In the Beginning . . . : Naming Before Being
Before we tackle the particularities of the space inside a lab, we need to attend to how we delineate that space. What are the boundaries of the lab? What is the inside and what is the outside? Given the fairly recent proliferation of virtual labs, what is the inside and the outside of a lab that lacks a physical presence?
Part of the answer begins with a performative statement. Very often the answer to the question of where a lab begins and ends is that “this [whatever ‘this’ points to] is a lab because I say it is.” For example, within higher education, we have come across numerous entities which identify as labs but whose existence is either partly or entirely virtual—entities such as the website Hook & Eye (dedicated to writings on “the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system”), SpiderWebShow.ca (a “practice-based network” for the performing arts in Canada), and the Queer Media Database (an online research and curatorial tool for Canadian and Québécois queer film). All of these entities may have physical meeting spaces associated with their activities, but they also all situate a substantial amount of their identity and their output online.7 While we can point to scholarship in media studies dating back at least as far as the 1980s that recognizes online networks have their own unique spatiality, what’s interesting for us about this cluster of online labs is that most of the contributors live in geographical proximity to each other (in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada), making it clear that even labs which appear to be labs in name only are part of and produce spatial relations.8 In this case, the spatiality of the physical and the virtual are in constant conversation with each other such that the boundary separating the inside from the outside of these labs lies within an online network and within a network of social relations. The power to utter the performative sentence is also institutional. In the case of Hook & Eye and the Queer Media Database, professorial power bestows the ability on someone to declare something a lab. The space of the university makes the founders and editors of these websites professors, which in turn gives them the ability to designate their spaces (no matter how heterodox) as labs; the designation points to the long chain of space and discourse that is threaded together by power relations.
A lab is always a set of social relations, technologies and inscription devices which includes the object of study . . . even the largest objects of study. Another example of how performative acts of naming delineate spatial existence comes from outside of higher education, shortly before the total solar eclipse that took place during August 2017. A news outlet out of Northampton, MA reported that University of Massachusetts Boston professor Kiersten Kerby-Patel and two George Mason University professors were going to use “the sky as a laboratory.” In order to monitor changes in the ionosphere during the eclipse, they organized a crowdsourced experiment to gather data from observers across the United States.9 Here, the space of the lab is the very sky itself, bounded not by walls, windows or doors, but by the horizon and the movement of the earth around the sun. Calling the sky a “lab” does the discursive work of providing coherent boundaries for the study of the solar eclipse, presumably along with a methodology for such study, such that this naming and delineation legitimizes the findings of citizen scientists.
As we note in the Introduction, there is also a clear and obvious trend outside of higher education to use “lab” to refer to anything from men’s’ grooming products (“Lab Series: Skincare for Men”) to cocktail bars (“Bar Lab”) to department store displays (“Design Lab”). In these cases, contemporary lab discourse—which normally uses the trappings of lab space to derive its legitimacy—has abandoned spatiality altogether for the sake of pure symbolic content. Such double discourse simply connotes scientificity and legitimacy to market otherwise ordinary products.
However, outside of higher education, “lab” does often indicate some kind of bounded space. In such instances, the stakes are often much higher than whether customers will buy an item of clothing or a skincare product. For example, the “lab” in Strategic Communication Laboratories, the parent company to Cambridge Analytica, seemed to indicate a collection of linked office workers and spaces all dedicated to the study, tracking, and manipulation of public opinion and political will via an online platform such as Facebook. SCL, which described itself as a “global election management agency,” has been linked to so-called “influence operations” relating most recently to Brexit and the US 2016 presidential elections. SCL was also linked to a series of stories that broke in 2017 and 2018 about the manipulation of psychometric data obtained from Facebook.10 While the SCL Group announced on May 1, 2018 that it was closing operations, its website and staff continue to operate. Thus, SCL Group’s now-virtual existence, combined with the fact that there has never been any publicly available documentation or account of its physical space, infrastructure, and daily operations, illustrates the stakes of a total lack of transparency about lab space and lab operations: an exploitation of both lab naming and lab black boxing make possible the control and manipulation of information on a global scale.
That said, in some instances in the realm outside of higher education, capital co-exists with and even supports a kind of self-conscious critique of rationality. (Toby Miller and George Yùdice have noted that this apparent contradiction is one of the hallmarks of “postmodern” cultural policy. In the name of social inclusion, many institutions routinely legitimize and fund individuals and groups that oppose them as a form of governing strategy.11) The stakes in these cases are not so much about the exploitation and manipulation that a lack of transparency about space makes possible, but whether one can literally make space for playful, open-ended experimentation and/or education that has no particular investment in profit.
