Case Study: ACTLab
In addition to the consolidation of corporate university structures around the enthusiasm for innovation executed partly through new hybrid labs, the 1980s and 1990s was also about the birth of experimental media arts practices, groups, institutions, and exhibitions. Of couse, these two trajectories were not entirely disconnected insofar as some larger institutions and the art-science focus was tied to the idea of artistic prototyping. However, a plethora of experimental practices came from a different place and also in some cases, used the term “media lab” in alternative ways than the corporate focus at the MIT. For example in Britain, some of the early 1990s examples of media labs were grassroots emergent communities closer to an art and hacker ethos than to entrepreneurship.95 Some of the European net art scene, including the Nettime list community, was also wedded to the idea that the emerging network practices are also situated in ways that demand physical interaction. Media labs were thought of as open-access sites and community spaces. As Josephine Bosma puts it: “The labs became concentrated exchange groups, in which artists, activists, and others learned not only about technology of the computer and the Internet, but also about the new social and cultural networks that were developing online. The media labs were a place of learning, inspiration and creation.”96 As Bosma emphasizes, these were also something different from the “high-tech media labs of media art institutions like the glossy spaces at ZKM in Karlsruhe or Ars Electronic in Linz.”97 The focus was less on products and marketing of new digital gadgets and more on “participatory culture” that put the emphasis on people in new ways.98
Over in Austin, Texas, The ACTLab was founded in 1993 by media theorist and performance artist Allucquére Rosanne (Sandy) Stone, who directed it up until 2010. The ACTLab was one of the first labs of its kind, that (in the context of those art, community, and experimental labs) also set out to establish an interesting cross-disciplinary practice inside the university institution. It also presented a case for the ethics of experimentation and served as an example of how to exist inside a larger institution, something described as code-switching. As a way to protect the highly creative, flexible, situated, critical-minded experiments going on inside the ACTLab, rather than uncritically adopting management techniques that ostensibly ensure efficiency and profitability, Stone and the lab members performed them for the world outside. Where the MIT Media Lab hid a corporate mindset under a veil of creativity, the ACTLab used a corporate veneer as a shield that allowed the non-utilitarian and the non-profit-minded to flourish within its spaces. Likewise, rather than producing an hyperbolic lab discourse designed to sell one particular version of the future, ACTLab produced what Stone calls “the Unnameable Discourse”—“‘unnameable’ because the language to describe it didn’t yet exist,” where ‘it’ is anything that is open-ended and critical-minded, from a flame-thrower to food, games, art, essays, computer-mediated experiments.99
As we point out in the Introduction, hybrid labs and lab-like entities matter because they construct new “forces and realities” out of their materials. Those like Stone, who are “empowered to act as their credible interpreters,” mobilize these realities and forces in social programs. Rather than abandon the moniker “lab” because it’s been evacuated of all meaning through profligate use, the ACTLab retained it as a paleonym, redeploying it in different terms. As Jacques Derrida notes, retaining old names risks falling back into the systems one is critiquing, but pretending that it’s possible to vault outside of all their assembled meanings by changing a word or two is to ignore that while a lab may appear to be solid, stable and ordered, it “is constantly being traversed by forces, and worked by the exteriority, that it represses.”100 The “lab” in ACTLab therefore provides us with a way to think about labs that suggests that artists and humanists are in a position to defy the pressure to pursue the new and rethink what it means to do 21st century humanities work. In short, it is a prototype of what a hybrid lab can do.
Before the ACTLab, Stone worked in several contexts, including activism, technology and science fiction. Her initial education led to work in sound engineering, and collaborations with various figures of the 1960s rock scene, including Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.101 The interest in sound and performance found its way into the ACTLab, but it also nurtured a subtle understanding of space as another aspect of the lab’s theoretical activity. In the mid 1970s, Stone went through gender reassignment, and from that point on, her transgender identity remained central to her writing. In retrospect, Stone’s involvement in the 1970s with the “radical feminist lesbian separatist music collective” Olivia Records was a major formative part of designing supportive spaces for gender identities and learning in pressured social situations.102
Stone’s key text for transgender studies, The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto, came out in 1987. In part, it is a response to attacks directed at Stone, mainly Janice Redmond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, which was part of a longer series of episodes of trans-focused hate speech.103 However, it is important to consider The Empire Strikes Back as part of a discussion about the materialities of embodiment in relation to critical epistemologies that emerged in the 1970s and the 1980s, in fields such as transgender studies and feminist STS, and (later) new materialism. Stone was heavily influenced by the work of Donna Haraway in the 1980s; Haraway became Stone’s PhD supervisor while she was writing “The Cyborg Manifesto” (a piece whose techniques of irony, the denial of closure, feminism, situatedness and materialism Stone surely brought with her to UT Austin in 1993).
