Posted on 2015/12/23 by

Interview with Dr. Maria Gurevich, SHiFT Lab, Ryerson University

The SHiFT Lab (Sexuality Hub: Integrating Feminist Theory) is affiliated with the Department of Psychology in Ryerson University, and focuses on integrating feminist poststructuralist and discursive practices into the study of sexual practices, technologies, and messages. Their current research spans a wide spectrum of topics: examples include research into the sexuopharmaceutical industry, discourses of gender transgression, and analysis of mainstream pornography in a postfeminist context.

While I haven’t visited their space in person, I found out about the lab through a quick search on Google. Though their website is still under construction, it showed up within the first results for “sexuality studies lab canada” for me, with their mandate and team of researchers highlighted. The website also outlines many of their current research projects and publications.

I had a chance to ask the lab director, Dr. Maria Gurevich, a few questions over email regarding the practices of the lab. While the SHiFT lab is not a media lab in the traditional sense, Dr. Gurevich defined it as “a critical sexuality scholarship lab. We study many influences on sexuality, including the role of media as a purveyor of messages.” The lab is affiliated with the Psychology Department, and the influence of media is apparent in much of their work ­— examples of media studied include sex blogs, contemporary queer magazines, pornography and erotica, and sexuopharmaceutical marketing.

In terms of physical space, Dr. Gurevich explained, “Our lab is not defined by a physical space but is rather a community of researchers. We have a couple of rooms where grad students and RAs share study space — that’s what most psych labs look like, unless they are conducting experiments.” (The SHiFT lab does not perform experimental work, but rather qualitative research.) The heterogeneous nature of their research assistants and graduate/undergraduate students is apparent — as the site notes, the team comes from “a variety of backgrounds in addition to psychology, including journalism, art and music theory and practice, film studies, philosophy, sociology, history, and sexual diversity studies.” This lends to the “multi-disciplinary approach” fostered by the lab, and I think indicates that the relationship between media and sexuality is an omnipresent research interest within a wide spectrum of the humanities.

The questions below were tailored to highlight the driving philosophies behind the lab, as well as the process of integrating technologies, discursive analysis, and various forms of media into research.


You mention a feminist discursive approach as one of your central analytic tools in research. Could you briefly touch on how/why you decided to shape your process this way?

We rely on feminist discursive approaches to analyze our data because this epistemic lens acknowledges that knowledge is perpetually negotiated in social interactions and institutional contexts. This approach also questions binarized gendered and sexed categorizations that structure personal and cultural narratives, and calls attention to dominant discourses that construct and constrict available subjectivities. In other words, this epistemic lens questions what is considered legitimate and ‘normal’ based on privilege, power, and access, which may be afforded or barred to specific individuals or groups based on their gender and sexuality markers.

Discourse analysis (DA) is part of a long tradition of discursive psychology, wherein language is viewed as central to identity production and practices. DA treats talk as a type of situated action, acknowledging that language is not a transparent or value-free vehicle for conveying meaning; rather, meaning is created and transmitted through language itself.


It’s interesting the way language is evolving around sexual technologies in particular, with sexnologies, teledildonics, etc. becoming ubiquitous terms. As a researcher in this field, do you participate in “coining” new jargon to talk about these technologies or their effects?

Yes, the language is rapidly developing and shifting. Given the lab’s emphasis on identities as historically contingent forms organized through talk, and our view that gender is a ‘practical accomplishment’ (West & Zimmerman, 2009) that is navigated and negotiated under specific cultural conditions, we are very cognisant of how we contribute to the formation of new terminology. One of my chief intellectual and aesthetic pleasures (and they are inseparable for me) is crafting new linguistic structures to describe emerging sexual phenomena. I would not refer to these as jargon, however, as this has a pejorative and/or elitist tinge in some circles. Rather, I think of this as an inevitable part of developing a mobile lexicon for describing shifting body regulation and modification practices, sexual scripts and intimacy norms.


On that note, what’s your process in terms of the sexual technologies you choose to study? With newer models, modifications etc. developing so quickly and constantly, how does a longer research project sustain an understanding of technologies which are somewhat in perpetual “update?”
Because we consider sexual technologies to be broader than physical or virtual platforms, that include modalities like pornography, sexual expert advice and, sexuopharmaceuticals, we are not so interested in capturing the very latest X.0 version of a specific technology. Rather, we focus on how ubiquitous some technologies are becoming and how they function to shape gendered subjectivities as situated practices, or ways of ‘doing’ gender. This permits us to focus on meaning making and practices shaped by emerging technologies, rather than the technologies qua technologies.


Your project “Intimate Interfaces for People with Disabilities” is developing a working technological prototype to support sexual experimentation for persons with disabilities. Can you talk a bit about the process of moving from research into the realm of creation?  

 I can’t speak to this one, as I am co-investigator on this project and my role in not on technological prototype development. The PI is an engineer, so she is responsible for the actual model building. My focus is on the psychological aspects, such as user experiences.


Currently, it looks like you’re researching STAXYN, which is noted to be a “growing but empirically virtually ignored sexual practice” in your abstract. What contributed to your decision to delve into a relatively unresearched phenomenon — and, as I’m guessing there are many such practices out there, what interested you most in this one? 

This is part of a larger project on recreational use of sexuopharmaceuticals, with Staxyn and Stendra being the most recently approved drugs. STAXYN is particularly interesting because its marketing explicitly emphasizes its safety and suitability for younger men without erectile dysfunction (ED), for whom stress is cited as contributing to occasional erectile difficulty (Canada Newswire, 2011). The benefits of STAXYN promoted by both physicians and Bayer Healthcare/GlaxoSmithKline (its manufacturer) for younger men are: low cost, efficacy unaffected by alcohol consumption and sleek packaging. As sexuopharmaceutical marketing expands the definition of ED and its intended users, these drugs are being touted both as performance enhancers and as a preventative measure against sexual failures among younger and younger men. The therapeutic claims of these drugs extend beyond rectifying failing erections, to assertions about enhancing sexual desire and pleasure, repairing relationships, enhancing self-esteem, and bolstering masculinities. These promises are being taken up by an increasingly broader spectrum of users. Recreational use is now steadily growing among those without ED, such as young men between the ages of 17-30.

Thanks again to Dr. Gurevich for participating in this interview. To learn more about the upcoming initiatives of the SHiFT lab, you can visit their current projects page here.

Posted on 2015/12/18 by

An Interview with Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort heads up the Trope Tank, a media lab at MIT, where he is also an associate professor specializing in digital media. He has authored several books, including Twisty Little Passages, a study of interactive fiction, and the upcoming Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. I had the opportunity to correspond with him about his work.


Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. In your technical report about the Trope Tank, “Creative Material Computing in a Laboratory Context,” you wrote that “in reorganizing the space, [you] considered its primary purpose as a laboratory (rather than as a library or studio).” Your desire to distinguish the Trope Tank from libraries and studios strikes me as an interesting place to start thinking about what a media lab is—by first thinking about what it isn’t. Could you describe how the layout of the Trope Tank sets it apart from those other kinds of spaces?

Libraries are set up to allow people to read and consult collections, typically books but other sorts of media as well. Studios are for artmaking; classically they should have good natural light. Archives are for preserving unique documents, and direct sunlight is undesirable.

By explaining that we’re not an archive, I mean to stress that the materials we have are for use, not to be preserved for decades. The Trope Tank isn’t a library in that the main interactions are not similar to consulting books. And we aren’t mainly trying to produce artworks, either. There are aspects of these, but the main metaphor for us is that of a laboratory where people learn and experiment. So we have systems set up for people to use, not stored in an inaccessible way that will best preserve them. We aren’t worried with managing collections and circulation in the way a library is. It’s okay if the outcome of work in the Trope Tank is a paper rather than a new artwork.

At the same time our model is not a pure innovation — it is based on how labs work.

I’ve had some trouble understanding the concept of media labs. In your report, you effectively sum up my problem: “Humanists are familiar with libraries and their uses, artists know what studios are and some of the ways in which they are used, but a laboratory is not as familiar in the arts and humanities.” Unfortunately, you also state that this lack of familiarity “can, ultimately, only be addressed by doing laboratory-based work that leads to new humanistic insights and significant new artistic developments.” 

I’ve never done lab-based work. Can you help me understand why “laboratory” is an appropriate classification for the Trope Tank? Might “workshop,” with its multiple meanings (it’s a space for working with technology and also a collaborative activity with intellectual, creative, and/or practical components), serve even better? 

