Glitch Aesthetics

Below is the entry on “Glitch Aesthetics” I wrote for the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. As always, so much more could have been and should be written…

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Glitch Aesthetics

‘Glitch’ was first used in the early 1960s to describe either a change in voltage in an electrical circuit or any kind of interference in a television picture. By the 1990s, ‘glitch’ broadly described brief bursts of unexpected behavior in electrical circuits but it also more specifically was used to describe a style of electronic music that was created from already-malfunctioning audio technology (or from causing technology to malfunction) as a way to explore the life of the digital machine and as a reaction against the push in the computing industry to create a ever-more clean, noise-free sound. The term has since been appropriated by musicians, gamers, artists, and designers as a name for what Olga Goriumnova and Alexei Shulgin call a “genuine software aesthetics” (111). (Ssee NET.ART, GAMEPLAY) Glitch aesthetics, then, involves experimentation with the visible results of provoked or unprovoked computer error. (Such glitches could include aestheticizing the visible results of a virus or even provoking the computer to take on a virus in order to explore its underlying workings.) (see VIRAL AESTHETICS)

Its relation, then, to an aesthetics of failure and to the embrace of chance means that glitch aesthetics clearly finds its roots in early twentieth century avant-garde experiments in art, writing, theater, and music. These experiments on the one hand sought to disrupt the status quo which was supposedly maintained by tranquil, harmonius art and on the other hand they reflected a search for a new realism – one that represented the noise and chaos of a rapidly industrializing world. Luigi Russolo, for example, wrote the Futurist manifesto “The Art of Noises” in 1913 in which he declares that “Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds…This musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front. Not only in the roaring atmosphere of major cities, but in the country too, which until yesterday was totally silent, the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound…no longer arouses any feeling.” Russolo believed, then, that noise – random, dissonant, machine-based sounds as opposed to what he called “pure sound” – was fast becoming the only way to experience the world anew.

Glitch aesthetics also finds its roots in early twentieth century Dada experiments to escape the out-dated notion of the romantic, individual geniuis whose art and writing was seen to be driven by a singular, self-reliant author with a clear intent. Instead, Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara attempted to open writing and art to the chaos and unpredictability of everyday life by, for example, advocating in “To Make a Dadaist Poem” that we cut up words from a newspaper article, randomly draw these words from a hat, and copy them “conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.” It was an attempt to redefine the role of the artist/writer by taking away authorial control and seeking to move away from the egotism of the individual romantic geniuis. More, it was also an attempt to redefine the nature of an aesthetic object. If a poem could consist of randomly chosen words and if, as Marcel Duchamp demonstrated with his ready-mades, a sculpture could consist of a urinal turned upside down or a bicycle-wheel affixed to a stool, then a whole range of traditionally unbeautiful, everyday objects and sounds are available as art.

Glitch, then, takes this radical shift in what counts as an aesthetic object or aesthetic experience and asserts that its disruptiveness (in that a glitch constitutes a moment of dysfunctionality in the computer system) defamiliarizes the slick surface of the hardware/software of the computer and so ideally transforms us into critically minded observers of the underlying workings of the computer. As Goriumnova and Shulgin put it, “A glitch is a mess that is a moment, a possibility to glance at software’s inner structure…Although a glitch does not reveal the true functionality of the computer, it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized” (114). One of the best-known creators of glitch art and games is the Dutch-Belgian collective Jodi (whose members are Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans). Jodi has, for example, modified old videogames such as Quake – reassembling the original game so that its architecture no longer functions according to the conventions of *gameplay. For example, Jodi is well known for exploiting a glitch in Quake that causes the player to be entrapped in a cube; the glitch is provoked every time the Quake software attempts to visualize the cube’s black-and-white checked wallpaper. (“jodi,” “untitled game”)

It is worth emphasizing that glitches may be provoked or unprovoked. In addition to Jodi’s provoked glitch described above, glitch artist Jeff Donaldson writes that one might also provoke a glitch by sending “an audio signal through video input” or by “opening image files in word processing applications. JPGs become text, which can then be randomly edited and saved again as images to be displayed through the filter of codecs.” An unprovoked glitch, then, captures a moment in which an error in the computer system is made visible; it therefore exploits randomness and chance as a way to disrupt the digital ideal of a clean, frictionless, error-free environment in which the computer supposedly fades into the background while we, as creators or workers, effortlessly produce without any attention to the ways in which the computer (or software) determines what and how we produce. As Donaldson puts it, “[i]t is chance made manifest and a spontaneous reordering of data, like the wave function collapse of quantum theory. In its pure, wild sense, a glitch is the ghost in the machine, the other side of intention, a form that is hidden until it manifests itself of its own accord.”

