Interview by Ryan Ruehlen
Ryan Ruehlen: Let’s just dive right in. Why don’t you tell me what your two labs are that you run in Vancouver, WA?
Dene Grigar: I have two labs, the Motion Tracking Virtual Environment lab (MOVE lab) and the ELL, which is the Electronic Literature Lab. MOVE lab I have had since 2004 and I brought that with me from Dallas, ELL is relatively new, that on I began building around 2008.
RR: How do those two branch off of each other, and distinguish from one another?
DG: Well if you think about it, if you’re making things that are motion tracked, that are virtual, the MOVE lab has been developed to do performances, installations, games using sensory based technologies and virtual reality and augmented realty, you’re making these things and then they die. They go away they become obsolete, and so the impetus and the connection of those two is that the ELL seeks to preserve those things. So you make this stuff over here, and as I’m making it I’m thinking about what do I need to do to preserve them, what I am going to have to do to keep them for all time? So ELL serves a purpose for all artists in general, or for any kind of making, so that you can keep things alive longer, right? That’s the idea. So the MOVE lab first and it really did spur the idea, “Hey were making this stuff and its incomplete” and so the example of that was when I was doing “When Ghosts will Die” with Steve Gibson. It’s a great piece, it’s an awarding winning piece—we have a nice video documentation of the piece, but the piece itself is gone. It was built on Macromedia Director, and then “8” came out; 2 wiped out Reason 1—all technologies orphan previous technologies. Reason 1 was totally wiped out by Reason 2. There was no back up compatibility whatsoever. We knew that but we really didn’t want to do any updating but you can’t update after a while because the computer gets old. We’re talking years past, right? Macromedia gets knocked out and the rest in general, they’re just gone. Nobody uses Macromedia Director anymore. So you’re making these things, as you’re making them, you’re thinking this is great, it’s going to be a great piece, win an award and then four years later it’s gone, and all you have left of it is the documentation. Thank god we documented it well.
But not everybody does that. I’m not just talking about artists. I’m talking about people who are producing VR for industry, you know, it’s all throw away. And that’s not a good thing. It becomes digital trash, and that’s not healthy.
RR: There are a lot of artists that in the last 10-20 years have been drawn to a more ephemeral way of working, you know? Sort of embracing it, and there is something that is interesting about that form of non-attachment, but I almost wonder if that’s a good thing or not, how do you feel about that?
DG: It’s deadly. So my background is Greek scholarship right? Homer was my thing. Then I studied Sappho, and Aristotle and Plato, all those folks; Euripides…when I was studying Greek language, literature and culture, they’d say, “This is all they have left of Euripides plays; we know he did this many.” And you only have this many to study, the rest of them are gone. It’s theater, it’s ephemeral. They’re not documented, ok great—you sit there and think, “Gee, I really love Medea, I would have liked to have had more experiences with stories like Medea.” And then there is conjecture about Aeschylus’ plays, that he was more conservative…what if we had more Aeschylus plays, would we have been wrong about that pronouncement? You know were missing works by Aristotle, we know he wrote something on comedy; we don’t have it. That whole Umberto Eco “Name of the Rose”, is based on that idea that the work has been preserved by the monks, and its a dangerous work and its going to upend society as we know it, and so they’re keeping it away from human beings in the middle ages.
I love ephemeral things. I started with the idea that ephemerality is interesting. And there is something beautiful about the death of a thing, but it’s not healthy for a culture to have no record of the thing. Someone like Sappho is really important; the bee in my bonnet when I was younger was taking World Literature at 12th grade and there were four women in the entire book, it was four inches thick. The guys in my class would say, “You know if women were smart they written more.” And one of the women in the book was Sappho. My teacher said it was the only one we had by Sappho. And the answer was that she wrote no more than that—but the answer is that she did right more than that. We know she had eight books of poetry. This young man’s argument was, “See women aren’t as smart as men because women don’t write.” Well that’s a stupid argument, and we know why they aren’t in that book, but I was in 12th grade and I didn’t have the language to articulate that argument back at him, I just stormed off furious and knew he was wrong.
If we had done a better job preserving the women writers of the period we’d have more. We knew there were more, there’s evidence of it. People were throwing things away—they burned Sappho twice. Books that we don’t have now were burnt twice, in 389 by Christians who didn’t want people reading Pagan female writers and in 1089 for the same reason. And were seeing the same kind of thing happening right now with the Taliban and now ISIS, where they have destroyed this city, which was the city of Zenobia, the warrior queen. It was also a city of great religious tolerance. Knocking out that city wipes out the memory of Zenobia. It wipes out the memory of religious tolerance.
What we have left is ISIS and their dogma. I like to think of human beings as making creatures. The whole point of us is that we make things, and we don’t just make one or two things, we make a lot of things. But we are also creatures of our unmaking and we make things and then we forget about them, we don’t value them, or we value these but not those. So as we make those things we aren’t thinking about what’s going to happen to them once they’re made. What is someone going to do with this once I make it? People makes games, mostly computer games where they go around and kill women or black people and they just put it out there to make a bunch of money not realizing that the thing that they made has a life beyond their hands, and there’s an ethical issue involved here in the production of the things we make. How we make them, and take care of them—how we husband them—how we disseminate that so people understand the point of them, and not making things are are pointless or that are hurtful.
RR: We just make too much, and then don’t care for the things that are there or might make a difference in peoples lives.
DG: And I think there’s a balance; I don’t want my students not experimenting, I want them to be fooling around with VR, and I’ll figure out how to preserve it—making spurs the development of preserving. Mobile apps, for example. I am totally smitten by them. I collect them, I think they’re really cool. They are the only truly “born-digital” technology that we have come up with that has no connection to anything we have ever made before. Digital Books—Books. Internet Radio—Radio. Apps—Nothing. So when apps came out I thought I would come up with something new, but wait, “Oh my god, I can’t preserve it”.