Workshops are mainly for making or repairing things; laboratories are for inquiry, but that includes conducting inquiry in a practical way that can involve making.

I’m interested in the dilemma you present: the incommunicable quality of lab work. It reminds me of something Matt Ratto said about how critical making communicates concepts to the body, not just the brain. That material, tactile, experiential aspect strikes me as a fundamental difference between lab work and conventional humanities scholarship. What is your take on that?

There are aspects of traditional humanities scholarship, such as that in the material history of the text, also called book history, which are quite similar to our lab-like approach. With regard to this type of work in the humanities, we’re also learning from a tradition rather than developing an entirely new idea.

What are some of the things, whether tangible or intangible, that the Trope Tank produces?

The Trope Tank is for producing new insights. It isn’t about production in an industrial or consumer sense, or for that matter even mainly in an artistic sense.

In connection with my first question, could you tell me how the insights produced in the Trope Tank differ from those which more traditional humanities scholars might produce in a library and also how the media lab’s creative output compares with what one would expect to come out of a studio?

I think one of the answers is in how our projects sometimes lie outside of standard scholarship or standard artistic production. The Renderings project is a good example of this. We’ve translated and in some cases ported or emulated digital poetry from other languages. Most conventional literary translators have no idea what to make of this literary translation project. It involves study of and reference to earlier projects to translate electronic literature and constrained and avant-garde writing. The result is not well-understood (in the visual art world certainly) as artistic production, though.

In other cases we have studied digital media and art in ways that cut across platforms (the Apple //e) instead of confining themselves to standard categories of videogame, literary work, etc. This makes new connections between quite obviously related digital works that have never been considered alongside each other before.

Could you tell me what a typical day at the Trope Tank looks like? Who uses the space on a daily basis and in what capacity? What is it like for you to work in that space?

I don’t think there are typical days. We host class visits at times, have discussions with visiting artists and researchers at times, engage with software and hardware in quite specific and directed ways at times, and use systems in a more exploratory way at times. We have meetings with larger or smaller numbers of people or work individually. Often the people involved in the Trope Tank work from other places, if they don’t need the material resources of the lab. The Trope Tank isn’t an assembly line or Amazon warehouse in which the same activity happens all the time.

Having very fond memories of playing Infocom games (the Zork and Enchanter trilogies) on my father’s Apple IIe, I was a bit startled to learn that the Trope Tank hosts a community which is still developing the interactive fiction genre. In retrospect, it seems obvious that so much of the genre’s potential was never explored back in the 80’s. Why the enduring interest? What is the relevance of this sort of work in the context of contemporary literary production and game design? 

The question of why interactive fiction is still interesting deserves a book-length answer (Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort, MIT Press, 2003) or a documentary film-length answer (Get Lamp, Jason Scott, 2010). The main way interactive fiction relates to contemporary literary production and game design is that it is contemporary literary production and game design. Beyond that, it’s not simple to say how interactive fiction, still being made in very compelling ways, relates to other forms of literature and game. You would do well to consider specific works of interactive fiction and specific people, and how they relate to other sorts of literature and gaming.

Your book is on my holiday reading list, and I’ll see if I can track down that documentary. Thanks for that.

The book is a bit antiquated by now — no coverage of Twine and today’s popular (and sometimes radical) hypertext interactive fictions, for instance. But, I hope it’s still worthwhile.

Your upcoming book is intended to teach basic coding skills to workers in the arts and humanities. What inspired you to take on this project? Who will benefit from it most? More importantly, how can I, an aspiring fiction writer, benefit?

The book was mainly motivated by particular people in the arts and humanities who are interested in programming but who have not been finding the support to learn about it. I also saw that there was little high-level interest (in writing about the digital humanities, in curriculum committees, etc.) in teaching programming — even though millions of people learned how to program just for fun in the 1980s. Exploratory programming is about learning and discovery, not about instrumental uses. So, I would suggest that you and others in the literary arts can benefit by understanding powerful new ways to think and to amplify your thoughts using computation.

Thank you for taking the time to correspond with me.

Posted on 2015/12/17 by

Bums in Seats: Queer Media Database of Canada/Québec

The Uniter, October 15 2015.

The Uniter, October 15 2015.

The lights dim for the second of two screenings titled Matraques, a special event curated and organized by the Queer Media Database of Canada/Québec in collaboration with the queer film festival Image+Nation. The two-part screening is composed of twenty-one vignettes, each a short film or extract about the history of literal and metaphorical policing of queers in Canada. As the screenings end and the Q&A session starts, two things become evident. One: many people in the room know each other and others are being readily introduced, which makes knowledge of Canada’s queer history emerge out of the realm of shared collective memory, intensifying the already deeply communal nature of the event. Secondly, the bodies in the seats range from undergrads to seasoned film enthusiasts. Witnesses connect and respond to the programming on a visceral level, which for the younger people in the crowd enhances the immediacy of this history as represented in films that otherwise might have come across as demagogical or didactic. Judging by how no one feels like leaving Concordia University’s Cinema de Sève long after the films have finished, the screening is a resounding success.

A couple of days before the screening, I met up with Dr. Thomas Waugh and Jordan Arseneault. Prof. Waugh is Research Chair in Sexual Representation and Documentary Film at Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema and president of the Queer Media Database Canada-Québec. Waugh’s books include the anthologies The Perils of Pedagogy: The Works of John Greyson (with Brenda Longfellow and Scott MacKenzie, 2013); the collections The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema (2000) and The Right to Play Oneself: Looking back on Documentary Film (2011); the monographs Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall (1996), The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Sexualities, Nations, Moving Images (2006), Montreal Main (2010). He is also co-editor of the Queer Film Classics book series. Arseneault is the coordinator of the Queer Media Database Canada-Québec, as well as a drag performer, social artist, writer, meeting facilitator, translator and former editor of 2Bmag, Québec’s only English LGBTTQ monthly magazine.

According to the website, the purpose of the Queer Media Database of Canada/Québec is to “is to maintain a dynamic and interactive online catalogue of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Canadian film, video and digital works, their makers, and related institutions.

Thomas Waugh. Source: Concordia University.

Thomas Waugh. Source: Concordia University.


How did the project come to be?
TW: There is a historic basis for the Media Queer Database. 20 years ago, when I started developing an encyclopedic project on Canadian queer moving image media, I saw and documented everything I could, thousands of short and long works. This documentation ended up in print form in my 2006 book The Romance of Transgression in Canada as an appendix to the main critical and analytic body of work. There are about 350 institutions and individuals embedded in the individual works that were catalogued and described. That print database festered and within five or six years we decided to bring it to life as a kind of living digital archive, using a Wiki model that would be maintained over time. My job is to supervise Jordan and other people working with the project, as well as guide the advisory board and push the project along. I try to empty my brain of data.

What do you mean by “Wiki model?” Does taking the online encyclopedia as a model imply a collaborative, open-source aspect for the archive?
JA: Copyright-wise, we decided to make it creative commons, which is different than a lot of academic material. This is a part of our mandate. There is also a submission form on the website. In other words, people can’t live-edit like they do on Wikipedia, but we do regular updates based on the submissions people give us. As the coordinator of the project, I periodically take the submissions that people have made, look at who we need to biographize, and then enter their filmographies, translate them, and so on.

Is there a lack of attention paid to Canadian queer cinema that this project is trying to address?
TW: Absolutely. Canadian work, especially in French, tends to become invisible in the global market. This is why we are committed to maintaining access to and visibility of these works. For this reason, the second phase of the project, once the website was up and running and our funds secured, became about programming. The Sunday event, Matraques, will be our fifth program of short and long films screened in the festival context in Canada. We are going international in 2016, with programs in India, France and Italy.

How is the project funded?
TW: We get funding from Concordia University, Canada Council, Heritage Canada and SSHRC. We also have partnerships with organizations across Canada who contribute moral support, facilities and some money, mainly in the form of accommodations and venues.

How has applying to these institutions and being helped by them verbalized the project?
TW: That is a very clever, Canadian question. Canadian culture and education are very much shaped by grant applications and criteria that everyone is scrambling to meet.

