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).
Virtual wedding project work (1999) – early experimental educational project.
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?
Svensson: Yes, in my mind it is important to encourage different modes of engagement, epistemic traditions, experiments and cross-overs. This is likely what distinguishes a humanities-at-large lab or infrastructure from more specific kinds of infrastructure – let’s say an environmental archaeology lab, an echo-free room for auditory-linguistic analysis or an eye-tracking lab, all of which are or can be humanistic infrastructures but they are more specific in terms of their epistemic and interactional scope. I think an argument can be made for more large-scale humanistic infrastructure because it allows us to “package” different kinds of practices into a whole, thereby making them easier to “sell” given the current infrastructural regime and also creating points of intersections and engagement that would not otherwise exist.
That said, there are numerous things we need to be cautious about as we imagine and build humanistic infrastructure. We need to be careful we are not too exclusionary by over-emphasizing the uniqueness of the humanities and its associated infrastructures. But, that said, since academic infrastructure is so steeped in science and engineering, we also need to be careful we do not end up producing weak humanistic infrastructure as a shadow of STEM rather than actually imagining what humanistic infrastructure can be. There are humanistic templates, of course, and memory institutions are often and rightly mentioned in this context; but we do not want to create infrastructure that is uncritically modelled on what we think such institutions are and have been. Rather, we need to think about what we would like the humanities to be in the future as well as what we would like our institutions to be.
An example of a humanistic infrastructure that is worth thinking more about is the humanities center. This is an infrastructure with a 50+ year history (with several layers and historicities of privilege) and a configuration that is fairly unique to the humanities, although there is an affinity between humanities centers and centers of advanced study and other similar institutions. There is a great deal of variation among humanities centers, but the best ones are important places for grounded and sustained intellectual exchange and humanistic thinking and making. The traditional model of humanities centers comes with many predispositions (the single scholar in their secluded office working on their monograph and having communal, obligatory lunches etc.), but there is also room for change and development here. Infrastructure need not be static.
The unique character of humanistic infrastructure has to be connected to what we mean by the humanities and what the humanities can be in the future. If we believe in an agentive, intellectual and collaborative humanities (as I do), we have to build infrastructure to accommodate such work, engagement and thinking. Another unique aspect of humanities infrastructure is the way in which it can embody a deeply intertwined critical and creative/constructive engagement. We can be critical of our own infrastructure as we imagine, build and use it, and criticality can be built into the fabric of the infrastructure so that it serves as a kind of epistemic machinery. However, this is not typically a humanistic strength. We need to practice being critical of our own infrastructure, not just infrastructure elsewhere, and let that criticality shape how we build infrastructure as well as penetrate our work and institutions. Here is a simple, very mundane example: someone told me about an institution that was reallocating office spaces; faculty were guaranteed offices with windows while staff were not. Why should this be? We talk a lot about privilege and power, but we are often less keen to negotiate and reconfigure our own privileges.
Emerson: I completely agree with your closing point above about privilege and power – humanists, in particular, are often so concerned with their relatively marginalized position in their home institutions that they forget how much privilege they themselves may still bring to bear on a daily basis. On that note, how did you negotiate race, class, gender inequities and power dynamics while you were at HUMlab? And/or, how did you shape some of the lab programs and policies so that the lab didn’t reproduce the usual hierarchies associated with lab culture?
Svensson: This is a very important question. From the very start, HUMlab was conceived as an open meeting place, which did not include and exclude people based on discipline or status within the university (whether students, faculty or staff). Also, while there was an application system for people interested in having full 24 hour-access and server capacity and prospective full users had to give a rationale as to why they wanted to be part of the lab, acceptance was very liberal and there was no need to have a predefined task or even a clearly expressed interest. Occasionally we received applications from people who said they needed a place to do their regular word processing and we simply asked them to look more carefully at the HUMlab website and reapply. Everyone else was accepted. It was my job as director to read applications/registrations and I also tried to provide personal feedback whenever possible or just pick up on new users who had interesting ideas or projects. In terms of power, I think our emphasis on welcoming students and on not distinguishing between different kinds of people at the university created a unique place within the university. Also, many of the early projects were learning and student based (including some of my own work on virtual environments in language education, which was ‘constructivist’).
