Curating the MLA 2012 'Electronic Literature' Exhibit

Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens

[1] The "Electronic Literature" exhibit that we mounted for the Modern Language Association convention, held in Seattle, WA in January 2012, was a watershed event. While the MLA had long supported electronic literature, beginning with the 1992 panel entitled "Hypertext, Hypermedia: Defining a Fictional Form" (See that featured noted electronic literature theorists and artists Terence Harpold, Michael Joyce, Carolyn Guyer, Judy Malloy, & Stuart Moulthrop, it had never offered an exhibit of works designed for participants to experience first hand at one of its conventions. "Electronic Literature" was the first ever in the MLA's 129-year history.

[2] Needless to say, we took great care with designing and developing the exhibit, selecting for viewing those works that represented a broad cross-section of digital literary writing, both historic and current. In this regard, we divided the exhibit by medium––Works on Desktop, Mobile and Geolocative, and Readings and Performances––and each of us took responsibility for organizing one of these areas and developing the conceptual framework for evaluating works. We designed the venue space so that the 10 computer stations showcasing the "Works on Desktop" offered ample room for moving about and sported matching monitors and black pedestals on which to set the computers. These pedestals were at a height that allowed comfortable accessibility for visitors standing at them to read the works on the computer monitors. We produced signage that communicated the structure of the exhibit and broadcast the "Mobile and Geolocative Works" by QR codes. Tablets and iPhones were also made available to visitors who had no access to mobile media. We educated a cadre of undergraduates on the topic of electronic literature, trained them in docenting, and brought them with us to assist visitors to the exhibit with the works and technology. We offered "Readings and Performances" at an offsite venue that provided an atmosphere that befit a literary gathering. We produced a web archive (See for the works that included information about scholarship and resources for further study of electronic literature. In effect, we curated an exhibit of literature. 

[3] What follows is an explanation of the logic underlying this idea of curating the "Electronic Literature" exhibit and a rearticulation of our curatorial statements, viewed now in retrospect. Dene Grigar begins by introducing our underlying views and includes her revised statement for "Works on Desktop." Lori Emerson follows with her statement on "Readings and Performances;" Kathi Inman Berens ends the essay with her statement on "Mobile and Geolocative" works.

Why Curating? A Curatorial Statement about Electronic Literature and Works on Desktop
Dene Grigar

"Beginning where you will, "O, "--Homer

[4] It may seem odd that one would curate literature, for don't we in literature call the practice of organizing works into a coherent focus for reading "anthologizing?" But since electronic literature involves, as N. Katherine Hayles points out, "sound, animation, motion, video, kinesthetic involvement, and software functionality, among others" (Writing Machines 20), it sits at the intersection of literature, art and design, and digital technology. That the medium for showcasing it is not a book or a special issue of a print journal, but a computing device that makes it accessible in a live context means that those of us who work to bring electronic literature together for others to study and enjoy have to shift the way we think about this kind of "text." Turning to practices found in the arts makes sense but, as I argue later, only takes us part of the way. Curating literature––that is, what we do when we bring together literature for a live (synchronous) hands-on exhibit in a public space; anthologizing literature––that is, what we do when we bring it together for a print or online (asynchronous) experience that involves a personal viewing venue.

[5] Curating electronic literature is not the same as curating media art because the act of viewing electronic literature involves the act of reading. As Hayles points out in Electronic Literature, though electronic literature moves beyond the printed page and many of the assumptions we bring to print literature and, so, differs from traditional "verbal art," it possesses a "literary" quality that "interrogate[s] the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper" (Hayles, EL, 4). Some works in the "Electronic Literature" exhibit contain no words at all while others are highly verbal. For example, Ian Bogost's "A Slow Year," found on Station 8 "Literary Games" of the exhibit, is a series of four games created for the Atari Video Computer System. The games, each representing a season of the year, consist only of images but are conceptualized around the notion of haiku and the contemplation, or what Bogost calls "sedate observation and methodical input" (ix), from which this form of poetry generates. The title itself exists both as a wry commentary on the work (it takes a long time to play) and a dare (to those who foolishly want to play quickly) to slow down and read this game. Others like John Kusch's "Red Lily," found on Station 6 "Multimodal Poetry," obvious to any reader, is a lyric poem not unlike any found in print. Interestingly, it goes beyond the print medium (and takes advantage of the affordance of the electronic) by alluding to the form's ancient origins through its keen musical structure and sonic elements. As a work of print remediating the oral medium via the electronic, "Red Lily" forces us to listen as we read.

