A Matter of Bits: interview with the curators
“Electronic Literature: A Matter of Bits” is the title of the exhibition which took place from 19th Jannuary to 21st April 2016 at The Stedman Gallery in New Jersey (USA).
The event was sponsored by the Digital Studies Center and curated by Jim Brown (Director) and by Robert Emmons (Associate Director). More than 50 works from all over the world were featured, from “classics” – such as bpnichol’s collection of computer poems “First Screening” (1984), Judy Malloy’s hypertext fiction “Uncle Roger” (1986) and John McDaid’s multimedia work “Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse” (1992) – to more recent works, many of which are included in the Electronic Literature Collection #3, launched on the 18th February at the very exhibition.
Featuring a vast range of tools used in the past by authors of electronic literature – from the Commodore 64, Microsoft Kinect, Bots, the C.A.V.E, the tools for VR and AR to the apps for mobile devices – the show aims to bring up a discussion the common place that electronic literature is absolutely ephemeral and lacks of the materiality that characterizes print literature.
By exploring the relation between materiality and virtuality, content and shape, meaning and sense “A Matter of Bits” proposes a reflection on the changes which are occurring and will occur in the future in our ways of thinking, writing, reading and interacting with computer technologies.
To deepen the discussion we have interviewed the curators of the exhibition, Dr. Brown and Dr. Emmons, who have kindly accepted to answer our questions.
“Works of Electronic Literature are not confined to the screens of desktop.”
GG: Let’s start with the title of your exhibition “A Matter of Bits” where “matter” could mean ‘issue’ or ‘topic’, but also ‘substance’ in the meaning of ‘material’. Curiously in 1985 the historic exposition dedicated to electronic literature which took place in the Centre Pompidou in Paris was entitled with the opposite name “Les Immatériaux” (the immaterial). Could you tell us more about the choice of the title of your exhibition and this aspect of materiality?
B&E: This general shift from understanding e-lit as immaterial to understanding its various materialities is exactly the focus of the exhibition. “Electronic Literature: A Matter of Bits,” is about a range of materials. It is about demonstrating that electronic literature reaches beyond screens, keyboards, and mice. Those who create and study electronic literature have been working for the better part of a decade on reorienting the electronic literary and correcting the assumption that electronic is somehow immaterial.
This assumption is, at least in part, based on a comparison to print, which seems more material, since we can hold the object in our hands. Further, the fact that an electronic text can often be in more than one place at a time leads many to see e-lit as ephemeral. But if we study e-lit on its own terms, we learn that it’s anything but immaterial. Software, hardware, servers, cables, switches, silicon, and much more – all of these must be in place and functioning in order for a work of electronic literature to execute and offer up a literary experience.
In addition to highlighting the various materials of e-lit, the exhibition was also focused on pushing beyond the idea that these works are confined to the screens of desktop and even mobile devices. While there were no doubt a number of screens in “A Matter of Bits,” those screens were accompanied by an array of other materials. For instance, the “Typomatic” uses a font designed by Pierre Fourny to print one word poems on strips of paper.
But this is only the beginning when it comes to tracing all of the complex materialities present in “A Matter of Bits.” From “Reading Glove,” which uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to allow an interactor to pick up objects and interact with a story to Caitlin Fisher’s “Everyone at This Party is Dead,” which uses an Oculus Rift headset to fully immerse the audience in a virtual world, it is clear that this exhibition radically expands our notion of what interfaces and technologies are shaping contemporary literary experiences.
Beyond these questions of how materiality intersects with and animates electronic literature, there is also the very practical issue of materiality when it comes to installing an exhibition of this nature. “A Matter of Bits” is our first major curated exhibition. As curators, we quickly became involved with and invested in each of the works. However, our relationship with each work went even further, and the theme of the exhibition grew into something more meaningful when we realized that the theme was more than just a clever idea.
These works of electronic literature required more than a nail in the gallery wall. Yes, each work holds some materiality, from the technology involved in its creation to its final presentation and the demands of audience participation. But for us, they also required and demanded a very real relationship with the material to make each work happen and function. For us, down to the wire, all that mattered was getting each piece to work. From the simple: saving HTML files, installing software, running CDROMs; to the very technical: replacing hard drives and video cards, writing code, fixing broken code; to the very physical: wiring and running cable, mounting computers, projectors, and other hardware.
This exhibition required us to get our hands dirty in the guts of the machines. In this way, the exhibition is a matter of bits and atoms, and we needed to carefully tend to both for each piece to work.
GG: Why did you decide to make an exhibition about electronic literature?
