Media Archaeology Lab: Opening the Archive, Disrupting the Museum

Below is the text of a short piece I wrote on the Media Archaeology Lab for the most recent issue of the German magazine Retro: Computer | Spiele | KulturStefan Höltgen kindly invited me to contribute and translated my piece into German; you can read “Das Media Archaeology Lab” here.

cover from Retro31

Founded in 2009 and currently part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) gives students, scholars, and members of the general public access to obsolete, functional media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. In this regard, the MAL is unique. Perhaps most importantly and broadly, the MAL turns the concepts of “archive” and “museum” inside out in the interests of disrupting two interrelated, cultural tendencies: a) the tendency to create neat teleological arcs of technological progress that extend from the past to the present and b) the tendency to represent such arcs through static exhibits that display the outside and surfaces of these artifacts rather than their unique, material, operational insides.

In my own research, I have used the MAL to describe a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media. However, I have come to recognize this sort of research is only one of the practices the MAL affords its interlocutors. I have come to understand it as a sort of “variontological” space in its own right, a place where, depending on your approach, you will find opportunities for research and teaching in myriad configurations as well as a host of other, less clearly defined activities made possible by a collection that is both object and tool. The MAL is an archive for original works of digital art/literature along with their original platforms. It is an archive for media objects. It a site for artistic interventions, experiments, and projects via MALpractices (residencies for artists and writers to first work and experiment directly with our materials and second, exhibit or perform their work either in the MAL or at a Colorado-based museum or gallery), MALware (our on-demand publication that documents events, MALpractices, and interdisciplinary thought taking place in and through the lab), and MALfunctions (monthly events for entrepreneurs, hackers, activists, academics, artists and designers that act equally as a hackerspace, makerspace, or straightforward venue space as a way to express the MAL’s extraordinary configurability). From the perspective of the university, it is a flexible, fluid space for practice-based research from a range of disciplines including literature, art, media studies, history of technology, computer science, library science, and archives and it is an apparatus through which we come to understand a complex history and the consequences of that history. From the perspective of the private sector and local tech/startup companies, the MAL offers a range of past solutions for present problems and it also offers these companies a compelling argument against planned obsolescence as many of the machines in the lab (such as the Altair 8800b) are over thirty five years old and not only function perfectly, but also make possible certain modes of interaction and creation that are not possible with contemporary digital computers.

The lab is also flexible and shifting in the sense that it is an ongoing, DIY project primarily run by and for the self-taught, one that grows and change with each influx of participants and volunteers and according to the interests and expertise of its constantly evolving participants. Because there are almost no precedents for the lab and no clearly established set of best practices, MAL participants must continually educate themselves not only about obsolete programming languages, software, hardware, peripherals etc. but they also must educate themselves about related best practices for archiving, cataloguing, metadata, preservation, and documentation. Such lack of precedent and the consequences thereof have, however, become a strength of the lab and those who work there as its core participants have been able to avoid entrenched methods and approach each challenge (how to catalog items, how to distinguish between hardware and software, etc.) with fresh ideas and open minds.

Given how the lab establishes and enacts an inside-out archive for teaching, research, and research creation, the MAL has developed a substantial local, national, and international reputation and it has done so thanks to the gracious volunteer efforts of supporters of the lab. For example, largely due to donations by students, alumni, and local, national and international members of the general public, the MAL now boasts a collection of well over 1500 items, particularly focused on the history of personal computing from the mid-1970s through the 1990s. The lab is also focusing more and more on working with individual donations by pioneering digital artists and writers as a way to continue building an important, accessible, hands-on archive of historically important digital art and literature (including work by the Canadian poet bpNichol and the American intermedia writer Judy Malloy), accessible on the works’ original platforms.

While we recognize that many, if not most, of the items in the lab will not function for much longer, we still believe in providing access to old, so-called “dead” media now, while we can.

 

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“Computers and the Arts”, Dick Higgins (1968)

from “Computers for the Arts,” by Dick Higgins

About a year ago, I was working on the third chapter of Reading Writing Interfaces – “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics” – during which I discovered, among other things, the mutual influence of concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan. One figure I promised myself I needed to research further once I’d finished my book was Dick Higgins – self-proclaimed ‘intermedia poet’ and publisher of Something Else Press. Higgins, I found, was one of the most obviously influenced by McLuhan, no doubt in large part because Higgins published McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations the same year as his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Invested as he was in poetry that situates itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’ notion of intermedia is obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global village; as he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?