Stone’s work is also influential for the establishment of the field of transgender studies, which emerges in The Empire Strikes Back as part of a productive opposition to forms of knowledge that demand stable positions, proposing instead a rejection of compulsory binary identities as the poles between which desire fluctuates. Gender as a product of medical, sexual and related discourses is the obvious focus, but the book already implies that this radical trans-position feeds into other forms of cultural inscription where the body is at stake.104 Resonating with Haraway’s “coyote” and other key conceptual figures of embodied thought , Stone writes: “I am suggesting that in the transsexual’s erased history we can find a story disruptive to the accepted discourses of gender, which originates from within the gender minority itself and which can make common cause with other oppositional discourses.”105
The formal description of the ACTLab places the same emphasis on combining multiple stakeholders and traditions:
The UT ACTLab was a radical new kind of experimental program based on interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning created by a unique international and transdisciplinary group of artists, scholars, teachers, techies, and hackers. Founded in 1993 by Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone, our special qualities derived from courses and activities based on the ACTLab’s unique pedagogy; our custom multimodal studio specifically designed for ACTLab work; the enthusiasm and dedication of our community; the guiding vision of our directors, visiting artists and lecturers; and our students’ broad spectrum of interests.106
Stone often explains the ACTLab as an entity that translates radical pedagogical ideas into institutionally accepted forms. With a critical awareness of anti-hierarchical institutions such as Black Mountain College as well as contemporary media labs, ACTLab bundled technology, educational forms, embodiment and sexuality in ways that produced something much more radical than a normalised “interdisciplinarity.” As Brian Holmes has argued, the discourse of interdisciplinarity has itself become one particular marker of the industry of cognitive capitalism in academic work. Instead, we might consider ACTLab activities in terms of how they work inside institutional walls and yet speak to wider culture in useful ways. They connect to the legacies of modern avant-garde arts experimentation, but also keep tabs on the particular ways that aesthetic play can easily be normalized as part of industry-oriented lab discourse in the university “production machine.”107
Stone did not consider academia to be the most creative of environments, but she was still aware “that the structure incumbent upon the academic project was important for developing critical thinking.”108 ACTLab became a way to work with the tradition of critical theory that intersects with institutions while also attempting to transform them. In her talk “On Being Trans, and Under the Radar,” Stone explains being trans as an experiential state that is connected to radical epistemologies in such a way that evades certain forms of living fo example, she refers to Glória Anzaldùa’s term “mestiza consciousness” as a “state of belonging fully to none of the possible categories.”109 Stone guides the reader swiftly through implications of the post-colonial connotations of such positions, then moves to a discussion of the ACTLab as a space of learning, theory and experiments. There is no particular answer as to why the ACTLab is a lab, but clarifies the matter somewhat by describing its role as facilitator of particular sorts of educational and research ideas.
Because of the predominance of lab discourse that champions the primacy of innovation, this is often the context in which ACTLab is described, as in this statement from Cory Doctorow: “From its early 1990’s virtual world research into the creation of collaborative spaces (both text-based and three-dimensional worlds) and behavioral research of the inhabitants to the early 2000’s exploration and development of peer-to-peer video streaming systems, and its most recent work with BarCamps and social-media based interaction phenomena, the ACTLab has long existed at the cutting edge of New Media.”110 Without ignoring this side of the lab, from our perspective, it is interesting to consider ACTLab as a technology lab for humanities theory and cultural studies. While engaging with new technologies, ACTLab places the emphasis on the production of new forms of knowledge creation. In this way, the lab is a spatial and organizational contribution to the post-structuralist legacy that emerged in relation to what Braidotti has called “radical epistemologies,” and to transgender studies in general.111 Such radical epistemologies establish a different sense of the subject than implied in the corporate lab types, especially when it comes to their narratives of technological humanism, and the racial politics that are implied, as we analyzed above.
A significant difference between the characteristic discourse of many studio-laboratories and media labs after the 1980s and the discourse around ACTLab is that the latter’s courses and the philosophy are concept-driven. From Stone’s perspective, concepts are just one form of material to work with; ACTLab often contextualizes them in terms of making: “The basis for our class structure is that deep learning engages all the senses. We believe that theory flows from the act of making. We consider hermeneutics to be the basis of ACTLab philosophy: active, playful engagement, informed by individual effort and open to surprise.”112
While “making” has gradually come to refer to a wide range of academic and non-academic contexts in critical design and beyonds, it’s important to not strip it of its more radical implications when articulated to particular theoretical and political discourses. The tactile, sensorial nature of conceptual and critical work is one part of what the studio environment in the lab is able to support. Such lab practices and discourses acknowledge that people, subjects, are embodied.
While remembering the etymological relation of “laboratory” and “labor,” it is also useful to consider how the particular strain of cognitive and aesthetic knowledge-work at ACTLab engages with the embodied aspects of using digital technologies. The use of “transdisciplinarity” and words like “surprise” are not merely off-the-cuff remarks, but central to the way in which technology functions as part of the lab’s concept-driven pedagogy. “Our focus is primarily on creativity and secondarily on technology, on circuit bending rather than using prepackaged devices, on ripping up technology, reassembling it in unfamiliar forms, and making it do unexpected things.”113 Concepts entangle with social, cultural, aesthetic and political contexts, and making stuff becomes a generative methodology for engaging with concepts and using critical thinking to produce unexpected directions.
