I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to co-author a paper, titled “Anarchive as technique in the Media Archaeology Lab | building a one Laptop Per Child mesh network,” with a remarkable PhD student I work with, libi striegl. It is now out as open access in the inaugural issue of The International Journal of Digital Humanities (edited by Thorsten Ries) and discusses how the Media Archaeology Lab acts as both an archive and a site for what the authors describe as ‘anarchival’ practice-based research and research creation. ‘Anarchival’ indicates research and creative activity enacted as a complement to an existing, stable archive. In researching the One Laptop Per Child Initiative, by way of a donation of XO laptops, the MAL has devised a modular process which could be used by other research groups to investigate the gap between the intended use and the affordances of any given piece of technology. Please read and enjoy!
I would be so grateful if you would share this announcement far and wide to anyone you think might be interested and/or a good fit. In short, I’m trying to recruit a new PhD student to develop programming in and around the Media Archaeology Lab as part of their degree. Details below!
Applications are now being accepted for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s four-year, fully-funded, practice-based PhD in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance. In particular, I am recruiting a fully funded PhD student to work in the Media Archaeology Lab as part of the student’s own research agenda and/or artistic practice and as part of the research assistantship they will take up in the lab for semesters throughout their degree. I am interested in applicants who work in any combination of the following fields: media archaeology, retrocomputing, history of computing, history of technology, (alternative/experimental) networks, (alternative/experimental) curatorial and archival practice, digital preservation, digital literature, and net art. Ideally this person has an intersectional approach to the work they would like to do. In short, the successful student will be expected to develop programming in the MAL in a way that benefits both the student’s career trajectory as well as the needs of the lab.
The Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance (IAWP) program is entering its fourth year and is an interdisciplinary digital arts and humanities research unit with a practice-based PhD. Located in the University of Colorado’s College of Media, Communication and Information, IAWP’s core faculty collaboratively investigate past and present forms of digital art, writing, and performance and offer graduate students a hands-on, experiential-based learning environment in which to explore emerging forms of creativity triggered by practice-based research methodologies. The program concentrates its curriculum on digital forms of creativity so as to cultivate cutting-edge investigations into the practice, theory, history, and philosophy of media and its relationships to creativity, communication, technology, and information.
IAWP’s internationally-renowned and affiliated faculty network collaborate with graduate students probing the significance of a digitally-expanded, process-based research environment located in a cluster of interdisciplinary research labs. The program provides a flexible pedagogical structure that will lead to the creation of new and hybridized forms of art, writing, performance, scholarship, theory, design, curation, exhibition, and publication appropriate for our current cultural moment.
Note that while I am looking for a student to work in the MAL, we are also interested in students working in emerging forms of electronic literature, net art, and digital publishing.
Application deadlines: International: December 1, 2018 // Domestic: January 1, 2019
To find out more about IAWP as well as application guidelines and program requirements, please visit: http://www.colorado.edu/cmci/academics/phd-intermedia-art-writing-and-performance
For more on the IAWP faculty, please visit: http://www.colorado.edu/cmci/people/intermedia-art-writing-and-performance
It’s been four years since the publication of Reading Writing Interfaces (University of Minnesota Press 2014) and admittedly, to my ears and eyes, the first chapter on gestural and multitouch interfaces already seems outdated – at least outdated in terms of specific tech if not in terms of the general principles. If I were going to write about interfaces that are dominating or seeking to dominate the consumer and creative markets in 2018, instead of gestural or multitouch devices I would surely have to write about Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) such as Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod – those seemingly interface-less, inert boxes of computing power (for some reason, always coded as women – harkening back to a mid-20th century notion of the female secretary as self-effacing, perpetually amiable, always helpful, always eager to please) embedded throughout homes that just sit there waiting to respond to any voice command and appearing less as a computer and more as an artificially intelligent in-house butler.
