One of the reasons we recognize a lab as such is because of what is inside it. From Victor Frankenstein and Rotwang to Walter White, popular culture is replete with mad scientists surrounded by impossibly complex thickets of laboratory equipment: microscopes, test tubes, Tesla coils, banks of computers, and flasks of coloured liquids—all smoking, bubbling and sparking away as they produce things too terrible to comprehend. The relatively standard visual clichés of lab apparatus over the last century also testify to the stability of the laboratory as a place of knowledge production. The interactions in the lab between a bewildering array of human and nonhuman agents play a role in the production of culture, pointing to limit cases, aberrations and exceptions even as they are responsible for the production of norms and regularities. But labs and their various technologies also produce something else: particular kinds of subjects suited to function in specific situations.
As Henri Lefebvre takes pains to explain, any space (labs included) exists in productive tension with its subjects. The space conditions the “presence, action and discourse” of the subject, but that same subject’s presence, action and discourse also push back against the limits of the space, resulting in the emergence of particular kinds of spatial practices. In other words, the “texture of space”—the particular quality of its apparatus—is what creates specific kinds of occasions for the people inside.1 Show us your instrument and we will tell who you are, which discipline you belong to, and which spaces you frequent during your working day.
Take one normal morning at the Spatial History Lab at Stanford University as an example:
It is a summer morning and the Spatial History Lab . . . is running at full throttle. Large tables configured in rectangles bristle with screens and keyboards. Students, staff, and faculty hunch or slouch at nearly every available workstation. The coffee mugs are half-empty and the sound of half-a-dozen conversations, carried on in hushed voices, which rise form time to time into animated exchanges, filter through the fourth floor of Wallenberg Hall. This is what practicing spatial history in the lab looks like at first glance. It is a collective enterprise, diverse in objects and methods, bound together by a common desire to work in teams, to learn new technologies, and to conduct exploratory research through the creation of models of spatial relations and movement over time.2
So much activity. Even this short description of a typical lab morning is replete with gestures, postures, situations, imaginaries, assumptions, devices, spatio-temporal coordinates and methods. The richness of environments buzzing with action is a constantly recurring theme in lab descriptions and imaginaries (see Chapter 6).
Labs are transformational in more senses than one. Compare the passage above with Bethany Nowviskie’s description of a morning at the Scholar’s Lab: “Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3D printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things.”3 Pen, words, text and descriptions all function as part of an apparatus as much as any other set of technologies, whether analog or digital. Spaces such as classrooms, schools, factories, and hospitals employ their apparatus to forge material and discursive connections between the organization of knowledge and relations of power in order to determine the contexts in which we function as subjects and collectives engaging in action.4 Lab apparatus prepares knowledge because its mechanisms, arrangements, spaces, and situations define what counts as knowledge, as well as who can legitimately produce it and circulate it.
In this chapter, “apparatus” refers to the technologies around which lab practice mangles and entangles, but it also refers to more than technological objects. Taking lessons from science and technology studies, we emphasize that technological objects are part of the performative bundle of practices that manifest in spatial sites of knowledge production. Agential relations thus emerge between humans and non-humans. To quote Andrew Pickering in the context of the hybrid practice of the labs we are engaging with in this book: machines “variously capture, seduce, download, recruit, enroll, or materialize that agency” in ways that produce a rich body of relations that exceed their predefined and explicitly designed tasks.5 For any given site, various elements of the apparatus will partly define what the site is about and what its affordances are—a fact which is as true of apparatus in the humanities as it is in the sciences, or outside of the university and industry completely.
Despite the omnipresence of digital technology in contemporary labs of all sorts, it remains important to the consider non-digital technologies in hybrid labs that run against the grain of everyday lab discourse. Not all technical lab apparatus is (or perhaps should be) about the invention of a digital future, nor should it revolve around the one-sided narrative of the digital revolution, data analysis and high-resolution screens. We need to consider the many other sorts of situated practices in media, pedagogy and critical readings of technological culture that non-technical apparatus facilitates. Other sorts of imaginaries emerge from hybrid labs that are not merely about the digital, but are about the longer history of technology where the transformation from theoretical statements to object collections allows lab denizens to take a more media-archaeological stance.
One powerful way to analyze a lab is through what it includes and one of the most efficient ways to perform this analysis is through a description of its technological apparatus. The scientist, the media theorist, and the humanities scholar are only as smart as their labs and their respective apparatus. What makes a lab special is not merely the quality of the people working within its walls, but the extended lab assemblage, in which apparatuses of knowledge play a key role in forming the lab’s epistemological backbone.6
In this chapter, we tackle the topic of lab apparatus by continuing our discussion from chapter two of the Media Archaeological Fundus at Humboldt University (Berlin, Germany), along with a discussion of the Maker Lab at the University of Victoria (Victoria, Canada), the Signal Laboratory also at Humboldt University, and the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder (Boulder, U.S.). In these examples, we are dealing with media labs and other kinds of hybrid labs where material technology plays a central role. We also discuss that particular collection of apparatuses called the research and teaching collection, which is just one example of the longer history of humanities infrastructure that has re-emerged again.