Higgins also published his own pamphlet, “Computers for the Arts,” in 1970 (written in 1968, pdf available here) which I’ve just now had a chance to track down and scan. What interests me most about this little pamphlet is how it anticipates so much of the digital art/writing and network art/writing to come in the next forty+ years–experiments in using computers against themselves, or against what Higgins describes in 1970 as their economic uses in science and business. “However,” he writes, “their uses are sufficiently versatile to justify looking into a number of the special techniques for the solution of creative problems.” In “Computers for the Arts,” he goes on to explore how FORTRAN in particular can be used to generate poems, scenarios, what he calls “propositions” that can work through these creative problems in, for example, “1.64 minutes, as opposed to the 16 hours needed to make the original typewritten version.” But the larger point is about understanding tools as processes, just as Alan Kay, Ted Nelson and others advocated for throughout the 1970s and 1980s:

When the artist is able to eliminate his irrational attitudes (if any) about the mythology of computers, and becomes willing not simply to dump his fantasies in the lap of some startled engineer, but to supply the engineer with:

  1. the rudiments of his program in such a language as FORTRAN or one of the other very common ones;
  2. a diagram of the logic of his program, such as I just used to illustrate…
  3. a page or so of how he would like the printout to look

then he will be in a position to use the speed and accuracy of computers. There will be few of the present disappointments, which are due usually more often to the artist’s naivete than to the engineer’s lack of information or good will. The onus is on the artist, not his tools, to do good work.

Here, then, is a pdf of “Computers for the Arts.” Enjoy!

interview on the Media Archaeology Lab for Infotecarios

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Natalie Baur for the Spanish-language Latin American libraries blog Infotecarios on the Media Archaeology Lab. Natalie translated all my answers into Spanish here and below are my original answers in English.

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1) Briefly, what is the MAL and what kinds of work do you do there? Why/How is it an “archaeological” lab?

Founded in 2009 and currently part of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) houses obsolete media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. Insofar as nearly everything in the lab is still functioning and is meant to be turned on and used by teachers, researchers, and artists it is the largest of its kind North America. It is, however, very closely aligned with a few museums in the country such as the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, WA (run by Microsoft co-founded Paul Allen) and the Digital Den in Cambridge, MA whose collection is roughly the same size as the MAL’s. The MAL, however, is utterly unique in how it is a remarkable configurable conceptual object that, depending on how you approach it, houses items for research and teaching, items that actually generate research; is a site for artistic interventions, experiments, projects; is an archive for media objects; is an archive for original works of digital art/literature along with their original platforms. It belongs equally in literature departments, art departments, media studies departments, history of technology programs, computer science departments, libraries and archives.

In terms of the lab’s name, I’ve tried to align it less with archaeology and more with the field of media archaeology, as it’s called. Media archaeology can be a frustrating term because it’s not clear what its precise parameters are, or even what its driving philosophy is. That said, the version of media archaeology I’ve found particularly useful is one that 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 this 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, I partly use the lab to uncover a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media.

2) Who is using the MAL and for what kind of work and/or projects? Have there been any specific projects that come to your mind that really have taken off in unexpected ways or made unique contributions to scholarship or librarianship? 

I continue to be happily amazed at the broad range of people the MAL appeals to. At the moment, we’re getting increasing interest from people who work in local tech-start-up communities – these are people who might have worked in the computing industry for the last ten, twenty or thirty years and either appreciate the hands-on access to history the MAL affords or they see it as a valuable tool for generating creativity or they may even see it as a powerful argument against planned obsolescence (again, all the computers in the lab – some of which are from the late 1970s – still work). Our work with developing unique metadata schemes to catalog the wide range of legacy hardware and software housed in the lab is also being used as a model for museums, archives, and collections in Canada, the US, and Europe; the fact that we begin with the uniqueness of each object and develop standards from the ground-up to describe these objects, rather than developing or adopting a general standard into which we must make each object fit, appeals most to those working in museums and archives. Finally, we’ve been surprised – but thrilled – at how successful our artist residencies have been. I started working with Mel Hogan in July 2013 on this notion of getting artists and writers into the lab, actually playing, hacking, tinkering, creating, responding to the materials housed in the lab as way to make it clear that hands-on access is at the heart of the MAL’s mission. Within two or three weeks of launching our residency series, which we are now calling MALpractices, we booked ourselves through Spring 2014 so that we had to then close the residencies until next fall. While we are unable to offer a stipend of any kind at the moment, we try to heavily promote the work that artists/writers produce in the MAL – for example, we offer them the opportunity to exhibit or perform in the MAL or at a local gallery and we are also starting a print-on-demand series called MALware which will document each residency through interviews with the artist/writer or essays on their work. We just finished a residency with Joel Swanson, a Denver-based artist who was inspired by the history of computer keyboards in the MAL and created a remarkable exhibit at Counterpath Gallery in Denver that looked into the symbolic or cultural meaning there might be in the presence or absence of certain keys.

