Ask A Librarian

Downtown Campus Library Hosts Electronic Literature Exhibit

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
June 14th, 2012

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, maybe literature is in the eye of the reader or viewer.

An upcoming exhibit at the Downtown Campus Library will showcase a relatively new literary genre called electronic literature. “Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints,” the 2012 Media Art Show curated by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), will run in conjunction with the ELO conference in Morgantown from June 20-23.

“Electronic literature is as old as the computer,” said Sandy Baldwin, an English professor in the Eberly College of Arts & Sciences and chair of the ELO conference. “As long as there have been computers, there have been people using them to do creative things.”

The ELO refers to electronic literature as born-digital literature. The group’s website defines the genre as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”

Some examples include hypertext fiction and poetry, kinetic poetry presented in Flash or other platforms, computer art installations that ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects, interactive fiction, novels in the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs, and collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work.

Baldwin explained that the first piece of electronic literature probably appeared within a year of the creation of the first computer when people were writing programs that would generate short poems.

“Humans are essentially creative. If the computer offers you something, someone will come up with a way to use it,” Baldwin said.

The exhibit at the Downtown Campus Library will feature works by pioneers Judy Malloy and MD Coverley, as well as new artists.

Display areas will include the foyers on the left and right of the Atrium, and the central stairwell. Graduate students versed on the artists and electronic literature will be on hand to answer questions; organizers and artists expect and hope that there will be many.

“One of the hardest things to do is to describe what these are,” said librarian Kelly Diamond. “I think that’s why they’re so appealing. They’re difficult to pigeon hole because they’re a hybrid of everything.”

Diamond coordinated with Baldwin on the exhibit. She previewed the lineup and became enthralled by one titled “Spine Sonnet” by Jody Zellen. Zellen created the work by scanning the spines of the books in her personal library and writing a computer program that would randomly assemble 14 titles, thereby creating a sonnet. When you click refresh, and the computer “writes” another sonnet.

“It’s hypnotic,” Diamond said. “You sit there and try to impose meaning even though they are random.”

Most of the exhibits are interactive and are constructed to do something. And, as with art, it’s up to the individual to bring his or her own perspective to the experience.

Baldwin believes the exhibit will appeal to a variety of people from his 14-year-old son who would rather play Xbox to the library user poring through old manuscripts in the archives.

“People can expect to be engaged and interested and entertained and all the things we expect from literature, but also to see this new field,” Baldwin said.

Throughout the conference, exhibits will also be on display at the Monongalia Arts Center, the Arts Monongahela Gallery, Colson Hall, and Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheater.

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