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.


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

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. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

“Digital Commons.”  NYU Department of English. Retrieved: 1

Mar. 2012.

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

Now[2]. 9 Jan. 2012. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

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

HASTAC[3] 16 Jan. 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012. Reprinted in Mpublishing:  U of Michigan Library. 16 Jan. 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Kinett, Dylan.  NoCategories.comThe Death of Hypertext?

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

Software. 28 Dec. 2011. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012.

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

Counts.” 2 Jan. 2012.  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]

Electronic Literature Organization Directory[5].

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.

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).

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.

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

Lori Emerson’s Curatorial Statement.

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

“Electronic Literature Readings and Performances” Poster.

440 total visits.

Storify archive of the event.

128 from  10 Jan. 2012-28 Jan. 2012.

Facebook and Mini-Site.

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


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. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted in WSU News as “Ahead of Their Time.” 3 Jan. 2012. 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 <> 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

[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

[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.


An Exhibit & Reading of E-literature at MLA 2012

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help organize – alongside Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens – the first ever electronic literature exhibit and reading at the MLA Annual Convention in Seattle, WA January 5th through the 7th. The exhibit in particular, which is formally supported by the MLA, marks an important moment in the establishment of electronic literature – another pivotal point at which the field moves further into the center and away from the margins. I’m hoping it’s a moment marking the subtle shift from “electronic” or “digital” literature to just, well, literature.

From January 5th through the 7th at the Washington State Convention Center in Room 609, visitors will have the opportunity to view/read/interact with: e-literature from the Electronic Literature Collection Volumes One and Two; historically significant works such as those by bpNichol and those published by Eastgate; locative works such as Kate Armstrong’s “Ping;” formally experimental works such as David Jhave Johnson’s “softies;” multimodal narratives such as Christine Wilks’ “Underbelly;” literary games such as Ian Bogost’s “A Slow Year“; and mobile works such as Mark Amerika’s “Immobilité.” These are just some of many different modes of e-literature that will be on display. The complete list of works is available on the exhibit website.

Also, on Friday January 6th from 8pm to 10.30pm, there will be an MLA off-site reading of electronic literature at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave  Seattle, WA 98122-2419). If you are in Seattle in early January, please make sure you stop by as it’s a rare treat indeed to have the opportunity to hear these extraordinarily innovative writers read together: Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Marjorie Luesebrink, Jim Andrews, Erin Costello and Aaron Angello, Mark Marino, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Ian Bogost, Brian Kim Stefans, and Rob Wittig.

on “e-literature” as a field (part 2)

While I’m not finding this conversation between Mark Bernstein and myself to be terribly productive, I also am not fond of having my opinions mis-represented. Allow me, then, to post one final time about the wording in our MLA 2012 proposal.

I’ve had a few days to think and I now recognize that – while I’m very well aware of those important books by Michael Joyce, Yellowlees Douglas etc. – Glazier’s wasn’t the first book on what we now call electronic literature and my wording in the proposal certainly could have been more precise. However, whether you support the efforts of the Electronic Literature Organization or not, I still am of the opinion that giving a cluster of writing practices a name (‘e-literature’) along with institutional support does indeed change how we understand those writing practices and in turn likely changes the practices themselves. I never once thought or suggested that what came before Glazier’s work is meaningless or unimportant; I just wanted to point out that these works did not call or conceive of digital literature as ‘e-literature.’ As some of you know, my work is in fact deeply historical – as evidenced by my founding of the Archeological Media Lab and my writing on early digital poetry. But, again, I am interested in thinking through the ways in which our understanding of computer-mediated, digital writing (or whatever we ought to call it) has changed and evolved over the years. I welcome any comments on this issue.

MLA 2012 Special Session | Reading Writing Interfaces: E-Literature’s Past & Present

Below are abstracts for the papers that Dene Grigar, Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink, myself, and Mark Sample will present at the January 2012 MLA Annual Convention in Seattle. Our papers could certainly change between now and then, but for now…here is the shape of our panel. [Note: as of January 12, 2012 a copy of my own paper is available here.]