I saw quite clearly how having a large, accessible working space has the potential to challenge traditional hierarchies. As another example, teachers are often used to being in control of the learning situation behind a closed door (or a closed online learning environment); but when they came to HUMlab for classes they found themselves in an environment where other faculty, staff and students from other programs were there at the same time working on different things or just hanging out. The space and infrastructure were configured to accommodate such work. This may not be a particularly big challenge to traditional structures, but (many) such challenges or changes can certainly contribute to increasing awareness of some of the power structures embedded into our everyday lives and everyday infrastructure.
One key strength of HUMlab, in my mind, is that the lab as a meeting place was a sincere expression of our commitment to openness. It took me a bit of time early on to realize how powerful an idea this was (coming out of a disciplinary/departmental context), and once I embraced it I never doubted it. There is immense power in creating conditions for both doing work and engaging in conversations outside your own discipline, practice or group. These conditions do not just materialize because a platform has been created for it, but rather the creation of a genuine meeting place takes a lot of work as you have to build networks (and not just any networks, but networks that align with that mission), inspire and empower people to engage in different ways. It also takes continuous learning and the willingness to change. You build a culture together. In an environment like HUMlab you find a broad range of people, motivations and personalities, but there are more general qualities that I find important in this context including generosity, curiosity, sharpness and a willingness to learn and change. And always, the people working in the lab – whether staff or faculty – must be equally committed to making the meeting place happen. I also believe there has to be what might be called “productive tension” – you want people who are different, have different backgrounds, experiences and points of views, and part of the energy in a shared environment like HUMlab comes from those tensions. Tension in this sense is not a negative property, but it is very important that the environment as a whole both accommodates tension and is an informal and welcoming place for having those discussions and shared activities.
Critically Making the Internet of Things, 2010.
The meeting place also clearly extended beyond the university. Anyone could be in the lab and user registration was not limited to university students and employees. It is true there was some difficulty in providing full access for non-university people – we needed to talk to facilities management to issue card-based access etc., but it normally worked out relatively smoothly. However, once again, seeing yourself as an open meeting place does not necessarily make it so. It is perfectly possible to think of yourself as open, progressive and inviting, and still in fact be fairly closed in practice. To work against this possibility, we built HUMlab around individuals who wanted to be in the space, attend events and do work with us, and around structural collaborations with organizations outside the university. Activities and programming were an important tool for initiating collaborations and for supporting an ongoing dialogue. For example, we did quite a few events on “cultural industries”. I remember one workshop with CEOs, artists, scholars and others, where one of the artists said the she found the commercial framing of the discussion “off putting”, but for us, this somewhat unusual grouping of workshop participants was an opportunity for what we hoped was a productive tension.It is always about reaching beyond aggressive confrontation, but also not shying away from constructive tension and being willing to change. We built trust among different stakeholders, which made this work easier. At the same time, we did not collaborate with everyone, and I can see now how our broad networks by most standards were also limited and how the threshold is often higher than you would like to think. This was a matter of resources, funding and other factors, but also a consequence of being situated at a well-funded university.
Again, it is possible to resist hierarchies simply by choosing different kinds of people, genders and levels of seniority to participate in events. Even if I typically did much of the moderation and curatorship on such occasions, I almost always brought in wide range of speakers and participants – from technologists and experts to students and faculty. However, after having spent a semester with the Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center and having had an opportunity to (continue to) learn from Cathy Davidson, I now think I should perhaps have given up more of my own time. For example, Cathy and her leadership colleague Katina Rogers do a wonderful job in giving over responsibility for introducing and hosting events to graduate student fellows. This is not just a question of handing over responsibility but also of being involved in a supportive process (offering to look at notes, sharing experiences with the other fellows, talking about how things went after the event etc.).
