Boulder’s Retirement Home for Active and Obsolete Technology : A Look Inside the Media Archaeology Lab

There’s something calming about the hum of a computer starting up. With the single press of a button, an electronic beast becomes conscious right in front of your eyes. This technological tune wafts through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab – a digital playground dedicated to preserving technology of years past.

The Media Archaeology Lab, also known as MAL, ingeniously combines history, preservation, recycling and artistic endeavor for the university and the Boulder community. Not only does its existence encourage experimentation and art, it also provides a permanent home for technology that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill.

Numerous environmental organizations have found that electronic waste, or e-waste, makes up 70 percent of overall toxic waste. With tech companies continuing to innovate and manufacture at a dizzying rate, consumers are quickly disposing of their old tech in order to keep up with the trends. As a result, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the United States, despite how readily this tech can be recycled.

“What the [Media Archaeology Lab] does best is provide direct access to defining moments in the history of computing and digital literature,” reads the MAL official website.”[it] is a place for hands-on, cross-disciplinary experimental research, teaching and artistic practice using still-functioning but obsolete tools, software, hardware, platforms from the late nineteenth century through the 21st century.”

MAL’s capacity for artistic endeavor is often overlooked by visitors – after all, tables upon tables of obsolete computers and technology more readily brings to mind the cold calculations of computer science and its history rather than a space for alternative art.

“Since 2013, thanks to the curatorial efforts of Mél Hogan, the MAL has hosted a successful artist residency series.” MAL’s website reads “While we have very little financial support to offer, the residency has still attracted artists and writers from around the world.”

Most recently, MAL hosted Piotr Marecki, a professor from the Institute of Culture at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and Yerzmyey, a musician, graphic designer, photographer, lo-fi artist, photographer and writer also based in Krakow, Poland. On Aug. 18, the two presented Spectrum Scene Poetry Collection, described as being “demoscene” and ZX Spectrum oriented.

ZX Spectrum is a popular demoscene platform that has been used to create what demosceners call ZX Scene Poetry, or ‘demos’. These demos are often treated as video clips that play off the interaction of text and image.

“[Demoscene] developed [in] the 80s mainly in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe, [and] was created as a response to the lack of legal access to hardware and software.” MAL’s blog clarifies“This phenomenon comes directly from the “cracker” community, namely traders and distributors of illegal software, who by copying games and other programs left behind their signature on them (in effect, a satisfied customer had to go back for more merchandise).”

“I’ve been working at the Media Archaeology Lab for about a year now,” Blake Hallihan, 27, says “I really enjoyed the [Polish] guest artists.”

Hallihan, a doctoral student in the College of Communication, Information and Media, goes on to explain what it is about the lab that makes it a special place for art.

“I find that just the area itself just kind of enchanting…I like being around all the machines and knowing that it takes very little effort to play…I feel a big connection to media I already like.”

Outside of artists in residency, MAL also plans events called “MALfunctions”, a series of events that started this year. Maya Livio, another doctoral student and MAL employee, has been curating the MALfunctions.

“[This is] a series of events that started this year, and each one pairs an artist and a researcher whose work is about technology and about a sort of similar theme, so each MALfunction has a theme and has artist and researcher who work on that theme in some capacity” Livio explains “Each one gives a presentation or presents their artistic work and then hopefully have a little dialogue at the end.”

The first MALfunction took place on Sept. 15 and discussed the interaction of technology and sexual and or romantic intimacy. The event featured artist Issac Oliver, a writer whose collection of essays, Intimacy Idiot, explores the gay community’s relationship with dating apps and other tech. The researcher, Amy Hasinoff, gave a presentation on her work on consent and the phenomenon of sexting. MAL’s Facebook page says the next MALfuction will discuss democratization of technology and feature Nathan Schnieder and JP Merz.

The Media Archaeology Lab feels like a place out of time. Inside, a person can explore obsolete technology with a modern understanding of computer systems, and create things that would have been impossible upwards of ten years ago. In a culture that has seen rapid digitalization in the past twenty years, technology is starting to play a larger role in the art we create, and this interaction of old and new has allowed for new stories, new research, and a greater understanding of the relationship between man and machine.

Hear the interviews with Livio and Hallihan by pressing play above or read the transcript below:

Hannah Granberry : My name is Hannah Granberry, and I’m reporting for Under the Flat Irons

 [sound effects – dial up tone, copy-right free science fiction music]

 HG : So, imagine a place that has wall-to-wall computers. But, not just new computers. There’s computers from the 70s, the 80s, there’s typewriters, old videogames you used to love, and they’re all in working order. And what’s more, you’re encouraged to play with them. This is the Media Archeology Lab, and the University of Colorado Boulder.

 Maya Livio: The Media Archeology Lab was envisioned as a space for interdisciplinary work.

 HG: This is Maya Livio, an Intermedia Arts Ph. D student who works part time at the Media Archeology Lab as a research assistant

 ML: It’s open to researchers and to artists, and to anyone who has an interest in using these technologies.

Blake Hallihan: I find just the area itself kind of enchanting.

HG: That’s Blake Hallihan, a Communications Ph.D student and part time lab employee

BH: Like, I like being around all the machines and knowing that it takes very little effort to play with it. Before I got involved in the lab I read a lot of computer history before, but I didn’t really have any sense of it myself

ML: Most of the time, the people who come into the lab are super technical and into getting into the code or the hardware, and thinking about the machines in that way.

HG: However, the lab isn’t just meant for computer science and computer history. It’s also meant for artists. This year, Livio started a series of curations that brings together a researcher and an artist, whose work deals in similar themes- mostly, technology’s relationship to humanity. These events care called “MALfunctions”, and the one Livio is most excited about doesn’t have anything to do with using the technology directly.

ML: I….think actually I’m most excited project that’s coming, the artists that’s coming in February, that’s going to be using the lab differently in that she’s [fade out]

HG: Rather than coming to interact with the technology and use the tools directly, this artist is instead using them as props in her videos.

ML: [fading back in] incorporating them into something else which I think will be good to have. You know, as a different kind of work.

HG: Museum, playground, home for disenfranchised and obsolete technology, the Media Archeology Lab is one of the more unique and special place in the University of Colorado Boulder. I’m Hannah Granberry, signing off and reporting for Under the Flatirons.

[end of audio]

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