3) As we continue into the Digital Age and the lifecycle from innovative to obsolete gets shorter, is MAL collecting contemporary media to add to the collection in addition to the collecting already obsolete media? What are some of the curatorial decisions that go into building the MAL collections?

At the moment, our curatorial decisions are determined almost entirely by space limitations as physical space at the University of Colorado at Boulder is particularly at a premium. As such, we try to only accept hardware/software that still functions, that either played a particularly important role in the history of personal computing or is a particularly compelling example of a technological dead-end – something that may not have been a commercial success but that clearly contains the seed of a brilliant idea. For example, we have a videogame console from 1983 called the Vectrex which was produced for only one year but which uses a light-pen and is, in many ways, far more user-friendly that the touchscreen devices we have today. That said, I find it very difficult to make clearcut curatorial decisions as I’m all too aware, from reading Michel Foucault and Jonathan Crary, how what’s included and excluded from our archive rewrites history and reframes the present in a very particular way. If it were possible, I’d make as few curatorial decisions as possible and leave it entirely up to visitors to imaginatively rewrite history.

4) Librarians and archivists are intensely interested in digital preservation issues. What are some of your thoughts on the relationships and partnerships that exist or could be possible between the academic work of digital humanities scholars and librarians, archivists and digital preservationists?

I hope you don’t mind me saying that I have mixed feelings about partnering with libraries and library-run archives. While some of the most ardent and loyal supporters of the MAL are from libraries and archives, at the same time the institutions themselves seem to take on a life of their own and they have, from my perspective, proven to be remarkably inflexible, bureaucratic, and resistant to change. By contrast, most of the MAL’s success comes from the fact that we’ve been largely invisible to the institution until this year and so the MAL has been able to unfold over time, as our thinking changes and evolves, and quickly and easily adapt to problems at hand without being accountable to anyone or to hierarchical structures, pre-determined “outcomes,” grant cycles, or set five-year plans. That said, I want to be clear that I have a strong allegiance to librarians and archivists themselves and I hope that in the near future the MAL will find a way to be an independent extension of a library archive in a way that incorporates the MAL’s holdings into the library catalog at the same time as it acts as an incubator for the library archive for cutting-edge practice-based research.

5) Logistics: who can access the MAL? Do you loan any resources? Are there any active partnerships or “partnership wish lists”?

Until about a week or two ago, when we received our first financial donation, the MAL had been operating with a budget of $0. This meant that there was no staff to manage visitors during regular operating hours; visitors to the lab had to make an appointment either with me or with one of the wonderful student volunteers I work with and either proposition was difficult, considering I have conventional university teaching and research responsibilities and the student volunteers have their own responsibilities. That said, we almost never turn anyone down for a visit – if someone, from the general public or from an institution, has wanted to visit the lab, we have found a way to make it possible. And now that we’ve received a couple generous donations, we’re planning to hold regular Open House hours (for anyone at all – from students and researchers to members of the public) in the MAL two days a week.

We certainly do loan resources – for example, we’ve been happy to lend out manuals from our extensive printed matter collection and floppies from our software collection. However, while it’s certainly not out of the question, we’ve been hesitant to lend any of our hardware as it’s already quite fragile and it’s extremely difficult to ensure that a computer from, say, the 1970s or 1980s will make it through the mail without suffering any damage. That said, if there were a set of best practices for shipping hardware back-and-forth across the country, I would strongly support the creation of a support network or a lending library that allows institutions like the MAL to borrow and loan out materials – perhaps a network that includes institutions such as the Living Computer Museum or the Digital Den I mentioned above.

6) What are your thoughts on or experiences with collecting multilingual and international media? Is the MAL actively doing any collecting of non-English language media produced in countries outside of the US? Does the MAL partner with any international centers in the same vein or collaborate with the global academic and library community? 

I would be thrilled to incorporate multilingual and international media into our collection. We do have a few computers from the UK, such as our Amiga 500 and our Sinclair ZX81 computert as well as a few oddities from Germany but sadly that is the extent of our non-English, international holdings. I would also very much welcome the opportunity to expand our network to the global community of archivists and librarians; right now, we have informal relationships with scholars and labs in Canada, the UK, and Germany who are working in Media Archaeology and we are in the process of applying for grants to formally turn these relationships into an international network. We would be thrilled to extend this network to Spanish-language scholars, labs, librarians, and archivists.

7) Feel free to add any other comments, insights, news, etc. that you think may be of internet to the Infotecarios audience.