But I would also have to write about the growing inevitability of Virtual Reality systems such as Occulus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR, and I’m sure many more. For me, the problem with accounting for the interface of VR is more difficult to understand than VUI devices, partly because VR poses two problems: for one, the interface that dominates most of the waking hours of the creator is entirely different from that of the user (god help the VR designer who has to design a VR environment in Unity with a headset on); the second problem is that, on the user side, it’s as if the interface has been displaced, moved to the side, outside of your vision and your touch, at the same time as you’re now meant to believe you’re inside the interface – as if your head is not in front of the screen but rather inside it. There is still a screen (even though it’s now inside your headset) and there is still a keyboard and mouse (you have to have a PC to use a device such as Occulus Rift so both the keyboard and mouse are presumably somewhere in the room with you as you play) but all these key components of the Keyboard-Screen-Mouse interface have been physically separated and then added on to with hand-controllers. The way in which the interface for VR users has been physically removed to the peripheries of the room in which the user is stationed is, I think, quite significant. If an interface is the threshold between human and computer, any change in either side of the threshold or the threshold itself (whether it’s a change in functionality or in physical location) is bound to have a profound effect on the human. In the case of VR, the physical changes in the location of the interfaces alone are enough to fundamentally change the human user’s experience as they are now standing up and mobile to an unprecedented degree at the same time as this mobility has nothing to do with exploring the affordances of the interfaces themselves or their affordances – the mobility is entirely in the service of exploring a pre-determined, usually carefully controlled virtual environment.
One of the recurring issues I raise in Reading Writing Interfaces is that of invisibility – especially the danger in interfaces designed to either disappear from view or distract us from the fact that we have no understanding and no access to how the interface is shaping and determining what and how we know, what and how we create. As I wrote in the introduction, “Despite our best efforts to literally and figuratively bring these invisible interfaces back into view, either because we are so enmeshed in these media or because the very definition of ideology is that which we are not aware of, at best we may only partly see the shape of contemporary computing devices.” However, as I argued in my book and as I still believe, literature and the arts are built to take on the work of demystifying these devices and these interfaces and making both visible once again. Thus, while I think the fundamental problem with VR as I describe it above is that users are becoming even more estranged, even more alienated from whatever lies behind the glossy digital interface (in fact, now the estrangement is both literal and figurative as the computer producing the VR experience is potentially as much as twelve feet away), I have already noticed that writers and artists are taking this challenge on. This is precisely why I wanted to interview Illya Szilak so much on the work of interactive cinema, “Queerskins,” she’s creating with Cyril Tsiboulski for the Occulus Rift. Szilak is a long-time active participant in the digital literature community as both a writer/creator and a critic (writing for the Huffington Post). Her transmedia novel Reconstructing Mayakovsky was included in the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection. Her latest piece, Queerskins, is described on the Kickstarter page for the project as “a groundbreaking interactive LGBTQ centered drama that combines cutting-edge tech with intimate, lyrical storytelling.” Below are my questions and her answers – enjoy!
In the process of writing and creating Queerskins with Cyril Tsiboulski, where do you locate the interface in virtual reality systems such as the Occulus Rift? Is the interface different for you as writer/creator than it is for the reader/user?
The interface for us is between reality and virtuality. The hardware of VR is what allows us to navigate that. Of course, books, too, do that, but, without going into a scientific or philosophical discussion of “presence,” suffice it to say, that the experience of being in another world is a primordial mechanism for organismal survival that relies on a motor map of interactivity. Reading may create a conceptual version of this, but your body does not experience it in the same way. For me it relates theoretically to Marinetti’s total theater especially his manifesto on Tactilism in which he says: “The identification of five senses is arbitrary, and the identification of five senses is arbitrary, and one day we will certainly discover and catalogue numerous other senses. Tactilism will contribute to this discovery.”
I think machine extended bodies have the potential to learn new forms of sensing “reading” the world and VR will certainly be used for this transcendence. We are also interested in producing a kind of Brechtian estrangement, so that this transcendence is always in dialogue with the realities of embodiment; even VR hardware requires a body to perceive.
In Queerskins, we are using a variety of techniques to manufacture an aesthetic and narrative sweet spot between reality and artifice. And, we use a variety of technologies and techniques to do this. It was important not to make this into a seamless whole but to leave spaces between so that the user is able to attain some amount of critical distance; so we are combining a 3D modeled car interior created from photogrammetry, 360 video landscapes, 3D scanned and CGI objects and animations and 3D volumetric video live action.
As with all our narratives, we want to explore the tension between material, historical, embodied realities and virtual realities which includes, in the case of VR, not just 3D immersive environments but also, as with our online narratives, harnessing user imagination and memory. For me, ethics are linked to the material and historical. The lived realities (this time–this place) of LGBTQ people can’t be wished away. So, it was really important to use historically accurate objects. Almost every object in the box and many of the sounds are archival – bought off eBay and 3D scanned or, in the case of sound, recorded by others in different environments or found on the Internet Archive.
