This week, Mike Wittgraf and I went through what was left in the Working Group in Digital and New Media lab on the campus of the University of North Dakota. The lab had been little used over the last few years and, in general, the Working Group has lost momentum as an organization.
This spurred me to think about the history of the Working Group, it’s goals, the projects that it supported, and, of course, the material remains of the Working Group’s lab. This all fueled my own sense of nostalgia for this group and its irregular meetings, beer fueled conversations, and creativity. At the same time, I feel like I have a growing critical grasp of whether the Group lived up to our expectations.
These reflections have also prompted me to try to find some of the primary documents that the group created and to try to archive these. For example, here’s a link to the original white paper that funded the Working Group and here are two posts that capture the conversations we were having in the year leading up to the founding of the Working Group: The Potential for Digital Humanities at UND (December 2008), GIS Day and the Digital Humanities at the University of North Dakota (November 2008), and Digital Humanities, History, and Archaeology at the University of North Dakota: First Steps (October 2008). I archived our two formal reports from 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. I vaguely remember another report – perhaps from 2012 or 2013 – but I can’t find it in my records. I have drafts of a report from 2015 which I have also archived. I also have some images from our 2012 showcase archived here, our 2012 open house, and our 2013 open house here, and our 2013 “Digital Lightning” Event.
The paper trail provides a partial record of the Working Group’s activities and successes, but does little to reveal its struggles with mission, the fragmented character of much of the work in the lab, and the steady decline in use of the lab space and the group’s cohesion. The lab’s abandoned condition offered a tangible sense of the Group’s unfulfilled promise. As the campus has started to talk about installing a “maker space” in the library, I can’t help but wondering how the use of these lab spaces will develop over time and whether they’ll manage to foster the kind of collaborative ambition as we hoped would come from the Working Group lab space or whether these spaces will support a kind of customer model of lab use where various clients come and use the assets of the lab for their own projects and there is limited expectation of collaboration.
I’ve come to wonder whether such collaborative spaces as the Working Group lab don’t have their own trajectory of use with the initial investment in the space (and acquisition of technology and attendant modifications) coinciding with a wave of collaborative work. Over time, however, the competitive nature of academic work contributes to such collaborative spaces and collaborations being relatively fragile. The collaboration that brought about the initial investment ran its course and subsequent collaboration while sometimes emerging from the lab, also extended beyond its boundaries and allowed for the lab’s role as a central space to dissipate. Competitive grants, the need for distinctive tools and spaces, and the general shift in interest among scholars in the humanities and arts led ultimately to the abandonment of the lab space and the collective energy of the group.
While this might be read as a negative thing, especially as the physical space of the lab itself has declined, at the same time, I think the spirit of the Working Group continues in new and different projects, collaborations, and directions. The Digital Press is thriving, for example, even though it doesn’t make use of the lab space any longer. Mike Wittgraf continues to make digital music. Kyle Conway and Paul Worley have left UND, but continue to work along lines that they were developing while in the lab.
From a more archaeological perspective, the assemblage in the lab reminded me a bit of the assemblages that we documented in Corwin and Larimore Halls during the Wesley College Documentation Project. I read these assemblages as evidence for “boom surfing” where individuals purchase and maintain objects that had persistent value when surplus was most available. These objects were then maintained for as long as possible and repurposed in a wide range of ways. At the same time, since objects – particularly technology – purchased with grants tend to remain in the possession of the primary investigator, they rarely entered the larger pool of surplus objects curated and recirculated by the university. As a result, pockets of objects developed around campus that were too valuable to simply discard (especially under regimes of irregular boom/bust funding) but not valuable enough to be sought aggressively by the university for repurposing (despite the fact that most objects acquired by a grant managed by a university are owned by the university). This also speaks to the relatively rapid pace of technological change and the tendency for computer and other forms of digital tech to be disposable. The lab appears to have followed this trajectory with an impressive assemblage of relatively obsolete technology which have rather limited potential for reuse or revitalization.
In the end, the physical space of the lab and the larger collaborative spirit of the group have certain parallels. The tools and the networks in which the tools worked had similar trajectories of obsolescence driven, in part, by competitive and individualistic goals of academic research and the tendency of digital tools to become obsolete by the end of a project. While curation of tools, like the curation of professional and collaborative relationships, represented a useful strategy in response to the boom/bust and episodic development of research and funding, these practices preserved the collaborative structure much longer than its actual utility for any particular task at hand or project. Reactivating the collaborative relationships in a professionally productive way will most likely involve renewed investment in technology which will, once again, start the cycle of obsolescence.