“How am I going to preserve these things?” You leave your phone on and you neglect or absent-mindedly say “update all”, you just wiped out your game. Or, updating to version 8 wipes out version 7 and all the apps in version 7 don’t work anymore. There’s a friend, Evan Young, who made The Carrier, the first mobile app game and graphic novel, and its gone now. All I have is the launcher icon. I click on it and nothing happens. Its dead.
RR: It requires all these different people who are making these apps to have to obey the same protocol of updating in order to maintain it all…
DG: Somebody’s gotta do it. I don’t expect the makers to do the labor. But as they’re making the thing be thinking about what its going to take to preserve it. Right now with apps I can’t get to the source code. Its all locked up in the Apple Store and the Android market. I can’t get to that code. Even if they gave me that code, I’m not going to see it as the code that’s in the app, I am going to see the HTML, but I wont see the final wrapper of the Apple Store. I’m not going to get that piece. So what I have to do is find a system. As a person who cares about these things: I am going to get this old phone, get all these apps on here. Turn off the phone, put it in a drawer and not touch those phones. Then, when the new app comes out I’ll get another phone and put those apps on it, put that in a drawer next to the other, and close the drawer. So that over the course of time, the apps that I value so that over the course of time I have a cross section of all the versions and someone in the future could do textual analysis over a particular work like Jason Edward Lewis’ poem “Cycle”—I have different versions of that. Give me the beta indefinitely so that I can see what it looked like when you first thought about it. And now, what does it look like? So I am interested in the ability to have scholars come back behind me and actually do that comparative research, asking what did this look like, how did this change, and why did it change?
RR: I like this idea of phones as just being massive file cabinets, which of course they are but…
DG: But its expensive.
RR: Exactly, but to make that the phone’s primary role, to be a storage unit, we don’t really think about that.
DG: Its funny, someday I’ll pull them all out and do something with them, but for now I am just tucking them away.
When I was working with Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl”, I picked her up at the airport and I was driving her across the bridge to take her over to the university to do the documentation of “Patchwork girl” two, three years ago. As we were driving across the bridge she said, “I don’t really want my work preserved.” I said, “I’ll take you back to the airport, if that’s what you want”. But she went through with it, at the time her work was out of print. Mark Bernstein from Eastgate hadn’t released the new flash drive of it, but that’s the most important work of hypertext, of Eastgate’s stuff, ever. That, and Michael Joyce’s, and both of them were out of print. That’s a bad thing. Going back to the women’s issue, we think of technology as a male thing, the technology of the pen, the technology of the computer—All these technologies males appear to excel in. Yet women have excelled in these things. Women were the first computers, “Hymn Figures” came out and showed that black women were doing this as well, so if we don’t document women’s participation with digital writing technologies at the end of the 20th and going into the 21st century, then in a thousand years someone going to go, “Well no females were doing anything with computers in those days”. My goal is to not let that happen. I want to leave something so that somebody can say, “See, here is an example.” To see there were a lot of women doing this writing, and there were lot a men too—and they were all friends. It wasn’t competitive.
RR: So lets jump back a bit, who’s in your lab, what are the lab’s source of projects, and materials?
DG: So with ELL, its used for advanced inquiry into born digital literature, so its very broad. I use it for preservation, archiving, curating, and just general study. With preservation, “Pathfinders” is the text that came out of there, the multimedia book that came out on Scalar, that documented all the work by Shelley Jackson, John McDaid, Bill Bly, and Judy Malloy. My argument was that migration, emulation and collection are three approaches to preservation. The two that are most popular are migration and emulation. I am focused on collection. There are just a handful of places like mine in the world that does preservation via collection. Its gotta be done by somebody. If at the very least, having this kind of space allows us to document this work before its dead. I figured we’ve got fifty years on some of this work.
RR: There’s no point in scrambling at the end if you can do it now.
DG: I am writing grants, and its helping me and “Pathfinders” was the data collection and the book “Traversals” is coming out next week, and that’s the critical piece. So once you find this data somebody’s got to go back through there and ask, “What does this mean?” Those are the publications coming out of ELL. And with the archival work, the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization) is very much invested in keeping this stuff alive for various reasons but my lab serves as the clearing house for the Electronic Literature Organization’s space for the Electronic Literature archive. That project has now started in collaboration with the University of Victoria; we’ve got space with Compute Canada and with Ray Siemens at ETCL . The ELO is paying to have these archives housed at Compute Canada. ELLA is there now, and it is holding three archives: Turbulence.org; trAce Online Writing Centre, and the ELO. Its handling all of that, its inventorying and its developing its interface. With the trAce project, which is so cool, the ELO has the rights to the digital part, but the physical piece has been turned over to the British Library. So I met with some of the folks from the library a few months ago when John Barber and I were there, and decided we were going to build an interface that was going to bring the two pieces together, so that anyone that was entering into the trAce centre site experiences trAce as the community that it was back in the ‘90s and early 2000’s in a more seamless way.
The third thing is the curation. I want to show the work. I want to make it available to people. So people will come and study my lab and put on shows. So when I do the show for Mark Amerika, I won’t bring my computers but I’ll have a computer that I can show “Grammatron” in all its glory, circa, 1999. Now I’ll put that against a current version on a machine and let people see what happens when technology is upgraded; to the degradation of the work, or not—does it hurt the work or not? Sometimes whole pieces are missing, or are inaccessible, perhaps its made in Shockwave and Flash and now that stuff is becoming more and more difficult to access anyway. So seeing it on the iMac G3, which is what I read it on when it came out, and seeing it on the now, really nice, huge screen—totally different experience.
