Media Archaeology Lab: Opening the Archive, Disrupting the Museum

Below is the text of a short piece I wrote on the Media Archaeology Lab for the most recent issue of the German magazine Retro: Computer | Spiele | KulturStefan Höltgen kindly invited me to contribute and translated my piece into German; you can read “Das Media Archaeology Lab” here.

cover from Retro31

Founded in 2009 and currently part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) gives students, scholars, and members of the general public access to obsolete, functional media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. In this regard, the MAL is unique. Perhaps most importantly and broadly, the MAL turns the concepts of “archive” and “museum” inside out in the interests of disrupting two interrelated, cultural tendencies: a) the tendency to create neat teleological arcs of technological progress that extend from the past to the present and b) the tendency to represent such arcs through static exhibits that display the outside and surfaces of these artifacts rather than their unique, material, operational insides.

In my own research, I have used the MAL to describe 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. However, I have come to recognize this sort of research is only one of the practices the MAL affords its interlocutors. I have come to understand it as a sort of “variontological” space in its own right, a place where, depending on your approach, you will find opportunities for research and teaching in myriad configurations as well as a host of other, less clearly defined activities made possible by a collection that is both object and tool. The MAL is an archive for original works of digital art/literature along with their original platforms. It is an archive for media objects. It a site for artistic interventions, experiments, and projects via MALpractices (residencies for artists and writers to first work and experiment directly with our materials and second, exhibit or perform their work either in the MAL or at a Colorado-based museum or gallery), MALware (our on-demand publication that documents events, MALpractices, and interdisciplinary thought taking place in and through the lab), and MALfunctions (monthly events for entrepreneurs, hackers, activists, academics, artists and designers that act equally as a hackerspace, makerspace, or straightforward venue space as a way to express the MAL’s extraordinary configurability). From the perspective of the university, it is a flexible, fluid space for practice-based research from a range of disciplines including literature, art, media studies, history of technology, computer science, library science, and archives and it is an apparatus through which we come to understand a complex history and the consequences of that history. From the perspective of the private sector and local tech/startup companies, the MAL offers a range of past solutions for present problems and it also offers these companies a compelling argument against planned obsolescence as many of the machines in the lab (such as the Altair 8800b) are over thirty five years old and not only function perfectly, but also make possible certain modes of interaction and creation that are not possible with contemporary digital computers.

The lab is also flexible and shifting in the sense that it is an ongoing, DIY project primarily run by and for the self-taught, one that grows and change with each influx of participants and volunteers and according to the interests and expertise of its constantly evolving participants. Because there are almost no precedents for the lab and no clearly established set of best practices, MAL participants must continually educate themselves not only about obsolete programming languages, software, hardware, peripherals etc. but they also must educate themselves about related best practices for archiving, cataloguing, metadata, preservation, and documentation. Such lack of precedent and the consequences thereof have, however, become a strength of the lab and those who work there as its core participants have been able to avoid entrenched methods and approach each challenge (how to catalog items, how to distinguish between hardware and software, etc.) with fresh ideas and open minds.

Given how the lab establishes and enacts an inside-out archive for teaching, research, and research creation, the MAL has developed a substantial local, national, and international reputation and it has done so thanks to the gracious volunteer efforts of supporters of the lab. For example, largely due to donations by students, alumni, and local, national and international members of the general public, the MAL now boasts a collection of well over 1500 items, particularly focused on the history of personal computing from the mid-1970s through the 1990s. The lab is also focusing more and more on working with individual donations by pioneering digital artists and writers as a way to continue building an important, accessible, hands-on archive of historically important digital art and literature (including work by the Canadian poet bpNichol and the American intermedia writer Judy Malloy), accessible on the works’ original platforms.

While we recognize that many, if not most, of the items in the lab will not function for much longer, we still believe in providing access to old, so-called “dead” media now, while we can.