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 and 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 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 feature 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 key words 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 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 Farías 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 “technologies 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 “testing” 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 leads 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 practices. 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 their considerable significance here.7
Pithily defined, “3D printing is the social use of an industrial process” that brands the contemporary lab scene.8 As part of the contemporary lab’s bundle of prototyping, experimenting, and testing techniques, the 3D printer is a boundary object that mediates between different disciplinary attachments to the technology while opening up a space to consider the relation of technique and method.9 As a boundary object, it also performs one of the major functions of the hybrid lab: bringing people, expertise, and interests together around one site, whether that is a physical corner in the space or a more narrative site of projected uses, ideas, and potentials.
3D printing is a compelling case study of lab techniques, because it contains all the components of the contemporary hybrid lab in miniature. It is based on designing, distributing, and sharing ideas through code (STL files); it takes the form of other essential lab apparatus (the printer); it requires a relatively complex infrastructural supply chain to sustain the local application of technique (plastic filament and other consumable materials); it generates affects and collective situations (imaginaries) that bind people into temporary affiliations around projects; and it creates a long trail of documents in terms of research outputs, popular press, and gray literature.
In the early twenty-first century, the 3D printer and its earlier professional iterations, such as computer numerical control (CNC) machines, moved swiftly from the military-industrial sphere to the counterculture, and from there were integrated into contemporary design and humanities institutions’ curricula. Now the 3D printer and related devices are a central part of the imaginary of the twenty-first-century hybrid lab—almost a cliché—and one of the drivers of discussions about materiality, design, and infrastructure. As such, 3D printing is part of lab apparatus, technique, and method. Expectations of what it can accomplish are in constant “excess to what additive manufacturing reasonably achieves,” illustrating how deeply it is embedded in lab values and opportunities.10
It is worth spending some time considering the role that 3D printing plays in the contemporary lab imaginary. Discourse about 3D printers positions them as disruptive to the contemporary ecosystem of production, but not always in the same ways; these devices have been articulated to a wide range of points on the spectrum of political affiliations. From far-right hate groups to contemporary art activism to national space laboratories, 3D printing carves out a niche of multiple overlapping, contradictory potentials in ways that make it more than an object and more akin to an infrastructure of desire: 3D printing circulates and assembles, conveys and catalyzes. Moreshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke’s “The 3D Additivist Manifesto” summons the imaginaries, infrastructures, and open potentials of 3D printing as part of a call for activist engagement that both recognizes the history of technologies and opens up collective use: “To mobilise this entanglement we propose a collective: one figured not only on the resolution of particular objects, but on the change those objects enable as instruments of revolution and systemic disintegration. Just as the printing press, radio, photocopier and modem were saturated with unintended affects, so we seek to express the potential encoded into every one of the 3D printer’s gears.”11 The call for collective use for 3D printing is the key aspect here, as a home usage case for 3D printing has yet to emerge, despite considerable hyperbole about its value, and in part because of growing evidence about carcinogenic emissions during the printing process.12 If 3D printing is to aid in the battle for technological sustainability rather than flood the landscape with even more disposable toxic plastic trinkets, its place will be in shared spaces for the time being.
The Maker Lab in the Humanities (MLab)13 at the University of Victoria is a compelling example of a hybrid lab that employs rapid prototyping as an integral, infrastructural part of its methods but in ways that are not “just” digital, because the MLab produces a range of material models and kits for media scholarship. Integrating contemporary design technologies with material media-historical methodologies produces a set of spatial practices that effectively expand the scope of several academic fields. As Jentery Sayers explains, the “Kits for Cultural History” project “remakes technologies from the past, packages them in bespoke containers, contextualizes them with historical materials, and encourages people to disassemble and reassemble them in numerous ways.”14 These kits help researchers to pose a range of methodological questions that interrogate past technologies in terms of their uses, materials, intentions, and cultural contexts.
While much of the discourse of making and hacktivism falls into the well-established twentieth-century DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos of the hobbyist and the dedicated amateur, the activity in many contemporary hybrid labs has also been described with the acronym DIWO (do-it-with-others)—or, in a word, collaboration.15 The material activity of lab work has an epistemological side that points to the possibilities of collective work and to a bundle of related terms and activities: challenging, activating, sharing, co-working, engaging, digging, deconstructing, (re)designing, and redefining.16
The lab is literally and figuratively at the center of collaboration, but collaboration is not always the same thing as inclusion or equity. At stake are issues of credit, credibility, and actionable knowledge that are defining a field of civic technoscience in a manner strikingly like that which Carolyn Marvin describes as the emergence of electrical expertise at the end of the nineteenth century.17 Collective work, including the collaborative making and remaking that characterizes much of contemporary technological culture, can and does redefine social ties and disciplinary relations. However, these new collectivities may exclude as well as include insofar as, for example, they may determine who is considered an amateur and who is an expert, and thus who is permitted to engage with the inner workings of machines, or who is credited during publication.
