Curatorial Statement

Hypertext & Art

by Dene Grigar, PhD

“Hypertext & Art: A Retrospective of Forms” is part of the Association of Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Hypertext and Social Media 2023 Conference took place in Rome at the Bibliotheca Hertziana—Max Planck Institute for Art History from 5-8 September. It continues to run at The NEXT as a virtual exhibition until 31 October, 2023.

For conference participants comprised, for the most part, of data scientists, computer scientists, and social scientists, the exhibition expanded the understanding of the various ways hypertext has been expressed by artists, world-wide, both in terms of the systems they used and genres with which they experimented. As an extension of the conference held in an important cultural icon as well as a virtual space, the exhibition promotes hypertext as a scientific field of study and artistic practice to new audiences. As such, the exhibition features a wide array of hypertext art produced from the mid-1980s to the present by artists and scientists working in and creating a variety of platforms and approaches and offers an exploration into the forms of hypertext that have emerged over the last 35 years, influencing, as media theorist Jay David Bolter claims, the way we think (2). [1]

For those reading this curatorial statement who are new to hypertext, it is important to point out that its beginnings can be traced to Ted Nelson who coined the term in 1965 and defined it as “non-sequential writing” (29, 91) and “branching and responding” media (27). [2] Decades later Astrid Ensslin describes hypertext as “a largely script-based form of interactive computer-based literature, translating previously linear forms of writing into a technologically nonlinear format and thereby instigating multilinear reading processes” (20). [3] For the purpose of this exhibition, it is an experimental, creative approach to art built on varying degrees of connectivity, choice, open-endedness, multilinearity, and multivocality. [4]

Divided into four thematic sections—Authoring Systems and the Art They Wrought (1986-present), Early Web & the Affordances of the Browser (1995-2000), Beyond the Click: Experimental Methods for Navigating and Experiencing Hypertext Art, and Conserving Hypertext Art—the exhibition takes a broad look at the development of hypertext systems and art, from the platforms used for artistic production to ways in which artists leveraged the affordances and constraints of hypertextual environments. Many of the works produced between 1986 to the mid-1990s are displayed on legacy computers, specifically Macintosh Classic IIs running System Software 7.0.1, so that visitors can experience early hypertexts as they were originally envisioned for access. Likewise, later works produced after the Apple Corporation shifted from the Classic operating system to MacOS X, are shown on Apple iMacs sold from 2007 to the mid-2010s running 10.10.1 (Yosemite). Accompanying these works are contextual materials, such as interviews, Traversals, and web-based hypertexts, displayed on iPads.

Among the many treasures on display is a rare copy of Lozenzo Miglioli’s RA-DIO, published by Human Systems in 1993, presented in its original packaging holding the book and two 3.5-inch floppy disks, consisting of his pioneering hypertext as well as Walter Vannini’s 1993 Italian translation of Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story. Also available to the public is the box of 5.25-inch floppy disks and inserts of Judy Malloy’s 1986-88 Uncle Roger and Christiane Heibach’s 2003 Literatur im elektronischen Raum, a book of critical essays and accompanying CD-ROM of web-based hypertexts. Of interest, too, are the various manuscripts of Tim McLaughlin's Notes Beyond Absolute Zero, hand-produced by the artist; the pinwheel Deena Larsen created as a method for teaching new audiences about hypertext; and the headset created by Stefan Schemat for The Breathing Wall in 2004.

The legacy computers used for this exhibition constitute part of the collection of the hardware and software owned by Dene Grigar and used in the Electronic Literature Lab for research into net art, born-digital literature, and video games. The four Macintosh Classic IIs were donated to Grigar by Deena Larsen in spring 2023 along with 21 Classics, Classic IIs, SEs, and SE/30s that she purchased years ago from the Denver public school system. The four iMacs, dating from 2007-2010, were among those signed over to the lab by WSUV when the university upgraded computer classrooms.

