Curatorial Statement, by Dene Grigar
On December 31, 2020 Adobe dropped support of Flash software, a premier platform for net art popular in the late 20th century to first decade of the 21st. Within weeks, born-digital literature created with the software were no longer accessible to the public—including the 447 the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) had collected in its repository. By the end of January 2021 the Electronic Literature Lab’s efforts to restore ELO’s Flash archives began in earnest with a variety of methods: Ruffle.rs, Conifer, Webrecorder, and video recordings attained with the Pale Moon browser and the Wayback Machine. This exhibition, featuring 48 works the lab selected from the online journals and anthologies held in the ELO's archives, lays bare both the importance of Flash as a platform for conveying highly experimental and compelling literary art and the challenges artists and preservationists face in keeping the art produced with it accessible to the public.
The Electronic Literature Organization has long acknowledged the importance of Flash as a key platform of artistic expression. Of the 62 works published in its first anthology, Electronic Literature Collection (ELC) 1 in 2005, 26 were produced with Flash. Both ELC 2 (2011) and ELC 3 (2016) featured Flash works even as its use waned following the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007. Flash also figured largely in the ELO’s acquisition of, first, Turbulence in 2017, and, second, the TrAce Online Writing Centre, particularly its online journal frAme, in 2018 for its repository that launched in 2019. Nearly a quarter of the 356 works showcased by Turbulence were produced with Flash, for example. Subsequent acquisitions over the last two years of other important showcases, online journals, anthologies, and individual artists’s works by the organization have resulted in ELO managing or owning over 500 Flash works in over 30 different collections.
As I prepare this exhibition for its launch tomorrow, I have discovered that several of the works we saved with Ruffle.rs weeks ago are no longer accessible and so need to be tested. This exhibition therefore lays bare both the organization's early endeavor to save Flash works—from implementing Ruffle.rs and Conifer, to hosting and recording events where artists perform their work, to tracking down video documentation born-digital Flash works on YouTube, to working directly with artists to gain access to their files and documentation—and the challenges in doing so. What I have learned personally from this effort is that we must stay vigilant and proactive if we want to save our cultural heritage from extinction.
In curating this exhibition, I recognized that 48 works are a lot for a visitor to take in all at once, so, I organized the works into four categories. The eight works included in Experiments with Language represent those, like María Mencia's "Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs," that ask us to rethink the symbolic aspect of words and letters as the songs of birds as they glide and soar across the screen. Moving Words features 10 works of Flash poetry. Some like John Kusch's "Red Lily" take the form of a linear poem where words are presented across several screens and set to music, while others like Rob Kendall's "Faith" demonstrate the power of Flash to instantiate the movement suggested in the word itself, a literary device unique to motion graphics that I have termed "kinepoeia." Experiential Storytelling includes 11 narratives and episodic novels that involve rich graphics and sound. Donna Leishman's atmospheric "Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw" stands out for its strong use of graphics for conveying a historical account of demonic possession. Finally, Innovative Forms features 19 works that take us away from traditional print genres. Christine Wilks' "Fitting the Pattern," for example, asks readers to cut and switch elements together to reveal a memoir; Jason Nelson's "i made this. you play this. we are enemies." explores the game interface as a site for critiquing digital culture.
By no means does this exhibition reflect a complete view of ELO’s holdings relating to Flash. Rather, it makes accessible only about 10% of those collected by the organization and certainly far less than what should be celebrated—and saved. But it does underscore the need for funding agencies that foster art and literature, as well as scholars and the general public who genuinely care about culture and history, to support the preservation of this crucial phase of artistic expression as it has evolved from the world of print to that of computing devices. For these works demonstrate the unique affordances of the Flash platform for producing breath-taking, innovative, and transformational born-digital poetry, fiction, essays, and other forms of literary experiences.