how bibliographic description & interface creates users and objects

I’m very pleased I have the opportunity to visit the University of Cincinnati’s English Department on Saturday, April 5th to give a workshop on some of my work in critical work on interface and archives as well as the Media Archaeology Lab as a way to help them think about their growing audio archive of poetry recordings from the Elliston Poetry Room. The outline of the workshop is as follows:

  1. Overview of the history and philosophy of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL). Discussion about media archaeology as a field and/or methodology appropriate for thinking through the Elliston collection.
  2. Challenges of cataloguing and description in the MAL; drawing on reading by Svenonius and Dublin Core, discussion of how description creates objects and users.
    • Small group activity: listen to the first track of C.K. Williams reading in the Elliston collection from February 2014; with 2-3 people, take 10-15 minutes to come up with an alternative bibliographic description for this event, possibly including fields for information you may not have access to (original medium? who recorded it and how? size of audience? etc.), and making sure you discuss how your description frames the reader’s experience and interpretation of the event; share your results with the larger group.
  3. Discussion of how interface creates objects and users; discussion of the affordances of the interface at Pennsound and Ubu.
    • Small group activity: with 2-3 people, look again at the page for the C.K. Williams reading and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the current interface – what sorts of scholarly and creative interactions does it encourage and discourage? What sort of listening experience does it encourage and discourage? And finally, the harder question: what do you imagine could be the ideal interface either for the collection or for this particular page? Share your results with the larger group.
  4. If there’s time, discussion of the affordances of out-of-the-box digital tools for experimentation/interpretation of audio files.
    • Small group activity 1: download  Paperphone, “an interactive audio application that processes voice and sound materials live and in-context,” along with the recommended Runtime app; try to either load the same first track of the C.K. Williams reading with the app or just explore the limits and possibilities of this tool, paying particular attention to the tool’s interface. In what ways would a tool like Paperphone be useful for the Elliston collection? Report back to the group with your findings on its usefulness.
    • Small group activity 2: now look at Trevor Owen’s blog post “Glitching Files for Understanding” in which he demonstrates different ways to view MP3 files. After reading his instructions, try reading the MP3 file of the first track of the C.K. Williams reading in a text editor; discuss your observations, including what’s gained and what’s lost from this sort of analysis versus the analysis that Paperphone makes possible and report back to the larger group.

learn the expert manipulation of machine parts via ARTYPING (1939)

As far as I know – and I know there are others like Marvin Sackner who do in fact know more – Julius Nelson was an instructor of “Secretarial Science” at Windber High School in Windber, Pennsylvania. In 1939, he published a how-to guide called ARTYPING in the form of a pad of paper that proceeded from front to back on one side of the paper and then from back to front on the other side – perhaps an ingenious solution to double-sided printing born of an era of deep austerity and frugality. Coming twenty years before the Swiss and Brazilian concrete poetry/media studies experiments of the 1950s and 1960s and thirty years before the typewritten dirty concrete poetry of the Canadians bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, John Riddell, Judith Copithorne, and later Robert Zend, ARTYPING is a stunning nuts-and-bolts explication of how exactly one goes about creating an apparently non-utilitarian mashup of art and writing on the typewriter. Nelson is prescient in his sense that “really tremendous possibilities lie ahead to the ambitious, to the talented, and to the patient typist.” However, Nelson is not exempt from a depression-era mentality, with its exacting need not just for frugality but for utility – for artyping is only apparently useless. Listing some of its benefits, he writes:

  1. Helps to teach more expert manipulation of machine parts
  2. Helps to create a desire to turn out neater work
  3. Fosters interest in student hobbies
  4. Relieves monotony of drill work
  5. Gives recognition to those students who are reasonably good typists, but who lack the speed necessary to qualify in typewriting contests where speed is the main objective

And then what follows is an incredible series of sections that teach anyone from the novice to the expert typist how to create a border, cut-outs, lettering, cross-stitch patterns, and even letterhead. The booklet ends with the exhortation that “like stamp collecting, ‘art typing’ may easily turn into a profitable hobby.”

With thanks to Marvin Sackner for letting me know about Julius Nelson and the intrepid staff at Interlibrary Loan, here is a pdf of this quite rare and hard-to-find publication.


graduate seminar on media archaeology | media poetics

Starting tomorrow I get to teach, for the first time, a graduate seminar on Media Archaeology alongside what I call “media poetics,” or the writerly practice of exploring the limits and possibilities of given reading/writing technologies. While we will do conventional reading writing in a seminar setting, our class will also do hands-on experiments in the Media Archaeology Lab with its collection of zombie media and early digital art/literature so that we use the MAL to test hypotheses gleaned from the weekly reading.