[6] Yet curating an exhibit of electronic literature work is still an "authorial" act and is invested in, as Barnaby Drabble suggests, "the development of critical meaning in partnership and discussion with artists and publics" (qtd. in Graham and Cook 10). It differs, however, from the authorialness of curating media art because critical meaning for electronic literature may involve a relationship, close or in passing, with literariness––its artists, informed by the same. And an assumption underlying literariness is an engagement through reading. This means when exhibiting it, we must consider the public's expectations and assumptions about kinds of engagement when someone enters a space that purports to present literature of any kind, be it print or electronic. In this regard, when devising the exhibit, we knew we would need to create an atmosphere conducive for reading and discussing works with others. As mentioned, the computers were set on pedestals that allowed for comfort and ease of access. We laid out the computer stations in a way that provided ample space for mingling with others. We provided headphones for each station so that the sound emanating from some of the works would not interfere with other works. In effect, we conceptualized the exhibit of electronic literature around the notion of curare, as caring about the work both in its material presentation and its intellectual contribution to human understanding. As curators of electronic literature, we provided a conceptual framework that made it possible for visitors to the exhibit to interpret and understand the work, to see beyond the work itself to a larger concept of the literary and meaning.

[7] One excellent example of how this approach found success generating new interpretations and, so, reading strategies, could be seen in Computer Station #3, "The Eastgate School," where we offered five different works produced with Eastgate Systems' Storyspace program, created from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. I had brought from my "Elit Lab" (See: a Mac Classic (circa 1989) and early iMac ("Bondi Blue," circa 1996). We set these two computers side by side at the station. On each we loaded versions of Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story appropriate for the computer and the year it was introduced on the market. On the Classic visitors accessed an original copy of the Storyspace hypertext on diskette; on the iMac, the CD version. Interestingly, studying the two versions side by side, we can easily see that Storyspace as a program is more obvious on the Classic than on the iMac since the CD masks much of the quality associated with the program. What emerges, therefore, is the idea that the computer and its affordances exerts a stronger influence upon our experience with this particular work than the software itself, and Joyce's "novel" can provide a different experience based on the computer platform utilized for presenting it. This realization, which I had when forming the exhibit in my lab, led me to rethink the term normally associated with this early form of electronic literature suggested by Hayles and others (EL, 6)––that is, "Storyspace School"––and, instead, in developing the exhibit, I referred to it instead as the "Eastgate School," paying homage to the publisher who pioneered this literary art form.

Why an Exhibit? Or New Text Technologies & The Literary Works

[8] As mentioned, electronic literature shares with its analog counterpart many of the characteristics of traditional literature. Works in this exhibit were selected for their sophisticated use of language (Stephanie Strickland's "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot" and Ingrid Ankerson and Megan Sapnar's "Cruising" epitomize such craft) and for their choice of subject matter common to the human experience, such as loneliness and sadness (in Thom Swiss' "Shy Boy") or the destructive power of nature (in David Theo Goldberg and Stefka Hristova's "Blue Velvet"). Like traditional literature, electronic literature compels us to think deeply about human behavior, with the addition of more layers of interpretive possibility occasioned by the code running beneath the work's interface. Like Henry Jenkins, we also believe that video games have the potential to be literary and can be "a serious art form in its own right." In this regard, Ian Bogost's "A Slow Year" (mentioned earlier) as well as Nick Montfort's "Ad Verbum," and Reiner Strasser, Dan Waber, and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher's ">>oh<<" included in this exhibit, all demonstrate this promise. What makes the works in this exhibit—and, so, electronic literary work, in general—a potent agent for enlarging reading habits, especially of young people, is that they make use of the affordances of the electronic medium for which they are uniquely built and that young readers have come to expect in their everyday experiences.

