Materializing the immaterial: experimental design as a historical method

Susan Aasman (University of Groningen, Netherlands)

In my presentation I would like to present and discuss a research method I am trying to develop – with some trial and error – in my teaching to history students about the way contemporary technologies of memory are shaped by and inscribed with cultural metaphors. How are our everyday archival media practices shaped by historically specific ideas of memory and how did they become models for design and use of media technologies? What expectations do we have when we store something on a hard disk or in the cloud? What socio-historical constructs are embedded in design in digital technology? To get a better grasp on this complex mixture of discourse, economic models, media technology and everyday practices, I worked with a group of media designers in a masterclass where they stimulated students to design a memory machine themselves. It helped the students to deconstruct often naturalized ideas between memory and technology. It inspired them to uncover “immaterial” ideas behind common and ubiquitous mediated memory practices, by materializing them in an experimental design.

Susan Aasman works as a senior lecturer and researcher for the History Department and the Department Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. She wrote her PhD thesis about the cultural history of home movies and is currently working as the principal researcher in a state funded project: “Changing platforms of ritualized memory practices: the cultural dynamics of home movies.”  

For more information see: https://homemoviesproject.wordpress.com/. Aasman has written on several media historical topics that include home movie making, cultural memory, autobiographical documentary and audiovisual archival practices.



Hands Free: Critical Disability, Alternative Interfaces, and a History of Quadriplegic Play

Stephanie Boluk & Patrick LeMieux (University of California, Davis)

From Atari’s joysticks to Nintendo’s D-pads to the twin sticks of Sony and Microsoft’s now-ubiquitous controllers, mass produced gaming interfaces are explicitly designed to correlate qualitative play to the binary states of digital buttons. In a closed system where input is thought to equal output, assumptions about audience interactions become design constraints and produce hardware and software tuned to the speed and scale of only certain forms of play. Whereas standardized control standardizes play and imagines normative players, alternative interfaces do not simply make videogames accessible, but radically transform what videogames are and what videogames can do. From a quadriplegic controller with a series of sip and puff sensors mounted to a mouthpiece, to an eye-tracking system built by an international community to aid an L.A. graffiti artist with ALS, this talk will offer a history of alternative videogame controllers through the lens of critical disability theory coupled with the hands-on study of a specific hands-free controller: Fred Davidson’s QuadStick.

In 1981 Atari referred Ken Yankelevitz, an aerospace engineer designing flight simulators for McDonnel Douglas, to help a quadriplegic teenager who wanted to play their videogames. Yankelvitz’s successful design for the QuadControl, a mouth-controlled joystick with three “sip and puff” sensors, began a short but significant history of alternative interfaces that included Nintendo’s mass-produced Hands-Free Controller as well as Davis’ Kickstarted successor to the QuadControl. Following scholars like Rosmarie Garland-Thompson, Allison Kafer, and Lennard Davis, this talk will treat disability not as an essential medical condition of specific bodies, but as a historical construction operating at the intersection of many discourses to produce what Garland-Thompson calls the “normate” body. This talk will not only challenge what Nick Montfort has termed “screen essentialism,” but will also resist the “controller essentialism” or “interface essentialism” that dominates contemporary game design.



The Performance of Science Presentation: A Live Video Essay

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, the Science Museum

Scholars working on the tacit skills revealed in histories of use have often used a language, like Tim Dant’s of ‘complex repertoires of gestures … variable emotional tone and gathering of sensual knowledge’ involved in operating old machines and instruments. In television, those performative gestures extend in front of the camera as well as behind.

Television producers in the 1950s and 1960s, as they worked to create effective genres of non-fiction television, mobilised not just new technologies but also new forms of performance. The history of the emergence of recognisable genres of science television reveals an emphasis on the on-screen mediators of science, and a focus on the qualities that made what was considered to be a ‘good’ scientific performance, whether in the context of live TV or in pre-made films for television broadcast. My argument is that what happened in front of the cameras should be considered as part of the same world of rediscoverable gestures, synaesthetics and performance as the behind-the-camera worlds of technicians. In fact, it should be possible to uncover – in a relational way – the interactions between the skills of camera operators and those of presenters and experts. The difference is that a significant number of ‘scientific’ performances – both assured and incompetent – are preserved in the programme archives that exist. This presentation accordingly sews-together different kinds of scientific performance – from cinema and television – to explore the nature and effect of scientists on screen.

Dr Tim Boon is Head of Research and Public History for the Science Museum Group and a historian of the public culture of science. He is responsible for developing the Museum’s research programme and for its public history programme, which is concerned with investigating the lay historical imagination as it relates to science and technology. He is responsible for SMG’s doctoral programme. His exhibitions include Health Matters (1994), Making the Modern World (2000), Treat Yourself (2003, with Ken Arnold) and Oramics to Electronica (2011). His first book, Films of Fact, was published in 2008, and he is co-editor (with Frode Weium) of Artefacts: Material Culture and Electronic Sound, Artefacts (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2013). He is currently developing a project on histories of use and tacit skills.



The Secret Psychosexual Counselling Tapes of Dr Joan Malleson

Jessica Borge, (Birkbeck, University of London)

In Spring 2012, whilst sniffing around for original and interesting source material upon which to base her Master’s thesis, Jessica Borge happened upon some promising recordings at the Wellcome Library, London. The recordings had been made by a Family Planning Association Medical Officer, Dr. Joan Malleson, and captured fifteen one-on-one sessions of psychosexual counselling from 1956.

