A whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be the history of powers (both these terms in the plural)—from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat, institutional architecture from the classroom to the design of hospitals, passing via economic and political installations. It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem.
—Michel Foucault, “The Eye of Power”
In 2018 we experienced a moment of recognition when we encountered our own preoccupation with the subject of labs under the spotlight at Lab Cult, an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Like practitioners in many other fields, the curators of Lab Cult realized that contemporary architecture was saturated with lab discourse. And like us, what interested the curators was the role and function of hybridity:
This exhibition suggests a history of close-knit relationships and mutual exchanges. Architects are often accused of borrowing, transforming or even misappropriating scientific ideas, tools and working protocols in their attempt to systematize the intuitive aspects of the creative process. At the same time, though, scientists strongly rely on architectural concepts, representations and material means to stage and communicate sophisticated set-ups of rigorous investigation.1
Hybridity brings vigor to old practices just as it produces new forms; there is no point in pretending that it does not happen or in openly denouncing it. And, as the exhibition’s subtitle, An Unorthodox History of Interchanges between Science and Architecture, suggests, engaging with unorthodox topics often elicits unorthodox methods.
This book provides both a method and a model for thinking about labs in general, and multiple specifications for the composition and function of one particularly prevalent form of hybrid lab: the contemporary media and humanities lab, especially in the context of the university environment. (That said, we also acknowledge that most of our examples of the university environment come from North America and different parts of Europe; still, we hope we have provided enough methodological ideas for further comparative approaches that expand our examples to less Western-centered discussions and cases.) Naming such entities “hybrid labs” helps bring to the fore the historical and contemporary ways that the term “lab” is used in arts, humanities, and media studies contexts without, however, ignoring that these uses are not always entirely disciplined. That feeling that a given lab might be “not entirely disciplined” remains one of the best indicators of the presence of a hybrid lab. As we noted in the Introduction, hybridity frequently also makes labs the target of boundary work aiming to exclude them from “serious” consideration.
Still, the lab is the site of new transdisciplinary exchanges and bears with it the potential to mobilize a range and variety of unexpected but potentially effective practices. Hybridity also marks the ability and potential to change, or at least a recognition of the institutional changes that are under way. The Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, which we touch on in chapter 3, exemplifies a lab that pursues institutional change in and around labs on nearly every level. But there are numerous other examples of how change is afoot in terms of what a lab can be and what sorts of values a lab can embody. Note, for instance, the 2020 publication of the “Ten Simple Rules for How to Build an Anti-racist Lab,” which presents concise guidelines “to help labs develop anti-racist policies and action in an effort to promote racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion in science.” Note as well the 2019 symposium “What Is a Feminist Lab?” that Maya Livio, Lori Emerson, and Thea Lindquist organized. This symposium attempted to rethink labs in the arts and humanities in terms of cooperatives and issues of equity and equality. In Marisa Parham’s words, “feminist approaches help us set and evaluate goals” for labs.2 Labs are transdisciplinary entities that, with the benefit of such reframing, can “help us imagine new futures,” as Ashley Baccus-Clark put it.3
We began our book with the recognition that the proliferation of labs in fields outside of science, engineering, and industrial research and development has been accompanied by the profuse spread of lab discourse. In global twenty-first-century culture, the lab as topos is constantly present in the double sense of the word: as actual places and their constituent infrastructures, and as discursive topoi that have a variable force of their own, depending on specific rhetorical strategies and contexts.4 Faced with this “intriguing network of interconnections” among the lab as a persistent cultural form, past cultural phenomena (e.g., apothecaries, monastic workshops, and other traditions of technical knowledge production), and the contemporary cultural context of entrepreneurial innovation, the project we undertook was to try and make some sense of it all.5 As such, we did not restrict ourselves to the topic of media labs alone—and we certainly did not solely focus on the MIT Media Lab, which has, notably, also claimed to be the only legitimate user of the term “media lab.” Fortuitously or not, we found ourselves writing about the MIT Media Lab at a moment when it was in the public eye not because of its long tradition of hyperbolic discourse about its degree of innovation but because of the scrutiny that the #MeToo movement brought to bear on its infrastructural exclusions and policy decisions, including the acceptance of funding from Jeffrey Epstein. This situation is a stark reminder that the study of labs of any sort has to involve more than an analysis of internal space, apparatus, and technique. Lab studies also need to take account of the effects that the larger systems that position labs—and the imaginaries that inform their policy decisions about classification, standardization, and procedures—have on the subjects who populate those labs. Ultimately, our interest in hybrid labs led us to eschew most of the predictable choices and to consider a much richer range of styles, scales, operations, and functions, including the situated practices of different academic and para-academic institutions that extend the lab beyond its walls.
