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.
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.
Thanks to Counterpath – an incredibly productive and innovative literary publisher and arts venue in Denver – we are looking for work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell, co-edited by Derek Beaulieu and myself. Our introduction to the collection, “Media Studies and Writing Surfaces,” is posted here. The Call for Work is below – please submit and/or pass this on to relevant friends, colleagues, and students.
Counterpath is seeking work in writing, performance, film, and sound that directly responds to or reads Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell (2012, Wilfred Laurier University Press).
John Riddell’s work embraces game play, unreadability and illegibility, procedural work, non-representational narrative, photocopy degeneration, collage, handwritten texts, and gestural work. His self-aware and meta-textual short fiction challenges the limits of machine-based composition and his reception as a media-based poet.
Riddell is best known for “H” and “Pope Leo, El ELoPE,” a pair of graphic fictions written in collaboration with, or dedicated to, bpNichol, but his work moves well beyond comic strips into a series of radical fictions. In Writing Surfaces, derek beaulieu and Lori Emerson present “Pope Leo, El ELoPE” and many other works in a collection that showcases Riddell’s remarkable mix of largely typewriter-based concrete poetry mixed with fiction and drawings.
Riddell’s oeuvre fell out of popular attention, but it has recently garnered interest among poets and critics engaged in media studies (especially studies of the typewriter) and experimental writing. As media studies increasingly turns to “media archaeology” and the reading and study of antiquated, analogue-based modes of composition (typified by the photocopier and the fax machine as well as the typewriter), Riddell is a perfect candidate for renewed appreciation and study by new generations of readers, authors, and scholars.
Counterpath will host an evening of approximately 5 performances of 10-15 minutes each on December 14, 2013, at 7p.m. Please send a proposal of not more than 250 words to Counterpath program coordinator Oren Silverman (email@example.com) by October 31, 2013. Counterpath is a literary publisher and arts venue in Denver, Colorado. For more information please visit counterpathpress.org.
[reblogged from the Media Archaeology Lab]
As a result of a number of recent researcher visits to the MAL, the question we’ve been mulling over lately is whether, or how, works of digital literature can be said to have “manuscript versions.” Here is the background to this question: on 7 June 2012, I blogged about the 5.25″ floppies of bpNichol’s “First Screening” that had been donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.
The Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder has two 5 ¼-inch floppies with incomplete versions of First Screening on them (along with the requisite Apple IIe for viewing them). These beta-phase versions of First Screening not only differ from each other and from the published version (which is available online as an emulation of the software running on an Apple IIe) in content, but also in metadata. The two disks contain different selections from the eventual First Screening line up and this variation in primary text content affects the underlying layers of text that are intrinsically tied to the properties of the software. For example, typing the CAT command for catalogue of disk contents brings up a list of programs on each disk and the amount of space occupied by each. While one disk indicates that the poems claim 013 sectors of space on the floppy, the other—which has more of the final selection of poems—requires 045 sectors of space for the First Screening program. Additionally, by entering the command GOSUB 500 on the latter disk brings the user to the dedication at the end of the poems, while executing the same command on the disk with less poems calls up the piece “Tidal Pool.” The message that greets readers when the disk is first booted up and prompts them to type the RUN command claims its own 002 sectors of space and appears as a program titled “Hello” when the CAT or LIST commands are executed. The metadata also confirms that these two floppies are not complete versions. A quick consult with the Apple IIe manual reveals that the lack of asterisk beside the list of programs recalled with the CAT command means that these programs are unlocked and open for edits from any user.
In 1992-93, J. B. Hohm attempted to replicate First Screening in Hypercard format using HyperTalk programming language and he published the finished translation on 3 ½-inch floppy disks. A greater range of machines could read this version of First Screening, yet, at the same time, a couple of statistics about one possible computer that could be used for viewing the work indicate the accelerated rate of media evolution that accompanied the increase in available options for personal computers: I popped Hohm’s re-creation of First Screening into a Macintosh Powerbook 160, which was released in 1992 and discontinued in 1994. Loading this translation of First Screening highlights how it is impossible for anyone working with Nichol’s concrete poetry to avoid the material nature of his work. In the section titled “Fonts and Bolding” in the introduction/menu section of the disk, Hohm makes special note of typography in the section titled, an element that is of paramount importance in most of Nichol’s print concrete as well. Options in the menu allow users the choice between viewing First Screening in bolded or un-bolded text, and users can also choose between three fonts: Chicago, Geneva, or Monaco. Hohm implies that users may have an even greater font selection depending on the model of computer they are using. He writes, “At the very minimum, your Macintosh should support Geneva, Chicago, and Monaco fonts.”