Dr. Malleson is an unsung hero of the British birth control movement; she was a pioneer practitioner of psychosexual and infertility counselling, a founding member of the Abortion Law Reform Association, and the little-known inventor of the artificial insemination syringe. The tapes bring Dr Malleson’s unique personality and practice to life.

The richly detailed qualitative content of the Malleson recordings are a treasure trove of mid-Century attitudes towards sexuality, relationships and contraception, as well as a record of the doctor-patient relationship and of everyday sexual practices in the British household. They are a dream find for researchers, and Jessica promptly began transcribing them in readiness for qualitative analysis.

Unfortunately, however, the research then hit a major ethical snag; it turned out the recordings had been made without the knowledge or informed consent of their participants. Dr Malleson had recorded her nervous, trusting patients – who discussed their sex lives in detail – in complete secrecy.

Jessica felt she could no longer use the recordings…but what if she studied the tapes themselves, rather than the content? Could the project be rescued by asking how Dr Malleson captured the sessions, and why? To what end, exactly, were the tapes made in the first place and did anyone ever play them? This paper is the story of how an MA thesis was brought back from the brink by looking toward practical technologies as primary source material.

Jessica Borge graduated from the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advance Study, University of London, with an MA in Historical Research in 2012.  She is currently working on her interdisciplinary PhD thesis, “The London Rubber Company, the Condom and the Pill in 1960s Britain” at Birkbeck, University of London.



Recreation: Experimental Archaeology and the ZX Spectrum

Alex Casper Cline (Anglia Ruskin University)

In England, two factories are producing derivatives of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an early microcomputer designed in Cambridge and released in 1982. Replica devices are nothing new; derivative machines, unauthorised and licences clones, were produced in the eighties and nineties and marketed to Eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas. These machines were designed for popular dissemination, and were desirable because of the novelty and versatility of the machine on which they were based. Other devices were designed out of a desire to innovate upon the original design, maintaining the format for preservation purposes, or out of sentimental attachment. Alongside these machines, we find the ‘demoscene’, a diffuse community based around producing sophisticated, aesthetically striking displays. While the graphics and soundtrack would have once been impressive as demonstrations of technological advancement, they are now most striking because of their antiquarian mode of presentation. ‘Demos’ are produced across Europe even today, and provide a window into sustained experimentation with dated technology.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘new’ archaeological techniques of experimental archaeology and ethno-archaeology were adopted as powerful methods for understanding past environments and technologies. In the former methodology, researchers would experiment with production methods, attempting to produce objects, vessels or structures using speculative versions of traditional techniques. In the latter method, researchers would seek out active communities that might adopt or may have adopted techniques similar to the community being investigated. Through observation and interrogation, these techniques are recorded and related to other practices.

While media archaeology is now an established field of study, it arguably lacks an experimental or ethnographic practice comparable to its namesake discipline. This presentation shows how the visual and material cultures of the digital economy can be studied.



What is a Posthumanities Media Lab?

Lori Emerson, (University of Colorado)

Some theorists use “media archaeology” to undertake, as Geert Lovink puts it, “a hermeneutic reading of the ‘new’ against the grain of the past, rather than telling histories of technologies from past to present.” On the whole, media archaeology does not try to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe the present as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous range of possibilities. Another aspect of media archaeology is an interest in keeping alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls variantology—the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward, as he puts it, “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, I am interested in uncovering media phenomena as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media. This kind of variantological approach to media history can take the shape of discovering dead-ends or completely alternative versions of hardware or software. I regularly see this notion of variantology come to life in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes clunky oddities that find their way to the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL), usually through individual donations from owners who have some prescient sense of the value of their beloved machine that was, more often than not, a commercial failure. Thus, in this paper I will discuss the Vectrex gaming console (produced for only a year and a half, from 1983-1984, and currently housed in the MAL) as one particularly compelling example of a machine that was a commercial failure but that stands as a clear disruption to the narratives of progress I mention above.

Founded in 2009 and supported by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of English and the College of Media, Communication, and Information, the MAL gives students, scholars, and members of the general public access to obsolete, functional media from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first century for hands-on research, teaching, and research creation. In this regard, the MAL is unique. Perhaps most importantly and broadly, the MAL turns the concepts of “archive” and “museum” inside out in the interests of disrupting two interrelated, cultural tendencies: a) the tendency to create neat teleological arcs of technological progress that extend from the past to the present and b) the tendency to represent such arcs through static exhibits that display the outside and surfaces of these artefacts rather than their unique, material, operational insides. As such, I will discuss not only how the Vectrex’s user interface – via light pen and its system of vector graphics – provide users, especially gamers, with a broad spectrum of capabilities not available in contemporary game consoles, but I will also look at the operational underside of the machine as a way to get at how game consoles could have been otherwise and even still could be otherwise.

Lori Emerson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Founder/Director of the Media Archaeology Lab. She writes about media poetics as well as the history of computing, media archaeology, media theory, and digital humanities. She is currently working on a project called “Other Networks,” a history of telecommunications networks that existed before or outside of the Internet. She recently published Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, June 2014). She is also co-editor of three collections: The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, with Marie-Laure Ryan and Benjamin Robertson (2014); Writing Surfaces: The Selected Fiction of John Riddell, with Derek Beaulieu (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2013); and The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol Reader, with Darren Wershler (Coach House Books 2007).