Following Friedrich Zielinski work on variantology, our class will move from the present through the past, uncovering a series of media phenomena, hopefully as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media. We will also do this by reading works of media poetics at the same time. For example, we will read work by Marshall McLuhan on the capabilities of the typewriter alongside typewritten concrete poetry; we will read early works of digital literature from the 1980s alongside writing by Friedrich Kittler on discourse networks; we will read Zielinski on variantology alongside digital literature/art iPad/iPhone apps that work against the standardizing effects of the Apple developer guidelines; and we will read recent work by Jonathan Crary on our culture of 24/7 connectedness to networks of control alongside work by glitch and net artists to assess the degree to which we can resist these networks of control.

Please take a look at the syllabus – suggestions for improvement/comments welcome.


from typewriters to telematics, media noise in Robert Zend

I’ve recently started working on my next book project, at the moment titled “OTHER NETWORKS,” which will be a history of pre-Internet networks through artists’/writers’ experiments and interventions. My last book, Reading Writing Interfaces, begins and ends with a critique of Google and magic, or sleights-of-hand that disguise how closed our devices are by cleverly diverting our attention to seemingly breathtaking technological feats. And so the roots of “OTHER NETWORKS” come partly from my desire to continue thinking through the political consequences and the historical beginnings of “the Internet” as the technological feat of the late 20th and early 21st centuries which also, as another instance of the user-friendly, disguises the way in which it is a singular, homogenous space of distributed control.

Still, despite the continuity between Reading Writing Interfaces and “OTHER NETWORKS,” I am continually surprised by the way in which thoroughly print-based, analog writers also participated in telematic art/writing experiments (here I’m using ‘telematics’ for the process of long-distance transmission of computer-based information via telecommunications networks). For example, I’ve decided to begin my project by writing on early Canadian art/writing networks for Social Media: History and Poetics, an edited volume by Judy Malloy. Judy kindly directed me to Norman White’s “hearsay” from November 1985, which was a tribute to Canadian poet Robert Zend who had died a few months earlier. The project builds on the following text Zend wrote in 1975:

THE MESSAGE (FOR MARSHALL MCLUHAN)

THE MESSENGER ARRIVED OUT OF BREATH. THE DANCERS STOPPED THEIR  PIROUETTES, THE TORCHES LIGHTING UP THE PALACE WALLS FLICKERED FOR A MOMENT, THE HUBBUB AT THE BANQUET TABLE DIED DOWN, A ROASTED PIG’S NUCKLE FROZE IN MID-AIR IN A NOBLEMAN’S FINGERS, A GENERAL BEHIND THE PILLAR STOPPED FINGERING THE BOSOM OF THE MAID OF HONOUR. “WELL, WHAT IS IT, MAN?” ASKED THE KING, RISING REGALLY FROM HIS CHAIR. “WHERE DID YOU COME FROM? WHO SENT YOU? WHAT IS THE NEWS?” THEN AFTER A MOMENT, “ARE YOU WAITING FOR A REPLY? SPEAK UP MAN!” STILL SHORT OF BREATH, THE MESSENGER PULLED HIMSELF TOGETHER. HE LOOKED THE KING IN THE EYE AND GASPED: “YOUR MAJESTY, I AM NOT WAITING FOR A REPLY BECAUSE THERE IS NO MESSAGE BECAUSE NO ONE SENT ME. I JUST LIKE RUNNING.”

“hearsay” was an event based on the children’s game of “telephone” whereby a message – in this case, the text by Zend – is whispered from person to person and arrives back at its originator, usually hilariously garbled.  Zend’s text was “sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via a global computer network (I. P. Sharp Associates). Each of the eight participating centres was charged with translating the message into a different language before sending it on. The whole process was monitored at Toronto’s A-Space.” The final version, translated into English, arrived in Toronto as the following:

TO   HEAR

MESSENGER: PANTING.

THE DANCERS HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO DANCE, AND BURNING TORCHES WERE PLACED ON THE WALLS.

THE NOISY PARTY BECAME QUIET.

A ROASTING PIG TURNED OVER ON AN OPEN FLAME.