[9] In 1992, for example, when Stuart Moulthrop published his novel, Victory Garden, web browsers did not exist, but proprietary authoring programs that offered the ability to make information hypertextual and available to large audiences through mass production did. Thus, Moulthrop's story took full advantage of the affordance possible at the time and was—and still is—accessible through its publisher, Eastgate Systems. John Kusch's "Red Lily," published in 1999 just a few years following the introduction of the web browser and the availability of Flash software, meant that it could take advantage of sound and movement and make itself available for free to a wide readership due to these technological developments. Works published today can be built for mobile devices and, so, take advantage of touch technology, like Aya Karpinska's "Shadows Never Sleep," and participatory practices of Web 2.0. In each of these cases the text technologies that undergird the work align with practices of the developing media and with the interests of a public that interacts with that media.

[10] As internet media have grown to overtake other forms of mass media, so have the expectations of the public for the affordances with which they have become comfortable. With this in mind, it should not be surprising to learn that, according to Association of American Publishers (See, the sales of e-book readers have tripled in 2011 while those of paperbacks have "dipped." Also telling is that, according to CTIA, a wireless communications industry group, in 2011 Americans owned over 5 billion mobile phones and downloaded over 15 billion mobile apps. While an e-book is not an example of Electronic Literature because its literature is not born digital, its popularity does suggest that the reading public is primed to read literary works on computing devices. Certainly, those works that utilize the GPS technology found on mobile devices tie the reading experience to a particular site and build immediacy into the work and have the potential to tap into the expanding readership of mobile phone users. The bottom line is that the sensory modalities we use to make sense of texts have been expanded by internet technologies, and literary works that meet these expectations may be able to build interest in literary forms that have lost popularity with the general public.

[11] Electronic Literature is generically diverse; some of the works found in this exhibit include a video that requires the reader to interact with a character in order to move the plot along; a documentary of an event told as a mosaic of 3214 images; a graphic novel that unfolds in real time; a poem revealed through a play with voices, sounds, and images— experiments with the written and spoken word that constitute the spirit of innovation underlying works of electronic literature.

Contextualizing Works on Desktop

[12] The 160 works included in this area of the exhibit were organized into groups, such as "The Eastgate School" or "Multimodal Poetry," as a way of contextualizing them for a wide audience of scholars both new to this kind of literary art as well as those familiar with it. I purposely avoided a more traditional organizational strategy of categorizing by the genres normally associated with electronic literature (e.g. hypertext fiction, interactive fiction) since these terms can vary from author to author and may confuse those new to digital technology (e.g. flash fiction, not as micro-fiction, but a story created with Adobe Flash software). In all but a couple of cases, the works exhibited were juried/peer-reviewed and 1) published by well-respected publishing houses, journals, and collections; 2) exhibited at gallery and/or media art shows; or 3) recognized in competitions.

[13] Visitors entering the exhibit first encountered Computer Stations 1 & 2, which contained the Electronic Literature Collection ELC 1 and ELC 2, respectively. These are large-scale collections, as the name suggests, made available by the Electronic Literature Organization for access via the web and compact disk. Volume 1, published in 2006 and edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, includes 60 works by 58 artists. Volume 2, published five years later in 2011, was edited by Laura Borras, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans. It consists of 61 works by 74 artists. I situated them early in the exhibit because their range and depth provide a good starting point for gaining an understanding of electronic literature.

[14] As mentioned previously, Computer Station 3: "The Eastgate School" offered some of the earliest examples of electronic literature produced in the U.S. (circa 1987-1995), including Joyce's afternoon: a story, Deena Larsen's Marble Springs, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope, and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl. As I said earlier, I utilized a Mac Classic and Bondi Blue iMac at this station instead of the more contemporary Mac Minis used for the others. While highlighting the differences between platforms provided one reason, another was because I had to: Malloy's piece had not yet been updated for presentation on later models and only showed on my Classic. In fact, I could not get all five works to function on one computer because each had its own OS requirements or presentation format (diskette or CD). Such distinctions provide insights into the way in which the medium affects the message––and the art that expresses it.

