Feminist Doing: The Potential of Lab Spaces

Reading about lab space, I’m struck by what it means to embrace feminism in digital, humanites, and media work. For instance, in Jentery Sayers’s blogpost “The MLab: An Infrastructural Disposition,” he discusses “how the development and maintenance of humanities labs must be informed by precedent, anchored in relations (e.g., with existing models), and understood as cultural practices,” which he posits as the reasons deciding to “share the MLab’s inventory in spreadsheet form to communicate aspects of our physical computing and fabrication research.” The emphasis here on relations and sharing evoke a feminist work ethic that is often neglected in more traditional humanities studies where a scholar writes alone and then tries to share work in the most prestigious (and, consequently, often fiscally and institutionally restrictive) publication.

Moreover, Sayers’s description of the MLab as a lounge continues to highlight a feminist emphasis on openness through sharing: “lending library […] Notes are added. Dialogue emerges in the margins […] several tackboards to share announcements, ideas, and work in progress.” Sayers is stressing the importance of open communication but also of space, which are concepts I keep coming across in my own work.

I work as a research assistant for the Stainforth Library for Women Writers Project, and we recently had a few days of meetings where almost the entire team sat in a conference room for hours talking, working, and thinking. The result was that everyone learned something new about the project, we had a breakthrough about one of the more puzzling aspects of the manuscript, and we all gained a better understanding of how to get the project to the next level. Although the team communicates regularly via email, being in the same physical space offered us a certain productive energy that we don’t otherwise tap into.

On a similar note, I recently conducted an interview with Gabriel Wolfenstein of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) at Stanford. When I asked him about how CESTA’s lab space has been conceptualized, he said that, “the conceptual space here is as horizontal as possible” and that, “The layout of the lab is meant to encourage that.” Wolfenstein, like Sayers, also emphasizes the significance of open space for open ideas.

In class discussions, we’ve questioned the importance and relevance of lab space for (digital) humanities work, asking “do we really need a designated space for work that we can just as easily do at home or our favorite coffee house?” After the readings for this week, my answer is yes. I think lab space has tremendous potential for a feminist way of doing DH work with its opportunities for open communications and the sharing of ideas.


9 thoughts on “Feminist Doing: The Potential of Lab Spaces

  1. Woot! We need spaces for everybody. However, I wonder if a feminist space isn’t just about a physical climate as so much a mental/social one that acknowledges the presence of females and LGBTQ and race minorities without making it necessitate separation.
    I wonder what a LGBTQ space might look like. I think something that really gets left out of discussions (I see this all the time in gender gap in STEM discussions) is the LGBTQ community. How does a queer digital humanities space function?


  2. laurelcarlson says:

    This is a really interesting post! I didn’t make this connection regarding feminist emphasis while reading the Sayers articles, but now that you mention it, I think this makes a lot of sense. I also thought it was great how the MLab has a “box of fail” while helps to normalize project failures. Being so accepting of failure would make for a really supportive and safe lab environment, which I think would also contribute to the “feminist space” of the lab.


  3. Kelly-Arlene Grant says:

    Hello, I am commenting from Darren Wershler’s class on Humanities at Concordia University.
    I have been thinking a great deal this term on the spaces in which work happens at the PhD level at Concordia. We, as PhD students in the Fine Arts and Art History department have a space to do ‘work’, but it is set up more as a space to do writing in, not creating art. So far, I have not found I am able to access a space at school to create art in while I write about the art I am creating. For this, I am set up in a small bedroom in my own home, alone with my work, my writing, and my thoughts. I would love to have a collaborative space of other, like-minded, and like- skilled artists and writers. For me, my collaborative space has become an online one, as my peer group is seemingly all over the world.
    I know that Concordia, and the building I take classes in, is an art school. I know this only because I see art students in the elevators and the lobby of the building. All the studios are away from prying eyes, behind steel doors and a corporate atmosphere. The school I graduated from with a BFA was much more open, often times one had to walk through studios to gain access to the studio you worked in. There was a much more collaborative atmosphere. The entire school felt like a lab, where researchers helped each other with problems. Unfortunately NSCAD’s old campus is closing, and there is talk of new stories being built on top of one of the new campus buildings on the waterfront. This new campus is large and concrete, and has a similar air to the Concordia campus. Will this new artistic space also become corporate? Will NSCAD be able to retain some of its collaborative ‘art lab’ aspects of the old campus? Are we, as artists and art students resigned to the notion of corporate art worlds, where we hole up in make-shift art studios in our homes, only collaborating with other artists online? If feminism and feminist art spaces were supposed to be more inclusive, could this shift be seen as non-feminist?

