Case Study: The Media Archaeological Fundus, Part 2
In the time that has passed since the appearance of the earliest digital media labs, our sense of the affordances of digital technologies has become considerably more complex. In the 1980s, running a digital media lab entailed a straightforward display of enthusiasm that seemed apt for an elite institution’s understanding of itself as a role model for culture at large. Lab boosters read the plasticity of the digital against more mundane analog worlds, which were inevitably found wanting. “What will remain analog? Only live face-to-face conversation and performance—–which may become newly valued,” as Stewart Brand famously narrated. Brand continues by quoting Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte: “I can see no reason for anyone to work in the analog domain anymore—sound, film, video. All transmission will be digital.”7 Perhaps. But the ongoing importance of standard maker, design and media lab apparatus such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, and hot air desoldering stations, but also screwdrivers, magnifying lenses and rolls of velcro has relativized the totalizing narrative of digital media, because such equipment points relentlessly to the materiality of the digital.8
The complex materiality of lab apparatus is also indicative of the messy social and economic forces that define the wider social and institutional field in which a lab sits. The messiness of lab apparatus is useful because it is a source of interesting clues about the uses, histories and places of those technologies in wider technological culture.9 When investigated closely, it might also provide the occasion to describe the digital as more than just a marketing term.
Contemporary labs are places where the “digital” is specified, sampled, materialised, discussed, fabricated, printed and theoretized, often in conjunction with much older technologies. In hybrid sites such as media archaeology labs, material objects are in a different historical situation than one that can blithely assume the analog as antiquated or the digital as brand-new. One of our favourite examples of this sort of messiness remains the Coach House Press in Toronto, which has been producing finely printed small-press literature since the 1960s, but was also the source of the HoTMetaL HTML editing tool and the Empress database in the 1990s. Around the turn of the millennium, they used an antique Challenge Gordon letterpress equipped with photopolymer plates to hand-stamp lettering on CD-ROMs. Such hybrid apparatus challenges linear histories of technology and narratives of technological progress through its ongoing role in everyday practice. Many contemporary hybrid labs regularly perform forensic and archaeological analyses of the underlying material and temporal layers of particular technological media. None of this is news to media theorists occupied with the study of technical media culture. Working with digital technologies is part of a longer legacy of work that has impacted the humanities since long before Roberto A. Busa’s work with IBM computers (often cited as the relative beginnings of digital humanities as a discipline). So let’s look at some of the sites that offer a different epistemology for the digital in hybrid humanities laboratories.
Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeological Fundus is a case in point. To revisit our reading of the Fundus in chapter two, the Fundus is part of the old address of Berlin media studies—the Sophienstrasse 22a—a classically important location because it houses many key Humboldt University departments, including Friedrich Kittler’s chair and seminar before it moved to its current location next to the central Museum district of Berlin. Claiming some of the space in the building meant understanding this underground cellar as part of the space of the institutional apparatus of knowledge, but also of thinking of it as part of an assemblage of other related spaces, inherited from earlier times. As Ernst elaborates: “The stage became the Media Theatre where technical devices themselves become the protagonist, and the fund became the space for a collection of requisites of a new kind: media archaeological artefacts.”10 In the wider context, this space emerges as a stage for post-digital materiality.
The Fundus is a classic example of a hybrid lab that lies somewhere between a collection, museum, archive, laboratory and space of play for encountering media objects:
The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) is a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography. Students, researchers and interested people are welcome to visit but also examine the so called Dead Media technologies.11
The Fundus is quite literally a fundus: both an underground cellar and the belly of contemporary material media studies. Inside, scholars have not only developed a research collection of epistemological objects, but a pedagogy to go along with it.12 Together, as an apparatus, the various epistemological objects incorporate an unfolding narrative about what sort of research and knowledge space the Fundus is.
It is also worth revisiting our point from chapter two that lab space is always about external relations as well as internal resources. The Fundus is located next to some of the most frequently visited Berlin tourist spaces and museums, including the archaeological collections at the Pergamon museum that feature Islamic and antique objects as well as the massive architectural reconstructions of the Pergamon Altar, Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon, and the Mshatta Façade. Suffice to say that when it comes to visitor numbers and collection highlights, the Fundus pales next to these majestic attractions. But truth be told, it also refrains from trying to be a museum. Next to the vast exhibition of the colonial age that awaits nearby, the Fundus’ objects are clearly of a different sort. Even its methodologies invite a different attitude than the majority of research collections, encouraging touch and the direct manipulation and operation of its objects, instead of merely looking at them. This tangibility is a large part of what distinguishes the Fundus from the usual functions of spaces where old media objects are on display and the different functions and modalities of knowledge incorporated in spaces like the museum, the archive, and the lab.