Stone also articulates a useful way to visualize, design and conceptualize the work of the ACTLab as part of an institution. She expresses this nested existence through the figure of the codeswitching umbrella. We see it as key to the particular actions and processes of hybrid labs in universities and beyond.
Under the codeswitching umbrella, three principles inform all activities in the lab: a refusal of closure; insistence on situation; and seeking multiplicity. But since institutionality itself forbids anything that resembles any of these three principles, the lab and its activities must exist under protective cover.
The umbrella is opaque, hiding what’s beneath from what’s above and vice versa. The umbrella is porous to concepts, but it changes them as they pass through; thus “When’s lunch?” below the umbrella becomes “Lunch is at noon sharp” above the umbrella. In this conceptual model the lowest subbasement level you can descend to, epistemically speaking, is the ACTLab, and the highest level you can ascend to, epistemically speaking, is Texas. Your mileage (and geography) may vary . . . The codeswitching umbrella translates experimental, Trans-ish language into blackboxed, institutional language. Thus when people below the umbrella engage in deliberately nonteleological activities, what people above the umbrella see is organized, ordered work. When people below the umbrella produce messy, inarticulate emergent work, people above the umbrella see tame, recognizable, salable projects. When people below the umbrella experience passion, people above the umbrella see structure.114
The umbrella works as a sort of a transformer as well as an enabling device. Specifying it as a “codeswitching” umbrella alludes to the necessary fluidity inherent to trans-subjectivity: to be able to—and sometimes to be forced to—switch between roles, languages, positions, and performances. To paraphrase Stone, ACTLab epitomizes the messy reality of the sort of informal, experimental, open-ended work which increasingly needs to be blackboxed so that university accreditation and management systems recognize it.115 In sum, the lab is less a stable space and more a codeswitching mechanism.
Such self-reflective ideas emphasize that a lab is a place of situated practices which acknowledge the particularity of local knowledge. This is also a way to understand technologies as an entry point to science. “Technologies are skilled practices” that help us to ask questions about where, with who and under what limits we engage with embodied experience in scientific culture.116 Rather than thinking of fixed places and reassuringly solid objects, we should be thinking of movements, transformational experiences, affects and activities that (code)switch people and things. ACTLab was an institution within an institution; nested but partly autonomous; constantly learning and adapting survival techniques; and perpetually working through issues around how to shelter the lab from the various storms of university culture, while constantly switching the work they are engaged with on a local level to particular units of administrative addressability.
However, some have raised critical observations about whether a shielded lab existence might lead to separatism. Patrik Svensson, the ex-director of the HumLab at Umeå University in Sweden, discusses the ACTLab in the context of digital humanities infrastructures and in the context of his own site visit to the lab. Svensson frames the umbrella as an “oppositional stance” which might be so opaque to outsiders that it could hinder institutional collaboration. Svensson writes that “it would seem that an inside position—under the umbrella—is not easily compatible with changing or subverting what is outside (e.g. the rest of the university)—above the umbrella. This is a deliberate and justifiable strategy, of course, but nevertheless an important question is whether there could be mutual gains from a more permeable umbrella?”117 If one assumes labs are places of connectivism or trading zones, Svensson’s critique is understandable. But trade does not necessarily happen on equal terms and the value of labs establishing ties across disciplinary boundaries and existing departmental categories needs to be weighed against other meaningful contexts.
Consider the issue from the perspective of feminist hackerspaces and other hybrid labs established by traditionally marginalized groups (including people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ communities). As Sophie Toupin argues, withdrawal, boundary-making and separation can be deployed in tactical ways to build an institutionally shielded existence. In her words, there is “a distinct difference between using exclusion as a means to maintain structures of domination, and using it as a means to undermine them,” echoing bell hooks’ point that one may choose “marginalization as a space of radical openness.”118 The lessons of such asymmetrical institutional situations also need to be approached on their own terms. We need particularly sensitive cartographies of labs which do not merely function to connect, network, and produce profitability. Seeing the ACTLab in the context of generative tactical closure frames it in terms of survival in an intellectually difficult environment, one which at times questioned the principles of the lab and its director’s engagement with identity politics and theory. The umbrella, therefore, does not signal a hindering closure, but a device that is able to sustain multiple realities in a para-institutional co-existence.
What if labs are indeed partly defensive structures, shelters, membranes in institutional settings? What if they are interfaces that open up to multiple worlds and harbour particular techniques of academic practice? Consider how labs allow double personalities, multiple fronts, and interfaces to exist as part of institutional infrastructures. Worlds of making and activity should include the sort of intellectual work that goes into thinking about how the particular form of the lab can both shelter and transform institutional structures including how people are supported, connected, and recognized.
While it is hard to deny that in many instances labs are places driven by metrics and in close connection to wider set of economic policies (see our chapter on Lab Infrastructure and Lab Policy), we must be aware of the diversity of discourses and practices and be able to support these alternative voices. Besides interventions into disciplinary discussions, hybrid labs can be places where the grey work of institutional mediation means that funding can support research and activities that intentionally push against traditional boundaries.