SEE ALSO: hacking, interface, randomness

References and further reading

  • Donaldson, Jeffrey. “Glossing over Thoughts on Glitch. A Poetry of Error.” Artpulse Magazine.
    Glitch.” Wikipedia.
  • Goriunova, Olga and Alexei Shulgin. 2008. “Glitch.” In Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Boston, MA: MIT Press), 110-119.
  • jodi.org.
  • jodi.” okno.be.
  • Krapp, Peter. 2011. Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P.
  • eds. Moradi, Iman and Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore, Christopher Murphy. 2009. Glitch: Designing Imperfection. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.
  • Russolo, Luigi. “The Art of Noises.”
  • Tzara, Tristan. “To Make a Dadaist Poem
  • untitled game.” jodi.org.

mobile poetics: a select bibliography of digital textuality/art apps

I’ve been building a bibliography for awhile now of digital textuality/art apps for the iPhone and iPad. The list below is far from complete but hopefully useful to those of you teaching students how to read and/or write digital textuality/art. Some link directly to the download page while others link to pages with information on particular apps. Please let me know if you have any other works you think I should add to this list.

MLA 2012 Electronic Literature Exhibit: Impact Report

Below is the Impact Report that Dene Grigar, Kathi Inman Berens, and I put together to document all activities related to the first ever exhibit and reading of Electronic Literature at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. This report should also prove useful to electronic literature scholars who are seeking additional support for the importance of the field as well as anyone planning a similar exhibit who needs to advocate for their work as scholarly activity. Sincere thanks to Matthew Kirschenbaum, Matthew Gold, Rosemary Feal, Brian Croxall, Ian Bogost, and Bethany Nowviskie for contributing testimonials to our final report. Finally, thank you too to Judy Malloy who kindly published our report on her website.

You may also download a pdf of the Impact Report.

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Electronic Literature Exhibit Impact Report
MLA 2012, January 5-8, 2012
Curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens

Overview:
This report is intended to provide stakeholders involved in the Electronic Literature Exhibit, held in Seattle, WA from January 5th to 8th at the 2012 Modern Languages Association Convention with information concerning the Exhibit’s impact.  Impact, from our perspective, is tied to the overarching mission of the Exhibit, which we articulated as “to expand scholarship and creative output in the area of Electronic Literature by introducing Humanities scholars to the art form.”  In order to achieve this mission, we identified, at the outset of the development of the Exhibit, four goals.  These were to:

  • Introduce scholars to a broad cross-section of born digital literary writing, both historic and current
  • Provide scholarship and resources to scholars for the purpose of further study of Electronic Literature
  • Encourage those interested in the creative arts to produce Electronic Literature
  • Promote Electronic Literature in a manner that may encourage younger generations to engage with reading literary works

All activities relating to the Exhibit––from the inclusion of five student docents who assisted visitors at the Exhibit, to the “Readings and Performances” event on Friday night at the Hugo House, to the four-platform social media marketing plan and archival work undertaken by undergraduates in the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program, to inclusion of undergraduate works of Electronic Literature in the Exhibit,  to the ongoing web archive of the site––have been developed to help us meet these goals.

Assessment of success in attaining these goals is built on information in four areas:

  1. References to the exhibit by humanities scholars
  2. Inclusion of the web archive in scholarly databases
  3. New scholarship and creative output generating from it
  4. Physical and virtual engagement of visitors with the Exhibit and its online archive

We view this report as “preliminary” because print-based data is not yet available for inclusion. Thus, this phase of our report includes data stemming from electronic publications and media; they serve as the first step in the process of analysis and evaluation of the success of the Exhibit.  For the most part, the data covers a short period of time surrounding the Exhibit, from mid-November  2011 when the web archive was launched to mid-January 2012 after the closing of the Exhibit.

1. References to the Exhibit by Humanities Scholars
Ball, Cheryl. “Review of Profession 2011 section on ‘Evaluating Digital

Scholarship.’”  Kairos[1] 16.2. Spring 2012. http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/16.2/loggingon/lo-profession.html. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

“Digital Commons.”  NYU Department of English. http://nyuenglish.com/. Retrieved: 1

Mar. 2012.

