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What Is A Media Lab?

situated practices in media studies

Elana Friedland Interviews Sydney Shep of Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand)

ELANA:  Hi.

SYDNEY:  Hello.

 ELANA:  How are you?

 SYDNEY:  I’m good, thank you.  I’ve put video on, as you can see, just so you can have a look at my space and have some fun.  Lots of printing presses, lots of stuff, yeah.

 ELANA:  It’s also been a real pleasure to see your space through the videos that you have on the website too, so thank you.

 SYDNEY:  Well, that’s good, because we just had a new website with the responsive template launched last week, so really good timing.

 ELANA:  I noticed that and I was curious: what prompted the change to the new website?

SYDNEY:  They had rolled out a responsive template all across the university, and I’m one of the smaller centers so I wasn’t included in the first tranche, and then they had some extra money so three of the research institutes and centers were asked to rethink their websites.  So it’s transitioning into a different mode, but there’s a lot more, shall we say, things to play with, to make it a lot more user-friendly, and to profile a lot more images and that, so that’s a first step, but it will be a growing thing.

 ELANA:  Thank you for explaining that.  And thank you too for taking the time out to talk to me about the press.

 SYDNEY:  Well, it’s sort of cool that you were here for a semester.  When was that?

 ELANA:  Back in 2010. I took a survey course on New Zealand literature through the English department.

 SYDNEY:  Yeah.  Who was your lecturer?Jane Stafford, or Mark Williams, or Lydia Wevers, or —

 ELANA:  I think they all took turns lecturing, because I remember having a rotating cast of lecturers in there.

 SYDNEY:  Great.  Yeah.  So, small world.  So thank you so much for connecting with me, and yeah, it looks like this is a great project, and I love the way that Lori sort of framed the whole course, so it’s been a real inspiration for me to dig down a bit into that too.

 ELANA:  Awesome.  I’m glad there’s been a value in this for you too.

 SYDNEY:  Oh, absolutely.  We’re talking the same language, so I was really excited to see that not only she got her media archeology lab, but some of her inspirations are mine as well, so yeah, I’ll be interested to see how the class goes, and particularly with whatever creative work that you end up producing as a result of your, you know, intersections with all these worlds.

 ELANA:  To shift gears a bit, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the work that you do in your role as the director and the printer over at the press.  Since it seems like you encompass a wide range of things in that role, how do you find the balance between the different aspects of your role?

 SYDNEY:  Yeah, it’s a bit of a juggling act, as you can imagine.  I inherited the space, and the three pillars, which were the research, the teaching and learning, and the printing and publishing, were an important marker of what Wai-te-ata Press was all about.

So I retained all three of those, and in the world of accountability and administrivia, there’s a lot more to do in terms of the back end administration stuff as well.  But it doesn’t mean that I can juggle all the balls all at the same time, it means that according to the rhythms of getting external funding for research projects, funding or commissions for printing work, and then the schedule of teaching through the year, it’s quite a flexible kind of space where, depending on what comes in the door and what’s on the menu at the moment, able to weave things in and out.

I’m a sole charge director, which means it’s just me, and I run my own budget center, so I’ve got a level of autonomy, because I’m not associated with the school or a department, but I am under the faculty of humanities and social science, so I do have a kind of academic affiliation, but it’s more a facility that is available to anyone in the university.  So a lot of what I do is not only work within the existing spaces that I have, but also reach out to across the university and a lot of external engagement.

So in order to help execute all the stuff that I really want to do, that relies upon me getting funding, generally external funding that then I can hire research assistants.  So that’s easiest when it comes to research projects.  So at the moment I’ve got four research assistants working on my project on William Colenso and the Victorian Republic of Letters.

We also have something called Performance-Based — PBRF, Performance-Based Research Fund, which is a government-organized census of all individual and university research outputs that are then, every five to eight years, collated, and universities are then ranked, and based on their ranking they get a lump sum from the government, and based on then how the university wants to distribute that lump sum, it will go back to the schools or the departments, not necessarily to the person who has earned it through their research portfolio.  So because I’m a single unit and because I’m the one doing the declared research in the census, they’ve made an accommodation for me, and I get the research fund money directed to Wai-te-ata Press, which means then I can hire publication assistants as well to help with that component of the operation.

And then with teaching, depending on what’s going on, that’s a revenue stream, so it gives me a bit of latitude to be able to cross subsidize other stuff that we do.

So I try and keep a healthy balance, because in a world of accountability, if you’re down below the line too often, people start to look askance at you, but I’ve got lots of support from the university which likes the idea that this is quite a unique facility for Australasia, that it does a lot of things, and that it has a lot of street cred and profile in the wider community.  So as I say, it’s a bit of a balancing act, but it’s — and juggling the balls all the time for survival in a way, but you can never be complacent in one of these spaces, nor can you be complacent in academia anymore anyway.

 ELANA:  I’m interested in how much the community outside of the university is able to get involved with or does get involved with the goings-on of the lab.  Is it easily accessible to the wider community, or are most of the folks who come in affiliated with the university?

 SYDNEY:  If we look at the research side of things, we do have partnering with externals, and that can be people who are working on specific research projects themselves, people who have expertise that we want to buy in or collaborate with.

So in digital humanities work, in digital history, which is where I locate our research platform, you can’t always times compared to that within the university, just because in New Zealand we’re about 10, 15 years behind the thrust through North America and Europe.  So we don’t have the skill space and we don’t have the density of people who have graduated through DH programs, because we only really have one in the country, and it’s not a fully rendered one. So we’re always looking outwards for expertise.  Always looking out beyond the subject area and the individual faculty to alliances within the university.

So the work that I am doing on exploring the materiality of culture, which is looking at 3D printing, that I’m doing in conjunction not only with our School of Design and Architecture, but with students in the School of Languages and Cultures, and a PhD student who’s in the nanotechnology space in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.  So we’re really an interdisciplinary space, so trying to do that, you know, intra-university but inter-university as well.

In terms of the printing and publishing side of what we do, yes, often we will have commissions that come from external patrons, and some of those are writers who want to see their work published.  Sometimes it’s — we’ve done a whole series with the diplomatic community, so embassies and high commissions commissioning work from us, and depending on whether we get access to what’s called Creative New Zealand, which is our arts funding agency, we can do additional projects.

So that’s really project-focused, and for anybody who’s external to the university community who wants to come in and do, in effect, studio hire, or commission us to do stuff, we’ve got quite a process we want to go through.  Because being a university, education is our first mandate, and serving our local constituency is right up there, but we also want to cultivate relationships externally, but they can’t be for commercial gain for an external party.  So what that means is if somebody wants to come in and do studio hire, that’s great, they have to pay for that service, and there are checks and balances in that because it’s — I’m the curator of the collection, and it’s a collection that is historic, so I have to balance what we call preservation through production, using the collection but not overusing it, and as soon as you start thinking in commercial terms, obviously that at times becomes totally overkill.

So what emerges is that for external communities, I at times will run workshops, and those can be run through our continuing education program.  It can be ones that I’ve initiated myself, when there’s a density of people that I know that want to come in and learn the skills of letterpress.  But it really is a question of scaffolding that initial training then into thinking about what those people then want to do.  We’re not an open studio, A, because I can’t manage that given my time, and B, there’s — I would have to be on-site, and there’s a huge number of health and safety issues in our new legislation that would just preempt me from doing that, and would put the university at risk.

That being said, what we’re trying to open up is something we’re calling the PDFs, the Printer’s Devils Fridays, which will be, once we get sort of all the logistics sorted, an opportunity for the university community to drop in on Friday afternoons to learn a bit about type setting, working with the — I’ve got three students who have come through with me in coursework who are now either publication or research assistants, who themselves want to gain more experience and not skill.  So then we work on a credit system that the hours that they put into doing activities for the press are then logged against personal projects that they’ve already agreed with me are suitable, are within scope, will use the equipment that we have, and the fonts that we have available.

So it’s an interesting balancing act between ensuring that we are seen to be open to the wider community, but not so open that everyone thinks they can just come in and do their stuff and leave their undisked type sitting for the next poor soul who’s got to, you know, find a letter that they can’t find because someone else has locked it up.

So unlike, say, the arm in New York or even some of the centers for the books — like in Wisconsin — or in Minnesota, rather, or New York, Guild of Book Workers, et cetera, the university is an interesting space to promote education, but it’s also not — it’s not a free space for the community, and that’s a difficult message to get across to people who assume that since universities are publicly funded, they’re basically a public resource, and that anything that you do is for free.  So that could be consultation, they assume that’s all for free and coming in and using the facility, well, that’s for free, et cetera.  But over the 50 odd years that Wai-te-ata Press has been in existence, the university has made a financial as well as intellectual commitment to this place, and so we have to, at the very banal level, we have to make our bottom line.  So unless I can clear $250 a day, I can’t pay the rent that the university charges for the space that I have.

So that’s all then factored into if we want externals to come in, are they willing to either be a printer’s devil and start working to help the activities of the press and build up credits for personal projects that are noncommercial?  Are they people who want to come in and learn a skill and then commission something for us to do?

So it’s a really interesting space to be in, and what we’re finding is that there are other letterpress opportunities in the city and throughout New Zealand, and they always say to me that you’re overpriced yourself, and I just try to explain that, well, we’ve got to make our bottom lines.  If you want to train the people up to set a line of type and print it, fine.  If they have that skill and they want to come to me and do something more with that, I’m open and flexible and we have our studio hire protocols that they could come in and work on those.

So yeah, I’ve been doing a business of investigation about what other book art studios, particularly in North America, how they deal with this question, whether they’re affiliated with colleges and universities, and it’s my understanding from my colleagues that most colleges and universities just serve their local community, as in their enrolled students and faculty, rather than looking outwards.  So yeah, that’s a bit of a long answer for a short but meaty question.

 ELANA:  Thank you for that really in-depth look into the operations there. So you mentioned PDF, and I noticed with the updated website that there’s also the Literary Atlas app project that’s in the works. I’m curious about other future projects that you have in mind or directions that you’d like to see the press go?

 SYDNEY:  I guess because I came from an artist printmaking background and did a bookbinding apprenticeship in Scotland, and have a PhD in basically interdisciplinary cultural history, I don’t see the book arts studio in its most traditional form as producing, you know, the single section pamphlet, the tape sewn quarter bound book.  I see there’s a lot more potential for letterpress, and I’m happy to leave it to other people to do those kinds of works, but for me, the challenge of keeping this space alive and keeping it relevant is demonstrating that there is a lot more you can do with these presses than printing.

When you start thinking in that regard then, you start thinking about what can I do with letterpress that helps to bridge the perceived gaps between orality and digital.  So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about physical and digital materiality.  I’ve written a piece for the new Companion to Digital Humanities all about digital materiality that I think you might find interesting, because it’s building on a lot of stuff that is coming right out of Lori’s work, and it’s looking at some of the key players like Matt Kirschenbaum and Johanna Drucker, people like Jussi Parikka and the whole school that he’s affiliated with, with Wolfgang Ernst.

I teach letterpress like material science, and what I mean by that is it’s come out of my training where if you understand the materials that you’re working with intimately, then you know how to manipulate them.  And irrespective of the technology of that manipulation, you can create wonderful things.

So most recently, because my research is working in the digital history area, and I’ll share with you a project that we’re working on now, but also because I’m really interested in printing 3D fonts and then analog printing those, you start thinking there’s major crossovers between the world of the digital and the world of the handmade.  So we’ve coined “the digital handmade” as a mantra for what we do here at the press.  Part of that is pragmatics.  There is not enough time in this world to be able to–given everything else we’re doing–to hand set, hand print, and hand bind every single work that we do.

So as a pragmatic strategy, in the past what I’ve done is done hybrid editions with some digital and some letterpress.  It might be a cover that’s gone digital because it’s a glorious multicolor wood block that we can’t afford to get the artist in here to do a limited edition for the covers, so we do a high-resolution, beautifully digitally printed work, and then the inside is all letterpress, set and printed, and it’s all hand bound, or vice versa, having the cover letterpress printed, and the interior digitally done.  I guess our mantra is fine design is the key thing, and we feel we can do that in the digital handmade.

So we started out exploring what we could do with digitally scanning and then 3D printing from wood types, and one of the reasons to do that was I was inspired by a colleague who was generating new wood types out of medium-density fiberboard, and what we decided to do was, okay, Marty’s doing that, what can we do in the 3D printing space?  So what we’ve got is — this is the MDF, or the medium-density fiberboard printed, that’s the classic wood type, as is this down below, and if you look nice and close, the middle one here is our 3D printed one. And as soon as we did that, we thought, wow, this is a great way to generate floriated initials for a star because there’s decorative elements in effect on the surface.  But for me, it was the mark of the machine.  There’s a bit of a chatter in the middle, it’s coming down here, so it’s not just a mechanical extrusion of the plastic, but the machine itself is either throwing a wobbly or it’s deciding it wants to do the pattern a different way, and we thought that’s telling us something about how the machine is controlling a process that we as humans think is totally controllable.  So that was an exercise in just the techne, the logic of how we could get this thing produced.

Then we started thinking, well, you know, can we do logotype?  So here’s one that we’ve done, and as you can see, handmade.  And so we were there playing with can we extrude type, what’s the nature of the plastic that we have to use, what kind of honeycomb texture inside do we need to be able to get a block that doesn’t compress too much, and that might very well give us a blind emboss of a reasonable quality.

So I’m just going to lift this up, because underneath here — then the guy I’m working with, this is the nanotechnology guy — so then he did that block, and then at his printer, he can, not at the point of generating the font file, but at the point of instructing the printer, you can get different textures, because different ways in which the type is then actually extruded, or the plastic’s actually extruded.

So we started thinking a little bit more about possibilities.  He’s done a San Serge letter set for us, he’s been playing with can we go really thin, rather than having the real top block, can we go as thin as this?  And what we found is — comms and marketing have been doing an article for us, so you can see there it’s called the digital handmade, so we’ve been playing with fonts to be able to get a few things roaring.

Now, one of the reasons we started thinking about going to plastic was because of this phenomenon.  Now, the indigenous language for New Zealand, as you know, is Te Reo, Te Reo Maori, and the conventional form for orthography is the macron.  So since none of the wood or metal types that I have — this is all in reverse, you see?  So since none of the fonts that we have have embedded accents, let alone the macron, we thought, oh, this is a way to think about what’s possible in that space.  Likewise, we have the only collection — and you would have seen on the website — the only collection of Chinese types — in New Zealand, which is pretty cool.  So if you look between the large, the uppercase, beautiful Gaudi caps there, there’s a whole bunch of different Chinese characters, and so we thought — the student who’s working on the Chinese characters, she’s doing a master’s on bilingual signage.  She’s also helping to restore those types, and she’s really interested in how we can basically create new digital fonts which might very well be, again, 3D printed fonts that then get analog printed to think about modularity of type.

So there’s somebody in Montreal at UQAM, l’Université du Québec à Montréal, Judith Poirier, and she’s been playing with Inuit types and modularizing them, so she was out here a couple of years ago, and we really got inspired by her work. So I guess it’s the digital handmade that is sort of one of the characteristics of both the teaching work that we do and the print output.

So as part of the big Marsden Grant, which is the largest humanities grant that’s available in New Zealand, from the Royal Society of New Zealand, as part of that grant, I’ve been exploring serendipity and palimpsests.  Palimpsests are easy to configure, because you think of the layers that you do with printing, but serendipity is part of the researcher’s tool kit.  So we ended up curating an exhibition at the Turnbull Gallery downtown called Unexpected Connections, Colenso and his Contemporaries, and we did it all as a cabinet of curiosities space, with taxidermy, and with obviously print, and we had botanical specimens, paintings, just everything.  We had a couple of wonderful chairs from the Wellington Maritime Museum in the middle, and basically people were to make their own connections between objects, and we had a digital artwork in conjunction with that.  So I’ve just shot through the URL for that (https://wai-te-ata-press.qitlab.io/unexpected/#/)

ELANA:  Thank you.

 SYDNEY:  Because I’ve got one image up there, and there’s a little bit about the physical show.

So basically what happens is that we’ve got about 350 digital assets in the system.  When you push — when you open the website, you’ll see there’s a little round arrow, and when you push that, you generate a new composite, and it uses a randomized algorithm to select five of the digital assets, and then has six operations, sort of like a dice, six operations that can be performed on each asset, and that can be rendering them transparent, resizing them, cropping them, repeating them, a whole bunch of things happen.  But the point is you never know what this piece of amazing art is going to look like.