PrtScn: Computer Screen Archaeologies from Display to Capture

Jacob Gaboury, (Stony Brook University, New York)

The computer screen is the background for most contemporary visual media. It is that which makes possible the image it displays, but it is rarely an object of critique itself. It is meant to go unnoticed, to recede from vision. While many fields are invested in what is displayed on the screen–its cultural significance or its narrative meaning–recent years have seen a turn away from these hermeneutic methods in favor a materialist approach to media technology. Yet this fascination with the hardware, software, circuits, and code that make possible contemporary digital technology has largely neglected the screen as a material object in its own right, one with a deeply heterogeneous history that intersects a variety of visual media forms.

This presentation engages in an archaeology of the computer screen to demonstrate the ways in which historical screen technology radically transforms our experience of digital images. While many of us have encountered historical images and visual media, often they are filtered or screened through contemporary display technology, or are simply preserved on analog media such as paper drawings or photography. To fully understand the history of digital images we must see and understand the ways in which they were displayed and captured. This presentation will take place as both an archaeological analysis of the computer screen–supplemented by original archival research and images–alongside a hardware demonstration of one of the earliest devices for computational display and capture: a Tektronix oscilloscope camera, used to produce graphical “screenshots” as early as the 1950s. By touching and handling archival screens our experience of digital images is radically de-familiarized, and we begin to see the ways in which digital media are enmeshed with a wide range of visual technologies.

Jacob Gaboury is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Visual Culture in the department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University. His research engages the history and critical theory of digital media through the fields of visual culture, queer theory, and media archaeology. He is currently completing a monograph titled Image Objects, which offers an material history of early 3D computer graphics from the 1960s to the 1980s, and is beginning a book on the queer history of computation titled On Uncomputable Numbers. Gaboury has held fellowships through the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Charles Babbage Institute, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Association of Computing Machinery, and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. His work has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Visual Culture, Media-N, and Camera Obscura.




Authenticity vs. Emulation: The case for preserving gaming equipment

Christian Hviid Mortensen, (Media Museum, Odense, Denmark)

In Denmark, the institution responsible for the collection and conservation of video games as cultural heritage is the Royal Library. Their strategy of preservation is to conserve only the information and data of the games and not the actual material platform on which the games are embedded and were originally played (e.g. magnetic tapes, vintage computers, CD ROMs, arcade machines). In the future, the games will be accessible to gaming researchers on designated contemporary computers via emulation technology. Some of the material carriers and equipment has been collected by museums but the status as museum artefacts prevent them from being handled by visitors as they are usually displayed behind glass.

However, visitor studies conducted at an interactive exhibition of gaming artefacts from the 1980s at the Media Museum shows that a significant element of the gaming experience is lost when we remove the authentic material carrier of the games. In addition, one could argue that the neutral setting and atmosphere of the library reading room further removes the games from the context and atmosphere for which they were originally intended and played, whether it be the arcade hall or the teenager’s room.

Currently such exhibition projects require cooperation with private collectors, who are under no legal obligation to preserve the gaming artefacts for posterity, as are public museums, and are thus more willing to let visitors handle them.

This paper will present findings from the visitor study and discuss the benefits and challenges of hands-on exhibitions of vintage gaming technology.

We argue that the museum exhibition can be an important way of communicating the sensual context of past cultural objects such as video games to the younger generations without a lived memory of this culture. If museum visitors are allowed to handle and play with vintage gaming technology, they almost inevitably compare this experience to contemporary technology. Differences in response time, tactile feedback and other aspects cause reflections on the development that has gone before. These insights would not happen with gameplays enabled via emulation technology.

Dr. Christian Hviid Mortensen has been a curator of media heritage at the Media Museum (Odense, Denmark) since 2007. His doctoral dissertation, Displaying Sound. Radio as Media Heritage (2014), addressed the issue of mediated sound as museum object. Currently Christian is doing research on media technostalgia, heavy metal music fanzines and the cyberpunk graphic novel Transmetropolitan. Christian is also part of the editorial board for MedieKultur. Journal of Media and Communication Research.


The Highs and Lows of Reuniting Men with their Machines

Vanessa Jackson (Birmingham City University)

There are significant gaps in our understanding about precisely how certain historical television and radio production processes actually worked. As the former operators of the technical equipment age and eventually die, unless their knowledge is captured, it will inevitably be lost. Carrying out video reconstructions of how pieces of now defunct equipment worked is one method of preserving this historical knowledge. However, such endeavours are far from straightforward, and present a number of potential pitfalls, as well as benefits.

Having carried out several video reconstructions with pieces of historic broadcast equipment, including 1” video editing, an outside broadcast truck, EMI and Pye outside broadcast cameras, as well as some radio recording equipment, I have experienced both the highs and lows of reconstructions as a research method:

  • The benefit of sharing a bit of history, and increasing our knowledge.
  • The frustrations and limitations around the equipment not functioning properly, or the full array not being possible.
  • The pleasure in seeing a historic piece of equipment work – or at least some of it work! Covering the process effectively in terms of the number of cameras, the editing, and making the videos accessible.
  • The respect for the expertise of skilled operators, using a piece of equipment they often haven’t seen or used for many years. Finding the right old men, the best working examples of the machines, and the material to use on them.
  • The unexpected revelation; frequently as part of the demonstration the operator will drop in some nugget about a production process, which hadn’t been asked for, is totally unexpected, but potentially adds to our knowledge. What the participants forget to tell you. Often, because the technicians were operating the equipment every day they assume that certain procedures are self-evident, when they frequently need detailed explanation.
  • The forgetting and the remembering. When the crafts person hasn’t seen the piece of equipment for many years, and is initially nervous about handling it, but once they literally get their hands on the equipment their haptic memory tends to take over, and their confidence returns.

