This chapter is written as a glossary of techniques in and for labs. We are planning to develop it in the coming months into a more extensive, dynamic online archive of techniques written by contributors other than ourselves.
The chapters in this book so far have demonstrated that hybrid labs are a dynamic assemblage that binds together space, apparatus, infrastructure, people and various kinds of imaginaries. Both social studies of science laboratories as well as studio studies of art and design have argued that material mediators (to use Antoine Hennion’s term) are a central part of this work of assembly.1 But the hybrid lab is also an entire toolbox of techniques—material, symbolic, cultural, and bodily—that define how objects and subjects come about.
The deep entanglement of the laboratory assemblage became evident in our discussion of lab apparatus (chapter 2), which defines both the subjects and the objects involved. A lab is also constituted by the techniques that sustain it as a material and symbolic site of activity. These techniques are an important part of various genealogies of art and science, and their persistence over long periods of time is one of the factors that create family resemblances between labs and older spaces for the production of knowledge. But lab techniques do more than create historical connective tissue; they are also sites of hybridity and discontinuity. Sometimes techniques move laterally from one field into another. At other times, new techniques appear in relation to emergent technologies. On still other occasions, once-popular techniques can be abandoned completely for a range of reasons, from the ethical to intellectual to the pragmatic.
Lab techniques are also are a useful prism for the observation and analysis of the issues that hybrid labs raise in current technological culture. In this final chapter, we roll out a brief and incomplete catalog—something more akin to a demonstration of what such a catalog might look like—of nine techniques: 3D printing, Collaborating, Collecting, Dis/Assembling, Experimenting, Failing, Living Labs, Prototyping, and Testing. All of the foregoing embody many of the themes throughout our book—technique is just yet another way to understand how these aspects come together in the expanded lab model we propose.
We have already discussed some aspects of lab techniques simply because addressing any one aspect of the extended lab model involves implicating others. The way labs occupy space, their use of apparatus, and even administrative paperwork are all constitutive techniques that play roles in assembling labs, summoning people into them and transforming them into lab denizens, all while engaged in various acts of knowledge production. Research and teaching collections work in a similar manner, demonstrating not only how the objects they contain are organized into a collection, but also that the collection organizes subjects into particular positions of knowledge.
Many of the techniques we address in this chapter provide insights into the porous distinction—more likely an interface—between the lab’s “inside” work and how it links up with contemporary technological imaginaries and economies outside the lab. Techniques govern the insides and outsides of the lab, but they also sometimes carve out the space to become, in Peter Galison’s words, a trading-zone for multidisciplinary alignments, discourses, and practices.2 Given the deeply hybrid and interdisciplinary nature of techniques, the fledgling set of keywords we present here is meant to be introductory and suggestive, especially as we intend to continue expanding on this initial list of techniques on the University of Minnesota Press’s Manifold platform for THE LAB BOOK.
We also know that labs construct consistent worlds with the help of the imaginaries they produce. Like art studios, labs are places that function as hubs of creative discourse; but we want to approach their creativity as part of the way labs assemble and organize their space. In pragmatic terms, this organization occurs through specific practice-based forms of knowledge that, when bundled together, we refer to as “lab technique.” It’s worth devoting some time to observing how the studio employs objects and practices to produce material knowledge. As Farias and Wilkie emphasize, the studio is “not the place in which inventions are validated, evaluated and valorised;” it is more like a site of reverse engineering because it picks apart experiments and puts “aesthetics-in-action” by focusing on the process more than the product.3 This idea of aesthetics-in-action is a particularly effective way of approaching lab activities because we can expand it from aesthetics to assert that labs are sites that put materials-in-action as well as theory-in-action.
As Cornelia Vismann articulates particularly well, cultural techniques manage things and subjects, material sites and their discursive range: “To inquire about cultural techniques is not to ask about the feasibility, success, chances and risks of certain innovations and inventions in the domain of the subject. Instead, it is to ask about the self-management or autopraxis [Eigenpraxis] of media and things, which determine the scope of the subject’s field of action.”4 This definition resonates with and responds to a similar body of work that deals with cultural practices of technology. Indeed, when Jonathan Sterne writes that “[t]echnologies are crystallized bits of practical art and practical reason—they are techniques externalized and delegated to machines,” we are in a very similar territory, with the important caveat that it works the other way around as well: so-called human practices are often crystallized bits of technological reason and infrastructure.5 The lab technique of “test(ing)” is one important example: a broad modern epistemic disposition feeds into particular human actions that embody that disposition, in which testing, experimenting, trying out, rehearsing, and prototyping share a particular closeness as forms of material practice of knowledge.
Discussion of both techniques and practices often lead to the Aristotelian term techné, which Sterne explains by way of musical example: “Creation and contingency are central to how we should understand techné. A simple example would be a musician’s ‘technique,’ which describes the practical sense that she bring to her instrument and the actual process through which she plays it. A musician’s technique encompasses both her actual movements and the practical, embodied knowledge she brings to the instrument.”6
Many of the examples in our short glossary of techniques exhibit this combination of embodiment with particular technological objects and specific practice. If we are paying close enough attention, it should also be possible to discern the infrastructures that guide the emergence of actions, perceptions, and movements. Creative practices of knowledge production bear a performative relation to what takes place as research and pedagogy. Because such techniques and practices are often relegated to a position as the silent components of knowledge, we are drawing attention to them here because their significance is considerable.7