Written by Dene Grigar, Co-Founder of The NEXT
How best to preserve and present born-digital art like electronic literature, which engages with language in ways that are participatory, interactive, and experiential?
That was the design challenge we faced with the development of Electronic Literature Organization's The NEXT.
In conceptualizing the space for the thousands of works of electronic literature, we started with the premise that just as physical artifacts, like paintings and books, have required brick and mortar spaces to contain them, electronic literature requires virtual, multimedial spaces for holding it. The result from this line of thinking is a virtual space, a multimedial museum, library, and preservation environment, created to reflect the needs of its artifacts as well as assure their long-term accessibility to the public, both present and future.
The NEXT's archives contain a wide array of digital and physical media related to born-digital art and expressive writing, including the digital files of the works; artist's notes; ephemera associated with performances, exhibitions, and publications; and scholarship in the original language as well as in translation, when available. The mix media aspect of its collections, thus, necessitates the space be designed to encourage a dialectic with the art in varying "degrees of openness, access, participation" and see its art as "moments" rather than merely "works" (Dziekan 63-70). It is intended to create what Maria Lind describes as "contact surfaces between works of art, curated projects, and people, about various forms and intensities of communicating about and around art" (88). The fragility of the digital art it holds suggests that The NEXT allow us to "inhabit our past and adventure into our future (Giannachi 184)." As a form of "memory architecture" (Giannachi 60), The NEXT does not attempt to act as gate-keeper that defines the value of a work of art but rather as a space that documents a broad swath of human expression at a time, in comparison to print culture, is still in its early stage of development.
" As a form of "memory architecture" (Giannachi 60), The NEXT does not attempt to act as gate-keeper that defines value of a work of art but rather to document a broad swath of human expression at a time, which in comparison to print culture, is still in its early stage of development. "
We recognize that in this endeavor we cannot archive everything, but we can provide a robust representation of born-digital literary output from the late 20th century onward with a diverse collection of art and accompanying materials in a way that befits their virtuality and digitality.
The virtuality of the space is expressed through the participatory, interactive, and experiential qualities of its design. Videos make it possible for artists to greet visitors to their collections and briefly describe what they have donated to The NEXT. Commonplace features, like buttons and icons, come alive when touched to provide a sense of live-ness. Images drawn from events associated with the ELO's conferences, exhibitions, and performances capture the essence of the community. Visualizations produced with D3.js provide insights into the growth of the art form across the globe and the influence of publications held in The NEXT over time. Physical artifacts donated to The NEXT, like the brooch of Lady Nii created by artist Sarah Smith for her narrative game, King of Space, or the packaging used for the distribution of early hypertext works, are remade as 3D models that can be either manipulated by visitors or viewed as turntable videos. Works for which we have permission to share are made accessible via download; those that cannot be shared due to issues relating to copyright or obsolescence are visualized through GIFs or 3D models.
The collection strategy began, first, with the drive to provide a permanent archival space to fragile works published between 1986-2000 primarily on floppy disks by artists working in North America or online by influential collections, like Turbulence and the trAce Online Writing Centre. The ELO's own archives and collections were included in this early phase of collecting. The looming demise of Adobe Flash promised at the end of 2020 resulted in the collection expanding to include a wider range of artists working from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s across the globe who published works on the web and on CD-ROM as well as influential online journals that emerged during that same period. More recently we have worked to diversify the collections to include more non-English language works, focusing much attention on Latin America, francophone Canada, the Middle East, and Europe. Since its founding in 2018, The NEXT has grown from seven to 34 collections amounting to over 3000 works, with many more to add in the coming months.
Currently in its fourth phase of development, The NEXT was originally seeded in 2018 by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation submitted by Dene Grigar, Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver; Leonardo Flores, Appalachian State University; Nicholas Schiller, Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver; and Chase Adams, Harry Ransom Humanities Center. Phase 1 saw the development of the site and the migration of the works' metadata. Providing support during this phase was the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, led by Ray Siemens, and Compute Canada. Phase 2, begun in the fall 2020, resulted in the plans for a new user-friendly interface, the creation of new page templates, the re-organization of the archives into six collection categories, and the development of its extended metadata schema, ELMS. Phase 3, which took place from January to May 2021, saw the reconceptualization of the repository into a virtual, multimedia space and the completion of its reconstruction and rebranding as The NEXT. Phase 4, the current phase, focuses on making The NEXT better accessible to visitors via Semantic HTML and Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), as well as addressing disability justice concerns via the enhancement of the ELMS metadata schema. It also includes plans to grow collections by adding Regina Pinto's The Museum of the Essential and Beyond That and artist collections for Stuart Moulthrop, Alan Sondheim, and Reiner Strasser, among others.
Much of the labor to create The NEXT in Phases 2 and 3 has come from volunteers, primarily from the staff of Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and advanced undergraduate students from Washington State University Vancouver's Creative Media & Digital Culture program. ELL's Director, Grigar, produced the vision for the project and continues to serve as its managing director and curator. Holly Slocum is the designer of the space and serves as its project manager. Six students worked during Phase 2 of the project to build the preliminary templates from the design created by Slocum and conceptualized by Grigar. But the heavy lifting was undertaken by 39 students who worked with Grigar, Slocum, and Greg Philbrook, the lab's technical expert, to build the space and its contents. During this period a PhD candidate from the Department of English, Richard Snyder, was brought into the project as Assistant Director of the lab, to oversee the refinement of the metadata for the works in the collections, and to serve along with Grigar, Slocum, and Philbrook, as the fourth principle in the project. Additionally, a team of two trained in Flash preservation began work to save the many Flash works held in The NEXT. Phase 4 is underway with a team constituted from Phase 3 who continue to produce images, videos, animations, and 3D models for the project, and undertake Flash preservation activities.