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.

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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.

Tags: , , ,

Categories: digital, history of computing, media archaeology lab

Author:Lori Emerson

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm the author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound and co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

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