As the phrase “situated practices” in the subtitle of our book suggests, it’s possible to think of the work we have been describing as location-specific theory, if theory is not merely understood in the narrow sense of Theory with a capital T. Location-specific theory is a version of Peter Galison’s call for specific kind of thinking that moves away from narrow empiricism and universalist assumptions. As Rosi Braidotti suggests, this sort of specificity can frame a mixture of grounded, accountable, shareable, and open scholarly work.6 There is no better way to summarize the goal of the extended lab model we have proposed. Hybrid lab practice is one way to leverage the situated nature of any institutional setting, especially if the lab’s denizens are willing to do something other than “invent the future” in the same old way that the future has been invented for much of the last century. As we have emphasized throughout this book, labs are at the center of reproduction of power. While we did not want to dismiss the significant innovation-oriented labs that gear their work toward digital futures (often with corporate funding and as exemplary of contemporary neoliberal university policy, which we addressed in chapter 3), it was imperative to remember that all sorts of spatial practices form the long tail of the multitude of things that fall under the term “lab.”
When we write about labs in terms of their situated practices, we remain mindful that there are and have always been situated practices outside of laboratories and that laboratory-situated practice produces exclusions, omissions, and gaps as well as knowledge. The legacy of the term in feminist science studies is particularly useful, as it allows a specified view of science, academic knowledge, and practice to come to the fore. There is no “view from nowhere”; architectures and infrastructures delimit what sorts of knowledge and truth claims a lab can produce. This positionality is a useful tool of productive critique, because it enhances our sense of what sorts of bodies—gendered and racialized, marginalized and dominant—are incorporated in any situation of knowledge, whether in labs or otherwise. Labs are always part of spaces of knowing and the production of knowing: libraries, studios, seminars, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and the longer lineage of spaces from monasteries to factories that have been central to various cultural tasks. Elements from the discourses that surround many of these other kinds of spaces from past and present (topoi indeed) are activated as models for laboratories in a contemporary context. Labs incorporate historical references and produce their own histories through the reference points that lab denizens identify. This iterative sense of the lab is central to what constitutes the lab as a material and symbolic performance. What’s at stake in the lab’s own histories and stories is not only the reproduction of existing roles of subjects and objects of knowledge, but also challenges to them. What kind of institutions are being created, what forms of rituals and practices, what kind of knowledge is verified as legitimate for global (but always situated) academic institutions and creative studios?
Being situated does not necessarily mean that a lab is tied to one specific location, such as a studio or other similar space of knowledge or creative practice. Situated practice can also be a form of engagement that recognizes social specificity, because hybrid lab practices mobilize multidisciplinary expertise to hone in on lived realities. A case in point is the Hyphen-Labs, “a global team of women of color”7 that includes the aforementioned Ashley Baccus-Clark. Their practice of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism combines artistic and design practice, engineering skills and playful takes on contemporary realities in installation and VR form: “Speculative products designed for women of color . . . include sunscreen for dark skin, a scarf whose pattern overwhelms facial recognition software, earrings that can record video and audio in hostile situations, and a reflective visor that lets wearers see out while hiding their faces.”8 This work reframes the example of the Lab Series of men’s cosmetics that we touched on in the Introduction, underlining the fact that the ostensibly neutral, “scientific” discourse around everyday products like cosmetics is always racialized, gendered, and class-specific. An entirely different practice is at stake here. The VR component of the project is a “neurocosmetology lab” that stages a future where the “participants see themselves in the mirror as a young black girl, as the lab owner explains that they are about to receive Octavia Electrodes—cutting-edge technology involving both hair extensions and brain-stimulating electrical currents.”9 The allusion to the work of Black science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler is a way of indicating the vital role that speculation and imagination play in such situated practice. Hyphen-Labs is not so much a single location, or even a single discursive formation, but the totality of spaces, people, imaginaries, apparatus, infrastructures, and techniques that situate this lab’s practice. In this way, we see them as an example of practices that respond to the call for grounded and accountable work that takes place both within and beyond academia.
