Scott Rettberg
Electronic Literature (in Performance):
A Report from the 2008 Electronic Literature in Europe Conference

The Electronic Literature in Europe Seminar was held from September 11-13th at the University of Bergen, Permanenten Museum, and Landmark Café at the Bergen Kunsthall. The conference was intended to gather together leading scholars, writers, and artists working the field of electronic literature for two full-day sessions of paper presentations and discussions at the University of Bergen, two nights of readings, presentations and performances at Permanententen and Landmark Café, and a daylong meeting to plan a European research network for electronic literature. The conference concluded with a keynote speech by the renowned American novelist Robert Coover. I sent out an open call for works and papers in the Spring of 2008, and developed a website for the conference at The response to the call was overwhelming. While I initially planned for a small seminar for about 20 people, we had about 60 submissions. The conference eventually included 46 participants from nations including Norway, Austria, Scotland, France, England, Germany, Finland, Poland, Spain, Catalonia, Ireland, Denmark, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the United States. The conference was an unqualified success, on the levels of scholarship, exhibition and performance, and in terms of establishing a sense of shared community among electronic literature authors, artists, and scholars working in Europe.

The impetus for the meeting came from three conferences I attended during the previous couple of years, the Remediating Literature Conference in Utrecht and the E-Poetry Conference in Paris in 2007, and a followup seminar hosted by Philippe Bootz at Paris 8 in 2008. At those events, we saw a developing network of scholarship and practice in Electronic Literature forming, and at the most recent meeting in Paris, discussions of how a pan-European network of researchers, writers, and artists in electronic literature might work together to further the field within Europe. The meeting in Bergen first and foremost as an opportunity for those writers and scholars to identify shared goals, and to begin to develop strategies to further this particular corner of digital culture where words meet computation, where poetics meet design, where novelists work with programmers, and where the specificities of the networked computer meet with the literary heritage of the past and present.

In putting together the conference, I had a few specific goals in mind. The first was to bring together the critical, theoretical, pedagogical, and infra-structural thinking that might typify an academic conference with the creative writers who are actually producing the works on which the field is based. I think that in electronic literature we are really privileged in that the scholars and creative writers are not divided into two separate communities, but are part of one coevolving community. To this end, I thought it would be important to present both academic papers, and to do so within the framework of a peer review structure, but also to present readings of electronic literature, in environments suited to performance of digital works.

In this piece for Drunken Boat, I include brief descriptions and links to some of the work that was shown at the conference, along with short video documentation of some of the performances. While I'm not discussing the scholarly component of the conference in any detail in this article, I would encourage you to get a sense of some of the current trends in electronic literature scholarship by reading through some of the papers. The majority of the papers are available online, both as abstracts and as full-text downloads. Please keep in mind that the purpose of the conference was not to present completely finished scholarly work but to share and workshop works-in-progress. I anticipate that many of the presented papers I link to here will be (or already have been) revised further and published in scholarly journals.

The selection of works presented at the conference was remarkable for its range, both in terms of technological and formal approaches and in terms of content. There also seemed be a sort of leitmotif of performativity across the pool of works selected—several of the works functioned especially well as interactive live performances, and others engaged the idea that works of electronic literature are what author/theorists including John Cayley and Noah Wardrip-Fruin have described as "textual instruments" (Dichtung-Digital 2005:1), in which the narrative of poetic elements of the text are only activated through the conscious play and experimentation of their interactors.

It's always a losing game to try to explicitly map works of electronic literature onto definitions of literary genres derived from print, but several of the works presented at the conference did reference print literary genres, albeit in media-specific contexts. In Serge Bouchardon's "The 12 Labors of the Internet User," for example, the authors harnessed the Hercules myth to create an interactive parody of the ways that contemporary users of commercial web applications struggle with a variety of network obstacles and interface irritants. Christine Wilks's Fitting the Pattern—or Being a Dressmaker's Daughter: a Memoir in Pieces," while generally straightforward in its prose and form as a short conventional memoir, is innovative in its Flash interface&mdashto get to the short fragments of memoir, the reader needs to operate "digital dressmaking tools" such as scissors and a sewing machine. In using the interface, the reader then becomes physically active in unfolding the story. As Wilks describes it, "these dressmaking tool symbols have multiple functions—they are navigation bar buttons; they are custom cursors; and they are active narrative elements, like animated characters, literally playing their part in the story whilst simultaneously activating the reading/story experience."

