Interview with Dene Grigar
ELR: Dene Grigar, you have been working in the field of media art and electronic literature since the mid-1990s. Could you tell us something about your background and how you became involved with electronic literature?
Dene Grigar: Actually, it goes further back than that. In fall 1991 I took a graduate course from the new faculty member, Nancy Kaplan*, who specialized in something called hypertext. We studied books by George Landow and Jay David Bolter, explored software called Storyspace, and read afternoon: a story by Michael Joyce. Having owned a Macintosh computer since 1986 for designing, I took to using it quite easily for writing––and reading. Because of that course and my exposure to electronic literature, I began collecting works from Eastgate Systems’ inventory. A part of my collection comes from those early purchases.
*Nancy was Stuart Moulthrop’s partner at the time; they have long since married.
ELR: You are a professor, a researcher and you also have successfully directed or curated a number of conferences and exhibits centred on Electronic literature. What can you tell us about your latest project?
Dene Grigar: “Electronic Literature and Its Emerging Forms,” which was the exhibit hosted by the Library of Congress and part of the Electronic Literature Showcase, posed a large challenge for my co-curator, Kathi Inman Berens, and I. What I mean by “challenge” is that the Library of Congress is probably one of the most venerable institutions in the U.S., and it had not yet been actively involved in collecting electronic literature. Our exhibit was the first one of this nature the Library had ever done, so we wanted it to be memorable. To that end, I rented large iMacs and brought in two of my own vintage Macs for showing older works, shipping all seven of them across the country to Washington D.C. [Getting them through the Library’s security due to the necessary precautions took close to three hours.] I hand-carried works of electronic literature from my own collection, from Vancouver, WA to D.C., to show along with the electronic literature works found online and the wonderful books and other media the Library contributed. I also brought eight undergraduate students and one alumna with me to assist as docents at the exhibit. This was one of the smartest things I did because the students were immensely well-trained, passionate about electronic literature and the field, and exceptionally hard-working. So, when the exhibit filled up with visitors, there were 11 of us who could answer questions and guide visitors through the electronic literature, instead of only Kathi and me.
Probably the most interesting challenge to surmount, however, was finding the best way to integrate electronic literature with the Library’s collection of books. Originally, when Kathi and I were first invited to curate the exhibit, the discussion centered around remounting the show we had done at the Modern Language Association 2012 convention . That exhibit was very large, with 160 works and 10 computer stations. Once she and I conducted a site visit at the Library of Congress and saw the Whittall Pavilion, the space where the show would be held, and gave some thought to the kind of collections the Library has at its disposal, we changed our minds. I hit upon the “antecedent” idea and developed a set of parameters for the show that would make sense for the time and place with which we would be working (e.g. a three-day run in a gorgeous but small space). Drawing upon my research into the electronic literature and artists like Anna Maria Uribe and thinkers like Ted Nelson, it seemed to make sense to lay out the show so that we could make the argument that electronic literature is not some alien art form that dropped down to Earth some far-out planet but, rather, is part of a long tradition of experimentation with literature that has been going on for ages. As someone who studied ancient Greek literature for my PhD, I always wondered what the Homeric poet’s contemporaries were saying (not writing, of course) when they saw that he (or she) was writing the story of the Odyssey. That, in itself, constitutes a literary experiment as strange and exciting as Uribe animating Typoemas. Dante wrote the Commedia in the vernacular––yet another grand experiment that we living over 700 years later do not even give a thought to. So, the idea was to demonstrate that the drive to create something new and experiment with form in different ways are what visionary artists do. With that idea in mind, I came up with five approaches––concrete to kinetic, cut up to broken up, pong to literary games, the Great American Novel to multimodal narratives, and artists’ books to electronic art. This plan made it possible for Kathi to research the Library catalogs and identify works from the collections that fit well with this vision and, so, made our case. She also developed the third aspect of our exhibit: the creation stations. This was a “maker” area where visitors could create literary art themselves. For example, visitors could look at ee cummings’ concrete poem, walk across the aisle and see Dan Waber’s kinetic poem,“Strings,” and then walk across the aisle and make their own concrete poem on the typewriter that Susan Garfinkel, our collaborator from the Library, brought from her own collection.
