“Excavating, Archiving, Making Media Inscriptions // In and Beyond the Media Archaeology Lab” appears in Inscription, published in Gothenburg, Sweden by their Regional State Archives (2018): 247-272.
This autobiographical short essay provides a snapshot of how scholarship might engage with the materiality of seemingly immaterial media and thus, by extension, with the ways in which verbal/visual expressions both inscribe and are inscribed by these same media. I begin with an overview of the founding of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) back in 2009 and what it has evolved into since the lab moved into a new space in 2012 – a lab that tries to imagine and even reimagine what a lab could be, what it could do, in the arts/humanities. I then move on to a discussion of how the lab drives my personal research projects – from my book Reading Writing Interfaces to “Other Networks” – and thus, by extension, I hope to show the way any media archaeology lab could drive humanities-based research. The overarching argument of this piece is about the value of the interpenetration of excavating, archiving, and making material, mediated inscriptions as that which drives thinking.
The Media Archaeology Lab
The near compulsion I have had for the five years or so with trying to understand the inner workings of obsolete computers has caught me by surprise, especially since I did not own a personal computer until the mid-1990s and it has not been until recently that I have dabbled in programming and started in earnest to understand how computers work. But in retrospect the move from poetics to media archaeology makes sense and even points to one way that literary studies could be rejuvenated by expanding its sense of itself as a discipline invested in close reading (and even distant reading) whatever is conventionally accepted as a literary text. That is, literary studies could also, not instead, read both media and media inscriptions not as literary texts but as artifacts worthy of the same attention and methodological approach.
My educational background is in experimental poetry and poetics and I picked this field in the late 1990s because of my interest in the materiality of poetic expression, whether sound poetry and the material presence of the body or concrete poetry and the material shape, size, texture of individual letters created via letterpress, typewriter, or dry-transfer lettering. It was a logical move, then, into researching digital poetry as another form of experimental writing and thinking about the nature of materiality in digital poetry and electronic literature more broadly. Specifically, the work of Canadian poet bpNichol served as the crucial bridge from sound poetry, concrete poetry, and the broad range of intermedia works he produced throughout his life to digital poetry as Nichol created “First Screening” in 1982-1983 – one of the earliest kinetic digital poems. More, alongside a handful of colleagues who also work in or run labs (colleagues such as Dene Grigar, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Darren Wershler) I soon started to see that original platforms for these works from the 1980s and early to mid-1990s were essential to the works themselves for two reasons. For one, shortly before I founded the MAL in the early to mid-2000s, anyone with an interest in early works of digital literature or art such as Nichol’s needed the original platform just to access the work (not to mention preserve it), especially in cases where no one had yet created an emulation. For another, I also started to see how original platforms are part and parcel of the works themselves, not to mention how access to these platforms gives us a deeper understanding of early digital works and how they were produced. In other words, the textual/visual elements of “First Screening” are inseparable from the underlying code (which includes a permutational code-poem not visible on screen) as well as the infrastructure of the Apple IIe computer it was written on and for, from the functioning of the machine’s floppy drive and its uniquely designed keyboard to the circuit boards and RAM chips accessible from the backside of the keyboard.
In 2009, my own solution to this need for preservation and access in digital art/literature was to create the MAL (originally named the Archaeological Media Lab) after receiving a small start-up grant from the University of Colorado Boulder. The lab was first housed in a 7′ x 14′ foot room in a 1940s house on campus and it only housed fifteen functioning Apple IIe computers – enough so that students in my classes as well as researchers could run the original version of “First Screening” on 5.25″ floppy disks.
I tried selling the lab to the larger public during these early years by arguing that it was an entity for supporting a locavore approach to sustaining digital literature, declaring that there’s no suitable online or virtual equivalent to coming to the lab and using the original machines and the original works themselves (a pitch I also hoped justified our very modest online presence). In 2012, several English department administrative assistants arranged for what felt like a miraculous space exchange that gave the lab an entire 1200 square foot basement in another older home on campus. Ever since, thanks to this new/old space and the freedom I was granted by my university to do whatever I wanted, the lab has exploded into an utterly open-ended space for just about any kind of experimentation.
Before I expand on the specifics of the lab, I would like to emphasize that I was fortunate during these early years in having no higher authority to report to and this, coupled with the lack of a hierarchical structure, is largely what made the lab into what it is now – a fluid space for creatively undertaking research or any kind of writerly/artistic practice and one that shifts and changes according to whoever participates in the lab from one year to the next. I would also like to emphasize that over the last couple of years I have come to see that having both artists and humanists/critics involved in the ongoing process of building a lab is an extremely effective way to intervene in the science-dominated culture of labs that are all too often tightly controlled spaces closed to anyone (member of the public or member of the institution) not affiliated with the research group, procedurally rigid, as well as controlled from the top down. I have no interest in taking on “lab” as a way to emulate the sciences in this regard and I also have no interest in trying to legitimize work that takes place in the lab by giving it the veneer of scientific work. By contrast, the MAL is intended to be a porous, flexible, creative space for, again, hands-on doing/tinkering/playing/creating as an instigator for rigorous thinking in whatever register people would like. It is a place where we excavate popular analog and digital inscription devices along with unusual or rare counterparts, where we produce practice-based research projects as well as make available opportunities for artists to “make” via artist residencies, and where we simultaneously archive these devices and the art/literature created on or with these devices.