RR: I even think about the pacing of your reading, how you cognate or process. If you think at the speed at which the data is coming up for you and how that’s effecting your experience of it…
DG: And every piece has its own pacing that is meant to be experienced right, and when it speeds up on the new, current speeds—its not the same work. Part of it’s the cultural expectations, in those days with Shelley Jackson’s case, you would turn the computer on, and you’d wait and wait and it would boot up, and you’d put your diskette in, the noise would zing and zang, then the interface would show up, then the work would start to load. You would see how many links and how many nodes there are in this piece, which is thousands. You could literally go get a cup of coffee and come back before it would fully load—that was the speed at which we actually read those works. At that point, if you think about it, those works were very text heavy. we didn’t have the capability to do a lot of pictures, if there were a lot of pictures black and white images. So the words were really important, and you would want to get them all in, and the speed needed to match that. Now things are zinging across the screen; the words have lost their weight, and the images have taken over that weight. It’s so image visual instead of word visual now.
When I did that show at the library of congress, I brought my bonnie blue iMacs with me and one of my Classics, and I put “Mist” on the bonnie blue. The other thing about these work, because of the bandwidth, the screens were very small, and the outer screens were only a little bigger, it wasn’t that noticeable. When you put that “Mist” program into a new, bigger computer, you have small screen and the large screen space, and it looks goofy. It’s more powerful on the smaller screen. I had “Mist” on there, and these kids would come charging in the room, the library of congress had never done this before, and all the sound was going on, and the kids sat down. I sat down with this kid, he’s with his father, and I tell him its a game, and he says he loves games. He then says, “How come the picture is so little, can you make it bigger?” He’s trying to stretch it out. That was the size we could watch it on. He says, “This is lame!” Then you have to use the arrow keys to move around, and he was punching the keys and saying, “Can’t this go faster?” and his father said, “No, this is as fast as we could go in those days”. The kid grumbled and said, “This is stupid.”
Then we got to the sound, which we were so proud, the multimedia sound experience, and its tinny, and he asks to make the sound better, and we can’t. “What kind of person makes a game like this?” I told him this game was nearly 20 years old. He said, “I didn’t know they made games like that back then”…”Then you’ll love pong!”
That’s why Lori’s (Emerson) Lab is so important. The evolution of ideas, right? The evolution of the tools; this object is no longer just a computer or a phone. If I call my students periodically, during projects, it freaks them out. They don’t use it as a phone. The view it as a text message machine, or a camera, or a game environment. Its everything but a phone. So now a phone is not a phone anymore. Its something else. So now we came to make this thing, and all the things that came together that had to happen to result in this kind of environment is really amazing. The same goes for any of the digital works, like VR. I had a bunch of kids from high school visiting my lab, and they are all 3-D animation kids, they are making 3-D models, and prints, and they are thinking about majoring in my program, and I took them into the VR environment, and told them about 50 models my students made. The models don’t just sit out there by themselves, but here how they can live. We had to plan movement, and gesture, we had plan all these things, there was nothing here that was just carelessly thrown together, even the height of that desk that everything is sitting on. Every warped thing on that desk is purposely decided.
You make something and then you think about what you’re making. Those are the three things this lab does. I’ve done something like 11 curated shows since 2008, I think I’ve done 15 total. I have the space to work in now, so mostly since 2008.
RR: So now that you have the space, what’s allowed you kind of freedom to continue this, we are all busy, we have so many things we have to be committed to, especially in a university setting, all these activities you have to tend to constantly. What’s allowed you to have that kind of freedom to focus on that?
DG: I fell in love with electronic literature back in undergrad, back in 1991, it was this love affair. I was a greek scholar, who would have thought there would something to do with this stuff besides make it. I was looking for ways to marry my love of computers with e-Lit with greek, and was trying to weave this all together. My love for e-lit never died, and it never went away. I was able to do that 2001 NEH e-Lit summer seminar with Kate Hales, I was in her second batch of babies, studying e-Lit, and I walked out of there and said this is what I want to do, I don’t want to teach writing or straight literature, I want to do this. Then I did this post-doc for two years at the University of Plymouth in interactive arts, and Mark (Amerika) would travel and we would run into it each, we were crossing paths, and that’s how we got to be good friends.
They gave me the tools I needed, the intellectual tools and the where with all to make this stuff, and when I was making it I was thinking about preservation issues, and I got involved in the ELO in 2006, and they put me on the board. I also run an academic program, I am the director of the program I teach in. I am pretty busy, its the third biggest in the college, and we are a signature program, its a lot of time. But because I control that program I have flexibility. So I will work really hard on something but then I can put that aside and hunker down over here instead. I can make my own time. I have a two course load, and I get to teach the things that I am interested in, so I am teaching digital story telling this semester. I am teaching the very things I do in my academic scholarly life, they all dovetail. With the commitment though, I understand when people get tired of running things and they walk away, I totally get that, but I can not imagine walking away from this lab, or this work. John Barber and I talk about retirement and what’s going to happen with this, I would donate my lab to the university, we are building a bigger space, its going to be a center, in my old age I can run that place, I can continue doing that work. I may not be faculty teaching but I can certainly sit in that room and do the preservation work that I like doing—until I die. That’s how rabid I am about it. I think it takes that kind of passion…
RR: It has to be a part of you in so many ways, to be embodied fully…
DG: Yeah, everything I publish is about it, everything I do requires it, nothing is separate from it. Even the MOVE lab, as hard as it is for me to be in there when I am in the ELL, I am building the games in that lab, and I may end up turning that lab over to the university, to the department to use. For now, I am holding on to it. But letting students use that space for all the things they need, we have all our exhibits in there, so we can do showcases. So I am able to manage that and I can hire people to help me, I have out of my own pocket sometimes committed money to these projects. I don’t have kids, this is what I do. I can’t even fathom otherwise. Its not like am making any money off of it, there’s none of that, its just about wanting to keep this stuff alive. I want “Grammatron” to survive. I know artists have the right to say when they do or don’t want something preserved, I think should have a say, but at the same time I want them to understand what that means to culture.