We were fortunate in that we were a creative and energetic environment and we were able to channel that energy for guests. All this was possible because we were privileged, of course. We had strong support from the university, funding agencies and many others, and had been successful in competing for external grants. We built trust. We also delivered, but basically we had a situation which is rare in academia, I think, where we had a license to explore and take risks. Taking that responsibility and having integrity was an important part of my role, and in retrospect, I can also see how we challenged established structures in the process. We could do things that many others could not, which was also part of the success. I think I was not fully aware at the time of the level of privilege we had in this sense or how important it was.
Emerson: Can you give us an example of how you tried to extend this idea of the open meeting place, especially one that challenges power and privilege, to collaborations you created between HUMlab and the private sector or just the world outside of the lab?
Svensson: Early on we started working with the cultural organization Kulturverket in Umeå, which has a somewhat similar position as HUMlab but within the municipality. They are interested in children’s stories and developing young peoples’ imaginations while working with professional cultural workers. The first large-scale collaboration between Kulturverket and HUMlab was a blog opera performed at the Norrlandsoperan in Umeå. This turned into a long-standing structural collaboration involving shared employees, space as we worked together on numerous projects. One gain (among many) for HUMlab was that Kulturverket had a direct connection to Umeå schools, and we ended up having many school children working on various projects over the years. I remember occasions when we had high-profile research delegations visit at the same time as these children were working on video projects alongside an archaeology group that was having a meeting in one of the inner spaces of the lab. There is much power to such occasions. In some ways, HUMlab and Kulturverket occupied similar institutional positions within our respective organizations and connecting these two nodes proved to be very advantageous as it was a way for HUMlab to reach out beyond the academic setting. Later, when we opened a second lab on the Umeå Arts Campus, these early collaborations proved very useful. And in fact the new lab HUMlab-X is even more clearly positioned between the university and the world outside.
Another example of a successful collaboration involved a couple of our early postdoctoral fellows who helped run our first summer making games camp. One of our art fellows , Stefanie Wuschitz, worked with some of the others in the lab and started Miss Baltazar’s Laboratory – a feminist hackerspace in 2008. Stefanie was also instrumental in organizing the Eclectic Tech Carnival in 2009, which was an important event for the lab and to which we dedicated resources and support. The Eclectic Tech Carnival was conceived as a women-only event, which was the source of internal discussions in the lab. I initially resisted because I felt that HUMlab was an open meeting place for everyone and should not exclude genders. I remember one occasion when Stefanie was having a skype meeting with one of the international organizers; I think I just walked by and they called me into the conversation. They explained to me why they wanted a women-only event including their experiences from “mixed” tech events and workshops. They shifted my thinking about this issue and I understood the need for only allowing women, although we also agreed not to close the lab to anyone wanting to do other work there while the event was going on. There will be many dialogues and negotiations like this in a shared space if you allow them, and if you are willing to learn, you can learn a lot about other people and yourself.
Discussion on digital humanities with remote participation from David Theo Goldberg, Matt Gold, Johanna Drucker, Alan Liu and Cathy Davidson (2013).
Stefanie Wuschitz’s work is an example of gender-inflected work, both in terms of practice and theory, that was undertaken in the lab during my tenure as director. Employees were also split fairly evenly between men and women, but there were structural differences. We had more female researchers and most employed technologists were men. Since HUMlab was a very event-heavy space and I organized many of those events, it was also my responsibility to make sure we were largely gender balanced in our selections. If I look at a series of large events we did from 2010 to 2014 (one per year) and I look at invited speakers the numbers are 57 women and 58 men. I do not have statistics for age, but we were always keen to invite early-career scholars. One of the first large events I organized in HUMlab had a student as one of the two keynote speakers. I have often tried to give less space to keynotes and more to early-career scholars, at times having had to negotiate with funding agencies to reallocate time. Part of these negotiations can also involve discouraging non-keynote speakers from commenting at a keynote and instead using them to contribute to a theme together with the keynote. Another example of a small change I made is that I stopped introducing people with bios and instead I typically introduced them with just their name and affiliation. This does not remove power structures, but at least it contributes to not reinforcing them.
