Case Study: The Signal Laboratory
The Signal Laboratory, directed by Stefan Höltgen, is focused on more recent technologies than the Fundus. As one enters the Signal Lab, one is struck by the centrality of hardware. However, the focus on hardware in the Signal Lab is not on the hardness of the shells, but on the technical principles of signal processing, making it another useful example of a hybrid lab. Though the Signal Lab is resembles many seminar rooms for humanities activities and teaching, it is also similar to the Fundus in that it features a large desk in the middle for practice-based tinkering. The Telefunken TA-742 catches one’s eye first, and then, gradually, one notices artifacts that are more familiar to anyone who has spent time in a media history lab—a Commodore 64, an Amstrad CPC 6128, an Atari 800XL, and a TRS-80. Once new media technologies, these now-obsolete computers are the sort of antiquated curiosities that one might find in a nostalgic collector’s media-technological curiosity cabinet—a visual performance of the evolutionary dead ends and terata of the technical world. Such apparatuses and collections bear a strong family resemblace to the modern labs of the 19th and 20th century as places of technical experiments. But here the collection is less for the sake of accumulating oddities to spark conversation than to serve as a monument (in Foucault’s sense) of the era of signal processing.
Höltgen narrates how the focus for the Signal project grew out of his personal research interests, but also how it resonates with the wider media-archaeological work at the Institute and with the wider retrocomputing community outside the university. Collecting is one central activity in the creation of the lab:
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 [Signal Laboratory] soon became a place where my colleagues and I repaired and restored those old machines to learn about their functioning. [. . .] The intersection between the SL and the Fundus is the question we both ask: How does 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.23
As the eponymous center of the Signal Lab’s work, signals take on material form via the artefacts that make up the collection. In the aggregate, the Signal collection stages a kind of argument that differs in some important respects from other narratives about the digital culture of signals.24 In Stewart Brand’s version of the argument, which popularized the work of the MIT Media Lab in his 1987 account The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, the grand narrative prescribes a turn to immaterial signal worlds. Unlike books and literary culture and unlike the industrial revolution and its “mass-produced hardware,” Brand saw the information culture of signals as the particular defining characteristic of the computational future.25 As he puts it, emphasizing the necessity of digital labs as the privileged sites of informational culture, “[p]ower was shifting from the material world to the immaterial world.”26 Instead of resolving the question about signal culture, though, he moves swiftly from the assumption of wirelessness to that of immateriality. It was a powerful narrative at the moment of its inception, but the emergence of spaces like the Fundus and the Signal Lab and their attendant infrastructure provides a useful set of qualifications to it. Research collections of signal artefacts present a range of different ways of framing what, exactly, the “digital” is. Cables, antennas, consoles, emulators and other components become ways to investigate the materiality of the signal itself as an object of analysis. As a form of lab apparatus, hardware collections like those in the Fundus and the Signal Laboratory provide one vehicle to those epistemological and material questions.