RR: But when you put something out, it is no longer yours to a certain degree.
DG: Sometimes they have copyright, someone like Judy Malloy, she has seven versions of “Uncle Roger”, and she has worked like a dog to keep it alive today. She is very focused on keeping it alive, she wants to tell her own story, she doesn’t want other people to tell her stories. but at some point someone else is going to have to pick it up and tell her story—but its her decision to put it out and keep it out there. Right now “The Carrier” is dead, and we have contacted Evan—I would gladly take it over and put it in the ELO archives. There decisions is not to turn it over yet, if ever. Every once and a while I will contact them and ask, “Have you changed your mind yet?” I think at some point something will trigger them that its an important work and it can not die. Let me at least have it for a year and let me document the damn thing, then you can have it back and trash it all you want. Let’s let people write about it at the very least, the critical pieces have to happen. There are levels of death, there is a death when we die then there is the death when our friends die and memory goes with them and then there is a death when all our stuff dies, that’s the final death—how dead do you want to be? At least Sappho’s lived on because everyone was citing her, we knew there were eight works, there are snippets of things, she was never truly dead, people kept her alive. We don’t know if she wanted to be or not. I am assuming she did because she had eight books. They were scrolls that were turned into book like things later on.
RR: Recently we were looking at the Edison labs and going into MIT’s Media Lab, and talking about their visual, physical space, how their design actually created the manners in which people were actually thinking and working, and we had Jeffrey Schnapp out here and, and I actually got the chance to sit in on his lecture to the humanities board at CU on his working with the re-envisioning of library spaces, working with Big Data—talking about infrastructure. That question always seems to be there, the infrastructure one.
DG: So the ELL started off in a room, in a building across from my office, and there are three rules in academe: Never give up space, never throw away a course, never turn down tech. So if you have space, you do not give it up. So when I heard one of my colleagues was giving up her lab, I immediately went to my dean, and said to her, “Can I have that space? You have seen my computers, you see that that they are stuffed everywhere, you know what I am doing with them, give me the space for them and I’ll do something really cool with this.” And she just gave me the space. So I started off with 15 or 16 old Macs; one of my former students was a Mac freak like me—for me its that the early works were created on Macs and not on DOS, so all this stuff I have in my library, most of it is done in Macintosh, so you need that Apple IIe, you need that SE, you need that Apple Plus, you need that system 7.1, right? So it was about collecting. So I looked at all the stuff I had, and I said, “Ok, I am missing system 8, I am missing system 9.2, I need a Macintosh 2 that’s not an E”. I had a wish list of things I really wanted and Jeff, my former student said he would help and we began collecting by need, and that’s the first part of infrastructure, it was getting the tech there, getting the collection. People heard about this and started to donate, and now I have 60. Which is great, now I have back up, now I have six classics, I have four SEs, four Cubes, so if one breaks it doesn’t hurt anything, I can take the next one off the shelf, plug it in and it runs. Jeff comes in on a Sunday and will fix it and put it back.
He helps me get all the mother boards and stuff I need. Recently he decided to get rid of his collection so he gave all to me. I have all of his parts, and manuals, its amazing what I have in my lab now, how I can continue my lab. I have 60 computers, I now can last 20 years. That’s cool! By then, I will probably be retired, and will probably have finished enough works to feel like I got something done—it has bought me time. Its like when you have cancer, and you know you are going to die, and at least you have gone through chemo, and you have now have 5 years, those are important years, so I am trying to get as much done as I can.
So the infrastructure began with the room, the computers and the collection, and the resources like “help” and being able to pay for things—that’s the other infrastructure. The lab is set up very differently. I have seen other spaces, I have been to Myth, Media Archaeology Lab, I’ve been to MoMA, I have seen what they have done, they have a few computers there. I have been to the Ransom Center. Some folks have stuff in the back and they pull it out when you need it; my space is laid out so all the required software and hardware is there for anything in the cabinet. So if you pick out something you would know no matter what you picked out you can sit down and read it. The rest of it is in reserve on shelves. It’s meant to be so that you can go into work and there’s a middle table where we are doing the preservation work, all the inventory work, it’s kind of a mess in the middle and nice and tidy on the sides where all the scholars can come and work. I have people coming in on Fullbright Scholarships; I do not have a graduate program, but I do have post-docs—and I am actively seeking them. I have had four so far. I have two more coming. I am writing grants all the time. I think I wrote as of this week, 12 grants this year alone. Some of its for MOVE lab, some of its for ELL. I have written something like 500,000 dollars for ELL to fund ELL and e-Lit in general. So the most recent thing I wrote was just a simple little professorship for $28,000 over two years, cash handed to me to do whatever I wanted for my research. With that I can easily hire a student to come in and manage the lab for me when I am not there. I can also put some money towards post-docs for stipends, which I do. Then travel money so I can go out to present the work. I am always looking for money.
RR: How many of these grants have you applied for before, and also, received funding for and you have to keep feeding it…are they more likely to give them to you in the future?
DG: The thing I got was a grant for ELL for “Pathfinders”—the grant from NEH, that was $68,000. That was a nice little chunk of change. What happened with “Pathfinders” was that Stuart and I started a methodology for preserving multimedia interactive work—that’s huge. It gave us the money to do that, to use for works as a guinea pig for that, and that became the book. And now “Traversals” has come out of that. Also what happens is when the university sees you getting that money they are more likely to give you funding, so it becomes this kind of feedback loop. The thing that drives me crazy about some of my friends on campus, they will say, “I wish I had a lab”. Well you know what, you can have one—here’s how you can have one. You have to start your collection, everyone of those computers I started with, I bought, I didn’t have the university buying them for me, cause if I had ever left, then I couldn’t take it with me. I would have to worry about buying it back. As it is right now, we are committed to staying with the university, so we will probably donate it, but at the time I wasn’t about to let the university have access to that in terms of ownership. So I kept that very separate. Even the inventory list I know exactly what is owned by the university and what is owned by me. You gotta make the first step.