It's important to note also that all the pre-Web works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. shown in the exhibition come from Grigar's personal collection she has built since the early 1990s. The curator would like to thank, however, Walter Vannini for loaning his copy of RA-DIO and for the time he took to travel to Regensberg, Germany, in May 2023 to give it directly to her. It is a joy to include this important piece of hypertext art in the exhibition and to share it as a 3D animated model on the archival website. Likewise, a special thank you to Christiane Heibach who gifted Grigar a copy of Literatur im elektronischen Raum during her visit to Regensberg and for giving Grigar permission to exhibit it in the exhibition. The manuscripts of Tim McLaughlin's Notes Toward Absolute Zero and Deena Larsen's pinwheel are on loan from ELO's The NEXT.

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3.1 Theme One: “Authoring Systems and the Art They Wrought (1986-Present)”

The exhibition begins with a focus on the hypertext authoring systems that emerged in the mid 1980s and key examples of the art produced with them.

While the first hypertext authoring systems, HES (Hypertext Editing System) and FRESS (File Retrieval and Editing System), were built under the direction of Andries van Dam at Brown University for use on mainframes, their wider use occurred when these systems were made available for personal computers. [5] Featured in this section is Ben Shneiderman’s Hyperties, which began its development in 1983 at the University of Maryland as "TIES" (The Electronic Encyclopedia System) but later changed to Hyperties due to copyright issues. It was sold commercially for the IBM PC by Cognetics Corporation and envisioned as an information knowledge system in the vein of those used by museums of the period. The example seen in this exhibition is the July 1988 issue of Communications of the ACM running on a virtual machine. It would be remiss to not mention that Shneiderman is credited for the blue hyperlink so common to webpages today. [13]

The popularity of hypertext authoring systems for the production of art, however, is often attributed to the emergence of Macintosh computers whose graphical user interface (GUI) focused on user experience and a keen interest in aesthetics. Visitors will find many examples for this platform, from HyperCard (1987-1998), created by Apple’s Bill Atkinson and bundled free on Macintosh computers; to Hypergate (1987-1991), developed by Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc.; to Storyspace (1987-present), produced originally by Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John B. Smith and later licensed to Eastgate Systems, Inc., in 1990.

Each hypertext authoring system is presented with art contemporary with it. For example, Hypergate is highlighted by Mark Bernstein and Erin Sweeney's 1988 hypermedia essay, The Election of 1912, the first of 48 titles published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. and one of three produced with this authoring system. HyperCard 2.0 is shown via Deena Larsen's 1993 Marble Springs, which along with John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse also included in this exhibition, represents two best examples of artistic mastery of the tool. Storyspace, the most influential hypertext authoring system among artists is seen in this section of the exhibition via Lorenzo Miglioli's 1993 RA-DIO that includes Walter Vannini’s translation of Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story; and Tim McLaughlin’s 1995 Notes Beyond Absolute Zero. Visitors will be struck by the structural differences between these systems: The interfaces of Hypergate and HyperCard resemble a stack of notecards on which information can be accessed by clicking on buttons, while Storypace presents readers with the choice of multiple reading paths (31) [6] through complex linking structures. It is due to Storyspace’s ability to extend the book environment through its hypertextual elements that it achieved the status as the go-to system for the creation of "serious" hypertext. [7] During this pre-Web period (1988-1995), [8] Eastgate Systems, Inc. published 31 of its 48 titles of hypertext literary art, most of which on the Storyspace hypertext authoring system.

While these are examples of self-contained systems aimed for a specific stand-alone computer platform—IBM, Macintosh, and Windows—the introduction of the browser for accessing the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s made it possible for the development of authoring systems to distribute content widely across the Web and readily accessible on contemporary computers. The rise of Flash, first known as FutureWave (1993-1996), then Macromedia Flash (1996-2005), and finally Adobe Flash (2005-2020), was used for creating interactive, hypermedia sites that were relatively easy to produce. Lello Masucci’s 2012 I Love You leverages Flash's cinematic quality and animation capabilities with striking colors and graceful movement. More recently, Twine, a free software platform developed by Chris Klimas, first, in Python in 2009 and then, later, JavaScript, has become a popular hypertext authoring system for the production of narratives and games. Natalia Theodoridou's award-winning Sleepless utilizes the dynamic quality of the platform, along with is ability to incorporate images and sound seamlessly, for imbuing the work with a sense of confusion and unease.

