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Interview with Jessica Pressman

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ELR: Jessica Pressman since 2012 (?) you are member of the Board of Directions of the Electronic Literature Organization. How did you get started with electronic literature and what fascinates you most about this literature genre?

Jessica Pressman: I actually worked from the ELO far before 2012. I served as the Programs Director for the ELO back in 2001-2 and then took on more responsibilities as Associate Director (2002-4). I did this while I was a graduate student at UCLA. ELO was then housed at UCLA, and N. Katherine Hayles was the Faculty Director. I was the sole staff member, and I got a first-hand education in the ELO and in non-profit organization.

But this is not how I started with electronic literature.

I applied to graduate school to study Victorian Literature. I wanted to study the Pre-Raphaelites; image and text are inseparable in such work (think Dante and Christina Rosetti). I was also interested in what I now understand to be the social networks that configured and propelled that artistic movement. Multimedia, multimodal, social networks: it was all there.

But, I was unhappy at UCLA, so I took a leave of absence. I went to Boston and worked for a company (Cognitive Arts, founded by AI pioneer Roger Schank) that then (in 2000, the height of the dot-com wave) was making interactive training simulations for companies and schools. We basically were making narrative teaching games (again, using language from today to describe the past). I liked the work but wanted to understand it from a more critical perspective. So, I read George Landow’s Hypertext. And, bam: that book hit me. It gave me a critical vocabulary and framework to approach that stuff that I was making, to understand what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I wanted to study hypertext.

Well, it just so happened that the foremost scholar of hypertext and this new thing called “electronic literature” was back at UCLA: Katherine Hayles. So, I returned to UCLA, shifted my focus from the first industrial revolution to the second, and then worked with Kate Hayles in all things e-literature and ELO. Kate is really how and why I started, learned, and loved the field of literary criticism focused on electronic literature. She is a role model and a mentor.

ELR: In your article “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature” (2014) you state that electronic literature is comparative because it combines text, image, sound, movement, interactivity and design. As a researcher and teacher of experimental American literature would you say that electronic literature is experimental literature, too?

Jessica Pressman: I think electronic can be experimental. More often than not, it is, but this is because right now we are still accustomed to thinking about “literature” with terms and conceptions derived from print. But, “experimental” does not describe a platform or media; it describes use of that platform and media. Some books, films, sculptures, play, etc. are “experimental;” some works of electronic literature are too.

ELR: In your latest book “Reading Project” (2015) you explain how to analyse e-literature. Could you explain why it is necessary to use different methods?

Jessica Pressman: Reading Project does not aim to explain how to analyze e-literature—I would never presume or desire for there to be any one way to analyze anything—but, rather, to offer a model of how digital humanities (DH) practices can produce literary criticism. Jeremy, Mark, and I were tired of hearing critiques of DH that its creation and use of tools doesn’t lead to interpretative payoffs; most of these critiques are valid, by the way. We also wanted to experiment with pursuing literary criticism that employs the actual affordances of computational media to address a digital work; thus, we read the programming code (Mark’s Critical Code Studies approach) and created big data visualizations (Jeremy’s Cultural Analytics work), and we built a Scalar tool (Scalar Workbench) to assist others in practices similar types of collaboration. Finally, we had a professional goal and critique as well: we wanted to show what is gained by collaborating in literary criticism, by eschewing the scholarly model of a solitary researcher pursuing hermeneutics by instead having three scholars work collaboratively and dialogically towards building a single interpretation.

The reason why electronic literature elicits different critical methods is because such work often defies a single genre or disciplinary category. Is Tender Claws’s Pry (2015) a work of film, game, novella? The answer is not interesting but the question compels different approaches, which leads to (or should) interesting opportunities.

Just by designating a work (Pry, for example) as “literature” already implies how one will approach and value it: through a focus on its text. But many of the works that I spend my life reading and teaching could (and often are) identified and understood as other types of cultural objects: visual art, film, games, performances, etc. One of the reasons I love electronic literature is precisely this: because it invites and rewards multiple critical perspectives and practices. In so doing, it pushes literary critics towards reflexive consideration of our normative practices and towards experimentation with new ones. That is exciting to me.

ELR: In the description of the ELO’s role you can read that the organization aims to create “a network of people who produce works of electronic literature and people who read, discuss, and teach e-literature”. How successful has the ELO been in this attempt so far and how do Universities collaborate with the ELO?

Jessica Pressman: I think the ELO has been invaluable. The very fact that we have an annual conference, an archived volume of works (the Electronic Literature Collection), and a website for interpersonal connection means that we have a field. We have a community.

ELR: What do you foresee for the future of e-literature?

Jessica Pressman: I am a literary historian more than a prophet or visionary. But, from this perspective, I believe I can proffer that whatever comes along that seems completely new and futuristic will offer us new ways for understanding our past and for appreciating our seemingly “old” media.

 

 

 

Interview with Dene Grigar

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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.