This paper will consist of a presentation, accompanied by video clips to illustrate some of the triumphs and disasters of video reconstructions. The reconstructions referred to are part of the Pebble Mill project, a website: http://pebblemill.org, and associated Facebook page, designed to document and celebrate the programme making that went on a BBC Pebble Mill from 1971-2005.

Vanessa Jackson is a former BBC series producer, and now course director of the BA (Hons) Media and Communication, and degree leader of Television at Birmingham City University, teaching practical television production skills to undergraduates. She is studying, part-time, for a practice based PhD at Royal Holloway, in television historiography, under the supervision of Professor John Ellis. Her research interests include the history of television, as well as the uses of social media in community history projects. She has also published on the use of social media in enhancing student employability, and student engagement.



‘The Virtual Projection Box’: Cinema History and Digital Space

Michael Pigott, Richard Wallace (University of Warwick)

This presentation is a 30 minute demonstration of the ‘Virtual Projection Box’, an online space created by ‘The Projection Project’, an AHRC-funded research project running in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. ‘The Projection Project’ team is researching the history and representation of the figure of the cinema projectionist through a range of different methodological strategies and artefacts. These include: interviews with current and former UK-based projectionists; material found in industry and trade union archives; theoretical approaches to the history of cinema and technology; textual analysis of the representation of projection and the projectionist in cinema; the changing use of projection outside the cinema; and the sound of the projection box. Although overlapping concerns, each of these areas is the central focus of different strands of the project, overseen by different researchers.

The aim of the Virtual Projection Box (VPB) is to create a site which draws these various strands together to create a discursive, virtual space where the research materials can ‘speak’ to each other. Although the material is curated by the project team, users are able to freely navigate the space, and by doing so can make their own connections between the different strands of the project. Michael Pigott and Richard Wallace from ‘The Projection Project’ will explain the development of the VPB as well as show off some of its uses.

Dr Richard Wallace is Research Fellow on the AHRC-funded ‘Projection Project’ in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. He is also a member of the Centre for Television History, Heritage and Memory Research. He has research interests in British film and television history and technology, and screen documentary.



The transition to the Dolby SVA in Italy (1977-1982): a stratigraphy of technological change

 Ilario Meandri (University of Turin)

The history of Dolby SVA (Stereo Variable Area) in Italy, a nation that was a pioneer in its introduction, is an example of an exceptional stratification, where “old” and “new” media meet in unexpected way. The industrial promotional discourse tends to present each development in film sound as the advent of a new era. Yet, where a widespread adoption of a technical innovation worldwide appears as a global feature, a more attentive investigation reveals that same phenomenon to be glocal and multiform: the encounter with pre-existent practices provides an original response to technological change, if not a resistance and, often, a sui generis assimilation with which sonic style and artistic conceptions are interwoven.

I shall examine only one node of the sound post-production process – optical transcription – in the period which goes from the reintroduction to Italy of the so called magnetico pistato, a slightly modified version of CinemaScope’s 4-track stereo magnetic sound (the “frozen revolution” of the 1950s, cfr. Belton ). Its use was superimposed on the so-called magottico or magoptical, a wholly Italian peculiarity. The anything but linear Italian transition to Dolby SVA came about in this context and it took at least five years to become established (1977-1982). I shall reconstruct this history analyzing the changes made to the instruments – the optical recorders.

This inquiry is corroborated by a systematic investigation of the oral memories of the maintenance technicians and dubbing mixers. In conclusion I will also describe the main obstacles encountered during the collation of oral memories (discrepancies, “lies”, polarization between gesture-elicited memories and visual elicited memories as a consequence of work habits) and I will discuss this issue from the vantage point of the ethnomusicological and anthropological literature (cfr. Vansina 2006 – historical methodology and oral sources).



Belton, John. 1950s Magnetic Sound: The Frozen Revolution, in Rick Altman, Sound Theory/Sound Practice, Routledge, London 1992, pp. 154-157.

Calabretto, Roberto, Lo schermo sonoro, Marsilio, Venice, 2011.

Corbella, Maurizio and Meandri, Ilario (eds), Musica/tecnologia – Music/Technology, special issue: “Music, Sound and Production Processes in Italian Cinema (1950-75)”, 8-9, 2014-2015.

Meandri, Ilario, A History of Technique in Film Music and Film Sound Post-production in Italy. Methodological Remarks Complementary to an Examination of Oral Memories, in Annarita Colturato (ed.), Film Music. Practices, Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. Studies around “Cabiria” Research Project, Kaplan, Turin 2014, pp. 187-219.

Meandri, Ilario, International Recording (1959-1969): indagine sulle memorie orali, Kaplan, Turin, 2013.

