“Spatial Organization of Media” @ SCMS

The information "Filter Room" @ No.11 Group Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge
The information “Filter Room” @ No.11 Group Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge

Tomorrow I’ll be joining with Craig Robertson from Northeastern University, author of a fantastic book on the history of the passport; and Matthew Kirschenbaum from the University of Maryland, author of the much-celebrated Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, for a discussion of “the spatial organization of media” at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal. Lynn Spigel was planning to join us as a respondent, but she was suddenly unable to attend. Craig will be sharing some material from his forthcoming book on the history of the filing cabinet (yay!) , and Matt will be talking about sand tables — a “furnishing” used for military strategizing (again, yay!). I’ll paste below their abstracts, and then I’ll share the intro to my presentation, which draws pretty heavily from the “Intellectual Furnishings” piece I posted last November, which was itself a preview of research I plan to dig into next year.



Craig Robertson / The Emergence of the Filing Cabinet: The Spatial and Temporal Storage of Modern Information/Craig Robertson

This paper uses the early 20th century emergence of the filing cabinet in offices to think about storage as the articulation of temporal and spatial practices – and therefore to explore the argument that storage is not the passive opposite of active transmission. To consider the filing cabinet as a storage technology is to examine the ways in which drawers, folders, and tabs were articulated through alpha-numerical sequences to organize space with the intention of managing time, or more precisely to “save” time: in the sense of reducing the time it took clerks to file and also to save time in the sense of preserving paper documents.

The filing cabinet signals an important development in information storage because it facilitated the storage of documents in anticipation of future use. That is, in a filing cabinet, storage is approached as a problem of retrieval, offering the novel solution of storing paper on its edge. Prior to the filing cabinet most offices approached storage as a problem of preservation through a logic of stockpiling. In some cases this resulted in actual piles of paper documents, more frequently it was paper bound in books with little attempt at indexing.

While the simplistic opposition of transmission (active) and storage (passive) within media theory has been successfully challenged in recent years (especially in media archaeology) this paper argues that what is still needed is a more nuanced understanding of storage as an active process. This paper also foregrounds that (outside of the history of digitization and computer processing) it is necessary to understand information storage not as passive, but as a technical solution that is as integral to the organization and processing of information as recording and transmission.


Matthew Kirschenbaum / Sand—-Tables

This paper explores the medial history and speculative politics of the sand table, a purpose-built furnishing supporting a bounded, malleable, scalable space sculpted in sand and historically used for modeling military or civic operations in three dimensions. Though sand tables have their origins in the ancient world they had achieved prominence by the late seventeenth century, more or less coterminous with the rise of relief maps, the science of military fortification as pioneered by Vauban, and the close order drills of “clockwork” field formations formulated by Maurice of Nassau. Georg Leopold von Reisswitz, inventor of the modern wargame or “Kriegsspiel,” built the first implementation of his game on a sand table in Prussia in the early 19th century. An early 20th century American military textbook assumes the sand table as a given in instructing cadets, and enumerates its virtues: that it affords an aerial, “birds-eye” perspective; that it is easily made from common materials; that it is malleable and reconfigurable, capable of reproducing any desired terrain at any scale with greater flexibility and fidelity than static relief maps; and that the resolution of the representations may be as coarse or as “real” as desired.

Given their material silicon base, sand tables perhaps emerge as a heretofore unexamined component in narratives of interactive medial spaces, with clear associations to maps, modeling, miniatures, and wargaming. More specifically, we can locate them in a trajectory of surfaces, screens, and projections that include the wartime plotting tables of the RAF’s Fighter Command (which tracked the incoming German raids in real-time during the Blitz), the SAGE air defense system (where controllers vectored interceptors toward threats using a light pen), and the kind of “big board” digital cartographical displays commonplace in both Cold War films like War Games as well as contemporary “War on Terror” imagery (24, Homeland, et al.) Drawing on elements of media archaeology, military science, and object oriented ontology, this paper thus works towards introducing and situating the sand table within a genealogy of such speculative, projective surfaces. Moreover, as we will see, more than merely passive reflections of an external reality, the sand table can assume its own representational primacy, as in, for example, the work of Brian Conley, whose 2008 media installation Miniature War in Iraq . . . And Now Afghanistan! uses a massive stand table for its installed base. The paper concludes that the sand table is equally relevant to both a history of projective surfaces and the origins of tactile, touch-sensitive media whose contemporary apotheosis is the touch-screen.

Me / Intellectual Furnishings: Media Storage Devices as Epistemic Structures

In lieu of an abstract — you can get the gist of the paper here — I’ll post the introduction to my talk:

I’ll begin with an autobiographical preface: [2] I grew up in a home with an ever-present dusting of sawdust, which perfumed our air with its magnificent smell. [3] The workshop in the back yard meant that I had the privilege of living with custom-made furniture: [4] these are bookshelves my cabinetmaker father and I made together. I also have desks and filing cabinets and reading stands made to my specifications. [5] I’ve come to understand, in retrospect, that that workshop, with its precarious balance of mess and organization, [6] played a key role in inspiring my fascinating with the aesthetics of organization and storage. [7] As a child, and still today, I found and find great intellectual stimulation – and beauty – in sorting the Phillips head from the flat-head screwdrivers, the roofing nails from the finishing nails, and putting them in their appropriate cabinets and bins.

[8] Those fascinations transferred to another of my childhood homes: the hardware store that my dad owned with his two brothers – which, after 40 years, including a decade fighting Home Depot and Lowe’s, they sold last August. [9] The store and the workshop together generated an appreciation [10] for how the design of one’s intimate environment – the spaces in closest proximity to our bodies – has tremendous affective and intellectual implications. [11] And that environment seems like a logical next step (step – get it?!) – and next scale – for my research. Hence, the preliminary work I’ll be sharing today, on Intellectual Furnishings.

[12] Most of my work for the past decade-and-a-half has been about media and space – at the urban, infrastructural, and architectural scale. A few of my past projects have examined the interior design of media spaces, and some have even focused on individual furnishings:

  • [13] My book on libraries mentioned service desks and bookshelves
  • [14/15] Phillips Exeter Library: bookstacks, carrels, Harkness Table
  • [16] Woodberry Poetry Room: vitrines, screens, record players
  • [17/18] Bureaucratic and intellectual structures for filing

[19] My next project – which I’ll begin in earnest on a fellowship next year – will reside at the bureaucratic scale – the scale of the bureau, the cabinet, the shelf: the scale of furniture.

I’ll start work on this project next year. [20] Today, I’ll share my basic framework and an examination of one “species” of furnishings: the bookstack…

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