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Polishing its reputation for experimental lit, MIT to host the Electronic Literature Organization

MIT has long been a premier center of technological innovation. On July 1, a new locus for literary innovation was added to the mix: the campus began hosting the headquarters of the Electronic Literature Organization.

The Electronic Literature Organization, or ELO, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization composed of an international community that includes writers, artists, teachers, scholars and developers. The Organization’s focus is new literary forms that are made to be read on digital systems, including smartphones, Web browsers and networked computers.

ELO is coming to MIT with the support of MIT’s world-renowned Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program. CMS, which has an undergraduate major, a graduate program and several large-scale research projects, is committed to the art of thinking across media forms, theoretical domains, cultural contexts and historical periods. The program considers media change and the rise of new forms of writing in different eras, including our current one. ELO’s supporting and collaborating organizations at MIT include the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies; the Council for the Arts at MIT; Hyperstudio; the Literature Section; and the Singapore/MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.

There is already a great deal of work in electronic literature ongoing at MIT, including that being done by ELO President Nick Montfort and ELO Director Fox Harrell, who are both on the MIT faculty. The Boston area is home to several other ELO directors and to a great deal of digital art activity, thanks to organizations such as the Boston Cyberarts Festival,, the AXIOM Gallery, the Upgrade! Boston series, and the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

“ELO and MIT have already been successful in advancing the state of the art in electronic literature,” Montfort says. “Now, by working together, we have a chance to sustain ELO’s core operations and projects and to further MIT’s existing commitment to electronic literature. ELO’s coming to MIT will be an chance to find new opportunities for collaboration, here in Cambridge and beyond.”

ELO was founded in 1999 by novelist Robert Coover, electronic author Scott Rettberg and Internet business leader Jeff Ballowe. The Organization was operated from an office in Chicago until it moved to UCLA in 2001. In 2006, ELO’s headquarters came to the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities (MITH). “ELO’s relationships with its academic hosts have been extremely productive for the organization,” Montfort says. “We’re very grateful for the ways that UCLA and MITH have helped us to accomplish our mission, sustain and add projects, and develop as an organization. With work from ELO’s directors, members and collaborators, we’re now going to try to establish a long-term home for ELO at MIT that will allow the organization and the campus to continue to benefit from their collaboration for many years.”

ELO’s main projects are currently a biannual conference, the Electronic Literature Directory, the Electronic Literature Collection (the second volume of which was released this past Spring: and the site.

ELO Director and Associate Professor of Digital Media Harrell agrees. “MIT is an ideal home for the Electronic Literature Organization,” says Harrell, who also heads the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab at MIT. “The humanities at MIT have long combined literature and the arts with technology — not to mention that MIT holds an illustrious place in the history of text-adventure games. Since I work in both the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), having an organization on campus that naturally combines the humanities and computing makes it easier to explain what my lab does.”

Co-founder Rettberg expressed pride in the ELO’s accomplishments. “We put together the ELO back in 1999 in order to give the field of electronic literature — and the community of artists and writers develop literary experiences specific to the computer — a kind of voice and institutional identity that did not exist at the time.” He added that even a mere 10 years ago, people were much more skeptical to even the idea of literature made on and for the networked computer. “Forming a literary nonprofit helped both to strengthen the community of artists and scholars and to make more people in the general reading public aware of these new literary innovations and practices.”

He concurred with Harrell and Montfort:

"I think there are a number of reasons why MIT and the ELO are a good match: both entities are focused on how technology can be used to better society, and to create an ever-more interesting culture. Technology isn't simply a utilitarian aspect of our lives or a set of tools, but pervasive in every aspect of our contemporary lives. What better place to support and develop innovation in technological arts than MIT? Nick has been with the ELO from the very beginning. He and I worked to bring electronic literature readings to the Boston Cyberarts Festival back in 2000, and worked together on the first Electronic Literature Collection in 2006. He has always been very committed to the work of this organization, and I could not be more pleased that he is serving as the President of the ELO. His leadership has been essential. Fox has been a very inventive and influential artist and theorist in the field, particularly in developing compelling expressive processing platforms."

Rettberg described it as “a great bonus” for the ELO to have two active and involved board members at MIT.

“We hope the organization will remain and prosper in years to come.”

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