    Thank you


  4. Chalsley says:

    I definitely agree with your conclusion. To equate working from home, working at a cafe, and working in a designated space is to make assumptions about the labourers in question, such as their socio-economic context or the accessibility of respective spaces for each worker. Their conditions and how those conditions affect different workers are all potential factors. For instance, in our home we may feel pressure to preform several unrelated labours in tandem, whereas a designated space (specifically within an institution!) demands less maintenance, and we don’t generally link its aesthetic or functional condition to ourselves.

    Jaime Lee Kirtz makes a great point. I feel there are so many hurdles to collaborative and potentially site-specific work which we still struggle to articulate (i.e., the experience and fallout of micro-aggressions, harassment, being “the only one in the room”, etc.)—many little hurdles stacked high. A feminist/womanist approach would be useful for highlighting such issues and creating collectively beneficial work spaces.


  5. Sarah Brown says:

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of feminist lab spaces as well, lately. I agree with you in that conceptions of “critical making” within a lab space share a kind of feminist ethos in their process of collectivity. As Matt Ratto indicates, “connecting lived experience to critical perspectives” can afford a kind of “caring for,” a consideration of values, social relationships and technological impact that seem relevant to feminist analysis.

    Your emphasis on space reminded me of the oft-recited Virginia Woolf quote: she writes of the “five hundred pounds and a room of [your] own” necessary to write fiction. This emphasizes a longstanding desire for concrete space, space which permits the freedom to create (and, yeah, funding!), while conveying the classism inherent in artistic production (who can afford to devote themselves fully to their “making?”) and academic spaces. “Lab space” still seems to be that of intellectualized, monetary privilege, and I wonder if the academic sanctity of lab spaces is still somewhat . . . isolating? Their institutionalization does limit who can participate, but that association is probably necessary for most funding. I certainly think they’re valuable and promising within an academic context, but I’d be interested to think about where the concepts could be applied outside the academy, too.

    I also think that viable public space for work to be housed/seen/read is equally important as a space in which to “make” that work. The Woolf quote led me to think about Room Magazine (who took their name from it), a Canadian literary journal with an emphasis on feminist collective and co-editing. In your example of the Stainforth Library for Women Writers Project, I think the specifics of process you’ve outlined (shared physical space, open discourse) are echoed in Room’s mandate, as well. Both of these projects are designed to carve out canonical space for makers, and that space for work to “live,” to be seen and discussed after it’s made, is so important. In publishing detached from the academic institution (thinking about feminist blogs I read often, like The Toast), I see the same emphasis on community, diversity and public/open forums for discussion. Though these places are not technically associated with one another, I do think they highlight the notion of being “informed by precedent” as per the Sayers quote — they highlight how a feminist ideology has informed their ideals, to (I think) the benefit of the makers whose work is highlighted.


  6. karissy says:

    Hi –

    I’m commenting from Concordia in Montreal, Quebec, as part of the coursework for Darren Wersheler’s “Mess & Method” course on digital humanities. We also read this Sayers blog post earlier in the semester.