[15] Computer Station 4: "Experiments with Form" offered five works that played with the way interface design, coding, software capabilities, and medium provide a new means of expression and impact perception and understanding. Here was found Jim Andrews' "philosophical poetry toy" "Enigma n;" David Jhave Johnston's "wrinkled squirming typographic poems" "Softies;" Will Luers' video "The Walking Man;" mez and Shane Hinton's collaborative fiction ":terror(aw)ed patches:_;" and Ana Maria Uribe's "Typoems" and "Anipoems." Looking at Uribe's two collections side by side offered the visitor a fascinating study of the way artists take advantage of the affordances of digital media to experiment with form. In "Typoems" (1968-9,) Uribe uses the computer medium to produce 10 works of concrete poetry. We see parentheses, for example, arranged to evoke a waterfall; the words "Guggenheim Museum" swirling in a circle just like the museum's own physical construction; the letter "i" arranged as bowling pins with a lone "o" hinting at the ball about to roll towards them, the movement of "Bowling" hanging in time as the kiss of Keat's urn. In 1997 Uribe makes good on this promise of motion in "Anipoems" (re: animated poems) afforded by the new technologies of production of the electronic medium. From a pipe blowing effervescent "Bs" in "Bubbles," to letters I, P, and R dancing in a macabre "Pas de deux," these 30 poems both charm the reader with their wit and remind us of art's power to innovate.

[16] Computer Stations 5: "Multimodal Narratives" and 6: "Multimodal Poetry" included six works of fiction and five of poetry, respectively, that employ visual, sonic, tactile, kinetic, and kinesthetic elements as major components of literary expression. While writers of print-based poetry envision visual elements such as line-length and in the case of concrete poetry, shape, for their work, electronic literature artists are often interested in utilizing multiple sensory modalities and, so, conceptualize their work to include these in a coherent and effective way. In this regard, Andy Campbell's "The Flat" utilizes movement so that the users feels as if he or she is walking up stairs and into rooms and experiencing, first-hand, the story, while ambient sounds and silence grow more ominous as the story unfolds. Another narrative, Jonathan Harris et al's "Whale Hunt," recounts a whaling adventure eloquently using 3214 images composed in an artfully designed interface. "First Screening" by Canadian writer bpNichol originated as 12 kinetic poems created with Apple's programming language (BASIC) and an Apple Ile computer. As technology changed, so did this work. All four versions were made available from the project website for visitors to the exhibit to experience. Viewing them all provides insights into the notion of media translation and emphasizes the relationship between art and technology.

[17] Computer Station 7: "Vectors Projects" highlighted two works sponsored by Vectors, a program and journal hosted at the University of Southern California. The two works included here, David Theo Goldberg & Stefka Hristova's "Blue Velvet," a story about Hurricane Katrina, and Lisa Lynch & Elena Razlogova's "Guantanamobile," a documentary comprised of interviews concerning the prisoners held at Guantanamo, encapsulate the overarching mission of Vectors––to provide support for projects that "need, for whatever reason, to exist in multimedia" and to "explore the immersive and experiential dimensions of emerging scholarly vernaculars across media platforms" ("Vectors Introduction"). The attention to visual design and socially aware subject matter found in these works emerge as hallmarks of Vector projects.

[18] Computer Station 8: "Literary Games" included three works that involves the user in gameful interaction and represent different modes of presentation and forms of engagement. Ian Bogost's "A Slow Year: Game Poems," mentioned previously, and Nick Montfort's "Ad Verbum," an example of interactive fiction involving wordplay primarily played with interpreters Zoom or Frotz. Reiner Strasser, Dan Waber, and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher's ">>oh<<" is a web-based poem that unfolds whimsically through sound, image, animation, and the actions of the user.