Lab-centered collaboration happens in many ways and across many levels of intensity. In addition to the more obvious collaborative activities associated with labs, such as group experimentation and project development, a shared discussion or reading group, a weekly team meeting, an email list, a joint article, or the well-established format of the seminar are all collaborative activities that take place in and around many labs. Outside of academia, cryptoparties, hackathons, game jams, and other sorts of activities combine affective attachment with curiosity, expertise, dedication, and focus. These and other kinds of events create multiple informal ways of engaging with machines and social events around them, from coding and hardware hacking to knitting and weaving. As Daphne Dragona puts it, workshopping as an artistic methodology deployed in “artists spaces, media art centers, festivals, and other venues” has been able to combine education about particular technological skills such as exposing “technology’s inner workings” with forms of dissensus.18 In other words, collaborative activity becomes a way of articulating change. While Dragona outlines the significance of workshop formats in media arts of the past decade, her thinking also applies to critical hybrid labs more widely. In hybrid labs, questions of skill and social justice can be enacted in collective collaborative work. In such a scenario, pedagogy becomes a format for sharing technological equipment and space as well as a catalyst for wider social change.
As we saw with the example of Bell Labs in chapter 5’s discussion of lab imaginaries, collaborating in the same space can redefine how we think of disciplinary ties. Particular administrative affiliations can place people with different interests and practices into the same space, producing a particular DIWO phenomenon that Marcel O’Gorman calls “elbow-rubbing”:
A laboratory, institute, or centre that promotes such exchanges, or even better, that promotes “elbow rubbing” between scholars with various research interests, is an effective way to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration. Moreover, such collaboration requires scholars to question their own research methods. For example, the projects outlined here rely on the willingness of humanists, social scientists, and artists to take “things” more seriously, or perhaps to take things into their own hands.19
The power of elbow-rubbing derives from the fact that conversation is a key technique that sustains the lab as a unit of interaction. Renaissance spaces of collection were admittedly a very different cultural and historical situation than modern laboratories, but they were already in many ways spaces of methodological interaction, or, in Paula Findlen’s words, “conversable spaces.”20 Drawing inspiration from early modern ars conversandi, it is fruitful to consider the current conversational spaces in labs as more than just occasions for chitchat.21 Conversations are not merely off-the-shelf tools for creating a discussion; they also include the possibility of critical pedagogy that can articulate individual experiences into a collective, political experience. Under these conditions, conversational spaces become forms of knowing.
To return to the legacy of the seminar, the lab can be a space of debate and sharing, where words and discussions can feed into various forms of collective making. They may be a source of open-ended, aberrant notes on current projects that end up as conceptual riffs, or they can be a means of solidifying informal questions about this and that into concrete action with others. A minimum amount of framing can be enough to facilitate the switch from verbal exchange to critical epistemology as a (conversational) method. To quote Allucquére Rosanne Stone’s elaboration of collaborative activities that took place at the ACTLab: “During discussion period, which could be an intellectual free-for-all the only requirement of which was that ideas had to be backed up by evidence and, if appropriate, by critical analysis—out of the blue someone would pop me a question about particle physics or organic chemistry or neurology, and, as accurately as I could, I’d pop back with an answer.”22
Finally, collective discussions are also a crucial aspect of the technique of collaborating. They are a potentially radical pedagogical form of collaboration that does not involve consolidating around a set hierarchical structure but instead emphasizes opening up new avenues of investigation. For example, the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research has developed a tried-and-tested set of techniques for “an anti-oppressive, horizontal, equity-based meeting.”23 Their meeting techniques, which fall into the larger categories of facilitation, round robins, consensus-based decision making (CBDM), and collaboration, consist of chains of more specific operations, which they have detailed in internal lab protocols. Protocols defining the operations involved in CBDM, which they derive from Tim Hartnett’s Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making,24 have been condensed into a “cheat sheet” freely downloadable from the lab website.25 Such techniques are formative of a lab as a dynamic entity of people, words, technologies, and interactions. As low tech of an approach as it might seem, it is important to understand how the often-mentioned theme of sharing and collaborating are already nested in adjacent forms of university pedagogy.
Hybrid labs are often home to various kinds of research and teaching collections. As outlined briefly in chapter 2 (“Lab Apparatus”), research collections can be traced back at least to sixteenth-century cabinets of curiosities and their subsequent incorporation into modern research spaces, including those in universities. Besides the library, which is largely a research collection of books, collections of objects such as mineralogical or biological specimens or scientific instruments and models were an important aspect of the infrastructure of academic knowledge practices. In disciplines such as archaeology and ethnology, research and teaching collections have long provided essential infrastructure within the social sciences and humanities. Though the visibility—and funding—of these collections diminished over the course of the twentieth century, with the rapid proliferation of labs dedicated to, for example, “vintage” or “obsolete” technologies, it appears that collecting is reemerging in the twenty-first century as a key technique in contemporary hybrid humanities labs.