Emerson: And I imagine you’ve been rethinking the role of privilege from the time you were at Umeå to your move to New York and now Los Angeles?
Svensson: Umeå university is a privileged institution in a country which funds higher education well and which has a decent welfare system and social infrastructure (but certainly not without challenges and structural inequalities). The school of humanities and arts is fairly homogeneous (it is very white and Swedish) even though there is probably a little bit more diversity now than in previous years. HUMlab itself was also predominantly white (and it still is) although it was also significantly more international than most other humanities units at the time. This international orientation (that was nurtured through postdoctoral programs, international events, European projects, networks etc.) was largely – but not only – Anglo-American and European in its orientation because this is where much of our work and networks were based. There are reasons for this (including capacity and funding structures), but it is also the result of a kind of blindness I think (I am not blaming anyone really, but if there is anyone to blame it would be me). For me personally, having spent a year at the Graduate Center in New York City, being part of a community where issues of race and power were central, and now being based in Los Angeles, I feel I have learnt a great deal, including how much my networks and network capacity are embedded in my circle of connections and context. Being in other places and intellectual milieus (albeit in the US) – in itself a reflection of privilege – has given me different perspectives, but again, as I have tried to emphasize in the above, changing things (including yourself) takes concerted effort, commitment and the willingness to listen to others. Also, as I have tried to stress, I believe that change often comes through many small tweaks to established systems and challenges to different kinds of regimes. This does not preclude more drastic moves, but in my work on infrastructure I have realized how we sometimes over-emphasize the large-scale instead of attending to micro reconfigurations that can lead to a larger impact. When I started at UCLA, two commitments I had was to think about how to support multi-vocal conversation (over presentation) for academic events and how to organize events with a strong commitment to intersectional issues and in particular (but not only) race (these two commitments overlap really). I am also really interested in thinking about and enacting an “active humanities” and rethinking humanistic infrastructure and infrastructure thinking, which is where many values and our own inability to engage critically with our own conditions are embedded.
UCLA DH Seminar on “Encoding Diversity” with Geoffrey Bowker, Ursula Heise, Safiya Umoja Noble, Élika Ortega and Todd Presner. Photo credit: Patrik Svensson.
Emerson: I am eager to hear more about how your thinking about humanistic infrastructure has changed, especially since you finished writing Big Digital Humanities. But, before we move into the present and the future, I would like to know more about what exactly you think made HUMlab a lab? What did the designation “lab” give you that some other organizing principle (if not a center or an institute, perhaps a workshop or studio) did not?
Svensson: I think ‘lab’ was a useful designation in that it signaled something different than, say, a center, but the main strength was probably in the combination of ‘HUM’ and ‘lab’. The capital HUM was important as it indicated the central (but not given/stable) role of the Humanities. ‘Lab’ pointed to experimental and other practices often assumed to live outside the humanities. There was a basic tension in the name, which was useful and correlates with the idea of HUMlab as meeting place for humanities, culture and technology. I also think that ‘lab’ pointed to the fact that we were based in a physical site with experimental infrastructure (although we were also involved in all kinds of distributed environments).
An anecdote: I always used HUMlab (written that way) and all our materials too for a long time, but with increased informational control exercised by the university there was a push to follow the rule which is capital first letter: Humlab. I resisted this name change because I thought that the ‘HUM’ carried meaning. When we had just expanded to HUMlab-X and the new Arts Campus I actually asked the vice chancellor and the administrative head of the university for an exception to the rule so that we could have signage with “HUMlab-X”, which was approved. But over time – unless you fight consistently (and this is a small thing admittedly) – it is difficult to resist such pushes /regulations /standardizations and I think HUMlab is now Humlab.
