On the occasion of the Electronic Literature Organization 2012 conference— a biennial event that brings together some of the best scholars and artists in the field— curator Dene Grigar and co-curator (and conference chair) Sandy Baldwin put together a Media Arts Show worthy of the attention of the e-lit community and the rest of the world.
Dr. Dene Grigar, an Associate Professor and Director of the Digital Technology and Culture program at Washington State University: Vancouver and ELO Board Member, is eminently qualified to curate exhibitions in digital media arts, and has been doing so since 2005 (curating 6 e-lit shows to date). Most notably, she curated an exhibition of 160 works of electronic literature (with co-curators Lori Emerson and Kathi Inman Berens) for the MLA 2012 Convention— an important activity for sharing the wealth of electronic art and literature with the rest of the academic world.
Dr. Sandy Baldwin, an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Literary Computing at West Virginia University, was the co-curator and the primary interface for bringing the Media Arts Show into the WVU and Morgantown community. The works were exhibited in several venues on campus and downtown to allow others to be drawn into this vibrant world of electronic literature.
As a gift to Morgantown, the ELO commissioned Jeff Knowlton to produce a geolocative work that creatively engages with the city’s history and past inhabitants. The work, titled “On this Spot” uses QR codes for smartphones to access links to audio files of voices from the city’s past. Visitors and locals alike are now able to walk around Morgantown and access this meticulously researched and astutely humorous work. Unfortunately, this piece is not available on the Web. While this is understandable— it is extremely difficult to mediate a sense of place— I hope the attempt is made to capture “the voodoo of location” (as Werner Herzog is famous for seeking) and represent the work to worldwide audiences. Thanks to Jason Farman and Jeff Knowlton, we can have a taste with this photo and audio file.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Media Arts Show is that it has been online for several months before the conference and will hopefully remain available on the Web for a very long time. This site is a great companion to the Electronic Literature Collections because it is a snapshot of the current state of electronic arts and literature and a testament to e-literature’s development and history with its retrospectives.
The first day of the ELO 2012 conference ended with a plenary roundtable titled “The Future of the ELO” composed of young scholars and artists in the ELO community. Two of the many bright statements touch on this Media Arts Show. Amaranth Borsuk said that the ELO needed to become an “arbiter of taste” by selecting and awarding the best works of electronic literature, guiding the e-lit community and the rest of the world. Stephanie Boluk rightly pointed out that they were already doing that, with the Electronic Literature Collections, the MLA 2012 Exhibit and other exhibitions.
I couldn’t agree more. In addition to selecting 43 outstanding works for the Media Arts Show (from a pool of 106 submissions), the curators arranged for a Jury’s Choice Award and five Retrospectives (which add about 48 more works to the show) to honor both outstanding new pieces and the body of work of some of the most talented practitioners of electronic literature, respectively. The Jury’s Choice Award for excellence was awarded to five artists: Caitlin Fisher, Jason Nelson, Jason Edward Lewis, and Greg J. Smith & Erik Loyer. Five artists were honored with a retrospective: Alan Bigelow, J. R. Carpenter, M.D. Coverley, Judy Malloy, and Jason Nelson. The Jury was composed of some of the top scholars and artists in the field (see the Credits page).
The Retrospectives are both important contributions to scholarship and areas for future development. Having read and reviewed all the poetry in the show, I was able to gain a deep appreciation for the artistry of Alan Bigelow, Judy Malloy, J.R. Carpenter, Jason Nelson, and M.D. Coverley. The insight that comes from reading a representative selection of works by a writer composed in a period exceeding 10 years (25 years in the case of Judy Malloy!) is invaluable because you are able to see themes, techniques, and interfaces develop and deepen with use.
I hope both the Jury Awards and the Retrospectives become standard practices in future exhibitions. If so, I recommend a formal process in which jury members are able to evaluate and rate submitted work and recommend writers for future retrospectives (if there isn’t one already). The curation of the retrospectives could be developed further, offering more context about the artist and the works selected, so the resulting page becomes a tool for current and future audiences to better appreciate these writers’ works.
Finally, I wish to applaud the practice of having a Curatorial Statement, and one that is as insightful and honest as Dene Grigar’s, who from the outset addresses a key question:
Undertaking so many shows begs the question, “why curate elit?” (and perhaps so much of it?). One answer that ties into the theme of the ELO 2012 conference is that such access and proximity to artists and their work raise my awareness of the affordances and constraints bound up in the technologies we use to produce our work and, so, makes me a better scholar of electronic literature.
And it shows. The perspective that comes from closely examining a broad spectrum of media arts over time is a prerequisite for an “arbiter of taste” and co-curators Dene Grigar and Sandy Baldwin certainly have it.
The ELO community is in good hands with such curators and ambassadors.