At the same time, we recognize the perhaps quintessentially human desire for transcendence: through love, technology, sex, religion, writing, art, imagination, memory and storytelling itself. So, we love the incredible possibilities that VR generates in that respect (we have a plan for three more episodes for queerskins: a love story and transcendence becomes a more and more complicated and innovative part of this though always connected back to material/ historical realities). In this episode, we are more interested in the gravity of the experience. A young man has died of AIDS, essentially abandoned by his parents. So, no, you don’t get to fly or move mountains. You will be allowed two transcendent moments which we are calling memory spaces. In them, there is a change of place and time. In the first, you can get up and walk through a cathedral, but all you will find are just the sounds and images of Sebastian’s everyday life – in other words, memories.
These moments of transcendence are differentiated from the emotionally wrenching reality of the car ride both aesthetically and through the user’s sense of space and agency. These latter elements are, of course, key narrative devices in VR. VR is a spatial medium, I think that in this medium is more so than film; it was important for us to create a situation that could be read “body to body” because we wanted to hook into the old brain of motor neurons to create emotional responses to the environment. For the most part, the visitor (that’s what they call user or reader now) is stuck in the car with no way to move (in fact, we will seat belt them into the chair which we had created for filming the actors in front of green screen) behind the two actors. So, we actually worked with theater director, choreographer and Butoh dancer, Dawn Saito, to choreograph the two actors’ gestures in a kind of missed call and response.
Again, staying with gravity and materiality and mortality, and to maintain immersion – because we need the user to be absolutely present for the emotional bloodletting happening in close proximity in the front seat, it was important that users not be distracted by having to learn new actions and that their interactions be of the everyday variety; so you can pick up things, you can turn the pages of a diary, you can walk. (In later episodes you will be able to play music on a virtual lover’s body or walk on the ceiling and have kaleidoscopic housefly-vision, and make the statues of a church come to life…) But for this one, well, hey, you are walking and moving and doing and alive and, that, at least, is better than dead. Limiting user agency here is purposeful. We want you to feel the loss: you can not speak, nor write, nor communicate in any way, just as Mary-Helen can not tell her son that she is sorry or that she loved him.
We are really interested in sound because not only is it spatial, it is can be used to harness the user’s imagination – very old school transcendence and also very much associated with older technologies like radio and text. So, Queerskins starts out with credits and sound. (Skywalker Studio is doing sound post-production and audio design for us.) You begin by imagining the story. This cues users subtly to their role. You are the co-creator. You get pieces of information and have to put together the story and most importantly you come up with an idea of who the man who died was and the life he lead. When you finally hear his voice speaking his own intimate diary entries, he may or may not be what you thought he would be. The diary is in a sense the missing body. You will find it on one side of you on a pew in the cathedral memory space. On the other side is Sebastian’s empty funeral suit. (Which is the queerskin? )
Can you describe a few creative possibilities opened up by the software/hardware you’re using?
Depthkit was used for filming the actors – it’s basically software that processes data from a high end DSLR video camera to create a texture map and a Kinect which creates a volume map and fuses these to create live action 3D volumetric video. It allows us to have actors in a CGI environment which gives the user a sense of “being there” much more than 360 video does. The 360 video outside the car has a flatness, a nostalgic aesthetic that we actively sought (we flew to Missouri and drove around rural areas ten hours a day with a stranger I met on FB) after we did initial experiments. It looks like old rear screen projection or like you are traveling through a home movie. It’s “real” in the sense that documentary video is “real” but you don’t feel like you are really in the space with your body.
Can you describe a few limitations you’ve faced by the same software/hardware? How has it shaped or determined what you’re able to create?
