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Interview with Judy Malloy

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ELR: Judy Malloy, you have engaged in three decades of creative work in the field of electronic literature, beginning with the publication of “Uncle Roger” in 1986. What in your opinion are the most significant moments in the history of electronic literature thus far?

Judy Malloy: This is a welcome question. The long and rich history of electronic literature in toto is what is most significant. But there are so many significant moments that I can only mention a few — and even then, it is perhaps a longer answer than expected. Another day the list might be somewhat different. Today this is what I am recollecting:

To begin with: significant computational processes in word structures can be traced from Wibold, Archdeacon of Noyon’s 10th century dice-mediated Ludus Regularis, to the circa 15th century dice-generated collaborative narrative of vice and virtue, Chaunce of the Dyse, to formative computer-mediated work in the 1950’s –- including the generative love letters that Lytton Strachey’s nephew, Bloomsbury-bred computer programmer Christopher Strachey, created using Alan Turing’s hardwired random number generator, as well as the work of Stuttgart computer scientist student, Theo Lutz, who entered words from The Castle into a program that generated politically-charged remixes of Kafka’s vocabulary.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a map of significant moments, in France would probably pinpoint the founding of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, and George Perec’s Die Maschine, among many others. Pierre Boulez’ Troisième sonate pour piano Formant 3: “Constellation — Miroir” would surely appear on this map, as would – experiments with the cutup method in the work of Bryan Gysin, Williams Burroughs and Burroughs’ partner, computer programmer Ian Sommerville.

Meanwhile in New York City, after composer James Tenney gave a workshop on FORTRAN to Fluxus artists in 1967, Alison Knowles wrote the brilliant generative poem A House of Dust (realized by Tenney), and Dick Higgins created and programmed the edgy Hank and Mary, a Love Story, a Chorale.  Additionally, the lists of words that Fluxus poet Emmett Williams chose for IBM, first created without a computer in 1956, were computerized in this time.

And in Massachusetts BBN (ARPANET contractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman) computer programmer Will Crowther wrote the pioneering Interactive Fiction, Adventure, and then at MIT Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling created Zork and went on to found Infocom, the primary source of classic Interactive Fiction — while in Connecticut, at Yale, Joseph Meehan created Tale-Spin.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, based in Canada with strong roots also in Austria, IPSA (I. P. Sharp Associates) and IPSA’s ARTEX made node-to-node communication possible — we called it “telematics” in those days — hosting collaborative works such as Bill Bartlett’s Interplay and Roy Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte.

Beginning in 1986 in Berkeley, CA my own Uncle Roger, the first realized hyperfiction, was significant in that rather than a game-centered or communications approach, I wrote and programmed it as a work of computer-mediated literature, and it was the first realized work of electronic fiction that was both written and programmed by a woman.

There followed — beginning with Michael Joyce’s classic afternoon, a story and the work of the StorySpace team — a flowering of hypertext. The writers came from many different places; the center was the Massachusetts-based Eastgate Systems, headed by Mark Bernstein. Hypertext literature was central in what Robert Coover called the “golden age”. The four works Coover singled out are Joyce’s afternoon, my its name was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.  It should also be noted that in the field of digital poetry, Jim Rosenberg’s spatial hypertext was primary in the pre-web era.

In the period of widening development (1995–2010), places on the map are clustered all over the world, as works of potential significance were created in generative poetry (the work of John-Pierre Balpe and Nick Montfort, Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System, Nanette Wylde’s Storyland, for instance); in Interactive Fiction: (Emily Short’s Bronze, Andrew Plotkins’ Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home);  in hypertext (my The Roar of Destiny, Mark Marino’s a show of hands, Sharif Ezzat’s Like Stars in a Clear Night Sky, Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs Wiki); in electronic manuscripts: (Noah Wardrip Fruin et al’s Screen; J. R. Carpenter’s Entre Ville); in concrete and digital poetry (William Harris’ Armistice, Maria Mencia’s Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs); and in performative, filmic, and collaborative works. (Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar’s Cruising; Judd Morrissey’s The Last Performance). There were many others.

I am disinclined to mention works from 2011-  because the dust has not yet settled, but for my own work I like From Ireland with Letters and my generative “the whole room like a picture in a dream”: Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf Writing“.

ELR: In another interview you name four authors of print literature as influences on your works of electronic literature: Italo Calvino, Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, and Laurence Sterne. Can you comment on analogies and differences between electronic and print literature?

Judy Malloy: This is a difficult question, and the answer can be framed in many different ways. Primarily electronic literature is work that utilizes computer-mediation to create literature that is only possible to read on a computer. But the boundaries are becoming somewhat blurred. Many of the strategies developed by writers of electronic literature can influence print literature and even in some cases have been utilized in print, while at the same time we see writers of electronic literature incorporating print components in their work.

I have always believed that print literature is such a powerful interface that it will continue, but that electronic literature is equally powerful and will flourish and run side by side with print literature, so to speak. In the 21st century, the fact that electronic literature and print literature are each influencing each other is greatly enriching both fields!

ELR: In August 2016 you edited “Social Media Archeology and Poetics” a book featuring essays of 28 artists, scholars, and curators who describe computer networks and online platforms. What are your current opinions/thoughts about archiving works of electronic literature and digital art?

Judy Malloy: Social Media Archeology and Poetics is media archeology about how social media platforms with cultural components were developed and flourished in the days before the World Wide Web.

To create Social Media Archeology and Poetics, which was three years in the making, I primarily asked pioneers in the field to write about their work. This is different from archiving works of electronic literature and digital art. However, it does dovetail with my vision, which is that in addition to the work of critics and curators, it is important to make early works themselves accessible and also to encourage creators of electronic literature to document their own work. In this respect, we are in the tradition of conceptual art and performance art, and — in this field that lies between computer science and literature —  we also document electronic literature in the tradition of sci/tech researchers. It is vitally important to publish peer-reviewed first person documentation from the creators or researchers themselves. Thus, the primary source for Strachey’s love letters is Christopher Strachey, “The Thinking Machines,” Encounter, 3 (1954): 25-31. The primary source for Lutz’ work is Theo Lutz, “Stochastische Texte,” augenblick 4 (1959):3-9.  And the primary source for Uncle Roger is Judy Malloy, “Uncle Roger, an Online Narrabase”, in eds. Ascott, Roy and Carl Eugene Loeffler, Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications, Leonardo 24:2, (1991): 195-202. This does not mean that criticism and theory are not very important.

Contingently, as regards archiving works of electronic literature themselves, when the original platforms are not available, I prefer to translate my own works to contemporary platforms. But I also highly respect and appreciate the curators and archivists in our field, such as Dene Grigar, who have approached this in many creative ways.

ELR: In the year 2003 you edited the book “Women, Art & Technology” a compendium of the work of women artists who have played a central role in the development of new media practice. How do you consider the role of women in new media today?

Judy Malloy: As Jaishree Odin’s Hypertext and the Female Imaginary and Maria Mencia’s forthcoming #WomenTechLit clearly demonstrate, contemporary women artists and writers are equally as important and influential as male artists and writers.

ELR: Have you any thoughts about the future of Electronic Literature?

Judy Malloy: As the rich history of electronic literature begins to be acknowledged, and the field comes of age, it has been a pleasure to both work with students in the creation of electronic literature and to continue to develop my own work.

I look forward to new work from the field as a whole and to a more central place for electronic literature in the literary world.

ELR red black and white

Written by ELR

February 20, 2017 at 7:30 pm

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.