When First Screening was translated from Applesoft Basic to HyperTalk programming language it was published on a different size of floppy disk, it became viewable on a whole new range of personal computers, and the underlying layers of text behind the viewing text transformed. The programs on the disk that execute the poems are measured in new units, and the commands that call up metadata have changed. In fact, the viewer’s ability to communicate directly with the program through simple command lines is impeded by the presence of a user menu that requires the viewer to communicate with the program by selecting options with the cursor instead. The cursor function builds up the layers of text (in this case HyperTalk coding language) between the viewing text and the initial text that was input by the author. Now the placement of the cursor in the table of contents initiates a command sequence instead of the user perusing the location of individual poems with the LIST command and manually entering a GOSUB command to jump ahead to a specific poem in the sequence. Nichol was aware of the subtleties of these layers of text and how they were dependent upon their medium. A text file (provided by Jim Andrews and co.) of Nichol’s original First Screening created with Applesoft Basic reveals that Nichol imbedded a bonus poem in the programming language. Using the REM command as a prefix he created a poem about the biblical flood that includes word play such as “REM ark.” In the Basic language REM indicates a line of text in the code that will not be executed as part of the program and is only visible when the code is being read in its raw form. Like the HTML of today’s use of the forward slash and the asterisk, REM preceded lines within code that were essentially references for the programmer. In Nichol’s hidden poem, “ark” is the primary text, but “REM” couples with it to form a larger word that is a hybrid of command and content. Since REM is not a command in HyperTalk, Hohm must include this poem as a bonus feature that is purely content, thereby losing the play-on words and an integral part of the poem’s identity.
Below are photographs Wooler took of the Hypercard version of “First Screening” housed in the Media Archaeology Lab as well as the lab’s still functioning Macintosh Powerbook 160 from 1992.
I’m thrilled the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries has decided to hire a Digital Archivist, hopefully one who will work with the Media Archaeology Lab. Please apply or pass on this job description to any qualified individuals. The job posting is available below and here.
The University of Colorado Boulder Libraries invites applications from innovative and creative individuals for the position of Digital Archivist. This is a tenure-stream faculty position reporting to the Director of Archives & Special Collections (ASC). Duties for this critical position include leading efforts to preserve, describe, and provide access to born-digital archival and special collections materials; developing processes for archiving and preserving born-digital materials including email, Web sites, social media, and other digital primary materials acquired on a variety of current or legacy formats such as tape, floppy disks, hard drives, and mobile devices; acquiring and maintaining legacy hardware and software that may be necessary for providing access to digital materials; developing and documenting procedures (and building infrastructure) for the acquisition of born-digital collections and electronic records and for the routine migration of materials to maintain formatting compatibility with Libraries IT software and hardware; providing digital program development, guidance in best practices for data management, training and development for library personnel and campus departments as needed; and delivering born-digital content to external discovery and delivery mechanisms in collaboration with specialists in cataloging and metadata, information technology, and scholarly communications. The digital archivist will serve as an expert in assessing digital content storage needs and will implement appropriate tools and procedures to accomplish these aims. The successful candidate will assist with the research and implementation of information architecture, coding standards, and emerging technologies as well as participate in the development of controlled vocabulary, metadata structures, and crosswalk of metadata to ArchivesSpace.
The position includes significant responsibilities for research, creative work, and service in keeping with the tenure standards of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Please address each of these qualifications in your application materials:
- Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from an ALA-accredited institution or equivalent advanced degree;
- Strong knowledge of forensic technologies utilized by the archival or cultural heritage communities for harvesting, managing, and preserving born-digital archival and manuscript material;
- Demonstrated problem solving skills;
- Knowledge of legal and ethical issues affecting digital archival and special collections objects;
- Knowledge of current trends, tools, and protocols in digital archiving and preservation;
- Understanding of principles and techniques for archiving of websites, email, social media, and other online primary sources;
- Familiarity with metadata standards relevant to the archival control of digital collection materials such as EAD, Dublin Core, MODS and PREMIS;
- Demonstrated ability to work independently and collaboratively;
- Excellent organizational skills and ability to plan, coordinate, and implement complex projects;
- Excellent oral and written communication skills;
- Potential for research, scholarly work, and professional achievement.