THE KING SAT CALMLY ON HIS FESTIVE CHAIR, HIS HAND ON A WOMAN’S BREAST.

IT APPEARED THAT HE WAS SITTING THROUGH A MARRIAGE CEREMONY.

THE KING ROSE FROM HIS SEAT AND ASKED THE MESSENGER WHAT IS TAKING PLACE AND WHY IS HE THERE? AND HE WANTED AN ANSWER.

THE MESSENGER, STILL PANTING, LOOKED AT THE KING AND REPLIED:
YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL,
NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.

Now, as it happens, I also just learned from a friend of mine about Zend’s incredible series of “typescapes,” ARBORMUNDI, published in 1982, seven years after writing “THE MESSAGE.” I wish I’d known about all of these works by Zend when I was working on Reading Writing Interfaces, as the third chapter is titled “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics.” I delve into the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of McLuhan and before the widespread adoption of the personal computer, often deliberately court the media noise of the typewriter as a way to draw attention to the typewriter-as-interface. Similarly, like the low-level noise in “THE MESSAGE” and the high-level noise in “hearsay,” ARBORMUNDI elevates the noise of typewritten overlays, over-writing, into a delicate art. It’s appropriate, then, that the earliest (and perhaps first in the loose collection) typescape from 1978 is of the Uriburu: “mythological serpent – the symbol of the universe – which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”

Robert Zend - Arbormundi 2

While the blurb on the back from the Sunday Star celebrates that Zend creates these typescapes with a manual typewriter, “no electronics, computers or glue involved,” he clearly had a McLuhanesque birds’ eye view of the entire, interconnected media-scape of the 70s and 80s, from typewriters to telematics.

Since ARBORMUNDI seems to be quite rare and I’ve only come across some nice images and beautiful close-readings on Camille Martin’s blog, I decided to scan the whole thing – available here and below. Enjoy!

Robert Zend’s ARBORMUNDI, Copyright © Janine Zend, 1982, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend


“Computers and the Arts”, Dick Higgins (1968)

from “Computers for the Arts,” by Dick Higgins

About a year ago, I was working on the third chapter of Reading Writing Interfaces – “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics” – during which I discovered, among other things, the mutual influence of concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan. One figure I promised myself I needed to research further once I’d finished my book was Dick Higgins – self-proclaimed ‘intermedia poet’ and publisher of Something Else Press. Higgins, I found, was one of the most obviously influenced by McLuhan, no doubt in large part because Higgins published McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations the same year as his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Invested as he was in poetry that situates itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’ notion of intermedia is obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global village; as he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?

Higgins also published his own pamphlet, “Computers for the Arts,” in 1970 (written in 1968, pdf available here) which I’ve just now had a chance to track down and scan. What interests me most about this little pamphlet is how it anticipates so much of the digital art/writing and network art/writing to come in the next forty+ years–experiments in using computers against themselves, or against what Higgins describes in 1970 as their economic uses in science and business. “However,” he writes, “their uses are sufficiently versatile to justify looking into a number of the special techniques for the solution of creative problems.” In “Computers for the Arts,” he goes on to explore how FORTRAN in particular can be used to generate poems, scenarios, what he calls “propositions” that can work through these creative problems in, for example, “1.64 minutes, as opposed to the 16 hours needed to make the original typewritten version.” But the larger point is about understanding tools as processes, just as Alan Kay, Ted Nelson and others advocated for throughout the 1970s and 1980s:

When the artist is able to eliminate his irrational attitudes (if any) about the mythology of computers, and becomes willing not simply to dump his fantasies in the lap of some startled engineer, but to supply the engineer with:

  1. the rudiments of his program in such a language as FORTRAN or one of the other very common ones;
  2. a diagram of the logic of his program, such as I just used to illustrate…
  3. a page or so of how he would like the printout to look

then he will be in a position to use the speed and accuracy of computers. There will be few of the present disappointments, which are due usually more often to the artist’s naivete than to the engineer’s lack of information or good will. The onus is on the artist, not his tools, to do good work.

Here, then, is a pdf of “Computers for the Arts.” Enjoy!


interview on the Media Archaeology Lab for Infotecarios

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Natalie Baur for the Spanish-language Latin American libraries blog Infotecarios on the Media Archaeology Lab. Natalie translated all my answers into Spanish here and below are my original answers in English.

*

1) Briefly, what is the MAL and what kinds of work do you do there? Why/How is it an “archaeological” lab?