Thank you for the invitation to say a bit more about the MAL – I would only like to add that opportunities such as this one to articulate the MAL’s mission and its underlying philosophy have helped me see, just in the last couple of months, that the lab is a powerful space that, overall, works against our overwhelmingly presentist and futurist culture that’s increasingly controlled, day and night, by the constant production and consumption of so-called ‘new’ computing devices that 1) insidiously work to, as Jonathan Crary puts it, disable collective memory through “the systematic erasure of the past as part of the fantasmatic construction of the present” and 2) whose operationality, we’re told, we need not understand. With its collection of still-functioning technical oddities, the MAL is full of exemplars of possible other worlds and resistance to our present world.

radio interview on media archaeology

 On Tuesday October 1st, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to talk about Reading Writing Interfaces (coming out from University of Minnesota Press in June 2014) as well as my work with the Media Archaeology Lab live on the radio with Marcus Smith on BYU Radio. This was my first experience with what I’d call an ‘old school radio interview,’ where the host has a wonderfully, low, smooth voice and doesn’t engage in conversation so much as peppers the interviewee with questions. If you’re interested, you can listen in below.

from Apple Basic to Hypercard, or, Translating Translating bpNichol

[reblogged from the Media Archaeology Lab]

As a result of a number of recent researcher visits to the MAL, the question we’ve been mulling over lately is whether, or how, works of digital literature can be said to have “manuscript versions.” Here is the background to this question: on 7 June 2012, I blogged about the 5.25″ floppies of bpNichol’s “First Screening” that had been donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.

Happily, just a few weeks ago, the lab hosted a visiting researcher from Dalhousie University, Katherine Wooler, who is an English MA student and a graduate fellow with the Editing Modernism in Canada project; Wooler is working on a thesis in which she explores the differences in these versions of “First Screening.” I knew that the Javascript and Quicktime versions online were of course utterly different from the Apple Basic versions I had been looking at via an Apple II emulator. What I didn’t realize, until Wooler worked methodically in the lab for several days, is not only that the floppies donated by Kearns are earlier and incomplete versions of the Apple Basic published version that came out in 1984, but also that the lab’s Hypercard version, on 3.5″ floppy published by Red Deer Press in 1992, is even more starkly different. Wooler has written some tremendously illuminating paragraphs in her thesis, explaining the differences between these versions and trying out the term “beta-phase” instead of “manuscript” as a way of naming the earlier, incomplete, and unpublished versions of “First Screening”:

The Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder has two 5 ¼-inch floppies with incomplete versions of First Screening on them (along with the requisite Apple IIe for viewing them). These beta-phase versions of First Screening not only differ from each other and from the published version (which is available online as an emulation of the software running on an Apple IIe) in content, but also in metadata. The two disks contain different selections from the eventual First Screening line up and this variation in primary text content affects the underlying layers of text that are intrinsically tied to the properties of the software. For example, typing the CAT command for catalogue of disk contents brings up a list of programs on each disk and the amount of space occupied by each. While one disk indicates that the poems claim 013 sectors of space on the floppy, the other—which has more of the final selection of poems—requires 045 sectors of space for the First Screening program. Additionally, by entering the command GOSUB 500 on the latter disk brings the user to the dedication at the end of the poems, while executing the same command on the disk with less poems calls up the piece “Tidal Pool.” The message that greets readers when the disk is first booted up and prompts them to type the RUN command claims its own 002 sectors of space and appears as a program titled “Hello” when the CAT or LIST commands are executed. The metadata also confirms that these two floppies are not complete versions. A quick consult with the Apple IIe manual reveals that the lack of asterisk beside the list of programs recalled with the CAT command means that these programs are unlocked and open for edits from any user.

In 1992-93, J. B. Hohm attempted to replicate First Screening in Hypercard format using HyperTalk programming language and he published the finished translation on 3 ½-inch floppy disks. A greater range of machines could read this version of First Screening, yet, at the same time, a couple of statistics about one possible computer that could be used for viewing the work indicate the accelerated rate of media evolution that accompanied the increase in available options for personal computers: I popped Hohm’s re-creation of First Screening into a Macintosh Powerbook 160, which was released in 1992 and discontinued in 1994. Loading this translation of First Screening highlights how it is impossible for anyone working with Nichol’s concrete poetry to avoid the material nature of his work. In the section titled “Fonts and Bolding” in the introduction/menu section of the disk, Hohm makes special note of typography in the section titled, an element that is of paramount importance in most of Nichol’s print concrete as well. Options in the menu allow users the choice between viewing First Screening in bolded or un-bolded text, and users can also choose between three fonts: Chicago, Geneva, or Monaco. Hohm implies that users may have an even greater font selection depending on the model of computer they are using. He writes, “At the very minimum, your Macintosh should support Geneva, Chicago, and Monaco fonts.”

