Interview by Lori Emerson
For more than a decade, Patrik Svensson has been relentlessly documenting, imagining and, now, reimagining the physical and conceptual meeting places that bring together the digital and the humanities. Svensson’s work has been at the center not only of my own work to situate the lab I run, the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), in and around the digital/humanities as well as my attempts to better attune the spatial design and infrastructure of the MAL so it becomes more welcoming to diverse approaches to research and creative practice; but it has also been at the center of the turn in digital humanities toward expanding its sense of itself as a field – an expansion that beginning to include an infrastructural sensibility along with an attention to issues previously aligned more with media studies (for example, new materialist studies) or cultural studies (for example, the politics of gender, race, and intersectionality). In the interview below, conducted over email throughout the summer and fall of 2017, you’ll find Svensson bring all the aforementioned issues together as he discusses his role as Director of HUMlab at Umeå University in Sweden from 2001 to 2014 (an astonishingly long tenure considering the relatively short life span of humanities labs in general). While he was director, HUMlab became known as one of the most elaborate, productive, and likely one of the most well funded humanities labs in North America and Europe; by the end of his tenure, it included ten faculty from across the university, fifteen staff, 1100 square meters (or roughly 11800 square feet) of lab space on two separate campuses, more than ten externally funded research projects, involvement in numerous educational efforts on and off campus, roughly twenty-five scholarly publications per year, and a network of international collaborators spanning the globe (mostly Europe and the Anglo-American world). Svensson also revisits the series of four essays he published in Digital Humanities Quarterly from 2009 to 2012 which consistently used HUMlab as a case study to, as he put it, “broadly [explore] the digital humanities in terms of its discursive shift from humanities computing to digital humanities, the evolving disciplinary landscape, associated epistemic commitments and primary modes of engagement, underlying cyberinfrastructure, visions and hopes invested, and possible future directions” (Svensson 2012). And, finally, he reflects on how his thinking on digital/humanities/infrastructure has changed and perhaps even become more expansive or sensitive to diverse participants and diverse modes of participation since he has lived in New York City and now Los Angeles.
This is one of three extended interviews my co-authors, Darren Wershler and Jussi Parikka, and I will feature in our project that is both website (whatisamedialab.com) and book (THE LAB BOOK: Situated Studies in Media Studies, University of Minnesota Press). Our book is both a long history of the arts/humanities media lab as well as an analysis of how anything – from a podcast, a reading group or an idea to even a line of men’s grooming products – is now a lab; it is also a meditation on what is or could be a uniquely humanities lab. As such, to be clear, this interview is more than just about the trajectory of Svensson as a thinker, writer and administrator; it is about documenting a particularly successful and influential moment in the recent history of humanities infrastructure en route to creating what we hope will be an important contribution to the design of humanities infrastructure in and for the future.
Emerson: You’ve written extensively and compellingly about humanities infrastructure, especially in your recent book Big Digital Humanities, and many of your points are supported by your extensive work at HUMlab at Umeå University. But I am interested in hearing, first, about experiences you might have had in arts/humanities labs before HUMlab. Can you describe your pre-HUMlab experiences with these sorts of labs and how or whether HUMlab built on or departed from these early experiences?
Svensson: I was fairly junior at the time. I had just come back after a year at UC Berkeley as a finishing Ph.D. student. I do not think I reflected on it extensively then, but one thing I brought with me from Berkeley was the excitement of really sharp dialogues and to some degree a practice of making across disciplines and areas. I spent a lot of time with the neurolinguistics community there, for example. I think I was keen to keep that level of engagement, excitement and sharpness, and HUMlab was an opportunity to do such work. My early work with HUMlab I did together with Torbjörn Johansson, who started it, but left soon.
Actually, I think some of the inspiration came along the way. We tend to think of infrastructure as finished, which is of course not the case, and something like HUMlab took 10+ years for me and my team to get together (not finished, but a major milestone, which is also when I decided I wanted to do other things). Remember too that we built two physical labs on two sites as well as an extensive institutional, digital and technological infrastructure. People who came through the lab influenced it greatly. Our postdoctoral program was instrumental in this way and also the digital art fellows that were part of that program. It is about people and conceptual-material grounding.
