Mouse button or cursor

Donna Leishman’s latest piece of electronic literature, “Contemplating Flight” viewers help shape the plot depending on where they click a mouse button or move their cursor.

Leishman fans who come to Clark College this weekend to explore the digital narrative will first see an image of a bird sitting on a branch. Using a mouse to navigate the screen, the viewer can make the bird blink or tweet, or move fruit on the tree. Ultimately, how the mouse moves helps determine the story.

Electronic literature such as Leishman’s narrative can’t fully be appreciated in print. It’s part of an art form whose entire history spans just a few decades and has expanded in scope along with computer technology.

This weekend Washington State University Vancouver, Clark College and North Bank Artists Gallery will team up to trace the evolution of media art. They’ll present everything from pioneering digital fiction from the mid-1980s, computer-based pieces using hypertext to move readers sequentially through stories, to recent, more pictorial Web fiction and avant-garde multimedia performance art created on the spot with dynamic combinations of sound and video.

The exhibits are being held in conjunction with the Electronic Literature Organization’s 2008 conference. Hosted by WSU Vancouver, the event will bring 120 scholars and artists from the United States, Europe, Canada, Asia and South America to Vancouver to share their work and discuss the field. Artists will be on hand tonight and Saturday evenings at the exhibits to talk about their work.
Seeing media art’s progression from simple computer text to flashy colors, sounds and games will help drive home how dependent artists working in the genre are on evolving technology, said Dene Grigar, associate professor and program director of digital technology and culture at WSU Vancouver.

The advent of Web browsers and high-speed Internet connections, for example, allows color and sound to be used in ways that weren’t possible for early media artists such as Michael Joyce, Grigar said.

Today’s media art includes, among other things, Internet radio, story-driven online games and virtual environments such as Second Life.

Venues participating in this weekend’s show will emphasize different aspects of media art past and present.

North Bank Artists Gallery will focus on current trends. It will spotlight such work as Kate Pullinger’s complex multimedia story “Inanimate Alice” and an improvisational sound and video show, “Exploding Plastic and Inevitable Redux,” by Steve Gibson and Stefan Müller. In Gibson and Müller’s performance, notes on their instruments are programmed to correspond to certain images. As they play, these visuals will be projected onto overhead screens.

The Clark College exhibit also will showcase work by today’s leaders in media art, including Leishman’s “Contemplating Flight.”

WSU Vancouver will take a step back, tracing the roots of media art. Scholars don’t all agree on when the art form emerged. Some argue it was in the 1950s and ’60s, when mainframe computers dominated the technology scene. Most say it was 1984, when Apple introduced the Macintosh desktop computer.

WSU Vancouver’s exhibit will include examples of early electronic literature by media art pioneers such as Joyce, Judy Malloy and Jim Rosenberg.

Grigar hopes the show will help raise awareness about this relatively new type of art and way of reading.

“We want to introduce people to an art form not prevalent yet,” she said.

MARY ANN ALBRIGHT can be reached at or 360-735-4507.

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