“Editor’s Choice:  Round Up of AHA and MLA Conferences.”  Digital Humanities

Now[2]. 9 Jan. 2012. http://digitalhumanitiesnow.org/2012/01/ec-round-up-of-aha-and-mla-conferences/. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Korey.  “Once More with Feeling:  How MLA Found Its Heart.”

HASTAC[3] 16 Jan. 2012. http://hastac.org/blogs/kbjack/2012/01/16/back-mla-report-not-badgood-fact. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012. Reprinted in Mpublishing:  U of Michigan Library. 16 Jan. 2012. http://publishing.umich.edu/2012/01/16/mpub-mla/. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Kinett, Dylan.  NoCategories.comThe Death of Hypertext?

http://nocategories.net/ephemera/the-death-of-hypertext/

Malloy, Judy.  “MLA 2012 to Feature Exhibition of Electronic Literature.”  Authoring

Software. 28 Dec. 2011. http://www.narrabase.net/elit_software_news.html#dec28_2011. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012. http://www.mla.org/pdf/nl_441_web.pdf.

Taylor, Laurie, N., “E-Lit Exhibit at MLA; Exhibits, Peer Review, and What

Counts.” 2 Jan. 2012.  http://laurientaylor.org/2012/01/02/elit-exhibit-mla-exhibits-peer-review-what-counts/.  Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Image from MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012

2. Inclusion of the Web Archive in Scholarly Databases
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) Knowledge Base.[4]  http://elmcip.net/event/electronic-literature-exhibit-0.

Electronic Literature Organization Directory[5]. http://directory.eliterature.org/.

3. New Scholarship and Creative Output Generating from the Exhibit
Berens, Kathi Inman.  “Haptic Play as Narrative in Mobile Electronic Literature.” Forthcoming in ebr: electronic book review.  Spring 2012.

Grigar, Dene. Born Digital Literature: Understanding Literary Works for the Electronic

Medium.  Book Proposal.

Grigar, Dene and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Avenues of Access:  A Juried Exhibit & Online

Archives of ‘Born Digital’ Literature.”  Forthcoming at the 2013 Modern Language Association Convention. January 2013; Boston, MA.

Grigar, Dene, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Curating Electronic Literature.”

Forthcoming in Rhizomes.  Spring 2012. http://www.rhizomes.net/.

4. Physical and Virtual Engagement of Visitors with the Exhibit and Its Online Archive
Electronic Literature Exhibit at the MLA 2012.

Visits: 503; attendance at Readings and Performances event held at The Hugo House on Friday, January 6, 2012:  107.[6]

Electronic Literature (Main Archival Site). http://dtc-wsuv.org/mla2012.

1673 total visits from 10 Nov. 2011- 18 Jan. 2012; 1733 total visits as of 27 Jan. 2012.

Visitors to the site came from:  the US, Sweden, Canada, Spain, Norway, the UK, Italy, Albania, Australia, Denmark, Greece, Puerto Rico, France, Germany, India, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Austria, Philippines, Colombia, and Algeria.

Kathi Inman Berens’ Curatorial Statement. http://kathiiberens.com/2011/12/06/curatorial-statement/).

539 total visits from 6 Dec. – 8 Dec. 2011 – 18 Jan. 2012

Lori Emerson’s Curatorial Statement. https://loriemerson.net/2011/12/05/performing-e-literature-e-literature-performing/.

388 total visits from 5 Dec. 2011-18 Jan. 2012.

“Electronic Literature Readings and Performances” Poster. http://twitpic.com/81ek4y.

440 total visits.

Storify archive of the event. http://storify.com/kathiiberens/e-literature-exhibit-at-mla12/.

128 from  10 Jan. 2012-28 Jan. 2012.

Facebook and Mini-Site. http://www.facebook.com/wsuv.mla.elit2012.

145 Total Likes; 43,444 “Friends of Fans.” Friends came from US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Singapore, Ethiopia, the UK, and The Bahamas. 12/28/11-1/16/12

Twitter. https://twitter.com/#!/mlaelit2012

72 Followers as of 27 Jan. 2012.

“Invisible Seattle Visible Again.”  Press release created by Washington State University Vancouver’s Marketing Department. 3 Jan. 2012. http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=29434. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted in WSU News as “Ahead of Their Time.” 3 Jan. 2012. http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Release&PublicationID=29434. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted also in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts website.

5.  Testimonials
This section gathers comments from those individuals we solicited for comments about the MLA12 Elit Exhibit.

