Feasibility, Failure and Infrastructure

This is the text of the presentation that I gave last year at the Media Art History conference in Montreal. It was presented as part of a panel with Ghislain Thibault, Monika Kin Gagnon and Alison Reiko Loader about Archiving Failure. All of the presentations looked at a film or media project that was, in some way, unfinished. There are a lot of things about the presentation that I would revise in light of the more recent material I’ve found, but it might be something of interest to people who weren’t (or were) at the conference.


Let’s start with the idea of feasibility. I pick on this term because it is one that appears quite frequently in the assessment rubrics of granting organizations. The worthiness of a project for funding is determined based in part on its feasibility.

To bring us closer to the theme of this panel, feasibility, simply put, is about the management of failure. In other words, the evaluation of feasibility is one of the sites at which granting agencies and other agencies involved in the business of accounting for research manage risk (budgets being another key site for this kind of business.) What is not feasible is that which is likely to fail. What is likely to fail will not be supported.

I want to begin here, with a discussion of funding, feasibility and failure because it is within this context that I think the broader import of John Hart’s work in the 1970s achieves its fullest resonance for contemporary researchers working within the still unstable matrix where scholarship encounters creation. Hart’s work on mechanology and specifically mechanography is of interest both on its own merits, but also because of the way that it navigated the lines that divide the feasible and failure. And, in the process, perhaps highlights an important, if often under appreciated, mode of thinking about the productivity of intellectual work.

John Hart

Hart was not a media theorist properly speaking; he was not even somebody who seems to have had anything more than a passing interest in media as a subject of research. (For example, he had read but was not deeply engaged in the work of McLuhan.) He was a computer scientist by profession, and a tinkerer by habit. Born in the small town of Colborne, Ontario, Hart started his career at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1960s.

It was a time when, at least at some Canadian universities, departments researching information technology and those parts of the institution that provided information technology support were not divided by as stark a boundary as today. In fact, his first position at the university involved both teaching introductory ‘computing science’ courses to undergraduate students as well as working on the development of the university’s automated payroll system.

Yet, there is an abiding interest in media, primarily media production, that can be found throughout his work. As a pedagogue, he was interested in exploring ways that media could be introduced into the classroom in order to allow students to understand the complexity of computers as logical systems beginning in the mid-sixties.

To this end, he encouraged a new hire in his department, the still young but recently retired avant-garde filmmaker turned mathematician Keewatin Dewdney, to dedicate some of his time to the production of educational films (although the only project completed was a film called “The Turing Machine.”) He later dedicated significant time to the development of computer interfaces for visually-impaired students as one of the founders of the University’s Computer Braille Facility. (Ghislain and I have written elsewhere about Hart’s contributions to the development of technology to serve students with visual or hearing impairments.)

An interesting pioneer in what we now call learning supports perhaps, Hart’s work came to my attention not only as a result of these contributions. He is perhaps more widely known for his interest in philosophical approaches to technology that he maintained throughout his career. As he built the computer science department at Western, Hart’s interest in developing an inclusive approach to emergent technology expanded to include an engagement with contemporary philosophy of technology. His interest in the writings of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, the Belgian anthropologist Henri Van Lier and other writers who had taken up the question of what it means to live with (and not merely use) technology.

Indeed, his involvement with the philosophy of technology cannot be separated from his more practice-based endeavours. So, the same year that he asked Kee Dewdney to produce “Turing Machine”, Hart was also supervising an English translation of Jacques Lafitte’s Reflections on the Science of Machines. His work at the Computer Braille Facility overlaps with the launch of the Mechanology Press. The translation of the first part of Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects into English coincided with the opening of the Mechanology Centre that I’ll be discussing in a few minutes..

Hart, who died in 2000, didn’t keep most of his records, so the material that we have been working with is fragmentary and not always clear. Yet, at the centre of Hart’s interest in both the philosophy and practice of technics was a sustained commitment to what he described (borrowing language from his friend and colleague Jean Le Moyne) as a “renewal of humanist philosophy” around a worldview that would include machines as a extension of humans rather than position them as hostile and alien objects.

Fred Dicey

Evidence of this project can be scene in the handful of texts that Hart wrote over the course of his career on these topics. But it is also possible to see this being part of a broader engagement with media production as well. For example, in a cassette recording found in the archives of London, Ontario painter Greg Curnoe, we hear Hart (along with the artist Curnoe and Curnoe’s collaborator Murray Favro) interviewing Fred Dicey, a local man who had invented a “lightning powered car.” The interview mostly consists of Hart prompting Dicey to describe the process he uses for inventing. The position that Hart comes to articulate at the end of the interview, explaining his motivations to the younger artists accompanying him and the slightly bewildered Dicey, is his desire to think about the importance of technology outside of the university and outside of the places we are used to thinking about such things in relation to (by the way, (the tape seems to have been intended for use in Hart’s computer Science course.)

