The program started in a literal broom closet across the hall from the department’s offices.  [Myself], my TA, and five students could barely squeeze in.  Between the first two semesters, most of our equipment was stolen.  It was not an auspicious beginning.

June 2018

You had already a long career before establishing the program at ACTLab, which in many ways seemed to crystallise your different interests in sound technologies, computing, performance and not least, in radical cultural theory. Could you tell us more about what led to the formation of ACTLAB and also about its early phases? Who was involved and how did it develop?

I came to the ACTLab by way of the History of Consciousness program at UCSC (at which I took my doctorate while studying with Donna Haraway) and just about every department at UCSD, where I taught for several years while I was still ABD [“all but dissertation”].

Donna had suggested that I visit UCSD to sample their new Science Studies program, and perhaps to act as a bridge — to be a kind of representative of HistCon, and to try to establish some sort of exchange program whereby Science Studies students might spend some time in HistCon to broaden their understanding of subjects like Critical/Cultural Theory which were absent from the UCSD program, while HistCon students might spend some time at UCSD getting a better grasp of how traditional Science Studies worked.

This began when I cold-called the Science Studies program from Donna’s office, and was surprised when the director of the program answered.  I told him my name, and said that I was interested in being an exchange student for a year, and he asked me what department I was in at UCSC.  I looked at Donna, who shook her head and mouthed “Not HistCon”, so I said “What department are you in?”  “Sociology,” he said, and I came back with “What a coincidence, I’m in sociology too.”  This wasn’t a complete lie; I’d been taking sociology courses and working with a sociological research institute, and HistCon students were encouraged to develop a disciplinary interest more intelligible to the everyday academic than HistCon was, as a kind of epistemic camouflage.  So the next thing I knew, I was in San Diego.

The part which is relevant to the ACTLab begins there, because through a series of missteps and unfortunate incendiary interactions with the Old White Men of Science Studies, I managed to get myself thrown out of the program and instantly rehired as faculty.  From that felicitous position, over the course of the next few years I taught a variety of courses across many departments — anthropology, sociology, political science, English, history, an experimental program called The Making of the Modern World — I was like a kid in a candy store, and when I wasn’t teaching I was hanging out at Don Norman’s nascent Cognitive Science program or the physics labs, or [witnessing] the wonderful things being done by the Border Art Project.  There were rumors of a tenure line opening up for me, and it was in that heady climate that I suddenly found myself being headhunted by the University of Texas.


Donna was in close contact by email, and, as my advisor, was counseling me on what to do.   Being Donna, her comments were measured, meticulous, and thorough, and my fellow fledgling scholars seemed to be unused to similar levels of attention.  One evening while I was responding to one of Donna’s emails, a colleague came up quietly behind me and began reading aloud her instructions off the screen.  “Weigh carefully each of these alternatives,”  he intoned, in his best epic cinematic tones.  “My god, it’s Jor-el instructing Kal-el!  Why don’t I ever get this level of caring from my advisor?”  Why, indeed.

I didn’t want to leave San Diego.  Donna said “If they offer it, take it”, and while I was mulling that, I received a call from an old and highly respected academic friend who said bluntly that if I didn’t take UT’s offer, she would personally fly down to San Diego and strangle me.  With that kind of incentive, I didn’t have much choice; so the next thing I knew, I was in Austin.

Various departments there had hired some very interesting people, taking some risks in the process, since those people didn’t yet do things that were intelligible to a traditional department.  Gradually we discovered each other with help from Yakov Sharir, the head of the Dance program, and we discussed starting an interdepartmental interdisciplinary thing of some sort; Yakov encouraged us and arranged for us to have common office space so we could rub up against each other more often.  We studied each other’s work and thought about how we might bring about some modification of the university’s teaching structure, which, as it stood, was quite hostile to people from different departments co-teaching courses.  We began to discover other academics at other institutions thinking along similar lines.

Then came the purges.  Every single department that hosted one of those promising but untenured young scholars kicked them out.  It was a shock of seismic proportions.  Within a year, I was the only one left standing.  We had gone from a campus peppered with young brilliant faculty doing weird interesting things, to… me.  I surmised that I escaped only because no one bothered to notice that I was there.