When First Screening was translated from Applesoft Basic to HyperTalk programming language it was published on a different size of floppy disk, it became viewable on a whole new range of personal computers, and the underlying layers of text behind the viewing text transformed. The programs on the disk that execute the poems are measured in new units, and the commands that call up metadata have changed. In fact, the viewer’s ability to communicate directly with the program through simple command lines is impeded by the presence of a user menu that requires the viewer to communicate with the program by selecting options with the cursor instead. The cursor function builds up the layers of text (in this case HyperTalk coding language) between the viewing text and the initial text that was input by the author. Now the placement of the cursor in the table of contents initiates a command sequence instead of the user perusing the location of individual poems with the LIST command and manually entering a GOSUB command to jump ahead to a specific poem in the sequence. Nichol was aware of the subtleties of these layers of text and how they were dependent upon their medium. A text file (provided by Jim Andrews and co.) of Nichol’s original First Screening created with Applesoft Basic reveals that Nichol imbedded a bonus poem in the programming language. Using the REM command as a prefix he created a poem about the biblical flood that includes word play such as “REM ark.” In the Basic language REM indicates a line of text in the code that will not be executed as part of the program and is only visible when the code is being read in its raw form. Like the HTML of today’s use of the forward slash and the asterisk, REM preceded lines within code that were essentially references for the programmer. In Nichol’s hidden poem, “ark” is the primary text, but “REM” couples with it to form a larger word that is a hybrid of command and content. Since REM is not a command in HyperTalk, Hohm must include this poem as a bonus feature that is purely content, thereby losing the play-on words and an integral part of the poem’s identity.

Below are photographs Wooler took of the Hypercard version of “First Screening” housed in the Media Archaeology Lab as well as the lab’s still functioning Macintosh Powerbook 160 from 1992.

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from “Web Stalker” to the Googlization of Literature

I’m nostalgic for a moment I never lived through – when we were concerned enough with monopolies over access to information online that not only did we call the competition between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator a “browser war,” but there were even competitions such as the Amsterdam-based “Browserday” to design new, innovative browsers.

Nowadays, while there are a few more choices for browsers and still many reasons to be concerned about how our experience of the Web is being framed for us, search engine algorithms are the new, more obvious information gatekeepers. In fact, the 21st century version of Internet Explorer’s monopoly is now so obvious that it’s nearly no longer noticeable, for when we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” And so, in line with what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything,” a new mode of writing is emerging that I call (in the postscript to my book Reading Writing Interfaces) “readingwriting”: the practice of writing through the network, which, as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, constantly reads our writing and writes our reading. This strange blurring of, even feedback loop between, reading and writing, quite simply signals the end of literature as we’ve known it. It is the Googlization of literature. And readingwriters (such as Darren Wershler, Bill Kennedy, Tan Lin, and John Cayley/Daniel Howe) who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity; they are implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves and our language back to us.

The impetus of this literary critique of Google is clearly aligned with that of early works of net art such as the “Web Stalker” from 1997 – an experimental web browser or piece of “speculative software” created by the art collective I/O/D (consisting of Simon Pope, Colin Green, and Matthew Fuller). “Web Stalker” essentially turns the web inside-out, presenting the viewer/navigator with the html code of a given page and all links leading to and from the page are presented to the viewer as a visualization. It is an artistic tool for drawing attention to the limits and possibilities of a particular reading/writing interface, the web browser. As co-creator Colin Green put it in a 1998 interview with Geert Lovink, “[b]rowsers made by the two best-known players frame most peoples’ experience of the web. This is a literal framing. Whatever happens within the window of Explorer, for instance, is the limit of possibility.” The foregoing is then followed up by Matthew Fuller’s clarification that “Web Stalker” “is not setting itself as a universal device, a proprietary switching system for the general intelligence, but a sensorium – a mode of sensing, knowing and doing on the web that makes its propensities – and as importantly, some at least of those ‘of the web’ that were hitherto hidden – clear.”

Since “Web Stalker” was created sixteen years ago, and runs only on Windows 95 and Mac Classic OS (which in turn usually requires an equally obsolete dialup connection), it’s fairly difficult to get it running and there are also very few high quality images available of it online. Thankfully, Matthew Fuller generously provided me with images which I’m making available here. If you have the technical know-how, you can still download “Web Stalker” here and get it to write a reading of the Web like you’ve never seen before…or at least, not seen since the late 90s.

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