Meandri, Ilario, Galvanometer and light-valves: An archeology of Dolby SVA in Italy, in Alberto Belrame, Giuseppe Fidotta and Andrea Mariani (eds.), At the Borders of (Film) History. Temporality, Archaeology, Theories, Udine, Forum, 2015, pp. 453-463.

Vansina, Jan, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, New Brunsiwck (NJ), Transaction Publisher, 2006.

llario Meandri, Ph.D., ethnomusicologist, is at present Assistant Professor at the University of Turin (Italy). He has carried out field research in Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. He has published essays and books both on “traditional” ethnomusicology and on film music and film sound. In recent years he has focused his field research on film music, Foley artists, sound post-production practices and history of sound recording during the Sixties and the Seventies.


Whose Hands on Whose History? Challenges, criteria, and decisions in simulation production

Amanda Murphy (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Where Producing for Television is all too often dictated by battle for audience share and the pressures of delivering extreme content or some kind of controversial intervention,, this paper examines the very different challenges and criteria when it comes to producing ‘Simulations’ for the Adapt TV project. From finding and casting Television’s more hidden behind the scenes stars many now in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s; to unearthing obsolete TV kit that needs cranking into operational use, as well as some of the more complex decisions around whose version of television history is to be told and to who…?

Amanda Murphy is Digital Producer on the ADAPT project. She oversees the filmed simulations that reunite technical TV personnel with the equipment they once worked with. Amanda is an established TV Producer and Executive Producer who has won RTS and Rose D’or awards for establishing hit series, Big Brother (she was Senior Producer of the first UK Big Brother in 2000), and Supernanny (she was the Founding Producer & Executive Producer for Channel 4 and on Supernanny USA for ABC in the United States). Amanda has produced many documentaries and prime time series and has served on RTS award panels. She is a visiting mentor and workshop tutor at NFTS and Brighton University and is presently developing new formats for television.



Re-Circulating Softalk: Cross-Sector Collaboration for the Visualization and Re-enactment of American Apple II Culture

Laine Nooney (Stony Brook University, New York) & Kevin Driscoll (University of Southern California)

The call for Hands on History 2016 aims to gather those using unconventional methods to study media technologies: amateurs-cum- preservationists, antiquarians and collectors, museum personnel occupied with restoration, and the media archaeologists of the academy. Our presentation, however, offers a different form of “experimental historical research” applied to the computational technologies typically addressed by such methods. For the past year, we have been using contemporary software-assisted techniques to analyze the epistolary culture that grew up around Softalk magazine, one of the earliest and most widely distributed Apple II enthusiast publications in the English language.

Our project focuses on Softalk’s rich collection of letters to the editor, found in each monthly issue in the section titled “Open Discussion.” Across its 48 issues, Softalk published more than 500 letters from its readers. We first extracted metadata from each letter, such as the age, gender, and geographical origin of the letter’s writer, and then coded the thematic content of each letter. We are also tracking how the letters responded to one another over multiple issues, forming multi-month conversation chains across the length of entire volumes. We have recently begun to map these conversations over both time and space, allowing us to diversify our understanding of computing history by showcasing the wide range of participants and interests that existed at this early period.

Such work is “hands on” in a distinct yet valuable way. With software-assisted techniques, we’re able to offer compelling visualizations that virtually “re-enact” historic patterns of use, engagement, and community formation among consumers who owned Apple II machines. While inclusive of discursive concerns, the data visualization component of this research helps emphasize the material character of this history–pinpointing where these objects lived geographically, the patterns of everyday use they sustained, and the way these machines reshaped the lives of those who came in contact with them. A core observation of this research is that users rarely made use of the technology “as-is.” Using the machine might involve any number of modifications or peripheral additions made to its design, casing, screen, or table apparatus. The machine, thus, is part of a network of materialities, many of which have not survived alongside the machines in question and which only become elucidated in concert with the other materialities that would have lived alongside many users’ engagement with the machine.

In this effort we are collaborating with Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky at the Softalk Apple Preservation Project (STAP). Salmons and Babitsky are self-described “de-jobbed citizen historians” who founded STAP as an effort to go “beyond” preservation. Our work on the Open Discussion forum represents one small piece of their larger ambition to transform the Softalk archive into a densely indexed, semantically rich network of information, addressable from across the web. As more preservation and memory work is done by enthusiasts and practitioners outside of traditional academic contexts, we endeavour for our collaboration with STAP–across disciplinary, institutional, and ontological boundaries–to be a model for media histories to come.

The Open Discussion section of Softalk offered a virtual community space for Apple computer owners years before most had access to any sort of online system. The letters published during those four years offer a unique view into the practices, problems, and values of early personal computing enthusiasts. This invaluable archive is available to us today thanks to the preservation labour of the Softalk Apple Project, a present-day knowledge-building effort that invokes the same spirit of experimentation and play that originally animated the pages of Softalk.

Laine Nooney (Ph.D., Stony Brook University) is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech. She is a cultural historian of video games and computing whose research interests include media archaeology, critical/feminist materialism, and technology and inclusivity. Nooney’s most recent work appears in Game Studies, and she is presently preparing a book manuscript on the corporate and cultural history of the home-entertainment software company Sierra On-Line, titled “Before We Were Gamers: Sierra On-Line and the Archaeology of Video Game History.” She tweets at @Sierra_Offline. For more information, see: http://www.lainenooney.com.

