An Interview with Stefan Höltgen of the Signal Lab
Interview by Darren Wershler, Jussi Parikka, and Lori Emerson
August 29, 2016
Stefan Höltgen runs the Signal Lab in Berlin as well as the Media Archaeological Fundus, founded by Wolfgang Ernst who is chair of Media Theory at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Stefan Höltgen: The Signal Laboratory (SL) was founded 2003 as a lab for studying media hardware and their signals by opening them and measuring frequencies, sound outputs, and voltages. When I joined the Center for Musicology and Media Studies in 2011 I began to collect vintage computer hardware, peripherals, and software for my research project (“on the archaeology of the early microcomputer and its programming”) and as examples for my teaching lessons about hardware, programming and computer history. The SL soon became a place where my colleagues and I repaired and restored those old machines to learn about their functioning. That is the main difference from the Fundus, where media archaeological artifacts are collected and restored to function in principle which means: to show how their technology work(ed).The intersection between the SL and the Fundus is the question we both ask: How do those technologies relate to their history and their presence when you don't look at them as economical, techno-historical, or social (e.g. the effects on the user, the society …) gadgets but as “signal processing” media—where the media in the SL are mostly produce programmable digitally coded signals and those of the Fundus are of both sorts: analogue and digital—but not programmable.
Interviewers: Following the boom concerning “Media Labs” (at MIT and then other places too) in the 1980s, we are now building more and more Humanities Labs—some connected to Digital Humanities, some to Design, some to other sorts of Humanities spaces and activities. How does the Signal Lab relate to the broader theme of labs in contemporary humanities that are being faced with the technological (as Kittler has noted)?
Stefan Höltgen: There are no actual research connections to those kinds of labs. But when we come to the point of the SL as a teaching space I think we are doing basic work for people who want to work in those technologically “infected” humanities labs: We are teaching electronics, programming, and topics of the informatics/computer sciences from the viewpoint of media theory. So our students won't become proper programmers but merely hackers that are able to estimate the technological connections between the medium (especially electronic computer) and its user.
Interviewers: A more specific connection lies with technological practices—critical design, DIY, the maker movement and more. Furthermore, the existence of “Fablabs” has gathered momentum over the past years in different contexts. What are the specific connections and disconnections to such labs that also engage with a “making”, hands-on approach to technology, but seem to be built on different premises (not least, around much talked about kits like 3D printers, laser cutters, and various other sorts of technologies)?
Stefan Höltgen: The most obvious disconnection is our theoretical approach to media technology. All our practical work is based on questions about the epistemology of media and media culture. That includes a special methodology: media archaeology (for the Fundus) and computer archaeology (for the SL). With this our “making” is a kind of “critical history”: when we connect a new device (like a flash card memory) to an old computer (like the C64) we do this not only to run our own “homebrew” software on real hardware but to confront and “glue” slices of media history together to see what will happen, why this is happening and if the (historical) differences of those hardwares are really so significant as the media history tries to tell us.
Interviewers: You are actively engaged in the retro computing scene as well—how does this feed back to the thinking of the Signal Lab? Furthermore, one could speculate that media archaeology—with its emphasis on the value of “old” media, sometimes even coined dead—is also sometimes at risk of being conflated with a nostalgic discourse and practices; what is your response to such accusations that the practices promoted under the guise of media archaeology risk being nostalgic?
Stefan Höltgen: Nostalgia is a very important “first trigger” for re-using old/dead/vintage hardware and software. But most of those users would withdraw their activities when the feeling of nostalgia disappears. We tell those users that nostalgia isn't really the energy for their engagement because you can't use an “old medium”: the moment you turn it on it is totally present/in presence. Even if you use your C64 with its old floppy drive and old games you are playing those games now and you are bringing it to function now. So the term “retro” isn't just a badge for “vintage culture” but a figure of time for the “short cut” between the past and the present. Perhaps nostalgia is the Freudian (un)canny feeling of this short cut—that you are never be able to return to the past but to resume past activities with present knowledge, culture, and technology.
It is with this meaning of “retro” in mind that I opened the SL in 2012 (when we moved to our new location) for colleagues, students and people from out of the university: there are quarterly hosted “Game Circuits” which provide “operational game studies” that share a view on new games for old computers and vice versa. And there is a weekly “Signals & Noises” workshop at the SL that provides a “retro hacker space” where you can learn assembly language for old computers with new cross platform development methods, solder or repair your own electronic gadgets or talk to other retro computer enthusiasts. In 2014 we founded a “Vintage Computing Festival Berlin” (that differs from the well known “Vintage Computer Festivals” all over the world by changing “computer” with the gerund “computing” to stress on the actual activity) in our department.