It is remarkable that in just ten years, since the publication of the first book on electronic literature (Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001), e-literature has firmly established itself as a thriving field. However, all too often, readings of e-literature (or digital-born writing that makes the most of the capabilities of its medium) take the form of accounts of what appears on the screen, with little attention to the material context of the writing – whether its hardware or software. Or, conversely, such readings point to how e-literature reminds us of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Instead, this panel takes up Katherine Hayles’ injunction for “media-specific analysis” of e-literature by focusing on the defining role of the interface in particular. Our argument is this: personal computers from the 1980s as much as the latest multitouch devices are finally revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on interfaces that frame what can and cannot be written. Further, e-literature often deliberately works against or draws attention to the strictures of digital writing interfaces and so it is an ideal site to explore this tight inter-connection between writing and writing interface. All four presentations, then, try to shift the definition of “interface” outside its conventional usage (in which interface is usually defined quite broadly as the intermediary layer between a user and a digital computer or computer program) and apply it to digital writing/media from the last twenty years to mean the layer between the reader and particular computer platforms which allows the reader to interact with a literary text.

As an example of this approach, Dene Grigar‘s paper opens our panel with a detailed discussion of the exhibit “Early Authors of Electronic Literature: The Eastgate School, Voyager Artists, and Independent Productions” (now installed at the University of Washington). Grigar looks specifically at the major technological shifts in affordances and constraints provided by early computer interfaces and the ways in which e-literature writers from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s worked with and against these interfaces. For example, she discusses the command-line interface of the Apple IIe – which was released in 1983 – as an example of an interface that exemplifies an ideology wholly different from the now dominant Graphic User Interface. Thus, the command-line interface also makes possible entirely different texts and entirely different modes of thinking/creating such as that exemplified by bpNichol’s “First Screening” from 1984.

Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink then offer a co-presentation in which they move the discussion into the 21st century by focusing on works included in the recently published Electronic Literature Collection Volume Two – an online anthology that highlights and preserves exemplary e-literature from 2001 – 2010. This collection features a stunning variety of interface choices in works of animation, generation, augmented reality, gaming, hypertext, AI-based interactive drama, interactive fiction, poetry and video. Strickland and Luesebrink focus in particular on e-literature whose interface requires the reader’s bodily movement as a fundamental component as well as those texts whose reading calls for a knowledge of code as well as a familiarity with network forms such as the database, personal home page, Frequently Asked Questions list, blog, listserv, commercial website, wiki, or email. Thus, while they acknowledge the interface defines what is or can be written, Strickland and Luesebrink demonstrate that the interface also creates the reader.

I, Lori Emerson, will then take a slightly different approach in that I argue recent e-literature by Judd Morrissey and Jason Nelson represents a broad movement in e-literature to draw attention to the move toward the so-called “interface free” – or, the interface that seeks to disappear altogether by becoming as “natural” as possible. It is against this troubling attempt to mask the workings of the interface and how it delimits creative production that Judd Morrissey creates “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text. Likewise working against the clean and transparent interface of the Web, in “game, game, game and again game,” Jason Nelson’s hybrid poem-videogame self-consciously embraces a hand-drawn, hand-written interface while deliberately undoing videogame conventions through nonsensical mechanisms that ensure players never advance past level 121/2. As such, both Morrissey and Nelson intentionally incorporate interfaces that thwart readers’ access to the text so that they are forced to see how such interfaces are not natural so much as they define what and how we read and write.

Finally, Mark Sample provides a close-reading of one work in particular that in fact takes advantage of the “interface free” multitouch display: released just in the last year, “Strange Rain” is an experiment in digital storytelling for Apple iOS devices (the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) designed by new media artist Erik Loyer. As dark storm clouds shroud the screen of the iOS device, the player can take advantage of the way in which the multi-touch interface is supposedly “interface-free” – the player can touch and tap its surface, causing what Loyer describes as “twisting columns of rain” to splash down upon the player’s first-person perspective. In the app’s “whispers” and “story” modes “Strange Rain” unites two longstanding tropes of e-literature: the car crash – the most famous occurring in Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1990); and falling letters – words that descend on the screen or even in large-scale installation pieces such as Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain (1999). Sample argues “Strange Rain” transcends the familiar tropes of car crashes and falling text, reconfiguring the interface as a means to transform confusion into certainty, and paradoxically, intimacy into alienation. [the full text of Sample’s paper is now available here.]