Horizon Insight: A Retrospective of the Art of M. D. Coverley

On Friday, November 5, 2021 we are launching the exhibition, Horizon Insight: A Retrospective of the Art of M. D. Coverley. Below is the schedule of the event and the curatorial statement that explains the works selected for the exhibition. To register, contact dgrigar@wsu.edu.


8:00-8:10 a.m. PST: Welcome, by Dene Grigar, Exhibition Curator

8:10-8:15 a.m. PST: Remarks of Appreciation, by N. Katherine Hayles

8:15-9:00 PST: Reading of Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day, by M. D. Coverley

9:00-9:15 PST: Curating this Retrospective: Comments about Design, Layout, and Restoration, by The Electronic Literature Lab Team

9:15-9:30 PST: Collection Highlights, by M. D. Coverley, Dene Grigar, & Richard Snyder


Curatorial Statement
by Dene Grigar, Managing Director and Curator, The NEXT

“Horizon Insight: A Retrospective of the Art of M. D. Coverley” showcases the creative output of this prolific electronic literature artist. Since 1996 Coverley, the pen name for Marjorie C . Luesebrink, has published well over 30 works of media art, of which 27 are featured here. The title of this exhibition is drawn from the name Coverley gave as publisher of her interactive novel, Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day [1], but it also reflects the decades-long span of her vision for computer-based art that explores a wide terrain of platforms, formats, and software that includes Toolbook, Director, Flash, Power Point, video, and Excel for producing hypermedia narratives and interactive novels with a distinct focus on multi-vocal storytelling and multi-plot structures.

Hypertext Narratives, 1996-2012

  • “Elys, The Lacemaker: The Book of Hours of Madame de Lafayette” (1996)
  • “Pao Lien and the Cave Dragon, Wu” (1999)
  • “Life in the Chocolate Mountains” (1999)
  • “Endless Suburbs” (1999)
  • “Rain Frames” (2000)
  • “Eclipse Louisiana” (2000)
  • “Fibonnacci’s Daughter” (2000)
  • “Tide-Land” (2000)
  • “Negative Confessions” (2000 with Ted Warnell)
  • “Default Lives” (2001)
  • “Tarim Tapestry” (2012)

The exhibition is organized into four main areas of Coverley’s production, beginning with hypertext narratives from 1996. This structuring system aims to provide visitors with insights into the approaches on which she has focused her artistic output rather than suggest a strict demarcation of defined periods based on chronology. For example, 10 of the 11 works were produced between 1996 to 2001 as hypertextual stories created in open-web languages. After shifting her attention to experiments with Flash and other proprietary software beginning 2000, Coverley returned to HTML with “Tarim Tapestry” in 2012. Thus, all of the works organized in this area of artistic output sees Coverley working in open web languages to produce narratives that explore a range of topics, including women’s history, mythology, and contemporary socio-political issues.

The Interactive Novels, 2000-2006

  • Califia (2000)
  • Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day (2006)

The lure of digital hypermedia in web-based writing drew Coverley to long-form, hypermedia writing. From 2000 to 2006 she published two major interactive novels, Califia and Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Both provided her with the opportunity to more fully realize her interest in mythology, with the former novel relaying a foundational myth of Californian history embued with the dream of boom and bust born out of The Gold Rush; and the latter, to the mythology of Egypt with its rich interplay of image and storytelling.

It is important to point out that the constraints of the web during this period of Coverley’s career made long-form, media-rich works difficult to access, particularly for readers using dial up modems. This explains the need for both novels to be published on CD-ROM. Her comfort with Toolbook II, which easily incorporated sound, images, animations, and words, made it ideal for the complex, multivocal storyline of Califia. During that same period Director had become one of the leading platforms for interactive media, making it the platform of choice for the production of Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day. While both Toolbook II and Director are no longer supported and have become obsolete software platforms, the exhibition showcases Coverley’s novels via the documentary website Coverley produced and the video documentation of performances she has given of the authorized version captured by the Electronic Literature Lab.