B&E: Beginning with the official launch of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers-Camden in November of 2014, we knew we wanted to mount an exhibition as a way of demonstrating to the campus community and the public what exactly “happens” in the Digital Studies Center. People hear the name, and have some idea of what “digital studies” means, but we wanted to go further and “show” what digital studies is. We tossed around possible large exhibition ideas and in the Fall of 2015 we ran a small exhibition showcasing digital works from Hypperrhiz: New Media Cultures, un giornale online. The Hyperrhiz exhibition demonstrated works of digital art, electronic literature, and various animation, film, and sound installations and sculptures. The journal’s theme was “Kits, Plans, and Schematics,” and Hyperrhiz published the textual artifacts associated with these works—their kits, plans, and schematics.
Our exhibition was focused on bringing those two-dimensional, textual artifacts to life in physical space. We felt that exhibition did a nice job of demonstrating how important it is exhibit such digital work, to show that it’s not just about accessing things on screens.
The success of this small exhibition gave us the confidence to launch a large scale exhibit featuring works of electronic literature. We picked E-Lit for a number of reasons. First, the Digital Studies Center is an active member of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). Second, the ELO was about to launch the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 3, from which many of the works in the exhibit originate. And lastly, we thought that E-Lit, in its diverse and varied modes, demonstrated what digital studies is and can be.
GG: How was the attendance at the exhibition?
B&E: Attendance exceeded our expectations. More than 2,000 people viewed the exhibition. The Stedman Gallery staff and volunteers made the exhibit available throughout the week, on weekends, and during special events, so we greatly benefited from their assistance and promotion of the exhibition. Also, we put a great amount of thought into creating an exhibition that would appeal to a wide range of audiences.
Besides leading a number of planned and impromptu tours, we programmed a number of workshops that coincided with the exhibition works. Talks and workshops included Twitterbot creation (led by Allison Parrish), children’s E-Lit (led by Mark Marino), digital comics (led by Stevan Zivadinovic), e-lit in translation (led by Nick Montfort), and electronic poetry (led by Jason Lewis). We captured adult and children audiences, as well as specific disciplines on campus.
GG: What kind of audience visited the exhibition and who showed more interest in the works?
B&E: As we previously mentioned, we tried to create an exhibition for a diverse audience. We toured school children from the city of Camden, special education teachers, undergraduate and graduate students from disciplines as diverse as English, computer science, Spanish, biology, and art. We also held workshops as part of the English Graduate Student Conference and the E-Learning Conference at Rutgers-Camden. Because we had a number of works in Spanish, the language department integrated the exhibition into their course of study.
“We think the show demonstrated both continuities and ruptures.”
GG: The exhibition featured both “classic” works and more recent works, some of which are included in the Electronic Literature Collection 3. What are in your opinion the aspects, if there are any, of continuity and rupture in the technique, the aesthetics or the topics, in this path/pathway of electronic literature?
B&E: During the official launch of the third volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (which took place in the Stedman Gallery during the exhibition), one of the ELC Editors—Jacob Garbe—told the audience that one of the unique things about “A Matter of Bits” was that it allowed people to experience nearly forty years of e-lit history in the space of a single exhibition. This is something we were very proud of, and we were excited that during a single visit to the gallery audiences would be able to interact with works from completely different eras, such as “PRY“, a novella written for the iPad, and John McDaid’s “Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse“, a work of e-lit that uses the now defunct HyperCard software. We think the show demonstrated both continuities and ruptures.
For instance, across the decades represented in this show, you see a commitment to stretching the capabilities of the written word, pushing the limits of what’s possible with language. Even works that might rely more on image and sound are always exploring the potentials of language. If there was a rupture, it might be that many contemporary works are calling attention to the interactor’s body in interesting ways.
We tend to forget that when we are reading, our body is fully involved in that experience. Reading print literature has become so commonplace, that the gestures of turning pages or a hunched neck are less easily noticed. But works like Jose Aburto’s “Grita“, which requires the reader to scream into a glowing red box in order to read poetry or Zuzana Husárová & Lubomír Panák’s “Enter:in’ Wodies“, which uses the Microsoft Kinect to fully involve the reader’s body are elegant reminders of how integral the body is to the reading or interactive process. These ideas are at play in many historical works too, so saying this is a rupture is not entirely accurate. But we found that many contemporary works, especially those that lend themselves to gallery exhibitions, raise this question of embodiment in a particularly striking way.
GG: Many works of electronic literature are characterized by audio-visual effects and ludic elements that involve the reader both on a sensorial level and in the creation of the work. In which way these technological innovations have changed the literary aesthetics of these works of literature and the way of reading?