Let me back up slightly.  When I was hired, my department gave me a brief: word for word, to “drag the department, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century”.  For a junior faculty member still wet behind the ears, that is a very large order. For the first year or so I simply mulled it over, and allowed myself to become caught up in the general excitement of those promising scholars who were discussing the future of media and pedagogy and were about to be sacked.

After the purges ended, I had to reevaluate.  There was nothing left of our joint work, so essentially I was confronted with a tabula rasa.  I sat down and thought.  Then I walked around and thought.  Time passed.  Eventually I said “Oh, hell, what’s life for?”  And I sent an email to my department’s faculty that said, in part, “I was given the word on the mountain, and the word is ACTLab.”  Of course “the word” didn’t come from the mountain.  I was already heavily involved with the European Graduate School, which is also very much about experimental pedagogies; we considered ourselves, in part, heirs of the Black Mountain experiment, but perhaps with the advantages of hindsight, if such is possible.  And I’d had some opportunity to look over the shoulders of some of the most interesting MIT Media Lab people, and had toured programs in other countries, experiencing first-hand what folks were doing in hot spots of art and technology.  It seemed to me that much of the most interesting stuff was not happening in academic environments, that the academic environment constrained what people were doing in small but significant ways, but it also seemed clear that the structure incumbent upon the academic project was important for developing critical thinking.  I thought: what if we simply established a program with lots of attitude but no real goal, and just let it grow organically and see what happens?  That’s the very definition of play.  Eventually, that is what we did.  It took a lot of what we called intellectual covering fire, because obviously for institutional reasons we needed to look like we had an elaborate structure and clear purpose.  I’ve written about that on the ACTLab website.  In practice it took more organizational footwork to maintain our lack of organization than if we’d actually planned something out in the usual way.  And in [fact], the key to the ACTLab’s success was not what we did do, but what we didn’t.  As in the old fairy tale, we literally made stone soup — we created the illusion of soup and invited everyone to add their best ingredients, and when we were done, the soup was real and nourishing and delicious.  I still receive mail from actlabbies who talk about how they found themselves, their abilities and talents, by being in the program.  They didn’t realize that they were the program.  From an administrative point of view, we were a perfect example of doing by not-doing.  And not-doing was very, very hard.  This, really, is when my background in multiple fields was most useful — I found, perversely, that the more experiences I’d had, the easier it was to just shut up.

So, a potted history of our first few years:

The program started in a literal broom closet across the hall from the department’s offices.  I, my TA, and five students could barely squeeze in.  Between the first two semesters, most of our equipment was stolen.  It was not an auspicious beginning.

Shortly thereafter, we moved to a regular classroom.  That was awkward, because classrooms were white boxes with dropped ceilings, fluorescent lights, and generally either rows of chairs or a seminar table with a podium at one end.  Institutional, in other words.  For me, semiotics of space was important to our efforts, since room shape and furniture arrangement encode power relationships.  We started by destroying the implicit power dynamic: get rid of the seminar table, put chairs in a circle, [create a rule that the] group leader never sits in the same place in a successive meeting –  since those days, almost everyone I know does that same basic thing when they are given the institutional default room.  Getting rid of the table makes the whole body visible, not just from the chest up, so proxemics becomes more important — you’ve increased your communication bandwidth by 60%.  And you’ve removed the fortress effect, which increases mutual vulnerability, which you can turn into a way to build group spirit and group dynamics.  But then without the table you’re keeping papers and books in your lap, because there really isn’t enough space on one of those fold-out surfaces that school chairs sometimes have, and seminar chairs don’t have them at all.  So eventually we found a way to have our cake and eat it, too — we designed a huge seminar table that came apart into sections, so we could have open space time and also table time in the same room.