The university might give you $15,000 or $50,000 to get started, then your job after that is to get the grants that keep it going, cause they are not going to give you money year after year, you can’t count on it. The economy, the university system, even if they wanted to give it to you sometimes they can’t, its not that they are being evil and not helping out, its just there are a lot of things they have to pay for, sometimes its not my stuff. I am the one that’s committed to me and my work. So I have to make that first step and keep it going, and if they see you doing that, and you submit a mini grant, they will give it to you cause you have a track record, and now I have eleven years of the MOVE lab on this campus. They are not going to take that lab away.
We’re an R1 like you are, no R1 wants to give that up, it would be dumb. It’s prestigious, its not as much as the neuroscience lab or the MIT Media Lab, but you’re trying to build a program, and there are 108 R1s in the country and we are not in the top 50, we are in the lower 50, the drive is to be in the top 25. We can do that, but you have to commit to research. They found a beautiful space for me now, they gave me a nice upgrade. Its a win win situation for everyone. Administration are not evil people, but they want to see commitment at the academic side. They have been pretty generous that I’ve seen. The other thing is you can’t work alone. Nothing gets done alone, you need to be in a system, I would have never gotten that NEH grant without Stuart, or without Scalar—that was the icing on the cake for that grant. It was really smart on his part to say we were going to make a Scalar book. It helps Tara McPherson who is in NEH with me and Kate Hales, its a small and incestuous family, and everyone helps each other move along, to buoy each other, its not a competition. The second you start to compete you’re screwed. No one is going to help you, it becomes sink or swim. No one swims very far when they are by themselves. I think that’s the other thing to remember is that none of us work in a vacuum, so even the MOVE lab, I was given $30,000 in technology, who does that? From there we built things, we made things. And now students are learning how to make VR work. The total amount of grants I wrote in the fall was $704,000. I haven’t even began to add it up this semester.
RR: Its amazing how they are both big gestures and singular gestures that actually change the entire course of your work, and the incredible amount of people who will be effected for generations to come.
DG: Oh yeah, even with ELL it started off with just 4 or 5 Macs, I didn’t want to give up what I owned, some people gave me what they had. I began collecting this stuff in 1991, and then recognized even in 2002, that I needed to have the computers to read it on, because it was starting to get orphaned. So I moved here (Washington State University) and I had all these computers in my house, I put on the ELO conference in 2008 in Vancouver and I wanted to do the first exhibit of early digital work. Kate Hales sent me a bunch of stuff out of her library so she kicked off a lot of it, and I had a lot of pieces missing that needed to be shown. My student Jeff showed me how to organize the media, to really look at the specific things, like internet speeds, and just sit down and see how you can suss it out on paper. We figured out where our gaps are, and he went and got me the gaps. He was already gone out of my program, by that point two years. He has stayed my friend, and fixes all my computers and charges me hardly nothing for repairs, there would be no ELL without him.
RR: A shared vision…
DG: Yeah, when he heard I was donating to the school he showed up at my door with even more stuff, and that’s how you start an infrastructure. Then the job becomes how to manage that, when can you manage it, and I don’t try to do it all at once. I haven’t inventoried any of the manuals.
RR: Have you hit a point—or maybe it is just now—where you can’t take any more donations because of space, I know that Lori in the Media Archaeology Lab at one point had to stop taking donations to a certain degree because of spatial resources and time to keep up on that inventory. I am wondering what your lab is like now?
DG: There were gaps I was trying to fill, I wanted lots of back up, I know what its like to try to get work done and you turn on the machine and its broken, and you have one of those, and its the only one that’s going to read 50 works in your library, that’s a bad thing. So I sat down and made a list of all the things I was looking for and I would procure it—I am also collecting some game consoles, game environments, I have a Commodore, I am looking for an Atari. There are things I am looking for. I have gotten to to point where I don’t need a lot of stuff, I just need particular things. And I am being very careful about what I procure, I don’t have a lot more room. So now I am spending some money to get some cabinets put in the MOVE lab. I’ll put a bunch of things in those cabinets, probably the motherboards and extra materials that will free up space in my lab for the actual tech, and when I need to fix something I can go to the MOVE lab and and grab it out of the cabinet and it doesn’t take up space in the scholarship lab.
Lori’s got a big space, she has room for repair, a room for parts, a room for reading, I don’t have that, I have one big space. I have had to partition that space off. When people come in to do research I have a lot of messy stuff going on, and it’s becoming harder and harder to hide. The idea now is that the university is getting ready to break ground on the Hale sciences building, and when that happens the nursing program will move to the Hale building and that’s in the second floor of the library now—the idea is that the center, or the institute, or whatever we are going to call it will move there, and will be a place for born digital preservation. Its going to be experimental, how to experiment with born digital stuff, cause no one is really doing that.
I think there’s a lot of folks in WSU that have a strong following of supporters that give donations that build things, so I am hoping that we can tap into some of that too. Essentially we going to take ELL and move in to that new space, and its going to be like the Big Bang, and have the partition space a lot better, I’ll even have a room for my office, which I don’t have right now.