Kevin Driscoll (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research. His research concerns the popular and political cultures of networked personal computing with special attention to myths about internet infrastructure. He recently completed a dissertation tracing the pre-history of social media through the dial-up bulletin board systems of the 1980s and 1990s. Previously, he earned an M.S. in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught mathematics and computer science at Prospect Hill Academy.



The Conservator’s Task. The Case for Programmable Logic Devices as a New Tool for the Conservation of Digital Art

Fabian Offert (University of California, Santa Barbara)


As digital technology ages, the conservation of digital art becomes an increasing challenge to museums and collections. Early digital artworks have aged to a degree that all of their technical context, all of the technical setup to make them work, has been lost to attrition. Two basic strategies of conservation have emerged in recent years: substitution, the simple replacement of broken with either new or used parts, and portation, the adaption of a work to an entirely new technical context. This paper proposes a new intermediate strategy of conservation that is intended to complement these existing strategies. Unlike these existing strategies, however, the strategy of conservation presented here explicitly acknowledges the fact that the computer — as the medium of digital art — is a symbolic machine that exists in the material and the symbolic realm alike. Based on this acknowledgement, it suggests to treat conservation as translation, and thus to treat digital artworks as objects that can be translated from the material into the symbolic realm, where they can be stored redundantly and indefinitely. Finally, it posits that by using standardized hardware description languages as the translation target, and programmable logic devices as the medium of a digital artwork’s resurrection in the material realm, a level of conservation can be achieved that is unattainable with substitution or portation alone.


Fabian Offert is a curator and engineer interested in the theory and practice of contemporary computational paradigms. Currently, he is a doctoral student in the Media Arts and Technology program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before, he worked at ZKM | Karlsruhe, where he curated and managed several large-scale exhibitions. Other collaborations include Goethe Institut New York and IRCAM/Centre Pompidou. Fabian received his Dipl. degree from Justus Liebig University Gießen, where he was a student of composer and director Heiner Goebbels, with a thesis on “Information, Concept, Computability. The Computer as a Medium of Art”. As a fellow of the German Academic Exchange Service, he was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a fellow of the Regents of the University of California and an alumnus of the German National Academic Foundation.



Mapping Archaeologies of Mobile Media: Portable Devices Between Analogue and Digital

Maruša Pušnik, (University of Ljubljana)

This paper investigates the transformation of portable media players (the case of Walkman from portable audio cassette player, discman, minidiscman, MP3 Player, iPod to mobile phones/app music players) from the perspective of audiences – real users of portable entertainment devices. It treats portable media players as a site of memory (cf. Nora 1996), which can help understand and historicize the present mobile trends in media cultures. The study of such media devices through evoking people’s memories with the help of hands-on historical research and oral history interviews can help build new kind of history, which offers hidden aspects of these media technologies to a contemporary epoch that no longer holds these past experiences and practices. From the introduction of Walkman in the early 1980s in Slovenia, portable media devices have gone through many technological, cultural and social changes. Since the perspectives of production and consumption are intertwined, many authors (cf. Geraghty 2000; du Gay et al. 2013) suggest that to understand the culture surrounding the portable media technologies we have to pay attention to audiences and their uses, which affected the ways in which technologies were invented and how they evolved. This paper focuses on people’s memories and studies usages of Walkman to understand users of Walkman in their broader social and cultural past contexts. My study is based on the investigation of the history of Walkman technologies through hands-on simulations to observe how my informants (born in the 1960s and 1970s who were massive audiences of portable players in the 1980s and 1990s) reacted when being faced with this old or even dead media, how they identified with deep material structure of media technology (cf. Parikka 2012). I observe how they used it, what they did with it, how they subverted the mainstream usages and how the changes in music listening habits were introduced by allowing people to carry music with them when portable devices were developing from analogue to digital. Besides that, with portable media technologies in their hands, I was evoking also their (hi)stories regarding the contexts of uses of portable media devices.

However, people’s reconstructed uses and memories of media when faced with old technologies can help us to analyze the transformations of portable media in history and to understand the historical roots of contemporary mobile mediatised and digitalized worlds. Such critical attitude towards the history of portable media also reveals that ritualized media uses have profoundly changed and transformed mobile media rituals nowadays serve as attempts of reproduction of society in time in profoundly new ways, which are historically anchored in the first uses of portable media devices (cf. Rothenbuhler 1998).

Moreover, there exists yet another important aspect that needs to be taken into account when talking about hands-on historical approaches, which is a nostalgic one – as a kind of reflective nostalgia (cf. Boym 2001) for past media spaces and experiences. I observed that all my informants who were owners/users of old equipment in the moment when they started to use these old portable media devices, they started to build historical narratives in a very emotional and nostalgic way, but this nostalgia was not restorative or collectivist, but rather individual nostalgia. This does not mean a desire to restore the past media system, but it rather shows the feelings of people who cannot identify with new transcultural digital spaces.

The case of local uses of Walkman technology within the hands-on historical approaches in Slovenia helps to discover the development of portable media devices when presenting how media were used, preserved, subverted or discarded and their cultural meanings in different historical settings, but it also investigates the technological and cultural roots of global mobile digital world order through the practical uses, subversions and meanings of Walkman technology in the hands of first users of portable media players in Slovenia. The paper tries to answer the question how the media that predate today’s interactive, mobile, digital forms were in their time contested, adopted and embedded in the everyday (cf. Huhtamo and Parikka 2011).