Two of the works in this section of the exhibition, Rob Swigart's 1986 video game Portal and John Barber and Greg Philbrook’s 2019 Sound Spheres, constitute hypertextual works programmed in computer languages. The former relied on Assembly (ASM), a low-level symbolic code, for building a storyworld that covers thousands of years and multiple dimensions told through accessing 12 databases. Played with either a joystick or mouse and available for the Commodore 64, Amiga, IBM PC, Apple II, Macintosh, the work is only accessible today via emulation. The 2023 adaptation of the game for the Virtual Reality game, entitled DATA ENTRY: PORTAL, also featured in this exhibition, however, was produced on the game engine, Unreal, used widely for video game production; its many 3D objects, many of which allow for a hypertextual experience, was produced with Autodesk’s Maya software program. Sound Spheres, a work that allows users to capture and remix music, words, and sounds, was built in JavaScript, which allows for the complex media to come together seamlessly on screen.

Computer #1: VirtualBox & DOSBox running on 24” iMac, running MacOS 10.10.01

Computer #2: Macintosh Classic II, running System Software 7.0.1

Computer #3: 21.5” iMac, running MacOS 10.10.1

3.2 Theme Two: Early Web & the Affordances of the Browser (1995-2000)

While the World Wide Web had been invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee and made available to the public in 1991, it was the graphical Web browsers—Mosaic in 1993 (available first on UNIX but later for Apple and Windows computers), Netscape Navigator in 1994, and Internet Explorer in 1995—that mainstreamed the Web and opened up opportunities for artists to distribute their work to online audiences. This section of the exhibition features hypertext art created from 1995 to 2000 during this period of the Web’s growth as a medium of expression and includes pioneering artists who experimented with its hypertextual possibilities in unique ways.

Judy Malloy, for example, long used the internet for making art. Her Uncle Roger was published from 1986 to 1988 on The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), an influential Internet community founded in 1985, first as a serial novel with the conference system Picospan and, later, in various forms for stand-alone computers with the authoring system she programmed called Narrabase. The version shown on the iMac computer is the one she produced for the Web in 1995; alongside it visitors will be able to experience the Traversal—that is, a playthrough of Uncle Roger—of Version 3.3, the one she programmed in AppleSoft BASIC for the Apple II computer in 1988. Visitors will also be able to see the way she translated the interactivity of the 1988 stand-alone version to the hypertext environment in 1995 Web version.

Mark Amerika, an award-winning American artist, is known for his innovative approach to the Web as a medium of expression. Grammatron, begun in 1993 and published in 1997, was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial and remains a seminal work of net art.

Selected for this section of the exhibition are other important net artists known for their extensive explorations of hypertext and the Web. Colombian artist Jaime Alejandro Rodriguez's Gabriella Infinita began, first, as a non-linear novel in 1995 before shifting to a hypernovel, and, finally, to a hypermedia novel in 1999. Produced with Flash, it immerses the reader with text, audio, images, and video. Likewise Snowfields by Stephanie Berry and Micz Flor and buona notte, angeli by Reiner Strasser highlight the important contributions of German artists to the production of hypertext art. Berry and Flor's work, for example, is one of six exemplary works published with Christiane Heibach's book, Literatur im elektronischen Raum, on CD-ROM; Strasser's work was first included in his internationally acclaimed weak blood project and, later, in a version for the trAce Online Writing Centre's Millennium Project led by Christy Sheffield Sanford. The final hypertext in this section, M. D. Coverley's Endless Suburbs uses the browser’s status bar for conveying a metanarrative that comments ironically on the theme of the American Dream presented in the narrative.