[19] Computer Station 9: "Future Writers" offered nine works produced by undergraduates from across the U.S. Students from Brown University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Maryland––College Park, University of Colorado––Boulder, the University of California San Diego, and Washington State University Vancouver presented mutimodal narratives, poetry, documentation of performances, and other types of electronic literature. What they shared were an innovative vision of storytelling and poetics and the promise of continued growth for the literary arts by the next generation of writers and artists.

[20] Computer Station 10: "Invisible Seattle" celebrated the 25th anniversary of the project Invisible Seattle: The Novel of Seattle, by Seattle, also known as the Invisible Seattle Literary Computer project. The artists comprising this collective included Jean Sherrard, Larry Stone, Rob Wittig, James Winchell, and Philip Wohlstetter. This landmark work is just one project of Invisible Seattle, an electronic literature collective that wrote electronic literature together on line for a full, fun decade before the growth of the World Wide Web. The project began in August of 1983 when the Invisibles dressed as "literary workers" in white coveralls and hard hats (marked with a question mark) began work on the city's "own great civic novel." At a public venue, the novel was "publicly compiled" using the "cyberno- ziggurat" Scheherezade II: "first of a new generation of literary computers." Seattle's mayor threw out the ceremonial first word. This event led to a "database novel," where the Invisibles "remixed various versions" of the work. One was eventually published in book form. Following that success, the group founded "the electronic system IN.S.OMNIA (Invisible Seattle's Omnia)." IN.S.OMNIA was to be, as they wrote at the time: "Part literary database, part online literary magazine, and part free-form writing laboratory or 'public diary,' " As they report, "successes of the 1983-1993 run included collaborations with members of the French literary group Oulipo, Fulbright work with Jacques Derrida, and numerous innovative projects that inspired electronic literature of the '90s and '00s (email, 12/122/11). Included with the documentation slide show of images from the group's history were various volumes of the books published in conjunction with the project.

[21] Some years ago, I wrote about what new media offered the field of rhetoric, pointing out that it opens up "vistas beyond the print artifact and beyond the orator's podium" ("What New Media Offers," Computers & Composition 24 (2007) 214-217). It had occurred to me then, and it certainly has become a truth I hold dear now, that the "computer is not a prostheses" nor is it a tool that helps artists do what they do, but rather it "is the medium in which they work, and the texts the [computer] and [artists] produce together, the offspring of that union." As I say this, I am reminded of my mother, a painter of landscapes and portraits, who spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time discerning which brush to use for a stroke or mixing the right shade of blue for a sky, for these technologies were vital for the production of her work. When asked what her medium was, she would answer without hesitation, "oil." What the Works on Computer section of the "Electronic Literature" exhibit lays bare is a shift in consciousness about what "the literary" can entail, and I see that what I said about the value of digital media to rhetoric back in 2007, which in internet time seems so long ago, applies also to literature in 2012.

Performing E-Literature |E-literature Performing
Lori Emerson

"This is about some of what "- John Cayley

[22] If electronic literature is emergent, generative, interactive, kinetic, tactile; if the textual elements of electronic literature are only one part of, a digital version of, a verbi-voco-visual complex, then what constitutes an e-literature "reading"? Authors Jim Andrews, Ian Bogost, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Wittig "read," or perhaps more appropriately they performed, their works on Friday January 6th 2012 as part of the Electronic Literature Exhibit at the MLA annual convention.

[23] 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 - but into the live performance. However, regardless of what we learn from the archived video of the event (we have made the reading available in a three part video), such an exploration of reading/performing e-literature 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. For example, there is no way to know once-and-for-all how to read Nick Montfort's 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" 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.

[24] Our reading also highlighted those works that 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. For example, 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 must also enact a thinking through of the poetry reading that normally features a single author, reading predictable and supposedly original text. Thus, not surprisingly, during their performance Costello declared, "a reading experience online is never pre-recorded."