But first we had to get the overall work environment into shape.  Over a period of months I redesigned the space, first with the department’s facilities people, but pretty quickly on our own initiative.  We knocked out the hanging ceiling, painted everything overhead black, added down-facing spotlights and some judicious colored lighting, and Vernon Reed, a multitalented designer, designed unique lighting fixtures to accent the space.  We put a cloth hanging in the doorway to provide some privacy but not the isolation a closed door would have signaled.  I wanted passersby to always feel they could simply stick their heads in at any time and see what we were doing.  We immediately ran into pushback of an odd kind — my department chair told me he’d gotten complaints from older faculty that we were running some kind of house of ill repute out of a classroom.  It wasn’t the sort of resistance I’d expected.

There followed an interesting period during which there was a concerted effort on the part of the more conservative faculty to get rid of me through various strategies of administrative assassination.  They failed, but how they went about it was educational.  That was about the time I began to realize that there was more than one way to survive in academe, and that, at least in Texas, administrative infighting was a full-body-contact sport.  The various events and their timing are not relevant here.

Following that bloody interlude, people became more used, or perhaps more resigned, to our presence.  At any rate, we were able to move to an underutilized sound stage on the production floor.  The move was amicable on all sides, although perhaps what they thought we were going to do with it differed in some respects from what we actually did.

Now that there was adequate space, it was time to ratchet up the program and design an environment to support our particular needs.  The space we came up with had, or would soon have, a theatrical lighting grid (we stole the lights from other sound studios); a high quality video projector; a 7.1 surround sound system; a movable thrust stage (that is, movable if you had enough strong backs); black drapes on all walls; a custom-designed seminar table, computer pods, and wheeled chairs.  Initially there were no drapes and the walls were bare and ugly, so I passed the hat and bought $500 worth of black paint. That barely did the job: covering a 40-foot cube with black paint was a much tougher proposition than I thought.  We had computers almost as an afterthought, although in our department’s eyes they were the only mandatory part.  I and an associate from Architecture designed a seminar table in concert with the computer pods.  I didn’t intend to teach serious programming, just some AV editing and a bit of scripting in the service of making projects.  And the main thing I was after was esprit — building community — because once we had community we could discover what we were.  So I designed the computer spaces as “pods” about a meter and a half by two meters in size, with the computers set up around the edge facing outward.  That meant that when you looked up from your computer, what you saw was not a wall but another person.

You think with your body, consciously or unconsciously, so to nudge people out of their academic groove each class started with movement work.  I spent quite a lot of time looking around for a large bouncy ball that wouldn’t damage the lighting instruments, which were hung only 20 feet overhead, if it hit them.  Once I found one, we started each class with tossing the ball around, occasionally adding group-dynamics fillips like a call-and-response as you pass the ball.  Then we’d do theater arts setup exercises, such as where games, mirroring, contact improv, and so forth.  When the seminar table was disassembled and pushed aside (it was on wheels) between the pods, we had a space about six meters square in which to move.

A serious problem I faced was that it usually took at least the first half, sometimes the first two thirds, of a fifteen-week semester to convince the students that we were serious, that we really expected them to do exactly what it said on the can — namely that I was never going to give them a lecture they could write down and give back on a test.  Our rules were few, clear, and befuddling:  students found themselves dropped into a technology-rich environment with no instructions except “Make stuff”.  The only expectation was the project. Since we were inventing as we went along, our particular approach to the critical apparatus and everything else surrounding the projects developed over time.

For most students, arriving in the ACTLab was a shock.  No matter what I said or what we did, they kept waiting for someone to “teach” them something.  Newcomers would ask “What do I do to get an ‘A’ in this class?”  Or “When’s the first lecture?”  I, and — when I was lucky enough to find them — assistants who understood what I was trying to do, were being worn down by having to reinvent the wheel each and every semester.  Before long I realized that a great way to accomplish this — in fact, a thing we absolutely needed — was to have at least 20% of the class consist of people who had done it before.  Then they, by the sheer weight of their numbers, could do the heavy lifting of convincing newcomers that we were serious.  I was convinced that their presence alone, their obvious sense of comfort and excitement, would be enough to create the critical mass we needed.  (The 20% group became known as “repeat offenders”).

This was such a stupidly obvious idea that of course there was a stupidly obvious reason why we couldn’t do it: the official course numbers we were using carried official descriptions which included “may not be repeated.”  So I had to learn how to turn administrative backflips at the departmental level.  It took a while to get something so silly straightened out to everyone’s satisfaction, but once we did, it was the magic key, and henceforth the ACTLab was loosed upon the world.

