From Lab to Classroom: Live Methods and Prototyping in the Arts and Humanities

Florida State University Digital Scholars 23 March 2018
Jentery Sayers University of Victoria Department of English MLab in the Humanities on the traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples and the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples, whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day

This story begins with a lab.

The Maker Lab in the Humanities (MLab) opened in September 2012. The premise was to combine university lab cultures (especially in the arts and humanities) with a makerspace model, stressing experimentation, prototyping, speculation, and histories of DIY craft and community-building. Existing models included Sandy Stone’s ACTLab at UT-Austin and Beth Coleman and Marcel O’Gorman’s Critical Media Lab at Waterloo.

We wanted to perform media theories and also conjecture about media histories. Tara McPherson: “With a few exceptions, we remain content to comment about technology and media, rather than to participate more actively in constructing knowledge in and through our objects of study” (2009). Kari Kraus: “We might, for starters, imagine conjecture as a knowledge toolkit designed to perform ‘what if’ analyses across a range of texts” (2009). Daniela K. Rosner: “I argue for a mode of research through design that treats the design as social inquiry (hereafter referred to as design inquiry). This positions designed systems and processes as tools with which to examine social phenomena. Design becomes a means rather than an end” (2015). Laurie Anderson: “I don’t know all the circuitry, but I can do first aid” (1981). The work was premised on starting everything, from research to technical practice, in media res.

PACTAC was our neighbor (downstairs from us at UVic) and influenced us in the best possible way.

Grant proposals were written.

We received support from the Modernist Versions Project (for research and infrastructure), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (for research), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (for infrastructure), and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (for infrastructure). Bill Turkel joined us on the SSHRC grant. He practices history through physical computing and fabrication techniques, often in collaboration with other historians in Science and Technology Studies (STS): “New Old Things” (2012), with Devon Elliott and Robert MacDougall, and “Doing History by Reverse Engineering Electronic Devices” (2018), with Yana Boeva, Devon Elliott, Edward Jones-Imhotep, and Shezan Muhammedi, for instance.

During the grant-writing years, we often used terms such as “enduring ephemeral” (Chun 2008), “reverse engineering” (Balsamo 2011), “technological imagination” (also Balsamo), “entanglement” (Barad 2007), “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1988), “screen essentialism” (Montfort 2004 and Kirschenbaum 2008), and “digital labor” (Scholz 2013).

Together, these terms pointed us away from the “workstation” model for labs and toward messier, embodied forms of trial and error. The research corresponded less with legacies of humanities computing (e.g., digitization and encoding) and digital humanities (e.g., corpus linguistics, data visualization, and macro-analysis) and more with experimental media. McPherson again: “in and through our objects” (as distinct from objects of inquiry), especially as it applies to media history.

Researchers were given space and funding.

With grant support, the lab and its team grew, funding undergraduate and graduate students across the Humanities and Fine Arts. The research was driven by researcher interests. We hosted visiting speakers, who gave talks and facilitated workshops. We co-authored and co-edited a few publications on topics such as public humanities and multimodal composition.

The first two years were really about determining what we wanted to do and what we could do. We weren’t particularly interested in popular brands of making (here, Deb Chachra says it best), but we were curious about how critique and historical research could unfold through tactile materials and prototyping. We read Nicolas Collins’s Hardware Hacking and Matt Ratto’s “Critical Making,” and we found inspiration in work by Tara Rodgers, Sara Hendren, Hannah Perner-Wilson, and Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie. We said the lab was culture first, technology a close second. As researchers graduated and left university, they continued with their work, which was shaped by the lab yet clearly unique to the researchers: the portfolios of Danielle Morgan, Nina Belojevic, Nicole Clouston, Tiffany Chan, and Shaun Macpherson, for instance.

The goal was not to attribute everything to the MLab as an “author” or even to create digital tools or resources. It was to prompt people to conduct research they could call their own, on their own terms. Often, this meant I needed to get out of the way.

A question was articulated.

Somewhere between Years 2 and 3, we arrived at a research question we could all share but variously address: What can people learn from prototyping technologies that are broken, lost, missing, or no longer in circulation? In our archival and historical work, we regularly encountered devices that didn’t function as they once did. Or, only patents and other 2D materials were available. Or, the objects were behind glass, not to be touched or handled. Or, mechanisms were remediated from analog to digital, and key differences were erased or overlooked in the process.

At the same time, we wanted to avoid the pitfalls of re-enacting history or assuming we could inhabit the subject positions of people in the past (or the present, for that matter).

A methodology was developed.

We called it “prototyping the past.” Partly informed by “live methods” (Back and Puwar 2012), or the creation of mechanisms that adapt, re-purpose, and take advantage of media’s analytic and empirical capacities (see page 9), as well as all the work mentioned above, this form of prototyping balances immersion with critical distance, attending to the material particulars of technologies while also foregrounding embodied and situated negotiations with them. It asks “what if” of the present (as opposed to counterfactuals, which tend to reimagine the past), and it involves the combination of archival work with prototyping early/historical technologies. It doesn’t invest in “how did it work?” or “what was its function?” It’s not preoccupied with “revealing” or “discovering” what’s “hidden,” either. Rather, it negotiates with contingencies that will forever be contingencies. And then it foregrounds them.