Maruša Pušnik is Assistant Professor at the Department of Media and Communication Studies, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She teaches courses on history and theory of media, popular culture and everyday life. Her research interests include cultural history of media, collective memory and nationalism as communication process, and women’s genres. She published a book Popularizacija nacije (Popularization of nation, Ljubljana, 2010) and coedited a book Remembering utopia: the culture of everyday life in socialist Yugoslavia (Washington, 2010).


Re-creating impossible experiments: methodological reflections.

Koen Vermeir, (CNRS – Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris)

In the history of science, as in media studies, the reconstruction of historical technologies, practices and experiments is attracting renewed interest. The focus of most of these contributions is on canonical experiments and well known technologies or media. Historians have reconstructed Newton’s prism experiments or Joules experiments with the steam engine, for instance. In this paper, I will look not only at a less known technology, but at a media technology that is and was perceived by many as impossible.

The import of my paper is methodological. The general question I want to address is the following: How can historians reconstruct and recreate historical experiments without being presentist and positivist, i.e. without taking current experience and knowledge as a starting point? Looking at impossible technologies is the best way to address this question. I will clarify by means of a case study what is at stake.

My case study is about experiments with divining rods (or dowsing rods), which many people use still today to find hidden sources or streams of water. From the early modern period onwards, scientists have been sceptical of the phenomenon and have performed experiments to test and to understand it. But doing experiments with divining rods was not the exclusive province of scientists: also practitioners, police officers, and even theologians busied themselves with doing experiments. While diviners have continued to interpret the divining rod as a successful technology that mediates between the body and the hidden object, the current day scientific consensus rejects dowsing is an illusion or a fraud.

In my contribution, I will discuss what it means to replicate experiments that bear on contested knowledge or on controversies that are still not fully settled today. Indeed, even today, in the face of various debunking episode by physicists, professional archaeologists still use the technique to find archaeological remains, so the discussion is far from settled. My case study will thus juxtapose early modern cases (finding gold or criminals) with contemporary cases (the use of the divining rod in archaeology or for finding water).

Building on the material presented in this case study, I will inquire whether it is possible to reconstruct media technologies in which efficacy the historian does not necessarily believe, i.e., without taking our current experience and knowledge as a gauge. From this discussion, a further question follows: Does the replication method change the position of the historian from an observer to a participant in the long-term genealogy of the debates? Or in the terms of my case-study: Does replicating early modern divining rod experiments make the historian a participant in the continuing debate between scientists and practitioners?

Koen Vermeir is an Associate Research Professor (CR1) at the CNRS/Paris Sorbonne Cité in Paris, France. As a historian and philosopher, he has contributed to a wide array of fields. His main interests are in the history of the early modern imagination and in the interaction between religion and technology. Additionally, he works on historiographical and methodological topics and on science policy. After studies in theoretical physics, philosophy and history of science, in Leuven, Utrecht and Cambridge, he held research positions at the Fund of Scientific Research-Flanders, the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Harvard University, and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Vermeir was visiting fellow at Cambridge University and Cornell University, and visiting professor at the ETH Zürich. Vermeir is founder of and responsible for the research unit Histoire culturelle et interdisciplinaire des techniques (SPHERE); co-responsible for the research unit Recherches interdisciplinaires en histoire et philosophe des sciences (SPHERE); and former founding director of LIPSS, a science studies platform at the University of Leuven (Belgium). He is currently a member of the editorial board of: Journal for Early Modern Studies, Society and Politics, Artefact : Histoire & techniques, and the book series Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and International Archives of the History of Ideas.

The Sustainist Gaze

Kristof Vranken

Every day, we are inundated with sterile, technically slick digital images and online viewer experiences. Both still and moving images have lost a bit of their magic and tactility due to their profusion and the ease with which they can be created. Digital images are everywhere, making it easy to take them for granted and making them even commonplace in many instances.

Not only do photography and film attempt to respond to digital dominance, other disciplines like architecture, design and the visual arts are experiencing a growing suspicion of the digital process. We cannot deny the fact that the digital revolution was a tremendous step forward in terms of speed, quality and convenience. It has changed our way of seeing, thinking and acting enormously, but now that digital technology has become so firmly embedded in our lives, it is perhaps time to consider what we have lost.

This sense of loss is acknowledged by a recently established group of artists, photographers and filmmakers, whom we can best describe as post-­‐digital artisans. They use digital technology, but also fall back on old techniques and examine how they can combine these to arrive at a new, modern version of the profession. They are looking for something that digital technology alone cannot offer, namely tactility: the feel of the material, the experience, the magical moment when craftsmanship and non-­‐reproducibility develop. Something unique. It is far from a nostalgic look back in time, but is instead a critical view of the digital era.

In my research project ‘The sustainist gaze’, I examine the link between photography and Sustainist design. This is a movement within social critical design that argues in favour of sustainable design processes with a focus on ecology, innovation, craftsmanship and sustainability within a strong social context. Regarding photography from this perspective made me doubt the self-­‐evidence of my own predominantly digital work process and prompted me to return to ecological and traditionally analogue processes that were at the root of the discovery of photography.