In terms of infrastructure thinking I also think that ‘lab’ can be more useful than ‘studio’ or ‘workshop’ which seem to signal smaller pieces. HUMlab was conceived as an infrastructure/operation at scale with many different parts and ‘lab’ made it easier to make the case for an extensive, heterogeneous, infrastructure-rich environment. I think that ‘Institute’ could have been a natural next step – this is something I suggested towards the end of my tenure as director. ‘Institute” allows for more possibilities intellectually and organizationally (or rather perhaps, institutionalizes some of the space we had created through HUMlab), and also at that time (around 2014-2015), there many more HUMlab-like entities around.
Roger Mähler and Johan Von Boer in charge of the display system software (and hardware) developed for HUMlab for an event in HUMlab-X – part of the HUMlab team (2014).
Emerson: You touched a little on the larger communities you engaged with while you were Director of HUMlab – including CEOs, artists, and even schoolchildren. But what about the larger infrastructure of the surrounding area of HUMlab – if I remember correctly, it’s nestled in the basement of another building on campus. How does the larger environment or even the larger, surrounding ecology affect the nature of HUMlab?
Svensson: We ended up having several labs, but the original one is in a subterranean space that used to be an exam hall back when I took undergraduate exams. It is below the university library at the one end of the social sciences building very close to the humanities building connected via an underground passageway (an important feature for facilitating connectivity in the north of Sweden). At first, I would sometimes be apologetic about our basement space when presenting the lab, telling visitors we were on the university building plan to be relocated sometime in the future; but I gradually come to realize how perfect the location and the space was. For a meeting place that extended outside the humanities the location was ideal in that it was fairly neutral (borrowing also the neutrality from the main library above) and it was close enough to the humanities building that there was proximity and connection.
Let me also say something about HUMlab-X before moving on the other part of your question. We started building this lab in 2010, opening it in 2012 as part of the Umeå Arts Campus on a site about a 10-15 minute walk from the main campus. HUMlab-X was, and still is, between the main campus and the city center. While it was a substantial challenge to go from one lab on one campus to two labs on two campuses, my strategy was to suggest there was common conceptual foundation (the meeting place), a local environment and infrastructure that partly shaped each lab, and an important function in connecting the two campuses (especially since we were the only academic institution on both campuses). I think this worked out well, but it was still a challenge to distribute resources and activate networks on the new site. HUMlab-X was meant to be and became a more public-facing part of the lab. Not that the original lab did not have that function, but it was simply easier to get to the Arts Campus and the lab is connected via glass to the main part of the campus with a view of the river. It is situated in an amazing location in between the Institute of Design, the School of Architecture, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Bildmuseet. While it took time to connect strongly with the ‘new’ community on the Arts Campus, I think connectivity with local cultural and civic organizations took off fairly quickly. In short, it matters where you are located, and the fact that the Bildmuseet is a public institution helped us too. You can learn a lot from institutions that are public in a way that university institutions will probably never be, and our proximity made their publicness partly ours.
Umeå Universitet, UMU. HUMlab, 2014.
I would also like to respond to the second part of your question about ecology. One important finding is a fairly recent realization that the local (in terms of space, light conditions, location, geology, history, culture, tensions etc.) plays a more important role than we sometimes think. I think we always drew on some of that and certainly, among other things, the particularities of Umeå contributed to making HUMlab a sought-after place for international scholars and others to visit. Of course, visitors were also attracted to the lab and our work but the the place and its history and its light (or lack of light – it was no accident that we started to do annual December events at the height of darkness) also played an important role. And through working with local organizations, being part of regional networks (including the creative industries located in the north of Sweden), receiving visiting delegations, and doing various projects such as the Moblogging Jokkmokk 2004 project we were certainly part of the city and the region and its history and future.