    After reading about your post, and drawing on the comments from my classmates above, I’m thinking about how lab and learning spaces affect the kind of knowledge that is produced in them. In particular, I’m wondering about how the policies and governance of these spaces affect the work done in them. At Concordia, graduate students in the English department (like me!) have access to 24/7 study spaces. Located on the 6th floor of our “Library Building,” the spaces are small rooms that have six large desk alcoves, overhead fluorescent lighting, no windows, and poor air circulation. Add the constant sounds of construction (the library is being renovated on the floor below) and the smell of wet paint, and you have a less than ideal study space.

    And yet, despite the material crumbyness of these spaces, I’ve found that I check in to the office at least once a day, and often spend time there doing organisational work. I think the reason I’m drawn to do work in the space is that I love to interact with my classmates and cohort. We often discuss our work casually, learn about each other’s classes, and air our grievances and frustrations over funding, our grades, our TAships, or whatever else we’re thinking about. The informal and private space is safe for us—it allows us to have personal conversations about the labour we do inside and outside the academy, and operates as a means of communication about many aspects of being a graduate or phd student. It also functions as an informal site for peer-reviewing: we often bounce ideas of each other, check in with more experienced students if our intended angle for a paper will be well received by a certain professor, and so on… As a space for academic advising, community building, and creative inspiration, the office space has been invaluable to me.

    Would the environment differ if myself and my cohort didn’t perform explicitly feminist, anti-oppressive, and deeply personal work? Probably! Do I wish that there were more opportunities for myself and my peers to have an open, healthy, well-lit, and cheerful study space, and that we could receive departmental support, supervision, and funding to pursue a collaborative research project? Yes! Whether by chance or not, the space is one that is extremely vital to our well-being as students and young adults, and it’s the space that we have for now.

    So, as Sarah mentions above—it seems like all we need to create and foster feminist discourse about academic and affective labour as graduate members of the precariat academic workforce is a room of our own, and the time to meet. Thanks for your concise thoughts on Sayers—it prompted me to think more critically about the spaces I work in and how the conversations that happen in the space affect the work I do!




  7. Niki says:

    As soon as I read the title I was immediately reminded of the incident in Tim Hunt’s laboratory at UCL. It is essential that shared space be genuinely shareable, as this lab was clearly not. (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/11/nobel-laureate-sir-tim-hunt-resigns-trouble-with-girls-comments) While it was so disappointing to see a professor call his female colleagues “girls” and “sexual distractions”, it was equally heartening to watch how swiftly he was forced to resign. As Chalsley noted, “A feminist/womanist approach would be useful for highlighting such issues and creating collectively beneficial work spaces.”

    The presence of sexism isn’t limited to physical space; as we all know, internet trolls exist to demand segregation of space even on the web. The intolerance for female users on certain sites has become a danger in real life. (This guy does a great take-down of misogyny on the internet: http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/)

    I agree with Karissa that the 6th floor Library Building offices are great work spaces, where one can be “alone together” with colleagues. As Sarah said, it’s important to see colleagues working. The author of this post brings up the question of whether one might simply work “at home or our favorite coffee house” — but again, these are not always suitable or even desirable, compared to a proper workspace at the university. Personally I’d like to see the Richler Room (classroom) be opened up for some hours to Humanities students, or perhaps part of the Grey Nuns space where colleagues could work in physical proximity.

    I also believe that meeting outside of the university is essential for deepening engagement and shared ideas/projects. Having a weekly or fortnightly meeting with colleagues has been essential to my writing practice at Concordia. Being in someone’s home for an evening can build up a collective spirit among the group that is hard to find in the classroom. Relationships should continue outside of class hours and workshops, especially in Creative Writing. I believe that the best work in the world has been done when writers work in proximity to likeminded colleagues who share readings/writings/experiences.

    “A room of our own, and the time to meet” would be a welcome addition to the Humanities department for the “precariat academic workforce” as Karissa puts it. Judging by what I’ve heard and read, the MLab seems to have achieved the “feminist emphasis on openness through sharing” that makes their workspace work.


  8. […] 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 favori…  […]


  9. […] 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 favori… […]


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