Christine Wilks Demonstrating "The Dressmaker's Daughter" at the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference.

Several of the works presented made use of widely available and accessible web applications and "hacked" them in different ways to create narrative experiences. Christoph Benda's German novel Senghor on the Rocks, written and first intended for print, was prepared for online presentation by Flo Lederman and illustrated with animated Google maps. As readers follow the protagonists of a road novel, we follow the characters from an overhead birds-eye view on a Google map on the facing page. This work is one example of the ways that authors are utilizing various locational technologies, ranging from Google maps to RFID and Geotagging, to re-conceptualize the role of place and setting in narrative and poetic works.

The works Renée Turner shared during her reading included She, a piece that juxtaposes seven short stories with contemporary online news stories featuring women in the headlines, ultimately revealing a kind of composite of character of feminine archetypes. In much of her work, Turner is engaging with the material of the network itself, exploring how Web 2.0 applications and social networks are constraining and defining identities. One of the most surprising and engaging pieces Turner shared was her audio piece, Angels, Avatars, and Virtual Ashes. The piece itself is simply an audio file. We hear a computerized voice reading through the YouTube comments to a video tribute made to a teenage girl who was murdered. By recontextualizing this chain of banal offhand commentary, most of it written by people who did not know the murdered girl, the piece reveals the strangeness of this new mode of communication and human interaction. The voices respond to each other, and a series of petty disputes unfolds. The piece is both surprisingly amusing and demonstrative of how bizarre the distinctly contemporary phenomena of death online is, as the central event itself becomes trivialized, subsumed under a mindless stream of online banter.

Renee Turner showing her work at the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference.

Along with other critics, in the past I have written about some of the connections between the avant-garde literary and artistic movements of the twentieth century and the experiments being carried out by literary artists in digital media today. In my essay "Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature" (Fibreculture 11), I track some of the connections between the Dada and recent network-based e-lit. At the Electronic Literature in Europe conference, several of the works shown had clear antecedents in the avant-garde forms of the past. Norwegian poet Ottar Ormstad's work is emblematic of the interplay between inventive forms based in print and those based in pixels. Ormstad showed his work Svevedikt (published by, a playful series of concrete poems reinvented as time-based poetry in Flash. Ormstad, who has been creating concrete and sound poetry since the 1960s, is both a poet and a printer. He runs a letterpress shop in Oslo where he prints chapbooks in short runs. Also referencing concrete poetry was appleinspace by And-Or (Beat Suter, René Bauer, and Johannes Auer). The piece is a reinvention of a classic visual poem by German poet Reinhard Döhl. Where Döhl's poem featured a worm eating through an apple made of the continuously repeated word "apfel," in this online version, the apple is filled not with a words but a worm made of real-time rendering of ideas connected to Döhl's's work pulled out of internet search queries (though unfortunately the online version of this piece no longer seems to work).

Maria Mencia's work pulls from traditions of sound poetry, concrete poetry, and generative art. Her piece Accidental Meaning plays with arbitrary and aleatory connections between words: "As the user explores and experiences the work by connecting the random words appearing in the screen and assembling definitions, the accidental position of words produce new relationships, and in doing so, an ongoing process of meanings, connections and narratives; of shifting from the semantic linguistic meaning to the visual, from the literal, the transparent to the abstract; and simultaneously creating a poetic space of juxtaposed words, layers, and visual textualities." Maria asked my to play with the work for her reading at Landmark, and I was surprised how the completely arbitrary connections generated by my interaction with the piece developed their own logic, even a narrative of a kind. Mencia also showed her Speech Sound Generated visual poems, which are generated based on the user’s interaction with a laptop microphone. For instance, one could scream at the laptop, drum on the microphone, or sing a tune, and generate a different pattern of visual/lettristic response from the programs.