At the same time, I think it is easy to become too international. I learned over the years that doing fully international events at Umeå without incorporating many local participants was not necessarily a productive strategy. With a place and almost tangible energy like HUMlab I do not think we could ever have displaced ourselves – the lab and the people resonated through the activities – but, again, there is certainly a risk of being too international. I have thought of this in my work on infrastructure and advanced institutes – large-scale, templated infrastructure is often seen as global and uninflected by the local and advanced institutes often seem to stress excellence and isolation to the degree that the local gets deemphasized (they can seem like spaceships). I also think that we (under my tenure) could have been even more engaged in everyday affairs and structural problems in our city/region and had a more active voice in addressing environmental, social and racial challenges.
CUNY Graduate Center conference 2016 “Unflattening and Enacting Visualization”. Martha Hollander in conversation with Nina McCurdy (in/on the IPad) at the event – from the Q&A in the session “Experienced Reflections”. Photo credit: The Futures Initiative, The Graduate Center, CUNY and Patrik Svensson.
Emerson: Finally, would you give us a sense of how you’re starting to rethink humanistic infrastructure and infrastructure thinking? How has your thinking on both changed, perhaps particularly since you’ve been living in New York and L.A.?
Svensson: I think some of that is in the book, for which infrastructure plays an important role and some of it was written/edited when I was in NYC. In any case, it is also true that I have spent quite a bit of time recently considering and reconsidering infrastructure thinking and making. I am just about to finish a large article on “humanistic infrastructure” which has been an exciting and challenging project. Going through lots of infrastructure material I was again struck about the lack of critical, epistemic, social and cultural inflection. Infrastructure sometimes seems like a place of its own outside these matters despite being fundamental to our work and lives. Strangely enough, discussions of humanities infrastructure often do not have much humanities in it. From a digital humanities perspective: Given that digital humanities more strongly has incorporated critical categories into its work (although this is very obviously ongoing work) over the last five years or so, it is interesting to see that infrastructure still seems to retain its status as a refuge, the last place to be touched by the humanities/the human in some ways. This is not just about the digital humanities, but about academic and to some degree civic infrastructure.
How has my thinking changed/developed and how has my thinking about infrastructure changed?
1. I more clearly see the value of small changes. If they are based on a clear concept or a consistent set of ideas and values, small changes can make a real difference. They can also be more meaningful to talk about as people are more likely to see an opportunity for change. A very simple example I mentioned earlier is that I essentially stopped introducing people with bios at academic events. This does not take away existing hierarchies, but at the same time it does not reinforce them (compare the long bio of a senior scholar and the briefer one of a graduate student). It all has to work together, be part of some kind of heart beat, not in a singular way, but in complex, meaningful ways. Small changes also relate to an increased understanding of mine of the importance of small-scale infrastructure. Alex Gil talks about minimal computing, which is one example of this (see Gil and Ortega), but I am also thinking of Natalie Jerijimenko’s ingenuous environmental health clinic work, where she often comes up against ‘heavy’ infrastructure regimes (the infrastructure itself, bidding procedures, the educational systems that produce the people that are in control of infrastructure work, expectations of scale/size). Natalie’s work has been tremendously influential for me. We can see the same in relation to academic thinking and work on infrastructure. The default size is big and the texture shiny. HUMlab drew on the tension between small and large infrastructure and to build a strong conceptual foundation that drove the lab, but it is a fine balance. Sometimes large infrastructures can be intimidating and they can obstruct us from thinking about small (meaningful, experimental, flexible, movable, short-term, interventionistic) infrastructures. In digital humanities and digitization efforts, I think scale (and the idea of large scale) has often been an obstacle – especially when all major efforts are spent on digitizing and then providing a standard access model. There also needs to be a space for infrastructure with much stronger, specific and clear epistemic, social, and human stakes.