And it’s got us thinking about, again, in the digital handmade register, about the nature of digital materiality.  Because my next step for this digital artwork is to then 3D print the five items as plates, and then analog print them.  Not to replicate the digital artwork, but to see within the letterpress technology what the affordances of the technology are to create another creation, you know, another creative artwork that riffs off the digital one.

So I guess what I’m trying to do is close the loop all the time, trying to make technology seem not as disruptive, but as part of the really innovative creative practice where you intersect technologies all the time.  And so while I love the idea of media archeology, for me it’s archeology that’s living in the present.

So Literary Atlas.  Literary Atlas was an opportunity through an interdisciplinary research fund which had certain requirements to collaborate with people outside your faculty.  They specifically came to me and said, “we want a digital humanities something or other,” and so we started thinking, knowing how intensive it is to create your own digital assets and structure them and everything for a digital humanities project, what have we already got at the university that we could use, and because we have a long text legacy of the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre that was based on the University of Virginia Tech Center, it was a case of what do they have that can profile New Zealand writing, and particularly Wellington, and for those writers that have a link to Victoria, what can we do?  And it was a case of, you know, hey, presto, why don’t we think about a Literary Atlas?

So when we went and pitched the idea to some of the design students, they were really keen, because they’re working in augmented reality.  They said it’s a prime opportunity for them to develop some new ways of thinking about mobile apps for an augmented engine experience, some new work on the back end, with the database linking to the gaming ingenuity that will then deliver the augmented reality experience.  And for them, because although they’re in design, it’s mostly industrial design, and digital media design, they actually don’t have typography as one of — at the moment we don’t have a graphic design program, but they don’t have typography as a single course that they would learn what to do with type.

So we decided to look at the Wellington Waterfront Walk, where there’s all those poets all immersed in the water or not, and the guys went down there, they selected three of the writers that had a link to Victoria, and then they’ve started playing with what they can do to give an interactive experience, which is not only you go to the site and you see the type itself being unleashed in really interesting sort of kinetic typography forms, but also how can the person who’s experienced that feel that they are taking away part of that experience in the form of found poem.

So they’re currently working on the app where you can actually drag and drop some of the animated letter forms, if not words.  And if we can manage it at 140 characters, then they would have a found poem fragment that they can tweet out and then put it into an archive that consecutively then becomes individual lines of a continually reinvented found poem.

So we haven’t released the app yet, but that’s why I put their blogging journal of their research journey on the website, the bespoke website that we’ll get, that would be part of it as well.  So it’s showing everybody the journey they took to where they’re going, and not only some of the design decisions, but some of the wacky conversations that we’ve had to get to that point.

So as you can see, it’s a case of not siloing any one component of what the press is all about, but thinking about it as an integrated whole and ways in which we can cross fertilize between the printing, the teaching, and the research, in this world where — one of my mantras is honor the content, so whatever comes in the door, whatever we invite into the shop, how can we best release that content in a form using what technology is most appropriate, something that really, you know, puts the reader or the viewer or the visitor or the user right at the center of that experience.

And it’s part of what Johanna Drucker talks about in terms of performative materiality and thinking about digital materiality, not as a fixed thing, but as something that’s always in flux, always in process, always changing through modes of transmission and changing through users.

So it’s really a fun dynamic space to play in, and the fact that we also create things as part of the process.

ELANA:  To sort of shift gears again, my next question is due to the focus of the course I’m taking, which had us starting out looking at humanities labs before shifting into talking about the digital humanities. I saw on your website that you identify the press as a teaching laboratory.  So I’m curious about what led to that as a way in which you think about the space and the work you do there?

SYDNEY:  I guess it’s partly because I’m a real believer in collaboration and teamwork, and while some humanists demonize the lab model as belonging exclusively to science, and there’s a huge hierarchy and it’s only the big guys that get the name for themselves, for me, lab actually means a hub of experimentation and innovation.

So there’s any number of synonyms you could use for lab.  You could use hub, which we use for our digital history hub, innovation hubs, innovation labs are really common parlance within the digital space now, through digital media, data artists, digital humanists, but I think laboratory really gives you the sense that it’s a place of experimentation, and for me that’s an important dimension, experimenting with our materials, experimenting with those in the context of specific projects, but also just a space to realize researchable potential.

So that’s sort of why we’ve got teaching lab and book arts studio, we’ve got our Chinese scholar studio, we’ve got our digital history hub, but for me, the principles underlying all of those are the same, you know, teamwork, collaboration, really buzzy environments for cross fertilizing and this idea of experimentation is really core.

ELANA:  Thank you.  I’m curious too, since I’ve only been able to get glances of your space: what has determined the organization of your space?

SYDNEY:  This is the seventh space that the press has been in since it was founded in 1962, and it was called Wai-te-ata Press because it lived in a garage that was below the house — the old house that was the English department.  Not sure if you prowled around Wai-te-ata Road while you were here, but it’s sort of that next level down from the library, and there’s a whole bunch of old houses there, the Stout Research Centre, the Health Centre, the Education Centre, and now the Campus Services, they’re all in those old houses.

So this was one garage, then it became two garages, and then it moved across to what was called the Printing Office on the Parade, so there was another garage on Kelburn Parade.  Then it moved into the basement of the Music Building, and then when I arrived, it was relocated to what was the Central Services Building, and now the Malaghan Institute, the round building at the back, and there were two locations there that I moved into.

And then when they were talking about refurbishing the library, the then university librarian, who had a soft spot for Wai-te-ata and who had had the university bindery under his wing, which was in one of the spaces we went into in Malaghan, said, you know, before I leave, I want to find a permanent home for you.  And so he suggested that we go into this level zero space here in the library.

I was delighted because it was just the most obvious place where Wai-te-ata Press should be, you know, sort of words meet culture, meet everything else.  And the light was good, and the configuration of the space is such that I came from — and I can’t remember the square meterage — but I came from a space where we had all in the one space, store area, a classroom, and then the whole press room area.

Came into this space where the configuration was a bit different.  We’ve got the press room that you’ve seen, we’ve got an office and a storeroom, we’ve got a foyer area that is an exhibition space at the bottom of one of the internal stairway accesses, and then the classroom was across the — separate from the press room.

When we came to think about work flows, and where all the equipment that had been accumulated over 50 plus years would go, a colleague of mine–I call him my technical adviser to the universe–who was a letterpress trained printer, he’s a book designer and a publisher, work for Government Print and some of the major publishing houses, he and I sat down to work out what the configuration of the press room would be like, so that what we end up having is you come in the door, you’ve got the type setting area, so we have a selection of the fonts most commonly used, sort of in this part of the world.

So we come in the front door, you come around, okay, so then you’ve got all your cases with type, and those are configured not only with the long type frames, but also in pods of four cases.  So we’ve got four different setting stations for the teaching, and then the presses are over in this part of the world by the windows so there’s good light, so you can see what you’re doing, and even if the power’s not on, you can still print.

We’ve got then our library behind the big screen, and that’s mostly my personal collection, but it helps support the teaching.  We also have the multipurpose storage plan cabinets that store some of our wood type, and on the top are multipurpose for meetings, for binding, for sketching, just doing about everything.  So that’s the press room.

So it’s in the discrete areas that you would expect, but it’s all in one fluid space. So you’ve got the type setting, you’ve got the printing, you’ve got the binding all under one, but that meant we had to declutter the space.  So apart from the very cluttered office where we have all our research assistants as well as me, so at any one time we can have three people working in this space, then we have our story area, which has this mammoth, we call it the green elephant, our SP25 poster press.  We’ve got our paper stores living in plan cabinets.

We’ve got our galleys and galley cabinets here, stuff, but one of the solutions to the fact that there’s lots of cases that don’t fit into their cabinets, I devised this set of basically a type library, framing, so that on the upper two stories, we’ve got the overflow wood types and then on the lower two bays, we’ve got the metal types, and what that is is just easy to slide in and out, you can see what’s out, you’re not restricted by the usual type case or type frame of which there are, you know, three or four or five different widths, but you’ve got these flanges that enable you to, irrespective of the width of the case, pull your types in and out and they still fit there.  So that storage area — oh, yeah, and a couple more presses.  You know how it goes.

So yeah, it’s a quite strategic way in which the place is being organized, and that’s really a function of the diversity of tasks we do within the printing environment, and also it has to be flexible, because we’ll host meetings, we have launches here for all sorts of things, like not only book launches but special diplomatic functions, and we have tours and demos where we can take, you know, between 20 and 30 people at once.  So there’s got to be enough breathing room around the space, as well as it has to be a good working space for students working in teams, and for us to, you know, keep sane in the midst of a number of projects.  So it was really quite carefully scoped out.

ELANA:  Thank you very much for that tour.  I think you’ve covered about everything that I was curious about today.

An Interview with Robert Emmons of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden

1) What is your lab called and where is it?
We are the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden. Rutgers-Camden is one of three campuses in the Rutgers system, the State University system of New Jersey. Camden is in South Jersey, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jim Brown is the Director and Robert A. Emmons Jr. is the Associate Director.
2) What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
We are two years old, so we’re still fairly “young,” but our main research project is the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera (R-CADE). Our primary focus is providing scholars with software or hardware that they’d like to investigate, research, and/or repurpose. The R-CADE makes digital technology available to scholars for research and creative activities.

Scholars are free to take apart, dissect, and repurpose artifacts in the R-CADE as they attempt to understand their historical and cultural significance. While the R-CADE does not preserve in the sense of keeping objects in their “original” condition, the archive is in fact an exercise in the preservation of digital culture. By allowing for the study and exploration of digital ephemera, the R-CADE aims to ensure these digital artifacts a place in our histories and our various scholarly conversations. Each year the DSC hosts a symposium during which scholars share research and creative work. Scholars and artists work over the course of many months by researching and/or repurposing an object of study, and they share this work during the symposium. Our R-CADE Symposium features this kind of work.

In addition, we have a series of mini-grants that we award to people on campus, and this has funded a range of projects: a journal that publishes undergraduate biology research, an R user group for people in the humanities and the social sciences, various video projects (Robert Emmons is a documentary film maker, so we do a lot with digital video). Finally, we have a fellows program that allows scholars to do research and teach without any residency requirement. Fellows can teach online and attend fellows meetings via Skype. This year, we have an exciting group of fellows, including Judy Malloy, Claire Donato, Quinn DuPont, and others.
3) Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
We have two rooms. The ModLab is our research space, and the CoLab is our teaching space. Both are designed to be reconfigurable (moveable furniture, technology at the edges of the room, etc.) and have large flat screens that enable collaborative work. The ModLab is an open lab that hosts many events and is available as open lab and maker space, the CoLab is primarily for courses but also has some open hours. Both rooms are open to anyone on campus.
4) What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?
Our R-CADE project produces creative work and research; we also host a number of workshops. The lab has helped produce a number of digital video projects and also some websites (including a site for the Israeli Visions of Place art exhibition).
Our biggest project to date was an Electronic Literature exhibition called “A Matter of Bits.” This ran in the Stedman Gallery on campus, and we exhibited more than 50 works of e-lit. Some of that work was displayed on vintage equipment (for instance, a C64 for Nick Montfort’s translation of Amílcar Romero’s Poema 21, a Mac Classic to display John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse). We also displayed work on a Kinect, on iPads, and other equipment. This was a large undertaking, and the exhibition ran for three months. We also hosted the launch of the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3 during that exhibition.
5) Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
The DSC consists of two spaces: ModLab and CoLab, that we have near complete control over. We can schedule classes in the CoLab at our discretion, and the ModLab is a dedicated space for events and projects we want to pursue.
6) What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)
Currently, we are supported by the College of Arts and Sciences. We closing a three-year start up from the Dean. We imagine that we’ll need to pursue grants in the future. We’ve already begun to do this, but we and have success with internal University wide grants, but are still working on winning external grants. Two NEH DH Implementation grants and one “Projects for the Public” grant–none funded.
7) What are your major theoretical touchstones?
To date, our focus has been on e-lit, videogame studies, media archaeology, and digital storytelling in various forms. Media archeology is primarily represented by the R-CADE. So, while we don’t have folks here working in media archaeology, we are very interested in enabling that kind of work (especially hands-on work).
8) What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?
I think the E-lit exhibition is our most significant contribution to date, though a close second is the official launch of our brand new dual-major program. It only took us two years to get this program approved and launched, which is fairly amazing given the red tape at state university. We were tasked with creating a B.A. program, but we were worried we would take majors away from many programs in the Arts and Sciences. So, we created a joint-major program. Students majoring in Digital Studies must choose another major in Arts and Sciences with which to pair their DS major. We also have an interdisciplinary minor program.
It is also worth nothing the R-CADE has expanded from a single panel  half-day symposium to this year’s, which was an all day event with five panels, a workshop, a keynote speaker (Rachel Simone Weil) and a special guest (Warren Robinett) Q&A during a final dinner. We have the full intention to continue to build the symposium which may include expanding to multiple days.
9) Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?
Our plans are to continue to expand the R-CADE Symposium. Previous years have hosted a single roundtable of scholars who study/repurpose a shared object of study. The 2017 symposium will be the first time we put out a CFP and invite panel proposals. Accepted panels can receive up to $1,000 for the purchase of materials. We’re aiming for 3-4 panels for 2017, but I’d love for this event to be expanded–this will require grant funding.
Beyond this, we are hoping to identify digital projects on campus that we might seek funding for. Rutgers-Camden faculty are only now beginning to do digital work, so this will likely take some time. But we’ve already begun work on a couple of projects (some of this mentioned above).
Finally, our hope is that the DS major grows significantly in 3-5 years. This is key for us as we continue to try to build a community of students and faculty members pursuing digital work.
10) What makes your lab a lab?
Our focus is on collaboration across disciplines. I know everybody says that, but we actually support such work! Our major, our minor, the R-CADE project, and our mini-grants…none of this is situated in a single discipline or approach. So, we’re a lab because we are trying to facilitate experimentation across disciplinary boundaries. We see our role not as a place where people can get/use digital technology but rather as a place where people can meet to work together on digital projects.

Interview with Erandy Vergara of Studio XX in Montreal, QC

Photo credit for images above: Studio XX, Electronic arts for families, 2016. This project receives financial support from the Ministry of Culture and Communications and the City of Montreal as part of the Agreement on the cultural development of Montreal. Photo: Stéphanie Lagueux.

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In this interview, Maya Livio, PhD Candidate at University of Colorado Boulder and Curator of MediaLive and the Media Archaeology Lab speaks with Erandy Vergara, Program Coordinator of Studio XX in Montreal, Canada. The interview was conducted via Skype on April 6, 2017, and edited for clarity.

Maya Livio: Thanks again for speaking with me, Erandy. Tell me about Studio XX, its mission, and how it came to be.

Erandy Vergara: The studio was created twenty years ago, its anniversary was last April 2016, by four women artists working in academia and in art and technology. Their idea was to create a space where they could learn how to use different media and also share what they knew. So the idea came from sharing knowledge, sharing space, sharing technologies, and sharing the resources they had—you know, at the time not everyone had a computer. So the basis was this idea of a lab. They didn’t have a gallery in mind, it was more about creating a space where things could happen, where projects could be developed. They started at a public library which let them hide away, and they brought their own computers and gave workshops to the community which could be as basic as how to navigate the internet.

ML: Wow.

EV: This is how it started and eventually the project started taking shape. It was always a feminist organization because they believed there wasn’t enough space for women to raise their hand and say “I want to know how to use this, I don’t want to feel stupid, I want to know.” It was clear to them that if women did not have a foot in cyberspace from the beginning, the gaps that were already very present in society in general and in art in particular were only going to get larger. This is how it started.

So it’s a feminist art and technology space. Eventually—you know, in Canada we have organizations which are called artist-run centres—so eventually they got funding to create an artist-run centre with the mission to support women artists in the development and production of art and technology. It all started as a lab—as having computers that people could play with, and eventually they got a gallery space. And, you know, as technology has changed the lab has changed. The equipment and the practices have always been changing based on new technologies and their new uses.

ML: I didn’t know about this distinction of artist-run centres. So that’s a funding category like a non-profit organization, but a specific type of non-profit?

EV: What it means is that in the 1960s in Montreal, many artists rebelled against the power and inaccessibility of big institutions like museums. Of course, emerging artists didn’t have places where they could show their work. So spaces began to emerge with the idea of providing opportunities for artists to create and exhibit their work. It was always about disseminating the work but also about producing new work. It was a coincidence that this was also at the time of the emergence of new technologies, so many of these spaces were focused specifically on technology. Artist-run centres have public funding from Canada, and also from the provinces in which they are located, and oftentimes from the cities where they are located. So usually you have three main sources of secure funding, and you usually you ask for funding every four years.