More specifically, as of October 2016, the MAL houses roughly 1500 still-functioning individual items, including analog media from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth, digital computer hardware and software, handheld devices, game consoles, and a substantial collection of manuals, journals, magazines, and books on early computing from the 1950s through the 2000s.
Just in terms of our collection of digital devices, we house thirty-five portables, seventy-three desktops, twenty-two handhelds, ten game consoles, and eight other computing devices. Given this substantial collection of media items that are meant to be turned on and actively used, the lab is therefore not a museum but rather a place where denizens can “do” media archaeology in any number of ways. That is, denizens may undertake research projects or artist residencies that involve taking apart or excavating layers of certain devices to understand how they work, tracking the manufacturing history of their parts, or putting old and new devices in conversation with each other to see how the underlying structure of seemingly similar media produces entirely different literary or artistic products; they may also engage in hands-on teaching with high school students, undergraduates and graduates to demonstrate how past technologies provide a way to re-see (or defamiliarize) present technologies and even help to resee future technologies; finally, denizens may also learn how to accession and catalog items also while collaborating on creating metadata schemes to describe holdings, learning the ways in which description (especially ones that are overly concerned with the outward appearance of an item rather than its functionality) may pre-determine and even over-determine our understanding of the item being described.
In short, then, the MAL is unique for a number of reasons. Rather than being hierarchical and classificatory both in its display/organization of inscription devices as well as people, it’s porous, flat, and branching; devices are organized in any way participants want; everything is functional and made to be turned on and experimented with to see what difference it makes to use one device or piece of software over another to denaturalize present ubiquitous technologies. Rather than setting out to adhere to specific outcomes and five year plans, we change from semester to semester and year to year depending on who’s spending time in the lab. Rather than being an entity you need to apply to be a part of or an entity you can only participate in as a student, researcher, faculty member, or librarian, for example, anyone may participate in the lab and have a say about what projects we take on and what kinds of work we do. Rather than being about the display of precious objects whereby you only ever get a sense of the external appearance or even external functionality of the objects, we encourage people to tinker, play, open things up, and disassemble. Rather than the perpetuation of neat, historical narratives about how things came to be, we encourage an experimental approach to time – we put Edison phonograph disks from 1912 beside contemporary proprietary software or we place the Vectrex gaming console and its lightpen from 1983 next to a contemporary tablet and stylus. And finally, rather than participating in the process of erasing the knowledge production process or perpetuating the illusion of a separation between those who work in the lab and the machines they work on and hiding the agency of the machines themselves as well as the agency of the larger infrastructure of the lab, we are interested in constantly situating anything and everything we do in the lab and being self-conscious, descriptive about the minute particularities of the production process for any projects we undertake.
Reading Writing Interfaces
While the MAL is defined by constant change and experimentation, I want to make it clear that I also use the lab to produce the epitome of traditional research in the humanities: the single-authored monograph book. Reading Writing Interfaces (published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2014) represents my attempt to mesh together media archaeology via the lab, media studies, and literary studies by way of a reverse chronology which I use to move back in time to look at how personal computing could have been otherwise and still could be otherwise. I also use media archaeology and the reverse chronology not just to give lip service to how we are all against “narratives of technological progress” but as a way to actually uncover examples of earlier interfaces, earlier modes of personal computing that have capabilities our contemporary devices do not have. At the same time as I identify earlier, now-defunct interfaces, I look at how writers from the present moment back to the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, and even back to the late nineteenth century registered the affordances of other and older writing technologies by working with and against interfaces (from iPad app to command line, typewriter, and pen/paper). In this context, I’ve been working more and more on developing specific theories of media poetics – ways in which writers are not just registering through writing the affordance of whatever writing technology is at hand, but also how their media studies disrupt the ways in which corporations now work to make these affordances invisible and then celebrate invisibility in terms of the wonders of seamlessness, intuitiveness, transparency, and user-friendly.
