Case Study: The Media Archaeology Lab
The Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado Boulder is dedicated to the development of teaching that is tied to its own particular space, collection, and ongoing experiments, which produce a mix of research, teaching and artistic activity. Like many of the other archaeological media labs we have discussed in this chapter, the MAL has also had to articulate its relation to preservation. Some of the donations to the lab have meant that lab director Lori Emerson has had to argue for the importance of the philosophy behind the lab, its activities, and its use of the space. In many ways, the MAL parallels the Trope Tank at MIT, or the Residual Media Depotm at Concordia, which underline that the space is for experimental practice. Still, the apparatus that structures the lab’s activity is, at base, a collection, providing access to both written materials (manuals and books) and still-functioning computing and gaming systems, controllers, and peripherals. All of these spaces are different responses to the tie between a hands-on lab and a collection that could be easily be mistaken as sites that are focused on archives and preservation.
While the MAL collection spans the late nineteenth century through the twenty-first century, its strength is in the early era of personal computing from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.49 Its holdings also include other hardware, such as game consoles, and peripherals such as disk drives, input devices and joysticks, software, and printed material. Some of the apparatuses also have specific value, such as the machines that ran The Thing BBS. The MAL also has a collection of rare digital literature and art from the 1980s. The holdings are mostly displayed on desks lining the walls; each machine has its own desk and its own chair. The benefit of such an arrangement is that it facilitates immediate and extended access. Visitors often feel comfortable sitting down immediately, turning on the machines, and inserting a nearby floppy disk or a cartridge. However, because of space restrictions, not all of the machines can be displayed in a way that facilitates this hands-on tinkering. Despite the lab’s best intentions, there still remains a sort of an aura of the spectacle because of the museum-like showcasing of its collection. If the machines are not turned on when visitors arrive, or if there are no lab personnel on hand to continually remind visitors to play, tinker, and hack, it’s easy to fall into the pernicious assumption that the MAL is a museum and that one may only view the media on display as if they’re valuable works of art.
One walks in to the MAL in order to encounter digital culture in the form of its early history, but the lab has become a spatialized resource for teachers, artists and researchers. The obvious research and teaching function of the apparatus is to cater to university students, extending the understanding of what can be engaged in new sorts of spatial practices at an English department. Similarly one can also think of the MAL in ways that emphasize it not only as a closed space within a university, but as a reconfigurable apparatus in itself. In this way, the space is the apparatus, made operational through monthly events for entrepreneurs, hackers, activists, academics, artists and designers. The varied events also change the space at times to a hackerspace, a makerspace or a more straightforward venue space expressing MAL’s flexibility as an infrastructure of learning in and out of the curriculum.50
The benefit of flexibility manifests in many ways. Because there is no clearly established set of best practices, MAL participants must continually educate themselves not only about obsolete programming languages, software, hardware, peripherals and so on, but they also must educate themselves about best practices for archiving, cataloguing, metadata, preservation, and documentation. The tasks related to preservation become integrated as part of the focus on making and building in the digital humanities sense. On a broader level, they bring to mind earlier community-oriented media labs such the Access Space (which we discuss above). Knowledge becomes a matter of co-creation with the imperative to pass it on—a particular pedagogical feature that emphasizes the collective nature of hybrid lab work. Together, these aspects of the lab’s apparatus constitute a particular framing of media archaeology.
Through such questions about the mangle of practice, the pedadogical apparatus and the philosophical underpinnings of collections as part of academic activities, we constantly return to a broader question. Hybrid labs—including media labs and media archaeology labs—deal with technologies and competency, but in ways that become a platform for a further iterative set of operations, like the construction of scholarly arguments, or community-building. Artefacts are collected, repaired, made, debated, unpicked and opened, reconnected and sometimes even built from scratch when the emphasis on making and designing is central. Some scholars, like Ian Bogost, opt to use the term “carpentry” as the name for the practice-based methods of constructing non-textual arguments. It is interesting that Bogost refers to “philosophical lab equipment” as part of his rhetoric, and raises the connection between both software and hardware in relation to philosophical arguments.51 Opening up old Cathode Ray Tube screens to investigate their worlds of electrons and phosphorence is not merely the activity of a specialist engineer, but also has a link to what Bogost underlines: the only way to access the object is conceptual. Instead of this approach, which arguably steers in a different direction from the material and historical worlds of apparatuses, techniques and practices, we can pick up on the situated nature of labs as apparatuses: collections of things which fabricate particular methodologies and collective, social habits.