The Fundus and the Signal Laboratory (located in the same building) are hybrid spaces of research-teaching-collecting that form the infrastructural core of the media studies “school” at Humboldt University. They structure their spaces through the presence of apparatus. Machines sit on shelves running around the perimeter of the room. Empty tables in the middle invite visitors to remove machines from the shelves and use the tables for hands-on experimentation. The apparatus of these labs emphasizes an unapologetic rejection of the aura of the museum and an emphasis on serious hands-on research. The table is crucial in that it invites visitors to use the devices, catering to a sense of media that demands to observe technological devices while they are operating. As Wolfgang Ernst puts it, “[W]e have a “hands-on imperative” which is the opposite of materialistic preservation for the idea of preserving the knowledge within the apparatuses (that therefore often have to be damaged). We say that to all of our donators so they can decide if they want donate their stuff.”13 “Hands-on” is the recurring rallying cry that signals the central imperative of these labs, and what they aspire to accomplish. It also serves as shorthand for a whole range of assumptions about the space as a particular situated apparatus for media-theoretical practice.
The tidily organized rows of different technological objects constitute an expanded understanding of what “media” or even “technical media” can stand for in the Fundus. Besides optical toys, computers, radio instruments and other clearly identifiable “media,” the lab includes, among many other things, oscilloscopes, galvanometers, Geiger counters, a Biofeedback Psychometer, and vacuum tubes—a whole range of technical tools and measurement devices that are also media in a way that is not necessarily obvious to some media studies scholars (though they would not surprise anyone familiar with McLuhan’s broad conception of media).14 Some of these devices are measuring and recording instruments that are commonly part of a science lab’s apparatus, demonstrating once again that the supposed epistemological gap between sciences and the humanities is largely imaginary. If we think of it as a laboratory, the Fundus brings a different epistemological angle to the nature of the apparatus in and of the media lab.
Like other labs, it is also a place of specific, personalized relation with the machines that comprise the lab’s apparatus. One of the characteristics of the relation that the Fundus strives to develop is the sense that machines are not black boxes and that you can instead interact with them on many levels. For Ernst, media are media only when in operation. As a result of various interactions and manipulations, the machines in the Fundus collection open up as electromechanical assemblages, and their functioning principles become available for study. The individuals who have just performed these interactions go away changed as well, having practiced techniques that will alter their perspective on media in general.
A similar enthusiasm for building and reverse engineering burgeoned over the twentieth century, not only in the tradition of popular mechanics but also in contemporary hackerspaces and digital humanities labs (in which building and making have become central to digital humanities-related analyses). However, in Germany, media studies has its own connotations around hands-on work: instead of “studies,” wissenschaft (sometimes translated as “science”) has emerged as a term which refers broadly to systematic inquiry that integrates research and teaching. To speak of media sciences in this sense articulates the practice of analysis (and even interpretation) as applied to a different set of connotations and, somewhat quirkily, justifies the epithet of “lab” in novel ways.
Even before the current moment when lab discourse is omnipresent, this connotation served the tradition of media studies in Germany very well. Since Kittler and the “materialities of communication” moment in the 1990s, German media studies scholars have insisted that the methodological focus of the field is not merely a matter of writing, documentation, and interpretation, but is integrally related to interacting with engineering and scientific infrastructures. The realization that the roots of modern technical media in the scientific laboratory goes back to 19th century is what drives some of the key definitions of media in the German theory style. Media studies is a late arrival to the site where the scientific lab was already operating as a locus of experimentation, invention and technical media practice.15
Ernst elaborates both the laboratory functions of the humanities in general and the activities of the Fundus in particular as part of an established set of practices. He often points to the wave of emerging new media (art) institutions in the 90s, which imagined the “studio-lab” as part of the European media art scene, as an important precedent. In the late 1990s, Ernst complemented his background in history and classics with his work in the Media Lab at the (then-new) Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. At the time, access to new media technologies was restricted, and usually considered a luxury for those in the humanities. Since the earlier wave of artistic collaborations with technology during the Cold War, questions of access and sharing have been part of the larger formation of lab discourse. From the 1960s to the 1990s, in the context of grassroots media labs in both Europe and North America, a particular communitarian angle emerged, based on the idea of providing access to resources and tools (as in the famous motto of the Whole Earth Catalog).
