Founded by Scott Rettberg, Robert Coover, and Jeff Ballowe, the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) was established in Chicago in 1999 with Ballowe as its first President and Rettberg serving as Executive Director. During this period the ELO made the decision to embrace, along with hypertext narrative and fiction, emerging forms of electronic-based literary works, including interactive narrative, net poetry, and others. Supported early on through sponsorships from dot.com businesses, it changed direction following the dot.com crash and 9/11 and moved to UCLA under the guidance of noted media theorist N. Katherine Hayles, where it was supported by UCLA's English, SINAPSE, and DesignMedia Arts departments. Its first conference, "State of the Arts", was held at UCLA in 2002. Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink, the electronic literature artist writing under the name M. D. Coverley, took over as the Organization's second president at this time. Also during this period the ELO's publications about preservation, archiving and dissemination, Acid-Free Bits (2004) and Born-Again Bits (2005) occurred; work on the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1, an anthology of electronic literary works, was also begun.
In 2006, upon the departure of Hayles from UCLA to Duke University, the ELO moved to the University of Maryland, College Park where it was supported by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities under the direction of Digital Humanities scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum, with literary scholar Joseph Tabbi serving as President. Under Tabbi's leadership, the Organization developed the Consortium on Electronic Literature (CELL), "an open access, non-commercial resource offering centralized access to literary databases, archives, and institutional programs in the literary arts and scholarship, with a focus on electronic literature." The project received funding from a National Endowment for the Humanities Start Up Grant. The growth of the Organization due to its academic affiliations created the need to bring electronic literature scholars and artists together more frequently. This awareness led to the ELO's symposium, "The Future of Electronic Literature", that took place at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 3, 2007 and its first open conference and festival, "Visionary Landscapes", at Washington State University Vancouver, chaired by Dene Grigar and John Barber in June 2008.
In 2010 the ELO moved to MIT under the leadership of then-President Nick Montfort (2010-2013) and later Grigar (2013-2019). This period is marked by the publication of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volumes 2 and 3, as well as the Pathfinders Project, produced by Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. Also during this period, the ELO expanded its Board of Directors to include international scholars and artists and began hosting conferences and festivals outside the United States. Following the 2010 conference and festival at Brown University, chaired by John Cayley, and the 2012 conference and festival at West Virginia University, chaired by Sandy Baldwin, the ELO held conferences and festivals in Paris, France (2013); Milwaukee, WI (2014); Bergen, Norway (2015); and Victoria, B.C. (2016). It also held exhibits, readings, and performances at venues and events like the Library of Congress, the Kitchen, Modern Language Association, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the Society of Literature, Science and the Arts, and the International Symposium on Electronic Art. The book series, Electronic Literature, edited by Helen Burgess, Dene Grigar, Maria Mencia, and Rui Torres and published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, was developed while the ELO was located at MIT. Partnerships with the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) and the New Media Consortium (NMC) also occurred during this period. On July 1, 2017 the Organization moved to Washington State University Vancouver.
During its history, the Organization has been supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada).
The activities of the organisation include:
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