Media poetics has become a powerful argument for the value of literature – not as something that expresses “who we are”, whoever that is, and not as something that necessarily tells stories about who we are (though it could, and sometimes does so powerfully and better than any other medium) but as something that registers media effects through inscriptions we recognize as linguistic. More than just everyday use of media, whether they are made with pen and paper, typewriter, personal computer, or on a network, these works of media poetics are limit cases of the capabilities of specific media, expressions of machines themselves just as much as they are expressions of human authors. Media poetics therefore also opens up the possibility of reading literature less for what it says and more for how it says and how it reads its own writing process. The latter also means replacing the practice of close-reading with descriptions of media effects as an alternative mode of reading. It takes “reading” off the spectrum of close and distant reading altogether and just re-orients the object of what’s being read altogether.
However, I never would have come to above realizations about media poetics in Reading Writing Interfaces without having the chance to tinker in the Media Archaeology Lab and have hands-on access to different competing interfaces from the 70s through the 80. For example, if one just spends an hour or two in the lab, one cannot help but see how easy it is – and necessary – to open up any one of the lab’s Apple II computers and actively intervene in the machine’s capabilities rather than have it determined for me, as one experiences when one interacts with almost any Apple computer released after the Macintosh in 1984. In other words, to return once more to the example of bpNichol’s “First Screening,” the lab makes it perfectly clear not only that this piece is so much more than the text that moves across the screen (contrary to what one might believe if one only has access to the Quicktime movie emulation) and it is so precisely because of the piece’s native platform.
“Other Networks,” the project I am currently working on, also comes out of the MAL but originally emerged from an innocent question my colleague Matthew Kirschenbaum asked me about the place of the 1990s in my book; after mulling it over for nearly a month afterward, I realized that writers/artists were not so much working with/against the material constraints of hardware in the 1990s but rather they were working with/against networks – the newly inaugurated World Wide Web as well as thousands of other networks such as Bulletin Board Systems, Slow Scan TVs, and cable-based networks such as Canada’s NABU. The project also comes out of our experiments in the MAL to get a phone line set up and then try to surf the web using, first, the experimental browser WebStalker also from 1997, a version of Netscape from 1995, as well as MOSAIC from 1993- the first Graphical User Interface used to access to the WWW.
All of these interfaces offer completely different experiences of being online and utterly different kinds of access to information that nowadays is brought to us through the utterly naturalized interface of Google. Moreover, our inability to get many of these browsers working because of incompatible infrastructure (from the nature of our phone line to the capabilities of our campus servers) brought into relief the ways in which different networks and their differing interfaces not only shape visual/verbal inscriptions visible at the level of the screen but they more fundamentally shape the way the underlying layers are inscribed on each other.
“Other Networks” is, then, a network archaeology that once again moves from the present to the mid-60s, covering the odd history of telecommunications networks that pre-date the Internet and/or that exist outside of the Internet, networks that were imagined, planned, and created right alongside the tumultuous history of user friendly interfaces and personal computing I touch on above. The point of the project is to imagine how the Internet or how networks in general were otherwise, could have been otherwise, and still could be otherwise. At the same time, I will once again be looking at the art and literature created on these networks as they are unmatched expressions of the limits and possibilities of the networks themselves – registering networked media noise. What follows is a brief overview of three networks, some of the hardware of which is currently in the MAL.
Since the project moves from present to past, one of the first networks I discuss is called OCCUPY.HERE, created in 2012 in parallel with the Occupy Movement. OCCUPY.HERE claims it exists entirely outside of the Internet and it describes itself as “inherently resistant to surveillance.” It consists of a wifi router near Zuccotti Park in New York City and anyone with a smartphone or laptop within range of it can access it through a portal website that opens up onto what the creators describe as a Bulletin-Board System style message board on which users can share messages and files.
OCCUPY.HERE is, then, an example of a darknet – a network that uses non-standard protocols, anonymizes its users, and creates connections only between trusted users. Not surprisingly, darknets have been viewed with suspicion since the 1970’s when the U.S. military’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) coined the term “darknet” to refer to networks unavailable via ARPANet. A new wave of concern about darknet came about in 2002 when a group of Microsoft researchers published a paper titled “The Darknet and the Future of Content Protection” (Biddle et al), arguing the darknet was the greatest stumbling block to the control of digital content and devices that have already been sold to consumers. Given this history, it is not surprising that the Occupy Movement was so attracted to darknets as a means to utterly circumvent not just surveillance, but the entire economic underpinning of the internet.
3.2 The Thing
As readers work their way through descriptions of these other networks, they will undoubtedly start to notice the way the reverse chronology turns up a distinctly nonlinear or perhaps recursive history of networks, where networks emerge, disappear, and reappear slightly recalibrated. I pointed out above that OCCUPY.HERE calls itself a bulletin board system (BBS), which is a kind of network that emerged in the late 1970s. While nearly all histories of the internet agree BBSes generally died out with the introduction of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, OCCUPY.HERE is a small but effective disruption to this narrative.