From Matthew Kirschenbaum:
Although I was not in Seattle this year, I followed the electronic literature exhibition through Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook.  If, as William Carlos Williams once said, “no ideas but in things,” then the “things” of electronic literature are never just the pixels on the screen or even the code churning underneath. Its *things* are also its hardware and platforms: the vintage console, the floppy disk as familiar yet remote as vinyl, the conventions of an antiquarian operating system or a long retired interface. I can truthfully say that there is nothing more vital to what I have elsewhere called the .txtual condition than the kind of project championed by this group of digital archaeologists. Such attention to the minute material particulars of recovery, restoration, and curation is not only essential to the survival of electronic literature (imperiled by its native digital state) but indeed to all literary texts in a digital age.

From Matthew Gold:
The E-Lit exhibit altered the dynamics of #mla12, giving participants a reflective and absorbing space in which they could take in a variety of experiments in digital textuality. I was struck by the careful consideration that the organizers of the exhibit had put into it and by the efforts they had made to reproduce works of electronic literature in their native computing environments. Entering the exhibit, one was greeted by the enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and exhibit organizers, for whom the installation was clearly a work of scholarly passion. For me, at least, the exhibit felt like a port in a storm. It was wonderful to have this kind of space at the MLA and I strongly encourage the organization to continue to support similar efforts in the future.

From Rosemary Feal:
The MLA was pleased to host the Electronic Literature Exhibit at the 2012 MLA Convention as part of our continuing development of convention formats that allow members to present the full range of their creative, pedagogical, and scholarly activities.  The three-day exhibit gave ample opportunity for our 8,000 convention attendees to visit the exhibit and to consider the experimental reach and creative power of the 160 digital works that were showcased. By all reports, the steady stream of attendees generated a lively and ongoing discussion about the potential of new media for literary expression.  The E-Lit exhibit nicely complemented the dozens of other convention sessions that explored the impact of digital media on the humanities (click here <http://www.samplereality.com/2011/10/04/digital-humanities-sessions-at-the-2012-mla-conference-in-seattle/> for a list of these sessions) as well as the convention’s 695 other panels, roundtables, workshops, addresses, and  events. Particularly exciting is the way the reach of the exhibit was extended in time and space through an off-site live reading by some of the participating authors, an exhibit Web site, the #mla12 twitter stream, and discussion in blogs, demonstrating the growing potential of networked online environments for scholarly communication as well as artistic expression.

From Brian Croxall:
Over the last four years, I have had frequent occasion to teach electronic literature in various English classes. Repeatedly, my students have told me that they’ve never read anything like it in any of my colleagues classes. While there are many reasons for this, I believe one of them is that many literature faculty members simply have not been exposed to electronic literature. It was a great pleasure, then, to see the E-Lit Exhibit at MLA12. Each time I poked my head in the room, there were different audiences enjoying the different works that covered more than 20 years of electronic writing. Given the current interest in the digital humanities, it was important to see the history of the digital within the humanities. The Exhibit created the perfect focal point around which conversations about e-lit could continue after the several fascinating panels on the subject. The Jan. 6 reading of e-literature further encouraged participants to think of e-lit not so much as a radical Other but as one end on a spectrum of literary output that can be read and examined within the context of the MLA. I appreciate the MLA’s support of the exhibit and would encourage similar exhibits in the future. There is certainly more e-lit that could be showcased in such a manner but so too could artist’s books, to name but one example.

From Ian Bogost:
January 2012 marked the date of the first exhibit (curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens) of electronic literature ever hosted by the Modern Language Association at their annual convention in Seattle, WA. Remarkably, the exhibit was visited by over 500 people and since the end of the exhibit, five humanities scholars have written about the exhibit. Digital humanities librarian Laurie Taylor has suggested that the exhibit is an example of scholarly activity (“the E-Lit Exhibit is extremely important as an exhibit/event in itself. It’s also extremely important as an example/model for future exhibits with MLA and for all who are interested in how changes in scholarly communication are affecting the humanities, how to support scholarly work outside of silos…and what counts as scholarship.”). I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Indeed, a curated exhibit is a standard example of creative productivity in most fields in the arts, and it’s high time humanists update their standards.

As an extension of the exhibit, Lori Emerson organized a reading/performance of e-literature by authors whose work was included in the exhibit. The reading included the some of the most prominent practitioners of digital writing/art/gaming including Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, Rob Wittig, and myself. About 100 people attended this reading, which was both a fascinating display of the ways in which many of the works in the exhibit are performative in their right and an exploration of the role of the author-programmer in a live performance.

