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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Introduction: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Scott Rettberg (University of Bergen)

ELO 2015 Conference Chair


After more than two years of planning and preparations, we are pleased welcome you to Bergen for the Electronic Literature Organization's 2015 Conference and Festival, the End(s) of Electronic Literature. On behalf of the Research Program Chair, Jill Walker Rettberg, and the Arts Program Chair, Roderick Coover, the department of Linguistic, Literary, and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Bergen, the members of both committees who contributed to the development of this program, and the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization: Velkommen til Bergen!

Last year at the conference in Milwaukee, the Electronic Literature Organization celebrated the milestone of its fifteenth anniversary as a nonprofit organization which has become central to research and practice in the field of electronic literature. The organization has come a long way since our humble beginnings sixteen years ago. What was once a somewhat marginal field of experimental literature and digital writing is now a respected and growing field of research and practice. Every year now dozens of new works are published on the Web, as installations in art museums, as apps and locative narratives, as performances and readings and screenings, in an incredibly diverse array of styles, platforms, languages, and cultures. Works of digital literature can be read in publications such as the Electronic Literature Collections, accessed via databases such as the Electronic Literature Directory, the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base, the NT2 database, and others, all of which are now affiliating and sharing information and best practices via the Consortium for Electronic Literature. Electronic literature has also grown as a vibrant research field. New monographs about electronic literature are published each year by important international presses, and new research about electronic literature, digital textuality, and related digital arts practices is published in peer-review journals, and the number of conferences and colloquia focused on e-lit has continued to increase.

The internationalization of our field has also been remarkable. I moved to Norway about nine years ago and at that time I took note of the fact that while there was clearly a lively scene in electronic literature in Europe, it was remarkable how little communication there was between individual communities of practice in Europe and in North America. One of the goals of the 2010-2013 ELMCIP project was to create more opportunities for a trans-European community to develop in electronic literature, and to bring international research communities into closer contact with each other. With the ELO 2013 "Chercher le texte" conference in Paris, we saw the first congress of the ELO in Europe, in splendid settings such as the Centre Pompidou, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and ENSAD. We are very proud to be hosting the second European iteration of the ELO Conference here at the University of Bergen and in partnership with many of the leading cultural institutions of Bergen, and to be doing so with the generous support of sponsors at local, national, Nordic, and European levels.

I think that you will find Bergen a particularly amenable locale for electronic literature. Many in our field know that from the University of Bergen we led the HERA-funded ELMCIP project and developed the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base, but the history of electronic literature in Bergen stretches back far further than that. One of the most foundational research monographs in the field, Espen Aarseth's Cybertext: Perspectives in Ergodic Literature, was written here in 1995 as Aarseth's Ph.D. dissertation, and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the series of Digital Arts and Culture conferences including the 1998 and 2000 iterations were essential to launching international research communities in electronic literature, games studies, and digital culture. After he left for Denmark, Jill Walker Rettberg succeeded Aarseth as a leading electronic literature and digital textuality researcher, both in her research and through initiatives such as ELINOR (Electronic Literature in the Nordic Countries) and many of us have followed since. Electronic literature has been a part of the curriculum of our program in digital culture continuously since the 1990s, and our students continue to both research and to create works of electronic literature. In the past decade, we have hosted a number of international research seminars on specific aspects of electronic literature and digital art, and we have worked with the Bergen Public Library and other local cultural institutions to organize public readings, performances, and exhibitions dedicated to the subject, making ours a lively scene that extends beyond the confines of the university on the hill into the cultural life of the city. Our contributions are only part of an active digital arts scene that includes for instance Lydgalleriet and Østre, venues dedicated to cutting edge computational and audio arts practices, BEK, the Bergen center for electronic art, Pixel, an open-source software arts festival, and the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, one of Norway's leading arts schools.