One important early inspiration, however, was the ACTlab at UT Austin. Torbjörn Johansson had seen ACTlab earlier I think; Sandy Stone and Samantha Krukowski also visited Umeå and I went to see the ACTlab shortly afterwards in 2001. I still look at those photos sometimes. What impressed me was the actual space, the operation and also the fact that there was an idea about how the intellectual, artistic, performative and the material-technological came together partly expressed in Sandy’s piece “On Being Trans, and Under the Radar: Tales from the ACTlab”. One key component that I took with me (and which was already part of my thinking) was the central, large table. In HUMlab those tables often turned out as seminar-like tables (used for all kinds of work though), but I recently advised a US initiative about a new lab and mentioned the rough surface of the ACTlab table then – a workshop kind of engagement. Things like that matter. HUMlab was not an art space/studio in the same way as the ACTlab, but there were clear correspondences. I think another early inspiration (again through Torbjörn) – which also demonstrates that lab building is about ideas – was the Santa Fé Institute. Although I went there once, I do not think the space itself influenced us but rather some of their ideas and key thinkers. Torbjörn was also inspired by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory in Chicago (and co-founder Dan Sandin came to visit us). When I became the director of HUMlab I took all of that with me, but I also had a particular interest in articulating and building on a strong intellectual-material engagement, and actively resisting some established models (technological and institutional). Over the years, we had lots of visitors, and also I visited environments all over the world.
In terms of technological infrastructure, one particular interest of mine is screens and screen scapes and I think these parts of HUMlab’s infrastructure were a reaction to CAVE-like environments, where you are surrounded by what is given to you and expected to be immersed. The screenscape in HUMlab-2 (an expanded area of the lab built in 2008) was in fact in some ways the opposite to a CAVE – many separated screens around, peripherally placed (allowing for the central table), and edges and frames were important etc. It was also about interrogating things like attention, orientation, perspectives, multiplexitivty and context. I also think HUMlab was a reaction to standardized lab spaces at the time. I had worked with some computer labs at the School of Humanities and we had also struggled to find adequate spaces and platforms to do early projects such as the Virtual Wedding Project. Torbjörn and I both thought it was important to have accessible, multi-functional spaces that could accommodate unplanned meetings and creative, non-controlled work, and that also had the best technology (not necessarily off the shelf) available. We wanted to have a friendly space with a great team, where (as I say in Big Digital Humanities) curatorship and empowerment were important strategies. I also have a strong personal interest in architecture, lamps, rugs and other things that co-developed with HUMlab (to the degree that I had one of the designer lamps in the lab – a Louis Poulsen Collage 600 in pink – at home too, which was somewhat uncomfortable – you do not want too much overlap).
Much of the early work was based on my and others’ interest in creating a meeting place for the humanities, culture and information technology. We wanted key intellectual discussions and technological explorations (small and large) to happen in the lab, and we wanted some of the best people of the world to be around for some of those discussions – often physically, but we also experimented consistently with different types of remote participation. This shaped the design of the lab and here an important source of inspiration was progressive humanities center-like institutions (although I did not know about them when I started at HUMlab, I now think of them as related infrastructures). I also worked very closely with architects and interior decorators from early on – this was one way I learned that I cared about the small details as well as the larger context of humanities labs. I started to write up material-intellectual sketches from the very beginning as a document I could use together with experts and stakeholders in building processes, and this is a practice I have continued to develop over the years. Such work must build on extensive conversations with people inside and outside the operation and it must consider goals, visions, challenges and material opportunities while having a clear direction.
Emerson: What do you think characterizes a unique humanities infrastructure or lab space, one that distinguishes itself from science, technology or engineering labs? Given your answer above, it sounds like in your experience humanities labs have the potential to explore a flexible design space that facilitates or is even response to many different kinds of interactions and modes of academic exploration – is this right?