Infrastructure and Lab Policy
“Policy” is a catch-all term for the set of rules, laws, and tools that a government or institution uses to manage activity in a particular cultural sphere. As Michel Foucault explains at length in Security, Territory, Population, the root of the word “policy” is “police,” which in turn points to the fact that policy manages the relationship of the individual to the State and to other individuals.22 One of the ways it accomplishes this task is by the production, regulation, and maintenance of various kinds of infrastructures. Policy has an obligate relationship with infrastructure; it can lay out the conditions necessary to produce new infrastructures, and it can modify or manage existing infrastructures that have emerged piecemeal, but it is also developed according to infrastructural needs and requires a functioning infrastructure of its own in order to come into being at all and operate consistently and effectively.
Lab infrastructure has a thick policy layer that is particularly visible in tightly regulated government, institutional, and university labs. Hybrid labs such as media labs, art labs, and hack labs may well express an oppositional stance, but the operations of many are subvented by operating funds from universities and grants from arts organizations. Even the refusal to take any funding whatsoever, as in the case of a squatter hacklab, still requires some sort of relationship to policy, insofar as such sites are nested in the implied governance infrastructures of urban planning, citizenship, and so on. Still, under such conditions, many hybrid labs have made significant progressive contributions both to their own fields and to trans-disciplinary policy discourse.
An increasingly important example for us while writing this book has been the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist and anti-colonialist marine science laboratory at Memorial University of Newfoundland specializing in the community-based and citizen-science monitoring of plastic pollution, with particular attention to the appearance of plastics in food webs.23 CLEAR’s policies and protocols for knowledge production are the opposite of gray literature in that they are designed for maximum visibility and circulation. Not only are their basic principles stated up front on their web page, along with sources of funding, current personnel rosters, and land acknowledgements, CLEAR has developed a Lab Book that explains everything on the same level, from their protocols for the visual processing of cod and other fish guts to look for tiny plastic traces without the aid of chemical analysis to how to run a weekly feminist science lab meeting.24 As a process document, the CLEAR Lab Book bears the traces of its own history. Deprecated protocols such as the “Protocol Using Premade 10% KOH to Dissolve Fish Guts,” which the lab no longer employs because it creates toxic substances, remain in the document as a trace of the parallel development of policy and practice. The Lab’s Director, Dr. Max Liboiron, is both a research scientist and Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Research) at Memorial University—a division of labor which makes it more likely that progressive grassroots policy developed in such labs might be formalized into official university protocols.
Hybrid labs introduce new challenges and may still have unforeseen limitations. A prudent response to this situation would be solid, progressive policy formation as an aspect of infrastructural work. The reality, however, is that policy formation is always playing catch-up to what is occurring in society. Labs of all sorts frequently play a role in that process, as the historical example of Home Economics labs in Western Canada shows in the following case study.