transcript of an interview with Nick Montfort on the Trope Tank

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!


sister labs // Signal Lab & Media Archaeological Fundus

For years now, I’ve been yearning to go to Berlin to visit two labs that have the closest kinship to my own Media Archaeology Lab: the Signal Lab, run by Stefan Höltgen, and the Media Archaeological Fundus, founded by Wolfgang Ernst and now also run by Stefan. I finally got my chance to tour both labs in early February of this year, partly for pure pleasure and partly as a way to begin research for THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices in Media Studies that Darren Wershler, Jussi Parikka and I are writing for the University of Minnesota Press.

While I’ve had some email correspondence with both Stefan and Wolfgang over the years about our labs, I didn’t realize how closely aligned our labs were until this visit. All three labs, including the MAL, are driven not by a nostalgic impulse or a desire to act as mini museums. Instead, we have all appropriated the science-based infrastructure of the lab for (anti) humanistic ends as we perform hands-on experiments with functioning media from the 19th and 20th centuries as a way to discover what Ernst has called the “time criticality” of each device.

There are, however, a few key differences between our labs – first, the MAL does have some preservationist responsibilities that the Signal Lab and the Fundus do not have; for example, we have hardware and software that has been donated to us by individuals hoping we will care for, maintain, and preserve their donations for as long as possible; we also have conventionally valuable hardware such as the machines that ran The Thing BBS and valuable digital literature and art from the 1980s such as Paul Zelevansky’s “SWALLOWS” and bpNichol’s “First Screening.” These preservationalist responsibilities mean the MAL has a more expansive, complex, and perhaps even conflicted mission as its belief in making the lab a space of hands-on experimentation and inquiry is bound to eventually conflict with our responsibility to protect certain particularly valuable holdings. By contrast, Stefan writes me in an email that “Indeed there are no such responsibilities for both of our collections. Vice versa we have a ‘hands-on imperative’ which is the opposite of materialistic preservation for the idea of preserving the knowledge within the apparatuses (that therefor often have to be damaged). We say that to all of our donators so they can decide if they want donate their stuff.”

The other major difference is in how we’ve structured our labs. Perhaps precisely because of the slight difference in our mission, the MAL’s holdings are mostly displayed on desks lining the walls; each machine  has its own desk and its own chair. The benefit to such an arrangement is it facilitates immediate and extended access – visitors often feel comfortable immediately sitting down, turning on the machines, and inserting a floppy disk or a cartridge sitting nearby. The drawback to this arrangement is partly that we’ve found ourselves very limited in the number of machines we can display and partly that there is still something auratic about this method of display – if the machines aren’t on when visitors arrive or without a tour guide on hand to continually remind visitors to play, tinker, hack, the pernicious assumption is that the MAL is a museum and one may only view the media on display as if they’re valuable works of art.

By contrast, both the Signal Lab and the Fundus structure their space by having machines stacked on shelves around the perimeter of the room with empty tables situated in the middle of the room such that visitors can remove machines from the shelves and use the tables for hands-on experiments. This is, I think, a small but fundamental difference in our labs as the infrastructure of these two Berlin labs is such that there is a firmer, even unapologetic rejection of the aura of the museum and an emphasis on serious research. As Stefan wrote to me in the same email: “Yes, it’s a question of space and the numbers of items stored in the collections. But the ‘Fundus’ also wants to be a fund (like that in theaters) where the students and researchers take items from the shelf to use in their projects. The fundus itself is not an exhibition. The Signal Lab has some workstation desks but most of the computers are stored in shelfs. The benefit is that the users have to build the systems with its peripherals for themselfs to use them (which – I think – is a form of technological praxis that has to be ‘preserved’ as well).”

Below are pictures I took on my cell phone of both labs – I hope you enjoy the virtual tour. And, finally, I would like to thank Stefan one more time for giving us such a wonderful tour of both labs.