JA: We have been extraordinarily blessed with understanding on the part of these juries. People seem to get it. We applied for project funding that emphasized the national scope, research creation, public access to archival works… These are some of the trends we’ve tapped into. On the other hand, we haven’t been successful with one provincial funder who couldn’t conceive why we weren’t also streaming films. For them, a website hosting descriptions of artists and films did not really mean that much. Having said that, and having done the grant writing on the project since 2013, I find that there has been a very nice wave of understanding about the inherent value of having open-source material available on historic works. The AIDS Activist History Project, which is run by Alexis Stockwell at Carlton University and which collects oral history, interviews and names of activists and artists, has been similarly successful in that people understand how valuable primary source materials are.

TW: Streaming the films would also be great, but we can’t deal with the legality and materiality of rights ownership. Not only is it counter to our philosophy of copyleft and access, but it would also be a full-time industrial activity to maintain rights for 3,000 works. In fact, we want to support the distributors, exhibitors and rights owners who are doing their best to provide access to these works.

What are the project’s other institutional ties across Concordia? Prof. Waugh, you are a FIlm Studies professor at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, which also runs the Moving Image Resource Center here at Concordia.
TW: We are friends with them all. My primary unit is obviously the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, that’s our nerve center in a way. However, it might be bodies that matter rather than institutions. This would not be happening if it wasn’t for individual people’s passions and obsessions.

Jordan Arsenault. Source: Facebook, posted with permission.

Jordan Arseneault. Source: Facebook, posted with permission.

We are sitting in Concordia’s Fine Arts PhD Study Space here in the Fabourg Building in downtown Montreal, where the office for the project is located. How does one go about acquiring a space like this? How does it help you achieve your goals?
JA: We had to do an application to the Faculty of Fine Arts, which includes conversations about outcomes, partner grants and byproducts, including how many student employees there are. There is a strong pedagogical component to the project, the training and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students involved in the project either as interns or employees. That was a requirement for obtaining the space. In that sense, the project is part of the larger Fine Arts pedagogical operation. This space is sort of weird, with all the VHS cassettes and lots of cardboard boxes. There is some technology here, but we don’t really use that stuff (laughs).

JA: When I need to transfer what we’ve received from a filmmaker on beta to MiniDV to DVD, I have to go to one of our partner organizations. At best, we could hobble together a VHS-to-DVD [converter]. In other words, there could be more technical equipment here, but we are happy to have obtained this space as a place for the project to legally have an address. In a way, the materiality of this space reflects the obsolescence of a lot of material and technology we deal with: from festival catalogues to films on formats ranging from tape to DVD.

Within the next two years, what began as a distant pipe dream for many of the organizations we work with, making the films legally streamable online, will finally be a reality. This is maybe forty percent of the materials we are talking and writing about.

TW: We will host direct links to these works. We will remain necessary because none of the distributors are queer per se. We need to claim kinship with all these objects and people; otherwise, they remain unidentified. The distributors, out of politics of impartiality, do not play the game of naming that is essential for us. The presumption of community and kinship through naming is at the core of the project.

Moreover, I like the concept of materiality, as it segues into corporeality, and the audience’s bums in seats. They are the ultimate matter of this project to me, so it is very exciting to meet them all across the country and see them discovering these works.

The knowledge that emerges out of the database is embodied in the screening events that seem central to the project. Could you tell me more about these events?

JA: We will have organized nine such events across Canada by the end of the inaugural year. In Toronto, for example, we were in the Buddies in Bad Times community theatre in the Village, where, even though we presented with the Inside Out film festival, we screened during Pride rather than compete for attention in the festival context. The event was sponsored by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and it was in dialogue with so many other events. In Vancouver, on the other hand, we were in the very chic Vancity Theatre and that was a more traditional cinema experience, with all the trappings of a film festival.

How do you envision these events? What kind of audience engagement are you trying to create, and what kind of “look and feel” do you think is the most conducive to the project?

JA: We do two different things. In Winnipeg, we were showing a film called Prison for Women by Janis Cole and Holly Dale, as well as Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre, a very crypto-gay film. However, I did a salon with local filmmakers, curators and their local distributer called Videopool the day before in order to get input about what we are missing in the catalogue. Before coming to this project, the screenings I’ve attended and organized were about hanging a sheet and acquiring enough folding chairs in order to watch a film that someone physically brought from the Berlin festival, for example. Film festivals are important for the legitimization of queer cinema, and so is the sense of community. That is why I love that sort of artisanal, communal, “pink popcorn” practice of spectatorship where people don’t mind if they don’t have the perfect line of sight. So in Winnipeg we got to do both a venue screening and a salon. We are doing another salon this coming January at Videofag, a queer space in Toronto where we will again be talking about what is missing from the archive and what our next foray of research should be.

What are the requirements for being added to the database?
JA: To be included, the work needs to have been shown twice publicly. Otherwise, the profusion of eligible works would be astronomical. We are still considering self-published work. For example, with web-based work, if it has been seen 1,300 times, that might count as a public showing. Because, let’s be clear, in the Canadian art realm, a majorly distributed work might have been shown fourteen times. It’s all still very indie.

What links everything from the latest Xavier Dolan film to a lesbian stop-motion animation about bunnies is the political significance of self-describing as queer and ascribing queerness to an art object. I wonder when that might be made obsolete. However, a part of me thinks that structural homophobia and misogyny will continue be present to such a degree that an explicit queer lens on the moving image will always be useful.

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Posted on 2015/12/17 by

Bedroom as Beadwork Lab?: An interview with Cedar-Eve Peters

Cedar-Eve Peters is an Anishnaabae visual artist and beader from the Ojibwa nation, currently based in Montreal. Cedar sat down with me to discuss the nature of her workspace and its relationship to her beading practice. We also grappled with a question previously asked on the dhtoph blog: “do we really need a designated space for work that we can just as easily do at home or our favorite coffee house?” 

The transcription has been edited for clarity.

So how would you describe your lab space?

Very messy. Like right now it’s very disorganized.

Could you talk about where it’s located?

Oh yeah. My workspace is also my bedroom, so sometimes that’s annoying because I can’t separate workspace from sleep space. I guess it’s kind of organized. Everything’s in containers at least, but it just seems like things are all over the place right now.

What would you say the workspace itself consists of?

Mm…beads? You mean the materials?

Not so much the materials but the things your going to use. Like this chair, and that desk, the way it folds down, the cutting mat and the loom, your boxes of beads; these are all things that you need to get this work done.

Yeah. I guess I don’t think about that. Containers and shelves. Mostly containers I guess. A bunch of lights.

A surface?

Not so much right now. [laughs]

Surface space must be essential being that you need to be able to see all these tiny beads.

Yeah, if the surface isn’t clean then I feel like I can’t think straight, so that’s annoying. But also, it helps in a way cuz I’m just like, stimulated by everything thats around.

Is that a positive to working in your bedroom?

No. [laughs] I don’t think so. Read More

Posted on 2015/12/16 by

Electronics & Artistic Production: Interview with the lab coordinator of Eastern Bloc


Eastern Bloc is an artist-run centre and media lab in Montreal. Since 2007, it has been exploring and pushing the boundaries of the intersections between art, science, and technology. By facilitating hands-on workshops, the centre sets itself apart from commercial galleries insofar as it not only exhibits digital and new media artworks, but helps to educate and provide resources for their production.

The lab’s mandate states that it “provides a platform for experimentation, education and critical thought in practices informed by hybrid, interactive, networked and process-driven approaches.” This includes a mandate to offer a shared lab space involving tools and resources for electronic and digital/new media art. Operating such a lab includes offering technical support, engaging with the community, and reaching out to people who are interested in the artistic use of technology, but may be without the means of producing it. Ideally, this is all in the service of the democratization of technology in a time when we are increasingly alienated from it, despite its prevalence.

I spoke to the Lab Coordinator, Martin Rodriguez, in order to get a better sense of what happens here.

What, if anything, would you say you produce? Is there something material that comes out of this lab, or is it something more intangible, like “knowledge”?

There’s a lot of music synthesizers that are being produced here. That’s one of the main things. There’s a lot of audio works that are happening in our lab right now. We can do everything from fabricating the PCB board, which is like the electronics aspect of it, like just the circuit so you can do multiples. We can make all the casings for them, so there’s the CNC machine which would allow you to cut the wood. Hopefully we will be able to cut aluminum with that.

We also have various different types of woodshop tools. We have a 3D printer there, which we just got up and running. That will allow artists to design 3D objects that are more complicated, something that you couldn’t do with a regular wood and milling machine.