ML: Amazing. That’s…very different from how funding works in the U.S.!

EV: I know! And, you know, as long as you demonstrate that you’re still relevant, that you serve a community—a condition for artist-run centres is that the majority of board members and staff members are artists themselves, because nobody wanted to have these people who did not have any idea about the practice itself ruling the art world. You know, as with every kind of system, it has eventually shown its flaws, and some people have abused it. But the spirit of the 60s is still pretty much there, and there are some artist-run-centres that are just fantastic and that have kept alive this tradition of trying to support emerging artists at the production level and at the dissemination level and tried to place them in the international scene but also within local communities. Many of these spaces are very local, some of them work really closely with their neighborhoods.

ML: That’s fantastic. I saw Studio XX’s partners listed on the website, and it seemed that the majority of them are governmental or other public-funding bodies. Would you say that the vast majority of your funding comes from that, then? I saw that you also have memberships and ask for donations and other forms of financial support, but is the majority of the funding coming from tiers of government?

EV: Absolutely. Ninety to ninety-five percent. And you mentioned members—that’s a very important thing to show that you’re still relevant. The members choose the board members, and the board chooses the staff. And again, the majority of the board members have to be artists themselves—and practicing-artists, you know, not “I was an artist once.” That happens too, but there are emerging artists especially.

ML: I see. So maybe you could tell me a little more about the kinds of projects and activities that form the core of Studio XX’s work because it seems very diverse with these different components such as residencies, workshops, a radio show…

EV: I think that easiest way to divide our projects is into categories. First, dissemination projects. We have exhibitions and conferences. One thing I forgot to say earlier is that for the studio it was always important to become a space where there is a reflection about technology. Not only can you learn how to use the software but can you think about it—can we think about relationships with technology and art critically, from a feminist perspective? For that reason, an important part of the programming of the studio is conferences and artist talks and roundtables. So that’s one branch, the discursive events, and then we also have exhibitions. So that’s dissemination.

Then we have production. For production, we have artist-in-residency projects. We have three six-week residencies per year. The artists get a little bit of money, they don’t get funding for travel or accommodations but they are funded to develop a project, and they have a studio in a shared space. For that there is a call and people submit and we select work based quality of the project and the novelty, we try to support emerging artists. Especially we ask ourselves, if we would not support this project—would she be able to do it? Are the resources and space we have suited to support this project? That’s basically what happens.

The other part is what I would call it the education aspect. As I mentioned, it was very important for the founders to have a space where artists could learn, a safe space. So having more instruction has been at the core of the Studio because there is a way, again, not only to learn new tools but also  learn from feminist methods, or to just be taught by women artists who are working in the field and who have a practical perspectives on the uses of technology. But it was always.. the core of the workshop was how can you use the technology  critically in your practice to develop a project. Usually the workshops are general, but each artist has their own time, and the idea is that each one develops a project while they workshop.

The last component, which is also part of the education area, is—in order to reach out to younger generations, and especially to incite young girls to engage with technologies in active and confident ways, we have created a series of workshops called Media Art for Families. Those workshops are free, one-day, 3 or 4 hour workshops. Female artists teach these workshops, and it’s for families, they just need to bring a snack to share. They range from, let’s say kinetic art or sound art. The kids develop one piece, and when they leave they can take whatever they produced in the workshop.

And we have a radio show, and that was founded almost at the same time that the Studio began, because one of the members was also a founder of the radio show, and they realized that both were actually doing the same thing. The connection is less strong that it might seem, but it’s a feminist radio show that’s also been on the air for 20 years. It runs once a week on the local community radio, so the content… they’re free to do whatever they want, and that’s great. And then the .dpi journal was a feminist website of internet culture and technology in general. It wasn’t about art, specifically, and it wasn’t an academic journal. However, because we realized that it in itself was a project that needed its own staff and resources, at a certain point we decided that it was not a sustainable project so we stopped it.

ML: As far as who uses the lab, if you had to characterize your core audiences—it sounds like you have a lot of them, you have community members, families, children. Are there university students that come in? Are there people who you would say are more engaged with traditional research? Or is it mostly on the art side?

EV: It’s mostly on the art side. We have some people that support the studio just to support the cause—there are those kinds of members. I would say that there are basically two kinds of people who come to use the lab. There are these young, emerging artists, who are in school and need extra equipment, because we loan the equipment we own to members for very cheap or for free, depending on the type of technology. We renew our equipment every year, so we try to keep up with what’s going on. There are also older or established artists, who do not necessarily have the means to buy a good camera, or to buy or rent a studio set for shooting with a green screen, or to buy a 3D printer. So we have young, emerging artists but we also have more established artists or just older artists who are not in school and therefore cannot borrow equipment at all.

ML: Can you tell me a little bit more about the space itself and how you see the infrastructure supporting the kind of work that’s being produced. How are things set up?

EV: That’s a great question. So there is a gallery space, right now we have an exhibition, but it is also the lab space. It’s relatively large, and we have make this space accommodate everything we do. We have tables at the back, an office space behind a curtain, and then we have tables and chairs and computers and a lot of equipment. When we need the lab, we set up tables and let’s say six iMac computers if we have a workshop, for instance. The lab is a space that isn’t… I would say that it’s not necessarily a physical space, it’s not a fixed space. It’s a space that is constantly rotating because this is what we have, and we have to adapt it as often as we can. We have workshops on Monday, so Monday, we set up the lab. Tuesday, we have to bring stuff back into the office again because then we have the gallery open from Tuesday to Friday. At the beginning, not everyone had a computer, so the lab was mostly used for computers with special or expensive software. Now—though that’s still the case, people come to hold meetings with coworkers and friends—the computers are used less. But let’s say, we have MadMapper, which is this software for video mapping which is expensive for some people, so they’ll write an email to say “Can I reserve a computer with MadMapper for this afternoon?,” and then they will come and and work.

ML: Do you give them access to use the computers and equipment even while the gallery is open?

EV: What we did now is install a table with two computers in the office space, for members. So it’s a shared space, it’s always a shared space.

ML: That’s great, though. What about collaborations with other institutions? I saw that as part of the current exhibition you have a collaboration with McGill. How you see the work that happens at Studio XX interfacing with larger institutions, especially in the academic world? How often do you do these kinds of collaborations, and do you ever receive support from universities?

EV: I think that collaboration with universities depends on who the programming coordinator is. Because that the way we work is through selecting projects from open calls, we usually have enough resources to produce our own projects and exhibitions. But well, you know I’m a scholar, an academic, so I usually partner up with any of the four different universities in Montreal for different kinds of projects. Sometimes it’s to share expenses, but it’s always about sharing resources of some kind. Sometimes I can lend the space for free, or for pay half of an artist’s fees, or “I have this artist, do you want her to come give a talk to your students?”

It’s also based on the idea that the more the merrier, especially when we’re talking about the place of women in media arts. There is still this idea that there are so few, and there are so few included in the big events produced in Montreal so we want to—I personally want to push this side to make more noise, to be more aggressive, to insist on presence. If we were to do it only at the Studio, we would only reach out to a small community. The more we go out, the more we make these women known, the more people get to know us, and then find out about other women artists through us. It’s also because it’s productive, it’s useful, to use what we have with others, you know? We partnered with the Goethe Institute last year to bring Cornelia Sollfrank. She’s a big shot! She’s one of the cyberfeminism founders! She’s a legend. So, I thought we should partner with someone else to host her. We could do all of the activities here. We have the space, but well, why? That would be boring.

Oh I forgot to state—and this is very important—we also have a media art festival.

ML: Oh yeah, HTMLLES!

EV: The collaboration with universities started before me—I’ve been here for a year and a half, and the collaboration with McGill especially started with HTMLLES two editions ago, so in 2012. The festival took place in different venues, at other artist-run centres in Montreal, and there was an academic conference at McGill. The festival is thematic, and so the theme of the conference was the theme of the festival. This was a space where artists could meet and discuss the ideas that the artworks and performances and exhibitions and events of the festival addressed.

ML: I’ve been following the festival and would love to go to the next one!

EV: Yeah! And you should! We’re thinking about a theme for next year now.

ML: You said you came on about a year and a half ago—are there set durations for which people hold positions at artist-run centres, or at the the Studio specifically?

EV: I could stay here for as long as I wanted, but I wouldn’t do that to the institution. It would be the worst thing, I think.

ML: So you think turnover is good for the organization?

EV: Well, you know, I like the spirit of the ‘60s that we’ve got, and if artists are really against institutions, well, people also become institutions. Labor conditions are precarious in this time, and it’s difficult to find a job, but I do think that this specific kind of work should allow different energies, different ideas, different perspectives, different orientations to infuse the space. The founders, they stepped down, and I always admired them for that. We brought in an activist artist from India, who is amazing, and we had this talk at Concordia University, and one of the founders is a faculty member there. So we were talking and she was saying to the artist: “What you’re doing is so great, it’s what we dreamt twenty years ago and didn’t know that’s what we wanted.” We started talking about the spirit when they founded the Studio and the need for feminist perspectives, and I said to her “you know, I’ve always admired the fact that you—all of you—did not want the power and just left this to whomever would take it,” and she said to me “I always knew that if this was meant to last, if it were to have any relevance to the world, it had to be bigger than myself.” And… I like that!

ML: I admire that and totally agree. Though, it does also make me think about what sometimes happens these days, especially in spaces of technology… People can become so concerned with keeping up with the latest technologies and the latest discourse, and it’s moving so quickly, that I think ageism can easily come into play. People start to say—and not just in the arts, but you know in the technology sector in general—there’s this rhetoric that “the old people need to get out of the way and let the young people who know what’s happening now do this.” And while I completely agree with you that there’s a need for fresh perspectives and a need to remain relevant, I worry about that sometimes in terms excluding older people from those conversations and treating them as irrelevant.

EV: I agree, but I don’t think the problem is that someone will age with the institution. It’s that there are different voices and that’s a totally different story.

ML: You’re absolutely right. The way that the plurality of voices can come is by encouraging older people to also be involved in the conversation as new and fresh voices. Sadly it often doesn’t happen that way.

EV: Yes. It’s not about the group’s ages, especially if you think about art, technology, and feminism. I mean, you know, we have Cornelia Sollfrank closing up the yearly programming of the twentieth anniversary, we have younger artists, we have all kinds… It’s really, especially with Cornelia, trying to bridge trans-generational understandings, and to see how each one informs different uses of technologies and different perspectives on society as well. Cornelia has a different perspective, someone who is 22 years old has a different perspective, and all of them are important.

ML: Yes, exactly. Bringing it back to what you were saying earlier about speaking with the Studio XX founder at Concordia, was that Kim Sawchuk?

EV: Yes.

ML: Maybe I could ask you more about her. Obviously you can’t speak for her, and I don’t know if she’s told you more about the initial ideas behind the space, but I’m interested in her specifically because she’s also one of the first to write about—in the U.S. it’s usually called practice-based research, she called it research-creation. Has there been any dialogue with her or at Studio XX in general about how you envision research and practice coming together in the space? If not, perhaps you have thoughts on how you see practice-based research or research-creation fitting into the Studio?

EV: I think it’s best to tell you my own take on that, as this is something I’ve never talked about or discussed with Kim. Basically, what I think, is maybe some of the basis of that research-creation thinking were grounded in what she was doing with the other three founders and also in what she saw happening at the Studio. They didn’t just want people to have access to technology, because that was part of the problem. They were saying that, you know, access is… it’s an important point, but it’s not the only point. And what does access mean anyway? Who gets access? And, you know, as good feminists they always were aware… they were four white women, but they were aware that there were issues of class, gender, sexuality that come into play in the mix of who has access and who doesn’t. So, what I would say is that at least she had this playground where these things were happening, where research informed the creation of new works of art, and vice versa, to draw from.

ML: I saw that the current Cornelia Sollfrank exhibit has the theme of a lab running through it, called the Commons Lab. Can you talk a little bit about that specifically, and how the show engages with the concept of lab?

EV: When I wanted Cornelia to do this show, it was an exhibit, and I wanted to see where she was and what she was working on. She’s working on big questions about what artists can bring to discussions of ‘the commons’, and what all discourses around the commons can bring to art. The more she thought about this format—the exhibition—the less it looked like an exhibition, it looked like a lab, in the most basic sense. It was a trial-and-error space where she was testing, and everything she did was with all the freedom to just… try. She has this strong research about the commons in general, looking at free software, looking at uses of resources in different times in history and different countries and different regions. So the idea of the Commons Lab was to create a space where she could instigate a series of discussions about what the commons means, how it can inform art, and how art can inform the commons. She set up a work-in-process space, basically, a space where different people can engage with ideas about the commons. There’s an area where she’s been holding different workshops throughout the time she’s been here, and she’s been interviewing people—Gabriella Coleman just came to talk to her and she’ll upload the audio and comment about it on the project website. So, the commons lab will continue to nourish the exhibition, but also the project in general. And yes, it’s a place where she will activate different conversations about the commons.

ML: That sounds great. So what would you say are the biggest challenges that the studio currently faces?

EV: I think the biggest challenge is to keep up, to keep itself relevant, to reach out to a larger community. As you know, our subject in general is a tiny little world of media arts—it’s the tiniest world, and feminist art and media is the tiniest range of that. But let’s say with the HTMLLES, there were so many people and such a spirit. We still have people writing about how they loved it and it’s been what, six months? So I think the challenge is to be able to continue to produce discourses and projects and events that are relevant, and reach out to a community so they feel connected, inspired by, or disconnected and still inspired by, this work. I think it’s really about how to keep connecting—keep relevant not only to more people but in more meaningful ways, whatever that means.

ML: I definitely hear you on the challenge of the tiniest, tiniest… art can intimidating to people in general, media art especially so. Trying to keep it accessible is always a challenge because you want the discussion to be on a high level, but at the same time not have it feel insular and academic, or be intimidating to broader audiences. I feel like that is a big challenge and I admire the efforts that you’re making there.

EV: Exactly, yeah.

ML: So the last question I have is how do you see Studio XX evolving or changing over time? Do you have something like a 5 year plan or a vision for where you’d like it to go?

EV: Since I started working here, my idea has been to push in a different direction which I thought was needed. This has included connecting to the public, reaching out to younger generations, and reaching out to people of older generations who are still relevant but who have just lost interest or lost connection. To support women artists, and also to hear trans and gender-fluid artists who have so few spaces in Montreal and in the world. So to disseminate the work of more diverse artists based in Montreal so that they can exhibit their work, get to know each other, and expand their networks. That’s what I envision—to connect locally and to connect globally.

ML: I wish you all the best with that, yeah. I’m so in awe, still, of the government funding you get to do that work. I guess as one last follow up, have you seen arts funding decline over the years, as has been the case in other countries ? Or do you still feel that funding is relatively stable for the arts in Canada?

EV: Ah, we are very lucky, and that is bad and good. It gets some people very comfortable, but it is also, for me, a very good reason to keep relevant. We did not have any cuts, and you know there were major economic crashes in the past years, but  we did not have funding cuts, and there was actually major arts investment earlier this year. We did not have a particular increase in our budget, but art and culture in general had a funding increase, and I think that’s the reason why we should keep working and do more. Return the favor, and support the artists.

ML: Oh no, you’re making me consider the move to Canada that everybody keeps talking about in the U.S… Thanks so much for your time and I’m so glad we were able to connect. I hope I get to see the space in person at some point, and if you’re ever in Colorado, let me know!

EV: Great! Maybe I’ll come see your festival next year and you can come see ours.

Olivia McGilchrist’s residency and informal presentation at Studio XX. July 2016. Photo: Deborah VanSlet

Exhibition: Cornelia Sollfrank: COMMONS LAB, March-April 2017. Supported by Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Goethe-Institut, and presented as part of “Germany@Canada 2017 – Partners from Immigration to Innovation”. Photo: Martine Frossard

Workshop: Introduction to DJing with DJ Ipek. March 2017. Photo: Photo: Deborah VanSlet

Ryan Ruehlen interviews Dene Grigar from the Electronic Literature Lab & MOVE Lab at Washington State University

Transcription from April 1st, 2017

Ruehlen: Let’s just dive right in. Why don’t you tell me what your two labs are that you run in Vancouver, WA?

Grigar: I have two labs, the Motion Tracking Virtual Environment lab (MOVE lab) and the ELL, which is the Electronic Literature Lab. MOVE lab I have had since 2004 and I brought that with me from Dallas, ELL is relatively new, that on I began building around 2008.

Ruehlen: How do those two branch off of each other, and distinguish from one another?

