Media & Materiality, Round 2

I’d been working on my Spring 2011 “Media & Materiality” syllabus all weekend, and took a break today to see Krapp’s Last Tape at BAM. It was a fitting distraction, since the play — actually, much of Beckett’s work — is concerned with the materiality of language — its inscription, performance, and repetition. From The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940:

Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?

Oh, that I could some day write so beautifully! For now, though, my energies are focused on creating a syllabus that’s comely and clever, if not beautiful.

This spring will be the second time I’ve taught “Media & Materiality,” the first being a year-and-a-half ago, in Fall 2010 (and I suppose the “Textual Form” class I taught at Penn in 2002 was a language-focused precursor to this class). The first time around I wasn’t sure what my students would be interested in, or what they’d need to help them complete their final projects: online exhibitions of media objects. This time around, I have a better sense of what structure needs to be put in place, but I still don’t want to presume that I know their topical interests. So, once again, I’ll be building in a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons — lessons that respond to students’ interests, which I’ll gauge through their project proposals and, perhaps, through a poll distributed sometime mid-semester.

via Erik Hartberg on Flickr:

Here’s the draft syllabus as it currently stands. The course description reads as follows:

Ours is an existence characterized by cultural flux and political economic flows, by the virtualization of place and the acceleration of time, the disembodiment of labor, the fluidity of identity, the “conceptualization” of art, the etherealization of communication. Yet even these financial flows and digital networks rely on physical supports, on material storage devices and infrastructures, and embodied interactions with human actors. This seminar examines media as material objects, as “things,” as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication. In the first third of the semester we’ll explore various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory” to media archaeology to object-oriented ontology – that can be useful in studying the material culture of media. The second third will be dedicated to topical or theoretical “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ research interests. And in the final third, we’ll focus on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we’ll approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular format of our projects will also provide an opportunity for us to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their physicality?

And here’s our schedule of lessons:

  1. Week 1: Introductions + Overview
  2. Week 2: The Myth of Immateriality: I’ll have them read a little “immaterial scrapbook” I’ve created, which contains textual, audio, and video excerpts addressing “immateriality” in physics, geography, economics, art, etc. I’ll talk about two relevant exhibitions: Jack Burnham’s Software show at the Jewish Museum, and Lyotard & Chaput’s Les Immatériaux from the Centre Pompidou
  3. Week 3: The Persistence of Materiality: Here’s where we start to see the material “flip side” of all those “dematerialization” prognostications of the 20th century. We’ll read some Bill Brown, Kate Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss.
  4. Week 4: Material Culture and the Social Lives of Things: Here’s where we explore more “material culture” studies, anthropological, and sociological approaches to the study of “objects.” We’ll read some Schlereth, Appadurai, and more Brown. And we’ll begin to discuss our class’s possible involvement with the Vera List Center’s “thingness” programming.
  5. Week 5: Objects, Assemblages & Ecologies: Here’s where we talk about actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology, and Jane Bennett’s “thing power.” We also consider possible tie-ins with Jamie Kruse’s “Thingness of Energy” project, supported by the Vera List Center.
    • This week we also have the Paper Tiger TV / Vera List Center “Designing a New Rrradical Media” conference, in which I’m participating, and which will feature discussions on the materiality of media and politics, as well as workshops where participants can materialize their own “grassroots media prototype for the digital environment.”
  6. Week 6: Media Archaeology + The Gears In Your Hard Drive: Since I teach an entire separate class on media archaeology, we won’t spend much time on the “what is media archaeology”-type texts: Huhtamo, Ernst, Zielinski, Parikka, etc. We’ll focus instead on Lisa Gitelman’s and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on inscription, forensics, and mechanics.
  7. Week 7: An Immaterial Exhibition of Material Media: Because my students will be creating online exhibitions, I’ll bring in two or three curators and/or exhibition designers — creators of both online and on-site projects — to present their own work, to talk about the exhibition as a “medium,” and to help my students prepare for their own projects.
  8. Week 8: Plug In: This is one of those weeks that we’ll structure in response to student interests. I’ve created a few potential “plug-ins” — on topics ranging from the typewriter, to e-waste, to recorded sound, to the Internet of Things, to wirelessness (they’re all listed on the syllabus, and some are available on my Fall 2010 course website) — that the students can choose from, or they can propose their own.
  9. Week 9: Wax & Wire, Emulsion & Electricity: Material History Through Edison: This week we take a field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ, to marvel at the array of physical objects systems that gave rise to our modern media culture. We read Gitelman, Jonathan Sterne, and Thomas Elsaesser in preparation for our visit.
  10. Week 10: Plug-In. Another week addressing student interests. We’ll also do a little “design development” with my Tech Associate, who can help the students start thinking about which media platforms they’ll use to execute their final projects.
  11. Week 11: Pecha Kucha Peer Review: We’ll break into two groups of ten and run two simultaneous, adjacent, Pecha Kucha sessions, where students will present their design concepts and solicit peer critiques.
  12. Week 12: Tech Lab: This week my Tech Associate, Sepand, will host a hands-on workshop in the computer labs.
  13. Week 13: Our Final Plug-In Lesson
  14. Week 14: Final Presentations
  15. Week 15: Final Presentations