As the example of Hyphen-Labs demonstrates, the lab imaginary is a crucial, if often-maligned, element of the extended laboratory. In the context of the extended lab model, the imaginary shifts from fabulation into a tool for developing other sorts of critical methodologies. One such methodology, media archaeology, receives particular focus in this book. It leads not only to new spatial practices but also to operating in a different “time zone,” whether of speculative futures, imagined pasts, or engagement with the conflicts of the contemporary. The time in which lab practices take place is also the time over which they change.
The epistemic, the experiential, and the political are closely connected. Knowing which subject and which matters are at play helps to recognize those exchanges. Andrew Pickering argues that “the contours of material agency are never known in advance”; it takes time to work them out.10 Hybrid labs are one product of Pickering’s dialectical “mangle” of resistance and accommodation.11 As a result, pushback against the insistence of nonscientists using the term “lab” along with its tools and techniques is misguided to the extent that it does not allow for the possibility of something new to emerge. By inventing new ways to deal with time that contribute to media theory, the work that media archaeology labs and other forms of hybrid labs undertake presents new possibilities for critical intervention and for fresh positions in the argument about how a “postdigital” approach might be useful when thinking about media-cultural time. Here postdigitality is meant to refer to the set of practices and concepts that emerge after the digital has become a naturalized reference point and is not, in any way, “new media” anymore—a situation which then also produces new practices with old materials and media from cassettes to film, zines, and vinyl. As Florian Cramer puts it: “Such practices can only be meaningfully called ‘post-digital’ when they do not merely revive older media technologies, but repurpose them in relation to digital media technologies: zines that become anti-blogs or non-blogs, vinyl as anti-CD, cassette tapes as anti-MP3, analog film as anti-video.”12 While recognizing the polytemporal cultural modes that emerge in these postdigital contexts of lab culture and practices, it is also important to ask about “the political anthropology of new institutional forms.”13
Taking a page from Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, a field-defining work in science and technology studies, we would like to suggest in closing that hybrid labs present “practical solutions to the problem of social order” and that they employ new “practical solutions to the problem of knowledge.”14 In a relatively short period, hybrid labs have managed to produce a vivid range of discourses about knowledge-power. They proceed in various heterogeneous fashions, constituting new objects, new forms of apparatus, and new social relations as a result of their interactions with the objects and devices proper to their labs. They accomplish this production of newness by establishing a difference between their space and the space of more conventional kinds of labs, and they create different operative rules for being within them that affect how knowledge is produced and circulated. The foregoing is why techniques like the ACTLab’s codeswitching umbrella and best practices like the Lab Book developed in the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research are so important: they outline new forms of social regulation.15 As Shapin and Shaffer argue, the practical social regulation of both people and lab apparatus is necessary for the production of knowledge.16 Compare their claims about the necessity for the production in the seventeenth century of “calm spaces” for discussion and debate in order for knowledge production to occur with today’s “safe space” protocols. Then, as now, participation is a form of “moral distinction.”17 These hybrid labs do more than produce external products, things, and ideas; through their own processes of discipline and “sorting things out” (to echo Bowker and Star), they produce their own existence as a protocol or even an ethic that other labs might also pick up and deploy.
The larger community of hybrid labs is still emerging. It has taken an immense amount of labor to get it this far, and it will take more yet. One thing hybrid labs are becoming quite good at is internal social organization, but without a concomitant external effort to organize them socially into a collective (perhaps one that challenges the long history of what Carolyn Marvin calls the “expert community”), they could disappear rather than flourish. Without a legitimating community, there is no way to secure assent for any given hybrid lab’s accomplishments. Hybrid labs need this multiplication effect if their contributions are to count for anything to anyone.