Grigar: Well if you think about it, if you’re making things that are motion tracked, that are virtual, the MOVE lab has been developed to do performances, installations, games using sensory based technologies and virtual reality and augmented realty, you’re making these things and then they die. They go away they become obsolete, and so the impetus and the connection of those two is that the ELL seeks to preserve those things. So you make this stuff over here, and as I’m making it I’m thinking about what do I need to do to preserve them, what I am going to have to do to keep them for all time? So ELL serves a purpose for all artists in general, or for any kind of making, so that you can keep things alive longer, right? That’s the idea. So the MOVE lab first and it really did spur the idea, “Hey were making this stuff and its incomplete” and so the example of that was when I was doing “When Ghosts will Die” with Steve Gibson. It’s a great piece, it’s an awarding winning piece—we have a nice video documentation of the piece, but the piece itself is gone. It was built on Macromedia Director, and then “8” came out; 2 wiped out Reason 1—all technologies orphan previous technologies. Reason 1 was totally wiped out by Reason 2. There was no back up compatibility whatsoever. We knew that but we really didn’t want to do any updating but you can’t update after a while because the computer gets old. We’re talking years past, right? Macromedia gets knocked out and the rest in general, they’re just gone. Nobody uses Macromedia Director anymore. So you’re making these things, as you’re making them, you’re thinking this is great, it’s going to be a great piece, win an award and then four years later it’s gone, and all you have left of it is the documentation. Thank god we documented it well.

But not everybody does that. I’m not just talking about artists. I’m talking about people who are producing VR for industry, you know, it’s all throw away. And that’s not a good thing. It becomes digital trash, and that’s not healthy.

Ruehlen: There are a lot of artists that in the last 10-20 years have been drawn to a more ephemeral way of working, you know? Sort of embracing it, and there is something that is interesting about that form of non-attachment, but I almost wonder if that’s a good thing or not, how do you feel about that?

Grigar: It’s deadly. So my background is Greek scholarship right? Homer was my thing. Then I studied Sappho, and Aristotle and Plato, all those folks; Euripides…when I was studying Greek language, literature and culture, they’d say, “This is all they have left of Euripides plays; we know he did this many.” And you only have this many to study, the rest of them are gone. It’s theater, it’s ephemeral. They’re not documented, ok great—you sit there and think, “Gee, I really love Medea, I would have liked to have had more experiences with stories like Medea.” And then there is conjecture about Aeschylus’ plays, that he was more conservative…what if we had more Aeschylus plays, would we have been wrong about that pronouncement? You know were missing works by Aristotle, we know he wrote something on comedy; we don’t have it. That whole Umberto Eco “Name of the Rose”, is based on that idea that the work has been preserved by the monks, and its a dangerous work and its going to upend society as we know it, and so they’re keeping it away from human beings in the middle ages.

I love ephemeral things. I started with the idea that ephemerality is interesting. And there is something beautiful about the death of a thing, but it’s not healthy for a culture to have no record of the thing. Someone like Sappho is really important; the bee in my bonnet when I was younger was taking World Literature at 12th grade and there were four women in the entire book, it was four inches thick. The guys in my class would say, “You know if women were smart they written more.” And one of the women in the book was Sappho. My teacher said it was the only one we had by Sappho. And the answer was that she wrote no more than that—but the answer is that she did right more than that. We know she had eight books of poetry. This young man’s argument was, “See women aren’t as smart as men because women don’t write.” Well that’s a stupid argument, and we know why they aren’t in that book, but I was in 12th grade and I didn’t have the language to articulate that argument back at him, I just stormed off furious and knew he was wrong.

If we had done a better job preserving the women writers of the period we’d have more. We knew there were more, there’s evidence of it. People were throwing things away—they burned Sappho twice. Books that we don’t have now were burnt twice, in 389 by Christians who didn’t want people reading Pagan female writers and in 1089 for the same reason. And were seeing the same kind of thing happening right now with the Taliban and now ISIS, where they have destroyed this city, which was the city of Zenobia, the warrior queen. It was also a city of great religious tolerance. Knocking out that city wipes out the memory of Zenobia. It wipes out the memory of religious tolerance.

What we have left is ISIS and their dogma. I like to think of human beings as making creatures. The whole point of us is that we make things, and we don’t just make one or two things, we make a lot of things. But we are also creatures of our unmaking and we make things and then we forget about them, we don’t value them, or we value these but not those. So as we make those things we aren’t thinking about what’s going to happen to them once they’re made. What is someone going to do with this once I make it? People makes games, mostly computer games where they go around and kill women or black people and they just put it out there to make a bunch of money not realizing that the thing that they made has a life beyond their hands, and there’s an ethical issue involved here in the production of the things we make. How we make them, and take care of them—how we husband them—how we disseminate that so people understand the point of them, and not making things are are pointless or that are hurtful.

Ruehlen: We just make too much, and then don’t care for the things that are there or might make a difference in peoples lives.

Grigar: And I think there’s a balance; I don’t want my students not experimenting, I want them to be fooling around with VR, and I’ll figure out how to preserve it—making spurs the development of preserving. Mobile apps, for example. I am totally smitten by them. I collect them, I think they’re really cool. They are the only truly “born-digital” technology that we have come up with that has no connection to anything we have ever made before. Digital Books—Books. Internet Radio—Radio. Apps—Nothing. So when apps came out I thought I would come up with something new, but wait, “Oh my god, I can’t preserve it”.

“How am I going to preserve these things?” You leave your phone on and you neglect or absent-mindedly say “update all”, you just wiped out your game. Or, updating to version 8 wipes out version 7 and all the apps in version 7 don’t work anymore. There’s a friend, Evan Young, who made The Carrier, the first mobile app game and graphic novel, and its gone now. All I have is the launcher icon. I click on it and nothing happens. Its dead.

Ruehlen: It requires all these different people who are making these apps to have to obey the same protocol of updating in order to maintain it all…

Grigar: Somebody’s gotta do it. I don’t expect the makers to do the labor. But as they’re making the thing be thinking about what its going to take to preserve it. Right now with apps I can’t get to the source code. Its all locked up in the Apple Store and the Android market. I can’t get to that code. Even if they gave me that code, I’m not going to see it as the code that’s in the app, I am going to see the HTML, but I wont see the final wrapper of the Apple Store. I’m not going to get that piece. So what I have to do is find a system. As a person who cares about these things: I am going to get this old phone, get all these apps on here. Turn off the phone, put it in a drawer and not touch those phones. Then, when the new app comes out I’ll get another phone and put those apps on it, put that in a drawer next to the other, and close the drawer. So that over the course of time, the apps that I value so that over the course of time I have a cross section of all the versions and someone in the future could do textual analysis over a particular work like Jason Edward Lewis’ poem “Cycle”—I have different versions of that. Give me the beta indefinitely so that I can see what it looked like when you first thought about it. And now, what does it look like? So I am interested in the ability to have scholars come back behind me and actually do that comparative research, asking what did this look like, how did this change, and why did it change?

Ruehlen: I like this idea of phones as just being massive file cabinets, which of course they are but…

Grigar: But its expensive.

Ruehlen: Exactly, but to make that the phone’s primary role, to be a storage unit, we don’t really think about that.

Grigar: Its funny, someday I’ll pull them all out and do something with them, but for now I am just tucking them away.

When I was working with Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl”, I picked her up at the airport and I was driving her across the bridge to take her over to the university to do the documentation of “Patchwork girl” two, three years ago. As we were driving across the bridge she said, “I don’t really want my work preserved.” I said, “I’ll take you back to the airport, if that’s what you want”. But she went through with it, at the time her work was out of print. Mark Bernstein from Eastgate hadn’t released the new flash drive of it, but that’s the most important work of hypertext, of Eastgate’s stuff, ever. That, and Michael Joyce’s, and both of them were out of print. That’s a bad thing. Going back to the women’s issue, we think of technology as a male thing, the technology of the pen, the technology of the computer—All these technologies males appear to excel in. Yet women have excelled in these things. Women were the first computers, “Hymn Figures” came out and showed that black women were doing this as well, so if we don’t document women’s participation with digital writing technologies at the end of the 20th and going into the 21st century, then in a thousand years someone going to go, “Well no females were doing anything with computers in those days”. My goal is to not let that happen. I want to leave something so that somebody can say, “See, here is an example.” To see there were a lot of women doing this writing, and there were lot a men too—and they were all friends. It wasn’t competitive.

Ruehlen: So lets jump back a bit, who’s in your lab, what are the lab’s source of projects, and materials?

Grigar: So with ELL, its used for advanced inquiry into born digital literature, so its very broad. I use it for preservation, archiving, curating, and just general study. With preservation, “Pathfinders” is the text that came out of there, the multimedia book that came out on Scalar, that documented all the work by Shelley Jackson, John McDaid, Bill Bly, and Judy Malloy. My argument was that migration, emulation and collection are three approaches to preservation. The two that are most popular are migration and emulation. I am focused on collection. There are just a handful of places like mine in the world that does preservation via collection. Its gotta be done by somebody. If at the very least, having this kind of space allows us to document this work before its dead. I figured we’ve got fifty years on some of this work.

Ruehlen: There’s no point in scrambling at the end if you can do it now.

Grigar: I am writing grants, and its helping me and “Pathfinders” was the data collection and the book “Traversals” is coming out next week, and that’s the critical piece. So once you find this data somebody’s got to go back through there and ask, “What does this mean?” Those are the publications coming out of ELL. And with the archival work, the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization) is very much invested in keeping this stuff alive for various reasons but my lab serves as the clearing house for the Electronic Literature Organization’s space for the Electronic Literature archive. That project has now started in collaboration with the University of Victoria; we’ve got space with Compute Canada and with Ray Siemens at ETCL . The ELO is paying to have these archives housed at Compute Canada. ELLA is there now, and it is holding three archives: Turbulence.org; trAce Online Writing Centre, and the ELO. Its handling all of that, its inventorying and its developing its interface. With the trAce project, which is so cool, the ELO has the rights to the digital part, but the physical piece has been turned over to the British Library. So I met with some of the folks from the library a few months ago when John Barber and I were there, and decided we were going to build an interface that was going to bring the two pieces together, so that anyone that was entering into the trAce centre site experiences trAce as the community that it was back in the ‘90s and early 2000’s in a more seamless way.

The third thing is the curation. I want to show the work. I want to make it available to people. So people will come and study my lab and put on shows. So when I do the show for Mark Amerika, I won’t bring my computers but I’ll have a computer that I can show “Grammatron” in all its glory, circa, 1999. Now I’ll put that against a current version on a machine and let people see what happens when technology is upgraded; to the degradation of the work, or not—does it hurt the work or not? Sometimes whole pieces are missing, or are inaccessible, perhaps its made in Shockwave and Flash and now that stuff is becoming more and more difficult to access anyway. So seeing it on the iMac G3, which is what I read it on when it came out, and seeing it on the now, really nice, huge screen—totally different experience.

Ruehlen: I even think about the pacing of your reading, how you cognate or process. If you think at the speed at which the data is coming up for you and how that’s effecting your experience of it…

Grigar: And every piece has its own pacing that is meant to be experienced right, and when it speeds up on the new, current speeds—its not the same work. Part of it’s the cultural expectations, in those days with Shelley Jackson’s case, you would turn the computer on, and you’d wait and wait and it would boot up, and you’d put your diskette in, the noise would zing and zang, then the interface would show up, then the work would start to load. You would see how many links and how many nodes there are in this piece, which is thousands. You could literally go get a cup of coffee and come back before it would fully load—that was the speed at which we actually read those works. At that point, if you think about it, those works were very text heavy. we didn’t have the capability to do a lot of pictures, if there were a lot of pictures black and white images. So the words were really important, and you would want to get them all in, and the speed needed to match that. Now things are zinging across the screen; the words have lost their weight, and the images have taken over that weight. It’s so image visual instead of word visual now.

Grigar: When I did that show at the library of congress, I brought my bonnie blue iMacs with me and one of my Classics, and I put “Mist” on the bonnie blue. The other thing about these work, because of the bandwidth, the screens were very small, and the outer screens were only a little bigger, it wasn’t that noticeable. When you put that “Mist” program into a new, bigger computer, you have small screen and the large screen space, and it looks goofy. It’s more powerful on the smaller screen. I had “Mist” on there, and these kids would come charging in the room, the library of congress had never done this before, and all the sound was going on, and the kids sat down. I sat down with this kid, he’s with his father, and I tell him its a game, and he says he loves games. He then says, “How come the picture is so little, can you make it bigger?” He’s trying to stretch it out. That was the size we could watch it on. He says, “This is lame!” Then you have to use the arrow keys to move around, and he was punching the keys and saying, “Can’t this go faster?” and his father said, “No, this is as fast as we could go in those days”. The kid grumbled and said, “This is stupid.”

Then we got to the sound, which we were so proud, the multimedia sound experience, and its tinny, and he asks to make the sound better, and we can’t. “What kind of person makes a game like this?” I told him this game was nearly 20 years old. He said, “I didn’t know they made games like that back then”…”Then you’ll love pong!”

That’s why Lori’s (Emerson) Lab is so important. The evolution of ideas, right? The evolution of the tools; this object is no longer just a computer or a phone. If I call my students periodically, during projects, it freaks them out. They don’t use it as a phone. The view it as a text message machine, or a camera, or a game environment. Its everything but a phone. So now a phone is not a phone anymore. Its something else. So now we came to make this thing, and all the things that came together that had to happen to result in this kind of environment is really amazing. The same goes for any of the digital works, like VR. I had a bunch of kids from high school visiting my lab, and they are all 3-D animation kids, they are making 3-D models, and prints, and they are thinking about majoring in my program, and I took them into the VR environment, and told them about 50 models my students made. The models don’t just sit out there by themselves, but here how they can live. We had to plan movement, and gesture, we had plan all these things, there was nothing here that was just carelessly thrown together, even the height of that desk that everything is sitting on. Every warped thing on that desk is purposely decided.

You make something and then you think about what you’re making. Those are the three things this lab does. I’ve done something like 11 curated shows since 2008, I think I’ve done 15 total. I have the space to work in now, so mostly since 2008.

Ruehlen: So now that you have the space, what’s allowed you kind of freedom to continue this, we are all busy, we have so many things we have to be committed to, especially in a university setting, all these activities you have to tend to constantly. What’s allowed you to have that kind of freedom to focus on that?

Grigar: I fell in love with electronic literature back in undergrad, back in 1991, it was this love affair. I was a greek scholar, who would have thought there would something to do with this stuff besides make it. I was looking for ways to marry my love of computers with e-Lit with greek, and was trying to weave this all together. My love for e-lit never died, and it never went away. I was able to do that 2001 NEH e-Lit summer seminar with Kate Hales, I was in her second batch of babies, studying e-Lit, and I walked out of there and said this is what I want to do, I don’t want to teach writing or straight literature, I want to do this. Then I did this post-doc for two years at the University of Plymouth in interactive arts, and Mark (Amerika) would travel and we would run into it each, we were crossing paths, and that’s how we got to be good friends.

They gave me the tools I needed, the intellectual tools and the where with all to make this stuff, and when I was making it I was thinking about preservation issues, and I got involved in the ELO in 2006, and they put me on the board. I also run an academic program, I am the director of the program I teach in. I am pretty busy, its the third biggest in the college, and we are a signature program, its a lot of time. But because I control that program I have flexibility. So I will work really hard on something but then I can put that aside and hunker down over here instead. I can make my own time. I have a two course load, and I get to teach the things that I am interested in, so I am teaching digital story telling this semester. I am teaching the very things I do in my academic scholarly life, they all dovetail. With the commitment though, I understand when people get tired of running things and they walk away, I totally get that, but I can not imagine walking away from this lab, or this work. John Barber and I talk about retirement and what’s going to happen with this, I would donate my lab to the university, we are building a bigger space, its going to be a center, in my old age I can run that place, I can continue doing that work. I may not be faculty teaching but I can certainly sit in that room and do the preservation work that I like doing—until I die. That’s how rabid I am about it. I think it takes that kind of passion…

Ruehlen: It has to be a part of you in so many ways, to be embodied fully…

Grigar: Yeah, everything I publish is about it, everything I do requires it, nothing is separate from it. Even the MOVE lab, as hard as it is for me to be in there when I am in the ELL, I am building the games in that lab, and I may end up turning that lab over to the university, to the department to use. For now, I am holding on to it. But letting students use that space for all the things they need, we have all our exhibits in there, so we can do showcases. So I am able to manage that and I can hire people to help me, I have out of my own pocket sometimes committed money to these projects. I don’t have kids, this is what I do. I can’t even fathom otherwise. Its not like am making any money off of it, there’s none of that, its just about wanting to keep this stuff alive. I want “Grammatron” to survive. I know artists have the right to say when they do or don’t want something preserved, I think should have a say, but at the same time I want them to understand what that means to culture.