As a participant in both the exhibit and the reading, I was particularly pleased to be able to share my work with an audience that was receptive to my particular and unique brand of videogame poetry.

From Bethany Nowviskie:
I just want to share a word of thanks with you for the splendid work you [Kathi Inman Berens], Dene Grigar, and Lori Emerson did in organizing the E-Lit exhibit at MLA12. This was one of the best-arranged and most carefully thought-out exhibits I have ever seen of the kind, and visiting it was a high point of the conference for me.  I was struck especially by the careful historicizing you did in the arrangement of the stations and the interesting juxtapositions you created, between canonical and lesser-known works (many of which were entirely new to me).  The care you took with all this is evident in your three terrific curatorial statements.  The exhibit clearly struck a chord with many MLA attendees, and I sat in on at least three panels in which presenters made reference to works they had seen, or commented on the subjects of their papers in relation to the themes of the conference’s E-lit events.  I left wishing I had had more time to spend in the room — so was thrilled to discover the extensive website you put together, and know I will be referring students and Scholars’ Lab graduate fellows to your bibliographies and lists of featured works again and again.


[1] Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy began in 1996 and since that time has grown to 45,000 readers per month; additionally, it is referenced electronically (i.e. “backlinked”) by 2500 sites.

[2] DH Now has 2794 Followers on Twitter. Its site had 14,500 visits with 5000 unique visitors, and 48,000 total page views in Nov. 2011.  See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/melissa-terras/DigitalHumanitiesInfographic.pdf.

[3] HASTAC (Humanities Arts Science & Technology Advanced Collaboratory) says in its September 6, 2011 report that it has 7150 members and that its site has seen 350,000 unique visitors to its forums since 2009.  See http://hastac.org/about.

[4] ELMCIP is a “collaborative research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation and involves seven European academic research partners and one non-academic partner.”  Its mission is to “investigate how creative communities of practitioners form within a transnational and transcultural context in a globalized and distributed communication environment. Focusing on the electronic literature community in Europe as a model of networked creativity and innovation in practice, ELMCIP is intended both to study the formation and interactions of that community and also to further electronic literature research and practice in Europe. The partners include: The University of Bergen, Norway (PL Scott Rettberg, Co-I Jill Walker Rettberg), the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland (PI Simon Biggs, Co-I Penny Travlou), Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden (PI Maria Engberg, Co-I Talan Memmott), The University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (PI Yra Van Dijk), The University of Ljubljana, Slovenia (PI Janez Strechovec), The University of Jyväskylä, Finland (PI Raine Koskimaa), and University College Falmouth at Dartington, England (PI Jerome Fletcher), and New Media Scotland.”

[5] “The Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999 to foster and promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment. A 501c(3) non-profit organization, the ELO includes writers, artists, teachers, scholars, and developers.”

[6] It should be noted that Canada’s Poet Laureate Fred Wah, who lives in British Columbia, drove to Seattle specifically to visit the exhibit and attend the Readings and Performances associated with the exhibit.

Recovering Paul Zelevanksy’s literary game “SWALLOWS” (Apple //e, 1985-86)

In 1986 – a year after creating a literary videogame called “SWALLOWS” for Apple //e and Apple //+ – writer Paul Zelevansky published the second volume of his by-now rare artist book trilogy THE CASE FOR THE BURIAL OF ANCESTORS: Book Two, Genealogy. Book Two is supposedly the third edition (which is also a fiction since there was only one edition) of a fictional translation of an equally fictional ancient text that is itself a translation of an oral account of the “Hegemonians” from the 12th-13th BCE that was “attributed to a score of mystics, religionists and scholars, none of whom has ever stepped forward.” (ix) The text focuses particularly on the stories of four priests, each of whom is identified throughout the book with a different typeface which Zelevansky claims makes it possible “to build a reading of the text around a typographical sequence.” (xi) Also included in Book Two is a sheet of 16 stamps – a miniature, layered collage of letters and found objects – as Zelevansky puts it in the “Preface to the Third Edition,” “each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text.” (xii) And, finally, enclosed in an envelope on the inside of the back cover, the book also comes with “SWALLOWS,” a 5.25″ floppy disk that is a videogame forming the first of three parts in the book. Programmed in Forth-79 for the Apple IIe or II+ (Forth was a popular programming language for home computers with limited memory), “SWALLOWS” was also integrated into the first section of Book Two through a short text/image version.