One of the things that we did, my tech support guy Greg, one of my former students, I hired him when he was still a part time student, he’s been with me for years and he is just a genius, he can code anything. He produced an online catalog for us. Its so nice because you can walk in and say, “I want to read Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork girl” on diskette” and you can go to the database and type in “Patchwork girl diskette” and it will tell you what computers you can read it on. And now its crossed over to other platforms, where if you want to play on the Cube, and you can ask, “What works can I read on the Cube?” All the works that can be read on the Cube show up. And they are all there in the cabinet in alpha order. So you can go and pull up what you need and now that’s all organized, so there is some structure. The other thing is that it also has collections, so we can search and tell artists what they have of there’s at any given time.
I did the “Pathfinders” show at the MLA conference in 2014, I shipped Macintosh’s and UPS crunched them, I mean smashed them flat. So when I opened up the boxed, so I put them up on the table and had them like an exhibit and had the NEH folks, who were there, and I told them, “This is why you have to give me money, this happens every day—how many Macs are we losing a day?” When we lose them all this work can’t be read, and this is why you gave me the money. I have not asked for money again from NEH, as you don’t go back for a second start up. What I am looking for a Melon and an IMLS now. There is also foundations that I have written for. So that’s my infrastructure, the university has given me some help and then I have done the work to bring in the work and bringing in money. It becomes a show lab, and so when they bring dignitaries to campus MOVE and ELL lab are both on the visitor tour. I am there on a Saturday if I have to be, we have had senators come through even, lots of folks who are important for funding. This is humanities stuff, and I can make the plausible argument that humanities matter and here’s how we are making it matter. We have got to do that, without question.
Theoretical touchstones are interesting. Going back, I do theory, but I think more philosophically about the things I do. Philosophically speaking, we are creatures of making, right? We make things, that’s what we do. We are also creatures of unmaking. We destroy the things we make. We don’t care about the things we make, we don’t see the value of things we make for one reason or another. So I tend to gravitate towards the making and the keeping to show the record of humanity. I was watching antique roadshow last night. This women showed this beautiful jade dagger, and it was found because folks in China were digging up for the road ways, and they dug up all this treasure that dated back to 1000 BC. And nobody knew this stuff existed and here are all these artifacts from 1000 BC and it was incredibly intricate. We do this kind of study for Chinese daggers, we should be doing that for Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork girl”. I found some folks took a bunch of games and threw them in a landfill when they didn’t sell. Really? That’s what you did? You didn’t donate them to a school, you didn’t give them to the Smithsonian, you didn’t think to start your own museum? At least Apple has a museum. To me its ethics. At the fundamental part of this, you shouldn’t just be making things and then not caring about them in some way.
RR: If they can be thrown away so easily we shouldn’t be making them to begin with.
DG: Or just make one, and then throw that one away, don’t make land fill. Don’t waste the earth on this stuff. And you are polluting it anyway. What can you re-make out of this? I think there are a lot of ethical issues in the things we make. I have a microwave that is going a little bad, but it still works, its just when you open the door it sounds like its microwaving, its not but its sounds like it. The plumber said, oh well just throw it away and get a new one. That was a $250 microwave we just bought five years ago, and its pretty and still function. I don’t think so. I think I can live with the sound.
The theoretical stuff, other people probably say the same things, but with the ELL its all about the rogue archives, because right now it is not a part of the University Library archives, its sitting out there. It started as an independent project that has grown into a major collection and it now the largest collection in the world of electronic literature but it’s all rogue. My database does not talk to the WSU database, it will one day, but it does not now. So there is a whole theoretical underpinning about rogue archives that I think are important. And then multimediality and when objects sit next to each other and they have this sense of liveness, how they effect each other in that liveness and that space. I am interested in that. Platform and critical code studies is a no brainer. Kate Hale’s media specific analysis: So one computer works for this work but doesn’t work for this other work, and we read it here and not there. So I do read Shelley Jackson’s CD, but I really much prefer the diskette because that is what she made it on the first time.
In terms of the MOVE lab, telematics, telebodies, and embodiment theory. When you are in that space the thing is really shocking for students is when the computer is reading your body, and you are in the VR environment or you’re in the motion tracking environment, the computer is reading you as data, you become a media of the multimedia, so you are being read as a thing amongst all the other things.
RR: Makes me think of Posthumanism, that cycle of of us communicating with something else that then creates its own knowledge base that then feeds back into us.
DG: Yeah, so we become 0s and 1s, we collapse into that binary along with the lighting, the robotics, the smoke machine that’s running on DMX, and its also working with the MIDI information, the visuals and the sounds—you’re just another one of those things in that space. Doesn’t mean you’re not important but it means you are a part of that participatory, collaborative environment, that’s been interesting to think about. You are here and there simultaneously, the telematics makes a lot of sense here. These are always at the heart of what I do, “Why are we making this thing, how’s it going to impact people and what do I do once its out there?” I have no control over it but at least I can preserve the copy I have got. Philosophy is divided into three sections: Natural philosophy, which is the sciences today, the theoretical, analytical philosophies, and then ethical philosophy. In the Greek period these were all the same, you couldn’t separate them. The body, the intellect, and the ethics all go together. Now we have parsed these out, and people say they don’t work together, yeah they do! They are effecting each other, they should be working together. So I don’t see them as separate things, they’re are all part of this, and at the heart of this, there is this ethical importance.
So Stuart and I produced the methodology for our work. There has never been a methodology for a mindful, intentional, preservation of interactive, multimedia works. Rhizome is doing a damn good job of archiving, but to have that methodology laid out step by step so that other people can follow you and do it too. That was what came out of “Pathfinders”. At the heart of the methodology is the “Traversal” process, so the “Traversal” is the process at which the “Pathfinders” methodology kind of turns, hinges on. So we did that. The book that documents that, and the critical piece that’s shows it literally, this is how the methodology applies, here’s how we can think about this work now. There has not been a lot of really good discussion about some of this. In comparative media studies there is this wonderful discussion about how things could look across a medium, I think about folks like Jeremy Douglas, Jessica Pressman, and Mark Marino’s work with the Reading project. But an actual methodology for looking at Judy Malloy’s, six or seven versions and actually doing a textual analysis all the way through it, so that you’re pulling out the pieces that are different and then explaining why that is important. What does it tell us about being human, what does it tell us about our culture, what does it tell us about Malloy, what does it tell us about 1980s culture?