Ruehlen: But when you put something out, it is no longer yours to a certain degree.

Grigar: Sometimes they have copyright, someone like Judy Malloy, she has seven versions of “Uncle Roger”, and she has worked like a dog to keep it alive today. She is very focused on keeping it alive, she wants to tell her own story, she doesn’t want other people to tell her stories. but at some point someone else is going to have to pick it up and tell her story—but its her decision to put it out and keep it out there. Right now “The Carrier” is dead, and we have contacted Evan—I would gladly take it over and put it in the ELO archives. There decisions is not to turn it over yet, if ever. Every once and a while I will contact them and ask, “Have you changed your mind yet?” I think at some point something will trigger them that its an important work and it can not die. Let me at least have it for a year and let me document the damn thing, then you can have it back and trash it all you want. Let’s let people write about it at the very least, the critical pieces have to happen. There are levels of death, there is a death when we die then there is the death when our friends die and memory goes with them and then there is a death when all our stuff dies, that’s the final death—how dead do you want to be? At least Sappho’s lived on because everyone was citing her, we knew there were eight works, there are snippets of things, she was never truly dead, people kept her alive. We don’t know if she wanted to be or not. I am assuming she did because she had eight books. They were scrolls that were turned into book like things later on.

Ruehlen: Recently we were looking at the Edison labs and going into MIT’s Media Lab, and talking about their visual, physical space, how their design actually created the manners in which people were actually thinking and working, and we had Jeffrey Schnapp out here and, and I actually got the chance to sit in on his lecture to the humanities board at CU on his working with the re-envisioning of library spaces, working with Big Data—talking about infrastructure. That question always seems to be there, the infrastructure one.

Grigar: So the ELL started off in a room, in a building across from my office, and there are three rules in academe: Never give up space, never throw away a course, never turn down tech. So if you have space, you do not give it up. So when I heard one of my colleagues was giving up her lab, I immediately went to my dean, and said to her, “Can I have that space? You have seen my computers, you see that that they are stuffed everywhere, you know what I am doing with them, give me the space for them and I’ll do something really cool with this.” And she just gave me the space. So I started off with 15 or 16 old Macs; one of my former students was a Mac freak like me—for me its that the early works were created on Macs and not on DOS, so all this stuff I have in my library, most of it is done in Macintosh, so you need that Apple IIe, you need that SE, you need that Apple Plus, you need that system 7.1, right? So it was about collecting. So I looked at all the stuff I had, and I said, “Ok, I am missing system 8, I am missing system 9.2, I need a Macintosh 2 that’s not an E”. I had a wish list of things I really wanted and Jeff, my former student said he would help and we began collecting by need, and that’s the first part of infrastructure, it was getting the tech there, getting the collection. People heard about this and started to donate, and now I have 60. Which is great, now I have back up, now I have six classics, I have four SEs, four Cubes, so if one breaks it doesn’t hurt anything, I can take the next one off the shelf, plug it in and it runs. Jeff comes in on a Sunday and will fix it and put it back.

He helps me get all the mother boards and stuff I need. Recently he decided to get rid of his collection so he gave all to me. I have all of his parts, and manuals, its amazing what I have in my lab now, how I can continue my lab. I have 60 computers, I now can last 20 years. That’s cool! By then, I will probably be retired, and will probably have finished enough works to feel like I got something done—it has bought me time. Its like when you have cancer, and you know you are going to die, and at least you have gone through chemo, and you have now have 5 years, those are important years, so I am trying to get as much done as I can.

So the infrastructure began with the room, the computers and the collection, and the resources like “help” and being able to pay for things—that’s the other infrastructure. The lab is set up very differently. I have seen other spaces, I have been to Myth, Media Archaeology Lab, I’ve been to MoMA, I have seen what they have done, they have a few computers there. I have been to the Ransom Center. Some folks have stuff in the back and they pull it out when you need it; my space is laid out so all the required software and hardware is there for anything in the cabinet. So if you pick out something you would know no matter what you picked out you can sit down and read it. The rest of it is in reserve on shelves. It’s meant to be so that you can go into work and there’s a middle table where we are doing the preservation work, all the inventory work, it’s kind of a mess in the middle and nice and tidy on the sides where all the scholars can come and work. I have people coming in on Fullbright Scholarships; I do not have a graduate program, but I do have post-docs—and I am actively seeking them. I have had four so far. I have two more coming. I am writing grants all the time. I think I wrote as of this week, 12 grants this year alone. Some of its for MOVE lab, some of its for ELL. I have written something like 500,000 dollars for ELL to fund ELL and e-Lit in general. So the most recent thing I wrote was just a simple little professorship for $28,000 over two years, cash handed to me to do whatever I wanted for my research. With that I can easily hire a student to come in and manage the lab for me when I am not there. I can also put some money towards post-docs for stipends, which I do. Then travel money so I can go out to present the work. I am always looking for money.

Ruehlen: How many of these grants have you applied for before, and also, received funding for and you have to keep feeding it…are they more likely to give them to you in the future?

Grigar: The thing I got was a grant for ELL for “Pathfinders”—the grant from NEH, that was $68,000. That was a nice little chunk of change. What happened with “Pathfinders” was that Stuart and I started a methodology for preserving multimedia interactive work—that’s huge. It gave us the money to do that, to use for works as a guinea pig for that, and that became the book. And now “Traversals” has come out of that. Also what happens is when the university sees you getting that money they are more likely to give you funding, so it becomes this kind of feedback loop. The thing that drives me crazy about some of my friends on campus, they will say, “I wish I had a lab”. Well you know what, you can have one—here’s how you can have one. You have to start your collection, everyone of those computers I started with, I bought, I didn’t have the university buying them for me, cause if I had ever left, then I couldn’t take it with me. I would have to worry about buying it back. As it is right now, we are committed to staying with the university, so we will probably donate it, but at the time I wasn’t about to let the university have access to that in terms of ownership. So I kept that very separate. Even the inventory list I know exactly what is owned by the university and what is owned by me. You gotta make the first step.

The university might give you $15,000 or $50,000 to get started, then your job after that is to get the grants that keep it going, cause they are not going to give you money year after year, you can’t count on it. The economy, the university system, even if they wanted to give it to you sometimes they can’t, its not that they are being evil and not helping out, its just there are a lot of things they have to pay for, sometimes its not my stuff. I am the one that’s committed to me and my work. So I have to make that first step and keep it going, and if they see you doing that, and you submit a mini grant, they will give it to you cause you have a track record, and now I have eleven years of the MOVE lab on this campus. They are not going to take that lab away.

We’re an R1 like you are, no R1 wants to give that up, it would be dumb. It’s prestigious, its not as much as the neuroscience lab or the MIT Media Lab, but you’re trying to build a program, and there are 108 R1s in the country and we are not in the top 50, we are in the lower 50, the drive is to be in the top 25. We can do that, but you have to commit to research. They found a beautiful space for me now, they gave me a nice upgrade. Its a win win situation for everyone. Administration are not evil people, but they want to see commitment at the academic side. They have been pretty generous that I’ve seen. The other thing is you can’t work alone. Nothing gets done alone, you need to be in a system, I would have never gotten that NEH grant without Stuart, or without Scalar—that was the icing on the cake for that grant. It was really smart on his part to say we were going to make a Scalar book. It helps Tara McPherson who is in NEH with me and Kate Hales, its a small and incestuous family, and everyone helps each other move along, to buoy each other, its not a competition. The second you start to compete you’re screwed. No one is going to help you, it becomes sink or swim. No one swims very far when they are by themselves. I think that’s the other thing to remember is that none of us work in a vacuum, so even the MOVE lab, I was given $30,000 in technology, who does that? From there we built things, we made things. And now students are learning how to make VR work. The total amount of grants I wrote in the fall was $704,000. I haven’t even began to add it up this semester.

Ruehlen: Its amazing how they are both big gestures and singular gestures that actually change the entire course of your work, and the incredible amount of people who will be effected for generations to come.

Grigar: Oh yeah, even with ELL it started off with just 4 or 5 Macs, I didn’t want to give up what I owned, some people gave me what they had. I began collecting this stuff in 1991, and then recognized even in 2002, that I needed to have the computers to read it on, because it was starting to get orphaned. So I moved here (Washington State University) and I had all these computers in my house, I put on the ELO conference in 2008 in Vancouver and I wanted to do the first exhibit of early digital work. Kate Hales sent me a bunch of stuff out of her library so she kicked off a lot of it, and I had a lot of pieces missing that needed to be shown. My student Jeff showed me how to organize the media, to really look at the specific things, like internet speeds, and just sit down and see how you can suss it out on paper. We figured out where our gaps are, and he went and got me the gaps. He was already gone out of my program, by that point two years. He has stayed my friend, and fixes all my computers and charges me hardly nothing for repairs, there would be no ELL without him.

Ruehlen: A shared vision…

Grigar: Yeah, when he heard I was donating to the school he showed up at my door with even more stuff, and that’s how you start an infrastructure. Then the job becomes how to manage that, when can you manage it, and I don’t try to do it all at once. I haven’t inventoried any of the manuals.

Ruehlen: Have you hit a point—or maybe it is just now—where you can’t take any more donations because of space, I know that Lori in the Media Archaeology Lab at one point had to stop taking donations to a certain degree because of spatial resources and time to keep up on that inventory. I am wondering what your lab is like now?

Grigar: There were gaps I was trying to fill, I wanted lots of back up, I know what its like to try to get work done and you turn on the machine and its broken, and you have one of those, and its the only one that’s going to read 50 works in your library, that’s a bad thing. So I sat down and made a list of all the things I was looking for and I would procure it—I am also collecting some game consoles, game environments, I have a Commodore, I am looking for an Atari. There are things I am looking for. I have gotten to to point where I don’t need a lot of stuff, I just need particular things. And I am being very careful about what I procure, I don’t have a lot more room. So now I am spending some money to get some cabinets put in the MOVE lab. I’ll put a bunch of things in those cabinets, probably the motherboards and extra materials that will free up space in my lab for the actual tech, and when I need to fix something I can go to the MOVE lab and and grab it out of the cabinet and it doesn’t take up space in the scholarship lab.

Lori’s got a big space, she has room for repair, a room for parts, a room for reading, I don’t have that, I have one big space. I have had to partition that space off. When people come in to do research I have a lot of messy stuff going on, and it’s becoming harder and harder to hide. The idea now is that the university is getting ready to break ground on the Hale sciences building, and when that happens the nursing program will move to the Hale building and that’s in the second floor of the library now—the idea is that the center, or the institute, or whatever we are going to call it will move there, and will be a place for born digital preservation. Its going to be experimental, how to experiment with born digital stuff, cause no one is really doing that.

I think there’s a lot of folks in WSU that have a strong following of supporters that give donations that build things, so I am hoping that we can tap into some of that too. Essentially we going to take ELL and move in to that new space, and its going to be like the Big Bang, and have the partition space a lot better, I’ll even have a room for my office, which I don’t have right now.

One of the things that we did, my tech support guy Greg, one of my former students, I hired him when he was still a part time student, he’s been with me for years and he is just a genius, he can code anything. He produced an online catalog for us. Its so nice because you can walk in and say, “I want to read Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork girl” on diskette” and you can go to the database and type in “Patchwork girl diskette” and it will tell you what computers you can read it on. And now its crossed over to other platforms, where if you want to play on the Cube, and you can ask, “What works can I read on the Cube?” All the works that can be read on the Cube show up. And they are all there in the cabinet in alpha order. So you can go and pull up what you need and now that’s all organized, so there is some structure. The other thing is that it also has collections, so we can search and tell artists what they have of there’s at any given time.

I did the “Pathfinders” show at the MLA conference in 2014, I shipped Macintosh’s and UPS crunched them, I mean smashed them flat. So when I opened up the boxed, so I put them up on the table and had them like an exhibit and had the NEH folks, who were there, and I told them, “This is why you have to give me money, this happens every day—how many Macs are we losing a day?” When we lose them all this work can’t be read, and this is why you gave me the money. I have not asked for money again from NEH, as you don’t go back for a second start up. What I am looking for a Melon and an IMLS now. There is also foundations that I have written for. So that’s my infrastructure, the university has given me some help and then I have done the work to bring in the work and bringing in money. It becomes a show lab, and so when they bring dignitaries to campus MOVE and ELL lab are both on the visitor tour. I am there on a Saturday if I have to be, we have had senators come through even, lots of folks who are important for funding. This is humanities stuff, and I can make the plausible argument that humanities matter and here’s how we are making it matter. We have got to do that, without question.

Theoretical touchstones are interesting. Going back, I do theory, but I think more philosophically about the things I do. Philosophically speaking, we are creatures of making, right? We make things, that’s what we do. We are also creatures of unmaking. We destroy the things we make. We don’t care about the things we make, we don’t see the value of things we make for one reason or another. So I tend to gravitate towards the making and the keeping to show the record of humanity. I was watching antique roadshow last night. This women showed this beautiful jade dagger, and it was found because folks in China were digging up for the road ways, and they dug up all this treasure that dated back to 1000 BC. And nobody knew this stuff existed and here are all these artifacts from 1000 BC and it was incredibly intricate. We do this kind of study for Chinese daggers, we should be doing that for Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork girl”. I found some folks took a bunch of games and threw them in a landfill when they didn’t sell. Really? That’s what you did? You didn’t donate them to a school, you didn’t give them to the Smithsonian, you didn’t think to start your own museum? At least Apple has a museum. To me its ethics. At the fundamental part of this, you shouldn’t just be making things and then not caring about them in some way.

Ruehlen: If they can be thrown away so easily we shouldn’t be making them to begin with.

Grigar: Or just make one, and then throw that one away, don’t make land fill. Don’t waste the earth on this stuff. And you are polluting it anyway. What can you re-make out of this? I think there are a lot of ethical issues in the things we make. I have a microwave that is going a little bad, but it still works, its just when you open the door it sounds like its microwaving, its not but its sounds like it. The plumber said, oh well just throw it away and get a new one. That was a $250 microwave we just bought five years ago, and its pretty and still function. I don’t think so. I think I can live with the sound.

The theoretical stuff, other people probably say the same things, but with the ELL its all about the rogue archives, because right now it is not a part of the University Library archives, its sitting out there. It started as an independent project that has grown into a major collection and it now the largest collection in the world of electronic literature but it’s all rogue. My database does not talk to the WSU database, it will one day, but it does not now. So there is a whole theoretical underpinning about rogue archives that I think are important. And then multimediality and when objects sit next to each other and they have this sense of liveness, how they effect each other in that liveness and that space. I am interested in that. Platform and critical code studies is a no brainer. Kate Hale’s media specific analysis: So one computer works for this work but doesn’t work for this other work, and we read it here and not there. So I do read Shelley Jackson’s CD, but I really much prefer the diskette because that is what she made it on the first time.

In terms of the MOVE lab, telematics, telebodies, and embodiment theory. When you are in that space the thing is really shocking for students is when the computer is reading your body, and you are in the VR environment or you’re in the motion tracking environment, the computer is reading you as data, you become a media of the multimedia, so you are being read as a thing amongst all the other things.

Ruehlen: Makes me think of Posthumanism, that cycle of of us communicating with something else that then creates its own knowledge base that then feeds back into us.

Grigar: Yeah, so we become 0s and 1s, we collapse into that binary along with the lighting, the robotics, the smoke machine that’s running on DMX, and its also working with the MIDI information, the visuals and the sounds—you’re just another one of those things in that space. Doesn’t mean you’re not important but it means you are a part of that participatory, collaborative environment, that’s been interesting to think about. You are here and there simultaneously, the telematics makes a lot of sense here. These are always at the heart of what I do, “Why are we making this thing, how’s it going to impact people and what do I do once its out there?” I have no control over it but at least I can preserve the copy I have got. Philosophy is divided into three sections: Natural philosophy, which is the sciences today, the theoretical, analytical philosophies, and then ethical philosophy. In the Greek period these were all the same, you couldn’t separate them. The body, the intellect, and the ethics all go together. Now we have parsed these out, and people say they don’t work together, yeah they do! They are effecting each other, they should be working together. So I don’t see them as separate things, they’re are all part of this, and at the heart of this, there is this ethical importance.