Normally, from a standing start one would set a budget and order equipment (or write the grant that enables one to order the equipment).  At that point there were the beginnings of a grant office to help faculty get the things written, but it wasn’t very well developed, and for reasons of which not all were visible to me, I had trouble connecting with them or getting useful help.  With the state of my knowledge of grant writing at that point, I calculated that without help I would be spending most of my time writing grants, like every other decent researcher who needed funding.  If I were a good academic I would have shrugged and gotten down to work, but, as a colleague explained, I “wasn’t really one of us”.

Not having been brought up in institutional ways of thinking in the same manner as my colleagues, I looked around for what to do next.  There were obvious things to do and obvious channels through which to do them, but they didn’t stand out to me the way they did to my colleagues.  It seemed to me that the university, which was insistently described to me as resource-poor, was actually bursting with resources.  For one thing, we had a huge surplus equipment dump, an entire building on the research campus a few miles north.  Since any acquisition became state property and couldn’t be sold or otherwise disposed of except with great difficulty, the surplus dump was a cornucopia of wonder.  On one hand, video recorders, switchers, amplifiers, cameras, cable, parts; on the other, a bewildering array of obsolete (to some) and not-so-obsolete computers; further down the aisle, scientific lab equipment including an electron microscope (I drooled!); still further down, furniture of all descriptions, including couches.  By means of simple paperwork, all of this stuff could be transferred from whatever department was listed as its owner to whatever department one happened to be in.

Then there were the stairwells.  Several of the stairwells ended in cul-de-sacs to which office staff frequently dragged their surplus or inoperative gear, from which Buildings and Grounds eventually retrieved it.  These areas were treasure troves of amazing junk, from printers that only needed a screw tightened in order to be fully functional to electronic test equipment to cameras and computers.  We dragged it all off to the lab.  We found a large room that seemed to exist for no other purpose but to house a massive blower for the air conditioning system.  The rumble of the blower made the room uninhabitable.  We invaded it, christened it The Death Star in honor of the rumbling, set up a beachhead, and filled it with junk of every imaginable kind.  Students would raid it for miscellaneous parts with which to make stuff.  And having a ready supply of stuff — just random artifacts — helped move us in the direction of our general exhortation to “Make Stuff”.  The more stuff people made, we found, the more that interesting and unexpected things, far less artifactual in nature, emerged in concert with the making.

Making, as we practiced it — this sort of undifferentiated manifestation — encouraged exploration, questioning, and further investigation.  Or a student might abandon whatever direction their project had taken them and strike out in a completely different way.  This led to my own particular situation — having practiced in multiple fields — to finally be of some use.  During discussion period, which could be an intellectual free-for-all the only requirement of which was that ideas had to be backed up by evidence and, if appropriate, by critical analysis — out of the blue someone would pop me a question about particle physics or organic chemistry or neurology, and, as accurately as I could, I’d pop back with an answer.  Occasionally a student would volunteer unsettling comments such as “How come other professors (in our communications-oriented department) don’t know this stuff?”  Well, they do.  It’s just that they may not be in the department’s areas of specialization.  It may be necessary to look farther afield, but some students found departmental boundaries insuperable barriers to inquiry.  I had some answers because I’d spent my early years being feral, knocking on scholars’ doors in widely separated places both geographical and epistemic and asking odd questions, while people who now possess very deep knowledge of their specialties were painstakingly acquiring that knowledge by concentrating on that one thing.  It put me in an ideal situation for our lab, since I knew enough to answer most of the students’ questions, but not quite enough to be a laughingstock to my more knowledgeable colleagues.

Occasionally I would be surprised to hear Donna speaking through my mouth.  Clearly her gentle humour and clear insights stayed with her students and from time to time reappeared in their work.  Once during our academic time together, I had a dream in which I was reading a paper of Donna’s which was full of insights that were useful for a paper I was busily writing.  When I awoke, I blearily wrote down the salient points and incorporated them into the work.  Then later, when trying get the citations right, I discovered that in fact it had been a dream — it didn’t exist.  I mentioned this to Donna, who jokingly asked for co-authorship of the imaginary paper within my paper.