Research and teaching collections are primarily for academic uses, but, as we mentioned in our discussion of the media archaeology labs in chapter 2, these collections may be a form of public interface. As something that resembles (but is not quite) a museum, a research collection may become a privileged access point that allows various publics to come to a new understanding of the university as an institution that also makes sense of the world by collecting things. Given that research collections are not quite museums, they are also not necessarily exhibition spaces, as contemporary lab collections are not curated according to the same principles as museum and archive collections. Cara Krmpotich points this out when articulating the work that goes into a collection before it becomes ready for academic study. In many ways, it is this process of handling that constitutes the research collection itself. This handling includes “applying an acryloid base layer, then an archival ink number, followed up by a top coat. We experiment with numbers on a smooth clear and colored glass surfaces, grainy plastic surfaces, cardboard boxes, shiny metals, ceramic teacups, and figurines. In each case, students think through storage positions, and the vulnerabilities of each object.”26 One could add to this list the work that goes into cataloging and metadata, content-management systems and records, but it is already implied in the above description of an anthropological collection. Constituting a humanities collection (like an author’s working library) or a media collection (like the Media Archaeological Fundus at Humboldt University) requires a similar kind of care.
While there are often special protocols around the access to and the handling of archival objects in such collections, the hands-on principle is an important component of the technique of collecting. Objects in the collections of hybrid labs are handled constantly and sometimes altered, which is why sites such as the Trope Tank at MIT are careful to avoid the perception of being an archive and instead they attempt to connect with the legacy of experimentation. Trope Tank director Nick Montfort says: “By explaining that we’re not an archive, I mean to stress that the materials we have are for use, not to be preserved for decades. The Trope Tank isn’t a library in that the main interactions are not similar to consulting books. And we aren’t mainly trying to produce artworks, either. There are aspects of these, but the main metaphor for us is that of a laboratory where people learn and experiment.”27
The research and teaching collection is also a mode of placement. It takes objects out of circulation—or perhaps in some cases rescues them from obsolescence—and literally re-places them into methods and narratives of contemporary research. On the subject of media archaeology labs, Jesper Olsson argues that this recontextualization of objects in a lab collection produces “new knowledge” about the objects. The collection shifts and situates, sometimes even transports objects and instruments (say, an oscilloscope that ends up in a video-game collection), allowing one aspect of one part of a history of science to be placed into investigations of other fields entirely, such as media theory or the history of technology: “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.”28
We hope it is clear by now that collecting is not merely a passive infrastructural activity that acts only as a support mechanism for research. Our assumptions about what constitutes research need to include any research activity in modern universities that takes place among a variety of mechanisms that are commonly considered administrative. Budgetary constraints, institutional decisions about use of space, conversations about relations with the library, purchase orders and metadata, cataloging and organizing—all of this administrative and policy-related activity organizes the space of the collection in ways that need to be accounted for.
It is also worth noting at this point that many collections remain preemergent because of budgetary constraints. Collecting and maintaining comes at a cost that is not necessarily recognized and understood by contemporary institutional structures that still often rely on a division of labor that sees collections as the task of the library unit. Collections are thus valuable and useful as objects of study because they relate to multiple levels of processes that academia frequently fails to capture as part of the critical analyses it produces: labor of maintenance, administrative structures as part of intellectual infrastructure, the relevance of links between libraries and other forms of collections that in our case also link to the function of contemporary humanities labs.
One idea the extended lab model is designed to convey is that a lab is not only an assemblage of assemblages but also, as a punctualized “whole,” that a lab functions as one piece in several larger assemblages. It is worth emphasizing, though, that assembly (and disassembly, which is never really separable from assembly) is an ongoing process in lab life. Any working lab is constantly in the middle of becoming something slightly different from what it is at any given moment. A working lab is also full of things that are in a nebulous state, somewhere between being broken and rebuilt. The protean state of the lab is one of the reasons why techniques such as experiment and inscription are so crucial to its success, for without methods for proceeding and for creating a record of what occurs in the lab on a daily basis, the constant transformations that occur risk collapsing the lab into chaos. Assemblies are often provisional, subject to failure, and never really complete. Even after they make their way out into the world, objects that emerge from labs are still subject to further revisions, modifications, patches, and upgrades.