Surprisingly, while there are plenty of self-published first person accounts, and plenty of enthusiasts who reminisce online about their years running or participating in BBSes, no media studies oriented book-length account has yet been written on probably the most important telecommunications network of the 1980s and 1990s. To give you some historical context, the first BBS system, called a CBBS or Computerized Bulletin Board System, was created in 1978 and was originally conceived as a computerized version of an analog bulletin board for exchanging information. Thereafter, each BBS had a dedicated phone number, which generally meant that only one person could dial in at a time; also, most BBSes were communities of local users because of how prohibitively expensive it was to make long-distance phone calls; these local users could use it to share files, read news, exchange messages publicly or privately, play games, and even create art. ANSI and ASCII art, for example, were popular art forms on BBSes.
One BBS I am particularly interested in is The Thing – a BBS that New York artist Wolfgang Staehle started in 1991, just one month after Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. It was an online community center for artists and writers, a virtual exhibition space, and later a node in a network of international The Thing BBSes. But what particularly fascinates me about The Thing is the way in which the network itself was conceived as an artwork rather than any individual pieces of content that were uploaded to it. also hardware now in the MAL. As Staehle himself has put it,” “The whole meaning of it would come out of the relationships between the people and not the modernist ideal of the single hero artist that the market loves…” (quoted in Kopstein)
Another important premise of the “Other Networks” project is to work against the widely accepted yet inaccurate, U.S.-centric story of the “invention” of the internet. Even well into the 1990s, there were an inordinate number of thriving networks all around the world that existed outside of the Internet and many succeeded because of government policy. For example, one network supported by the Canada Council was ARTEX, originally called ARTBOX. Founded in 1980 and lasting until 1991, ARTEX, or the ELECTRONIC ART EXCHANGE PROGRAM, was a simple and cheap electronic mail program designed to be used by artists and writers interested in what they called “alternative uses of advanced technology.” The program and the network were provided by I.P. Sharp Associates timesharing network, a company based first in Toronto and then expanding its reach with offices (and thereby network nodes) all around the world.
An example of a writerly use of the network is Norman White’s “Hearsay” that dates from November 1985, which was a tribute to Canadian poet Robert Zend who had died a few months earlier and was known for, among other things, creating the astonishingly beautiful collection of typescapes, or typewriter landscapes, called ARBORMUNDI. “Hearsay” builds on the following text Zend wrote in 1975:
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 KNUCKLE 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.
White’s “Hearsay,” on the other hand, was an event based on the children’s game of “telephone” whereby a message is whispered from person to person and arrives back at its origin, usually hilariously garbled. Zend’s text was sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via I.P. Sharpe Associates network. Each of the eight participating centers was charged with translating the message into a different language before sending it on. The final version, translated into English, arrived in Toronto as a fascinating example of a literary experiment with semantic and media noise:
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.
What I have just provided, then, is a brief overview of a three “other networks.” Again, I am attempting to incorporate ideas about materiality, excavation, and the importance of hands-on work from media archaeology to undertake a network archaeology of the many different and even conflicting networks that existed before the Internet consolidated all the different networks under one protocol (TCP/IP). The larger point of this work, however, is to point to how the history of how we arrived at the Internet, and of how it came to be, is much more muddied, contradictory, and strange than has yet been accounted for.
To circle back to the beginning of my essay, I would like to note once more that the MAL and the underlying philosophy of the lab is really what is driving this project, just like it drove Reading Writing Interfaces. The project continues to develop ideas – originating in the lab and discussed in my book – about ruptures, about interfering in narratives of technological progress, about the tight connection between the materiality of a machine and what’s created on or with that machine – all ideas that come into focus when one has hands-on access to the original media.
Biddle, Peter, Paul English, Marcus Peinado, Bryan Willmann. “The Darknet and the Future of Content Protection.” Digital Rights Management, eds. Eberhard Becker, Willms Buhse, Dirk Günnewig, Niels Rump, Heidelberg, Springer Berlin Heidelberg 2003.
Emerson, Lori, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbind, Minneapolis 2014.
Kopstein, Joseph. “‘The Thing’ Redialed: how a BBS changed the art world and came back from the dead.'” The Verge (13 March 2013). <http://www.theverge.com/2013/3/15/4104494/the-thing-reloaded-bringing-bbs-networks-back-from-the-dead>.
Nichol, bp. “First Screening.”<http://vispo.com/bp/index.htm>.
Media Archaeology Lab. <http://mediaarchaeologylab.com>.
White, Norman. “Hearsay.” <http://alien.mur.at/rax/ARTEX/hearsay.html>.
Zend, Robert. ARBORMUNDI, Vancouver, Canada: Blewointment Press, 1982.
—“The Message.” From Zero to One. Mission, Canada: Sono Nis Press, 1973, p. 61.