Back in the ACTLab, we were reaching a point at which what I thought was a definable structure was beginning to emerge.  Initially this appeared about two-thirds of the way into the semester, when people were being frustrated and unhappy with whatever they were doing.  Remember these are people in a humanities department, [who are] used to a particular rhythm, and it’s not the rhythm of a maker.  At that point it occurred to me to sit everyone down and explain that their frustration came from the work’s pushing back, and the fact that the work was pushing back was a sign that it was alive and beginning to seek its own shape.  If the shape it sought wasn’t quite what they intended, it was merely time to pay close attention to what the work was trying to do, independent of their intent.  In other words, all was well.  Then, because I insisted on critical analysis of process, I added that of course the work wasn’t literally “alive”; whatever agency it seemed to have pointed right back to them.  But on the other hand, if they had managed to invest their work with enough of their own intentionality to make them feel pushback, then they were doing the right stuff.

Eventually we got to the point where people were actually about to finish their first project, and it was time to celebrate.  There were three project dates each semester, at roughly four week intervals.  It was pretty much a demo-or-die situation, because I really didn’t care what else happened as long as the projects were terrific — intelligent, inquisitive, interesting.  Some were spectacular.  Many were ingenious.  A few were downright terrifying.  Since I still had no idea what we were doing, we started out with the simple injunction to “make something.”  When someone said “make what?”, the answer was “just make something.” We provided space, power, computers, a roomful of random parts, training in various skills, and endless encouragement.  It sounds fatuous now, but remember all this took place before the words “maker space” existed.  The cardinal rule was simply that whatever got made had to knock my socks off.

Of course someone immediately made a flamethrower.

Why a flamethrower?  I omitted the part about there having been a rather long discussion during the seminar period of class, concerning the chemical process of oxidation.  I think we began with a question of rust, which led to a discussion of when oxidation became burning, which led to a spirited digression about the emotional and spiritual dimension of fire, and then to something about volume-to-surface ratio in organic materials.  Because of the volume-to-surface area discussion, the student decided to make a device that produced a puff of powder of appropriate density to facilitate ignition, and to add an ignition mechanism to set it off.  The device worked pretty much as he intended; the class was awestruck, he received an A, and when the fire marshals poured into the room I got to explain, lamely but gamely, how it all came about.

Well, why the hell not?  He reasoned that I hadn’t forbidden it, and demoed it inside the ACTLab.  Not outside on the concrete, mind you.  The thing produced a ten-foot tongue of flame.  We were all awestruck.  The fire marshals said  “Absolutely no way will you ever do this again.”  I agreed with them that it was probably a very bad idea and assured them that we really wouldn’t.

Now there had to be rules.  I revised the Prime Directive: “You can make anything, except flamethrowers.”  And we were off on the road to hell.  For the very next project, someone wrote an epic poem, and read it out from the stage.  It was awful, boring, and lasted two hours.  We grimly sat still for it.  Later, as hard as I tried, I was never able to figure out whether he had written an algorithm to generate bad poetry, or whether he had actually taken the time and energy to sit down and write out two hours of excruciatingly boring word salad written in epic style; but there was no doubt that he knew he was inflicting pain.

Next day I put out a directive: “Make anything, except flamethrowers or epic poetry.”

That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  People began to seek out ways to be outrageous.  Someone made a video of themselves jumping onto a moving train.  The Prime Directive changed to “Make anything, except flamethrowers, epic poetry, and things that involve jumping on moving trains.” We were busily reinventing the Mosaic code, in the sense that by default everything is allowed except what’s specifically prohibited.  It wasn’t long before the list became unwieldy.  The day a student hung a live microwave oven by a rope and pulley over a kiddie pool, put his bare feet in the pool, and gave me the end of the rope, saying “Now you literally have my life in your hands”, it was time to rethink how this all worked.