Our lab is really geared toward the creation of electronics projects. What I mean by that is we don’t really have a lot of computers in here, it’s not really made for people to be programming software. So we have all the materials you would need for soldering, and different types of wires. Stranded wire and solid wire, different components, different resistors and capacitors.


Do you think a large part of what you do is educating people on how to use these materials? Or is it more of a resource for artists who already have the knowledge to have access to equipment?

The way our lab functions is a little bit of both. We have lab members who pay a fee to have access to the lab 24 hours a day. They often bring a lot of their own equipment because this is just standard stuff. We also offer workshops, which is a way of generating income for ourselves. But it’s also a way for us to talk to the community. I think a lot of the workshops here are getting people to feel comfortable, and understanding what media and electronic art is. So a lot of our workshops will be like intro to arduinos, or introductions to MaxMSP, Pure Data, or Python. And we also have other workshops which are more like, how to do VHS glitch art. We’ve had workshops that are more panel-based, discussions around artists and their processes.

How do you choose who does the workshops? Do you have artists come in or is it the staff that hosts them?

Because the lab is attached to Eastern Bloc, which is an artist-run centre, we have a mandate to support emerging artists so we offer workshops that are given or facilitated by emerging artists. Oftentimes we find that is more engaging or interesting. Because Youtube is such a powerful thing right now, people can find videos and find out how to build a lot of stuff there, but what’s interesting is coming here and being with an artist and finding out what their whole process is.

What is the relationship of the gallery to the lab? Are their projects similarly aligned? Do you integrate the workshop element into the exhibitions?

Yeah, that’s one thing I’ve been trying to pull in recently with the lab. When we have an artist who comes and presents something to also present a workshop. In the summer, an artist called MSHR came and presented here, and after their presentation we tied in a DIY synth workshop. We had these biopolitics exhibits that happened during Fall with workshops tied in. We also have an artist residency program, where an artist will have full access to the laboratory for 2-3 months, and at the end of that they’ll present what they’ve built during that period.


What are your feelings on the space itself? What is its story, and how does it shape the lab?

We’re currently in the process of acquiring more space for the lab. It’s quite small as you can see, it’s under 500 sq feet. So we wanted to switch it over to where the offices are. Right now there are only two of us working, but with interns we can get up to about 5-7 people in the office. The lab needs to be bigger, there are more demands and we need more tools.

A bigger space would allow us to have more machines. If you go to some of the FabLabs, like FabLab du PEC, which is in Hochelega, they have a much bigger space and a lot of interesting tools. Two different types of 3D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, a CNC machine. It’s just a massive space. But it’s different, they don’t have a lot these electronics things. We are kind of limited by the space that we have, it’s not easy to create large pieces because there is not a lot of elbow room.

What are the open lab nights like?

Yeah, we’ve been doing the open lab nights, they’ve been running. But as of recently we’ve switched the programming because it was so open that no one came. It was just like, “hey it’s an open lab night come and check it out.” People would just not show up. So I was like, this isn’t working, we need to find a different model. So what I started doing was trying to create themes so we could target specific people. Right now the open lab night we’re having is a sound lab night. I’m hoping we can do something like a programming one, or now that the 3D printer is running we can do a 3D printing lab night.


Is the idea for open lab nights that you can bring people in who aren’t familiar?

Yeah, to bring people in who aren’t familiar, but also to grow a community. With the sound lab night there are a lot of people in Montreal that are fabricating sound, or experimenting with instruments. So we’re trying to create a community around that. And an exchange of ideas, of circuits, of concepts.

Why ‘lab’? What about this space makes it a laboratory, or just, what comes to mind when you hear this word?

Outside of this context when I hear ‘laboratory’ I think of beakers. But I think the larger concept behind it is like, experimentation, and developing something to be accurate and fully functioning. I think that is a lot of what happens here. Maybe the word ‘lab’ has been used so much it’s getting played out, and that’s why people have a bad feeling against the word, its overuse—

Oh, not a bad feeling. But it has certain connotations. Experimentation, a collaborative space where people have to work on ideas together. It’s different than a factory or something where you know exactly what is being produced. It’s kind of indeterminate in that way. I think that’s why people feel compelled to call their space a lab.

Yeah definitely, I think so. I think sometimes the startup scene tries to take those types of words, those buzzwords and make it something. I feel like what we have in spaces like these feels more like a lab, like what we know as a science lab, because of the machines and what is produced and experimented with.

Posted on 2015/12/15 by

A Look Inside: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Humanities Lab

In my search for people who work/study/use or interact with physical spaces in the Humanities as part of the “What is a Media Lab?” project, I had the opportunity to speak to Ann Hanlon of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Humanities Lab. The DH Lab was an intiative launched in the Fall of 2013 as part of a collaboration between the UW-Milwaukee Libraries, the Center for Instructional and Professional Development (CIPD) and the College of Letters and Science as an interdisciplinary collaborative space within the library. Ann Hanlon, Head of the Library’s Digital Collections and Initiatives, was kind enough to answer all of my questions about the project and gave me a discursive tour of their space.

1. What does the Digital Humanities Lab look like?
What spaces, both physical and virtual, are available for members to use? Are there any particular objects or tools associated with these spaces?

The DH Lab is located on the second floor of UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library, the main (and only) library for the UWM campus. The space was formerly a computer lab, and then quiet study space. It is surrounded on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, and on a third side by glass walls that look out on the Music Library and a collection of childrens books. The fourth wall is a temporary wall that is bolted shut. The space is large, and includes seven round tables that seat four to five people each. There is a podium and several other tables and chairs, and one large HD monitor (55″) for presentations. There is no other dedicated computer equipment in the room.

We are developing a virtual sandbox for the Lab. This is based on CUNY’s DH in a Box project. We hope to expand on their code to build a virtual lab, essentially, so that our patrons could access DH tools like Omeka and Mallet for workshops, and eventually, classroom projects, from anywhere. Ideally, patrons would come together in the Lab to learn to use these tools.

2. How are the spaces of the Digital Humanities Lab used?
Is the use of lab space structured? How is knowledge produced in the lab? Does it have any material aspects?

The Lab is loosely structured, and this has been one of its chief benefits. Despite our lack of equipment, faculty, staff and students regularly use the Lab for scheduled meetings and presentations and panels. The Lab has been most useful as a space for informal presentations, meetings, and brown bags. Knowledge is produced through discussion and collaboration, and bringing together people who otherwise might not work together — faculty and staff, and students, from departments across campus.

The space is really primary right now, as opposed to any research projects or class projects that are coming out of the lab right now. We did have one collaborative project with a community partner, called “Stitching History from the Holocaust.” In partnership with the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, we created a digital exhibit in collaboration with their physical exhibit. The physical exhibit received a lot of press from outside the university, which led to an increase in our own funding for the project.

Right now, we’re focusing on building events for the space: designing workshops and providing infrastructure. We’re still building up the skill-sets: staff, physical infrastructure. These skill-sets include data management and repositories, like Omeka (an open-source exhibit software from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George-Mason University).

How does the space work differently from other library spaces?

It’s a closed space, which surprisingly makes it more flexible in terms of use. It’s a more formal “open-but-closed” space. It isn’t used for classes, but rather meetings and events around digital humanities.

3. How is the Digital Humanities Lab structured?
Who are the organizers and users of the lab? Where is the Lab situated in relation to the university’s infrastructure? Is the Digital Humanities Lab associated with any university research groups or projects?

The Lab is organized primarily by the Library. It has one Coordinator (me), and recently an Advisory Board was assembled and charged with oversight of programming and long-term planning by the Provost. The Advisory Board is chaired by a faculty person from the History department, and includes faculty from English, the School of the Arts, the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the School of Information Studies, and the Libraries, as well as a graduate student (History). The Lab is a hybrid, perhaps, in relation to the University’s infrastructure. It is likely best recognized as part of the Library, but has strong relationships with several university research groups on campus, including the Center for 21st Century Studies, the Social Science of Information Research Group, the Community Engaged Scholars Network, and the Digital Arts and Culture certificate program.

Would you be interested in working with other DH Labs?

Yes! We’ve worked with other research groups on campus to “pool cash” to bring in scholars from other universities. Generally in the form of panels, like one we had in February on critical data history.

