Case Study: The Maker Lab in the Humanities
Closer to media design than media arts, the question of “how to prototype the past?” is a guiding motivation at the Maker Lab in the Humanities (MLab) at the University of Victoria. Founder Jentery Sayers and graduate student (as of this writing) Tiffany Chan talk about the MLab as a site of media theory and design methodologies: “The technologies we prototype are dated anywhere between the 1850s and 1950s, which give us a sense of media history prior to personal computing but after early feedback control and related mechanics. These prototypes usually inform present-day technologies—wearables, cloud computing, and optical character recognition, for example—by giving them a sense of texture and change.”27
As a type of inverted speculative design, this approach resonates with Garnet Hertz’s idea of the past as a storehouse for invention, and with philosophical and media-archaeological observations that the source of the new is the result of an active engagement with moments in the past that have been betrayed, forgotten, or put aside for any number of reasons.28 Protoyping the past looks for “absences in the historical record” but is more than just documenting. Instead, it creatively re-engages, reframes, and rearticulates pasts as experiential.29
The Mlab approach expands on the discourse of makers and making by way of a practice-based history that picks up on established design techniques from other professional and amateur contexts such as “the kit.” The Mlab’s “Kits for Cultural History” are a key part of the lab’s methodology, which they explain in terms of a specific humanities approach to research:
Rather than communicating humanities research solely in a written format, these open-source kits encourage hands-on, exploratory engagements that playfully resist instrumentalism as well as determinism. In so doing, they prompt audiences to consider how the material particulars of historical mechanisms are embedded in culture, without assuming that, in the present, we can ever experience the world like “they did back then.”30
More than a model of an historical artifact, the kit serves as both a prop and a conceptual device. For example, The “Early Wearable Technologies Kit” is a wooden jewellery box containing prototypes of Victorian electro-mobile wearables that renders media history tactile.31 Through its simulation of the “actual” past, the kit reconfigures the possible imaginaries around a particular technology or historical situation (see also Chapter 6 on Lab Imaginaries). As a sort of time-axis disjuncture, the kit works to enrich the sense of the contemporary as an overlapping set of temporal layers. It becomes an interface for a rich world of considerations about the social relations and imaginaries that stretch between actual pasts and potential presents, offering a set of temporal relations more complex than conventional linear time.
These spaces and their attendant apparatuses allow for the practice of something close to what Andreas Fickers and Annie van den Oever describe as “experimental media archaeology”—their term for a hands-on, embodied and situated methodology for investigating media history through re-staging or re-enactment. They do not, however, offer a short-cut to an authentic version of how something operated in its original historical context. Rather, they offer methodological support for other forms of historical work: “The heuristic value of doing historical re-enactments lies therefore not in the (impossible) reconstruction of an “authentic” historical experience, but in creating a sensorial and intellectual experiment that will demonstrate the differences between textual, visual, and performative approaches to the past.”32
In the case of the Fundus, the object of re-construction or performative knowledge is not particular texts or past works. Instead, work with the apparatus (which includes the lab collection’s holdings) leads to a set of theoretical ideas that become something other than a re-writing (of a particular case study, for example). Through interactions with its apparatus, the Fundus starts to tell a story that complements the work of those involved in digital humanities in particular ways. That is, it provides a way to consider the persistent uses and reuses, collections, and re-constructions of media as a set of practices that expand what digital humanities might mean.
For example, to think of early telegraphy as a digital technology shifts and perhaps even undermines assumptions about technological change. Even if simplistic accounts of what constitutes the digital still persist in current rhetoric even in academia, this change in perspective complicates the usual assumption of “progress” from analog to digital. Insisting on the primacy of post-digital as the preferred term paves the way to discussing the longer history of digitality before digital computing, such as codifying messages as “dots and dashes” in telegraphic communication.33 In this sense, the focus of the apparatus in the Fundus and its attendant methods speaks to an interest in establishing new relations to knowledge about media culture. In fact, as a hybrid lab space, the Fundus may even help produce a different different mindset for the humanities scholars and students.