The climax of all that amazing energy was the day one of my best students staged her own death.  We were going around the table reporting on how our projects were going.  When her turn came, she looked downcast and said her project plan had fallen apart, and she couldn’t think of another one.  And she felt she was doing poorly in all her classes.  And her life had gone to hell.  And, in fact, she’d decided to kill herself.  And with that, she whipped out a huge razor blade and slashed her wrist.  Blood spurted everywhere.  There was a collective gasp and people on either side of her jumped back.  She stumbled to her feet and ran out of the room, crying and leaving a trail of blood behind her.

The room was in shock.  Everyone sat or stood silent, frozen.  My brain had gone into super-overdrive.  My entire academic career passed before my eyes.  Was it real, or a performance?  I was responsible for the class; what happens now?  Should I say something reassuring?  Jump up and run after her and try to stanch the bleeding?  Dial 911?  Pull the emergency alarm?  Or, just possibly, sit still, do nothing and see what happens next?  I knew this student to be particularly good, and, as far as I knew, not given to depression; so, with my heart in my mouth, I grabbed my chair arms and sat still.  An eternity passed, maybe two eternities, and I had just decided that either this was the best performance an actlabbie had ever given or one of my students had just deliberately injured herself and ended both our careers when the door opened, she came back in, and took a bow.  The room erupted into thunderous applause.  I leaned back and sighed… just another day in the ACTLab.

Eventually I came up with “Make anything, as long as you don’t endanger yourself or others.”  This should have been the obvious answer, but, well, we were evolving slowly and had no idea what to do.  Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from mistakes; mistakes come from bad judgment.

Word was beginning to get around about our odd way of slamming art, technology and theory — along with an indeterminate number of other things — together, and one day the Yale School of Architecture wrote to inquire about what name we’d given to our discipline.  I read the mail out loud in class.  Immediately everyone set about writing single syllables on slips of paper.  I found an empty cardboard Quaker Oats container, we put the slips in and attached the cover.  The class proceeded to bang rhythmically on the table (and on percussion instruments we kept for just such occasions) while I danced around shaking the container and we uttered appropriately incantatory noises.  Honoria reached in, withdrew two slips and read them aloud.  They said “Fu” and “Qui”.

A few weeks later, I went up to New Haven and told the architecture people that our discipline was called Fu Qui.  It had a nice martial-artsy ring to it.  And, as chance would have it, a fair translation of fu qui is “shaping energy”, that is, making.  We didn’t realize that until long after we had officially adopted “Make Stuff!” as our definitive statement.

That was about the time that we began to experience incidents of students actually trying to live in the studio.  Several were coming to class with bedrolls, staying late to work on their projects, and winding up sleeping there overnight, waking up the next morning and continuing working.  First they made for the couches; when those filled up, they unrolled their bedding under the tables.  Around that time we had a physical site review and the committee asked me what new stuff, if any, I’d like for the studio.  I said what we most sorely needed was rows of some sort of bunks built into the walls, that could be folded out at night and folded back during the day.  That got giggles, until they asked the students what they wanted and got the same answer.  It was a sign of the bemused goodwill with which the larger university treated us that we received a good-natured reply explaining why our request was laudable but not really practical.  In the interim we sank eyebolts into the opposite sides of the walls of the vestibule outside our main doors, and hung hammocks between them.  Around 2 a.m. this precipitated a rush to see who could score a hammock, second prize was the couches, and then there was the floor.  If one way to judge success was by the number of people who never wanted to leave, we were doing rather well.

I did not always stay for these marathon sessions; having a few decades on most of my students, I preferred to sleep in my comfy bed at home.  But there were memorable nights when I tiptoed back to the studio, and there they all were, snoozing away.

An element of the ACTLab spirit to which attention should be paid was food.  Besides being an ancient way of building community, food, and the communal experience of sharing food, is educational and just plain fun.  Our close and wonderful relationship with food started when final project presentation day grew from a simple demoing ritual to a grand social event to which we invited family, friends, other faculty, and interested strangers, to which, in the spirit of our unusual inclusiveness, numerous people began bringing their favorite ethnic dishes.  Before long, final presentations found us with projects on the seminar and computer tables, and huge, many-splendored feasts on trestle tables along the wall.   Food, its subtleties, pleasures, conflicts, and deeper meanings became an indispensable part of the ACTLab experience.