4. What is your role in the Digital Humanities Lab?
How did you become associated with the project?

I am the Head of the Library’s Department of Digital Collections and Initiatives. I became involved with the Lab through our Strategic Planning process, where I proposed the Library should lead regarding DH. In connection with that part of the plan, I helped convene a group of faculty who we knew were active participants in the campus’s Digital Futures initiative, and asked them what they saw as the Library’s role. The faculty proposed the Library as the logical home for DH, and that space was one of the key components to raising visibility and fostering DH research and project development. Through that meeting, I worked with another staff person from a related department to begin designing the space, but more actively, begin developing programming and workshops for the Lab, and planning for future infrastructure — including technical as well as administrative.

Editor’s note: The UWM Digital Futures initiative was part of the university’s strategic initiatives plans for teaching and research. The initiative was meant as a yearlong conversation on emerging technologies and their impact on the university. In 2010, three focus groups (Teaching and Learning, Research, and University Operations and Services) were asked by Johannes Britz, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs to consider the opportunities and challenges of new technologies and digitally enabled processes and recommend action steps for UWM. The key issues the initiative addressed were: the adaptability of the organization in adjusting to technological innovation, ethical issues related to new technologies, best practices in utilizing new technologies in administration, the impact of digitization on how we conduct research, and the rapid pace of change in instructional delivery (including developments in online and blended instruction, the ‘consumerization’ of the learning experience, the development of personalized learning systems, and the increasing use of simulation technologies). While the Digital Futures initiative predated the interviewee’s involvement with the project, I asked her about how the initiative shaped the Lab’s development.

It’s had an impact on how we wrote the library strategic plan in 2012/13 and contextualizing the DH Lab (which was a product of the Digital Futures initiative) through the working group’s recommendations around teaching and research.

We’ve had a lot of support from the faculty for this lab and they’ve been extremely tolerant of the establishment of this lab. We provide the space and the skill-sets and the technical infrastructure, and we’re looking at the rest of the university for skills to share and incorporate for more peer-to-peer formations.

6. What are your impressions of the Digital Humanities Lab’s use of space?
Can you imagine ways the space could be changed or improved? How would that affect your group’s research practices or knowledge production?

I can imagine the space taking on more useful equipment for collaborative work, but not becoming crowded with permanent machines. The space is often empty, and my greatest hope is that we’ll secure funding for permanent staff to operate services out of the Lab. This would also include retraining our Library staff to offer their expertise in related areas via the Lab on a regular basis. The main effect additional hours, staff, and equipment might have on knowledge production might be an increase in integration of DH tools and methods in undergraduate and graduate classes, which would in turn, I believe, lead to more robust faculty research and possibly, grant-funded projects. However, classroom integration is likely the biggest beneficiary of any additional development of the space.

7. Has working with the Digital Humanities Lab changed your own thoughts on how space is used in humanities research?

Yes — it has made it clear to me how important space itself is. That has been the rallying cry for our own DH Lab. It’s a modest space, but it’s very existence has increased visibility for DH on campus and brought together faculty and staff from across departments to identify under the single banner of DH and to imagine projects and initiatives that would otherwise have been bottled up in individual departments. The space has served a sort of “stone soup” purpose, in that we provided the space, and everyone else has brought their skills, networks, projects, and questions to the Lab to help form what it is today, and what we hope it will become.


Posted on 2015/12/15 by

Workshop Facilitation and Transient ‘Space’: An Interview

When my initial interviewee (someone with a large amount of involvement and a fairly high position in anti-oppression education) had to back out part way through, my immediate reaction was to panic. Then, I remembered that, actually, even if they didn’t have particular titles, there were many people around me who had been engaged in this type of work and who had interacted with the transient ‘space’ of the workshop many times over. Luckily enough, one of these friends was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about it.


Ffionn M: As I’ve mentioned, the general theme of these interview assignments is “the lab” or spaces of knowledge production. When we got the assignment, my interest was immediately pulled in the direction of ‘spaces’ that were a little more fluid, knowledge productions that occupied a physical ‘space’ for only a short period but also transformed it into a very distinct sort of space of its own. That’s why I’ve asked you to come talk to me about — broadly defined, here, as ‘social justice’ — workshop and discussion facilitation.

To start, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experiences facilitating workshops (what organizations, what sorts of workshops, where they were held, what led you to become a facilitator, etc.).

Theo K: Well, I first started getting involved with Queer McGill after being elected as one of the communications admins. I ended up getting very involved with Queer Concordia, the Union for Gender Empowerment at McGill, and the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia as part of my communications officer duties. That was when I started getting into facilitating groups and leading discussions in general. Especially after my transition and becoming one of the only trans admins on the QM board, I was trained in Trans 101 workshops with the UGE that I facilitated for QM workshop events as well as admin safe space training programs. I ran the Trans 101 for safe space training for QC executives and volunteers as well. I also facilitated for discussion groups fairly often. Most of these were usually held in the QM office or the SSMU(mcgill student union) building’s bookable meeting spaces, or the QC office- usually spaces on campus run by students. Later on, after I’d stepped off the QM board and became more involved with the CGA, I volunteered to be trained as a facilitator for plans made by Concordia to have mandatory consent workshops in the first year residences; these plans ultimately fell through, and we were deployed to facilitate smaller workshops at Concordia’s Arts and Science frosh. I also became a facilitator for Trans Concordia for a brief period, facilitating discussion groups in the CGA meeting space generously lent to us.


FM: You mention that you were trained to facilitate Trans 101 workshops after you transitioned and became one of the only trans administrators on the Queer McGill Board of Directors. It sounds as though the responsibility fell on you because you were trans. Did it feel like that? Did that affect the way you were able to facilitate Trans 101 workshops in that space?

From your description, it also seems like this was the first type of workshop you were trained to facilitate. How do you think your own experience (personal knowledge) related to you being trained in this sort of facilitation? When you were learning to facilitate and later when you were facilitating these workshops, what sorts of knowledges do you feel you were bringing to the table and engaging with?


TK: Yes and no; Queer McGill, and a lot of queer campus resources that were student-run tend to have a bad rep in terms of being trans-friendly because of the fact that they tend to lean more towards social events, like parties. I took it upon myself when I transitioned to facilitate the workshops, since I felt that I was the only one with the depth of personal knowledge to do it, but in hindsight, I feel as though I was expected to do just that. I suppose that’s just the way it goes; people always expect the one who would benefit most from an endeavor of spreading knowledge to be the one to work hardest at doing so. Also on the flipside, being the only trans admin also gave me a sense of authority when facilitating workshops, of course. There’s a certain sort of understanding that if you’re a cis person coming to a trans 101, you’re not going to know better than the trans guy running it.

Being trans doesn’t mean that you’d know everything there is to know about trans politics, though (believe me, there are many trans folks who are still quite unaware). Of course I would have to have had training, and being involved in the construction of the actual workshop was quite enlightening as well- I was part of revamping the trans 101 that the UGE has, and I learned a lot about gender politics during that. I guess I think that being trans simply helped me make more sense of it, or gave me a perspective that is capable of a deeper understanding of gender politics than those who don’t have to live the complications of it. Improvising during a facilitation to counter questions or disagreements is also a skill that facilitators are trained in, and that deeper understanding helps immensely.


FM: I think that’s an interesting tension — that because you belong to the marginalized group, you are expected to be the bearer of knowledge but, at the same time, in certain ‘spaces,’ it also grants you a level of authority. Were there any times where you felt these two forces come into conflict in a facilitation space (or in life in general, since these ideas tend to continue outside of workshop spaces as well)?

You also mention the importance of being able to improvise during a workshop. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about this — how it comes up, how your deeper understanding of particular issues helps, what ideas those participators are bringing to the table and what it all results in.


TK: There’s never really a conflict so much as the two conflating to become taxing situations. Of course there’s the incidents that all trans people (and all marginalized people, for their respective marginalizations, for that matter) are weary of- cis people simply expecting to be educated, though they may even be resistant to this knowledge, and assuming that their journey to enlightenment is our responsibility. I usually come to workshops with the energy and expectation to deal with this, but the worst I guess is when it happens outside of workshops, in my daily life, or in my personal internet presence on social media or some such. I don’t think many people actually understand the mental labour that goes into coaxing someone to understand something new. Of course, sometimes I’m deemed too close to the issue to really be objective about it, and my authority on the matter is undermined that way- it’s a bit of a paradox. Usually employed by people who have no intention of understanding, but rather proving to themselves that they tried and that they were ultimately right.

