THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices in Media Studies

1927_french_language_labUniversity of Minnesota Press, Spring 2021

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction: Everything Is a Lab

Case Study: The French Language Lab (Middlebury College, U.S.)

Chapter 2: Lab Space

Case Study: Menlo Park Laboratory (Menlo Park, U.S.)

Case Study: MIT Media Lab, Part 1 (MIT, U.S.)

Case Study: Media Archaeological Fundus (Humboldt University, Germany)

Chapter 3: Lab Apparatus

Case Study: The Signal Laboratory (Humboldt University, Germany)

Case Study: The Media Archaeology Lab (University of Colorado Boulder, U.S.)

Chapter 4: Lab Infrastructure

Case Study: Home Economics Labs and Extension on the Canadian Prairies (Manitoba,    Canada)

Chapter 5: Lab People

Case Study: MIT Media Lab, Part 2 (MIT, U.S.)

Case Study: ActLab (University of Texas Austin, U.S.)

Chapter 6: Lab Imaginaries

Case Study: Hybrid Spaces of Experimentation and Parapsychology

Case Study: Bell Labs, A Factory for Ideas

Chapter 7: Lab Techniques


Media labs are liminal but increasingly powerful spaces in many contemporary settings. They appear in universities and colleges, wedged uneasily between traditional departments and faculties. They’re also in basements, warehouses, strip malls and squats. They are stable to varying degrees; many have long-term addresses and an itinerant roster of occupants. Some pop up in one location for a few days, then relocate to another. Sometimes they’re even in mobile trucks in the streets, bringing tools and expertise to children in schools and the general public. As clusters of tools and talent streamlined to produce economic value, labs sometime align with the most ruthless of venture capitalists; in other cases, they are free and open for all to use, disdainful of all commercial motivations.

Despite their sudden visibility due to the burgeoning of the digital humanities, media labs have a surprisingly long history. As part of the historical avant-gardes, media arts labs were the sites where the new materials and aesthetics of technical modernity were developed. They often share a common ideology, tied not just to the neoliberal drive to privatize, innovate and disrupt, but to long-standing modernist ideas about creative destruction, quantification and the value of scientificity.

THE LAB BOOK, published by the University of Minnesota Press, will thoroughly document and explicate this significant cultural force. This project, authored by three established mid-career media and communications scholars working in three different countries, consists of two components: a print book and a companion website. As a whole, the project includes:

  • contextualization of today’s media labs in terms of 20th century history and the ideology of modernity, especially in terms of the discourses of scientificity, innovation, disruption and creativity
  • interviews with the denizens and operators of historically important and contemporary media labs of all shapes and sizes; graduate students in my class called “Theory & Practice of Doing // From Digital Humanities to Posthumanities” have already contributed useful interviews
  • examination of contemporary discourse about media labs in print and online journalism, in fiction and popular media, and in official documents from universities, and other public and private sector institutions
  • evaluation of the complex and ambivalent relationships between media labs, traditional educational institutions and neoliberal economic forces
  • investigation into the extent to which media labs have the potential to intervene in these economic forces and perhaps model a version of posthumanities scholarship

The print portion of the project, THE LAB BOOK, presents a much-needed critical, historical and international examination of a major ongoing shift in contemporary ideas about higher education, the information technology sector and the public good. The book investigates the history of media and humanities labs as situated practices. The accompanying website delivers a synchronic overview of contemporary media labs through a series of interviews with their occupants.