However, media device collections like the one in the Fundus takes a different turn from the arts perspective that focused on providing access to new technologies. Ernst continues to elaborate the function of the space and its old media instruments as something like a research and teaching collection a historian might maintain. However, as we mention in the context of media archaeology labs in general, it comes with a different function that does not imitate historical methodologies. The aim of working with the research collection at the Fundus is not to offer a linear lesson about media history, nor is it to develop a narrative of progress that leads inexorably to the digital. Instead, working directly with the devices in the collection allows researchers to stage important principles that govern technical media in terms of their operations. Bit by bit, the Fundus and the Signal Lab unfold as platforms for operative staging that attach to concerns in engineering, mathematics and logic incorporated in modern media machines, as well as to critical and philosophical questions from the humanities tradition.
One object that Ernst often uses for staged demonstrations for Fundus visitors is the flip-flop circuit. As one might expect, the flip-flop has two states, on and off (or one and zero), which together can store a single bit of data. The flip-flop, then, provides access to the fundamental building blocks of any digital system and visualizes what is otherwise left hidden in digital machines: the switching function that defines circuit-based electronic culture. As Ernst puts it, this physical demonstration provides an opportunity to investigate fields such as the digital humanities which “require synchronous self-critical reflection of their own technological condition—a kind of ‘humanities of the digital’ in the sense of material media philology and classical auxiliary sciences of material investigation. What has been paleography or numismatics on the traditional humanities nowadays becomes media forensics (in Kirschenbaum’s sense).”16
Juxtaposition, comparison and other sorts of techniques that the lab apparatus enables are, then, a second order of apparatus, in that they are components in the construction of an argument. Consider how Ernst explains and narrativizes the role of the flip-flop as part of the research collection and as part of media-theoretical work:
As an example of the role of the mathematical mode of media-archaeological reasoning in the MAF, we juxtapose artifacts from telephone technology (an electro-mechanical relay element, a variation of Strowger’s Automatic Telephone Exchange or a Manual Telephone Switchboard) with devices from early electronic computing to demonstrate how the hardware performs discrete numerical operations—nowadays almost exclusively ones that are associated with the digital computer—that have been literally transferred from a voice communication technology, just like the vacuum tube which had been invented for amplification of weak electric signals but was later “mis-used” in Flipflop circuits of early stored-program computers. Such hybrid cross-overs defining “the mode of existence of a technical object” (in Gilbert Simondon’s terms) media-archaeologically remind us of the two-faced meaning of technology: techné on the one hand (impressions of physical hardware) and lógos on the other (the logical and mathematical intelligence resulting in software).17
Imagine this description as a performance. Someone takes an object off the shelves, from its box perhaps, and places it next to another one on the table in the center of the room. The table then becomes the platform for a media-operational comparison. Hands and words show the way, pointing out particular details for more careful observation. Lab practices are techniques for interfacing with the reality of the lógos without forgetting the role that hardware design must play. The space of the hybrid lab operationalizes the constant interplay between theory and practice. Indeed, operationality is a key feature in such a setting, both in terms of the operationality of the machine and how its operations are explained to Fundus visitors. The machines demonstrate their own performance when in operation, but the operator and observers also become part of the lab apparatus.
Picture another scene that further illustrates this point. Ernst is standing by a table, gesturing towards a phonograph that is playing an old recording. He insists that we should not be mistaken; it is not the symbolic content to which we are listening that interests him, nor is it the revolving disc of the recording that he is pointing at, nor the usual parts of the device on which the eye is focusing. What intrigues him is a curious little device that regulates the phonograph’s operations before it performs its usual media function of delivering sounds for the ears of the audience. This particular device is an Excelsior Edison Phonograph (1903–1906), which includes a component called the “Fliehkraftregler”—the regulator or Centrifugal Governor, which is something like a proto-cybernetic part that regulates the speed from becoming too fast or slow via a feedback loop. Originally a component in steam engines, where it moderated the engine’s thermodynamic overflow, the regulator was incorporated into media devices in miniature form. Instead of a machine that we recognize as media object, the regulatory device becomes the focus of the investigation, the part that makes the phonograph operational and regulates the audio signal into something available for our auditory enjoyment. Ernst raises his eyes from the machine (which continues playing in the background) and articulates that this is the object of our interest in the media archaeological Fundus: definitely not the content, and not merely the sound, but the performance of devices in terms of their minor functions and the controls that enable their operations. This refocusing of scholarly attention is more cognitive than visual; it means an increase of attention to the inconspicuous elements that regulate technological devices but that are irreducible to being merely effective solutions to engineering problems. Along with this incorporation came the realization that time-critical operations are hugely important to such media devices: fine-tuning a signal for human listeners requires finding the right tempo.
