Research and Teaching Collections as Part of the Material Apparatus of the Hybrid Lab
Many of the places we cite and investigate are reminiscent of the genealogy of research collections, which stand as just one example of the longue duree of humanities infrastructure. As David Ludwig and Cornelia Weber contend, The research and teaching collection is,a residual form that has re-emerged as part of humanities infrastructure over the past few decades34. While one could certainly make a case about how early modern cabinets of curiosities are one element in how research collections relate the laboratory activities and a visual as well as spatial sense of knowledge, these collections became a central part of the creation of research universities in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries.35 Indeed, they were perceived as essential to the work of research. Marta Lourenço outlines in her comprehensive study of the history and current state of research collections how such collections did much of what hybrid labs do as well: “Observing, touching, handling, feeling, assembling experiments, and often cutting, testing, opening to see what is inside, is more beneficial—even essential—to the cognitive process than looking at illustrations in a textbook.”36
In the context of hybrid labs,, research collections function as part of the lab’s material apparatus, much like its collection of documents. In many cases,texts and things are assembled to establish a close connection between the two. The material connections in research collections are often reminiscent of scientific instrument collections, and, in many cases, constitute a media-archaeological treasure trove. Broadly speaking, scientific instrument collections contain two kinds of objects: instruments that have actually been used as lab apparatus and instruments that demonstrate scientific principles but would generally not be used in experiments, such noble gas spheres, Van De Graaf generators, Tesla coils, models, and replicas of various kinds. Many objects in media-archaeological labs fall into the latter category ,or they represent a synthesis of the two. Obsolete consumer electronics, such as the historical video game consoles at the Residual Media Depot, or Ernst’s flip-flop switch at the Fundus, can often be used to demonstrate particular theoretical or practical problems.
Collections are not merely for :”original” or “authentic” objects. Instead, materials, texts, and representations are part of a post-digital assemblage, where a thing and its representation co-exist. In many cases, the impetus for interest in the collection in the first place is to produce representations for inclusion in a digital repository. This can include, for example, digitized copies of reel-to-reel tapes, photos of obscure media technologies and their attendant documentation and equipage, and so on. As a result of this transfer of images of items into the digital, the collection itself becomes a virtual lab space for the various activities that crisscross more traditional modes of research.
Both historically and in current hybrid lab usage, collections of digitized and more tangible objects allow for a different set of practices to emerge as the condition for pedagogy and research. While the hands-on principle is clearly an essential part of the lab-research collection hybrid, it also lends itself to new ways of understanding what it means for objects of research to be in proximity with each other. Assembling objects that create the conditions for something more ephemeral to emerge into aggregates can transform them into something available for research. Take, for example, the ephemeral but quite real backbone of technological culture we touch on above: the signal. While the legacy of research collections means that many are focused on extending their holdings from text(books) to things, from reading and writing to the material objects of culture, current collections are also interested in that which exists outside the hard surfaces of hardware.
Practices of collecting also provide a means to start developing an infrastructure that ties teaching with research and publication. In Berlin, an understanding of the key features of modern mathematics and physics was already part of the curriculum of the institute (not least in Kittler’s seminars). And it is important to realize that the practice of the seminar has itself interesting roots in the period of emergence of modern research universities in the 19th century. With originality as part of the construction of the Romantic ethos, the seminar was the center of humanities learning.37 As William Clark argues, even during its earlier history, the seminar was a form that mixed state bureaucracy and charismatic leadership.38 Most germane for our purposes, though, is Clark’s reminder that “[s]ome of the earliest university research laboratories were even at first called seminars.”39
From its relative beginnings, then, the seminar was also a site of practice:
In the seminar, students read only works of ancient Greek or Latin authors, or secondary works on classical philology. Methodological training, practice in grammatical analysis, textual interpretation, and critique proceeded not as abstract theory, but rather from the study of the sources themselves. Most directors no longer sought to provide a survey of the accumulated contents of philology, much less of the humanities in general. [. . .] In seminar, one learnt now to be a philologist, a researcher.40
The seminar’s meticulous close attention to philological details had wider repercussions in the methodological story about the humanities of books and writing, but it is just as interesting to consider its role in the story of labs and their apparatus. As Jonathan Sterne puts it in his contribution to Analog Humanities, “the problem of canons in the humanities has always been a media problem, and specifically a media resources problem.”41 As we discuss throughout this book but especially in our chapters on space and infrastructure, in the case of labs, it is productive to think of the humanities in terms of an apparatus and infrastructure problem: how are the routines of humanities research and teaching organized by the spaces in which they occur and the devices that can be found in them? In this light, Kittler’s seminars are one part of the ongoing cultural history of the seminar as a form that prepares certain themes that have been rebranded as proper to the Digital Humanities—from the close focus on texts to the ability to read and investigate the object-worlds of technology.42
