Lab as Living Thing, Media Archaeological Fundus as Assemblage

The following is a draft version of an essay that appears in Achaeographies: A Festschrift for Wolfgang Ernst, Ed. Stefan Holtgen. Berlin, Germany: Schwabe Verlag Publishers (2019): 37-46.


“Lab as Living Thing, Media Archaeological Fundus as Assemblage”

I checked. The first email I received from Wolfgang Ernst was in 2012. When it arrived in my inbox, I immediately forwarded it to my partner with only a long series of exclamation marks and then, yes, tweeted about it. Even though for most of my life I have had the ability to correspond with those living at such a great distance that I might never otherwise have the opportunity to meet or talk to them in person, somehow the thrill of doing just that, only now over email, is still with me. And when I think of Wolfgang Ernst’s work particularly in the Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as something that is actively in conversation with his textual writings – bringing from one to the other a commitment to vigorously reject the notion of “dead media” while working to “reveal and verbally make explicit the knowledge which is implicit in technologies” – it’s possible that doing “applied epistemology” by re-animating that same thrill of transatlantic communication so many centuries later is at least partly the point (“An Interview”). As I think on the influence of Ernst’s MAF on how I’ve built and understood the Media Archaeology Lab over the last ten years of its existence, it becomes clear to me not only the MAF to MAL influence on hands-on approaches to technological media but also the ways in which – despite the moniker “lab” which is always preceded by the singularity, certainty and individuality provided by a definite article such as “the” – a lab is anything but a static, unchangeable, unitary entity. It is always fundamentally shaped by communities of people both inside and beyond the lab, by these same communities’s intellectual trajectories, by the lab’s space, and by its infrastructure.

In other words, read a certain way – perhaps read against the grain – even if the modern lab is defined by “placelessness,” in Robert Kohler’s words, a lab such as the MAF can show us how any bounded space is in fact an assemblage of forces across the personal, institutional, and philosophical as well as across a range of temporalities (Kohler 766). The humanities or the media studies lab as exemplified by placefulness.

While most histories of higher education trace the comings and goings of individual people along with conceptual or philosophical shifts, usually without any reference to the particularities of a given institution’s physical space and infrastructure (the latter of which of course lays the groundwork for what’s possible individually, conceptually and philosophically), in the case of Ernst and the MAF it’s clear that individual, institutional and philosophical shifts are also both products of and producers of a spatial and infrastructural shift. As Ernst recounts in an interview with me in 2012 and another interview with Jussi Parikka in 2016, the Media Archaeological Fundus came into being in 2003 when the seminar for Theatre Studies became the seminar for Media Studies at Humboldt University. What a reader not well versed in the German higher educational system might not understand from this seemingly straightforward statement is that ‘seminar’ refers not only to a weekly meeting of graduate students led by a professor but it is also something akin to a program, headed up by a Chair. Thus, what is implied here is that 2003 is also the year Ernst was first hired at Humboldt University as Full Professor of Media Theories and when he was also commissioned with the foundation of the seminar and master’s program in media studies such that, again, the individual, the institutional and the philosophical merge. They also merge around a particular particular space inherited from Theatre Studies. As Ernst puts it:

[a]ll of a sudden, spaces like the student practicing stage and its related fund of objects for rehearsal were empty. This was the ideal moment for the Berlin school of media studies (insisting on the materialities of communication and epistemic technologies) to claim such rooms under new auspices. The stage became the Media Theatre where technical devices themselves become the protagonist, and the fund became the space for a collection of requisites of a new kind: media archaeological artefacts.


Figure 1. The centre of the Media Archaeological Fundus

Name and space and philosophy became entangled under the name of the Media Archaeological Fundus as it provides (I’m afraid it must be said) the literal and figurative stage and perhaps even the impetus for both the importance of hands-on experimentation to media archaeology and for what Ernst would write nearly ten years later in his first English-language publication Digital Memory and the Archive: “…media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge” (55, emphasis my own). How else could one come to the conclusion that objects of media technologies are themselves bearers and even creators of their own temporalities without a space for and of objects on which one can practice media archaeology? Moreover, how else could one develop these conclusions without the buttressing from a very particular kind of space – one defined by a bare, orange table in the middle of a sunken rather than raised central space whose walls are lined by shelves of media arranged not chronologically but rather by their core, underlying units of operational affinity?  Put slightly differently, think of the significance of the fact that entering the MAF involves opening a door onto a landing, thereby giving one a bird’s eye view of the majority of the space and the collection, and then descending a set of stairs wherein one is at eye-level with the core of the collection and the lab’s main workbench for analyzing technological items “in action to reveal their media essence” (Parikka).


Figure 2. A shelf of artefacts in the MAF arranged by operational affinity rather than by historical contiguity.