Equipment arrived.

We waited a few years before we committed to particular machines. But in Year 3 we began learning how to use laser cutters, routers, scanners, and 3D modeling and fabrication for historical work. Here’s a spreadsheet of our inventory. We developed an “infrastructural disposition” (Parks and Starosielski 2015) toward our research, and Visual Arts at UVic graciously provided us with space and other significant forms of support.

The equipment became central to the methodology, but we tried to avoid appealing to the wow and whiz-bang of it all. We didn’t want the research to be about the novelty of new gadgets. We wanted it to be about labour, negotiation, embodiment, and the contingencies of design.

Prototypes were made (and remade).

During Years 3, 4, and 5, we prototyped several technologies as open-source “kits” intended for experimentation and re-purposing: kits for early optophones, magnetic recording, and wearables, for instance. Each of these was supported by thorough README files, blending the archive with the prototype. We also experimented with exhibits, including Jacob: Recording on Wire, which we installed in the Audain Gallery at UVic.

These materials have been used in classrooms, deposited with memory institutions, and re-purposed by several scholars, including Helen J. Burgess.

Papers were even published.

As we refined the methodology and prototypes, we published a few papers detailing it all: “Prototyping the Past,”, “Optophonic Reading, Prototyping Optophones” (with Mara Mills), and “Fluxkits for Scholarly Communication,” for example. I also worked on two related, edited collections for Minnesota and Routledge.

We’re now cooking up An Illustrated Guide to Prototyping the Past, which Danielle Morgan is illustrating.

Here, a key finding was that the methodology, prototypes, and kits did not stand on their own; they corresponded with writing (also a form of making). This correspondence encouraged us to bypass the trap of privileging “things” over essays and essays over “things.” Also, many people in the MLab preferred certain modes of composition and types of practices (e.g., prototyping, archival work, media theory, illustration, and computer programming). We did what we could to provide space and time for these preferences.

It all gravitated toward the classroom.

Pedagogy was always central to the MLab; however, between Years 3 and 5 we started to experiment with how our practices might transfer to the classroom. We co-taught workshops at local schools, and we also co-taught one-week intensive courses about physical computing and fabrication.

Undergrad courses were taught.

These experiments were formalized in Digital Humanities courses such as “Things to Think With: Modelling and Printing 3D Objects,” which combined material culture studies and historical inquiry with the MLab’s CNC techniques, and “What’s in a Game?”, which drew on Anna Anthropy’s work and combined it with the MLab’s proclivities for prototyping. Most recently, I taught “Prototyping Pasts and Futures” at UVic. It asked students to conjecture by reading fiction (by Ursula K. Le Guin), studying keyword entries (from media and cultural studies), examining media art, and prototyping patents and possibilities with video, with paper, and through scenarios.

Grad seminars, too.

I’ve tried similar things at the graduate level, with “Prototyping Texts” and “What’s in a Game?”, which I’m trying again next year in tabletop form to focus on design and testing instead of programming and development. Following Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work (in Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009), I’m interested in tabletop games as paper computers, and the MLab frequently relied on low-tech, off-screen techniques for its research.

Learning outcomes were articulated.

Across these courses, teaching and learning were grounded in logging or documenting design as a form of inquiry (with students producing repositories of their work), routinely circulating prototypes (usually during class), discussing moments of surprise (including hiccups and frustrations), critical media praxis (the performance of theory through multimodal practice), and the treatment of technology as congealed labor. I knew students were learning when they could point to and then detail key moments of change in their research as well as in the histories and archives they were studying. These details usually entwined politics with aesthetics, demonstrating how seemingly banal technical matters and design features are in fact value-laden and meaningful.

More prototypes were made.

Prototypes were made collaboratively and individually in these courses. For example, undergraduates made playable prototypes of indie games, and graduate students used Unity to remediate literary “-isms” (such as Absurdism and Existentialism) into games, too: “DIY Games Inspired by English Lit.” For her MA essay in English, Tiffany Chan used neural networks to prototype new fictions by Grant Allen: “The Author Function: Imitating Grant Allen with Queer Writing Machines.”

Challenges and affordances were identified.

At this point in my teaching and research, I’ve identified several challenges and affordances of prototyping across the lab and classroom. The challenges include the learning curve as well as access to materials, space, and equipment. Additionally, many students may be reluctant to prototype; they may prefer to stick to writing academic essays, for instance. They also need (and should be provided with) clear rubrics for assessment. Prototypes aren’t essays, even if they correspond. At the same time, affordances include low-tech ways to negotiate with and test media. With prototyping, you can often bypass techniques such as computer programming, and you rarely need to install much (if any) software when you focus on paper and scenario prototyping. I also find that students are able to produce their own original research, to which they can point others, when they prototype. Finally, I think prototyping provides us with a way to combine media studies and STS with digital humanities, and may provide the latter with more definition, grounding it in histories and futures of design and technologies.