We spent a lot of time and money making sure we could actually get the actor footage into the CGI car in a way that looked realistic. That being said, it is not perfect– there is flare around the edges and the kinect reads everything in the same plane so we had to make sure that actors didn’t cross over into each other. As iI said–we were already choreographing the actors, so this just became part of the choreography. The 360 video shakes because we shot from a car –we are removing that but will also be using haptics–a motor in the seat the visitor sits on, to make the user’s body feel like it is shaking. In VR, a lot of this comes down to $. There are alternatives which would cost a lot more. But, then, for us, part of this is working aesthetically around the limitations. Also, optimization in the game engine is an issue, we have had problems with frame rate drops that puts our audio out of sink with video. These projects are so complicated that sometimes you don’t know what exactly is doing this. However, frame rate drops are not an opportunity for experimentation like some other hardware limitations. THat is a failure. These are limits of aesthetic expectations and our hardwired senses–we can’t really play with that in this piece. So, Cyril has had to play with the script a lot to decrease frame rate drops.
How, if at all, do you want your reader/user to be aware of the VR interface?
We had to wrestle with whether to let the user get up and walk because this would certainly disrupt the cohesiveness of the experience (the user might need some prompting and direction and will need to be led back physically to the seat) but, in the end, we decided the agency and sense of freedom this afforded (a refuge of sorts) was worth it. Moreover, this episode like all planned episodes is part of an interactive physical installation. They can act separately, but together provide an richer experience. The installation for this episode is a performance art “game” that we will install with the VR piece. One other thing of interest: we are hoping to use Leap Motion for the haptics, not Oculus Touch. Leap Motion is controller-less – Cyril saw it in a Laurie Anderson piece at Mass MOCA and we are working with the developers. It is incredibly natural feeling as your hands appear virtually. Leap Motion recognizes gestures, so the interface in this case really disappears but for non-gamers it means there is no learning of controllers; for us this is optimal especially given a film audience at first.
Early last spring I had the great fortune of spending a week at the MIT Media Lab interviewing folks and studying the lab’s organization and infrastructure; while I was on campus, I also got to see Nick Montfort’s Trope Tank, what I called in an earlier blog post a “sister lab” to the Media Archaeology Lab. While Nick has already generously contributed to Darren Wershler’s, Jussi Parikka’s and my growing collection of over sixty interviews with arts and humanities-based lab directors and denizens around the world, he also agreed to Skype in with me from New York while I visited the Trope Tank in person. What follows is the transcript (conscientiously typed out by Kolby Harvey) from that interview, along with pictures from my visit there.
Lori Emerson: I wasn’t prepared to meet with you, Nick, otherwise I would have prepared a nice set of questions for you this morning, so it’ll be a little haphazard.
Nick Montfort: You know, if you want to talk more remotely, if you want to talk by phone or video conference, we can do that anytime. If there’s anything occasioned by your visit you want to ask about or anything else, it’s a good time for me.
LE: Yeah, that’s great. And I think this is probably a good time to ask you about space and infrastructure, since I’m here in person, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about all week. I don’t know where to begin exactly. Maybe I’ll just start with the question of how do you think that the space that you’ve been given shapes the kinds of work that you’re able to do?
NM: Well, there’s many ways. One of the things is just that there’s a constraint of size. If you had maybe a large area—we do have meetings in the middle of the room here—but if you had a very large area, with maybe in some ways a similar setup with computers around the sides, then you could accommodate different types of activities and maybe more people. We have class visits as one thing that we do here. In our school at MIT and the whole of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, most of the classes are no more than 18 students. They’re seminar style classes or workshop classes. So, 18 students, it’s not very comfortable, but 18 students can come in and we can work here. If it were much smaller or if it were a closet that we could take the equipment out of sometimes, that would be different also.
LE: How do you orchestrate that? Do you have four students working on one computer at the same time?
NM: We do have stations where students can work together, so a few on the Commodore 64, a few on the Apple II. Often in fact we have students using 6502-based machines, so they’re Atari 400, and even the Atari VCS. So they’re actually all using systems that have the same processor, but they’re very different because the memory map is different, the chip set is different, there’s many other things.
So, working together, we do have some students…I usually ask one person to work and the others to take some notes and then switch around so each person has experience. Of course they talk. The nice thing about that is they’ll talk with each other and try to figure out how to put the cartridge into the Atari VCS and use the system and things like this. So that type of work I think goes pretty well. We’ve had Commodore 64 basic programming workshops where people come specifically to learn about Basic and write Basic programs and they write small games during the workshops and things like this. But when a class visits to learn about the material history of digital media, people don’t have in mind “I want to do a project, I want to write something in Basic,” and so having different stations and then having them rotate through the stations and discuss the difference, it’s effective.
