Towards Feminist Labs: Provocations for Collective Knowledge-Making

Towards Feminist Labs: Provocations for Collection Knowledge-Making” (pdf) is an essay co-written by Maya Livio and Lori Emerson and appears in Critical Makers Reader, edited by Loes Bogers and Letizia Chiappini (Institute of Network Cultures, 2019). Below are the introductory paragraphs for our piece.


In recent years, the lab as a site of knowledge production has increasingly become commonplace both within and outside of academic institutions, beyond the established lab-based disciplines of the fundamental and applied sciences. The increased prevalence of labs suggests that scholars and practitioners are actively pursuing new models for knowledge production, moving away from ideals of solitary work and towards collaborative, experimental, and interdisciplinary research approaches. However, despite the apparent newness of labs, their dominant lineage stems from a racist, sexist, and colonial past, bringing methods, infrastructures, and underlying assumptions along with it. These handed-down affordances may inform the ways in which lab work is structured, and in turn, shape the kinds of knowledge that labs produce. In this paper, we argue that contemporary labs, as spaces of collective and interdisciplinary thinking and doing, require their own consideration as sites for feminist methodology.

In order to examine lab practices, it is important to first examine their multiple origins. Early proto-lab spaces included sites like monasteries, workshops, and kitchens—spaces which were never called labs but had many of the elements associated with ‘labness’ such as a source of heat, a central worktable, open and flexible work areas, a library, and a surrounding collection of tools and materials. The most commonly recognized provenance of labs is found in the anatomical theaters and apothecaries of the 16th century, and this century is generally considered the time at which entities properly called ‘laboratories’ emerged. However, if we include the many sites of experimental work that surfaced later on in the late 17th century, examples of proto-labs should also include—as Steven Shapin points out—a motley assortment of venues, including the private residences of ‘gentlemen’, ‘sites where places of scientific work were coextensive with places of residence’.[1]

The fact that places of scientific experimentation migrated further into private homes for a time points again to the importance of kitchens as integral to the history of labs, and is of particular relevance to our essay. Women have, of course, long been relegated to the kitchen as the heart of the domestic sphere and, as Alix Cooper points out, in early modern times ‘kitchens and basements or root cellars formed improvised laboratories for women to tinker with and write down medical recipes’.[2] With the gradual appropriation of the kitchen as a place for ‘gentlemanly’ experimentation over the span of the 18th and early 19th centuries, women were essentially given the bizarre and contradictory message that they belong in a kitchen, that the kitchen might in fact be a lab, but that a lab is not for them.

Not surprisingly then, the 19th century ushered in the all-male industrial research laboratory, largely pioneered by Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey. A so-called ‘invention factory’ and the largest private lab in the U.S. in the 1870s, Menlo Park simultaneously built on and departed from the long history of kitchens, apothecaries, theaters, and chemistry labs which we briefly summarize above. As Darren Wershler et al. point out in THE LAB BOOK, Edison’s lab drew on the spatial, infrastructural, and administrative organization of labs and, with its frenzied embrace of entrepreneurialism and innovation, laid the groundwork for most of the major technology-based labs to come in the 20th century.[3] A lab such as the MIT Media Lab, then, is founded upon these archaeological layers. The significance of this particular lineage of labs here is that contemporary interdisciplinary labs are inevitably built on some of these inherited value systems. The project of colonial science itself has deep ties to labs, as Kathryn Yusoff reminds us in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Yusoff outlines how, beginning in the mid-1940s, an entire community of Marshallese residing in the Pacific islands were removed from their homeland so that it could be used for nuclear testing. Even though the Marshallese were placed in nearby islands, they were exposed to radioactive ash after the U.S. carried out its largest nuclear detonation, ‘Castle Bravo’, in 1954. 236 Marshallese were ‘treated as test subjects for the effects of radiation’, which for Yusoff is comparable to Hortense J. Spillers’s description of medical experimentation on sick Black Americans, in that ‘the procedures adopted for the captive flesh demarcate a total objectification, as the entire captive community becomes a living laboratory’.[4]

While labs bear with them the potential to set a particularly harmful praxis into motion, they are malleable entities and contain potentialities for new world-making practices. Therefore, inspired by boyd and Crawford’s ‘Six Provocations for Big Data’,[5] we offer here six provocations for feminist lab work—following hooks’s call to bring feminist theory ‘into the streets’ by bringing it ‘into the suites’ of lab-based knowledge production.[6] Our provocations are grounded in established feminist methodological concerns, which we have developed and applied towards the collaborative knowledge-work of labs. They are far from comprehensive, and while we do aim for the concrete, are not intended as step-by-step methods, but rather as methodological probes that can be used in the development of site-specific lab protocols. We believe that these protocols must always be situated and collectively established within the community, time, and place in which they are mobilized.

Throughout, we insist on the importance of moving beyond issues of inclusion when making labs more feminist. To be clear, it is urgent for marginalized and underrepresented peoples to be included in lab leadership, membership, and communities. Conversations about how to include these groups in labs and other knowledge-making spaces, commonly echoed in movements such as ‘women in tech’ or ‘women in STEM’, are unfortunately still critically necessary today. However, we point out that while critiques of ‘add women and stir’ approaches have been leveraged for quite some time, they seem to continue to dominate popular discourse. Beyond ‘adding and stirring’, it is necessary to restructure the way labs work, and to consider and address pressing feminist concerns within them, such as those of access, epistemology, care, hierarchy, labor, and the environment.


Please see the pdf of our essay to read it in its entirety.