It is a helpful reminder that the laboratory setting can render visible a whole range of mediated, embodied relations with technical media that often remain below the level of awareness. As Jesper Olsson puts it while explaining what archaeological media labs can do:
. . . the re-contextualization of media objects from their circulation in everyday life into the lab environment would, potentially, produce new knowledge about them. And in a similar, de-familiarizing manner, the transport of methods, operations, and the very conceptual and material framework of a lab from the history and practices of science to the field of the humanities might turn out to be epistemically productive in itself.18
By virtue of its connection to the lab’s apparatus, the machine that is the object of the demonstration, including all of its various interlocked components (like the Centrifugal Governor we discuss above), is rearticulated as a “lab object”, which leads to the production, recording, analysis, and circulation of knowledge. In this process, a humanities seminar becomes a laboratory operation table for the close observation of time-critical media. When thinking about “apparatus,” then, we need to consider all of these aspects: the preparatory dimension; the role that the lab’s apparatus (including lab personnel and visitors) plays in the production of epistemic objects that demonstrate something; and the way that media objects themselves, in terms of their conditions of existence and their operational principles, become part of the apparatus.
Another key recurring term in Ernst’s explanation of the lab’s intellectual work is “epistemology,” which signals a specific relation to objects that are not high-tech, not futuristic, but untimely in different ways. The Fundus presents many of these objects as epistemological toys (Spielzeug), inviting lab occupants to play with them. As playful instruments, they are central to the apparatuses of knowledge that define the lab’s infrastructure. Manipulating these instruments in the Fundus allows visitors to understand the wider technological and scientific contexts in which all instruments emerge. After all, measurement instruments were also media before they were ever incorporated as part of a media collection.19 A sentiment that William Thomson voiced in his 1885 lecture on “Scientific Laboratories” rings familiar even if transported to the humanities labs of the sort one finds in media studies in Berlin. Thomson observes that measurement is a core part of the scientific apparatus of the lab, whether it’s the “thermometers, electrometers, [or] galvanometers.”20 Thus, he points to the need to guarantee the quantification methods of the experiment, or what media theorists of our own age consider to be the extended object of media studies: the larger apparatuses of science and technology.
However, as the Fundus demonstrates in its capacity as a lab space for experimentation, this emphasis on the scientific basis of the lab object is not merely theoretical. The theoretical distance between observer and observed is complemented by a particularly hands-on way of engaging with old media objects:
[. . .] media academic media analysis [. . .] requires a pool of past media objects which teachers and students are allowed to operate with, different from the “don’t touch” imperative in most museums. The Media Archaeological Fundus is populated with core technological molecules which at first glance look outdated but become a-historical once they are deciphered with media-archaeological eyes, ears and minds. A telegraphy apparatus turns out to be “digital” avant la lettre, surpassing the age of so-called “analog” signal media like the classic electric telephone.21
Another way to think about what Ernst does in and with the Fundus is as a media-archaeological invention of the past. This in turn allows us to unfold a larger story about the technical media lab as an important element of pedagogical and research infrastructures because it is a place where proximity to technological objects allows for the production of complex ideas about invention, innovation and time.
Finally, the Fundus is also related to a range of other hybrid labs with similar aspirations: the Humanities Maker Lab at the University of Victoria (Victoria, Canada) which we discuss below; the Trope Tank at MIT (Boston, U.S.); the Residual Media Depot at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada); the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder (Boulder, U.S.) which we also touch on below; and the PA-MAL Media Archaeology Lab at L’École Supérieure d’Art d’Avignon (Avignon, France) among others. The provision of material access to the objects that are part of the apparatus in these spaces moves beyond historical reconstructions to the possibility of multisensory engagements with the past. In such spaces, material access becomes a performative re-staging—what the PA-MAL Lab calls the “second original” as a synthetic form of an afterlife for some earlier time-critical media objects that are otherwise lost as an ephemeral part of dead media infrastructures.22