LE: I’ve got two questions. One thing that I’ve been doing and posting on the Media Archaeology Lab website is that I’ve been collecting class assignments that people can do in a lab that is like the Media Archaeology Lab or Trope Tank. Do you have a collection of assignments, by any chance, that you’d be willing to share with me?
NM: Yeah, there is a technical report where we talk about some of the class visits. I don’t have it written down except for the things that are noted there. Sometimes we have a material history of the text class come, sometimes we have a comparative media studies class. I bring my classes to look at interactive narrative and text generation types of work, historically. So [inaudible] different things.
LE: There’s a fair amount of traces of administrative work in your lab too, like nice laminated signs, display cases, and the printed-out Trope Tank reports. Who’s doing all of that work? Is that you? And are you getting some sort of report from MIT in terms of teaching release or something?
NM: Yeah, I have a teaching research assistant who is part of the graduate program in comparative media studies and is being involved in research in various ways. So a research assistant who does things like cataloging materials and producing these types of placards in addition to contributing to research projects. Some of the work is quite specifically directed toward research that we’re doing, and some of it is basically in support of having a lab be a place where people can explore and learn in casual encounters with the different resources that have to happen for visitor group that comes in or a class. We do things [for those] who more seriously like programming and trying things out or studio-style work in some cases. But then that type of material is important so that the people who come—not just class visits, not just research visitors, but also people who come to the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, which is the local interactive fiction club. In fact there’s another card. You should take one of the cards advertising the PRIF. That’s going to be more or less above the Commodore 64. It’s on an easel.
LE: Do you have open house hours every day, or is it just if somebody is here?
NM: No, we don’t have a staff. It’s not a library-type facility. We also don’t circulate materials. If somebody wants to take something and use it in a class, we do take things places, but we don’t loan out books or software, because we don’t have library markings. We don’t have a circulation system. We don’t have people to track that and deal with that. My students, basically what I arrange, one of the resources at hand is a collection you might be looking at if you’re passing that way [inaudible] choose-your-own-adventure-style books and so those are the focus of the first half of my interactive narrative class. Several of them are in the library but not all of them, so students actually do want to come and look at them. And so generally in the lab, people use the resources but it’s best to make an appointment. Except for my office hours, which are not really for people who are using the facilities, except for that, there’s not really a designated time.
LE: One big difference I’ve noticed between your lab and my lab is it looks like you’ve dedicated probably 50% of your space to printed matter and documentation, games, game cartridges rather than just buying up every single machine and console you can get your hands on. Is that an intentional choice? I’m sure it was.
NM: Some people have every NES cartridge. We don’t really look for completionism in doing this. In fact mostly we haven’t really tried to build the physical media/software collections because if someone wanted to come, if someone decided…I’m trying to think of something we don’t have…let’s say someone is interested in Myst, which many people are, they want to look at the entire oeuvre, not just Myst, Riven, Myst 3, but all the stuff. If you can get it online, you know, if you can get it from ebay or another source, then we do have machines that would run that. So, if somebody has a very specific focus, we don’t really hope what they’re interested in will already be there. Instead we say, “Get the software. We have the means to use it.” But if somebody has more general sort of interests…for instance, one of the things that was of interest to my post-doc, from Poland, a Ph.D. student who was here recently, he started looking at the Intellivision cartridges and that there are these overlays. They come with these pieces of plastic that snap over the controller. And in fact the Atari Jaguar also has these. And there’s other things that are called overlays; you don’t see it in the Asteroids game, but Space Invaders we were using the bases and your ship look different, they’re a different color. It basically just does a job. On the screen, there’s a transition piece of plastic, and it’s more noticeable on Star Castle and things like this. There’s this idea of putting something physical over the display or the controller. That’s the type of thing our lab is great for, because you can look around and see we have, not every console, not every computer, but a variety of stuff, and we have the physical media. And it’s not deep work or something like that, but rather a broader sort of idea. So that’s the thing that can be supported. One of the reasons there’s a lot of printed matter is proving that things in books and magazines, specifically printed computer programs in books and magazines, was a major early method of transmission. We don’t have a full [line?] of creative computing. I would love to have that. Again, we don’t want to be completionist in this endeavor, but we want to have a [inaudible] can say “Oh look, this issue of RUN Magazine has a one-liner? that people can quickly type in and see what…
This book on computer games has long programs. People sat there and typed these whole things in to play games on their system. And then there’s also books like the game books, multi-sequential books, that have a relationship to digital interactive narrative, so we’re interested in materialities extending into print.