And here are the assignments for the semester:

  1. Exhibition Review: ” Because our final project will be an online exhibition, we’ll spend some time at the beginning of most classes reviewing and critiquing some exemplary exhibitions, both onsite and online, encompassing the world of art, history, and science exhibition. Each student must present one review over the course of the semester. For the first few weeks of the semester, I will identify particular exhibitions that are pertinent to the week’s reading and discussion, but in later weeks, I’ll offer some options; you’re encouraged to choose an exhibition that both raises practical questions that we’ll need to address as we curate our own exhibition and pertains to the readings for the week.”
  2. Individual Exhibition Proposal: self explanatory
  3. Exhibiting Arguments: “Even though our final projects represent an alternative to traditional text-based scholarship, text (written, typed, audio- or video-recorded, etc.) will still be an integral component of our work. Your exhibition text will still have to adhere to the standards of written scholarship (e.g., based on rigorous research, citing sources properly, etc.), but it should be written to serve our distinct purposes and audiences (e.g., do we want dozens of distracting footnotes, or an extensive lit review?). Please share with me via Google Docs, no later than April 30 (earlier is better!), a 900- to 1200-word sample of text that you’ll be using in various segments of your exhibition – in the overall introduction; in the introductions to and transitions between various sub-sections; or in navigational cues (particularly if you’re designing a structurally complex project)…”
  4. Final Exhibition + Self-Assessment

I also plan to organize some optional field trips to relevant exhibitions, like the Print/Out show at MoMA, which looks fantastic. I’m particularly excited to see that Andrew Beccone and the Reanimation Library are organizing a related studio.

So that’s what I’ve got. Any suggestions, complaints? Praise? Please share.

2 replies on “Media & Materiality, Round 2”

Sounds great Shannon, and there is a lot in there that is relevant to our work at the BGC, so I can’t wait to hear about what new things you come up with so that I can steal them. I’m also excited to see your final reading list looks like, a lot of really great stuff in there. Wondering if you ever use Baudrillard’s Ecstasy of Communication. Love watching my students pull it apart trying to get at what he is saying, especially since he can be polarizing.

What platforms do your students use for their exhibitions and what shape they take as final projects (for instance how fully conceived are they as exhibitions and what kinds of logistical and conceptual limitations do they work within)? We have done a range of online exhibitions with different platforms from Google Sketchup designs using our actual exhibition space to Omeka exhibitions to a complete now public site built from scratch using HTML ( Its also been interesting to watch our faculty and students using wikis and Prezi as tools for the exhibition development process, both of which have allowed us to work with the juxtaposition of visual material and conceive of prototypes at different stages.

Hi, Kimon. Through our “exhibition critiques” we look at existing exhibitions that make use of a pretty wide variety of platforms — from flashy custom-designed jobs to wikis to Omeka. We’ll keep a running list of available platforms and hold a few “design development” workshops and tech labs throughout the semester to help students choose the best tools for the job and implement their projects. In my Fall 2010 class, most students used WordPress and Tumblr, a couple built wikis, one might’ve used Indexhibit, a couple *considered* using Omeka but then opted for simpler platforms, and several integrated Vuvox into their projects, which proved problematic when Vuvox was down for the five days preceding our final presentations.

I’d say that these projects fully conceived as exhibitions — primarily because we’re regarding the exhibition as a “method” or mode of presentation for exploring our course content. At the same time, though, our course content bears directly on our conception of what an “online exhibition” can be. So the project’s form and content — and, come to think of it, the class’s form and content — are very much integrated. It might be nice to partner with students in a program that does specialize in the conceptualization and implementation of exhibitions 🙂

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