So Stuart and I produced the methodology for our work. There has never been a methodology for a mindful, intentional, preservation of interactive, multimedia works. Rhizome is doing a damn good job of archiving, but to have that methodology laid out step by step so that other people can follow you and do it too. That was what came out of “Pathfinders”. At the heart of the methodology is the “Traversal” process, so the “Traversal” is the process at which the “Pathfinders” methodology kind of turns, hinges on. So we did that. The book that documents that, and the critical piece that’s shows it literally, this is how the methodology applies, here’s how we can think about this work now. There has not been a lot of really good discussion about some of this. In comparative media studies there is this wonderful discussion about how things could look across a medium, I think about folks like Jeremy Douglas, Jessica Pressman, and Mark Marino’s work with the Reading project. But an actual methodology for looking at Judy Malloy’s, six or seven versions and actually doing a textual analysis all the way through it, so that you’re pulling out the pieces that are different and then explaining why that is important. What does it tell us about being human, what does it tell us about our culture, what does it tell us about Malloy, what does it tell us about 1980s culture?

Ruehlen: You kind of pinpointed a few things earlier in the interview; what are your ideas around best-practices, processes you are taking in the lab that others can then dovetail with what you’re doing. They may even go off in a different direction completely, but possibly some tenants you would apply?

Grigar: So record keeping is implied, where you got something from, the provenance of the machine that you bring in. Of the actual works that you are looking at, where did you get them, who gave them to you? How were they stored, where were they stored? Its interesting because I come out of the wine business, years ago I was in the business. I think its interesting to think about how things you did when you were younger, you think have no bearing on things you do when you get older. I had 150 wines in my cellar, cases of wine in my cellar. I had meticulous notes of when I would drink a wine. I have a box full of notes, “This is what the 1980 cabernet tasted like”. And taking extremely good documents of those experiences of drinking that wine, and who I was drinking with, here’s when it started, here’s where we were sitting.

Ruehlen: Its almost the exact same thing in the lab.

Grigar: It is the same thing. And applying that to this has been interesting. Keeping a record of all the things, that’s the first thing. Cause you are getting a lot of stuff, and all of a sudden inundated with all this stuff, and you need to know who gave me this and why I have two copies of this, and what happened to this copy. And then being anal-retentive; so I have been carrying around the Jackson stuff in my backpack, my school bag, because I would be going from home to school with it, generally I would never do that. If I am at school this can go back in the lab right in its space, cause who knows, I don’t want to lose it. Making sure you know where things are. Sounds like a stupid thing, but that’s just so practical.

Thirdly, its very important to having an overarching framework, what are you trying to achieve? Don’t just start collecting everything. Don’t just start trying to do everything. I was talking to some folks about a year ago, I was giving an invited talk, and they said, “You seem to be all over the place”, and I told them there was a method, an intellectual coherence, everything I do is centered on born-digital literature. I want to curate it, I want to write about it, I want to preserve it, I want to have people experience it with me. Everything I do is bent around that, and I want to make it. I may talk about curating one day, but I’ll talk about something else the next day, but they are all bent on that one thing.

The games I am interested in are literary games. The games that have a narrative, a narrative structure, Narratives like, “Beyond Eyes”. They are stories, I am interested in games that tell stories. I am not interested in “Mario Bros”. I am not interested in “Donkey Kong”. Its not that I don’t like them, but its not what I am collecting, its not what I am doing with my career. Having some sort of core and then having a philosophy that underpins that core, and then the theories sit on top of that and then the day to day management of being mindful of what you are doing and keeping a record, thats the aim. Don’t give your keys out to just anybody. I had a key out to somebody and I know there are things missing now. I am just heartsick about it. I will never do that again. I was more trusting, I am just more careful now. People check things out now.

Ruehlen: I was thinking more about your wine experience, and I am now thinking of practice-based research, its a word thrown around a lot in our program…

Grigar: Thank god its finally catching on because nobody goes, “Huh?”

Ruehlen: With the wine, I feel like being reflexive in that way, you know, when people are opening up a lab and being able to look back on their own personal history can offer so many ways in which they will act or ways of working, and maybe they will be hitting their head up against the wall and saying, “Why isn’t this working for me?” Well maybe look at the things you’ve done in your life and see if their are some clues at to why you are doing it this way and not that way, and maybe you have a friend or know somebody who does act a certain way and is good at that because they have such a tendency…

Grigar: And hire them. Let them do that thing. So I waited tables too, all through undergraduate school and graduate school. I waited on people. I have had to work and subjugate myself to people. But I also learned to be very organized. I can manage a station by myself and not get overwhelmed. And as much as that sounds goofy, I think I seldom get overwhelmed at my job. I have learned to structure things in a meticulous way so I can handle it, my house is clean all the time, its because I walk through the house and pick things up as I am doing something else. Waiting tables experience taught me how to work with administrators, you have subjugate yourself to them all the time, but how do you do this without looking like a sycophant. How do you take leadership over yourself? Take agency when you are in a situation when you are not in total control, I think administrators appreciate it, they really don’t want suck ups. They also don’t want total shrews, jerks. Saying “This isn’t working here, can you help me with this?” So learning how to do that, how to manage my time, how to not get overwhelmed by some much stuff coming at me at the same time. The other thing I learned from the wine business and tastings was how to do analysis, and at a super granular level. I got good at it. I use to judge wine competitions. I had a good palette. I could look at a wine and tell you by looking at it, that it probably was in Italy, its probably not Napa, from 1986—I could probably do that.

Ruehlen: I was a barista for a while so I got very nitpicky with every detail, the origin, the profile…

Grigar: Yeah, this has too much smoke, etc…I am that way with single malt scotches. I can tell which ones are coming from the sea side and which ones are more inland. I like them both, but I know which one is which. Being able to do that, at a very granular level, means I can look at a piece of art and say, “Here’s this piece, here’s this piece” and so I teach my students that and in my classes I tell students, “Don’t ask what something means, ask how it comes to mean what it means” How is it constructed? Why is that important? Why did Alan Bigelow decide to do “How to rob a bank”, for the iPad, which is simply a swipe experience. The interactivity is low, and there is a reason for that. its brilliant what he has done with that piece. Why did Judy Malloy make version 4 of version 3? Why did she construct the emulation of “Uncle Roger” out of “4” and “5” and not “3”? She could have and she didn’t, and for a good reason. So, asking those kind of questions and having the intellect to make some sense of it. Just the practical stuff—know what you’re are doing. And then don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go to people, I think most people, that generally 99% of the population are very nice people. And they really don’t want to see you drowning, and so they will help you if they see that you need help, in the idea that you are going to help them back. If you ask for help and then are a jerk back, then no one is going to help you again, and the word gets out—its a small community. People help each other, and don’t be afraid to go to administrators and ask for stuff, and if they say no, don’t get mad about it, just keep trying. The other thing I guess I’ll say is that nobody is just going to give some anything, you have to earn it at some level. Even if it is just writing a journal article, just do something to earn it. No one is going to give things to me because I am cute.

Ruehlen: So I have to ask, what is your 3-5 year plan(s) at this point?

Grigar: My plans for the next several years are to get the lab organized so we can make a move, and create this center or institute to really get it deeply into born digital works, and expanding into games. I want to bring in some game experts. I want some folks that know a lot about virtual realty, at the deeper gut level than I do, I have some sense of how the code works, how the programming works inside Unity to make the VR work, but Connor Goglan knows more than I do. So bring in folks like that that can come in and help. I think the methodology that Stuart and I have in place, is applicable to getting that done, now I just want to get the works documented now. I am waiting to hear back on a grant for “Pathfinders 2”. That’s the first thing on the back burner. We are going to do Michael Joyce, Stuart’s “Victory Garden” Carolyn Guyer’s “Crippling”, and we are doing Coverley’s “Califia” in the next round. So we will do another “Pathfinders” and another “Traversals”.

And then there will be another round where we will do Holton’s “Figurski at Findhorn on Acid” we are going to do Deena Larson’s “Marble Springs”, and I want to say it’s Jim Rosenberg, and one other. We are doing four more with another “Traversals”. In the mean time, we having people coming in and doing various entries, Wikipedia entries, in the next year. Then coming in and doing their own documentation work. My goal is to have at least 20 works done in the next 2-3 years. That’s a tenth of what’s in my lab right now.

Ruehlen: What makes your lab a lab? This term gets used for quite a variety of spaces these days.

Grigar: There has been lots of arguing about what makes a lab a lab and a studio a studio. Essentially I could have made MOVE a studio—art gets produced there. But I also wanted to open it up to other kinds of activities, that were not necessarily art based, such as design, and we get commissions. So we did the Mt. Saint Helens interactive exhibit at the Science Learning Center. That’s in there. So I didn’t want to be limited, so I called it a lab because a lab can embody making, right? And then the ELL is obvious but it is also a collection. So I am probably going to change the name to reflect that to Electronic Literature Lab and Library, and could change it to ELLL. That’s how I am constructing everything. Its kind of a one women show right now, but I have lots of folks, some research assistance, some tech support, I have a female student that wants to be a librarian who will be working with me in the fall, and I have the post-docs coming in. I have got Piotr Marecki coming in and Victoria Molder coming in from Canada, I have folks coming in and it gives it life. James O’Sullivan was in there, from Ireland.

Ruehlen: Something we have been talking about, separating the idea of what makes a lab from a studio is this idea, at least in the sciences, of seeing the lab as it’s own culture, it develops it’s own culture in some way—I am wondering if you could maybe speak a little bit about what your culture looks like.

Grigar: John Barber and I also had a gallery down town for the longest time. There were studios inside for the artists. and we used our studio as a gallery. but the rest of the artists were by themselves working in their studios—there was no culture. They would go in, shut the door and start working. that model doesn’t work for us. Because if you are working in DH or media art, collaboration is what it is all about. So the culture for us is a making culture. Its a culture of cooperation and participation—it is collaborative. Anything goes, lets try it. Its like wildcatting. I come from Texas, so wildcatting in the oil business, is, “Lets go drill over here and see what happens”. Lets try this over here and see what happens. My students that work in the lab, even though there is protocols and rules, I am not in there watching them. They are doing their thing. They are unsupervised in there. So undergraduate students have the power to be researchers in that space. There is no hierarchy.

There can’t be hierarchy, nothing gets done if they have to ask permission for things, which sets it apart from other science labs where the lab director becomes the god of that space, there is no god in my space. Students come in and they want to do things, and I tell them to just try it and go for it. Students will check things out, I will let them take things. It is nice because they get a chance to experiment and play—its a play space. At the same time I want to have an intellectual discussion about it. There is on large table, a seminar table where this all happens. All the preservation work and video taping happens in the middle of this big mess, and every one talks.

So if you are going to go in that room and sit at that table you have to participate. If you want silence you have to go to the edges where the computers are and work there. It follows the same principles of our program, of the CMBC program. The last one is, “Embrace your failures”—don’t be afraid to screw up. If you do make a mistake, or something doesn’t work the way you want it to work, that’s ok. Then write it up and make sure other people don’t do it, or maybe let someone else try and they will make it work. The main one though is that the computer is not a tool for what we do, the computer is what we do—it is the medium in which we work. Its not going to help me make, it is what I am making.

That is a fundamental, philosophical shift from what a lot of artists use technology. A lot of my digital technology friends use post production stuff, photoshop, to enhance their photos. That’s not where they work, their work is happening on paper. For us there is no paper. Its all digital. That’s rule number one for us. The other one that’s important for us is that making is not separate from thinking. I get really mad when I hear people say, “Well my work is more rigorous because I am doing more theoretical works”—no it’s not. The act of making takes high intelligence, to see things that no one else has made before. It is one thing to look at Mondrian and say I can make this red square and some yellow over here, but no one did it until he did it—he was the first to do it. That is an intellectual leap that is huge! If you can do that then that’s rigorous thinking, so I usually slap people around when they say that sort of stuff. There are two MFAs on our faculty and three PhDs, but four of us are artists, and only one of us isn’t an artist, everybody else is. We all make something. Even the guy that is not making something, I make him sit through discussions on making. We are making culture.

Interview with Jason Pace, Executive director of Digital Future Lab at University of Washington Bothell

  1. What is your lab called and where is it?

Digital Future Lab (DFL), University of Washington Bothell (Bothell, Washington).

  1. What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

DFL is an interactive media production studio developing narrative experiences and non-violent video games, and offering internships in coding, narrative design, game mechanic/systems/level design, project management, art & animation, marketing, and other disciplines. The focus of the lab, however, is on student professional development and modeling the power of what we refer to as “transformational diversity” to make teams and products more innovative and inclusive. We use game development as our sandbox because it brings together such a wide range of disciplines and allows students from all university majors and programs to deeply participate in R&D without requiring extensive domain expertise.

Research has shown the many benefits of diverse teams, but that research isn’t necessarily translating into business practice. DFL recruits to maximize diversity across the widest possible spectrum (including typical markers such as race and gender, and adding neurodiversity, educational background, and many other forms of difference).

DFL has perhaps one of the most diverse teams in the technology industry, and we apply theoretical content drawn from queer & feminist sources to our culture and team development. Students are expected to actively interrogate issues of race, class, gender, and ability as those concepts relate to the work they produce in the lab. DFL models intersectional approaches to equity and inclusion and has seen exceptional results (e.g., DFL was only the second university studio to meet the quality bar for Microsoft’s Independent Developers Program).

  1. Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for artists, for seminars?

DFL is primarily used by undergraduate and graduate student interns.

  1. What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?

DFL produces both original commercial IP (we recently launched our first game Ghostlight Manor on the Steam distribution platform and will soon release an updated multiplayer version as a Microsoft Windows 10 app store release). Proceeds from the sale of the game are split between the program (funding paid student positions, purchasing equipment) and the students who contributed to the project (we use a points-based system  to determine student profit sharing that includes length of service and type of contribution).

Most of our projects originate as research prototypes designed to teach introductory programming concepts to high school and university students. This work has been published in journals such as the IEEE journal Computer and featured at conferences such as SIGCSE and FDG.

We’ve also begun operationalizing our approach to diversity and creating workshop content to help academic colleagues and industry leaders integrate transformational principles into their daily cultures and hiring practices.

  1. Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?

It’s important that our highly diverse teams are able to work together in the same physical space to develop the exceptional interpersonal skills required to execute high-level tasks while they’re also building domain competence. DFL is located in a secure 1000 sq. ft. studio in a central location on campus and can be accessed by interns 24×7. There are currently about 50 student interns working in the lab and our space can hold a max of 25 at a time (we’ve capped student participation at 50 due to space and staffing constraints).

  1. What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)

The lab has historically been funded by institutional grants, although we’re working to move to a self-sustaining model via external grants and donors.

  1. What are your major theoretical touchstones?

The development work in the lab draws from a broad theoretical base that includes fields ranging from human-centered design to digital poetics, but all work is conducted under the umbrella of intersectional feminism.

7a. Going off of that, your lab seems deeply committed to social justice, equity, and inclusivity. Can you speak to this? How has this affected how your lab functions and the kinds of work your lab produces?

This could be a very long answer. Because intersectional feminism guides the culture of the lab and informs the work we do, we’re a very unique place; the lab values relationships over transactions, and we envision a very different work life that prioritizes kindness, compassion, and collaboration over competition, profit, and shareholder value. The fact that we’re delivering commercial products in an industry that actively rewards toxic competition and devalues kindness and compassion means we also need to ensure our interns are fully prepared for the reality they’re going to face when they start their careers, but also that they feel empowered to fight for change. As for the work we produce: as one example, our art team is designing a female-identified character for a new science-fiction themed game who’s the captain of a space ship and happens to also be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman; the student character design lead identifies as a black woman and she’s working with our Muslim Student Union to ensure the character’s representation is both authentic and respectful. We’re making the world we want to live in.

Work in the lab is hard and things move very quickly (we always have looming production deadlines, we’re constantly demoing work at conferences, speaking on industry panels, etc.), but our attrition rate is almost unbelievably low (we have some interns who have stayed with the lab for their entire undergraduate careers).

  1. What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?

Our game Ghostlight Manor has been in production for over 3 years and over 100 students have contributed to its development; Ghostlight Manor has been used in interaction design research projects, it’s being used to teach programming, it’s currently available as a commercial title, etc.). While the game’s success is a significant accomplishment, student outcomes speak more directly to the lab’s mission: our alumni are highly recruited and working in a wide range of industries (including design consultancies, journalism, and throughout the technology industry) and many are actively involved in bringing the principles of transformational diversity to their companies. I believe the work the lab is doing to advance equity and inclusion in the technology industry will have a tangible impact on our region.

  1. Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?