Maria Mencia at the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference.

Just as Mencia’s piece was an interactive visual language work based on the use of an unconventional interface, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Camille Utterback, Clilly Castiglia, and Nathan Wardrip-Fruin's installation Talking Cure is another piece that makes use of an unconventional I/O arrangement. In this case, rather than using the mouse or the keyboard, the display of the piece is based on live video processing (and can also make use of speech recognition). The text of the piece includes three color coded layers—one including text from Joseph Breur's case study of Anna O., from which Breur and Freud's idea of the "talking cure" was derived. The second layer included the words "to torment" repeated over and over again, and the third includes a reworking of the Gorgon Medusa myth—an interpretation of the snake hallucinations Anna O. was said to suffer from. Operating in its visual-processing-only mode, the layers of text shift and are revealed under each other as a result of the reader's movement in the visual field of a webcam. So the image projected on the screen is both text and a representation of the reader in that text. The performance of the textual instrument thus reiterates the thematizing of the other's gaze which is one of the central concerns of the work.

Talking Cure by Noah Wardrip-Fruin.

Elements of Dada, the surreal, and the distinctly postmodern were also on display in Talan Memmott's performance of several of his pieces, including Twittering, "Indeterminate Anti-Pop," and two of his "Nameless Films." Memmott's presentation was delivered in a deadpan comic style, interspersed with non-sequiturs. He started with "Indeterminate Anti-Pop," a kitschy nightmare mash-up (imagine Salvador Dali and Deleuze meeting Hello Kitty in a blender) of over-the-top proportions. While showing the piece, Memmott himself critiqued it in bald terms: "What the hell is this? You call that ART? What were this guy thinking?" He also showed Twittering, a kind of database novel for live performance with shades of Beckett, Dante, and Joyce intertwingled with layers of imagery, delivered via a complex keypad interface of loops controlled by a keyboard. Along with this, he presented two of the short experimental neo-Godardian "Nameless Films" he shot in Paris with poet Sandy Florian. Like many of the artists working today in new media, Memmott's work is not easily pigeonholed into a specific category. His performance was a mix-mash of standup comedy, visual art, conceptual art, interactive language art, and film.

Talan Memmott at the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference.

Memmott's was among the most performative of a group of presentations that merged the aesthetics of live performance with the demonstration of interactive digital artifacts. Judd Morrissey's presentation of The Last Performance [dot org] with Mark Jeffery and Fanny Holmin was certainly among the most unusual and intriguing presentations of a work of e-lit I have seen.

A man wearing a Beatles suit approaches the front of the room, walking in a measured kind of martial dance and followed by a woman in a blue dress. The man carries a mask of a horse's head. As he reaches the front of the room, the walls behind him fill with texts in intersecting arcs. He puts on the mask and begins to move as if he himself has become a horse. As you attempt to read the text, three projected screens across, you realize that the arcing texts seem to be arranged in patterns that have more in common with architecture than they do with the stanzas of a poem. While the horse in the Beatles jacket and the woman in the blue dress continue their time-based performance, the operator in the back of the room scrolls across and down. The pattern of intersecting arcs of texts extends far off the screen in seemingly endless virtual space. Reading the work feels very much like trying to make out the details of an intricately detailed cupola as you stare up and walk around underneath it.

Judd Morrissey, Goat Island, and 145+ additional contributors are producing The Last Performance [dot org], a large-scale collaborative endeavor. The project's developers describe it as "a constraint-based collaborative writing, archiving and text-visualization project responding to the theme of lastness in relation to architectural forms, acts of building, a final performance, and the interruption (that becomes the promise) of community." The project is a kind of hopeful monster, a mutated form of literature that combines elements of dance and performance, information and physical architecture, and Oulipian constraint-driven approaches to writing. The visual presentation of the project is based on the structure and details of the Dzamija, a mosque built on top of an old church in Zagreb, Croatia. Elements of the structure were derived from a dance performance by Goat Island, a Chicago-based performance collective. The organizational principles of the text are largely algorithmic. The individual texts themselves are written in response to a series of odd, seemingly arbitrary constraints such as "Construct a last performance in the form of a heavy foot that weighs 2 tons and remains in good condition." The texts that form the material basis of the project are contributed both by the authors who have been working most closely on the project for two years and by readers who stumble across it on the Web and decide to contribute a text by responding to a constraint or to one of the other texts.

