Hybrid Labs and Policy
The Home Economics Extension project is an important example of hybrid lab practice for many reasons. One of them is that it demonstrates the cyclical relationship of situated lab work and policy formation (whether vicious or virtuous) made possible by the infrastructural connections between them. If we can better understand this process, it can be of great assistance in our efforts to understand hybrid labs in other contexts.
One of the issues that we have spent a lot of time considering while working on this book is whether the spread of hybrid labs was merely a form of “science envy”—a tactic for the humanities to legitimize itself in the face of a wave of early twenty-first century neoliberal attacks about their relevancy and legitimacy. But it is not as simple as “the studio is like a lab,” or “the lab is like a studio.” In the twentieth century, there was a third term to which both referred. This reference included an expanded circuit relating to production, productivity, economy, and metaphorics. Peter Galison and Caroline A. Jones argue that in the decades following World War II, both labs and studios were part of the same cultural order, where the larger model for both was factory production.51 Further, despite this common relation, neither lab nor studio starts to become “like” a factory:
We do not see the decentering of the laboratory or the dispersal of the studio as merely ‘mirroring’ some independent, underlying change in the economy. Instead, we find large consortia of laboratories participating in the same dynamical process of coordination that one finds among consortia of companies; equally, we see the production of artistic meaning since the 1970s as honing the very discursive systems that enable a service-and-consumer economy to flourish . . . Positing an industrial ‘base’ that either is autonomous, or univalently determinative, of the cultural sphere of scientific-artistic work fails to capture these worlds’ fluidity, permeability, and coextensiveness.52
In other words, both lab and studio function according to the factory model, but they also contribute to its development in turn. That is, factories reciprocally start to adopt some of the characteristics of the science lab and the art studio. But “large consortia of laboratories” and “processes of coordination” are the stuff of infrastructure and policy, not discourse alone. Arguments like the one Galison and Jones make here suggest there is more to consider in terms of the longer history of other kinds of institutions in relation to laboratories and lab discourse.
For example, powerful art institutions have a much longer relationship to lab discourse than one might expect. This is different than artists talking about their studios as labs; when an institution takes the studio-as-lab metaphor and mobilizes it as policy, the metaphor begins to accrete authority, and culture likewise shifts on national and international levels as infrastructure support begins to appear. Consider also the longer institutional history of a major moment in hybrid lab discourse. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art staged the landmark “Art in Our Time” exhibition to mark its tenth anniversary. In the Art in Our Time catalog, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who had been appointed Director in 1929, wrote the following: “The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory. In its experiments the public is invited to participate.”53 Such a statement about the role and function of an institution like the MOMA was possible because of a history of institutional policy pronouncements dating from the nineteenth century.
Indeed, Sybil Gordon Kantor recounts how in the 1920s, the Fogg Museum at Harvard had already been referring to itself as a laboratory.54 On the opening of the new Fogg, Paul J. Sachs described it as “a laboratory of the fine arts”; Kantor, arguing that the arts should be treated on equal footing with the laboratory sciences, notes that “the notion of a laboratory was consistent with the authority of science found in the critical writings of the period.”55 Kantor explains that the infrastructural support for Barr making such a statement came even earlier, when he was teaching what may have been America’s first course on modern art at Wellesley College in 1927. Alice Van Vechten Brown, Director of the Wellesley’s Farnsworth Museum, had initiated “The Wellesley Method” for the study of art history in 1897, with the proviso that technical training in the form of “laboratory work” would occur alongside a conventional art history survey.56 Laboratory work at Wellesley took the form of experimenting with materials and techniques. Students conducted exercises dealing with materials associated with the specific historical production of art in different times and places, such as gesso, egg tempera, and gilding.57 The process is clear: individual practical operations concatenate into techniques and methods, which then become part of an institutional discourse that is formalized as policy (as such, there is a deep relationship here between lab work, policy, and cultural techniques, one that we touch on in chapter 7). The policy allows for the creation of infrastructure to support similar activity at that institution. If the policy successfully produces new infrastructures, other institutions take notice while at the same time administrators (who circulate from one institution to another) take scraps of successful policy with them and build on it for their new employer. We would be remiss, though, in suggesting that arts institutions in the twentieth century were simply capitalizing on the value of lab discourse. The historical exchange between labs, studios, factories, or discourses of knowledge, creativity, and work has only become more complex.
We are going to conclude this chapter with two sections that present significantly different policy and infrastructural approaches to the role of labs in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century universities. As academics, this is a subject that we approach out of necessity, with a mixture of hope and trepidation. We see an enormous amount of potential in hybrid labs to change our institutional cultures for the better. Many hybrid labs are developing their own protocols and policy documents for how to conduct academic research differently. The Collection and Publication protocol at Monash University’s Emerging Technologies Lab is one good example.58 Another is the work out of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) at Memorial University on the ethical aspects of research circulation.59 The patient production and circulation of documents by labs such as these exerts a small but persistent pressure on policy makers to change processes and infrastructures to increase accessibility and equity. But there is also an enormous amount of pressure on universities to instrumentalize education to ever-greater degrees, usually operating under the rubrics of creativity and disruption and using labs as its vehicle.