Our 3-5 year plan is focused on long-term funding that allows us to become more self-sustaining, expanding access (we can only accommodate a fraction of the students who are interested in participating), and diversifying the types of experiences we create (we’ve recently begun exploring other kinds of interactive narratives and there’s a desire to do more experimental creative work).

  1. What makes your lab a lab?

The work of the lab advances human knowledge in a number of areas, including the human-computer interaction research we conduct (particularly relating to accessibility), the techniques we’re developing to increase cultural competence on production teams, and the work we do to validate the benefits of intersectional approaches to diversity as they apply to innovation efforts.

 

An Interview with Marcelo Fontoura of Ubilab at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul

1) What is your lab called and where is it?
Our lab is called Ubilab, a short name for Laboratory for Research on Mobility and Media Convergence (or Laboratório de Pesquisa em Mobilidade e Convergência Midiática in Portuguese). It’s located at PUCRS, a catholic university in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, and started its activities in 2011.

2) What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
In terms of areas, we are focused on mobile communications and Internet of Things from a media convergence perspective. These areas are connected to the Social Communication’s School, so we research them through a ‘lens’ of the media studies. Usually, our projects involve companies asking us to try to understand how a new technology can help them, in an applied fashion. Thus, we usually try to delve into the company’s context and generate reports on opportunities and good practices they can follow. In some researches we also help to produce actual products to reach specific goals, such as how to communicate with lower classes through mobile, how to use IoT devices to improve in-store experiences, or how to make a multimedia assistant for a radio station. In cases like this, we help their partners offering our know-how about the relations between information consumers and technology.

3) Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
It is a space mainly for researchers to do their tasks for the lab. The goal is to be like a co-working space, where you can use the lab’s tools and structure to develop our researches. We also use it for meetings with members and with partner companies. Actually, our staff is composed by four professors, one PhD student, one MsC candidate and three undergraduate students.

4) What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?
For our partners, we produce reports, guides and keynotes on select subjects. Generally, we gather all the insights and findings we had and published papers or present them at conferences. We have a website and a Facebook page where we highlight our researches and partnerships.

5) Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
Yes, we have two rooms inside the university’s tech park. The main one is a twin room, where we have some computers, an Apple TV and other gadgets. This is a space for discussion and traditional work, where we even have a small museum of old technologies. The other is more like a workshop, with two 3D printers, IoT devices, Virtual Reality headsets and a drone. Both are always available for our researchers.

6) What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)
We receive institutional grants and support from our university. We also work with private partnerships, in specific projects. So far, we have worked with around 5 companies/universities in developing projects/ideas. We use the money to hire professors as researchers, interns and gear. In the past, some professors received grants from the government to develop two games to foster local Creative Industry.

7) What are your major theoretical touchstones?
We tend to be guided by authors such as Henry Jenkins and his idea of convergence, William Mitchell, for his ideas of living cities and connected environments. Also, Pierre Levy and Nicholas Negroponte, with their early writings on cyberculture and internet culture are important influences.

8) What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date
In 2016, two professors from Ubilab presented the results from a research at the World Association of Newspapers Congress. The Lab is filiated to the Global Alliance for Media Innovation, and the research regarded a state of the art of media labs at the Americas. It was a great moment for showing the lab’s research to the world. Another moment was in 2013, when the lab developed a ‘second screen system’ for a news station, in partnership with a big media group from Brazil, placing an additional layer of information online for the live streaming. The work generated our first patent, one of the few ones generated by a Social Communications School in Brazil.

9) Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?
In this period, we hope to achieve more partnerships with even more companies. We also want to develop more researches where we can build products, enabling companies to better understand their audiences and use technology to that end. Besides, our goal is to have a deeper presence in our university, possibly doing partnerships with other colleges, such as tech and engineering.

10) What makes your lab a lab?
We work with projects which we don’t know if they’re going to succeed. Even when we work together with private companies, our goal is not only to create something, or develop a strategy, although those certainly are our objectives, but also to understand a given technology or context of use. In short, it’s creating solutions while also trying to understand scenarios of communication and technology.

An Interview with Daniel Fetzner of the Laboratory of Media Ecology

Ambient technologies such as smartphones create novel environmental references between people, nature and technology. In the Laboratory of Media Ecology (LME) at the University of Applied Sciences Offenburg, we examine these structures in theory and practice in the form of experimental setups and text work.

1)   What is your lab called and where is it?
Our lab is called »Media Ecology Lab« (LME) and is situated at Offenburg University/Germany

2)   What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
In our work we focus on artistic research in the context of the media ecological discourse. As media is embedded in specific social, spatial and narrative situation the context matters and creates diverse entanglements that we explore. We try to consider technology not as an end in itself.

The focus of the LME is on space installations, interactive film, 360° video and performing arts. Through the mediation of theoretical and practical foundations from the fields of media art, media science, media informatics, media phenomenology, graphics programming and physical computing, we support and accompany student explorations. Depending on the application field, sensor data from the immediate environment, data from the internet or generative values are used.

3)   Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
The LME is intensively used by our students and researchers. We also use it as an experimental framework during our interdisciplinary conferences in the fields of media, somatics, dance and philosophy. The purpose of our use of technology is speculative and aiming at the exploration of our senses. »How does it feel« is a leading question.

4)   What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?
Interactive media installations, interactive webdocumentaries, 360° video and sound apps, smartphone apps, articles, books, videos. The development of the applications is accompanied by a media phenomenological approach, in order to explore the designed ecologies artistically. The focus is on questioning the meshwork of storytelling, transmediality and interaction.

5)   Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
Besides of Adobe CC we are mainly using Max/MSP/Jitter, processing, klynt and WondaVR. We have several 360° cameras and a surround sound panel of 8 Genlecs, Oculus Rift and Google VR. The LME is closely intertwined with our TV studio, the sound and video lab of the faculty.

6)   What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)
Mainly government and institutional grants.

7)   What are your major theoretical touchstones?
Jakob v. Uexküll, Marshall McLuhan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman.

8)   What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?
The current artistic research projects BUZZ (2014/15) and WASTELAND (2016/17).

9)   Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?
After setting up a high tech and expensive lab called »Media Synthesis Lab« (MSL) at Furtwangen University I deliberatley want to work with mobile and consumer technology – made good experiences with that.

10)  What makes your lab a lab?
The people, the encounterments, technical devices, books and a faulty coffee machine.

An Interview with Mark Algee-Hewitt, Director of the Stanford Literary Lab

Hillary Susz, MFA Candidate at CU Boulder, Interviews Mark Algee-Hewitt, Director of The Stanford Literary Lab

  1. What is your lab called and where is it?

The lab is called “The Stanford Literary Lab,” and it is located at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California.

  1. What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

Our focus is primarily on the quantitative, and computational, analysis of texts in order to speak to questions of Literary critical or historical interest. In terms of our methodologies, we work with a variety of different text mining, NLP and otherwise quantitative approaches depending on the needs of the given project. Chronologically, our work ranges from the Medieval period, to contemporary writing. But, what unites the research of the Literary Lab is our primary focus on the Literary critical questions that we seek to answer through this range of methodologies. That is, our projects and studies are rarely inspired by a technology or method, but rather, seek to find (or create) appropriate methods for the Literary critical and historical concepts that we research. Although most of our work has been on corpora that are specifically Literary (whether prose or poetry), recent projects have begun incorporating other kinds of texts into our analyses.

Can you clarify what you mean by critical or historical interests? What are the critical questions you seek to answer? What are examples of projects that explore these questions and interests? 

What really drives the lab as a research group are concepts that are important to us as humanists. Most of us are literary scholars, so that takes different forms based on the questions we want to explore. Some of us deal with critical theory—representations of gender or exploring the discourse of race in American fiction. Some of us take a more formalist approach—the shape and form of narrative or how word patterns change across texts. We seek to understand the function of literary texts in a historical context. A lot of our projects deal with synchronic structures in the world, even if they don’t change over time.

  1. Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for artists, for seminars?

The question of ‘use’ is a complicated one. The membership of the lab includes a few faculty from primarily English and History, two staff research positions, a diverse population of graduate students, undergraduate researchers, and a handful of outside scholars. The lab space is used for meetings among members of various projects, and for our group lab meetings that we hold four or five times a quarter. We have held seminars there as well. All members of the lab, but only members of the lab, have free use of the space for their individual needs. A different way, however, to think about the question of ‘use’ lies in the role that the lab plays within the English department and the larger university community. As the only group of our kind at the university, we provide intellectual support for a variety of scholars across campus, the country, and around the world. Our members become members not through recruitment, but because they are interested in the kind of work that we do, because they have questions that can best be answered through computational means and because they seek collaborators for projects that are potentially interesting to the other members of the lab. A faculty member, a graduate student, or an outside researcher, who comes to us to collaborate on a project all ‘use’ the lab in different ways (for intellectual support, to find like-minded researchers, do discuss their findings), but all share in our resources and contribute to the whole. When I say that the resources and facilities of the lab are only available for use by members of the lab, it is this capacious type of membership that I have in mind.

  1. What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?

The primary knowledge production of the lab lies in its contribution to research and scholarship on Literary history and criticism. Our findings are disseminated primarily through our pamphlet series. The pamphlets were a deliberate choice on the part of the lab as they are all reviewed and edited, but they give us freedom, both in form and in style, to discuss the experiments, findings and process of our research in a form that is designed for this type of work. They vary widely in length, but are all image-heavy and often narrate the process of experimentation and discovery that is essential to our research. In fact, we have an outside designer who puts together the pamphlets to ensure that their content is displayed clearly and effectively.

While the results of our various research projects are the chief form of knowledge that we produce, our experiments have side-effects, in the form of new methods and datasets that our new blog, Techne, is designed to disseminate. In course of projects, some participants also seek to gain a greater knowledge of the methods that we employ. To answer this need, we also run a weekly working group that offers our members and visitors a forum for learning about our research process and to gain competency in the necessary technical skills so that they can contribute to future lab projects.

Can you provide an explanation or example of “new methods and datasets?”

When we start a project, we have questions that we want to explore and test. We do so to greater or lesser success, but those results get written up in pamphlet serious. But some projects, like our project on poetry – the history of metrical change — we wound up writing a program that parses poetic meter—syllables per line and syllabic schemes, which was not the overall goal but was a necessary step along the way. Meter is an interesting concept. Throughout history, meter has never been perfect or exact. Which is interesting insight into changes of poetic form. Those kind of results are side effects to what we intended to do. Now people can use the technology and methods that we created along the way for their own projects.

We have a project on race on identity that looks at how various identities are ensued in American novels. We’ve looked at thousands of novels and have generated much more data than we could ever use. There are so many interesting things to study, like tracking names of Native American tribes. We invite academics from all over the world to participate in and use this this overflow data. In May we are inviting twelve scholars who study race and ethnicity with the hope that they’ll be able to take our data and use for their own research. We want to send our overflow information that is generated here lose in the wild and create things we couldn’t. We hope our projects will have an afterlife.

  1. Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?

There are three aspects to our infrastructure, which all both equally essential: space, personnel, and technology. Without any one of these, the lab could not be successful.

For space, we have a designated room in the English department (the “Literary Lab”), where we hold our lab meetings, and also our various smaller project meetings. It has facilities for projecting multiple images simultaneously, as well as video-conferencing equipment All of our lab meetings have a significant ‘virtual’ attendance, as our various collaborators (past, current, and future) join our meetings via a live stream that we broadcast. The room is not large (it holds a conference table, about 20 chairs, and a computer workstation. The Literary Lab is also a founding member of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA). This umbrella organization provides administrative support for a number of different projects and groups on campus (including the Spatial History Project, Text Technologies, Humanities+Design, the Poetic Media Lab, etc.). CESTA is located on the top floor of Wallenberg Hall, where it has an open office plan, with multiple conference rooms. We have working space for our permanent staff, as well as temporary space for visitors there. It also has facilities large enough to host more sizeable meetings (upwards for 30). Although we make use of these shared facilities, it is also essential for us to have the unique lab space in the English department (for both disciplinary and infrastructural reasons).

Does “disciplinary and infrastructural reasons” refer to increasing credibility for the lab? Can you expand on why it’s necessary to attach the lab to the English department?

It’s not a credibility issue. It’s intellectually necessary. The lab emerged as a literary lab. As much as we deal with texts that aren’t literary, the way we handle them are contingent on our training. The heart of the lab is in the English department. It encourages greater collaboration with our colleges and grounds us in literary studies.

The lab is on the fourth floor of our English department building and is kiddy corner to the graduate student lounge. I feel like this has been crucial to the lab’s history. We’ve been having meetings with the door open, allowing and inviting a graduate students to take interest and poke their head in and see what’s going on. Access to the faculty and graduate students gives us materiality with the department and encourages collaboration, whereas if we only had space in library, I think it would give the impression that it’s a separate thing entirely and not open to outsiders. Our collaborations tend to be primarily in literary studies.

Our personnel are perhaps more crucial than our space. In addition to me, we have a Technical Director (David McClure, who does a lot of computational infrastructural work), an Assistant Director (Hannah Walser, who takes on many project management duties), a graduate student coordinator (Erik Fredner, who manages the website, takes care of logistics and manages most communications-related tasks) and two financial administrators through our association with CESTA (Amita Kumar and Rani Sharma). David, Hannah and Erik also participate in the research of the lab: in many ways, that is the most important part of their respective positions.

Computationally, we have access to Stanford’s high-performance computing cluster. Although many of our experiments take place on smaller scales, with relatively few texts (numbering in the hundreds or thousands), recently, our corpora have scaled up dramatically as new text collections have become available (we now routinely work with tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of texts). For projects on this scale, access to a computing cluster is essential.

  1. What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)

We have pieced together a number of different resources over the years. Much of our early work depended on the resourcefulness and energy of a small group of researchers, particularly Franco Moretti, whose vison and tireless efforts brought the lab into being. Matt Jockers was also responsible for laying down the initial infrastructure of the lab, as well as providing many important early research contributions. But, all of this was done very locally and without much institutional or grant-based support. In fact, CESTA was founded as an attempt to unite a number of disparate groups so that they could act in concert to secure funding. But, it is important to recognize that much of the early work was done without some crucial financial support.

Currently, our situation has improved, and we have a variety of sources of funding, although it still lacks the long-term stability that we require. We hold federal and international grants, both on our own, and with collaborators. These frequently fund travel and temporary salaries, but they do not answer the long-term needs of the lab. Much of our infrastructure funding comes from the University and responds to our early successes, and yet even this is temporary. And we have a small number of private donors who have given to the lab or to specific projects that interest them.

Jeffrey Schnapp recently visited our class and spoke about the creation of the lab. He actually attributes his decision to leave to the over-involvement of Stanford’s institutional influence. He said something like, “When you become part of the institution, you have to learn to speak the language of the institution.” According to him, Stanford’s influence in the lab undercuts creativity and collaboration. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree?

 He’s right insofar as that statement. There is an institutional bias because of funding. When you’re granting, apply for funding, there’s a very particular language you need to speak. We’ve received funding from Stanford but also from Melo grants, Fulbright Fellowship, NEH funding and Canadian granting. We have a variety institutional foot prints. The lab has also changed a lot since Jeff was here. The early lab was very tied to the English department – When Maretti was working with Jockers they were very streamlined and worked on one project at a time. When I — someone from the outside came to the lab– a lot changed. In 2012 I was the first outside person to work closely with the data. Now we regularly invite outsiders to join in our scholarship. We have a group from Paris, Peruvians from Vestaburg doing projects on micro novels, a group from the Netherlands coming in June. Although the lab is embedded in Stanford, we haven’t allowed it to diminish creativity with one foot firmly planted in the international digital humanities community.

There are clear advantages to being anchored in a university, part of is hard and soft money. The university gives us the space to bring visiting staff and scholars. I do hear what Jeff says. If one becomes too embedded institutionally, it can disable creativity.  

  1. What are your major theoretical touchstones?

Certainly Franco Moretti’s work is quite literally foundational to the Literary Lab. Not only did he found it, and direct the majority of its research, but many of our collaborators and members came to the lab because they were interested in Moretti’s approach. When I decided to join the lab in 2012, I did so because I was deeply intellectually sympathetic to his research and was eager for the chance to work with him. Again, both he and I consciously prioritize our research questions over the methodological approaches emphasized by many other organizations. As such, the influences on our work are more likely to be cultural or literary scholars. When we work across disciplines, we often find ourselves looking to other fields of research, rather than engineering. That is, we have explored methods that first appeared in linguistics, anthropology or biology more often than we have sought out specifically computer science approaches.