[25] Our reading also featured 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? Before the performance, we had speculated that perhaps Bogost would stand-in as us, as readers/viewers, performing our own interpretative acts to ourselves as we try to make sense of such a work. In fact, Bogost ended up emphasizing the distributed nature of authorship and the disintegration of genre in the digital as he read aloud the computer-generated poems accompanying "A Slow Year" (calling them "playable" poems that embody the traditions of videogames and poetry separately and together) while Nick Montfort attempted to play through the different game seasons. And of course it's worth pointing out that Bogost revealed only one possible answer to the foregoing questions during his January 6th reading, a reading which overall only suggested momentary, emergent, even fleeting "solutions" to the productive problems of reading or performing electronic literature.

[26] While I have only touched on three particularly intriguing instances from the reading/performance that demonstrate the limits and possibilities inherent to calling electronic literature "literature" and the performing of it a "reading," in many ways we can understand the shift from the reading/performing of the bookbound to the reading/performing of the digital through John Cayley's introductory remarks when he asserted that "This is about some of what we're doing, rather than being what we're doing." Neither the tools, the processes for creating e-literature, nor the presentation of the final product are static - they are constantly in process, for the reader as much as for the writer/author/performer.

Mobile and Geolocative E-Lit: Private and Public Literatures
Kathi Inman Berens

"The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it" --Baudrillard

[27] Thirty years ago, when Baudrillard declared the map a "precession of simulacra" (1), he glimpsed the way media would proliferate as local and mobile, a superabundance of "information devour[ing] its own content" (80). Locative and mobile, works of e-lit stand as tiny bulwarks of meaning, or meanings, among the several billion stories, images, songs, and links we drop monthly onto networks of SMS and microblogs. Mobile and locative e-lit earns the capacity to mean by being alive to the arbitrariness of their parameters. The defamiliarization, the cognitive dissonance, of encountering L.A. Flood outside on a cloudless SoCal day is one example of how locative literature might disclose strategic arbitrariness to its readers.

[28] The human holding her mobile device stands at a ninety-degree angle to the surface of the earth, her GPS receiver deriving location so long as there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. She is, in Edward Casey's word, "implaced": a body rooted in a particular spot calculated through geometry and represented in metadata. Except that the geometry interpolates several conflicting reference datums, which renders the metadata unreliable: "Different reference datums can produce large variation in 'exact' location," note the authors of the Wikipedia entry on Latitude. "The Eiffel Tower is computed at geodetic latitude of 48° 51′ 29″ N, or 48.8583° N and longitude of 2° 17′ 40″ E or 2.2944°E. The same coordinates on the datum ED50 define a point on the ground which is 140 m distant from Tower." Change the reference datum, and even exact geospatial coordinates produce different results. This is both a fact and a metaphor of locative storytelling.

[29] In this, the first exhibit of electronic literature at the Modern Languages Association's annual Convention, the exhibit hall was another of e-lit's multivalent interfaces: a meeting point between the physical and the virtual, though mobile computing permits those spaces to be no longer discrete from each other. Room WSCC 609 was the exhibit's physical location, but the social interactivity between the exhibit's physical and virtual visitors--some of whom were scattered a few hundred feet from the exhibit floor-- created excitement for e-lit at MLA. "The idea of the interface cannot be reduced to its medium or content," notes Jason Farman in Mobile Interface Theory. "It is both and neither...a set of relations that serve as the nexus of the embodied production of social space" (62). "In all serious[ness]," tweeted Ben Robertson from the exhibit floor, "I feel like I'm watching something important, which I almost never get from panels or regular poetry readings[.] #MLA12 #elit[.]"

[30] Part of the exhibit's "something important" has to do with encountering e-lit away from the distractions of our own computers: the beeps and pop-ups that might yank us out of deep reading or play. But the other "something important" is serendipitous meeting between people. Bahktin's word for this was "eventness": the contingencies bubbling up from the babble of polyvocality. Serendipity is awfully hard to find via directed search: we prize results customized to our specifications in deciseconds. We lament the closure of bookstores, our "third spaces," each aisle a micro-community of ideas and the people drawn to them, but we are unable or unwilling to pay for the bookstore's true value as a social nexus. So long as bookstores remain, in our cultural imagination, purveyors of commodities and not experiences they will lose to online distribution and with them will die the eventness that made bookstores so remarkable. An exhibit of electronic literature might fulfill a similar sort of social function, providing "eventness" to people that exceeds mere questions of access: almost all of the e-lit featured in our exhibit is perpetually and freely accessible via the Web.