RR: You kind of pinpointed a few things earlier in the interview; what are your ideas around best-practices, processes you are taking in the lab that others can then dovetail with what you’re doing. They may even go off in a different direction completely, but possibly some tenants you would apply?
DG: So record keeping is implied, where you got something from, the provenance of the machine that you bring in. Of the actual works that you are looking at, where did you get them, who gave them to you? How were they stored, where were they stored? Its interesting because I come out of the wine business, years ago I was in the business. I think its interesting to think about how things you did when you were younger, you think have no bearing on things you do when you get older. I had 150 wines in my cellar, cases of wine in my cellar. I had meticulous notes of when I would drink a wine. I have a box full of notes, “This is what the 1980 cabernet tasted like”. And taking extremely good documents of those experiences of drinking that wine, and who I was drinking with, here’s when it started, here’s where we were sitting.
RR: Its almost the exact same thing in the lab.
DG: It is the same thing. And applying that to this has been interesting. Keeping a record of all the things, that’s the first thing. Cause you are getting a lot of stuff, and all of a sudden inundated with all this stuff, and you need to know who gave me this and why I have two copies of this, and what happened to this copy. And then being anal-retentive; so I have been carrying around the Jackson stuff in my backpack, my school bag, because I would be going from home to school with it, generally I would never do that. If I am at school this can go back in the lab right in its space, cause who knows, I don’t want to lose it. Making sure you know where things are. Sounds like a stupid thing, but that’s just so practical.
Thirdly, its very important to having an overarching framework, what are you trying to achieve? Don’t just start collecting everything. Don’t just start trying to do everything. I was talking to some folks about a year ago, I was giving an invited talk, and they said, “You seem to be all over the place”, and I told them there was a method, an intellectual coherence, everything I do is centered on born-digital literature. I want to curate it, I want to write about it, I want to preserve it, I want to have people experience it with me. Everything I do is bent around that, and I want to make it. I may talk about curating one day, but I’ll talk about something else the next day, but they are all bent on that one thing.
The games I am interested in are literary games. The games that have a narrative, a narrative structure, Narratives like, “Beyond Eyes”. They are stories, I am interested in games that tell stories. I am not interested in “Mario Bros”. I am not interested in “Donkey Kong”. Its not that I don’t like them, but its not what I am collecting, its not what I am doing with my career. Having some sort of core and then having a philosophy that underpins that core, and then the theories sit on top of that and then the day to day management of being mindful of what you are doing and keeping a record, thats the aim. Don’t give your keys out to just anybody. I had a key out to somebody and I know there are things missing now. I am just heartsick about it. I will never do that again. I was more trusting, I am just more careful now. People check things out now.
RR: I was thinking more about your wine experience, and I am now thinking of practice-based research, its a word thrown around a lot in our program…
DG: Thank god its finally catching on because nobody goes, “Huh?”
RR: With the wine, I feel like being reflexive in that way, you know, when people are opening up a lab and being able to look back on their own personal history can offer so many ways in which they will act or ways of working, and maybe they will be hitting their head up against the wall and saying, “Why isn’t this working for me?” Well maybe look at the things you’ve done in your life and see if their are some clues at to why you are doing it this way and not that way, and maybe you have a friend or know somebody who does act a certain way and is good at that because they have such a tendency…
DG: And hire them. Let them do that thing. So I waited tables too, all through undergraduate school and graduate school. I waited on people. I have had to work and subjugate myself to people. But I also learned to be very organized. I can manage a station by myself and not get overwhelmed. And as much as that sounds goofy, I think I seldom get overwhelmed at my job. I have learned to structure things in a meticulous way so I can handle it, my house is clean all the time, its because I walk through the house and pick things up as I am doing something else. Waiting tables experience taught me how to work with administrators, you have subjugate yourself to them all the time, but how do you do this without looking like a sycophant. How do you take leadership over yourself? Take agency when you are in a situation when you are not in total control, I think administrators appreciate it, they really don’t want suck ups. They also don’t want total shrews, jerks. Saying “This isn’t working here, can you help me with this?” So learning how to do that, how to manage my time, how to not get overwhelmed by some much stuff coming at me at the same time. The other thing I learned from the wine business and tastings was how to do analysis, and at a super granular level. I got good at it. I use to judge wine competitions. I had a good palette. I could look at a wine and tell you by looking at it, that it probably was in Italy, its probably not Napa, from 1986—I could probably do that.
RR: I was a barista for a while so I got very nitpicky with every detail, the origin, the profile…
DG: Yeah, this has too much smoke, etc…I am that way with single malt scotches. I can tell which ones are coming from the sea side and which ones are more inland. I like them both, but I know which one is which. Being able to do that, at a very granular level, means I can look at a piece of art and say, “Here’s this piece, here’s this piece” and so I teach my students that and in my classes I tell students, “Don’t ask what something means, ask how it comes to mean what it means” How is it constructed? Why is that important? Why did Alan Bigelow decide to do “How to rob a bank”, for the iPad, which is simply a swipe experience. The interactivity is low, and there is a reason for that. its brilliant what he has done with that piece. Why did Judy Malloy make version 4 of version 3? Why did she construct the emulation of “Uncle Roger” out of “4” and “5” and not “3”? She could have and she didn’t, and for a good reason. So, asking those kind of questions and having the intellect to make some sense of it. Just the practical stuff—know what you’re are doing. And then don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go to people, I think most people, that generally 99% of the population are very nice people. And they really don’t want to see you drowning, and so they will help you if they see that you need help, in the idea that you are going to help them back. If you ask for help and then are a jerk back, then no one is going to help you again, and the word gets out—its a small community. People help each other, and don’t be afraid to go to administrators and ask for stuff, and if they say no, don’t get mad about it, just keep trying. The other thing I guess I’ll say is that nobody is just going to give some anything, you have to earn it at some level. Even if it is just writing a journal article, just do something to earn it. No one is going to give things to me because I am cute.