The theme of the 2015 Electronic Literature Organization conference and festival is “The End(s) of Electronic Literature.” Invoking the consideration of "the End" of any field is always to invite controversy, and there was indeed some pushback in various quarters from some who thought we should have adopted a more positive-sounding theme. I want to clarify that I don't foresee any near-term conclusion to electronic literature and certainly not to the ELO, but I do think that the field has reached a stage of maturity, and that it is a useful point to consider our aesthetic purposes, our relations to other disciplines, our relations to social and political reality, our situation within a global networked culture, and what impact our research and practice will have on future generations. This theme plays on several different meanings of “ends.” The topics conference papers and works exhibited explore include the following:

  • Is “electronic literature” a transitional term that will become obsolete as literary uses of computational media and devices become ubiquitous? If so, what comes after electronic literature?

  • We can also question in what sense electronic literature and digital writing practices are a means to an end. If so, what are the ends of electronic literature? What political, ideological, aesthetic, and commercial ends or purposes do works of electronic literature serve?

  • In recent years, projects such as the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base have sought to highlight the work of scholars and artists who have worked outside of the mainstream of electronic literature as it has developed as a field, for instance developing research collections based on Russian and Brazilian electronic literature. This conference will seek to shed further light on international communities and practices in electronic literature that have not been widely addressed in the critical literature of the field, those that are located at the “ends” or margins of critical discourse in the field.

  • Electronic literature is situated as an intermedial field of practice, between literature, computation, visual and performance art. The conference will seek to develop a better understanding of electronic literature’s boundaries and relations with other academic disciplines and artistic practices.

  • As a laboratory for future literary forms, the field of electronic literature must count the youngest readers among its most significant group of end-users. One strand of this conference will focus specifically on digital reading experiences made for children.

When Jill, Roderick and I were concieving of the call for presentations and works, a few aspects that we wanted in particular to develop were:

  1. Making this event as international as possible—to bring together authors, reasearchers, and writers from all over the world and facilitate sharing of knowledge not only of established traditions in electronic literature but also those on the margins.
  2. To balance the arts program and the research program as much as possible, so that half of the time and attention of the program is dedicated to each aspect.
  3. To work with the incredible arts environment of Bergen and its supportive community to develop exhibitions and events that stretch beyond the period of the conference itself.

The conference program by necessity includes multiple tracks, and we encourage conference attendees to take advantage of the opportunity to use the system to make a personal schedule and to attend the talks that they are most interested in. The research program includes workshops, paper presentations, proposed panels, lightning talks, and roundtables. This year we have only one plenary keynote address, featuring two pioneers in the field, theorist Espen Aarseth and author Stuart Moulthrop, who have both had sustained practices in the fields of digital culture and electronic literature, and who will present us with a long-term perspective on some of conference's core themes.

This year's Arts Festival is perhaps the most ambitious in the history of the organization, sited at five different locations in Bergen and fully supported by the Bergen cultural environment. The Arts Festival will feature original artworks of diverse media that explore the conference theme and exhibition categories as well as film screenings, readings, and performances. Several of the exhibtions will be up for several weeks after the international artists and researchers have gone home. The Arts Festival will take place at venues throughout the city of Bergen and be open to the general public.

Kid-E-Lit: An Exhibition of Electronic Literature for Children and Youth (Bergen Public Library)
The first generation of digital natives is finding a plethora of apps and interactive digital narratives made for their iPads and computers, perhaps learning how to think in a new digital vernacular. This exhibition will focus on innovations in digital reading experiences for children.

Electronic Literature Festival Exhibition (University of Bergen Arts Library)
The on-campus hub of the Festival will include web-based works, apps, and installations responding to the themes of the conference. It will also feature the "Emergence of Electronic Literature" exhibit, including print antecedents, emphemera, and other materials from the collections of the UiB Library and Digital Culture program documenting the early history of electronic literature. Finally a preview exhibit of the forthcoming Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 3 will be shown in this exhibition.