[31] 503 visitors stopped by the MLA exhibit in WSCC 609; but just as some people came in via Twitter, our embodied visitors wafted from the exhibit into nine Toronto neighborhoods (among many others) featured in [murmur], and the environs of South Central Los Angeles in L.A. Flood, and post-Katrina New Orleans in the desktop-viewable "Blue Velvet," and the geocached mysteries hidden on the University of Maryland College Park campus in Blue Light Project and Glitch -- both exceptional student projects created by Jason Farman's undergraduates. The "space" of the exhibit in WSCC 609 thus became fungible: reified through use.

[32] My initial reason for yoking mobile and locative e-lit in one category was logistical: such works can be accessed on mobile devices and were designed for mobility, either as a means of engagement, a theme, or both. Many of our desktop works could only be engaged on desktop. In practice this meant I advised visitors to access mobile e-lit via iPhone and locative works via iPad because locative works benefit from display on a bigger screen.

[33] But upon consideration, the yoking is fortuitous, because it helps us to see the differences between mobile and geolocative e-lit. The most important of these distinctions is how the reader accesses the story because access influences interactivity. "The medium is the message," observes Ian Bogost, "but the message is the message too. Instead of ignoring it, we ought to explore the relationships between the general properties of a medium and the particular situations in which it is used" ("Media Microecology," in How To Do Things With Videogames, 5). Locative works imply public consumption; mobile implies private. To locate a story on a map is a rhetorical appeal to public discourse, shared meanings, and ever-changeful, PHP-fueled dynamism. Dropped pins designate parameters that constitute fictive and non-fictive communities. Mobile e-lit, by contrast, lives in the privacy of the tiny screen that's never far from one's body: a proprioceptive extension of the body into the virtual world and vice versa. When mobile e-lit changes, it's because the creator tweaks it: fixes bugs, or (more rarely) adds a new element. This is very different from the perpetually evolving locative works. (One thinks of the afterlife of Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg's "Implementation": all those orphaned stickers.)

[34] The physical intimacy of the mobile phone means that mobile e-lit can insinuate itself into one's "offline" life. Standing in line at the grocery store last summer, a push notification from The Carrier, a graphic novel included in this exhibit, nudged me in my pocket. The Carrier remediates serial distribution: the reader waits between installments released to coincide with events transpiring in the novel. When I saw it was a notification from The Carrier, I rolled my shopping cart out of line and leaned against a mini-fridge while I read the latest installment. I haven't experienced a locative work interrupting my day like that.

[35] Even the Twitterfiction that launches a 6-day installment of L.A. Flood -- timed to simulate the course of a catastrophic flood -- permits desultory engagement. L.A. Flood didn't push its way into my daily life, but the rupture it occasioned was no less dramatic. Driving from the Burbank Airport to Hollywood last October, my mind wandering, I crossed the Tujunga Pass over the L.A. River. Earlier that day, I'd been nodding in and out of the L.A. Flood Twitterstream. As I crossed Tujunga, I observed the familiar blue sign with a white pelican denoting the L.A. River. Instantly I peered out the window, panicked, expecting the flood to swallow my car. It was over in two seconds, this reverie, but it has stayed with me, the sharpness of the fear. Falling into such aporia has always been one hallmark of good fiction. But locative fiction anchors the aporia to site specificity, and mobility permits us to encounter its strange doubleness in situ.

[36] One short video--on display in our exhibit--is almost all that remains of the first locative media experience, Jeremy Hight's 34 West, 118 North, a walk through a patch Los Angeles where "sonic ghosts of another era" relay the story of the railroad industry in downtown L.A. Hight, considered by many to be the pioneer of locative storytelling, created a consciousness that is characteristic of locative media experienced in situ: the disjunction between the space and time, the awareness of one's own immediate physical surroundings as evitable and contingent. 

