seti Alizadeh

Right away, though, I put ELL to use for exhibitions to make the art accessible to the public, mainly because there is no space available for media art shows on the Vancouver campus, and the lab was not meant to be a curatorial space. The first one was “Electronic Literature” created for the 2012 Modern Language Association in Seattle in January. I and five students from my program I had trained as docents packed up computers from the lab––along with my floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and other items––and drove university vans to the Convention Center to set up the show. Kathi Inman Berens, whom I had met on the plane going to the MLA 2011, curated the mobile media portion of the exhibition, and Lori Emerson curated the performances that took place in conjunction with the event at the Hugo House. The Impact Report the three of us produced as a way to document the success of the event was published later that year by Authoring Software. ELL was on its way in establishing itself as a site for innovating curatorial practices for born-digital literature.

CMDC student Gary Naylor and me setting up for the Touch exhibition at Nouspace Gallery, 2012

That same year I opened a small gallery in downtown Vancouver so that I could continue experimenting with mounting shows and making this art more readily available to the general public. Nouspace Gallery was located in a salon in Northbank Artists Gallery on Main Street. The first exhibition I curated at the space, “Touch,” featured mobile poetry by Jason Edwards Lewis. Each month I mounted a new exhibition, meaning the pace was frenetic. I’d do the research and develop the curatorial plan in ELL and then cart everything downtown to the gallery.

Announcement card for “Here Nor There” exhibition, created by CMDC student Stephanie Bailey, 2013

ELL and Nouspace Gallery meant I had the resources to teach courses in curating born-digital literary art. By 2013 students began working with me to mount exhibitions themselves. “Here Nor There: Telling Stories with Augmented Reality” was curated by Stephanie Bailey and Kelly Frazier, while “My Story,” was curated by Seti Alizadeh. Many more took place over the next four years.

In 2013 Kathi and I curated a show for MLA2013 and began planning for the one we had been invited to do for the Library of Congress in April 2013. Both were immense undertakings that required training students about the art form and docenting it, envisioning the computers and art needed, and getting everyone and everything from ELL to Boston and Washington, D.C., respectively.

The computer stations at the Library of Congress exhibition, 2013

The Library of Congress show, entitled “Electronic Literature and Its Emerging Forms,” was extremely complex with legacy computers mixed with contemporary ones on five stations in the middle of the room. Complementing them were two stations, one on the left side of the room exhibiting rare books from the library’s collection and on the right hosting maker stations where the public could engage with producing some aspect of the art form. Over 750 people poured into the space over the 3-day run of the show.  Taking place each day also were artists talks, and punctuating the event was a symposium that featured prominent scholars in the field. The show was reviewed by Illya Szilak of the The Huffington Post and by Jennifer Roundabush in Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures.


John McDaid performing his work in ELL, circa 2013

The NEH grant proposal that Anne Basalmo and Stuart Moulthrop had discussed in 2011 culminated into one that he and I submitted in 2012 that aimed at providing support for the two of us to develop a documentation methodology for born-digital literature.  Called “Pathfinders,” the project was successfully funded by the NEH, and so Stuart and I began earnestly planning for our first experiment in summer 2013. Over the next year and a half, Stuart and I brought in several artists to ELL or traveled to their spaces to document their art. Visiting first was John McDaid, the author of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse (1992); following him was Shelley Jackson, who wrote Patchwork Girl (1995). Stuart himself was videotaped performing his famous hypertext  novel, Victory Garden.  

“Pathfinders” resulted in the multimedia, open-source book published on the Scalar platform by the same name (2016) and a print book published by The MIT Press, entitled Traversals (2017). In truth, the project has served as the catalyst for all of the research into digital preservation that we have undertaken in ELL for the past eight years. While I still curate one to two exhibitions each year, the bulk of what I have done with ELL since being awarded that NEH has focused on the broader mission of making e-lit accessible to the public for years to come. 

Thinking about this timeline in retrospect, I am surprised that ELL had made such progress in so short of a time. Barely two years had past, and the lab had already received a national grant and was knee-deep in innovating much-needed preservation methods specific to literary media art. The years that follow have continued to build its reputation, provide a training ground for many students in the program, and support the field.


Coming ! Part 2: The Move to the Skybox and the Rebooting projects




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