The Media Archaeology Lab as Anti-Museum and Art Method
- Livy Onalee Snyder
Housed in the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) in Boulder, Colorado is a collection of media— supposedly obsolete items which we have thrown away, forgotten, or labeled as irrelevant. The Macintosh 128K, IBM Personal Computer, Apple Lisa, and Canon Cat V777 Work Processor are displayed among other hardware. Computer manuals, keyboards, and bins of floppy disks line the shelves. Contrary to what one might think, however, this nostalgic tech is not simply collecting dust. Since 2009, MAL has promoted experimental, hands-on approaches for viewers, researchers, students, and artists to make connections between media objects and their social impacts.
Dr. Lori Emerson, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, originally founded the collection to study and preserve digital literature from the 1980s. Emerson was specifically interested in a series of digital kinetic poems created by bpNichol, including a piece called First Screening (1984). This computer poem combined concrete poetry with then-new tech: the Apple IIe, a mass-produced microcomputer. While it is still possible to view emulations of works like First Screening, it is more difficult to conduct close readings of them simply because these emulations lack aspects which are intrinsic to their original computer platforms. As the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.1 By using the original media with which First Screening was written, Emerson was able to analyze its surface effects and consider its social and material aspects as well (2019, 179).
Emerson’s project eventually grew beyond the scope of preserving digital literature and collecting small computer operating systems. Currently, MAL’s collection consists of everything from typewriters, video games, user manuals, and phones to more unfamiliar objects like lie detectors, a “love tester,” Scientology e-meters, and a golf ball finder.2 Most recently, the Lab has been hard at work reconstructing an old French videotex service. Preserving hardware and software from the past is integral to MAL’s purpose; at the same time, and of equal importance, is the promotion of new experimental research that changes the way we view mainstream technology.
The Lab’s mission is to “demonstrate alternative paths in the history of technology and empower visitors to imagine an alternative present and future” (Media Archaeology Lab 2022). MAL’s interest lies not in displaying media behind glass or as a tidy chronological progression, but rather in encouraging viewers to explore and interpret media themselves by physically turning on, playing, and tinkering with devices—a decision that positions MAL as an anti-museum of sorts. While some museums incorporate interactives as part of their exhibits, they generally adopt a no-touch policy, especially regarding collections of objects. MAL grounds itself in hands-on exploration of the actual devices in its collection—not replicas or models—so visitors can discover important themes, structures, and links in the history of this technology that would normally be overshadowed by more obvious and controlled narratives.
One such approach interprets the history of technology as nonlinear, a methodology currently in favor with many scholars in the field of media archaeology. From Emerson’s perspective, “we can understand a waxing and waning of devices more in terms of a phylogenetic tree whereby devices change over time, split into separate branches, hybridize, or are terminated” (Emerson 2019, 181). For instance, the Sony Walkman was a hybridized Sony Pressman, a recording cassette device originally created for use by journalists. The only difference between the two devices is that one had a microphone, and the other had a pair of headphones. This small example illustrates that technology is not “old” or “new” but, rather, an ongoing assemblage of pieces and parts. Media termed “obsolete” are usually rendered less functional as a result of changes in social and economic variables that shift throughout time, but this does not mean they have no value.
Emerson is not alone in this perspective. Other media archaeologists, such as Jussi Parikka, believe that to embrace media archaeology as a method is to implicitly adopt a nonlinear way of understanding temporality. In other words, we should not think about time as flowing in one direction only, where one device simply supersedes another. Parikka characterizes media archaeological practices as “good at forcing us to think about time as pleated,” which recognizes devices outside of an “earlier-later” construct (2012, 144-146). This perspective stands in direct contrast to short-term use values of media promoted by capitalist industries today. Adopting a nonlinear way of understanding temporality or an alternative history allows us to rethink myths of progress and, as Parikka writes, “teleological assumptions concerning evolution of media culture that underpin the more mainstream ways of seeing how media technology is part of our lives” (2012, 144).