Flash Net Art, 2000-2004

  • “Universal Resource Locator” (2000)
  • “Bush Towel” (2001)
  • “ALGO” (2001)
  • “Afterimage” (2001)
  • “Tumblers” (2001)
  • “The Errand Upon Which We Came” (2001, with Stephanie Strickland)
  • “M is for Nottingham” (2002)
  • “Accounts of the Glass Sky” (2002)
  • “ii – in the white darkness” (2004, with Reiner Strasser)

The popularity of Flash as a platform for media-rich storytelling for the web cannot be overstated. Writers like Coverley found the ability to express themselves with movement, sound, music, and user interaction and participation––not to mention with an expanded color palette and spatial orientation particularly attractive since it was fairly easy to use and prepare for wide dissemination. So popular was Flash by 2005 as a platform for intellectual and creative expression that theorist Lev Manovich called this new era of cultural producers “Generation Flash” (Manovich, qtd. in Salter and Murray 3). Coverley’s own exploration of Flash coincides with this period of media history. Beginning in 2000 with “Universal Resource Locator,” she published nine Flash works, collaborating with other artists like Reiner Strasser and Stephanie Strickland who were also interested in the affordances of this platform for creative expression on the web.

Experiments with Excel, Power Point, and Video Fiction, 2015-2019

  • “The 2015 Fukushima Pinup Calendar” (2015)
  • “Hours of the Night” (2016, with Stephanie Strickland)
  • “Pacific Surfliner: San Juan Capistrano” (2017)
  • “Legends of Michigami: Riding the Rust Belt” (2018, with Eric Luesebrink)
  • “Legends of Michigami: Prairie Chants” (2019)

With the introduction of YouTube in 2005 and the iPhone in 2009 (the device that also predicated the end of Flash) [2], Coverley like many literary artists returned to open web languages or to new platforms that favored video and other forms. During this period Coverley began exploring with Excel, Power Point, and video via Vimeo for producing works of fiction.

What is obvious when experiencing the art in this exhibition is Coverley’s drive to create and her ingenuity to leverage the tools on hand to tell complex stories for new audiences of digital art and writing and drawing upon a wide range of knowledge and topics to do so.

Insights into Mounting This Exhibition

This exhibition of Coverley’s art constitutes the first retrospective mounted at The NEXT and, as such, lays bare the efforts it takes to feature works that encompass the long stretch of an artist’s career that, due to technological innovations and the fragility of the art form, may no longer be readily available for exhibition. The fact is, in order to show the breadth of an artist’s career, curators of media art retrospectives may often be required to preserve the art they want to show through processes like restoration, migration, emulation, or documentation.

Such is the case with Coverley’s oeuvre. Her first published work,Elys, The Lacemaker: The Book of Hours of Madame de Lafayette,” was published two years after the mainstreaming of the web browser and was included in Christy Sheffield Sanford’s collaborative web project for the trAce Online Writing Centre. A hypermedia work involving MIDI sound files, “Elys, The Lacemaker,” required us to translate the two MIDI files used eight different times in the work into .mp3 files and recode the work with the updated file information in order to provide visitors to the exhibition with a seamless experience with the work. [3] Additionally, we could not showcase the published version of the work since the trAce site and Sanford’s project are no longer accessible on the web and its publication predates the period in which the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine began crawling and archiving the web. This means that we are not certain if the version we are featuring in the exhibition that comes from Coverley’s own archives dated 1996 differs from the version that appeared online in 1997. “Elys, The Lacemaker,” was not the only work that required sound files translated from the .mid to .mp3 format and webpages recoded. In total, we had to undertake this restoration work for 124 instances of MIDIs being called in 110 files across 15 of her works.

Flash works also figured into the restoration process since, as mentioned previously, Coverley experimented with that platform for hypermedia storytelling for nine works during the period of 2000-2004. As most of us are aware, Adobe announced that it would no longer support the software program after December 31, 2020, a situation that led to the demise of so many important works of net art. Since January 2021 the Electronic Literature Lab has been systematically been preserving Flash net art and electronic literature for inclusion in The NEXT, saving, to date, over 500 works via mainly Ruffle and Conifer. The first exhibition mounted for The NEXT, “afterflash,” featured 48 Flash works the lab preserved with these two methods as well as through the documentation of playthroughs. In terms of Coverley’s art, seven of her more straightforward Flash works could be saved with Ruffle; the more complex works required preservation via Rhizome’s Conifer.