[37] In Kate Armstrong's Ping, participants receive directions culled from a telephone tree about where to go next: "the effects of the environment on the perception, behaviour and mood of individuals" is under study here. Four other projects not included in this exhibit continue in the vein of Armstrong's pioneering work in the psychogeographical: Blast Theory's Rider Spoke, Paul Notzold's Speak to God and Bluebrain's two first-ever location-aware albums Listen to the Light (Oct. 2011; set in Central Park) and The National Mall (April 2011). In each case, in situ experience is elemental to the art. In Teri Raub's Core Sample, featured in this exhibit, a GPS-based interactive sound walk puts the soundscapes of Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art in dialog with the landscape of Spectacle Island and asks: "What is recorded versus what is suppressed and denied?"

[38] Where locative works wander beneath your touch, guiding you to treasures both fictive and (in the case of geocached "Blue Light Project," literal), mobile works are instantly summoned. Jason Farman speculates that touch interface seems "invisible" because our muscle memory bypasses consciousness of how we access the story: we notice interface only when it doesn't work. But touch is more than a navigational gesture; it becomes a vernacular--a touch vernacular, I argue--when tactile navigation becomes expressive: not just a means of accessing the story but interactively constituting it.

[39] Erik Loyer's Strange Rain on the Apple iOS yields an experience that demonstrates the narrative complexity that can arise when touch is treated as a narrative element capable of nuance, mood and layering much the way we think of sound. Both Strange Rain and the previous year's Ruben and Lullaby are featured in the mobile works exhibit. Synesthetic, narratively rich because multi-sensory and choreographed both to frame text and stand alone, Strange Rain is the best example I've found yet of the multimodal sense/text recursive loop that augments narrative possibility beyond the familiar dyad of sight/sound. Unlike Loyer's gorgeous but less compelling Ruben and Lullaby, which eschews text for drawn, interactive facial expressions to propel the arguing lovers' narrative, Strange Rain is as much a puzzle as it is a sensory experience. Loyer calls his works "stories you can play," and indeed, the tension between the narrative and ludic elements pull the reader/gamer in opposite directions. Games urge us to move quickly, to "level up." Narrative enjoins us to slow down and feel. Strange Rain approximates synesthesia when the reader/gamer oscillates quickly between those two modes of interaction. It's a splendid disorientation.

[40] Jörg Piringer's abcedfghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz is a canny app that features crisp sound recordings of each letter. Activated by touch, these letter-sounds bounce, fly, drop and putter around the screen in any combination a gamer can create through touch. Endlessly imaginative, this game has no narrative element; but the play is so inspired it causes us to hear--for the first time in how long?--the sonic building blocks of language. Piringer's defamiliarization creates a surprising range of euphony and cacophony. He is a member of Vienna's legendary Vegetable Orchestra.

[41] Silent and stark in black-and-white silhouettes, Aya Karpinska's Shadows Never Sleep withholds the sonic and tactile gratifications of works by Piringer and Loyer. Karpinska's play with children's nursery rhymes and bedtime stories casts the scary "shadows" as text itself, to which the reader has to "zoom" with her fingers in order to gain access. These beautiful text panes are the creatures under your bed. In P.o.E.M.M.'s "What They Speak," the reader glides her finger atop the mobile screen and lines of poetry spring up and trail behind, sometimes right side up and sometimes backwards. The app features poems by luminaries David Jhave Johnston, Jim Andrews, J. R. Carpenter, Aya Karpinska, and platform co-creator Jason Lewis.

[42] "Pursue error & failure, exploit autocorrect, disturb the placid surface of interface that deceives us into believing in unshakable humanness," exhorts co-curator Lori Emerson, guest-tweeting on Mark Amerika's @remixthebook. Amerika, an e-lit author since the early days of hypertext, shot the first feature-length film on a mobile phone: Immobilité is on view in our mobile exhibit. From Amerika's '90s hypertext, to his current film, to the next generation of mobile and locative fictions authored by undergraduate e-lit artists and featured in this exhibit: the history of innovation writes and rewrites itself on a palimpsest you can swipe.