In terms of improvising, there are always questions that ask for things not covered in the workshop. Usually I try to share a consensus with my fellow facilitators if I have any, about whether we could go over the question, or it would open up a discussion much more advanced than a 101 and that we need to skip for time concerns. Having a deeper understanding of the material helps us decide these things, or improvise ways of answering exactly what the person attending may be confused about in a short amount of time.


FM: I hear that! I have definitely, in my own experience with facilitation, noticed that there is a huge difference in the types of dialogues that are produced when you have folks who want to be better about an issue and folks who think that they’re already in the right. It’s also almost always (in my experience) the latter who expect you to educate them outside of the workshop space, at their whim — I think, maybe, those attitudes go hand-in-hand.

It’s interesting to think about this sort of participator in terms of the ‘space’ concept I mentioned at the beginning, though, as well. Maybe the lack of distinct physical space for workshops gives this type of participator the (incredibly misinformed) idea that any encounter with a marginalized person or an educator of this type is, itself, a site for facilitation? Further, what other effects do you think the temporary quality of physical spaces might have on workshop environments or how workshops and discussions are conducted?


TK: Well, the part where people just seem to expect education from marginalized people comes from a fundamental lack of empathy, in my opinion. I usually attribute it to a kind of ‘mental space’: everyone makes different mental spaces for different encounters. When with a friend, you’d make a mental space of friendliness or familiarity, or when dealing with an acquaintance you’d make a mental space of politeness or distance: I’ve found that a lot of cis or white people have treated me as if I’m some sort of kiosk (laugh). I think that there’s some sort of part where who I am (queer, poc) compromises any mental state that they would make while talking to me.

It’s actually something I’ve found because workshop spaces have such a transient nature to them- it’s usually a club office, or a rented meeting space at a restaurant/cafe. There are no assigned places for workshops the way there are for lectures or meetings, so the actual workshop space is a sort of… collective mental one that you join in on when you enter a workshop. The facilitators set the rules and boundaries for the meeting at the start of the session, and these rules hold until the end; I’m not entirely decided yet on whether or not this has a positive or negative effect on the workshop experience and endeavor in general. On one hand, the construction of the mental space makes for attendees that are more engaged and remember more; on the other, it might take away from the perceived legitimacy of the session, and consequently, the information presented in the session. I’ve found that it helps bring a more casual air to workshops, where people feel comfortable asking questions but also understand the deeply personal nature of some of the politics that are being discussed.


FM: I think a mind ‘space’ is exactly what it is. And this creation of ‘workshop’ environment in terms of the written and unwritten rules of behaviour is exactly what changes the physical space into a workshop or discussion space for a short time. How have these mind spaces met with the physical spaces in the past? Have there been particularly fruitful meetings of environment/space? have there ever been particularly poor spaces? Have the physical spaces or what might have been going on around the workshop ever ‘intruded,’ so to speak, on the workshop? If so, what was the result?

TK: I mean, spaces that can be closed off from the general public are always better. There have always been smaller interruptions, especially when the space is one that’s usually used for something else: club rooms always have someone or another coming by for something, and the SSMU general space in particular always has other students and other clubs making noise. A common interruption is when someone steps into a club room, unaware that it’s a workshop space at the moment, and the facilitators end up having to explain to them what’s going on; they either stay or leave, but the bewilderedness of finding the space reappropriated to something they weren’t expecting is still present. That’s essentially what workshops have been like for me so far- reappropriating a physical space with a mind space. The problem is when using an open space that other people already have a mental space of before the workshop space is constructed.

I remember a safe space training workshop that was held in the SSMU general; I wasn’t facilitating, but I was familiar with the material and the facilitators. We were seated around a table at the far end of the space, when somebody else, a tall white dude sat at the table and interrupted to ask what was happening. The facilitators had to re-draw the rules and boundaries for the newcomer, a bit sloppily because of time constraints, and I could feel a shift in the space to a palpably uncomfortable one that was particularly difficult for the facilitators. He kept asking questions about things that had been covered before he had arrived and taking up more time and space. The mind space of the workshop had been compromised, even though the workshop was open to everyone, this sudden interruption made the facilitators lose grasp over the space somewhat.

I’ve always enjoyed the workshops and discussions I’ve facilitated in the more closed spaces for this reason, I suppose. When I was working with the Concordia groups more extensively later on, the CGA lent us a room to use, that was upstairs in a Concordia building with a door that closed and locked. It was spacious enough to hold a good amount of people, and made for a more intimate, let’s say, environment where a certain safe space and facilitator’s authority was able to be held but people would still feel free to contribute or ask questions.


FM: I guess, in that way, you do need physical spaces that can at least work with the ‘space’ of a workshop, rather than against it. The story you told is an interesting one in terms of those rules of behaviour I mentioned earlier but also in terms of audience. I mean, I think that it is 100% the job of the privileged group to seek out knowledge, rather than the oppressed group constantly trying to provide it, but there is a tendency with workshop environments to have a certain participator in mind and it does make for a lot of familiar faces and fewer new ones, depending on the type of facilitation/discussion you’re running. Part of this could very well be due to the transient nature of the physical spaces, which makes things less accessible, but I also think that there are a lot of people who just aren’t willing to participate in this sort of knowledge production, aren’t interested in entering the mind ‘space’ of the workshop. What do you think about this problem? Do you see it as a problem? What can or should be done, in your opinion? Also, do you think that this sort of issue of audience is the same across the board for the different sorts of anti-oppression workshops you’ve run or do you think there are differences and, if so, why?


TK: Well, I guess it mostly comes down to an issue of mental and emotional labour. Of course there are going to be more belligerent attendees, and the amount of effort that it takes to deal with them aren’t necessarily fair to ask from facilitators who are of marginalized groups, whose knowledge runs a risk of being deemed too ‘subjective’ by these attendees. My personal opinion is that more privileged allies should be involved with workshops- those who can listen and help the marginalized facilitator speak from their depth of understanding, while being the one who doesn’t have to put in as much effort and is not at as much risk as the marginalized facilitator when dealing with a more resistant audience.

The knowledge being produced for an audience in a workshop is a very constructed and thought-out process designed to open up a discourse in every attendee’s life- interruptions are accounted for, and actually often lead to very interesting discussions (once during a trans 101 a discussion on preferred pronouns that hadn’t been part of the workshop was opened up and was very involved and enlightening) but it only works when the space has a clear respect for the facilitator, and subsequently for the process of knowledge production being brought to the session.

It’s a bit of a dilemma, I guess. I’ve been to many a workshop where it was simply me, the facilitator, and a bunch of people already involved with the cause and frankly didn’t need the workshop. I definitely think workshops need to reach a broader audience and those outside of the organizing groups, but that runs the risk of having attendees like the tall guy I mentioned. In an optimal world, facilitators would always be paired with one who is part of the marginalized group being taught about and one very adamant ally to sort of verbally wrassle down some of the more problematic attendees (laugh). Workshops for social justice issues still tend to be very small-scale efforts with little funding- as I mentioned earlier, Concordia had plans to integrate mandatory consent workshops for first years in the residences that fell through- and levels of security, safety, and authority are slippery things to maintain without bigger forces to back us up. And even with official sanction, it tends to become difficult to reach people with a workshop- I remember my first year in undergrad having a mandatory dorm workshop on various issues near the beginning of the year. I heard many complaints from my floormates before and after the workshop, and even found people skipping it because they found it ‘stupid’ and ‘unnecessary’ (which is quite inaccurate given the rate of sexual assault in dorms and, speaking from personal experience, the disregard for my queerness or pronouns). I very much appreciated that the RA for my floor was very strict about attendance, and felt that it did create an environment where I felt safer talking about and pointing out bad experiences than it could have been.

So. There’s no concrete solution I’ve come across yet, but I guess it comes down to that- more vigilant allyship from people and organizations in positions of power and authority.


Posted on 2015/12/15 by

An Interview with Dr. John Douglas Hunt

Dr. John Douglas Hunt is a professor of Civil Engineering and the president of the consulting firm Hunt Analytics (HAI). The firm uses 3D computer modelling to predict how traffic moves through urban areas, in order to provide more accurate growth projections to urban planners.

The interview raised several questions, such as: what are the benefits and drawbacks of the move toward a ‘virtual’ office space? How is software being used to facilitate these virtual spaces, and how is this use of software transforming the physical space in which it takes place? How does the location of a space affect its selection and use, in terms of potential benefits or impediments to knowledge production happening in said space? How are ‘camps’ formed between various specializations (such as engineers, IT professionals, and municipal employees), and how do these camps characterize and ‘test’ one another when they interact?

