Case Study: The Media Archaeological Fundus, Part 1
While never explicitly positioning itself in contrast to the MIT ML, Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) presents a radically different model of how a hybrid lab might shape and be shaped by its space. The MAF is not only substantially smaller in terms of its total square footage, the number of denizens in and around the lab, and its operating budget; its guiding principles are also nearly diametrically opposed to those of the MIT ML. Rather than being driven by a dedication to newness, invention, innovation, and profit, the MAF is dedicated to uncovering the material life of technological devices. Furthermore, quite unlike Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory or the MIT ML, the MAF inherited a lab space that was already institutionally built and previously occupied rather than ordering a made-to-measure space to embody its philosophies, goals, and activities.61 However, despite its inheritance of institutional space, the MAF is the inverse of Menlo Park and the MIT ML insofar as it is adept at existing within the strictures of institutionality while actually unsettling its systems of organization and control.
The MAF came into being in 2003 when the seminar for Theatre Studies at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin became a seminar for Media Studies.62 What a reader not well versed in the German higher educational system might not understand from this statement is that “seminar” refers not only to a weekly meeting of graduate students led by a professor; it is also something akin to a program, headed up by a Chair. Thus, 2003 is also the year Ernst was first hired at as Full Professor of Media Theories, and when he was commissioned with the foundation of the seminar and Master’s program in media studies. With the hiring of Ernst and the founding of the MAF, the individual, institutional and philosophical merge, around a particular space inherited from Theatre Studies. As Ernst puts it:
[a]ll of a sudden, spaces like the student practicing stage and its related fund of objects for rehearsal were empty. This was the ideal moment for the Berlin school of media studies (insisting on the materialities of communication and epistemic technologies) to claim such rooms under new auspices. The stage became the Media Theatre where technical devices themselves become the protagonist, and the fund became the space for a collection of requisites of a new kind: media archaeological artefacts.63
Name, space and philosophy became entangled under the sign of the MAF, which provides the literal and figurative stage for media archaeology, and perhaps even the impetus for the importance it places on hands-on experimentation. Ten years later, in his first English-language volume, Digital Memory and the Archive, Ernst describes it like this: “media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge.”64 In contrast to the hands-on experimentation and making at the heart of Menlo Park and the MIT ML, hands-on practice in the Fundus emerges from the subversion of a theatre space in order to encourage the treatment of objects of media technologies as bearers and creators of their own temporalities. Yet, despite the MAF’s difference from Menlo Park and the MIT ML, its media-archaeological practice also would not be possible without buttressing from a very particular kind of institutional space strongly reminiscent of the anatomical theaters and apothecaries we discuss earlier as well—one signaled by a bare, orange table in the middle of a sunken rather than raised central space whose walls are lined by shelves of media arranged not chronologically but rather by their core, underlying units of operational affinity.
Before we delve into the particularities of the MAF’s interior space, we must attend to the larger, exterior, spatial qualities of the lab, as we did for Menlo Park and the MIT ML. The MAF is located in the basement of a building belonging to the Department of Musicology at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, about a half a mile north of the main university campus. It is in a dense urban area on the south side of the Spree river, across from Berlin’s Museum Island, as if the MAF uses geography to take an oppositional stance to the hands-off mandates of institutional museums. As an indicator of the stature of the neighborhood, it is also located right next to the private flat of the German chancellor Angela Merkel. According to a plaque affixed to the exterior of the building, no less than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lived there from 1828 to the time of his death in 1831.
The building’s exterior produces a sense of itself as a monolith. The building itself dates back to the early nineteenth century and includes features that Alexander both endorsed and warned against. Working in its favor is the fact that the off-campus building opens directly on the street and so appears to engage more directly with the public world rather than a more cloistered university environment would permit.
While this potential for greater communication (and even learning) with the public is supported by the row of street-level windows looking down into the MAF, it is also somewhat undone by the nondescript main entrance, whose architectural importance seems equal to the building’s windows.65
Upon entering the MAF, one finds oneself on a landing which, like the earliest anatomical theatres, provides a bird’s-eye view of the space and the collection. Since the MAF does not aspire to become a popular stop-over on Berlin’s museum circuit, another effect of the raised landing is the sense that the space is more for the life of technological devices and less for human denizens. Descending a set of stairs places a visitor eye-level with the shelves of items, wrapping around the perimeter of the main room. In the center is the lab’s main workbench, for analyzing technological items “in action to reveal their media essence.”66 The MAF also extends into a smaller, rectangular, adjoining room, which includes yet more technological devices as well as a small collection of reference materials, placing it in the long genealogy of lab spaces that contain libraries.
If the MAF is intentionally placeful—a bounded space that also responds to its situatedness—then how does that placefulness, combined with the lab’s particular modes of thinking, play out in the activities that takes place there? One of the results has to do with the teaching that occurs there, by way of an explicit acknowledgement of bias. Ernst explains:
The bias of MAF-based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media,” and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph e. g. operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission. Retro-futurism, understood in this way, hints at a non-linear relation between past and present media technologies, a short-circuiting of media tempor(e)alities which escapes traditional, narrative history of technology. Instead of one media system resulting from another, there are sudden recursions.67
The MAF assemblage demonstrates how institutional and disciplinary shifts, the inheritance and undermining of a physical space, along with the inheritance and undermining of a specific scholarly nomenclature, the hiring of a particular person with frank “biases” and specialized pedagogical practices all play out across this network of forces. The MAF is both an exemplification and a microcosm of these forces as it demonstrates once more how labs are insistently unique. Each is shaped not only by their physical space, but also by those within and beyond their walls.