Assembly often begins with disassembly, particularly in the form of reverse engineering, where taking something apart is necessary in order to begin making something new. Especially within the confines of a lab, the technique of disassembly can be managed and even hampered by policy and regulatory obstacles as well as technical ones. In Canada and the United States, a technical protection measure (TPM) is a kind of device that is intended to govern how a person interacts with copyrighted content within a work; it can be as simple and physical as a security screw that requires an unusual type of screwdriver head to open, or it can be an elaborate form of software. The sense of unease that individuals experience when facing a TPM can be enough disincentive to hamper the well-established and necessary lab practice of reverse engineering; but increasingly, legislative battles are occurring within states and provinces over laws that would establish something like a user’s “right to repair.”29 Industry lobbies representing many sectors, from farm equipment to home entertainment and telephones, are launching aggressive legal campaigns to keep consumers from being able to repair their devices. This battle over the right to repair not only affects third-party businesses and individual hobbyists but also laboratories inside of litigation-averse institutions such as universities. The whole question relates also to the broader approaches of ecodesign and the circular economy as pointed out in the context of recent European Union plans to legislate a comprehensive right to repair.30
Though the final products can give the appearance of objectivity and solidity, assembly techniques circle relentlessly back to the cultural. Constructions such as best practices, protocols, and standards, which strive to provide guidelines for how assembly should function in order for others to be able to make use of assembled objects, are the result of prolonged, often difficult and fractious ongoing collective conversations. As such, they are also subject to constant revision. Further, there are often competing standards, for reasons that have to do with political and geographical differences or, in some cases, sheer obstinacy. The appearance of new collaborators in a given community or the availability of new tools and techniques invented or borrowed from another discipline can shift assembly practices substantially. If those new collaborators make use of new channels of technique dissemination, especially those in a networked digital milieu like social networks and video hubs, the transformations produced by documented assembly and disassembly in even a small lab can be far reaching and rapid.
In other words, what often appears to be an objective and straightforward task of assembly or disassembly is always freighted with the questions of style that are relevant to a given expert community. At the Residual Media Depot at Concordia in Montreal, which is currently studying the practice of modifying video-game consoles and the culture around it, these matters take tangible form in the items in the Depot’s research collection. The collection, which includes the largest collection of unmodified consoles in a Canadian university as well as the largest university collection of modified consoles in the world, holds several different examples of the same video-game console, modified in different ways at different times and places. This is most visible in cases where different hardware has been used to produce the same effect, for example, in the case of Sega Genesis Model 2 consoles modified with different versions of the Mega Amp circuit to improve their sound quality. These circuit boards come from all over the world and reflect different tastes and priorities in many ways, including the choice of components, circuit design, where the board is placed internally, and even the degree of technical facility with which it has been installed. Which raw materials to use and where to purchase them, how to make a good solder connection, whether or not to use hot melt glue as material support for joints, whether to cut through the original plastic or remove components, and many other factors are all matters for discussion and debate within the hardware modding community, as a quick look at YouTube or other online forums demonstrates. These questions of style in turn become a scaffolding for the establishment of cultural capital, shaming, and prestige within the community (complete with online “how to” and “how not to” videos). If a new figure comes on the scene with more technical expertise, then the opinion of the entire community about what constitutes best practice for assembly and disassembly can shift dramatically.
Experimenting (see also Testing; Failing)
The experiment is not just a recurring technique of the lab; it is the lab’s signature technique in modern and contemporary contexts. The lab-based experiment is even enshrined in national guidelines for science education such as those produced by the U.S.-based National Science Teaching Association, which declares, in no uncertain terms, that “while reading about science, using computer simulations, and observing teacher demonstrations may be valuable, they are not a substitute for laboratory investigations.”31
Besides the material practice of conducting lab science, the experiment also launched the world of scientific academies and institutions, journals, sites, technologies, and techniques that form the milieu in which knowledge emerges in modernity. It opens the lab up both spatially and temporally. It can act as a way of “drawing from real things in the world” instead of offering the comfort of a solitary isolation that the lab might easily connote. But its temporal axis also matters. Besides pointing back to the long history of scientific experimentation, the experiment provides researchers with a means of speculating about various possible futures. That is, it projects toward the unknown while aiming to enrich our current understanding or experience in some novel way. As a form of speculation, experimenting is deeply related to the techniques of testing and failing; it paves the way for trying out things without necessarily knowing in advance where they lead. Experimenting is thus a characteristically modern practice that cannot be reduced to a history of theory, as Ian Hacking famously argued, referring to Francis Bacon’s foundational role: “He taught that not only must we observe nature in the raw, but that we must also ‘twist the lion’s tail,’ that is, manipulate our world in order to learn its secrets.”32