- At least two years of relevant experience in an archival repository or similar cultural setting, including working with born digital materials;
- Strong knowledge of XML and related technologies (especially XSLT, XSL-FO) and one or more relevant programming languages (Ruby, Python, Perl, etc.);
- Familiarity with OAIS standards, TRAC principles, and best practices in assessment of needs and development of workflows in digital preservation strategies;
- Familiarity with experimental media and/or digital humanities;
- Demonstrated supervisory success.
Appointment and Salary:
The successful candidate will be appointed as a full-time (12 month), tenure-stream faculty member. Depending upon professional experience and demonstrated accomplishments in scholarly activity, creative work, and service, appointment may be made at the senior instructor or assistant professor level. Benefits include 22 working days of vacation; 10 paid holidays; liberal sick leave; excellent University group health care plans; group life insurance; a variety of retirement/annuity plans; and support for scholarly/professional activities. Tenured faculty members are eligible for sabbatical leave.
Review of applications will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled. It is recommended that applications be submitted by July 15, 2013 in order to receive full consideration. Application must be made online at http://www.jobsatcu.com/postings/67062, and must include a letter of application specifically addressing qualifications for the position; CV or resume; and names with postal addresses, email, and telephone numbers of three references. Questions may be directed to Dylan Wiersma, Search Coordinator, at Dylan.Wiersma@Colorado.EDU. The full position description can be viewed athttp://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/about/jobDigitalArchivist.
The candidates selected for this position must be able to meet eligibility requirements to work in the United States at the time the appointment is scheduled to begin. The University of Colorado is an Equal Opportunity Employer committed to building a diverse workforce. We encourage applications from women, racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, and veterans. Alternative formats of this ad can be provided upon request for individuals with disabilities by contacting the ADA Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, the University of Colorado is committed to providing a safe and productive learning and living community. To achieve that goal, we conduct background investigations for all final applicants being considered for employment. Background investigations include reference checks, a criminal history record check, and, when appropriate, a financial and/or motor vehicle history
I’m nostalgic for a moment I never lived through – when we were concerned enough with monopolies over access to information online that not only did we call the competition between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator a “browser war,” but there were even competitions such as the Amsterdam-based “Browserday” to design new, innovative browsers.
Nowadays, while there are a few more choices for browsers and still many reasons to be concerned about how our experience of the Web is being framed for us, search engine algorithms are the new, more obvious information gatekeepers. In fact, the 21st century version of Internet Explorer’s monopoly is now so obvious that it’s nearly no longer noticeable, for when we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” And so, in line with what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything,” a new mode of writing is emerging that I call (in the postscript to my book Reading Writing Interfaces) “readingwriting”: the practice of writing through the network, which, as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, constantly reads our writing and writes our reading. This strange blurring of, even feedback loop between, reading and writing, quite simply signals the end of literature as we’ve known it. It is the Googlization of literature. And readingwriters (such as Darren Wershler, Bill Kennedy, Tan Lin, and John Cayley/Daniel Howe) who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity; they are implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves and our language back to us.
The impetus of this literary critique of Google is clearly aligned with that of early works of net art such as the “Web Stalker” from 1997 – an experimental web browser or piece of “speculative software” created by the art collective I/O/D (consisting of Simon Pope, Colin Green, and Matthew Fuller). “Web Stalker” essentially turns the web inside-out, presenting the viewer/navigator with the html code of a given page and all links leading to and from the page are presented to the viewer as a visualization. It is an artistic tool for drawing attention to the limits and possibilities of a particular reading/writing interface, the web browser. As co-creator Colin Green put it in a 1998 interview with Geert Lovink, “[b]rowsers made by the two best-known players frame most peoples’ experience of the web. This is a literal framing. Whatever happens within the window of Explorer, for instance, is the limit of possibility.” The foregoing is then followed up by Matthew Fuller’s clarification that “Web Stalker” “is not setting itself as a universal device, a proprietary switching system for the general intelligence, but a sensorium – a mode of sensing, knowing and doing on the web that makes its propensities – and as importantly, some at least of those ‘of the web’ that were hitherto hidden – clear.”
Since “Web Stalker” was created sixteen years ago, and runs only on Windows 95 and Mac Classic OS (which in turn usually requires an equally obsolete dialup connection), it’s fairly difficult to get it running and there are also very few high quality images available of it online. Thankfully, Matthew Fuller generously provided me with images which I’m making available here. If you have the technical know-how, you can still download “Web Stalker” here and get it to write a reading of the Web like you’ve never seen before…or at least, not seen since the late 90s.