Re:Interview #004:
Electronic Literature — Curating Ambiguity | Scott Rettberg

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1 (2006)

In autumn 2006 the Electronic Literature Organisation released the Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, including selected works in New Media forms such as Hypertext Fiction, Kinetic Poetry, generative and combinatory forms, Network Writing, Codework, 3D, and Narrative Animations. One of the main common characteristics of all Web-based literary products is that they often can be read (or viewed, listened, played with, used) in multifaceted ways. Accordingly, the curation of Electronic Literature is challenged by ambiguity and heterogeneity on different levels. As broadly termed by the Electronic Literature Organisation itself, “Electronic Literature” describes a form of cultural and artistic production on the Internet with important literary aspects that takes advantage of the contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer. Similar to what is not yet consistently defined as Digital Art, Netart,, Internet Art, New Media Art, etc., the production of literary works on the Internet or by other digital means ranges from terms like Computer Literature, New Media Poetry to Codework and Hyperfiction, mixing up genres with subgenres and single descriptions. In this context the methods of classical Literature Studies are frequently transferred to a networked and online surrounding without creating innovative categories.

Florian Cramer, a Germany based literary scholar and co-founder of the curatorial platform “”, outlines in a very general way that the Internet is based upon a code which acts on the logic of the alphabet and therefore is finally based upon text. The Internet, for the author, is literature in its original meaning, a system of letters whose poetic value can only be discovered and appreciated by the reader (1). In addition to this very general point of view, Cramer also describes various levels of production and dissemination of literary texts: on the one hand the Internet can purely work as a medium of distribution for literature, on the other hand it operates as a platform for Collaborative Writing or as a literary database. Not until text needs a software interface, is generated automatically or randomly programmed by rules, it is genuine Computer Literature. Furthermore, he defines Literature on the Web to be understood on various levels: poems, written in programming languages like for example Perl, are readable in three ways. At first as a poem in a natural language, then as a sequence of machine commands and finally — once executed — as a poem in natural language again (2).

The “Electronic Literature Collection Volume One” represents an anthology of sixty works, curated by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland. It was published both on the Web and on CD-ROM, and is licensed under a Creative Commons License with the aim to be freely accessible to individuals and organisations. For the contextualisation and as a didactical element of mediation, each work is accompanied by brief editorial and author’s descriptions. Furthermore, all products are tagged with descriptive keywords ranging from the well known user-interface paradigm Hypertext and technological backgrounds like Flash and HTML/DHTML, up to more historical literature-basics like Memoir, Combinatorial or Parody/Satire.

Some of the works like Study Poetry (2006) by Marko Niemi, a playful word toy that enables the readers to play poker with words instead of cards, were especially created for the collection. Only few of the collected works are dating back to the earlier years of the Internet, like for example my body — a Wunderkammer (1997) by Shelley Jackson. This autobiographical Hypertext concentrates on the relationship between human identity and the body’s constituent organs. It uses the form of HTML hypertext to revitalise the Memoir genre, focusing on two of the most prominent themes in the digital realm: body and identity.

Most of the works in the collection give a broad overview over the past six years of literary production on the Internet. Star Wars, one letter at a time (2005) by Brian Kim Stefans for example is the retelling of a classical story, slowly but steadily introducing each character in the cast to the viewer and thus blurring the reader’s expectations from a text. Frequently Asked Questions about ‘Hypertext’ (2004) by Richard Holeton parodies a form of academic discourse that sometimes takes itself too seriously. It springs from a poem composed of anagrams of the word hypertext and plays with the high seriousness that surrounded much early hypertext criticism. The Oulipoems (2004) by Millie Niss and Martha Deed is a playful series of pieces which combine concepts of Combinatorial Literature, as developed by the “OuLiPo” in France in the 1960ies. By transferring this art historical background to the actual situation in the USA, the authors create a suspense between Electronic Literature and its predecessors in Experimental Literature.

The ELC1 is an eclectic anthology of sixty works, including many different literary forms such as Hypertext Fiction, Kinetic Poetry, Network Writing, Codework and Narrative Animations. What is the main focus of the collection and what was the criterion for the selection of the works: genre, textuality, technology, a historical basis?

I can say that our basic criterion for selecting works was “literary quality”, which probably meant different things to each of the three of us. We also agreed that there would need to be consensus that a work should be included. We were choosing from a limited universe of work. While we did encourage some people to submit, we were working with a pool of submissions. The other criterion was that we would need to be able to present the work on both the Web and on CD-ROM. In composing the collection, we were also thinking about trying to represent multiple modalities of Electronic Writing, and to achieve a balance among several different identifiable types of Electronic Writing, to give the reader a sense of the breadth of the field.

The article Acid-Free Bits. Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature, published in 2004 by the ELO, is a “plea for writers to work proactively in archiving their own creations, and to bear these issues in mind even in the act of composition”. Do you think that preservation is already an integrative part of the creative process and not exclusively the task of the curator?

Yes, I do, to the extent that people creating Electronic Literature can take certain steps, or work in certain ways, such as using valid XHTML if their work is in that format, and documenting their process, and making sure that their files are backed up and distributed to multiple others. On the other hand, some writers and artists have a sort of performance-oriented aesthetics, and don’t particularly care if their work lasts beyond a certain time frame. I do however think that more and more writers of Electronic Literature are conscious of the many preservation issues involved in Digital Media artefacts, and are taking a more active role in seeing to it that their works last. Curators may or may not rescue works of Electronic Literature in the future. I think authors can and should do all that they can to prevent the obsolescence of their work.