Take, for example, HICapacity, a Hackerspace in Hawaii. Both its virtual and physical spaces meet a wide variety of community needs, and their arrangement reflects those needs. Edward Kim, the main contact for HICapacity, elaborates on the organization’s purposefully flexible and variable community-oriented goals:
At HICapacity, the organization’s goals influence and are influenced by its space. As Kim goes on to explain, HICapacity is both a virtual space that enables “meet-ups,” and a community-funded physical space that lends itself to collaborative efforts. We include his thorough description of the space below because it delineates all three parts of Lefebvre’s conceptual triad for understanding space: it is itself a representation of space; it describes the organization’s spatial practice insofar as the space shapes and is shaped by the subjects occupying that space; and it also describes itself as a representational space for a whole range of lived experiences.
Membership fees go to paying rent on an office located at the “Manoa Innovation Center” . . . The office itself is a cozy 400-ish square foot space with windows that face out the exterior of the building toward the street. This is great because it lets in a lot of sunlight and has windows that open to let out air. This is important because we do have movable soldering stations and although we do have a single fume extractor, an open window is also handy to have around if there is need for more than one soldering station. Moving on, we have lockers, two small desks for personal use, and one larger desk for hardware-specific work. There is also one conference-style desk that most people sit around during our events to not only work but converse with others as well. We feel that this setup allows people to freely work off to the side if they have a deadline, or join the group at the conference table for whatever discussion is happening . . . As for the items in the space—about a dozen office chairs of various brands, a few computers . . . a few monitors, a number of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, robots of all shapes and sizes and brands, a bike rack . . . a bookshelf with many engineering-related books, and a lot of assorted cables. There’s also a single projector if anyone wants to throw something up for everything to look at or for movie nights. Lastly, there are many random microcontrollers and microchips, and one (working) 3D printer. The majority of these were donated or found on street corners. . . . The current infrastructure is adequate for most nights but on nights where there’s a large event happening, the biggest trouble is locating more chairs. There have been times where we’ve had to ask neighboring offices to donate chairs for larger events or unexpected crowds . . . But given that membership funds just barely cover rent, and there’s no critical need, we get by and hope for more donations.
Everything in and of the space matters: the square footage; the size and location of the windows; the nature, quantity and organization of the furniture; the specific lab apparatus; the lab’s sources of funding and/or dependence on donations; the backgrounds of the lab’s denizens and visitors; and the type, size, and frequency of the events they host.
Our final example in this section is simply called “THE LAB”—an event space attached Ada’s Technical Books and Café in Seattle, US. This space serves as one more instance of an attempt to make room in the public realm for playful, open-ended experimentation. Its proprietors advertise “THE LAB” as a space that will give you “the feeling of old-science, meets modern inventiveness—with a dash of mystery in the mix. So you walk away having experienced something special—and hopefully having learned something new, maybe mysterious, and always fascinating.”13 “THE LAB” is part of a larger cluster consisting of a bookstore, a cafe, and a coworking space, all of which help support their goal of producing educational experiences within the constraints of the current cultural order. Yet “THE LAB” does not seem to be interested in invoking objectivity, science, futurity or innovation, nor does it seem interested in the complete eradication of labness. Indeed, for co-owners Danielle and David Hulton, why not take advantage of the capaciousness of the term “lab” while playfully drawing attention to the ways in which labs have long been leveraged for the production of supposedly legitimate knowledge and instead invoke feeling, invention and mystery?
That said, the invocation of mystery in this context does not mean black boxing the nature of the space along with what might be possible within it. While SCL is intentionally opaque about where its lab space is located and the precise nature of the activities that take place there, “THE LAB” is utterly transparent not only about its space, but also about the sorts of spatial practices—activities, events, and relationships—that it makes possible. According to its website, “THE LAB”’s 545 square feet includes a completely stocked bar, a coat room, in-house system and mic, wifi and high speed internet access, air conditioning and heat, and numerous flexible seating options. Their website even provides architectural plans outlining classroom-style seating for 13–15 people, theater-style seating for 40–43 people, and open-space seating also for 40–43 people. These diagrams illustrate the influence that the production of space has on who accesses lab space and how. Think, for example, about how the seating size and arrangements can accommodate certain body sizes over others, and how the location of the sound booth will likewise affect the experience of sound for people in the room.
What these examples show in concert is that taken on their own, location, funding sources or mission statements don’t necessarily indicate anything about whether a given lab seeks to be innovative, experimental and radical, or whether the orchestration of its everyday activities reflects its stated values. A more accurate measurement of the distance between the lab’s discourse and its actual goals and activities is the extent to which the lab self-consciously and transparently accounts for its organization of and responsiveness to space.