“Prototyping the Past” is the title of an article as well as a line of inquiry, if not a technique, that the MLab pursued as part of our “Kits for Cultural History” project between 2012 and 2018. The project applied prototyping, including physical computing and fabrication, to speculations about history rather than the future. We remade early technologies that no longer existed or no longer functioned. The goal was not to create exact reproductions or replicas as means to access “real history”; it was to test assumptions about old media and material records and see what surprises or findings emerged in the process. The article focuses, for the sake of example, on prototyping early wearables and electro-mobile jewelry (pictured above and below). Other examples from the MLab include early magnetic recording and optophonics.

Below is a link to that article (subscription required), published in late 2015 in a special issue of Visible Language that was edited by Jessica Barness and Amy Papaelias. The topic of the issue is “Critical Making,” and alongside “Prototyping the Past” it includes essays by Anne Burdick; Donato Ricci, Robin de Mourat Christophe Leclercq, and Bruno Latour; Holly Willis; Tania Allen and Sara Queen; Stephen Boyd Davis and Florian Kräutli; Steve Anderson; Padmini Ray Murray and Chris Hand; and Steven McCarthy. I also provide links to the MLab’s electro-mobile jewelry prototypes, our research on early wearables, and various talks I gave on prototyping the past, all followed by an abstract and acknowledgments for the Visible Language article.

Many thanks to Jessica and Amy for their editorial work on such a timely and important issue of Visible Language.

Photograph and screen grab of the process involved in milling a miniature skull

Prototyping the Past
Published in Visible Language 49.3 (Barness and Papaelias, eds.) in 2015 | twenty pages, including nine figures | subscription required

Links: essay (HTML); electro-mobile jewelry (HTML); MLab research (HTML) on early wearables; talks on prototyping at Cornell, Stanford, WSU, Hawaiʻi , LTU, HASTAC, and UVic (all HTML); resources related to “Types of Prototypes” (HTML) and “Critical Design” (HTML)

This article outlines a methodology for combining media studies with rapid prototyping and computer numerical control (CNC) techniques premised on remaking technologies that no longer function, no longer exist, or may have only existed as fictions, illustrations, or one-offs. Called “prototyping the past,” the methodology understands technologies as entanglements of culture, materials, and design, and it explains how and why technologies matter by approaching them as representations and agents of history. Informed by hermeneutics, it refuses to take historical materials at face value. It situates media history in a particular thing and the contradictory interpretations that thing affords. It also relies upon trial-and-error negotiation across modes of 2-D and 3-D production, creating media that function simultaneously as evidence and arguments for interpreting the past. Yet most important, prototyping the past does more than re-contextualize media history in the present. It integrates that history into the social, cultural, and ethical trajectories of design. To demonstrate the methodology, I detail how the “Kits for Cultural History” project at the University of Victoria prototypes absences in the historical record and prompts audiences to examine the conditions of that record. I then dedicate my attention to one Kit in particular: the “Early Wearables Kit,” which remakes an 1867 electro-mobile jewelry piece from Paris. After interpreting the Early Wearables Kit from three different perspectives, I articulate eight ways to understand prototyping and media history together, with an emphasis on how prototyping the past stresses the contingent relations between matter and meaning.

Acknowledgments: The Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF) have supported this research. I would like to thank William J. Turkel and Devon Elliott at Western University, together with the following members of the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria, for contributing to the Kits for Cultural History: Nina Belojevic, Tiffany Chan, Nicole Clouston, Laura Dosky, Katherine Goertz, Jonathan O. Johnson, Shaun Macpherson, Kaitlynn McQueston, Danielle Morgan, Victoria Murawski, and Zaqir Virani. Special thanks to Tiffany Chan, Alex Gil, and Nadia Timperio for providing feedback on a draft of this article.

First and second images of a modeled, milled, and laser-cut electro-mobile skull (intended for cravats) care of Nina Belojevic, Shaun Macpherson, Danielle Morgan, and the MLab. Used with permission. This page was created on 14 August 2019 and last updated on 14 July 2021.