The Last Performance [dot org]: Judd Morrissey, Mark Jeffery, and Fanny Holmin.

Like many works of electronic literature, The Last Performance [dot org] is many things at once, and can be read in many different ways. By this I mean not only that the reader can apply different interpretative strategies to the text, as one could with any work of literature, but that the work offers the reader a wide variety of physical configurations of its constituent parts. While each of the short texts in the work can be read individually on its individual page, the work also includes a presentation of the entire database called "minaret" which offers us a visualization of the entire text on the basis of word frequency. The constraints form a kind of thematic infrastructure for the work, and because they are presented and linked together, we begin to see connections between the fragments, whether or not they actually exist. A sort of double-reading takes place in that while the individual fragments of text retain their individual identity, the reader is also compelled to regard them as part of a larger whole in one sense, as pure data in another. To further complicate matters, the work can be encountered in a number of different contexts: as it was performed live, as in the example above, as encountered on the individual computer screen, or as an art installation, as it was recently exhibited at the Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

While some modes of reading electronic literature are solitary—as in the student reading a digital poem at home or the worker sneaking a few scenes from The Unknown into the late hours of his workday, others modes such as interactive live readings or museum installations lend themselves to collective reading. One interesting subset of electronic literature are works published online that are designed to be read by multiple readers together. Ian Hatcher's works Signal to Noise and Opening Sources are two such examples. In "Signal to Noise," as each reader selects links and chooses actions for the protagonist of the story, she sees traces of the choices that other readers are making simultaneously. For the performance of "Opening Sources," Hatcher asks his audiences to bring their laptops with them to the wireless-equipped venue. In this piece, readers read collectively, but rewrite words and phrases of the text individually. What was surprising about seeing this work performed in Bergen was not that this mode of collective over-writing was entertaining or engaging, but that a dozen or so writers operating independently on the same screen were able to construct a shifting narrative that changed drastically over the course of fifteen minutes, and that the narrative somehow managed to remain coherent throughout the experience. Hatcher was recently chosen as the electronic writing fellow in the Brown University MFA in creating writing program, so we can expect more innovative writing from him over the next several years.

Ian Hatcher at the Electronic Literature in Europe Conference.

Though I haven't focused on the scholarship presented at the conference, I would like to share one final video here, Robert Coover's keynote address, "A History of the Future of Narrative," which was the concluding event of the conference. Coover is of course a renowned American novelist, playwright, and critic, and is one of America's most innovative living writers. In addition to playing a leading role in the postmodern fiction movement, Coover has been influential in developing and promoting the field of electronic writing since the early 1990s, and has taught electronic writing workshops at Brown University since that time, including the recent CaveWriting workshops, wherein students create literature for an immersive 3-D environment. Coover's talk is a short version of a chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel. Coover's chapter will be the last in the volume. The editors at Cambridge University Press have graciously granted Coover permissions to allow the recording to circulate freely on the internet on a free, open-access basis.

A History of the Future of Narrative: Robert Coover.

On the last day of the conference, we devised plans to continue the work of the network of European electronic literature writers and scholars established by the conference. In the months since, we have established a consortium of European university programs where electronic literature and electronic writing are taught, and have submitted major grant proposals under the EU 7th Framework and HERA programs. If either of these proposals comes through, we expect there to be a great deal of new activity in the field of electronic literature in Europe. In any case, the work of digital writers and electronic literature scholars will continue. I look forward to the 2009 E-Poetry Festival, taking place this spring in Barcelona, and to participating in the continuing international development and growth of this innovative field of writing in the years to come.