“What Is Electronic Literature?” : ELO at The Kitchen

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Amaranth Borsuk (center) shows her augmented reality work, Between Page and Screen, to an audience member.

What is electronic literature, you ask?

Answers can be hard to come by, if not impossible. In e-lit artist Nick Montfort’s words,  “a fluent answer means you’re lying.”

Whatever its definition may be, the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) presented a sampling of electronic works at The Kitchen earlier this month; the lineup was particularly diverse. The works ranged from randomly generated digital poems, to augmented reality pieces (AR) that told stories with shown objects, to fan metafiction about the pop band One Direction.

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A Commodore 64 program by Nick Montfort, which uses the computer’s limited color palette to alternatively obscure and reveal parts of the text.

Regardless of the differences, all of the shown works explore the artistic limits of both language and computation and the various intersections between them. According to curator Illya Szilak, the one unifying element is  “a relationship to spoken, written, or computer language.”

Nick Montfort’s computational poems merge human and computer language. Some of his pieces, like those written for the vintage Commodore 64, use a single line of code to generate an endless amount of human-readable text. Others, like the web-based Taroko Gorge, are written to be easily hackable and customizable; he encourages readers make their own versions of the piece.

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In her AR piece, Caitlin Fisher creates a vortex of virtual objects by scanning physical ones.

Two artists in the lineup utilized augmented reality technology as a core part of their works.

Amaranth Borsuk’s book Between Page and Screen exists in a limbo between print media and the digital screen: A printed version of her book contains blocks of code that, when read by a webcam app, animate the book’s dynamic text onscreen.

Caitlin Fisher’s works use pictures and objects to trigger narrated stories via an AR app. By showing the camera certain personal mementos, images and stories emerge in the digital world from physical objects.

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Flourish Klink presented the theoretical underpinnings of her metanarrative fanfic project, along with several excerpts of her work.

But not all works that qualify as “electronic literature” are overtly computational: Flourish Klink’s One Direction fanfic Just for the Cameras was created on a computer, but not by a computer. Its stories, nested within stories about the writing of other fanfic works, result in a kind of intertextual abyss in which any sense of an “original” or “real” story is lost

Ian Hatcher creates a loop between the computer and the human by verbally performing his poems with in the flat tone  of a text-to-speech program. He reads at lightning speeds, slapping his hand over his mouth and stopping when prompted by the program displaying the text.

And while Hatcher’s human voice emulated the monotone of a computer, Amazon’s Alexa took on a surprisingly human quality in John Cayley’s performance, in which he ran customized code that turned Alexa into his conversation partner and co-performer.

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Poet-programmer Ian Hatcher, in the midst of a speed-reading frenzy.

To some, allowing computers to “author” or collaborate on works of literature or poetry — those most humanistic of the arts — may seem like sacrilege. After all, what happens to the soul of the work when its creator consists of circuits?

Such questions, like many of those asked about electronic literature, have no simple or easy answers. Nevertheless, the artists presenting work under the banner of ELO seem accustomed to such paradoxical situations as they combine digital platforms – and human emotions – in diverse and surprising ways.

All photos courtesy of The Kitchen.

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Roman Kalinovski

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