2. I also learned from being based in NYC and LA too that one of things I love doing – curating events – had been less linked to the infrastructure we built in Umeå than I thought. HUMlab was a fantastic environment for doing those events and gave me plenty of experimental opportunity, but I also found that the curatorial practices I developed there and to some degree elsewhere were less linked to the space and technology than I had thought. When I started to do large-scale events at the Graduate Center and at UCLA I think it pushed me to experiment in different ways. The pair talks I started to do was a useful concept, and to some degree it drew on technological setups. A pair talk is an experimental short-format that allows two people to engage around a topic; the focus is not presentation but dialogue. Slide presentations are not included which changes the dynamics but, instead, display infrastructure can be used to change the single slide view to better match the structural composition of the session. Especially at UCLA with the oblong screen set up in their Visualization Portal, we can juxtapose each member of the pair with one medium (image, film or whatever) in a useful way. In short, the pair talks privilege conversational time and this is something I have tried to push hard in the UCLA DH Humanities series and essentially in everything I do now. I’ve found it makes such a big difference to take away the presentational framing that comes with slideware and slides, and it actually encourages experimentation and other modalities too. For example, at a recent event on data driven research in the humanities at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sverker Sörlin, who does fascinating work in so many areas, ended up talking about ice and glaciers as data and had an old documentary film running in the background while making the point (among other things) about how environmental data is local if we go back in time (and we could see it being “harvested” in the film, but also in the broader context of its making). I spent a lot of time finding the best possible space at the Royal Institute – a large studio space in the Architecture Building, which contributed to making the event work out really well, but again it is just one factor among many. I am not only interested in “event infrastructure”, of course, but some of these experiences will certainly feed into future institutional building for me.
3. My time at the CUNY Graduate Center and at UCLA has given me a more expansive view of infrastructure. This is not necessarily all that exciting, but part of my own personal growth. It has been meaningful for me to work in these environments with people who are strongly socially engaged at a time which is challenging in so many ways. This expansiveness in my thinking goes beyond an attention to infrastructure, of course, but it has also brought together my interests in academic and civic infrastructure, and made me think differently about what infrastructure can be and how it is inflected, and how we (humanists/humans) can be part of real-world change. My own practice has often been about changing academic infrastructure/contexts, but my focus has shifted somewhat. People like Naomi Murakawa (at Princeton), April Hathcock (at NYU) and Natalie Jeremijenko (also at NYU) have been very influential for my thinking as well as Christopher Lee (at UCLA) and Jasmine Nyende (an LA-based artist). I am also so lucky to continue to work with people such as David Theo Goldberg, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner, Cathy Davidson, Shannon Mattern, Matt Ratto, Erica Robles-Anderson, Tara McPherson, Élika Ortega, Pelle Snickars and many others. Infrastructure thinking is about people, which is also a reflection of how empty of people infrastructure speak, visuals and thinking can be just they are often empty of critical and epistemic inflection and of heart.. I have developed a much more interventionistic and activist sense of infrastructure, and I have moved from mainly being interested in scholarly and epistemic infrastructure to also civic, societal and environmental infrastructure. I have a lot of learning to do, of course, but this is where I want to go. I also feel there is a strong need to think much more about what humanistic infrastructure is and can be. Get me right: I am interested in both types of infrastructure, which makes sense because they overlap and co-exist. Humanistic intervention and action outside the academy is critical, and critiquing and changing our own institutions is part of this larger challenge. I have started to work on some of these issues in a more focused manner with Natalie Jeremijenko, Matt Ratto and others.