Another way to put it would be to say that the humanities tradition of close reading found a new use in research collections of technological artefacts, including signal worlds and circuit boards. Reading and texts became attached to experimental activity. Of course the book and various techniques of reading were part of the process that formed the apparatus of the seminar, but also in many ways, they were also integral to the formation of labs and have continued to linger. For example, in representations of early modern labs in the 17th century, reading was already visible. As Schmidgen writes: “In this way, a new synthesis of manual and textual knowledge was represented visually, defining the laboratory not only as a place of manual work, but also as a space of reading and writing.”43 And in both science labs and hybrid labs, we continuously and persistently read peer-reviewed research, newsletters and blogs, trade publications, email, memos, and other forms of grey literature, media theory, among other things. No wonder Latour and Woolgar place so much emphasis on inscription and reading in labs.44
Hybrid labs perform their epistemological work in a manner similar to the way that the science lab already performed its own practices of knowledge, such that the epistemic object (as science studies coined it after Georges Canguilhem and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger) is also treated as a media object, but not necessarily a tangible one, even if it also has a material reality.45 This sort of approach to hybrid lab apparatus sometimes occurs through mathematics and information theory as well as engineering, and it complicates what might otherwise be hastily dismissed as either a hardware-reductionist account or, conversely, the fallacy of the digital immaterial. Instead, we think that it’s useful to consider such hands-on material analysis, potentially combined with mathematics, as key components of media analysis and pedagogy. Again the continuity from Kittler’s early seminars, from the moment he began to look at approaches other than the close reading of texts, is worth noting. Kittler was the “first renegade Germanist to teach computer programming.” The Media Studies institute connected to the Fundus and the Signal Laboratory is one of the very few places which has offered undergraduate courses with titles like “Mathematics for Media Studies” and “Logic for Media Scholars” where arithmetic as well as signal processing appear as part of the humanities curriculum.46
Moving now to non-academic hybrid labs, even though much of the shine has gone off the notion of “the sharing economy” over the past few years, the resource-sharing and communal aspects have long been key elements of such spaces. Less tied to discourses of digital innovation than to practices of community and grassroots learning, British media labs in the 1990s were emblematic of this spirit, which built up a different way of understanding the possibilities of their respective apparatuses. A relevant example that emerged from this scene was and is the Access Space, which is still operational in Sheffield, UK. At the Access Space, the focus from its relative beginnings has been on the repair of old, discarded computer networking technologies. In this case, the technologies are not present primarily as epistemic objects in the STS sense. What is at the center of all the activity there is learning, and the passing on of learning. The Access Space apparatus becomes a recursive and recycling form of community-building; if you learn something, you must pass it on. Charlotte Frost describes the communities which the space reaches for learning as follows: “As evidence of the success of this system Access Space boasts impressive outreach capacity: more than a thousand regular visitors, of which only about thirty-five percent are university educated, and over half are unemployed, and they habitually work with people experiencing disabilities, learning disorders, poor health, homelessness or other measures of exclusion.”47 The result is a very different emphasis than one would find in a space like the MIT Media Lab. Indeed, as a sort of a rejoinder to the One Laptop Per Child project (see chapter five for our critique of it), Access Space and Furtherfield’s joint project Zero Dollar Laptop worked with homeless people and developed an education program that combined the activities of repairing and maintaining with pedagogical principles developed from free and open-source software.
While there are clearly community-oriented spaces on university campuses that open spaces of higher education to a wider range of participants—for example, as we discuss in greater depth below, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado Boulder hosts tours and workshops for visitors from the general public—the primary function of many university-based hybrid labs is different. Even if such labs emerge from a proximity to technology that is less “bells and whistles” and more about demystifying “all manner of computer-based skills” like many of the community and activist labs like Access Space, the institutional articulations of the lab produce a different set of priorities, for better and worse.48 We can see how the emergence of such hybrid spaces—even small-scale media labs such as the MAL—respond to the discourse of interdiscipinarity not by new sorts of networking, but building from (and sometimes against) the grain of university infrastructure. Instead of using their collections to instrumentally teach technological skills and humanities methods, the discipinarity rethinking starts from the ground up—or in cases like the Fundus, from the underground up, focusing on the production of inter-, or better, transdisciplinary spaces.