We have a dot matrix printer, we have a letterpress, and so on. So we’re sort of interested in materiality in the history of computing, but also going back to the way that texts were represented before.
NM: I remember your description of the Media Archaeology Lab and I thought “Oh! This is a lab that’s unique in all the same ways that we say the Trope Tank is.” But there are differences. Some people emphasize home computers. Some people are exclusively interested in video games. One thing that might be different than some people’s collection is putting home computers and video games together. They use the same processor in some instances, they’re made by the same company, the same companies release the game for both systems. [inaudible]
I’m sort of interested in opposing the really severe, austere game studies perspective of looking only at games, caring only about games, because I just see that as another really interesting type of computing along with what bpNichol did.
We don’t have people who come for a short time, generally…researchers. Sometimes someone who’s around at MIT is interested in looking at something, but generally we don’t have people who visit and use these resources and materials. The fewer people that we have tend to be involved more deeply.
We did an exhibit of games by the book, which is another good book computing type of exhibit, where we had four video games in the Hayden library, which is actually in this building. It’s right across the courtyard. And we had games that were based on literary books—The Great Gatsby, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We have a flyer that serves as a catalogue for that.
LE: It’s interesting being here in your lab because for one thing, I think labs run by people with literary backgrounds or literary interests are very different than other kinds of labs, and I think that probably accounts for the ways in which our labs are similar. Mine has the same cross-section of stuff that yours does. I have a big printed matter collection, typewriters, 19th-century media that I’m really interested in in terms of their inscription abilities. But I think mine is probably most different than yours because of the space, because I just happened to stumble upon a much larger space than yours that sort of indulged my collecting tendencies. As the lab has evolved, I think it’s become more reflective of my own idiosyncrasies as a scholar, and I can sort of see you in all of this, Nick Montfort the scholar, in this configuration. Does that make sense?
NM: The Trope Tank, it’s a big space for somebody’s office, but it’s not, obviously, a giant lab space. But it feels actually connected to the main buildings at MIT. You can walk from the main buildings of MIT inside either way. And all the access to transportation. Being able to make these connections within the MIT community, you know, interactive fiction club and things like that is one of the useful things about it. Things are pretty packed in […] The setup I really hate is when only one person can sit at a computer. You see that in some of these classrooms of the future or whatever from years past when you had desktop computers. There would only be room for one chair to go under one computer. It doesn’t promote collaboration as well as I’d like. It also just doesn’t, with all of the printed materials and everything, it doesn’t have room for you to really have a manual and a magazine on the desk. There were a few things of course I’d like. I’d like to have more room for that reason. We do what we can with this.
We have a few things down in New York. In fact, when I went to Montreal for this demo party, I took a Commodore 64 from here. And that allows me to do things like there’s a place, a gallery here in town. So I can do a Commodore 64 workshop at the NYU Game Center, so it allows me to do events and things like that are New York based.
LE: You know, you really got me thinking too, not just about the space inside the lab but how I should be thinking about the surrounding space as well, because the way that your lab is situated in this pretty busy building that’s interconnected to all these MIT departments and classrooms and so on is really different from mine, because mine is in a basement in a 1940s house on the far edge of campus. And I’ve actually come to really love the isolation, because it allows us to do anything we want, and we put on wackadoo performances and crank up the volume and the amplifiers, and there’s nobody around to care. But it’s definitely really different from your setup.
NM: Yeah, we only have very small events. We did actually have a small workshop in here just last month. But we only have very, very small events in the Trope Trank. But I can just reserve a room that’s a few feet away basically, so that’s not such a problem.
LE: All right, Nick. I think that’s all I got for you today. Thank you!
I’m thrilled I have the opportunity to revisit a grad class I taught five years ago on Media Archaeology – both revisiting the classics of the field and reimagining what the field is or could be. I will post the full syllabus in the coming months but for now, here’s the brief course description.
