the point of the Media archaeology lab is to historicize and critically investigate digital media and technologies…not to underwrite the myth of constant progress, but rather to complexify the history of media. In tinkering with old, forgotten, and dead media it opens our eyes to mistakes, waste, and failure […] in order to sharpen our understanding of what media are and how they operate, of their specific temporality, of their impact on perception and thinking, on cultural practice and art and everyday life.
An interview with Jesper Olsson on the concept of the media archaeological lab.
You say you are interested in building a lab based on the academic environment but also the local computer history museum. Why do you think a media archaeological lab is necessary in this context and what new elements could it introduce to the environment? Are there any existing or imagined labs that you find exciting and could cite as a model for your lab space?
Well, the idea of trying to build a lab came out of the lucky coincidence of my own long standing interest in German media theory and media archaeology and the existence of a small computer museum in Linköping, which, as I found out as soon as I had contacted them, also had a vacant space next to the museum. One of the explicit requirements with the position that I’ve held at Linköping University for a couple of years has, moreover, been to establish a research group on the field of Literature, Media History, and Information Cultures, and partly this involves exploring new methods of interdisciplinary research, which for me also includes collaborations between scholars, engineers, and artists, and the attempt to pursue research in collective ensembles and constellations. And the lab seemed to be one way of doing this kind of work.
The “why a lab”-part is, or was, primarily connected to this idea of exploring new methods, of trying to combine the reading-and-writing model of the humanities, and (more specifically) media history, with a materially-oriented and experimental approach to media objects and technologies. As Andreas Fickers and Annie van den Oever have formulated it – to expand the idea of “historical re-enactment” (Collingwood) from a mere thought experiment to a concrete operation with actual objects, in order to sharpen our understanding of what media are and how they operate, of their specific temporality, of their impact on perception and thinking, on cultural practice and art and everyday life, etc. A material approach would allow for a more sensorially complex and embodied understanding and analysis of said objects. Furthermore, the re-contextualization of media objects from their circulation in everyday life into the lab environment would, potentially, produce new knowledge about them. And in a similar, de-familiarizing manner, the transport of methods, operations, and the very conceptual and material framework of a lab from the history and practices of science to the field of the humanities might turn out to be epistemically productive in itself.
If the exploration of new methods was a crucial incentive, initially, the very idea of collaboration between university and museum soon became almost just as important. On the one hand, a lab could be a place to re-animate and make dynamic the fast-growing collection of static objects and artefacts in the museum. It could be conceived of and constructed as a place where knowledge is practiced as a situated, embodied, multidirectional process rather than packaged and delivered to an addressee through various media. On the other hand, the collaboration also came about in a situation where it becomes important to explore new infrastructures for knowledge production and dissemination.
Finally, the very idea of a media archaeology lab would not have been possible if I hadn’t been acquainted with the work of Wolfgang Ernst and his Medienarchäologisher Fundus at Humboldt in Berlin. Also, Lori Emerson’s MAL was a really important example, not least through the artist residencies that they offer.
One thing you make specific is that this would be a media archaeological lab. Can you elaborate on what you see as the function of the media archaeology lab in the wider context of, for example, digital humanities labs?
If there is a certain inflation of the lab concept within (and without) academia today, and if it might seem a bit parodic trying to build yet another one, I still think the media archaeology (MA) lab is interesting. Partly because it serves as an antidote to the exploitation of the lab within DH (Digital Humanities). I mean, certainly DH has been a vitalizing injection for the humanities in many ways – but the DH-lab has also been a space for uncritical technophilia and fetishizing of the new, and thus also a place that reproduces and reinforces the idea of constant technological progress. Moreover, the DH-lab has been, for bad and good, an instrument to legitimize the humanities through the aura of science, but also a possibility to return to and refine older computational methods, which are sometimes based on a neo-positivist and heavily under-theorized thinking (pure data, data speaks, usw). Alan Liu has in a recent essay claimed that a major flaw with much DH is its lack of cultural critique. But the point of the MA-lab is to historicize and critically investigate digital media and technologies (and thus DH as well), to analyze its material and historical conditions. Such a lab will not underwrite the myth of constant progress, but rather complexify the history of media. In tinkering with old, forgotten, and dead media it opens our eyes to mistakes, waste, and failure. It offers a space for “broken world thinking” (Steven Jackson), which could be considered crucial today.
Does such a lab have also a connection to the outside? What are the possibilities of a lab as a public facing institution–connected to a museum, for example?
Even though the lab is called a lab and will carry a lot of baggage from the history of scientific practice (the lab as an isolated space, organized according to formalized procedures and rules etc), the MA-lab will be an open and semi-public venue and platform for knowledge production and dissemination. The idea is to build it as an environment for both academic and artistic research, artistic practice and public events such as exhibitions, concerts, workshops, talks, etc. It is thus infected by spaces and practices such as the studio and the gallery, the seminar, the theatre stage, the public reading, the maker space, and so on. If the public sphere and the media infrastructure for knowledge, more specifically, is undergoing radical changes today, the lab might be conceived of as an attempt to construct an alternative public sphere or space – distinct from similar digitally-based attempts by its focus on the regional and local, the material and the site specific, and by operating on a different scale. It might, moreover, be seen as an intervention into fields such as citizen science and public humanities – an intervention that tries to explore the exchange between academia and its outside, and of course to problematize the functioning of such a borderline. Thus the lab is (and this relates to the answer on the first question) an attempt to build a new kind of knowledge institution that combines (and reconsiders) features of the more secluded university with those of the public museum.