Describe the space in which you work.

  • I work on the 7th floor of an office tower, a rented space of about 1700 square feet. The space is cordoned off into one big office that I use, as the president, and three smaller offices: one each used by the two other principles of the firm, the third shared by two of the senior specialists. There is also a windowless office that a third specialist uses, and a meeting room and an open area that handles six people in cubicles.
  • In terms of the spaces we use, we also do a lot of GotoMeeting stuff with clients (The Atlanta Metropolitan Commission, Los Angeles Metropolitan Commission, Sacramento, Oregon, California, Brisben AUS, China, Alberta, Edmonton, etc.). We do a lot of meetings where we do not hold a video conference; but rather we jointly look at somebody’s computer. The work being looked at is either going on somewhere else, or we’re doing it and others are observing us.
  • We can have meetings and discussions around the computer…it’s at the point now where we have different people go to their computers in the office instead of having three people crowd around one computer. This is more comfortable and facilitates better typing and working. We’ve recognized this, so we have put in large TVs as computer monitors in five of the offices. Anyone can get to, and project form, these screens, making us more efficient as a group. A lot of our work is done that way. We use 64-inch 1080p Samsung TVs, on wall-mounted arms, so that they can be positioned.
  • We have high speed internet to facilitate this. We also do large simulation runs of economies (spacially), so we need a lot of brute-force computing power.
  • We haven’t met as much with our Clients from China via the internet…their ability to interact with us over the internet is somewhat constrained, due to the way China’s internet is organized. I have to travel more to China.

What are the practices that happen in your workspace, and what does a typical day look like?

  • We use what is called the ‘Agile Approach’ (AA), a method of project management where we have what are called ‘scrums’ with the teams of people we are working with. These scrums are meant to be 15 minutes long. That’s how we work on each project, which is why we need to have frequent meetings with different clients.
  • We don’t meet in scrums every day, which is what you are supposed to do; we have them once a week. We talk about what is impeding people from meeting their objectives, how can we re-specify goals or reorganize things to keep things moving.
  • We always have a full, running version of the models we develop, and we iteratively improve it. We don’t follow a cascading process (doing everything once perfectly, in theory, and then assemble it all in theory), because this never works in practice. The models we make are too complicated. Writing the specs would be more work than preparing the models themselves. Our iterative approach has grown out of software and video game development: they make a version that works, and then refine it. We’re doing the same thing, but with statistical data and economic/transportation models.

What kind of knowledge is created in your workspace? What is it that you produce?

  • Our job involves a lot of knowledge transfer. We make it a priority to help our clients to come to a point where they are able to build the models at their own agencies, so they own those models. This allows us to access a lot more ‘horsepower’, without having to act as employees of other agencies. We end up guiding more than doing.
  • Eventually we want to get to the point where our clients don’t need us anymore, since they have trained people who can maintain their respective models. This has essentially happened in San Diego and, to a lesser extent, Oregon. We’re building these models…I develop the theory and equations, and over the 25 years I’ve been teaching at the university, I’ve been pulling out the best students, and I now have about ten of them working with me.
  • This is cutting edge stuff we’re doing…we have clients around the world. Our limitation is our capacity, rather than clients’ demand, since our work is so specialized.

What is the material form of the knowledge you produce?

  • The models we make are programs, computer code. Versions are developed in Calgary and mirrored in clients’ offices. Version control is a huge challenge. The setup of the Java .exes, etc. and a fair amount of time (more than I want) is spent figuring out why the model no longer runs on clients’ computers. Either they have a new version our guys have developed, and our guys haven’t properly reconfigured everything on our end, or the client has messed up something. Often they’re working in larger institutions, where the IT control (set up to handle 80-90% of the computer related work) wants to have a basic machine set up that they can periodically reset…but specialized stuff like Java code creates problems. Furthermore, at the City of Calgary, they aren’t allowed to write .exes for security reasons…
  • IT is out of control, in my opinion. We go through a typical cycle with the clients: You want a model built, but we need to be able to have our computers communicate. The first ‘test’ is we ask: can you do GoToMeeting? Sometimes they can’t even do that. Somewhere along the process, inevitably, we hit an ‘IT Rule’. I’ve had the same meeting so many times; I could tell you exactly what they say.
  • They bring in an IT specialist who says: “we can have our system set up to do whatever you want, don’t worry”. We respond with: “That’s fine, but if it doesn’t work by a certain time, you’ll let us have those computers off the network”. Then they usually respond with: “Okay, but if that happens, you have to be responsible for the machines on our end that are off the network”. We’re okay with that.
  • Things are done on a network: they’ll download something to every computer or restart every computer at once…runs of our computer models can take weeks to complete…if they shut down every computer on their network every second Thursday, then the run has to be restarted…a lot of time is lost. Versions of this have happened upwards of 20 times.
  • IT then assumes the computers our clients have left outside their networks (at our request, so our model can run) are virus-ridden, and don’t want anything to do with them…
  • The IT people often act patronizing to begin with. I have to be careful, and get my guys to be careful not to be smart-alacky to them…you can tell somebody something and they won’t believe you…but you don’t want an “I told you so” moment. We don’t want to be problematic.
  • IT does not facilitate any sort of creation in the work that we do. They are an impediment that we have to get around.

Would it be different if you had a different workspace? What if you had more, or less? Are there problems with the amount of space you have?

  • We work so much in virtual space that any standard office configuration would work.
  • We have located downtown because a lot of the employees like the accessibility of downtown to eating opportunities and the train. Several of them live within walking distance. That’s the location of the office rather than the office itself.
  • I would have like the location to be closer to the university, but I lost that opportunity. Sometimes, even if you are the president, you have to do things to keep the workers happy. You can’t have it all your own way or you’ll be the only worker.
  • We need people rather than space. If we get more people, we get more space. We would move to a larger space if we needed it. We didn’t get the space and then design our company around it.
  • A new Telus building is being constructed near our building, adjacent to ours. This building project is causing structural disturbances to our building. A plus-15 walkway has been closed because it has separated from the building by about 1/3 of a foot. Soil displacement around our building’s foundation has occurred due to digging to depths well below the foundation of the building on the Telus site next to us. If our building has to be closed, there would be a ‘shock’ for us.
  • When the flood occurred, our building was closed for a couple of weeks. For the first few days, everybody kind of took time off. Clients started complaining; our excuse wasn’t acceptable anymore and we organized people at their homes with their laptops. But, it pointed out to us that we’re now accustomed to having a space that we go to. There’s a lot of things built around it in a sense. It would be a conscious effort to move
  • We have moved before. There is a loss of about two weeks of productivity that we lose over the month around the move…we are all probably about 50% distracted.
  • I like to think we’re not a normal firm.
  • While we are separate from our clients, we have ‘nodes’ (some of us in Atlanta, etc.). What we haven’t done is what Parsons-Brinkerhoff have done, where they send individuals to different places…something is lost when the team is this far apart. I think it’s inefficient. I think there is value in fact-to-face contact. People are too easily distracted by other things. There’s a bit of discipline with nodes, when there are other people in the room. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we can all be in different places and meet virtually.
Posted on 2015/12/14 by

Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

I recently had the opportunity to visit The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, located on the tenth floor of the Library building. It was interesting to continue to look at spaces in Concordia that not only incorporate technology in their work but recognize it as part of the human relationships that are essential to their research. I was also interested in how much of the work that is done at the Centre expands beyond it, into the many community projects that the Centre is involved in, and how this research space is really constitutive of innumerable, unexpected  spaces in Montreal.

AML:           My name is Aude Maltais-Landry, I’m the associate director here at COHDS since this August, so I’ve been an affiliate for quite a few years, as a student, and I’m new at the position of Associate Director.

JB :             Hi Aude, I was wondering if you could give me some background information for those who may not be familiar with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. How did it come about and what is the goal of the oral history centre?

AML:          The centre was created in 2006; we’re actually going to celebrate our 10th anniversary next year. The Centre was part of an initiative to build research units at Concordia University, so the idea was to have research-based projects, using oral history as a tool to tell alternative stories, I’d say, counter-narratives, to speak broadly, and using digital media to record, collect, and disseminate those stories.