Media archaeology, Returned and Reimagined
Professor Lori Emerson
IAWP 6800 // Spring 2018
Wednesdays 3pm to 5:30pm
This course explores the now established field of Media Archaeology by looking at texts that are considered foundational for the field as well as looking at ways in which the field is now expanding to include urban media archaeology, cultural techniques, infrastructure studies as well as work by women and people of color. While we will do conventional reading and writing in a seminar setting, our class will also do hands-on experiments in the Media Archaeology Lab with its collection of old and new media.
Media archaeology (with Michel Foucault and Friedrich Kittler as two of its deep influences) has long been seen as a field that provides us with a sobering conceptual friction to the current culture of the new that dominates contemporary computing. In this way, certain theorists identified with the field such as Geert Lovink work media archaeologically as they undertake “a hermeneutic reading of the ‘new’ against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present.” On the whole, media archaeology does not seek to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe it as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past. Also at the heart of media archaeology is an on-going struggle to keep alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls “variantology”–the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, our class will move from the present through the past as we look at accounts of media phenomena that position themselves as avoiding reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media and that instead focus on a archaeological, heavily materiality, perhaps even geological approach to media. At the same time, we will also look at the formation and the evolution of the field itself – what have been the limits and the possibilities of this approach in the past and what is the field now?
Benjamin Robertson and I are very pleased we had the opportunity to co-author this piece on the connections between the Media Archaeology Lab and science fiction for the “Notes and Correspondence” section of Science Fiction Studies – thank you to Lisa Swanstrom for inviting us to contribute!
The motto of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder is: “the past must be lived so that the present can be seen.” As a lab, rather than a museum, the MAL prides itself on allowing, encouraging, visitors to turn machines on, to play with them, to find out how they work. Following from the assumptions of media archaeology, which provides the lab with its name, the MAL challenges facile histories of technology and computation by demonstrating how our current media ecology came to be not by way of a progress from simple to complex or from primitive to modern. Rather, it derives from strategic, profit-oriented motives paired with conscious choices about the way technology ought to operate (and, of course, these choices are in part determined by the affordances of the technologies extant at the time they are made). By drawing attention to the foregoing, the curation and exhibition of media in the MAL points to how our present moment could have been dramatically otherwise.
This “otherwise,” however, can be quite difficult to understand or visualize, and it’s here that the MAL and its mission enjoy a curious and productive relationship with science fiction. After all, it’s become quite commonplace amongst science fiction critics and readers to acknowledge that sf has far less to do with any actual future it would purport to represent than with the present in which it was written. More precisely, the future that a given work of sf describes will invariably be based upon assumptions its writer makes, assumptions determined by the historical, cultural, economic, technological, and social milieu in which she wrote. Excavating this milieu, however, can be challenging given that such excavation can only take place from within a new milieu that certainly derives from the old one in part, but also departs from it based upon historical events the old one could not predict from its own perspective.
Although the reference will be familiar to many readers of Science Fiction Studies (perhaps to the point of banality), William Gibson’s Neuromancer provides an excellent example of how the prescience of the best sf is always tempered by the limitations of historical situatedness. Famously, the novel begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” At once, Neuromancer announces the death of the 1980’s dominant medium even as it acknowledges the reality of this dominance. Otherwise put, the novel is able to predict the end of television as the developed world’s dominant medium precisely because television was the developed world’s dominant medium at the time it was written. For all of this prescience, however, and for all of the rest of the novel’s prescience about multinational capitalism, the viral spread of subcultures, the importance of networked communication, and more, it gets quite a bit wrong. It does not seem to predict the significance of the graphical user interface. It certainly does not hint at the rise of the smart phone or the development of the mobile web or the rise of the isolated app. For that matter, it does not predict the browser-based online ecosystem replaced by the app ecosystem. In fact, it’s possible to read Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral, as his attempt to rewrite Neuromancer in the context of the rise of the smart phone.
We do not mean to criticize Gibson specifically or science fiction generally for any failure, but only to point out that our visions of the future will always be limited by the historical moment in which we develop them. The Media Archaeology Lab not only understands this limitation, but celebrates it by way of its collection of historical, working, computers. It possesses:
- an Altair 8800b from 1976, an eight-bit computer which operates by way of switches and outputs by way of a series of LED lights;
- an Apple Lisa, the first “affordable” personal computer to make use of a graphical user interface (although the $10,000 price tag, in 1983 dollars, stretches the concept of affordability to its breaking point);
- numerous Mac Classics, the descendant of the machine that was to ensure that 1984 would not be like 1984;
- and several NeXTcubes, shepherded onto the market by CEO Steve Jobs during his exile from Apple in the early 1990s.