The experimental setting is replete with “instruments, contraptions and apparatuses” that form the background for the experimental structure or set the scene that allows epistemological work to occur.33 Nevertheless, the experiment is not entirely reliant on equipment; it can be low tech and built on particular epistemological, social, and discursive techniques such as “testing, trials, enquiry, demonstration, evaluation.”34 As Hans-Jörg Rheinberger argues, when trying to understand the experiment, the shift from words to practices matters most: “What we can do is to map out a discursive territory where it is possible that scientists and artists can mutually look at their hands, paying less attention to what they say but much more on what they do when they practice their craft.”35
Located between art and science, humanities and design practice, many hybrid labs are effectively infrastructures of the experiment: a set of particular instruments—often referred to as “media”—that then take the role of enacting forms of knowing in relation to discursive structures. The experiment, then, is less one specific technique than a systematic set of technologies, epistemological attitudes, systematic practices, and wider discursive aims in which it is expressed. Entire labs, or even networks of labs, can be organized around their relationship to a single experiment.36
Notwithstanding all of the above, experimenting is not exclusively a scientific technique; the arts, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences also make use of experimenting. Because of this commonality, it frequently mediates between artistic and scientific practices, creating significant potential for cross-pollination. Hence, many of the famous sites of (artistic) experiment like the Black Mountain College have also been sites of social experience and invention.37
To better understand the relationship of the idea of experiment to the lab, consider the Medea lab in Malmö, Sweden, which is a lab precisely because its occupants place the experiment at the center of their work: “We decided to explicitly call our environment a lab due to the experimental character of the work we do. It is experimental in the sense of conducting work where the outcome is not predetermined, and where the participants bring with them quite different kinds of experiences and get to work with people they are not accustomed to working with.”38 The links between experiment, experience, and expertise build a sense of the lab as an embodied, collective space: we are in this together. The “we” is important, because twisting the lion’s tail effectively takes more than one person (see “Collaborating”). Of course, it becomes easily tautological: labs are spaces of experimenting, and experimenting is what you do in a lab, or, “Give Me an Experiment and I Will Raise a Laboratory,” as Matthias Gross puts it in his inversion of Latour’s famous phrase “Give Me a Lab and I Will Raise a World.”39 This is ultimately another argument for why it is necessary to employ a model like the extended laboratory; on a complex object like a lab, one perspective is not sufficient.
Crucially, the experiment is recorded in field notebooks, lab books, and other media—sketches, photography, video, graphing devices, chromatographs, computers, and so on. These inscriptions are not just for purposes of verification; they exist in order to communicate anything at all about experimental results and, as an effect of that communication, to build new expert interpretive communities. Writing in the context of the SpecLab, Johanna Drucker defines the experimental set of practices in speculative computing as a diversion from an earlier, standardized mode of knowledge in digital humanities. In a case like this, the experimental turns into a set of propositions and principles that “push subjective and probabilistic concepts of knowledge as experience (partial, situated, and subjective) against objective and mechanistic claims for knowledge as information (total, managed, and externalized).”40 Even if the emphasis in SpecLab practice is on the term “speculative,” the link to experience is nevertheless a central part of this methodology. Following from Drucker’s invocation of Charles Peirce’s definition of a sign as “something that stands for something to someone,” Drucker sees SpecLab’s work as sited not just in space but within particular discourses and their attendant interpretive communities.41 A situated set of experiential coordinates counts as part of knowledge creation. This means that experiments must incorporate experience into their embodied and affective forms as part of creation of knowledge, accounting for the situated, historical, perspectival form of a participating or perceiving subject. Questions of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, positions and intersectionality are all part of the world of lab techniques.
Failing (see also Experimenting; Testing)
There’s no shortage of glorification of failure in contemporary creative scholarship and artistic discourse. The mantra of failure has shifted from the twentieth-century avant-garde arts, where it was cultivated to become an art methodology, into broader public discourse, largely because of unmet expectations in the face of technological hype. Even business schools and venture capitalism have embraced failure as another tool in the box (both of which constantly intone that we ought to “fail better!”). Because labs are places of experimentation, and experiments often, well, fail, it’s also not surprising that there is also a substantial element of failure in contemporary lab discourse. Andreas Treske describes their Media Archaeology Lab at Bilkent University in Ankara in ways that combine production and experimentation, success and failure. Despite hosting a variety of audiovisual equipment, the lab also hosts techniques of testing: “It’s not simply an archive, and it’s not simply a production facility. It is a space where you are able to combine things in different ways, where mistakes are allowed, and where the result is creative, and therefore has the potential to allow freedom in development and practice.”42
But failure has always been an important part of laboratory technique. As we discussed in chapter 5 (“Lab Imaginaries”), even before the modern avant-gardes, Edison excelled in failure, turning it into part of the mythology of the inventor. That tradition is alive and well in contemporary hybrid labs. As Aymeric Mansoux argues, tongue firmly in cheek, “the stereotypical media art lab is a space where artists who are not always sure of what they can do with media technology due to a lack of technical knowledge come to research and develop a project.”43 Of course, methodological production of failures can have epistemological value considering how central failure is in net art and glitch art, which attempt to show the cracks and stitches beneath the smooth surfaces of computer interfaces and/or branding.44 Dismissing techniques of failure would be a major oversight when what’s necessary is to investigate its multiple forms of existence as a lab technique.