RR: So I have to ask, what is your 3-5 year plan(s) at this point?
DG: My plans for the next several years are to get the lab organized so we can make a move, and create this center or institute to really get it deeply into born digital works, and expanding into games. I want to bring in some game experts. I want some folks that know a lot about virtual reality, at the deeper gut level than I do, I have some sense of how the code works, how the programming works inside Unity to make the VR work, but Connor Goglan knows more than I do. So bring in folks like that that can come in and help. I think the methodology that Stuart and I have in place, is applicable to getting that done, now I just want to get the works documented now. I am waiting to hear back on a grant for “Pathfinders 2”. That’s the first thing on the back burner. We are going to do Michael Joyce, Stuart’s “Victory Garden” Carolyn Guyer’s “Crippling”, and we are doing Coverley’s “Califia” in the next round. So we will do another “Pathfinders” and another “Traversals”.
And then there will be another round where we will do Holton’s “Figurski at Findhorn on Acid” we are going to do Deena Larson’s “Marble Springs”, and I want to say it’s Jim Rosenberg, and one other. We are doing four more with another “Traversals”. In the mean time, we having people coming in and doing various entries, Wikipedia entries, in the next year. Then coming in and doing their own documentation work. My goal is to have at least 20 works done in the next 2-3 years. That’s a tenth of what’s in my lab right now.
RR: What makes your lab a lab? This term gets used for quite a variety of spaces these days.
DG: There has been lots of arguing about what makes a lab a lab and a studio a studio. Essentially I could have made MOVE a studio—art gets produced there. But I also wanted to open it up to other kinds of activities, that were not necessarily art based, such as design, and we get commissions. So we did the Mt. Saint Helens interactive exhibit at the Science Learning Center. That’s in there. So I didn’t want to be limited, so I called it a lab because a lab can embody making, right? And then the ELL is obvious but it is also a collection. So I am probably going to change the name to reflect that to Electronic Literature Lab and Library, and could change it to ELLL. That’s how I am constructing everything. Its kind of a one women show right now, but I have lots of folks, some research assistance, some tech support, I have a female student that wants to be a librarian who will be working with me in the fall, and I have the post-docs coming in. I have got Piotr Marecki coming in and Victoria Molder coming in from Canada, I have folks coming in and it gives it life. James O’Sullivan was in there, from Ireland.
RR: Something we have been talking about, separating the idea of what makes a lab from a studio is this idea, at least in the sciences, of seeing the lab as it’s own culture, it develops it’s own culture in some way—I am wondering if you could maybe speak a little bit about what your culture looks like.
DG: John Barber and I also had a gallery down town for the longest time. D were studios inside for the artists. and we used our studio as a gallery. but the rest of the artists were by themselves working in their studios—there was no culture. They would go in, shut the door and start working. that model doesn’t work for us. Because if you are working in DH or media art, collaboration is what it is all about. So the culture for us is a making culture. Its a culture of cooperation and participation—it is collaborative. Anything goes, lets try it. Its like wildcatting. I come from Texas, so wildcatting in the oil business, is, “Lets go drill over here and see what happens”. Lets try this over here and see what happens. My students that work in the lab, even though there is protocols and rules, I am not in there watching them. They are doing their thing. They are unsupervised in there. So undergraduate students have the power to be researchers in that space. There is no hierarchy.
There can’t be hierarchy, nothing gets done if they have to ask permission for things, which sets it apart from other science labs where the lab director becomes the god of that space, there is no god in my space. Students come in and they want to do things, and I tell them to just try it and go for it. Students will check things out, I will let them take things. It is nice because they get a chance to experiment and play—its a play space. At the same time I want to have an intellectual discussion about it. There is on large table, a seminar table where this all happens. All the preservation work and video taping happens in the middle of this big mess, and every one talks.
So if you are going to go in that room and sit at that table you have to participate. If you want silence you have to go to the edges where the computers are and work there. It follows the same principles of our program, of the CMBC program. The last one is, “Embrace your failures”—don’t be afraid to screw up. If you do make a mistake, or something doesn’t work the way you want it to work, that’s ok. Then write it up and make sure other people don’t do it, or maybe let someone else try and they will make it work. The main one though is that the computer is not a tool for what we do, the computer is what we do—it is the medium in which we work. Its not going to help me make, it is what I am making.
That is a fundamental, philosophical shift from what a lot of artists use technology. A lot of my digital technology friends use post production stuff, photoshop, to enhance their photos. That’s not where they work, their work is happening on paper. For us there is no paper. Its all digital. That’s rule number one for us. The other one that’s important for us is that making is not separate from thinking. I get really mad when I hear people say, “Well my work is more rigorous because I am doing more theoretical works”—no it’s not. The act of making takes high intelligence, to see things that no one else has made before. It is one thing to look at Mondrian and say I can make this red square and some yellow over here, but no one did it until he did it—he was the first to do it. That is an intellectual leap that is huge! If you can do that then that’s rigorous thinking, so I usually slap people around when they say that sort of stuff. There are two MFAs on our faculty and three PhDs, but four of us are artists, and only one of us isn’t an artist, everybody else is. We all make something. Even the guy that is not making something, I make him sit through discussions on making. We are making culture.