Founded in 2009 and currently part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) houses obsolete media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. Insofar as nearly everything in the lab is still functioning and is meant to be turned on and used by teachers, researchers, and artists it is the largest of its kind North America. It is, however, very closely aligned with a few museums in the country such as the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, WA (run by Microsoft co-founded Paul Allen) and the Digital Den in Cambridge, MA whose collection is roughly the same size as the MAL’s. The MAL, however, is utterly unique in how it is a remarkable configurable conceptual object that, depending on how you approach it, houses items for research and teaching, items that actually generate research; is a site for artistic interventions, experiments, projects; is an archive for media objects; is an archive for original works of digital art/literature along with their original platforms. It belongs equally in literature departments, art departments, media studies departments, history of technology programs, computer science departments, libraries and archives.

In terms of the lab’s name, I’ve tried to align it less with archaeology and more with the field of media archaeology, as it’s called. Media archaeology can be a frustrating term because it’s not clear what its precise parameters are, or even what its driving philosophy is. That said, the version of media archaeology I’ve found particularly useful is one that does not seek to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe it as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past. Also at the heart of this media archaeology is an on-going struggle to keep alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls “variantology” – the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, I partly use the lab to uncover a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media.

2) Who is using the MAL and for what kind of work and/or projects? Have there been any specific projects that come to your mind that really have taken off in unexpected ways or made unique contributions to scholarship or librarianship? 

I continue to be happily amazed at the broad range of people the MAL appeals to. At the moment, we’re getting increasing interest from people who work in local tech-start-up communities – these are people who might have worked in the computing industry for the last ten, twenty or thirty years and either appreciate the hands-on access to history the MAL affords or they see it as a valuable tool for generating creativity or they may even see it as a powerful argument against planned obsolescence (again, all the computers in the lab – some of which are from the late 1970s – still work). Our work with developing unique metadata schemes to catalog the wide range of legacy hardware and software housed in the lab is also being used as a model for museums, archives, and collections in Canada, the US, and Europe; the fact that we begin with the uniqueness of each object and develop standards from the ground-up to describe these objects, rather than developing or adopting a general standard into which we must make each object fit, appeals most to those working in museums and archives. Finally, we’ve been surprised – but thrilled – at how successful our artist residencies have been. I started working with Mel Hogan in July 2013 on this notion of getting artists and writers into the lab, actually playing, hacking, tinkering, creating, responding to the materials housed in the lab as way to make it clear that hands-on access is at the heart of the MAL’s mission. Within two or three weeks of launching our residency series, which we are now calling MALpractices, we booked ourselves through Spring 2014 so that we had to then close the residencies until next fall. While we are unable to offer a stipend of any kind at the moment, we try to heavily promote the work that artists/writers produce in the MAL – for example, we offer them the opportunity to exhibit or perform in the MAL or at a local gallery and we are also starting a print-on-demand series called MALware which will document each residency through interviews with the artist/writer or essays on their work. We just finished a residency with Joel Swanson, a Denver-based artist who was inspired by the history of computer keyboards in the MAL and created a remarkable exhibit at Counterpath Gallery in Denver that looked into the symbolic or cultural meaning there might be in the presence or absence of certain keys.

3) As we continue into the Digital Age and the lifecycle from innovative to obsolete gets shorter, is MAL collecting contemporary media to add to the collection in addition to the collecting already obsolete media? What are some of the curatorial decisions that go into building the MAL collections?

At the moment, our curatorial decisions are determined almost entirely by space limitations as physical space at the University of Colorado at Boulder is particularly at a premium. As such, we try to only accept hardware/software that still functions, that either played a particularly important role in the history of personal computing or is a particularly compelling example of a technological dead-end – something that may not have been a commercial success but that clearly contains the seed of a brilliant idea. For example, we have a videogame console from 1983 called the Vectrex which was produced for only one year but which uses a light-pen and is, in many ways, far more user-friendly that the touchscreen devices we have today. That said, I find it very difficult to make clearcut curatorial decisions as I’m all too aware, from reading Michel Foucault and Jonathan Crary, how what’s included and excluded from our archive rewrites history and reframes the present in a very particular way. If it were possible, I’d make as few curatorial decisions as possible and leave it entirely up to visitors to imaginatively rewrite history.

4) Librarians and archivists are intensely interested in digital preservation issues. What are some of your thoughts on the relationships and partnerships that exist or could be possible between the academic work of digital humanities scholars and librarians, archivists and digital preservationists?

