Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to tour several labs I consider siblings to the Media Archaeology Lab. Last February, for example, I posted about my tours of the Signal Lab and the Media Archaeological Fundus at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. This past week, while I was in Boston researching the MIT Media Lab, I also had the very good fortune of finally being able to tour the Trope Tank, also housed at MIT and founded/directed by Nick Montfort. (The tour was also prompted by a book I’m working on with Darren Wershler and Jussi Parikka, called THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices in Media Studies; as part of the project, we have been collecting interviews with directors and denizens of labs, including an interview with Nick). The trope Tank is one of the Media Archaeology Lab‘s few North American siblings and it has influenced us greatly over the years; most recently, we were inspired to start up our own technical report series after reading the Trope Tank’s technical reports.
Nick spoke to me online from New York while postdoctoral student and artist, Sofian Audry, showed me around demoed some of the Trope Tank’s most recent projects. While Nick and I laughed that somehow we’ve both managed to position our labs as unique in the same ways (the website makes it clear that the Trope Tank is dedicated to “developing new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language”), I was nonetheless struck with how much labs – whether they are small operations based in the arts/humanities or mammoth labs with feet in computer science, engineering and biological sciences like the Media Lab – are shaped not only by the interior space and the surrounding space but also by the founder/director. Coming directly to the Trope Tank from the Media Lab, where Nicholas Negroponte’s directorship continues to live on through the space of the lab and its functioning, it seemed to me that the Trope Tank – in its arrangement of its collection, its method of labelling, coupled with its extensive printed matter collection that equalled the collection of machines and that was as large as any printed matter collection I saw in the Media Lab – was very much the embodiment of the particular interests of the Nick Montfort I know who is a professor (therefore teacher and scholar) as well as a poet-programmer.
While the interior space of the Media Archaeology Lab is large enough that it has perhaps indulged my own tendencies toward collecting and toward thinking in terms of long, branching, varied histories instead of specific, deep and focused histories, the interior space of the Trope Tank is perhaps small enough that it’s clarified and focused the lab on a dozen specific machines, with the occasional foray into the long history of print technology (it houses a typewriter and several small printing presses). And in terms of exterior space, while I’ve come to value how the Media Archaeology Lab is located on the edge of campus in the basement of a 1940s house (the isolation has given us a tremendous amount of freedom in that its given us a space all our own to either retreat from the bustle of campus or to host loud, occasionally raucous events), it’s undeniable the isolation is also challenging for giving class tours, for hosting more public events, and for attaining visibility across the campus as a whole. The Trope Tank, on the other hand, is in the heart of a network of busy buildings on the MIT campus – not only is it down the hallway from one of the main libraries but the hallway right outside the lab is constantly full of students and faculty walking and interacting with each other, which in turn must result in more serendipitous encounters and in embedding the lab deeply in campus culture.