Of course, preservation is an important aspect of the ELC1 as a project. At the very least, we know that there will be a couple thousand copies of all of the bits of all of the works on the ELC1 widely distributed and archived. While having many copies of a Digital artefact does not assure that it will remain readable as technologies and platforms change, it does mean that those future archivists will most likely be able to access the files as they exist now.

Each single composition is presented with an additional author’s description. Did you select the works in a networked process with them: did the authors participate in the process of filtering and presenting? Or do all works derive from the ELO’s directory, the descriptive guide to over 2300 Electronic Literature compositions?

The authors chose to submit works, and with each work submitted, we asked them to provide a short description. This was a separate process from that involved in the ELO Directory. The editors then provided an additional editorial description for each work, and we assigned each work a set of appropriate keywords. We hope that this project will in a way serve as a pilot for a new approach to classifying works within the Electronic Literature Directory as well. The field has changed substantially since the directory was launched, and we’d like to see it shift to a somewhat less hierarchical, more emergent system of classification, using keywords or tags, as well. You can read more about the kind of changes we envision for the Directory in Joseph Tabbi’s “Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organisation’s Directory” (3).

One of the principles of the ELO is to promote a non-proprietary setting for Electronic Literature that facilitates cross-referencing, mixing, and institutional networking. The collection is released under a Creative Commons license on the Internet and additionally provided on DVD. Who do you want to read/use the collection and how do you want it to be read/used?

Essentially, we want everyone who might be interested to be exposed to this work. In designing the project and in releasing it under a Creative Commons License, we are encouraging people to share and redistribute it for noncommercial purposes. While I would say that the target audience is very broad – “readers” – we were thinking in particular of how the project might be utilised in classrooms, and perhaps included in library collections. That’s part of the reason why it is released on CD-ROM in a case appropriate for library marking and distribution, in addition to its Web incarnation. Our hope is that people will enjoy experiencing the works individually, and will study them in classrooms around the world, and will also perhaps be inspired to create and share new work of their own.

According to Trebor Scholz, on the Internet “curators become meta-artists. They set up contexts for artists who provide contexts” (4). Which different contexts are necessary for Electronic Literature to be presented in an appropriate way: the original space, a curator’s and/or artist’s statement, the source code or technological background?

That’s tough to answer in a general way, as each work, and each presentation of each work, is different. For instance, there are at least two types of Electronic Literature that are not included in the collection – installations and Network-based Art that integrate real-time data. Many works of Electronic Literature are also presented as a kind of live performance as well – for instance I’ve seen Talan Memmott present “Lexia to Perplexia” using only a chalkboard. So it’s difficult to say what is and what is not appropriate. Most works of Electronic Literature don’t have the same type of life as works of print literature do, in one or a series of fixed editions. Rather, they typically are revised over a longer period of time, and presented in a variety of contexts. Something like the “Electronic Literature Collection” is more of a snapshot of a moment in time in the life of the field and in the lives of the individual works included.

I think the types of documentation you mention above are all important tools for readers. The more context, the more documentation available to the reader, the better. In the case of the “Electronic Literature Collection”, with each work we include a short editorial introduction, a short statement by the author, technical notes, and a descriptive keyword index. While one can imagine more comprehensive critical editions of individual works of Electronic Literature, for an anthology of Electronic Literature, I think that’s a pretty good basic set of context-establishing tools.

Do you think that Electronic Literature can be shown in a classical art institution like a museum, a gallery or even a library? Or is it rather a form of cultural artefact, exclusively produced on and for the Web?

Scott Rettberg: Yes, I do. In fact, I have seen Electronic Literature successfully presented in all of those forums. While the Web is the main venue for the majority of Electronic Literature, I think that it is important to see it exhibited in the kinds of venues in which we have been taught to appreciate other forms of art and literature as well. These works are the products of a dialogue not only with other forms of digital artefacts, but with historical art and literature as well. I think many of the pieces in the collection, for instance, owe clear debts to 20th century movements such as Dada, Surrealism, and post-modernist movements. It makes sense to see them in the same contexts as other kinds of art and literature.

Are you already working on “Electronic Literature Collection Volume Two”? If so: when will it be published and what will be the difference to “Volume One”?

Right now we’re working on getting funding together to produce and distribute “Volume Two”. The editorial board will rotate with each iteration of the ELC, so I personally won’t be involved in editing it. We hope to produce the ELC on a biennial basis, so I anticipate that the next one will emerge in 2008. I anticipate the call for works will go out sometime in the second half of 2007, along with the announcement of the second editorial board. I’d encourage people who think the project is worthwhile to join the ELO and make a contribution in support of it.

Which of the sixty works is your favourite one and why?

I’m fond of a great deal of them, and couldn’t pick a favourite. I value different works for different reasons, but haven’t regretted the time I’ve spent with any of them. The collection as a whole is an awesome tool for me as an educator, as it includes several works that I have taught in the past, and has exposed me to many that I will teach in the future. It’s a kind of semester-in-a-box for those of us who teach Electronic Literature.

Thank you for the interview!

(1) Cramer, Florian: Literatur im Internet,, (1999)
(2) Cramer, Florian: sub merge {my $enses; ASCII Art, Rekursion, Lyrik in Programmiersprachen,, (2001)
(3) Tabbi, Joe: Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organisation’s Directory (2007)
(4) Scholz, Trebor: Curating New Media Art (2006)

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