HUMlab 2009 art project (Caroline Kelley, Erica Robles-Anderson and Stefanie Wuschitz )
4. Another development is increased and broader interest in infrastructure in general over the last couple of years or so. Infrastructure is more mainstream in several ways. In countries like Sweden (and in the European context) this is certainly true on a policy level and in terms of how an infrastructural regime is filtering down through the system. Academic work is also increasingly structured around the idea of infrastructure. Academically, infrastructure has been a key interest for fields such as STS for a long time, and we see more pronounced interest there and also more interest from other fields. Christian Sandvig says that infrastructure is the new network and there is certainly something to that. While I do not think infrastructure studies within STS seeks to change STS as a field in major ways, scholars such as Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski and Alan Liu – among others – see infrastructure as a vehicle to reimagine their own disciplines and fields (media studies, the humanities, digital humanities). In the digital humanities, we see more interest in infrastructure too. I am thinking, for example, of Deb Verhoeven, Tanya Clement, Laura Mandell, Susan Brown and Jacque Wernimont’s 2016 Digital Humanities conference panel on “Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities.” I really appreciate their interventionist, critical and active engagement with infrastructure; they write, “Successful infrastructure has the capacity to transform the world in which we already (co‑)exist. Digital humanities infrastructure can open up new visions of the world in which we live, and invite contemplation of the different ways in which we might live, and work, in it.” I am also inspired by the work by Roopika Risam, Catherine D’Ignazio, Jarrett Drake, Matt Ratto and Jenny Sundén. Some other recent work includes David M. Berry’s and Anders Fagerjord’s new book, Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age, in which humanistic engagement with infrastructure is largely framed as a critical enterprise; they write, “digital humanists will need to develop their powers of critique regarding sites of power, which includes the instantiation of digital technologies, platforms and infrastructures” (143). I am very interested in making this into a more active and interventionist engagement. I am also intrigued with James Smithies’ book, The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern, that focuses on systems analysis and infrastructure – although I remain somewhat skeptical of the utilitarian framing, especially when he writes about the resistance in the humanities to “technical work and the epistemological positions that enable it” and claims that positivist and utilitarian approaches to research are “to some degree and with necessary modifications” – “precisely what is required to successfully design and build digital products” ). I think there is a great deal of potential at this intersection and this is also where much work needs to be done, but there is a risk to construe technological work as essentially positivist and to suggest that the humanities need to design and build around such an (assumed) epistemological position. I would like us (humanists) to extend our repertoire – epistemic, expressive, interventionist, cultural, social, political – in order to be part of shaping both our own and civic infrastructure. Most of the time not by ourselves, but with others, and both critically and creatively-constructively at the same time, always.
Emerson: Thank you so much, Patrik, for taking the time to talk with me about the trajectory of your thinking on humanities labs and infrastructure, from your early years at HUMlab to your time now at UCLA. It’s been a real pleasure!
Conversations in HUMlab-X, Fred Turner, Jenna Ng, Lauren Klein and Anne Balsamo (2014).
American Council of Learned Societies. Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Our Cultural Commonwealth. New York: ACLS, 2006.
Brown, Susan and Tanya Clement, Laura Mandell, Deb Verhoeven, Jacque Wernimont. “Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Conference 2016. Kraków, Poland.
Berry, David M. and Anders Fagerjord. Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017.
Gil, Alex and Élika Ortega. “Global Outlooks in Digital Humanities: Multilingual Practices and Minimal Computing.” Doing Digital Humanities: Practice, Training, Research. Eds. Crompton, Constance, Richard J. Lane, and Raymond G. Siemens. New York: Routledge, 2016: 22-34.
Sandvig, Christian. “The Internet as Infrastructure.” The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Ed. William H. Dutton. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. 86-106.
Smithie, James. The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Svensson, Patrik. Big Digital Humanities: Imagining a Meeting Place for the Humanities and the Digital. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016.
—. “Envisioning the Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6:1 (2012).
—. “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5: 1 (2011).
—. “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3: 3 (2009).
—. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4: 1 (2010).
Unless otherwise specified, all photos by Umeå University and/or Patrik Svensson