  1. What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?

This is difficult question, as I think it is one that needs to be asked of the field as a whole. Even our findings, which speak to traditional humanities-based research, are not easily integrated into the body of knowledge of Literary Studies, History, etc. They are, I would argue, fundamentally different, and so their impact is more difficult to assess. From a local perspective, judging from our past research work, I would argue that pamphlets 4 (“The Semantic Cohort Method”), 6 (“Operationalizing”) and 11 (“Canon/Archive”) are among the more significant contributions of the lab to the field of both Literary Studies and Digital Humanities. But, in many ways, pamphlet 1 (“Quantitative Formalism”) set a model for what a literary lab could be and do that, although still being modified, refined and improved by others, still created a standard model for many other organizations.

  1. Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?

Plans like these depend a great deal on the status of the field and, more materially, the status of our own resources. It is still an open question, I think, whether or not the field of Digital Humanities, or even specifically quantitative or computational research in the Humanities, will become more integrated into the practice of the Humanities within their disciplinary categories, or if it will begin to fission off into a distinct field of research in and of itself. Given our own research, I hope that it is the former, as I feel our focus on Literary Study grounds the work that we do. But, it would be naïve to say that the direction of the field would not have an effect on how the lab grows and develops.

Our research has begun to branch out from the literary formalism that has characterized much of the work of Digital Humanities to this point an I am eager to continue building on this. We have projects that deal with issues of both gender and ethnic representation in Literary texts currently awaiting publication. Much of our current work seeks to capture more aspects of the reader experience (whether through reading studies, or mining other kinds of textual resources). And we are actively collaborating with scholars in Political Science, Biology and Linguistics to bring the methods that we have developed for Literary research to these diverse fields.

On the material side, the lab has reached a crucial stage of its growth. It has become too large and too ambitious for any one person to completely manage its work. And yet, our infrastructure funding is still tenuous, and so my most immediate goal is to secure funds to maintain our current work, and infrastructure, with the possibility that we will be growing well into the future, if not at quite the exponential pace of the past few years.

Finally, it is widely acknowledged that there is an issue of diversity among the practitioners of the Digital Humanities, both in gender and in ethnicity. While this is a much larger conversation that is just now beginning to happen across the field, it is something that we in the lab are quite aware of. As such, we work to foster an environment of diversity and inclusiveness which we will continue to build upon as we grow. Our recent projects are a testament to these concerns and interests, and represent the research work of our members. We are therefore eager to continue expanding our research in these areas.

  1. What makes your lab a lab?

The easy answer to this would be to look at the formal characteristics of the lab and relate it to similar labs in the natural sciences. Or to discuss the role of technology in our work, which differs from how technology has made its way into traditional literary scholarship, and create a metaphorics of the laboratory based on that. Instead, however, I think the real answer lies in two directions: experiment and collaboration.

Do you believe that calling your space a “lab” is a classification that brings credibility to your work?

If anything, it almost undercuts credibility from the science perspective. We want to be in conversation other disciplines in higher education. We’ve worked with the sciences but are not necessarily mimicking their practices. Biology is a real lab. What we have is not really a lab. It’s more of a metaphorical lab, and therefore does not lend any credibility from sciences.

The title of “lab” is more concerned with the process of research, which is collaborative and experimental. A lab is a research space. Some are called centers, which performs a different function. Centers are where things happen. A lab is where people do things.

At any given time we have a rotating cask of projects. I can’t speak for the larger humanities movement, but a lab is a particular kind of intellectual space that resonates with the work being done.

What sets our work apart from that of the traditional humanities scholar is our commitment to experimentation. While we often have a hypothesis about the result of an analysis, we are steadfast in our commitment to judge the hypothesis based on the results that we achieve (rather than to design analyses to confirm or deny our initial suspicions). We may start a project with a question (What differentiates the canon from the archive? What causes suspense?) but as we create and discuss results, reformulate experiments, and iterate our methods over new materials, the question is more often reshaped by our results, than our results are shaped purely by our question. Each of our projects has about a two-year time horizon: most of this time is spent in the discussion of results and in argumentation over their interpretation. The form of our pamphlets both narrate and perform this process: this is a large part of their stated goal. We discuss our initial ideas and questions, the processes we use to test or operationalize them, the interpretation of our results and follow-up experiments and, most importantly, our failure, frustrations, and dead ends. As opposed to a purely Literary study based on a close reading analysis, we begin a project with a question, but with no sense of what we will find. Our tenth pamphlet (“On Paragraphs”) began with a search for the middle ground of computational literary analysis and ended, much to our surprise, with an argument on the paragraph as the formal unit of thematics. This dedication to experimentation, this willingness to test, to re-test, to be wrong and to have to justify our conclusions through evidence, make the Literary Lab, a lab in the best sense of the word.

Equally important though, is the process of collaboration. Bruno Latour, in Laboratory Life, speaks of the nature of facts that are ‘constituted through microsocial phenomena.” If our process is one of experimentation, then our method is one of agreement, disagreement, of argument, discussion and ultimately, hopefully, convergence. It is crucial that we deal in empirical data, but the questions of which empirical data are important, and which interpretation contextualizes them within the framework of the question we seek to answer, these are elements of our process that depend upon the collaborative nature of our work. Unlike the closed circle of literary study, whose conversations occurs at the level of the discipline after publication, our results, conclusions and knowledge production, rests upon the multiple daily and hourly interactions that are facilitated and enabled by the lab.

An interview with Neal White of the Office of Experiments

Neal White runs the Office of Experiments that is a research platform that “works in the expanded field of contemporary art.” The Office employs methods of fieldworks and works with a range of partners including scientists, academics, activists and enthusiasts, and described as exploring “issues such as time, scale, control, power, cooperation and ownership, highlighting and navigating the spaces between complex bodies, organisations and events that form part of the industrial, military, scientific and technological complex.” He is also Professor at Westminster University, London.

This interview, conducted via email in June and July 2016, was set in the context of the What is a Media Lab-project and aims to address the questions of artistic practice, labs and the (post)studio as an environment of critical investigations of technological and scientific culture. Another interview with Neal White, conducted by John Beck, is published in the new edited collection Cold War Legacies (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

1) Can you start by describing what the Office of Experiments does? I am interested in its institutional form in the sense also Gilles Deleuze talks of institutions as “positive models for action” in contrast to law being a limitation on action. The Office also carries the legacy of modern institutional form par excellence – not the artist’s studio with its romantic connotations, not the laboratory either with its imaginary of science, but the office as an organizational site. Why an office?

The Office of Experiments makes art through a process of collaboration in which all of those who undertake research, make or apply thinking to a project can be credited. We bring together artistic forms of research with experimental and academic research in the field, undertaking observational analysis, archival research, road trips, building platforms and prolonged formal visual studies that reflect the complexity of the subjects we approach. Our approach is to build a counter rational analysis or account of the world in which we live. To move this away from any poetic vision, we draw on ideas from conceptual art, and disciplines such as geography and science studies, architecture and political activism, as well as looking at physical space, data, and the material layer which connects the observatories, global sensors etc of our contemporary world; the interface between the technological and material world.

Having some formative education in Digital Arts, an MA in 1997 and then running a successful art and technology group in Shoreditch, London, in late nineties and up to 2001 (Soda), my experiences collaborating with others was critical to how I work now, and the work of others that interests me. As I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab, and to set up an independent contemporary art practice, that moved across spaces, enclosures, archives, in and out of galleries, often working in situ, and which was networked, I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.

Having opened conversations with John Latham in 2002-3, the now late British artist, I was introduced to Artist Placement Group. I was strongly influenced at this point both by Latham’s ideas of time/temporality (as applied to institutions) as well as incidental practices, and I applied those in an instituent form (Raunig) as Office of Experiments. The Office was therefore the solution to working collaboratively as an artist in a critical way, so that credit would be spread, and all those collaborating within each project get something out – whether as art or as an academic output/text, relevant to their individual discipline.

I was attracted to the term Office initially as it holds some idea of power, when thinking of a government department or Bureau, but is also instrumental – something that I felt was and is increasingly asked of art (evaluating audiences for funding etc). However, Office alone does not work, it is too close to that which it is critical of, so it is only when used with the term experiment, and the ideas of experimental systems (Rheinberger), which were also key to my work at this time, that an agonistic dichotomy comes to the fore. This works for me, as we could say the terms are counter-productive, the name undermines itself linguistically (i.e. As Robert Filliou put it “Art is what makes life so much better than Art’). In this respect, it serves the ideas that shape our research, to create a form of counter-enquiry that can hold to account the rational logic of hard scientific enquiry, ideas of progress, the ethical spaces of advanced industry and science.

2) The link to post-studio practices and discourse is a thread that runs through the projects. Can you talk a bit more about the other sorts of institutional spaces or experiments in and with regulated spaces such as the laboratory that your work has engaged in?

To give some concrete examples, OoE was founded when working on an experimental platform, which was based on the design of a planetary lander, but we designed it for ‘on earth’ exploration; Space on Earth Station (2006), with N55 (DK). Later, OoE challenged the ethical space of clinical research in a project that used restricted drugs to explore ‘invasive aesthetics; The Void’ in which participants urine is turned blue. Our aim to move the site of the artwork to inside the body. We then explored the history of psychopharmacology and the use of so-called ‘truth serums’ in psychology of torture by the US military. More recently the Overt Research project made visible and navigable the concealed sites, laboratories, infrastructures, networks and logistical spaces of the UK’s knowledge complex, part military, part techno-scientific, a post-industrial complex. In Frankfurt, Germany, OoE acquired a piece of network infrastructure, – a cell phone tower in the shape of a palm tree, whilst we researched quantum financial trading networks and conspiracy theories based around Frankfurt itself. Currently, we are working on data from a globally distributed seismic sensor used to monitor the test ban treaty on nuclear weapons, and have used the data (which is not straightforward to acquire) from this vast instrument to create resonant physical audio experiences around what we call hyper-drones. In many of the cases, projects lead to engagements with society and the public on subjects of concern, whilst also providing tools, resources and shared knowledge with other researchers, enthusiasts and artists.

3) Considering art history and history of science, the studio and the lab can be seen as two key spaces of experimentation and the experiment, following their own routes but in parallel tracks as well. Does a similar parallel life apply to the post-studio, and the post-lab in contemporary context? In your view, what are the current forms that define the lab?

Starting with any lab today, we could perceive a hyper-structure (Morton) – that is a lab networked to other lab space, and not something discrete or visible as an observable object in the singular. To this extent, labs are also entry points connecting physical and digital layers; they reveal regulatory and permission based cultures in which ethics, health and safety, security and received opinion (Latham)/knowledge assert control. The idea of a lab therefore for art or media art, with any kind of techno-scientific logic not only implies but actually enforces limits (Bioart so often falls down in these terms). Whilst a studio gives an artist working within the constraints of their ability/media a private space to think and work, I find both underline both certain kinds of limits and a tradition of building through a controlled approach to both the experiment and experimentation.

In terms of the post-studio / lab, the ‘social’ (Latour) framing of art in the contemporary field of relations, social engagements and critical practices, experiments are produced through a scale of 1;1, but are also modelled in new ways. So this implies, that we not only need to find a new way to work, but to be present somewhere/somehow else.

So, if Office of Experiments projects explore space and time as dimensions of practice, then it is reflective of these shifts, being made up of a group or number of individuals, we are arguably post-studio in form. Where we might be sited is fluid too, but we do share an enthusiasm for working together by being situated in fieldwork, exploring places and non-sites, as well as complex infrastructures, some which are legally ‘out of bounds’ or ‘off limits’. So we have often worked together to produce platforms for research in the field that include methods as much as architectural projects, as well as resources such as archives and databases, to enable our activities to take place.

Whilst the work we have produced is shown inside leading galleries internationally, as performances, video, visual artwork and installation, we have also produced a number of bus tours, installations, temporary monuments and projects beyond these enclosures, in public space, the landscape or framed by urban and suburban life. So the spaces, or non-sites we work in are also the places in which we exhibit the work, including across media – on the scale of 1:1.

However, the idea of a scale of 1:1 I have wrestled with since reading Rheinbergers work on experimentation, as you could argue that it does not apply to the non-material word we inhabit. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, I have been looking at contemporary forms of production, rather than simply experiments, to think about or challenge these models of working as an artist in a social or collaborative context. For example, what happened in the lab can now be modelled inside the computer, across the network etc. And what was fabricated in the studio for the gallery, can be outsourced and produced by artisans to a better standard, or scanned, modelled and printed, for display across a range of spaces, real or not.

Art has therefore been subject to de-materialisation that started in the 1960’s (see Lippard), but as with so much of late capitalism and scientific and computational processes, it is no longer simply invisible but reduced to the indivisible, distributed and then reassembled. And the site of the reassembling is multiple, as are we.

An Interview with Jason Nanna of the Synchroton Media Research Laboratory

I run the Synchroton Media Research Laboratory, located in Milwaukee, WI USA.  It is augmented by the Geographical Research Unit, a nomadic dwelling and testbed for alternative living and my personal R&D/performance activities.

At its core I view one of the primary roles of the SMRL is as an extra-institutional research/collaboration center for projects and people related to my personal fields of interest.  Located in an old factory building, it comprises a workshop and test bench for electronics design, modification and testing, and a large studio space suited to facilitating a wide variety of experimental endeavors, mostly alternative media production, forms of performance or creation that tend toward interdisciplinarity and are strongly non-traditional. It’s a direct reflection of my own attitudes toward prevailing and minor forms of creative production.

It is a loose resource network for those around me (perhaps a few dozen) with limited/nonexistent access to resources that might otherwise be provided by universities or makerspaces.  The lab stocks, accumulates, and redistributes equipment and supplies (especially electronics components and such) to people around me — in particular the group of artists that occupy or regularly work in the building in which it resides, which is a large (broadly defined) artist studio space. I do everything I can to provide technical assistance, tools, etc. to those around me.

It is personally funded – the only real support it receives is rent-compensation in exchange for my own activities managing the artist space.  I believe its continued existence for over a decade to be one of the exceptional accomplishments of this space as existing outside of those institutional opportunities(which also entail certain demands and expectations) although it is largely owing to self-sacrifice.  It is not suited towards entrepreneurship, perhaps the opposite – rather towards encouraging those things that are incapable of surviving by way of mass appeal.  I have had bad experiences with grant-based funding in the past, and prefer to pursue a course of minimal financial requirements.

Much of the ‘research’ has lately been in the realm of analog audio/visual synthesis but it is one of many meanderings.  The studio has a vast array of obsolete and obscure technology and one strong focal point is an  attempt to discover lost technologies or re-contextualize old technology to new ends – a prime example being the large array of nuclear instrumentation modules which have been at one point used to design a computerless interactive audiovisual game. Although much work is done around the lab involving the state of the art as well, I believe that one of its strong focal points is taking a critical stance to the notion that technological progress invalidates and ‘obsoletes’ old technologies.  Also, working against the sense in which media production comes as the second half of a process which first involves consumption of corporate/mass-defined tools.  A primary objective is to change the media landscape through an engagement with the tools themselves, crafting or modifying, prototyping, creating bespoke technologies, relying on and contributing to the open-source landscape.  Technological engagement at a low level rather than buying a few apps and calling oneself a ‘media artist’.  On a related note I personally find the term ‘artist’ to be problematic and I believe my problem domain to be much wider than creating aesthetic works (that perhaps include some ‘commentary’ or something).

The Geographical Survey Unit is just my own escape pod from the lab, an experiment in self-sufficiency, and it contains within it everything needed to pursue these activities on the road, deal with space & location creatively (data driven/remote/telematic stuff a current effort) and to connect with a larger group of people.  I have personally shunned many forms of broadcast or untargeted communication such as having a website, social media etc. and prefer to engage individually – which of course makes the situation even more difficult.

The knowledge produced at the lab is shared mostly tribally, with those working in the lab and engaging with it using and developing said knowledge.  Of course it influences the work they produce.  In the case of audiovisual synthesis it’s shared with practitioners on online forums, and distributed as open-hardware kits, schematics, conversations, etc.

The plans for the lab are very much up in the air at the moment.  It has increasingly become a burden to my own life and autonomy.  I’ve been the primary one to benefit from the space, and it’s shifted the space from the dream of a community-oriented space to one of my personal peculiar interests and endeavors, and has been at least as isolating as it has been connective.  The Geographical Survey Unit is the great crowbar to pry me out of that space, and try to expand my personal potential and perhaps reinvent/reinvigorate the lab.

As far as “what makes a lab a lab” and not a studio – this is a difficult question.  In my case I see it as a space which is inherently collaborative and not defined directly producing objects: process, learning, collaboration, experimentation is foregrounded, resources that extend beyond personal needs or that are truly rare or require special accommodation are shared, etc.

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