MAL hosts several artist and scholar residencies dedicated to unfolding, rethinking, and imagining the future of media. These projects bring together individuals from around the globe, in both the sciences and humanities, to work with MAL’s collection. Emerson believes, “It's great to have a firm grasp of how stuff works, but its historical impact isn't just technical . . . inviting artists and scholars that nod to (or in some cases really tackle straight on) the importance of that more ephemeral stuff gives us an entry into those more complex conversations” (Unpublished interview; Lori Emerson and libi striegl, February 1, 2022). One scholar tackling the complex topic of alternative histories is artist-resident, researcher, and current MAL manager Dr. libi striegl.3 Striegl’s artistic and research practice draws upon myriad technologies from various eras, then playfully mixes and matches their intended uses. For example, her artwork Reflections Within the Transitioning Grid uses traditionally-made imagery—calligraphy and printmaking—with technologically-generated applications like 3D printing.
During striegl’s residency, she produced the report “Alternative Taxonomies,” which considers re-categorizing MAL’s collection to unearth new anarchival interactions with media artifacts. Striegl writes, “In order to think differently about the relationship we have with technologies, an attempt must be made to change the order of thinking” (striegl 2022). Heavily influenced by Jorge Borges’ essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” striegl creates systems of categorization that allow visitors to find new, unexpected paths as they move through MAL’s constellation of media. Rather than categorize objects by function and temporal location (the Lab’s current system), striegl proposes three different taxonomies of organization—economic, sensory, and emotional—thus encouraging visitors to think of how we might assign meaning in non-traditional ways. Striegl’s work illustrates how technological solutions can challenge and rethink power relations through categorization.
MAL proactively invests in alternative media histories, approaches, and technologies that have been cast aside, neglected, or repressed in order to combat teleological assumptions about myths of progress. This type of research also has practical applicability to a modern-day environmental problem: electronic waste, also known as e-waste, is a rising concern as hundreds of functional devices are discarded every day. While control of this global issue seems out of our hands, media archaeology as an art method can make a small difference. Jussi Parikka studies artists like Garnet Hertz, Paul DeMarinis, Berni Lubell, and Zoe Beloff, as well as artist-run projects like the Dead Media Project, that focus on reusing e-waste for community and artistic purposes. A well-known example of this type of recycling is circuit bending, an electronic method initiated by the DIY scene. For these artists, media obsolescence and reuse are central to their practice. As demonstrated by striegl and other artist-residents at MAL who engage with media archaeology, it is possible to explore creative solutions to social and environmental issues such as growing e-waste.
MAL’s interdisciplinary makeup is anything but traditional: it is a lab and an anti-museum. Its scholars study artistic media and media theories. The projects it inspires sit between media archaeology and technological nostalgia. It is an archive and a functional space for cross-disciplinary and experimental research, teaching, and creative practice. The flexibility of this space and the method of collective experimentation it promotes can inform current debates around the uses of technology by expanding our definitions of media’s value across artistic and scientific disciplines.
bpNichol. 1984. “First Screening.” Uploaded March 12, 2007. youtube.com/watch?v=rEdUSQ7WCSM
Emerson, Lori. 2019. “The Media Archaeology Lab as Platform for Undoing and Reimagining Media History.” In Hands on Media History, edited by Nick Hall John Ellis, 175-86. London: Routledge.
Media Archaeology Lab. 2022. “Home Page.” mediaarchaeologylab.com
Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What is Media Archaeology?. Cambridge: Polity Press.
striegl, libi. 2022. “Alternative Taxonomies.” mediaarchaeologylab.com/projects
Essentially, McLuhan said this to show that the forms and methods— the media—used to communicate information have a significant impact on the messages they deliver. ↩︎
These were some of the more interesting pieces in the collection as described in an interview with Emerson and striegl. ↩︎
libi striegl prefers using lower case letters in her name. You can find more about her work on her website: libirose.com ↩︎