I hope you don’t mind me saying that I have mixed feelings about partnering with libraries and library-run archives. While some of the most ardent and loyal supporters of the MAL are from libraries and archives, at the same time the institutions themselves seem to take on a life of their own and they have, from my perspective, proven to be remarkably inflexible, bureaucratic, and resistant to change. By contrast, most of the MAL’s success comes from the fact that we’ve been largely invisible to the institution until this year and so the MAL has been able to unfold over time, as our thinking changes and evolves, and quickly and easily adapt to problems at hand without being accountable to anyone or to hierarchical structures, pre-determined “outcomes,” grant cycles, or set five-year plans. That said, I want to be clear that I have a strong allegiance to librarians and archivists themselves and I hope that in the near future the MAL will find a way to be an independent extension of a library archive in a way that incorporates the MAL’s holdings into the library catalog at the same time as it acts as an incubator for the library archive for cutting-edge practice-based research.

5) Logistics: who can access the MAL? Do you loan any resources? Are there any active partnerships or “partnership wish lists”?

Until about a week or two ago, when we received our first financial donation, the MAL had been operating with a budget of $0. This meant that there was no staff to manage visitors during regular operating hours; visitors to the lab had to make an appointment either with me or with one of the wonderful student volunteers I work with and either proposition was difficult, considering I have conventional university teaching and research responsibilities and the student volunteers have their own responsibilities. That said, we almost never turn anyone down for a visit – if someone, from the general public or from an institution, has wanted to visit the lab, we have found a way to make it possible. And now that we’ve received a couple generous donations, we’re planning to hold regular Open House hours (for anyone at all – from students and researchers to members of the public) in the MAL two days a week.

We certainly do loan resources – for example, we’ve been happy to lend out manuals from our extensive printed matter collection and floppies from our software collection. However, while it’s certainly not out of the question, we’ve been hesitant to lend any of our hardware as it’s already quite fragile and it’s extremely difficult to ensure that a computer from, say, the 1970s or 1980s will make it through the mail without suffering any damage. That said, if there were a set of best practices for shipping hardware back-and-forth across the country, I would strongly support the creation of a support network or a lending library that allows institutions like the MAL to borrow and loan out materials – perhaps a network that includes institutions such as the Living Computer Museum or the Digital Den I mentioned above.

6) What are your thoughts on or experiences with collecting multilingual and international media? Is the MAL actively doing any collecting of non-English language media produced in countries outside of the US? Does the MAL partner with any international centers in the same vein or collaborate with the global academic and library community? 

I would be thrilled to incorporate multilingual and international media into our collection. We do have a few computers from the UK, such as our Amiga 500 and our Sinclair ZX81 computert as well as a few oddities from Germany but sadly that is the extent of our non-English, international holdings. I would also very much welcome the opportunity to expand our network to the global community of archivists and librarians; right now, we have informal relationships with scholars and labs in Canada, the UK, and Germany who are working in Media Archaeology and we are in the process of applying for grants to formally turn these relationships into an international network. We would be thrilled to extend this network to Spanish-language scholars, labs, librarians, and archivists.

7) Feel free to add any other comments, insights, news, etc. that you think may be of internet to the Infotecarios audience.

Thank you for the invitation to say a bit more about the MAL – I would only like to add that opportunities such as this one to articulate the MAL’s mission and its underlying philosophy have helped me see, just in the last couple of months, that the lab is a powerful space that, overall, works against our overwhelmingly presentist and futurist culture that’s increasingly controlled, day and night, by the constant production and consumption of so-called ‘new’ computing devices that 1) insidiously work to, as Jonathan Crary puts it, disable collective memory through “the systematic erasure of the past as part of the fantasmatic construction of the present” and 2) whose operationality, we’re told, we need not understand. With its collection of still-functioning technical oddities, the MAL is full of exemplars of possible other worlds and resistance to our present world.


radio interview on media archaeology

 On Tuesday October 1st, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to talk about Reading Writing Interfaces (coming out from University of Minnesota Press in June 2014) as well as my work with the Media Archaeology Lab live on the radio with Marcus Smith on BYU Radio. This was my first experience with what I’d call an ‘old school radio interview,’ where the host has a wonderfully, low, smooth voice and doesn’t engage in conversation so much as peppers the interviewee with questions. If you’re interested, you can listen in below.



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