There is an interesting connection to the more recent wave of Critical Making and Digital Humanities, as well as, of course, the emergence of “lab” as a key term used also in the Humanities and the Arts. Why did you opt to call ACTLab specifically a lab? What sort of function did calling this particular set of practices, program and studio space a lab have? 

ARS: Using “lab” aligned us with what other organizations that used “lab” in their names appeared to be.  In practice, using “lab” turned out to invoke agendas that conflicted with ours, because so many organizations with “lab” in their names specifically courted corporate sponsorship.  It had no practical significance beyond institutional covering fire, but if you had asked me about it in the early days, I would have come back with the most amazing, tongue-tying, episteme-warping high theoretical disquisitions on the meaning of “laboratory”.  One thing I was never coy about, though, was the fact that we depended on a layer of representation, which we referred to as the ACTLab codeswitching umbrella, to make our work intelligible to our own institution.  I wrote about that in abbreviated form on the ACTLab’s own website.

Aside from the subterfuge, “lab” was a term with which we were all comfortable.  The ACTLab was a space of exploration and play, and insofar as a laboratory is a space of exploration, the sobriquet suited.  In our rather staid academic situation, though, what didn’t fit was “play”, which was a crucial pillar of our self-identification, and I had no intention of letting go of it.  But I was not always the best at describing what we did in our “lab”.  I recall, on one particularly embarrassing occasion, earnestly explaining to our Dean that we were a space of healing.  In my own defense, I had just returned from an intensive two months at the European Graduate School teaching expressive arts, where there is a good deal of traffic between therapeutic methods and ACTLab methods; in many respects they are interchangeable.  Of course the Dean thought I had lost my mind.

So, to sum up, calling our program a “lab” was a way to camouflage what we were really doing, the best explanation of which was based on a seminar I’d given called “The Unnameable Discourse” — which was “unnameable” because the language to describe it didn’t yet exist.

You briefly mentioned Black Mountain College as well as the MIT Media Lab and other lab-type programs in art and technology. Could you elaborate how you related the ACTLAB to some of these existing examples? And did you feel that it was pertinent also to differentiate from other sites and labs?  Or to put it more broadly: How did you see ACTLAB in the context of the emerging lab scene of the digital arts and humanities in the 1990s? 

ARS: Although we did not see ourselves as following in existing programs’ footsteps, in public it helped to refer to an exemplar with which our audience might be familiar.  For us, Digital Arts referred to such groups as STEIM and the small groups and individual artists such as Stelarc, Orlan, V1, and VNS Matrix I joyously encountered on tour and at events, conferences and festivals such as those at Banff, Ars Electronica, ISEA, and SIGGRAPH.  I spoke extensively with those artists and with the curators who ran Banff, Ars, and other groups, but had difficulty finding a way to map the European, Canadian, and so forth digital arts landscape onto a US framework.  After much thought, I wound up hiring a person who was as familiar with the existing scene as I was, and we tried double-teaming my department, giving demos of the amazing work being done by digital artists worldwide.  But we faced a massive wall of incomprehension… which was somewhat justifiable by the fact that our department did not yet have internet access, nor email, nor even computer accounts for faculty, the web did not exist, and Computer Science had a slot in their door through which students could drop off punchcard jobs outside of business hours.  (the ACTLab was already online, by virtue of a thin ethernet line to CompSci, and we had offered any faculty who wanted it an account on our servers, but no one knew what that meant, nor cared.)  So when I’d excitedly point to a video of the “Tunnel Under The Atlantic” project and show how they’d used a pair of Reality Engines (the digital part) to image a virtual tunnel (the art part) through which actual people could peer in realtime via judiciously placed video cameras and projection screens set into fake tunnel mouths (the art-tech mashup part), our academic audience would zone out.  So it didn’t seem to matter how we represented ourselves to our own department, since no matter what we did we were unintelligible, and Black Mountain was as good a shorthand way as any of giving those outside our department a sense of what we were doing…even if it really wasn’t.

