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.

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