B&E: The literary experience has always been a collaborative one. Even in oral or print traditions, authors create imagery that their audiences must then conjure things in various ways. However, it does seem true that many works of e-lit ramp up this collaboration, asking the reader to actively shape the meaning and outcomes of a work. This requires artists and critics to recalibrate how they approach any literary artefact, but it also demonstrates that literature can come to life in a broad range of media.
This is a somewhat controversial claim, since many will argue that literature is tied to the printed word, but our work with “A Matter of Bits” exposed us to so many innovative works using so many different media that it has become nearly impossible for us to understand the literary experience as anything but a multimedia experience. In fact, e-lit might even afford us an opportunity to rethink our notions of literary aesthetics in general. What might we learn about previous forms of literature by returning to them alongside works of e-lit? What new aesthetic questions or ways of reading that we’ve learned from e-lit might we take back to print texts?
This is an approach that becomes especially important once you think about e-lit texts as material, rather than immaterial. Attending to the materialities of e-lit might even allow us to consider what materialities of print literature have gone unnoticed.
GG: What are in your opinion the best measures and strategies to preserve and archive works of electronic and digital literature in order to make an exhibition of works that are readable on old devices like the Commodore 64 and others?
B&E: Archiving and preserving works of electronic literature are of obvious concern. Having access to archival materials were of great importance when we were collecting and installing this exhibition. The Electronic Literature Organization’s mission of preserving and archiving copies of the work were essential to the mounting of our exhibition, and ELC, Volume 3 is especially innovative in this regard. Each individual work is archived in multiple ways, sometimes offering audiences both the executable files and videos of the work in action. But to return to the notion of materiality, it was the material archives that also proved essential to the exhibition. For example, to have access to various archived diskettes and CD-ROM’s, hardware, as well as archived code on paper made the show possible. There needs to be an archive that recognizes the various materials at play in e-lit.
“In a sense, e-lit breaks computational technologies in the interest of creating literary experiences.”
GG: In which way can in your opinion electronic literature help us reflect on the challenges and the changing brought by the current society of information to our way of reading, thinking and living?
B&E: E-lit allows us to see how computational technologies are shaping our world. In “Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary“, Katherine Hayles argues that e-lit revalues computation, and we completely agree with this argument. We often think of computational technologies as tools designed for particular tasks and as things that are designed to fall into the background of our lives. We only notice these technologies when they break.
In a sense, e-lit breaks computational technologies in the interest of creating literary experiences, bringing these technologies to the surface and demonstrating their cultural, historical, and political importance. Our favourite example of this is Ramsey Nasser’s Arabic-based computer language. While it might seem odd to many that a computer language is considered a work of electronic literature, this work is both a beautiful engagement with language and an important political statement about how English dominates the world of computer programming. By creating a language that many visitors to our gallery could never write code in (even the computer programmers!), Nasser has made an important statement about the cultures and ideologies embedded in our contemporary writing tools.
This is just one example of how e-lit can help us look closely at the contemporary world’s reliance upon computational technologies.
GG: What do you think could be done to achieve widespread diffusion on an international scale of electronic literature?
B&E: What we found so exciting as we curated this exhibition is that this diffusion is already happening. This is perhaps most evident in the thriving Twitter bot community. A number of these bots were on display in the Stedman Gallery, and they draw upon a tradition of conceptual and procedural writing. A Twitter bot is a nice example of contemporary work that draws on the long history (and pre-history) of electronic literature. These bits of code that generate 140-character “tweets” are in line with the Oulipo’s approach to writing. Not only are the tweets procedurally generated by way of computationally enforced constraints, but Twitter also imposes a 140-character constraint on tweets. These bots have large, global audiences, and the fact that they are represented in the Electronic Literature Collection demonstrates that the ELO is recognizing that electronic literature is an expansive category.
In addition to spreading works of electronic literature to more and more audiences, we think that tools such as Twine are continuing to make it easier for more and more people to create works of e-lit. While the history of computing shows many examples of platforms that aim to allow more and more people to program computers, we are now seeing the rise of platforms such as Twine that are both relatively easy to use and that are specifically designed for literary expression.
Finally, we think the third volume of the Electronic Literature Collection, takes important steps toward acknowledging the contributions of writers and artists from around the world, both historically and at our current moment. From the early work of Ana Maria Uribe to contemporary artists such as Vinicius Marquet, the work and writers represented in the ELC, Volume 3 demonstrate that e-lit has always been a multi-lingual, global phenomenon.
GG: What does in your opinion the future of electronic literature hold for us?
In addition, we are excited that electronic objects that have previously been considered completely separate from e-lit, such as computer games, are now finding a way into conversations about electronic literature. We hope that this general trend continues, since it will mean that e-lit can enrich these other areas and that e-lit itself can continue to transform and grow. The category of e-lit is perhaps more fluid than ever, and we think that is a welcome development.