Mechanology Centre

I would like to conclude this survey of Hart’s work by focusing on the project that occupied a large amount of his time during the 1970s: the establishment of the “Mechanology Centre” in the small town of Zurich, Ontario. Along with a series of proposed translations (the above mentioned texts by Simondon, Lafitte and Gerhard Schroter’s Philosophie der teknik), the goal of the centre was to study to the place of technologies in the life of this small community (population 800) over the past hundred years.

He saw this as a project that drew upon the systemic logic of cybernetics, but deviated from it insofar as the use of technology in these contexts required a greater sensitivity to the place of humanity and nature within the processes of technical development. This research would culminate in what Hart described as a ‘mechanography’ or ‘mechanology’ of Hay Township. The term mechanography isn’t every fully explained by Hart, but seems to be his understanding of what a mechanologist would produce through their work. It is linked to industrial archaeology, but with an expanded attention to the development of machines within their milieu.

The project had two components, the first of which involved an empirical study of technology in the area drawing on existing documentary material. The second part of the project involved hiring a group of students from the local high school to conduct interviews with older residents of the town regarding their experience with technology. The final stage of the project was the production of a series of media related to the project. This would include the production of a film, as well as the creation of a computer network that would store and analyze the data.

Much of Hart’s discussion of the project is framed as an ethnological study of rural industrialization, comparing Zurich (founded by what Hart calls non-British English-speaking settlers) with the neighbouring St Joseph (founded by French-speaking settlers.) This aspect of the project is less interesting than Hart’s ongoing interest in attempting to decentre the study of technology away from urban centres into the rural context.

As Hart wrote at the time, the goal of the project was not simply to completion of the study. It was to “explore, by means of experimental tasks … whether it would be possible to establish in a rural region a viable centre for the study of the nature of the machine and its profound effect on our civilization.” It is a goal that he traces back to his upbringing in the small town of Colborne.

The project, as he conceived it, was organized around the study of ‘technical communication’, an awkward way of describing how technical knowledge is transmitted across generations, whether by human or non-human agents (as it is the persistence of particular technical objects that he was also interested in). He argued that there is a different logic of transmission, linked in part to a different relationship to machinery that can be found in rural contexts like Hay Township.

The project was, however, embedded with a variety of different media practices that were viewed as sites of preservation, analysis and presentation simultaneously. This ranges from the introduction of a computer terminal to the town of Zurich, proudly displayed at “the Bean festival,” the proposed production of a film about the region perhaps involving Kee Dewdney (whom he would later draft into a revived version of Le Moyne’s machines films), as well as the recording and preservation of a series of interviews between youth (hired on a government employment grant) and community elders.

As is clear throughout, these media are not simply tools of communication but sites of thought and engagement. For example, in speaking of the computer terminal, he writes “The idea was to see to what extent the computer might serve to provide an image of the past as a basis for reflection on vernacular history.”

The goal of establishing a mechanology centre in Zurich that Hart laid out was never achieved, and Hart admitted as much in the report that he filed to the Canada Council at the end of his grant. The Centre closed, and there remained almost no memory of it having ever existed beyond a few newspaper stories in the local paper.

Infrastructural Reverie

There are two things that are striking about the documentary trail that Hart’s work on the mechanology centre has left:

  • first, how few of the stated goals of the project were met;
  • second, how convinced he was the project should be expanded further.

Here we see the tensions between failure (which he freely admitted) and feasibility (which was increasingly something that Hart’s project was seen as lacking.) In other words, Hart was effectively cut off from receiving further support for his research since so little had been accomplished even as the project seemed to moving towards a more developed understanding of mechanology and the uses of mechanography.

There is, however, something compelling about Hart’s trajectory through the modern philosophy of technology and the various projects through which he sough t realize his interest in this topic. Yet, it is difficult to categorize the kind of contribution that Hart made. There are, of course, his material contributions to cultural translation as he was, in part, responsible for having Simondon’s book on technology brought into English (and, to a lesser extent, having it reappear in French in 1990).

But there is something of value that goes beyond these documents, something that present in his proposals for the Mechanology Centre and the mechanography of Hay Township. To summarize quite briefly: It is Hart’s involvement with a register of thought that sits somewhere between philosophy and logistics. The Mechanology Centre was a peculiar kind of creation as it does not conform to the kinds of outputs or products that are easily archived or documented, yet it was a thing that was created. Elsewhere in his writing, Hart admits to being influenced by Bachelard’s ideas of reverie (an influence he comes upon through Jean Le Moyne’s attempt to develop the machinic reverie in the 1960s.) In the documents we are left about the Mechanology Centre, perhaps one could say we see Hart as partaking in a kind of infrastructural reverie. In thinking about the intersection between research and creation, there is much to be gained by examining this history of this register of thinking, particularly when it strains the limits of feasibility in its embrace of productive failure.