One of these processes was the anthotype described by Sir John Herschel in 1842 in his paper “On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours, and on Some New Photographic Processes”, published in the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (vol. 133). The anthotype process is a fully organic process that affects the discolouration of natural pigments exposed to UV light. An anthotype is created by applying a photosensitive emulsion made from the colour pigments of plants, berries and flowers to a paper or cotton-­‐based paper and exposing it to sunlight for several days or weeks. The plant juice undergoes a chemical change during this process and becomes darker or lighter.

The image formed by the anthotype process is not permanent. If the print is exposed to light, it will continue to fade. But this transitoriness is precisely where the poetry and power of the image lie. The more it is viewed, the faster it disappears. Due to the temporary aspect of the image, the imperfections, the amount of work involved and the long exposure time, this procedure has never been popular, neither in the past nor today. Yet it is precisely these characteristics that make this process relevant once more today, as a counter reaction to the sterile digital image. It is the comeback and revival of the magical genesis of photography, a search for the imperfect and vulnerable image. The possibilities of this process are also endless. Not only does each plant respond differently to light, but the harvesting point, freshness, additives and soil are all parameters that affect the discolouration. After exposure, the traditionally produced prints can be digitally reproduced or posted online. But the tactile experience is retained in the original.

In my artistic research project, I intend to approach new, contemporary topics from the perspective of this old technique. One of these projects is a collaboration with Giacomo Piovan from the design studio SOCIALMATTER. Piovan seeks out ways to give abandoned and contaminated industrial areas back to the local community. For example, he is working together with the University of Hasselt on exploring possibilities to purify soil using certain species of plants that can absorb heavy metals. Together with Giacomo Piovan, I photograph these abandoned areas using the anthotype process. What makes these images even more unique is that they are created using plants from the location itself. In other words, the landscape contributes to the final image and, in doing so, adds a new and deeper layer to the work. An anthotype print is not a snapshot, but rather a tactile recollection of a moment in time that slowly fades, while continuing to carry its history and message with it.

We live in an age in which everything has to be faster, more efficient and more profitable. Reverting back to a process like anthotype, which requires time, is both unpredictable and imperfect, blows a fresh breeze through our experience of the image and gives us time to reflect on how amazing a photographic image really is. And has always been.



Geography and Re-enactment at Monument Valley: Using Mapping Technologies for Media Archaeology

Booth Wilson, (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Filmmakers shooting on location expose themselves to a numerous array of technological, economic, and social forces as they proceed in the daily tasks of production. One of the less appreciated of these is the specific geography of the location. One basic challenge is how to maximize the visual possibilities of the area within material and medial constraints. Film historians have explored using GIS (geographic informational systems) to research local exhibition but no one to my knowledge has made use of similar techniques to examine the historical practices of film production, even at a time when concepts such as “space” and “place” attract much interest from critics. I argue that this methodology provides a much-needed material basis to the increasing interest in location shooting as a production practice and in aesthetic/semiotic features of films such as the cinematic landscape. In this presentation I will present my research involving Ford’s films at Monument Valley, in which I use a combination of mapping software and scrutiny of individual film frames to plot precise locations from which footage was taken. Combined with extant production records, it is possible to virtually re-enact how historical film production proceeded with an unprecedented amount of precision in a manner more practical than actually visiting the location, though the latter would be desirable. Mapping out the specific shooting spots used in Ford’s films reveals how much of the appeal of the region laid in the geographic layout of its geological features, which is not discernible in an isolated film text. In addition to presenting some insights we can gain about visual and narrative design of an individual film, I will also suggest some possibilities for future use of this technique, including comparisons among larger bodies of films or historical analysis, and address some of its limitations and possible criticisms. If the basic question of directing is where to put the camera, maps provide a fruitful entry point to re-experiencing past acts of making. It likewise can re-sensitize our perception of arguably the most famous film location that today has been reduced to the status of a visual cliché.


The next 15 years: Technical Extinction and Inoperable Mnemotechnics

Deborah Withers, (Independent Researcher)

There is a common consensus among audiovisual archivists that the next fifteen years will mark a profound change in our ability to access a range of recorded media. As an unprecedented era of technological obsolescence awaits, memory institutions large and small, as well as individual collectors, will have to confront the fact that a significant proportion of currently playable media artefacts will become inoperable due to a lack of functioning machines, prohibitive costs of transfers and degrading media carriers. This paper will frame this unique historical situation in relation to discourses of extinction by asking: What happens when vast numbers of exterior mnemotechnical organs that compose human memory and consciousness die? What can our novel historical-technological context tell us about the transmission of culture when accessibility to mnemonic-technical forms is driven by dynamics of accelerated obsolescence motivated by the interests of (neoliberal) capital? This paper will be informed by my work with Great Bear Analogue & Digital Media, a Bristol-based company that specialises in the digitisation of magnetic tape and the restoration of obsolete analogue and digital tape machines. Theoretically it draws on the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler, whose thinking on the technical composition of the human offers exciting ways to theorise the relationship between consciousness and the technically mediated environment.

Deborah Withers is a writer, researcher, curator and publisher. Their academic work has been published in the Journal of Oral History, Women: A Cultural Review, the International Journal of Heritage Studies, and the European Journal of Women’s Studies. They are a regular contributor to the Great Bear tape blog (greatbear.net/blog), which discusses issues relating to the preservation of magnetic tape and obsolete tape machines. Deborah’s book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage was published in 2015.