The discourse of risk in digital innovation, replete with slogans like “move fast and break things,” might well have hijacked contemporary notions of failure. But failure is also an elemental part of the history of technology and, as such, media-archaeological practices reveal there have always been other ways to articulate the term. While describing his plans for a media archaeology lab, Olsson points to the importance of failure as an integral part of the project: “In tinkering with old, forgotten, and dead media it opens our eyes to mistakes, waste, and failure. It offers a space for ‘broken world thinking’ (Steven Jackson), which could be considered crucial today.”45 As Olsson points out, the focus on brokenness can itself be an entry point for an alternative account of media technologies as both historical and contemporary. In a similar vein, O’Gorman describes his own brand of hybrid lab work as an interest in the “misfit toys, half-baked things, malfunctioning apparatuses” that are created as extensions of philosophical arguments and experiments.46
Finally, failure is important because it points to the possibility of moving beyond narrow functional uses, or the limits of what is currently believed to be possible. Lab spaces can operate as safe spaces for failed attempts that allow researchers to investigate the possibilities and potentials for different technologies and techniques. As Jamie Allen and Claudia Mareis put it, while the studio has long been considered “a sacrosanct place of experimentation and failure,” hybrid labs carry this legacy forward in new ways that do not necessarily reproduce the various connotations of the studio as spaces designed to produce and channel individual inspiration.47
One of the reasons that labs are everywhere in contemporary culture is the success of techniques like the living lab. As Pieter Ballon and Dmitri Schuurman argue, the term “living lab” more accurately describes a relationship or a method than a particular kind of space.48 In this spirit, we discuss living labs as a discursive practice and a cultural technique that relates to how urban space is designated as a lab, and how this mobilizes discourses about innovation, consumption, and allocation of potential roles to citizens as stakeholders. As such, the living lab is an ongoing test situation that also speaks to how smart cities are being introduced.
Ballon and Schuurman place living labs in three traditions: Scandinavian cooperative design and participatory design models developed by U.S. engineers building on the Scandinavian model; state-sponsored social experiments with it in Europe; and the 1990s “digital city” initiatives that were a precursor to today’s omnipresent “smart city” discourse.49 If living lab discourse has a common thread, it’s that it places a heavy emphasis on community members and users as co-creators with the experimenter, although, as we will see, the term has also become closely related to a consumer-centered discourse and forecasting trends.50 In the 1990s, Bajgier et al. were using the term to describe a model for a course in which students at the Drexel University College of Business and Administration were studying South Street in Philadelphia. They argue that their conceptual model could also be used by other institutions and that other forms of public spaces, like “municipal facilities or sports stadiums,” can also serve as labs.51 Since the 1990s the living labs model has been adopted in a variety of contexts around the globe and has developed a robust literature.52 But from the start, a living lab has been a spatial practice or technique—both a methodology and a physical context—and it can be deployed in many contexts in order to produce labs.
The key point of the living labs model is to include community engagement in the pedagogical process so that classroom members (including the instructor and graduate assistants) interact as a team with neighborhood groups and individuals. These groups and individuals are not simply sources of research problems. The long history of unexpected and unintended uses for technologies demonstrates that the users of such technologies often come up with unexpected uses for the outputs of scholarly research. The class confronts pressing issues relevant to the community and presents their findings to decision makers in the community on a not-for-profit basis.53 As a result, students develop not only a set of practical research skills and interpersonal communication skills but also a stake in policy debate and formation in their own community.
The insights of Galison and Jones also apply here. Living labs take the form of the dominant mode of cultural production and have changed along with it. Leminen, Habib, and Westerlund have moved to describing the living lab first as a network, and then a platform. The idea of the network is important, because constant contact between researchers produces cross-fertilization and prevents the ossification of research,54 whereas the goal is to produce an “innovation system.”55 The socially networked dimension of the living lab suggests that they also have an institutional and a policy dimension. This is strongest in Europe, though there is also an increasing interest at the municipal level of government in North America (think of the countless “smart cities” initiatives in the news at the moment). The EU living labs network has been supported by key policy measures around the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), which was put in place in 2006 and bolstered in 2010. The network now includes labs in Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Australia, China, and Egypt. More than three hundred labs were evaluated by EnoLL since 2006, with 35–40 percent no longer operating,56 a reminder that labs are often project-based and that they have a finite life span.
Living labs are no more homogeneous than labs themselves. There are significant differences between various models of laboratory community engagement, particularly in terms of those that see innovation as a process in which university research is monetized. The latter tend to conceive of community research co-creators as consumers more than citizens. Eric Von Hippel’s influential concept of the “lead user” is a case in point: “Lead users are users whose present strong needs will become general in a market-place months or years in the future. Since lead users are familiar with conditions which lie in the future for most others, they can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory for marketing research. Moreover, since lead users often attempt to fill the need they experience, they can provide new product concept and design data as well.”57 Consumers and users are not the same as citizens and audiences, and marketing research is not the same as community issues. The discourse of lead users is all about access to emerging markets. Lead users are important because they point to developing trends, not because they identify a pressing civic need.