The two interactive novels also required our intervention in order to be shown in this exhibition. Because Califia is under copyright with Eastgate Systems, Inc., we could not migrate or emulate it for this exhibition. Fortunately, we had conducted a Traversal [4] of Califia in 2016 and made the videos available via Vimeo and the multimedia, open-source book, Rebooting Electronic Literature Volume 3. The eight videos featuring Coverley performing the novel and the seven videos that capture her interview about the work, along with videos of two readers performing Califia, are included in the exhibition as a way of providing visitors an experience with the work. Additionally, the exhibition includes the documentary website Coverley produced of Califia that hints at the work’s robust multimedia and complex storyline.

Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day, the second major interactive novel Coverley created, is also published on CD-ROM, though unlike Califia was created with Director. As mentioned previously, Director is no longer supported by Adobe. But adding to the complexity of restoring the work is the fact that copies of  1st Edition each contained a specific spell for a named owner-reader, meaning that there is no single original version. Thus, to include the work in the exhibition, we provide a Traversal of it by Coverley, captured during the exhibition opening. This video documentation augments the web documentation that Coverley assembled called Aegypt: A Preservation Project.

Of the 27 works featured in this exhibition, only 14 were intact and needed no intervention to showcase them.

Hard choices we had to make: We opted to exhibit “Elys, The Lacemaker” though it was missing one MIDI file. We are showing “Endless Suburbs,” but because it was produced with Java Applets and there was not enough time to reconstruct the work for the exhibition, we opted to offer a playthrough of it so that visitors can experience the work as Coverley intended to be. Likewise, “Eclipse Louisiana” and “Fibinocci’s Daughter” displayed text relating to the narrative in the browser’s status bar, a feature no longer available on most browsers today. To solve this problem, we are also offering playthroughs of those works. “To Be Here as Stone Is,” a work first published in Stephanie Strickland’s Storyspace hypertext poem, True North (1997) and released later for the web, was deemed by the artists as not suitable for exhibition though the web version is currently hosted in The NEXT. Finally, one of my favorite works by Coverley, “Pyxis Byzantium,” was missing so many of its original files that it did not fully represent its scope and spirit. For that reason, it is not included in this exhibition.

The process for restoring the works took close to two months and involved numerous members of the Electronic Literature Lab team. Flash preservation and MIDI translation to .mp3 was undertaken by Andrew Thompson and Arlo Ptolemy, two graduating seniors from the Creative Media & Digital Culture (CMDC) program who have been working in the lab since last spring. Website recoding was done by Thompson and the lab’s tech specialist Greg Philbrook also a graduate of the CMDC program. 

About the Exhibition Space & Collection

Exhibitions mounted by The NEXT are intended to take place in the natural setting of digital space. To align it with The NEXT’s vision, they are also designed to be participatory, interactive, and experiential. Visitors to “Horizon Insight,” for example, may notice that the exhibition space involves a horizonal scroller, thus evoking the notion of traversing across a landscape. The line that delineates the title carries through the space in a way that emphases, once again, a horizon to follow and explore. The interactive elements––that is, the images of Coverley’s works that appear and fade and link to individual exhibition spaces––are intended to reflect insights Coverley had as she created the works.

Leading the production of the exhibition space was the lab’s lead designer Holly Slocum. She produced the logo and interface and coded the website. Assisting her with the development of the images was multimedia designer Ariel Wallace, another graduating senior in the CMDC program. Information for the copy was developed and researched by the lab’s Assistant Director and metadata specialist Richard Snyder. He also assisted with determining the works that could be exhibited and served as the lead liaison with the artist on behalf of the lab. His efforts also are seen in the enhancement to The Marjorie C. Luesebrink Collection where the works in this exhibition will be permanently hosted.

We thank M. D. Coverley for putting her faith in our ability to aptly showcase her art. We also want to acknowledge the Electronic Literature Organization for its visionary spirit toward digital art and writing.


[1] See http://califia.us/avegypt.htm.

[2] See Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash,” published April 29, 2010, qtd, in https://medium.com/riow/thoughts-on-flash-1d1c8588fe07.

[3] When launching the work, the .mid files are downloaded, but this means they do not play unless activated.

[4] In their book Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing, Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar define the Traversal as a “reflective encounter with a digital text in which the possibilities of that text are explored in a way that indicates its key features, capabilities, and themes” (7).

Works Cited

Moulthrop, Stuart and Dene Grigar. Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Salter, Anastasia and John Murray. Flash: Building the Interactive Web. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.

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