Darren Wershler just put up this excellent post on the new Amplab blog. I think I saw the tweet just at the right time because I caught myself pondering the organization of TAG, possible futures and other stuff that creeps into my head when I can’t seem to write. Darren’s bit is on Barton Kunstler’s concept of the creative “Hothouse” as an inspiration for thinking about the orchestration of the CURC digital humanities lab (Ampersand Lab) at Concordia. I am super glad he is doing this because it give us something substantive to talk about, blog about, and maybe even write a paper about. I have never even thought about writing about this sort of thing before since I generally think I should be writing about something… you know… less administrative.
Its also useful because I had never seen that Kunstler piece before and it nicely captures some of the conversations that we had when we first starting thinking not only about what TAG should do, but why it should be there as something that always threatens to take us away from our “day” jobs in our home departments. Reading Darren’s post and Kunstler’s article made me think about some of my own less than carefully articulated inspirations.
I might as well come out and say it because everyone already knows I am a geek. Never mind “the artists’ workshops of 15th century Florence, the Bauhaus, the US jazz community” or even Lynn Hughes’ favorite artist collectives… or even my old cultural theoretical fantasies about hanging out in some latter day Frankfurt School or the editorial meetings of the 1960 and 70’s Tel Quel group. My only real inspiration is Buckaroo Banzai and the Banzai Institute (for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information). You laugh yes, but I am serious. Not about the Banzai Institute but about the unseriousness of the idea of the institute. For those who remember it is a blank parody of an organization with, to quote Kunstler, “cosmic” significance. Who else will protect the world from aliens from the eight dimension?
The quick point of course is that the hothouse effect such as it is can only be an imagined one, a utopia if you will. For me, it is the act of collectively imagining and attempting to materially instantiate an “otherwise” infrastructure for creativity and collectivity that does a lot of the work we value in these beautiful institutional places where everyone is naturally productive, creative and cosmically world relevant. The Banzai Institute fails if its realized because in its cult B-movie form its a masculinist (if not homoerotic) pre-gen-x fantasy about control, creativity and being included. Only in its fictional form as an empty or empty-able signifier can this be adequately challenged and revised. We can say we are building the real Banzai Institute because unlike the Bauhaus it never existed.
So yes to the inspiration and no to Kunstler’s consulting business… nothing is ever that pretty. Indeed the question that should be asked first is whether our imaginations conform too much to the paradigm of excellence describe by Bill Readings in the University in Ruins. It may seem like a paradox the way Kunstler describes it but most university administrators would love to see departments turned into hothouses – that should be worrisome enough.