In contemporary living lab discourse, community stakeholders increasingly become businesses rather than individuals or citizen groups; the community audience for academic research becomes consumers; and innovation prioritizes the monetization of research as opposed to contributing to the public good. In “Living Labs as a Multi-contextual R&D Methodology,” Mats Eriksson et al. quote Per Eriksson, director at the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems, as stating that “research is making knowledge out of money—innovation is making money out of knowledge.”58
There are also those who would reclaim the living lab model for artistic use. In Gabriella Arrigoni’s work on living labs as a model for artistic exhibition, the idea of the lead user points to “certain continuities between media labs and LLs [living labs]: the idea of artist as innovator or lead user (not just applying existing technologies to creative purposes, but developing media and applications in close collaboration with scientists and technologists) is an essential premise with which to speculate on the role of the audience itself as innovator.”59 Arrigoni believes that living labs can learn plenty from media labs, including a better sense of which publics they are addressing; new models of governance; techniques for building infrastructural relationships with existing institutions like universities, arts organizations, and lab networks; and how to structure outreach activities such as workshops and training programs.60 Arrigoni is also skeptical of the political promises that “openness” once held, but she maintains that there is a “strong political potential” for the living lab movement, because it has demonstrated the capacity to address real social needs instead of mere consumer desires.61 This also resonates with other voices in the field which have argued that creativity needs to be harnessed as a force with relevance beyond the usual emphasis on the artist. Atau Tanaka writes: “A more democratic model of creative practice holds enormous potential for social benefit and is consistent with the community focus of citizen media labs.”62 This focus is part of some good European examples such as the Media Lab Prado, and it represents a link between some of the uses of the terms “living lab” and “media lab” in current policy contexts.
Prototyping (see also Experimenting; Testing)
One commonly recurring term in the discourse of labs, design, and maker culture is “prototyping.” A prototype is a design model that serves as an experimental future-projection—“an invented, innovative device introduced to the public more like a proposal for further development to be used or manipulated, than as a unique, stable piece to be contemplated.”63 By studying how prototyping functions, we can gain important insights into how labs harbor experimental activity and how they work as collectives. In terms of studying the discourse around prototypes, the championing of prototypes tells us much about the imaginary of the hybrid lab because it emphasizes particular values, such as an emphasis on the production of something that functions, as well as the way prototyping requires and values collaboration, bottom-up emergence, and cooperation as part of social creation in making.64 In some cases the lab becomes the spatialized manifestation of what the prototype already signified. As Mareis and Allen outline in relation to the use of the term lab in Critical Media Lab Basel, the lab “elicits collaborative working styles, open methods and central notions of testing, trials, enquiry, demonstration, evaluation. The lab is a space where things are unready, unfinished, at risk and without known utility.”65 Hence, there is also a link between prototyping and the key techniques of experimenting and testing.
It is clear that the particular usefulness of the concept of the prototype lies in its propensity for flexibility and speed. It is often associated with rapid development techniques, such as computer-assisted design (CAD), additive technologies like 3D printing, the fab lab model, or, in less technologically intense scenarios, paper prototyping. But prototyping techniques and facilities are also part of methodological thinking in media and speculative design. The earlier-mentioned (see “3D Printing”) MLab is here a proof of concept in itself. As Jentery Sayers and Tiffany Chan explain, the prototyping and fab labs cater to many sorts of uses where technological infrastructure turns to methodological experiments in media studies:
We have two modest spaces on the UVic campus: a modeling and prototyping lab in the Technology Enterprise Facility (TEF) and a fabrication lab in Visual Arts. The TEF space is dedicated primarily to computer work, including physical computing, programming, and scanning. We also hold meetings there, and we co-author publications in that space, too. The Visual Arts space is for work with hand tools as well as various types of machine work: laser cutting, printing, milling, and routing. If we are reconducting historical lab experiments (e.g. magnetic recordings on piano wire from 1898), which we often do for the Kits project, then we use the Visual Arts space as well. This existence in two spaces, across two faculty (Fine Arts and Humanities), really enriches our research. When combined, the two environments profoundly shape how we practice and share media history.66
The context of the MLab is intriguing because it switches prototyping from future-facing innovation work onto the track of historical and media-archaeological methodologies. Reconstructed and sometimes slightly speculative experiments with historical source material produce a tactile, sensorial take on media history: from documents to artifacts, from practices of critical close reading to aesthetic ways of investigating the material culture of earlier, pre-digital media culture by way of digital prototyping tools.