Let’s pause to talk about what Digital Art means to me, and meant to everyone involved in the ACTLab.  It meant that somewhere in your process there was a computer.  But the definition of “computer” was contested terrain.  Early on, I made installations using relays, and from my perspective they were most definitely computers because they performed logic operations.  So an interactive installation consisting of a roomful of mannequins was digital art if you broke a light beam when you walked in and thereby triggered relay logic that started motors that moved the mannequins.  At the other end of that spectrum were things like Char Davies’s Osmose and Brenda Laurel’s Placeholder, extremely complex digitally generated VR environments which demanded computational power at the limits of what was available at the time.

Our problem was that, in the timeframe we had, from a standing start we could not teach the high level of programming and conceptual skill necessary to execute an Osmose or a Placeholder.  For that level of technological sophistication we depended on students who came our way after a few years over in Computer Science.  There was nothing in it for them except credit for taking our courses, because CompSci felt that using programming skills for what might be seen as art was a waste of time.  But then, my department’s own graduate advisor thought that taking an ACTLab course was a waste of time.  Clearly, those were early days, but they were the milieu in which we were developing the program; which was why we could be so comfortable with running “under the radar”, as we said.

We did feel an affinity with Black Mountain, in the sense that in its heyday Black Mountain was an eclectic collection of wild talent (check) which did not have a traditional funding model (check), and which for many was a life-changing experience (check).  But that was all ex post facto.  What I did not emphasize was that Black Mountain was an experiment with a limited lifespan.  What it lacked was a sufficiently powerful administrative structure and a successful fund raising arm, but had it had those, it would almost certainly not have been a legendary institution.  In my view, Black Mountain traded long influential reach for short lifespan — a short, bright burn.  Similarly for the ACTLab.

I can think of a recent practical example.  A department with a functioning digital media lab/program invited me to teach an ACTLab-like course.  I looked at what they were doing and responded that, firstly, the program they already had was based on the ACTLab, and secondly, it’s a good example of what happens when you take the ACTLab framework out of its context and institutionalize it with funding, curricula, faculty and so forth — you get a good, solid institutionalized program which will meet your metrics and look great to administrators and rich alumni and which lacks the crazy spark, the moves which are forbidden or impossible in your framework, that made the ACTLab what it was.  They won’t notice what’s missing, and they won’t miss what they don’t notice — and they are right not to miss it, because without it they get what an academic or corporate institution’s administrators really crave.  They will crank out successful students who turn out very nice projects — I’ve seen them, and they are very nice indeed — and nothing bizarre or unexpected will ever happen.  Please wake me when it’s over… I am simply not cut out for that sort of life.

If you want a two-word, contemporarily intelligible version of what sort of life I wanted for a late twentieth century New-Media-ish program, and got with the ACTLab, it would be Change Agent.  But that means more to some than to others, and keep in mind that although we had the unexpected grace of being one of the first to get to say what New Media was, the folks who eventually wound up owning the name were the same folks who, from the earliest days, saw digital media not as arenas for experience and social change but as the twenty-first century’s equivalent of lathes and sewing machines – engines of mass job creation.  They did not seem to have paid close attention to most workers’ experience of technology in the machine age.  Of course, the ACTLab had diametrically opposite purposes.  We felt that in a time of rapid technological upheaval, any job skill a student might learn would be obsolete before graduation.  Instead we encouraged students to practice being generalists, and for specifics, learn how to exploit the time window between getting a job and being evaluated, i.e., “fake it ‘til you make it”.  In retrospect, if there were something truly unique about ACTLabbies, it was that they got the university’s only rigorous fake-it-‘til-you-make-it education.  And we still called ourselves a lab.

Finally, it’s important to note that I intended the ACTLab as a TAZ – a Temporary Autonomous Zone, as elaborated for our purposes by Vernon Reed from Hakim Bey’s original essay.  As a TAZ, we I expected that when I eventually moved on, as would inevitably happen one way or another, that the ACTLab would radically change form or shut down.  That it continued by a kind of hiving process and continues to this day as programs, workshops, and conferences was a complete surprise, but an oddly gratifying one.

This interview was was conducted over email between August 2017 and June 2018.