Computer #4: iMac, running MacOS 10.10


Computer #5: iMac, running MacOS 10.10

3.3 Theme 3: Beyond the Click: Experimental Methods for Navigating and Experiencing Hypertext Art

"I link therefore I am." This statement from Mark Amerika's Grammatron captures the awareness of the way in which hyperlinking emerged a dominant feature of hypertext experience on the Web. By the early 2000s many net artists looked for other ways to build navigation and user experience, using software, peripherals, and mobile devices for achieving these goals. This section of the exhibition features video documentation of several of these ground-breaking experiments.

Kate Pullinger, babel, and Stefan Schemat's The Breathing Wall is a hypertext narrative that harnesses the Hyper Trance Fiction (HTF), a software created by Schemat that responds to the human breath via a headset positioned beneath the reader’s nose. As the reader relaxes, they are able to delve deeper into the story. [9] This work saw its world premiere in July 2004 at the trAce Online Writing Centre’s Incubation conference held at Nottingham Trent University and hosted by pioneering artist and theorist Sue Thomas.

Also showcased is Byderhand, a locative narrative produced by a team of South African artists led by Franci Greyling, that uses QR codes accessed via a mobile device that provides a multisensory story of the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden to vision impaired visitors. Erik Loyer's Breathing Room utilizes the Leap Motion controller that allows readers to gesture over the device to navigate and access the story. Likewise, his Ruben and Lullaby, a mobile narrative created in 2009 about a pair of lovers having their first fight, responds to user movements and gesture by shaking, stroking, and turning the mobile device. The exhibition also features his recent Virtual Reality work, I Was a Ship in Space where users experience hypertextuality by touching 3D objects in the story in the VR environment.

Looping video on large screen monitor

3.4 Theme 4: Conserving Hypertext Art

So much of the hypertext art and authoring programs featured in this exhibition had become inaccessible to the public due to technological upgrades or loss of institutional support for hardware and/or software. Miglioli's RA-DIO, for example, can only be experienced on a legacy computer with a floppy disk drive. Even Lello Masucci's I Love You, created a little over a decade ago, is accessible today only because preservationists from the Electronic Literature Lab conserved the work after Adobe dropped support for Flash software in 2020. One may expect works produced 30 years ago to be inaccessible, but the fact that access is a problem for even recent works is untenable when one considers the cultural and historical implications of the loss of these hypertexts.

This section of the exhibition features hypertext art published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. that has been, until only recently, inaccessible to the public. Thankfully the company recognizes the value of this art and has supported their preservation. All but one, Michael Joyce's Twilight, A Symphony, have been reconstructed by the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, which is also responsible for this exhibition. Because reconstruction constitutes an act of translation, [10] these works are shown both as they originally were produced on a legacy computer that users could have used when the work was originally released and in their new formats for the Web via iPads. [11] In offering a look at both the classic and contemporary versions, the exhibition aims for visitors to observe, firsthand, decisions conservationists made that affect the works' aesthetics, functionality, and content.

The first grouping features some of the earliest hypertext art published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., beginning with Sarah Smith's science fiction narrative, King of Space. The last of three hypertexts produced with Hypergate, it was published on the floppy disk format just as the company was shifting to Storyspace as its main authoring system. It had been inaccessible since 1999 when Quicktime 4, which supported the many animations created for the work, was released. Another classic hypertext, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, fared better than Smith's work in that it was released both on floppy disk and the CD-ROM formats. That said, because it was created with HyperCard 2.0, it became challenging to access it on contemporary computers when Apple shifted to Mac OS X in 1998 and the company stop supporting the software entirely in 2004. Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, considered, along with McDaid’s "Funhouse," Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, a major pre-Web hypertext novel, was also available on both floppy disk and CD-ROM formats for Apple computers running the dual boot Classic / MacOS X operating systems. Since the early 2000s, however, it too has been inaccessible on contemporary computers.