The centre has always had a very community-based practice, as well, so of course it’s a research unit within an academic context, but we have a structure by affiliation, and we welcome affiliates who are independent researchers, community affiliates, or artists who are also doing work that connects with oral history or digital storytelling. One of the big projects that happened here was CURA, which is Community-University Research Alliance, that ran from 2006 to 2013, that was called Montreal Life Stories, and we collected interviews from Montrealers who were displaced by genocide or war, or other persecutions that were violations of human rights.

That big project really set up the basis of what we do, working closely with communicates using what we call shared authority, so the idea of researchers and interviewers, interviewees, working together, collaborating closely in how to record the stories and how to disseminate them. This is really the core of our methodology of our ethics; I would say, as well, this idea of the close connection with the people that we’re interviewing.

JB :            I was wondering , what kind of technology does the centre use in their research? Is it only audio, or is it visual as well?

AML:          It really depends. Often, we will ask the person if they want to be video-taped or not. Some projects do video-tape, some won’t, and some interviewees don’t even want to be audio-recorded, so then it’s only handwritten transcriptions. That’s for the collection, let’s say, for the interview. For the dissemination part, then we use a multitude. There’s a strong connection because of our arts-based affiliates and to the fine arts faculty as well, so in the course of that big project, the Montreal Life Stories, there were theatre performances and playback theatre, using those stories. We also did an exhibition at the Centre D’Histoire de Montréal,  so really bringing the stories into the public space, into the museum.

Other digital tools are the audio walks from the Canal Lachine and Pointe-Saint-Charles, so the stories are edited into a piece, and you put it on your headphones, and walk through the neighbourhood, following a little map, and then you hear those stories about how the neighbourhood changed. It’s really using both digital and non-digital tools to try to go further and touch a variety of people. The digital aspect is not always predominant.

JB :            It seems like there is a strong interdisciplinary prerogative at the Centre, for example, would a communications or film student work with the oral history centre, using their own techniques to make different representations of history?

AML:          Yes, there’s really a variety of students from a variety of disciplines, and faculty members, there are actually from some from the English department, doing translation studies. We have a recent affiliate from medicine. It’s not a field that you would expect to find oral history within, but if you’re thinking about questions of health, how people perceive their health, their stories about health and healing, and things like that,  it can touch a variety of disciplines.

People are encouraged to bring in their own tools, and I think that what we share is this methodology of collaboration and always based on the interview, and based on the subjectivity. Both the interviewer’s subjectivity, but also the interviewees, and being conscious that, with those two subjectivities, we’re trying to build a story, and finding common ground between those two.

JB :             Do you find that there’s any challenge in that kind of relationship with an interviewee, because it is  on a personal level, do you think that there are challenges in balancing the work with the personal aspect of the relationship? Because you mentioned ethics, I was wondering if researchers try to stay objective or is there a perceived need to be objective?

AML:           I think that there are two parts to the question. This idea of subjectivity … and I think oral history is contested by some historians, who find it too subjective, in a way. I think we view ourselves as part of a current trend which is to be transparent, so, stating who you are, what position you’re talking from, doesn’t make your work less valuable, but then it’s just more honest. In a way, I think that we’re not looking for objectivity. Broadly. I hope nobody  gets frustrated when they hear me say that, but I really think that there is also a commitment from the people here to a broader goal of social justice, I would say, of hearing the voices that are not heard otherwise,  so I think that we don’t view objectivity as being a core value. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a strict methodology, or that we don’t follow guidelines and principles and research ethics. It’s a different take on that.

Regarding the relationship with the interviewee, this is the object of many debates and many questions. Can you be too close to a person? How would that influence the interview? I think there are, again, a lot of reflections around those questions, and the fact of being very close, for example, interviewing a member of your family, brings in some things, and then also prevents you from accessing other things, because of the previous relationship that exists. Again, there is the question of transparency and being honest.

JB :             In some ways I think you could argue that it’s impossible to be entirely objective anyways, and kind of working under the assumption that you are might lead you to just be biased in another way.

AML:           Exactly. So I think we kind of take the stance that we are coming in with our own subjectivity, and how do we go from there? How do we still make something meaningful? How do we still take into account different points of view and divergent perspectives? Still keeping in mind that we are listening to those stories and we are affected by those stories as well, so it’s really building on this relationship.

JB :            I just wanted to ask about the space itself. What kind of things go on in this space? Because I wrote to Stephen High and he said that a lot of the actual interviews  go on outside the centre.

AML:          So we have two main spaces, one with the main lobby, with different work stations, so people come there to work on one of the computers. We also have a small archive room. There’s another room where we have the equipment, and another few computers where people can work more quietly. There’s a room with two projectors that was our main seminar room, let’s say, up until last year. The other part, on the other side of the corridor, we have this big room that we’re in that was just renovated into this kind of conference space. And then a small interview room, where people, affiliates, can come in and do video or audio interviews.

Again, most of the interviews will take place at the person’s house, or another location that they prefer. Very often we will leave to the interviewee the choice of the location.

JB:             What are some of the challenges with working with oral history? Or working with digital mediums as well?

AML:          I would say that some of the challenges are the archiving of those materials, because working towards a digital archive raises a lot of questions about confidentiality, of access to the interviews, security questions … so, this is something that we’re moving towards, because we have a huge collection here, but it’s not that accessible to the wider public. People can come here and ask us to listen to whatever interview they want, and then we go through a process and see if that interview is open to the public, and most of them are, so in fact there is a huge collection here that everybody could come and consult, but it’s not that well-known yet, so how do we make that public?

JB :             Are there any challenges specific to using digital technologies?

AML:          Somehow we have this feeling that digital is easy to manage and to access, but then with interviews, with sensitive issues, you cannot just drop it online … there are other issues to keep in mind. I would say that that is one of the big challenges, and also, the speed to which the technology changes, the feeling of having to adapt, always, to things like websites or platforms that are not necessarily meant to be long-term depositories, so how do we reconcile these outcomes, these works, let’s say, with longer-term preservation of the content and the stories?

JB :             That’s something we discussed, actually, in our class, because we were saying how digital technology does create a greater sense of accessibility, but at the same time, when you want to preserve something, it’s not as good as text, which you would think would be transient and easily destroyed.

AML:           Paper is actually the easiest way to preserve, and I remember we had this discussion about archiving for all historians, and hard drives have a lifespan of like 5 to 10 years, so if you have everything on hard drives, every 10 years you have to transfer everything. This is just insane, you don’t want to think about that. I think that the digital aspect is full of challenges. Full of possibilities, but it also brings in a lot of challenges.


JB :             What do you think that the centre itself gains from the community interaction, in terms of your work?

AML:           I would say that the community has goals and objectives, and working with the community allows the research work or the academic work to be more connected with priorities. I think there is a very easy tendency within the academic world to kind of self-suffice ourselves with very intellectual theories, things that are very interesting, but that can be a little disconnected to what’s actually going on. Again, if I think back to that big project of Montreal Life Stories, it was really the ideas of; who are these people, living in Montreal, that we don’t know, and we don’t know their stories, and they’re part of our community, and how can we make their voice heard? Somehow? Working just within the University circle … you never access that, as a researcher. You’re kind of, in a way, restricted. I think that in very broad terms, I would say that that’s where we benefit, in building a research that’s more meaningful, for society, for communities, in general.

JB :               It’s a chance to also apply the very things that you’re studying instead of just studying them?

AML:             Exactly. What happened through the Montreal Life Stories project is that we integrated people who were not from the academic world and who are now doing PhDs so that they really became part of our community of research, and so that’s very strong, because they come in with a different point of view or a different perspective, and they bring that into the research, and that’s really enriching, I would say.

JB :               That’s great. Thanks for your time.


NB: Aude informed me that there are many interesting workshops and events offered by the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. For details and how to sign up, visit the centre’s website here.

Posted on 2015/12/14 by

An anonymous interview with TAG student member

When approaching professors and professional members of TAG, I was told I should consider interviewing student members about the Lab and the forms of knowledge they create. Therefore, I sought to interview two student members from different disciplinary backgrounds. Unfortunately, the other student was unavailable for an interview before the 15 of December. If possible, we will conduct our interview at a later date and I shall update this post to demonstrate the plurality of voices found within TAG.

In this interview for Mess and Method [Fall 2015, “What is a Media Lab?” edition], Marie-Christine Lavoie speaks with an anonymous student member from Concordia’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG). This interview seeks to understand how different members understand and define TAG, and how the lab produces knowledge. Overall, this interview seeks to obtain an inside look at how TAG functions within Academia. This interview was conducted through email correspondence.

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