What happens when the medium on which a work of art was meant to be experienced no longer exists? That’s the question that absorbs Dene Grigar, director and associate professor of the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at WSU Vancouver. In her Electronic Literature Lab in the Multimedia Classroom Building, she keeps 35 vintage computers dating back to 1983. These computers enable anyone to experience literature produced by and for a computing device as the artist intended—even if that particular computing device is no longer around.
“I collect computers to be able to access this work that is now obsolete,” she said. “The problem is, if you use a new computer to access an old program, it will make it look like a new program, and that’s not right. The work is defined not only by its content but also by the context around it.” That includes the computer, the keyboard, the interface, even the quirks of the software itself.
With a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Grigar’s research project, Pathfinders, has documented the work of five pivotal artists of electronic literature. The artists came to Vancouver, and they and other “readers” were videotaped running through and talking about the works on Grigar’s vintage computers. The result, called a Traversal, is a protocol to give early electronic literature its rightful place in cultural history and make it possible for libraries to collect these works. Pathfinders data will ultimately be available as an open source multimedia book.
Grigar argues for collection of digital literature, as opposed to other methods of access, including emulation and migration. The latter two depart from the original look and feel of the work and offer a different user experience.
“We’re discovering a methodology for librarians who want to collect this work without having to buy the computers,” Grigar said. “Just as it is important to have access to the papyrus on which Homer’s Odyssey was written, it’s important to have the original floppy disks of Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger [the first work of electronic literature],” she said.
Grigar sees wider application for Traversals beyond electronic literature, such as videogames. She and co-principal investigator Stuart Moulthrop, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, have applied for another NEH grant for a two-day symposium to help expand Traversals.
Grigar, who exhibits and speaks all over the world, is the president of the Electronic Literature Organization. In early March she and Moulthrop are speaking about Pathfinders at the 2015 International Narrative Conference in Chicago, with a presentation titled “Uncle Buddy and an Argument for Collection.”
The Electronic Literature Lab has one of the world’s largest collections—some 200 works. “My goal is to save as many e-lit works published on floppies as possible, and then go after Flash,” Grigar said. “This is a long-term project. It could go on forever—and I hope it does.”