The second grouping of works features hypertext novels produced after the mainstreaming of browser and, so, in cases like Michael Joyce's Twilight, A Symphony, remediate the Web with its sound, videos, and full-color images. Richard Holeton's Figurski at Findhorn on Acid uses the hypertext medium to create a complex linking structure that holds the novel tightly together around three characters, three locales, and three artifacts. The 2021 Web version offers a classic and contemporary reading mode, both of which maintain this structure and recreates the map view, a feature of many Storyspace hypertexts. David Kolb's Caged Texts is unique in that it was never published. Intended for inclusion in his 1994 hypertext essay, Socrates in the Labyrinth, its files were exported via Tinderbox and styled to reflect its playfulness. Bill Bly’s We Descend, the most recently reconstructed work, combines all three editions the artist published over the years into one interface that captures the depth of a novel that resembles an archaeological dig that recovers eons of cultural history. Joyce's Twilight, A Symphony, was reconstructed for the Web by Mariusz Pisarski and translated into Polish. Thus, it is the only work presented in this section of the exhibition that represents what Grigar and Pisarski called a “radical reconstruction,” a term that applies to works that have undergone both media and linguistic translation. [12]

The final work, DATA ENTRY: PORTAL, is an adaptation of Rob Swigart's Portal, featured in the first section of this exhibition, for the Virtual Reality environment. Currently in development, the work highlights the difference between reconstruction and adaptation and shows the way in which VR environments lend themselves to hypertextual experiences. Created under the guidance of the artist, DATA ENTRY: PORTAL is created by graduating seniors pursuing a Digital Technology & Culture degree at Washington State University Vancouver.

Computer #7: Classic II + three iPads

Computer #8: Classic II + three iPads

Computer #9: PC Laptop + Quest 2


[1] Jay David Bolter. 1991. >Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

[2] Ted Nelson. 1993. Literary Machines. According to Mark Anderson who has been instrumental in providing guidance about the many editions of the book, the 1993 Edition is the last (known) one produced. Citing pages from the work is challenging, for it appears that the page numbering is dependent on the reader one uses to access it. Formatting issues aside, what is important to point out is that Nelson, himself, mentions in the book that he first introduced the term hypertext in the 1965 paper, "A File Structure for the Complex, The Changing and the Indeterminate." As he states: “By now the word "hypertext" has become generally accepted for branching and responding text but the corresponding word, "hypermedia," meaning complexes of branching and responding graphics, movies and sound—as well as text—is much less used. Instead they use the strange phrase "interactive multimedia—four syllables longer, and not expressing the idea that it extends hypertext” (27).

[3] Astrid Ensslin. 2007. Canonizing Hypertext: Exploration and Construction. NY, NY: Continuum Press.

[4] George Landow. 1992. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.

[5] Jakob Nielsen. 1990. Hypertext and Hypermedia. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[6] N. Katherine Hayles. 2007. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

[7] The tagline for Eastgate System, Inc. is indeed "Serious Hypertext," which appeared on promotional materials for the company as early as 1991, following the critical success of Joyce’s afternoon, a story.

[8] The term "pre-Web" refers to the period before the mainstreaming of the World Wide Web made possible by graphical browsers.

[9] For more information, see The Breathing Wall, .

[10] Dene Grigar and Mariusz Pisarski. The Challenges of Born-Digital Fiction: Editions, Translations, and Emulations, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. The authors define media translation as "the transformation of a work, potentially, between formats, software, platforms, hardware, computer languages, and/or digital qualities in a way that impacts the human experience with such works. It may or may not involve linguistic transformation, but always the underlying code is affected and may or may not result in changes to functionality and presentation."

[11] In Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar make a case for experiencing works on the computing device for which works were originally conceived and developed the methodology, called the Traversal—that is, a playthrough of early works of born-digital media using the original hardware and software (7). See Moulthrop and Grigar, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

[12] ibid.

[13] Elise Blanchard. 2022. "Revisiting Why Hyperlinks Are Blue." dist://illed. .