The way in which the space of the MAF simultaneously both deploys itself and can be deployed for media archaeological ends – specifically as a departure from traditional archives and museums – is even more clear when we compare the image of it in Figure 1 with the image in Figure 3 of Italian pharmacist, botanist and herbalist Francesco Calzolari’s natural history museum from the 1560s (considered the first of its kind in the world). This collection included stuffed animals, dried plants, samples of minerals and rocks, fossils, archaeological and ethnographic material, shells, etc. But, most importantly, the space – lacking a workbench and defined by its collection of objects which appear to be out of reach and which one must view from the ground up rather than, in the case of the MAF, from a view above – appears to be deployed more as a research collection for museum-like viewing rather than for hands-on experimentation. More, given the vertical stacking and scale of the collection, it also seems to be deployed for the production of distant awe rather than something more akin to Ernst’s “epistemological reverse engineering” – something that is nearly impossible to do without direct physical contact with the object.


Figure 3. Francesco Calzolari’s natural history museum from the 1560s (considered the first of its kind in the world).

Despite the fact that the MAF is, in some important senses, a departure from the history of museums (because of its hands-on imperative) as well as labs (in the sense that labs have long been seen as exclusively belonging to the domain of the sciences), it’s worth noting that the space, infrastructure and function of the MAF also recovers some aspects of the long history of labs that goes back to apothecaries, anatomical theatres, and chemistry labs. As you can see in Figure 4, with the heavily used workbench installed in the center of the space and thus quite unlike Calzolari’s natural history museum, the apothecary was dedicated to the manual preparation and sale of medicines to physicians and patients. Even though apothecaries were viewed as inferior because of their reliance on manual work, they too strangely recover and anticipate the major shift that took place in university life in the coming centuries which included rather than shunned laboratories as places of hands-on, physical work. As Maurice Crosland recounts in his history of early laboratories, while they were not considered proper places of study because of their practical function, they remind us that the Latin root of ‘laboratory’ is ‘laborare’ which literally means ‘to work.’


Figure 4. An image from Wolfgang Helmhard Hohberg’s 1697 Georgica curiosa aucta.

These apothecaries were also distinct from later university-based laboratories in that they served a clear public function, perhaps even a profit-oriented function and certainly not an educational function. Even closer to the philosophy and spatial and infrastructural organization of the MAF is the anatomical theatre – the predecessor to the medical lab. As you can see in figure 5, the theatre was designed to educate the public about human anatomy through dissections that took place on a central, sunken table and through viewing tiers along with skeletons displayed with instructional signage.

figure5Figure 5. An anatomical theater from Leiden, Netherlands built in 1593.

The anatomical theatre as one of several underlying archaeological layers of the MAF also reminds us of the role of lab-like entities as bounded spaces dedicated to teaching not simply techniques but particular modes of thinking and philosophical values by way of instruction on techniques. Moving up in time to the 1790s in France and then the early 1800s in Germany, Maurice Crosland also points out:

The École Polytechnique in Paris…demonstrated the value of teaching chemistry, not only by lectures, but also by encouraging students to perform practical work in laboratories. The greatest influence on teaching practical science through laboratory instruction was, however, that of Justus Liebig at the University of Giessen, who, in the 1820s and 1830s, established an international reputation for teaching chemistry through laboratory practice. This provided an important influence on the general teaching of science at university level. (252)

Thus, by the nineteenth century’s birth of the so-called modern lab, such labs were ubiquitous particularly in Germany not only because they were places for the production of knowledge but also because they were good “for educating people en masse for modern life. States paid for and promoted labs because it was thought that these molded future citizens to perform effectively (and responsibly) in industrial economies and mass electoral politics” (Kohler 767).

I will refrain from expanding on the preceding claims by Robert Kohler for the sake of moving back to the MAF: if the MAF is, again, intentionally placeful – a bounded space that also responds to its situatedness –  then how does that placefulness and the lab’s particular modes of thinking play out in the teaching that takes place there? In stark contrast to the underlying purpose of state-funded labs for molding citizens, the MAF as placeful assemblage extends to teaching by way of an explicit acknowledgement of bias. As Ernst explained it in the interview with me in 2012:

The bias of MAF based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media”, and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph, e. g., operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission. Retro-futurism, understood in this way, hints at a non-linear relation between past and present media technologies, a short-circuiting of media tempor(e)alities which escapes traditional, narrative history of technology. Instead of one media system resulting from another, there are sudden recursions.

Now the MAF as assemblage starts to take shape in all its complexity, showing us how institutional and disciplinary shifts, the inheritance of a physical space along with the inheritance of a particular nomenclature, the hiring of a particular person with a particular “bias,” as well as a particular pedagogical practice all play out across this network of forces. The MAF is both an exemplification and a microcosm of these forces which, as it happens, extend to the other side of the world (Figure 6), to the Media Archaeology Lab (née Archaeological Media Lab) at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Figure 6. Students working on the analog and digital media artefacts in the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder (USA).

Works Cited

Crosland, Maurice. “Early Laboratories c. 1600-c.1800 and the Location of Experimental Science.” Annals of Science 62:2 (2005): 233-253.

Emerson, Lori. “Archives, Materiality, and ‘the agency of the machine’: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” The Signal: Digital Presentation. The Library of Congress. 8 February 2013

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Kohler, Robert E. “Lab History: Reflections.” Isis 99:4 (December 2008): 761-768.

Wershler, Darren, Jussi Parikka and Lori Emerson. “An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” 22 August 2016.