Hybridity and Synesthesia: Beyond Peripheries of Form and Consciousness (Lydgalleriet)
This aspect of the program emphasizes works, particularly installations, that push at the edges of literature and other forms, and that appeal to other aspects of the sensorium than those we typically associate with reading. Works in the exhibiton will involve haptic sensation, touch-based interactivity, innovative audio elements, interactive images, or locative technologies.

Decentering: Global Electronic Literature (3,14)
While there are strong centers of activity in electronic literature in North America and Western Europe, innovations in digital textuality are also taking place in Eastern Europe and in the Southern hemisphere. This exhibition focuses on electronic literature from Brazil, Peru, Poland, Portugal, and Russia. 

Interventions: Engaging the Body Politic (USF Verftet)
This exhibition features works that engage with contemporary cultural discourse and political reality, challenging audiences to consider digital artifacts and practices that reflect and intervene in matters of the environment, social justice, and our relation to the habitus.

End(s) of Electronic Literature Performances, Screenings, and Readings (University of Bergen and Østre) 
This aspect of the program will feature live readings and performances of works of electronic literature, in addition to cinematic works related to electronic literature practices. Authors were encouraged to think broadly about modes of performance, ranging from traditional readings to more theatrical styles of presentation, and site-specific interventions.

This catalog is something of a last-possible-minute production, and as we send it to print, we do so knowing that it is still somewhat rough and will include some inevitable errors, and that some details of the program will change right up until the last day of the conference. I encourage conference participants to make use of the updated schedule and mobile app available at for updates and to plan their personal conference schedule at an event that is quite packed. With five simultaneous sessions throughout much of the conference, five different exhibitions, and two evenings of performances, it will be impossible to experience everything. But we thought it important to produce this catalog, including the abstracts for all of the accepted papers that will be presented, and descriptions and other documentation of the works that will be included in the exhibition. We will produce video and photographic documentation of performances and exhibitions, and will provide extensive documentation of the conference in the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. We are also working with the journals Dichtung Digital and ebr to publish peer-reviewed selections of the best full papers presented after the conference.

At times preparing for this event has felt a bit like the old story of stone soup. We have been planning this event for more than two years. About a year ago we found that we had big plans but no funding. After an extraordinary response to our calls for the research and arts programs, including more than 313 submissions from authors, artists and researchers from 39 countries, even after a rigorous peer-review process we found that we had remarkable plans, and a little funding to work with. There were some moments of near-panic as we actually considered the resources that would be necessary to pull this off. But as the months drew closer towards the conference and we submitted many grant applications and requests for support, we finally found that we were able to gather enough support to bring this event together as various organizations and individuals have stepped up to throw another ingredient into our cauldron. I would like to conclude this introduction with a note of gratitude. Our sponsors include the Department of Linguistic, Literary, and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Bergen, the Norwegian Research Council, the Nordic Cultural Fund, the Norwegian Arts Council, Bergen Kommune, Hordaland Fylkeskommune, the Bergen Public Library, 3,14, Bergen elektroniske kunstsenter, Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Lydgalleriet, the Polish Ministry of Culture, Programme Franco-Norvégien, ELMCIP, and the Bergen Electronic Literature Research Group. Thanks also to everyone who has worked on the various aspects of this conference, including our Ph.D., MA, and BA students, our many conference volunteers who will help make the logistics of the event possible, our curatorial partners and librarians at 3,14, Lydgalleriet, Østre, USF, and the Bergen Public Library and UiB Arts Library, and UiB IT. Finally I want to note special thanks to the Irish Research Council and European Commmission for the support both of the principal editor of this volume, Anne Karhio, who has done extraordinary work in pulling this book together on an extremely tight time frame, and for the costs of printing this catalog. Thanks are also due to the Research Group GRETEL at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, which has supported Lucas Ramada Prieto's residency with our research group and his work on this volume and the Kid E-Lit project.

Finally, thanks to all of you for being here from so many different corners of the globe and for sustaining and participating this remarkable international creative community. We look forward to a wonderful conference and festival.

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