In total, the MAL houses over 35 portable computers, 73 desktop computers, 22 handheld devices, and 13 game consoles in addition to a substantial collection of digital and analog media extending back to the late nineteenth century. Additionally, the MAL collects manuals on early office technologies, operating systems, and software; books on the history of computational media and early humanities computing; and computer magazines and catalogs from the early 1970s through the 1990s.
When one encounters the collection, or the individual items that comprise it, one encounters a concrete past rather than a speculative future. At the same time, one encounters the dreams that past had about its future, dreams expressed in the tools that would finally build it. Far too often, however, these dreams become too solid. That is, we see only what did happen, and take it for the only thing that could have happened. Gibson certainly seems to have predicted the rise of networked culture, but we do a disservice to ourselves and become irresponsible critics and historians if we do not acknowledge and struggle to understand how he was wrong even about that which he got “right.” Likewise, we misunderstand the MAL’s collection if we see in it only the prehistory of the present moment. Certainly, many of us “know” how things came to be the way they are as well as key concepts and technologies that paved the road from past to present: ARPANet, GUI, Apple, Windows, WWW, email, Internet, iMac, cell phone, cell phone camera, smart phone, iPad, net neutrality, etc. There can be no doubt that this history involves a great deal of “lock in,” a great deal of determinism. As people used, for example, GUIs, they created software for GUIs and hardware that could run it. They developed the GUI itself and taught people to interact with computers in this way rather than another way—to the extent that any other way become nearly impossible. Now, for most everyone, opening the terminal is impossible in fact and terrifying in theory. This determinism offers up the present as the inevitable consequence of the past and thus it also offers up the present state of affairs as “natural,” even though the past could not have foreseen the current state of affairs. The past, in fact, got many things “wrong,” just as did Gibson. And, as with everything that turned out to be “wrong” about Neuromancer, past mistakes of technology in many ways are more interesting than what turned out to be right.
For example, and by way of conclusion, one of the most interesting items in the MAL collection is a Vectrex, a complete home video game system developed in the early 1980s during the video game boom. The Vectrex was “complete” insofar as it not only included the hardware necessary to run games and the controllers necessary for humans to interface with this hardware/software system, but also the display itself. In fact, this display was, uncommonly if not uniquely at the time, itself a means by which the user could interface with the Vectrex and its games, by way of a light pen. Rather than displaying pixels, which are at the basis of most contemporary displays, the Vextrex’s monitor makes use of vector graphics. Although the technological differences between these two conceptions of output display are interesting, more important here are the assumptions, even the philosophies, behind the two technologies. Whereas pixels construct wholes out of parts, vectors start with wholes. In the former case, the more parts you can fit onto a screen, the better the resolution of the final image will be. However, no matter how many pixels the screen displays, the parts will always become visible at a certain level of magnification and thus become blurry. The industry response to this blurriness involves packing more and more pixels onto the screen, an arms race of sorts that requires increasing amounts of resources to stay ahead of the curve. By contrast, vector graphics solve the problem of magnification by their very nature, albeit at the cost of color and a certain type of complexity.
Whether vector graphics—which readers might remember from such stand up games as Asteroids and Tempest—could have ever solved the problems of their inherent limitations is impossible to know. Raster graphics “won” the competition, although suggesting that there was a competition at all is somewhat disingenuous. No other gaming system or general computing system seems to have taken up the cause of vector graphics. As such, the Vectrex seems to us now nothing but a mistake, a dead end—quirkiness and interestingness notwithstanding. However, viewed from another angle—one that we in the present only dimly perceive—the Vectrex suggests an entirely different future. This future is one determined less by a quest for more power, more resolution, more as a good in itself. Rather, it is one that involves a fluid movement and elegance current computation cannot hope to achieve. What cognitive estrangements, what conceptual breakthroughs, what utopias or dystopias such a novum might have produced we leave to the sf writers to imagine. Perhaps we might see someday the advent of vector punk. Regardless, the MAL invites the historians, the critics, the archaeologists to think of the past in terms of its multiplicity, in terms of all of the positivities it contains and not simply those that produce that narrow thing we call the present.
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.