Since learning about Zelevansky’s work, I have been working through and writing on “SWALLOWS” as a very early, and important, instance of media poetics. And given what a remarkable work it is, and in an effort to contribute to the effort to preserve our digital past, I have made available the original file for “SWALLOWS” that you can run via an Apple // emulator. The existence of this file is entirely due to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum and the generosity of Paul Zelevanksy. Matthew Kirschenbaum in fact recently made an argument in The Chronicle for the importance of digital preservation by detailing how he accessed “SWALLOWS” via an Apple // emulator and then provided Zelevanksy with the original .dsk file from which he then created a new version of “SWALLOWS” (with audio and video clips mixed in) called “G R E A T . B L A N K N E S S.”

Below are the directions to download the .dsk file and then run it on an emulator. Enjoy!

  1. download an Apple //e emulator. I found Virtual ][ works well.
  2. download an Apple // system ROM image. This zip file also works well.
  3. download the .dsk file for “SWALLOWS” (via Dropbox) and open the file using your Apple //e emulator

Performing E-Literature | E-literature Performing

Below is my curatorial statement for the Electronic Literature Exhibit that will take place at the MLA Annual Convention January 2012. Rather than focus my statement on the works I suggested we include in the exhibit, I’ve instead focused on the notion of a reading or performance of e-literature like the one that will take place on Friday January 6th 2012 (8pm Richard Hugo House, Seattle WA).

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If electronic literature is emergent, generative, interactive, kinetic, tactile; if the textual elements of electronic literature are only one part of digital version of a verbi-voco-visual complex, then how will e-literature authors Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, Ian Bogost, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Wittig “read” from their works on Friday January 6th? What does such a reading look like?

One answer is that we wanted to see if we could extend the e-literature exhibit not just into the performative – for, arguably many of the works on display are performative in their right – but into the arena of live performance. However, such an exploration has to remain open-ended and undecidable; the exploration of what it means to “read” or “perform” e-literature has to change and adapt for every text. There is no way to know once-and-for-all how Nick Montfort reads his 2009 work “Taroko Gorge” – a Python poetry generator that creates a nature poem each time it is run. But perhaps we can say this: 1) while the poetic quality of the generated text is something to marvel at, a live performance of “Taroko Gorge” likely highlights the temporal, fleeting quality of the work and of digital computer processes in general (instead of static words on a page, we have ever-changing text that reflects the underlying time-based processes of algorithmic generation); 2) a live performance also reminds us that while the use of an algorithm to generate literary texts does undermine assumptions about authorial intent, self-expression, even the literary, to some extent our interest in authorial intent can shift to the very human programmer standing before us, reading one possible result among many from his elegant script.

Our reading also highlights those works which strategically nestle themselves between analog and print as a means by which to use print to comment on the digital and the digital to comment on print. A live “reading” of Erin Costello and Aaron Angelo’s site-specific installation and performance “Poemedia” poses many challenges to the conventional notion of a poetry reading as the work originally consisted of one hundred fifty 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of card stock suspended one to eight feet above the ground with live and/or recorded video projected onto the sheets. As Costello and Angelo put it, “Poemedia” asks, “what is the role of poetry, page poetry specifically, in a digitized, information saturated world?” As such, just as “Poemedia” enacts a thinking-through of the state of poetry today that is unavoidably enmeshed in practices of remix, search, and the disintegration of clear boundaries between literary and artistic genres, a reading or performance of it will likely also enact a thinking through of the poetry reading that normally features a single author, reading predictable and supposedly original text.

Our reading will also feature game designer and critic Ian Bogost reading from “A Slow Year” – a so-called “chapbook of game poems” that consists of four slow-moving, contemplative, text-free games (“spring”, “summer,” “autumn,” “winter”) for Atari VCS and an accompanying book of related yet separate print-based computer-generated poems. “A Slow Year” joins a growing number of e-literature works that do not contain any text at all but whose inspiration comes at least partly from poetry (in this case, Bogost attempts to translate poetic principles of Imagism into the realm of the videogame). But, aside from the difficult question of what makes a work literary if it contains no text – and one possible answer to this question is that distinctions between genres in the digital are impossible, and so pointless, to maintain – what is there in “A Slow Year” to read or perform? Perhaps Bogost will stand-in as us, as readers/viewers, performing our own interpretative acts to ourselves as we try to make sense of such a work.

And of course, it’s worth pointing out that Bogost will reveal only one possible answer to the foregoing questions during his January 6th reading, a reading which overall will only suggest momentary, emergent, even fleeting “solutions” to the productive problems of reading or performing electronic literature.