To be honest, a lot was riding on the exhibit. Obviously, we were promoting electronic literature to a new audience, moving it from academic conferences to a library, where Literature (with a capital L) is generally found. It wasn’t just any library but the most important one in the country. So, the show had to be good.
But more than good, the show had to make it clear that curating counts as scholarship. This was a personal goal that I set for myself for “Electronic Literature and Its Emerging Forms.” You see, I work in the intersection of media art, digital humanities, and media studies. While my colleagues in media art are very comfortable with the notion that curating is a scholarly activity, the other two fields are still deliberating about it and trying to figure out how curating counts for tenure and promotion. Books like Burdick et al’s Digital_Humanities go far in helping to make my case, but I thought that, perhaps, if scholars from these two fields see the intellectual processes, the conceptual thinking, and deep research that go into mounting an exhibit like this one, they would understand that curating is a scholarly activity.
I was very happy to learn that the exhibit was mentioned by scholars in blog posts and articles and was delighted that it was reviewed by Leonardo Flores at I ♥ E-Poetry and by Illya Szilak and Melinda White at The Huffington Post.
ELR: Could you tell us what you consider to be the main distinguishing features of new media literacy, with regard to the shift from traditional reading to multiliteracy or transliteracy?
Dene Grigar: I used Vince Dziekan’s Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition for a course I taught on curating last fall and was taken by his notion of the multimedial museum. By multimedial he means interactive, experiential, and participatory.
It seems to me that this idea can be mapped on to other aspects of our lives touches by digital media. Anyone reading a Facebook post, for example, is reading participatorially, right? Our posts can receive a “Like” from our Friends almost as quickly as we hit the “send” button. The interactivity of this environment provides enough feedback to keep us online for hours, whether it is chatting with Friends or playing one of the many games Facebook makes available to its users. Finally, we see the experiential aspect of Facebook in the way we design our “covers” or in the photo we choose of ourselves to represent us. These three elements are going to be part and parcel of everything we read in this early age of digital media and perhaps even years beyond. It is important for publishers to understand these three elements and make use of them in the media they publish.
ELR: On your website you write that “the computer is not a tool but rather the medium in which I work”? Can you please explain this “conceptual shift”?
Dene Grigar: That is an easy one, thanks 🙂 I think a lot of people who work with computers see the computer as separate from what they do––that the computer is a tool that helps them do whatever it is they do. This may make sense if someone is an accountant and uses computers to crunch numbers. But it does not make sense if one is a media artist whose main medium of exploration is a computer and everything she creates takes place on a computer screen. My own mother was a painter who worked in oils. She would never say that the canvas and the paints she used were separate from the art of oil painting. They were her medium. I feel that the same way about my computer and HTML/CSS or PhotoShop, etc. The computer does not “help” me––it is what I do.
ELR: In some works of digital literature we find a combination of text with audio-visual effects. What do you believe are the implications of new media technologies in relation to the aesthetics of a work of digital literature?
Dene Grigar: Obviously, one of the biggest implications is finding a way to talk about it, of reviewing it, and critiquing it in a way that takes into consideration how all of the parts contribute to the whole. N. Katherine Hayles suggests media specific analysis as a method. Jessica Pressman, Jeremy Douglass, and Mark Marino suggest close reading. These are both excellent ways to make sense of multimodal literature. I also think an approach that brings in the various kinds of critique indigenous to the art form is also helpful. This would mean that if a work of digital literature has sound, visuals, and words, then someone critiquing that work would need to address all three of these features with some level of expertise and, then, synthesize them into a larger discussion of how the work works. This depth of knowledge, of course, is difficult since we generally develop strengths in particular art forms. The bottom line, however, is that we need to find ways to talk about, review, and critique digital literature in order for it to be brought into the traditional academic realm as a scholarly topic of discussion and mainstreamed to the public for enjoyment and consumption.