The current popularity of prototyping as a practice in contemporary design and maker theory also facilitates a more robust consideration of the ambivalent history of labs in design practice. Whether desired or not, the particular horizon of prototyping situates contemporary labs as part of the wider cultural history of design and knowledge production. Though some hybrid labs may try to differentiate themselves from the more market-driven aspects of the media lab legacy, their practices, spaces, and methodologies tie them to the mainstream of contemporary lab practice. Walter Gropius’s statement about how the Bauhaus workshops functioned as “laboratories in which prototypes of products suitable for mass production and typical of our time are carefully developed and improved” links the collaborative workshops of the modernist avant-gardes to current business-driven design discourse.67 In the context of innovation discourse, “prototype” is part of the connective tissue that links art practice to the form of creative engineering typical of the Californian Ideology and Silicon Valley discourse (see chapter 5). Though critical art discourses often invoke prototyping (with its connotations of the open-ended nature of the experiment) as a gesture of resistance to more romantic forms of art practice, it was already part of engineering development pedagogical discourse, as Fred Turner notes:
In a 1990 manual for developers entitled Prototyping, Roland Vonk argued that building a working if buggy software system could transform the requirements definition phase of system development. The prototype could become an object, like an architect’s model, around which engineers and clients could gather and through which they could articulate their needs to one another. It would speed development, improve communication, and help all parties arrive at a better definition of requirements for the system.68
As we have documented elsewhere in this book, many of the values to which contemporary media art aspires, such as play, intuition, future orientation, and creative thinking, have been part of industry-focused development since the Cold War. This version of the lab imaginary is still going strong and has characterized the nexus of the media lab and the creative economy since the 1990s.
Prototyping can also transform arguments about methodology and philosophy. As Denisa Kera argues, echoing points about critical making, “collaborative and artisan prototypes built in the so called hackerspaces and DIY (Do-It-Yourself)-bio labs around the world offer a convergence between philosophy and design and connect the creative practices of thinking and doing.”69 In Kera’s use, the prototype becomes the performative terminological glue for a variety of labs and practices such that prototypes are not reducible to one particular technological kit but instead are more of a politically tuned project that is itself formative of a different attitude to knowledge.
Testing (see also Experimenting; Failing)
Labs are for testing. They set up the necessary apparatus, assign the appropriate personnel, and allocate the time that a given test requires. Indeed, labs embody the test as part of their normal modus operandi: they are controlled spaces where the contingency of a situation can be put under observation, variables controlled, and equipment fine-tuned to set the tone of the research questions. While there are multiple examples of testing facilities that are part of the modern condition of test and control, the lab has a specific material and symbolic role to play. Avital Ronell describes this role as “the test drive”—a useful term because it encompasses how the particular attitude of testing is practiced as a technical skill set, from the philosophical situation of questioning to the infrastructures of specific experiments. That is, testing is not merely scientific, but becomes part of a disposition toward the production of knowledge and actual existence. With a Nietzschean undertone, Ronell writes that “testing is constitutive of what can be designated, with the proper precautions, as real.”70 Hence the test is not merely about establishing what Latour might call matters of fact; it functions as a probing of what could be.
While the test may set out to experiment with what works and what does not, it may also identify potentials. This is clear in the case of industrial engineering settings like Bell Labs. At Bell the practice of “pure” scientific research in the form of material experiments often had uncertain outcomes and unclear relationships to the core mandate of the organization, but if the experiments were successful they offered the potential of eventual social transformation, such as the work with semiconductors and other minuscule elements that become the backbone of computer culture. Furthermore, at Bell the test becomes a manner of incorporating different disciplinary attitudes, when “the experimentalists and theoreticians were encouraged to work together, and that chemists and metallurgists were welcome to join in, too.”71
Because the test has a strong affinity with a bundle of related terms used in spheres ranging from the law to the military—such as the experiment, the probe, and the trial—it is not surprising that we also find it in hybrid lab discourse. Many media and humanities labs speak of testing as part of the artistic methodologies that pertain to the harnessing of the creative drive. Siegfried Zielinski outlines this aspect of testing as what is common to both artistic practice and laboratory work: “developing, investigating, testing, discarding, and achieving results.”72 In Zielinski’s take, testing bears a strong family resemblance to the celebrated techniques for generating inspiration and intuition that many artists still employ, but here we might add that infrastructure and the spatial arrangement of the lab are what permit testing to occur (whether fueled by inspiration, intuition, or something else). Hence it is no wonder that since the 1990s, media labs and other hybrid labs have been able to brand themselves as the privileged sites where this particular art-science activity takes place. Arrigoni outlines some of the infrastructural aspects related to techniques of creativity in similar terms, underlining that “media labs offer the artists a platform to work, test, develop a process but do not require them to show a final product.”73 It is this quality of the unfinished that becomes one feature of digital aesthetics and processes of creativity.
So what makes a lab a lab is often the test—but the test only appears as part of a longer operative chain of techniques that links it to forms of documenting, observing, inscribing, collecting, retesting, and reporting. What makes this linkage possible is the shared environment of the lab.