There’s a lot at stake in the discussion of the legitimacy of hybrid labs, not only because of the need to grow a community of these entities but also because disputes over knowledge produce social strife. The COVID-19 period has proved that over and again, with the persistent and troubling undermining of scientific and expert knowledge, whether for financial or political gain. Scientific and medical labs have become the centers of political debate, as research for a vaccine has led to multiple national and geopolitical interests emerging in ways that show the complexity of infrastructures of knowledge, not least the property regimes that tightly control the patents of the vaccines with devastating effects in poorer nations of the world. Furthermore, the pandemic has shown how the legitimacy of scientific research can be strengthened or questioned. One certainty is that labs loom larger than ever in the popular imaginary because of their perceived efficacy, for good or ill. The debate about whether or not the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the COVID-19 virus will likely be part of public lab discourse for the foreseeable future. Production of doubt remains, unfortunately, a persistently effective strategy.18 We live in a post-truth world; even the RAND Corporation writes of what it calls “truth decay” and has launched an “Initiative to Restore the Role of Facts and Analysis in Public Life.”19 Private belief formed without experiment or demonstration, then amplified by social media, threatens the social order. We don’t want to buy in to the solutionist discourse that we mentioned in chapter 4, but we believe that the extended lab model can help clarify the many ways that knowledge is being produced, handled, and legitimized. That said, one of the most effective critiques of labs from the seventeenth century to the present has been that they are restricted places that nevertheless claim to be open; Shapin and Schaffer stated as much in the conclusion to their book in 1985:
We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it. Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry. We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them. Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend. A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice.20
Hybrid labs might open onto different kinds of communities, but not necessarily the ones that appear correct from the position of power, or even from the viewpoints of various publics. This is why we feel it is important to amplify certain themes in our book that link the epistemic and the social. There is a desperate global need to extend discussions about relations inside the lab to the world beyond the lab—a world currently engaged in arguments over the ideals of democracy and the nature of social justice. It is important to realize that the “hybrid” in “hybrid labs” can also refer to the various intersectional issues that are central to maneuvering contemporary societies across different national and international contexts. Writing these concluding words in 2021 in the midst of both Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter has become an important reminder of the stakes of people in institutional practices: the question of what forms of knowledge are being legitimized needs to be complemented with the question of who is being legitimized.
Our own intervention is in these pages. In the process of researching and writing about the range of hybrid lab forms in this book, from media and media archaeology labs to design labs, language labs, home economics labs, digital humanities labs, studio labs, spiritualist labs, mobile labs, and many others, we have also, out of necessity, produced a method. Rather than undertaking a quixotic survey of the congeries of hybrid lab types (a project whose impossibility loomed over us from the early days of thinking about this book), The Lab Book makes a methodological proposition that we call the extended lab model. We have developed a heuristic that encourages any researcher interested in anything that claims to be a lab, or any representative of anything that claims to be a lab, to consider its multiple aspects: from space, apparatus, and techniques to people, from administration, infrastructure (including the gray literature that, with its bureaucratic prose, helps to order and run institutions), and policy to various types of imaginaries, the continuum across the discursive and the material registers defines our proposal. As we noted at the outset, these aspects are deeply entwined with each other. Any given lab assemblage will articulate them differently, requiring analytic emphasis on different aspects in different cases. But we find it useful to move through all aspects of the model in any given case, in an effort to check our own disciplinary and subjective biases.
From Thomas Kuhn’s perspective, communication breakdown is an inevitable result of lab work, which involves the regrouping and reordering of things in the lab and of concepts in the world. The way out of the breakdown is a comparative approach: scholars should attempt “to discover what the other would see and say when presented with a stimulus to which [their] own verbal response would be different.” The result is not necessarily the solution to the original problem, but rather the production of better scholars who have out of necessity developed a facility for interdisciplinary translation and an ability to see and describe the world to which the conflicting theory applies.21 Kuhn further argues that what comes next is an ongoing project of translation from the disciplinary language of one community into that of another. Make no mistake: “For most people translation is a threatening process, and it is entirely foreign to normal science,” but “new practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings.”22 And this takes time. We offer the extended lab model as a tool for anyone interested in this ongoing project of translation.