Research News

Poetry and gaming as agents for social change at UB’s Palah Light Lab

A clear jar filled with scraps of paper sits on a square table.

Opening the feminist poetry machine initiates luminous readings of poetry written by a variety of invited feminist poets, reimagining how computing can be utilized for feminist participatory engagement with poetry.


Published November 30, 2020

headshot of Margaret Rhee.
“We want to bridge theorization and creation as part of an ongoing conversation about gender, race sexuality and justice. ”
Margaret Rhee, assistant professor of media study and co-director
Palah Light Lab

The Palah Light Lab is quickly making a splash at UB — and with students, researchers, artists and activists around the world.

With more than 30 applicants seeking membership in the lab for initiatives planned for next semester — including UB students and others from Harvard University and NYU, along with many local artists — the lab’s 2020-21 cohort is steadily growing.

Based in the Department of Media Study, College of Arts and Sciences, the lab utilizes a feminist and queer-centered approach as part of an interdisciplinary mission of political engagement and social justice through instruction, poetry and gaming.

The lab is an innovative hot house incubating the possibilities presented by hosting an environment that encourages participants to explore how artistic imagination and creative practice can work with technological innovation in ways that allow the arts and humanities to respond to critical cultural questions meant to bring about positive social change.

Palah Light Lab is about making, thinking and applying those energies both within and beyond its creative community.

“Our lab emphasizes gaming and poetry, and the innovative ways technology and equity can intersect in participatory ways,” says Margaret Rhee, assistant professor of media study, who co-directs the lab with Cody Mejeur, a visiting assistant professor in the department. “We want to bridge theorization and creation as part of an ongoing conversation about gender, race sexuality and justice.”

Rhee has extensive experience with similar projects.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, she worked closely with the Berkeley Center for New Media Studies, and later led a research collective at the University of Oregon with a focus much like Palah Light Lab. Then, as part of a fellowship at Harvard, Rhee helped to develop digital studies on campus. While there, she also became involved with the university’s metaLAB, which is dedicated to modeling new forms of cultural communication.

“Those were great models,” says Rhee, a poet and new media artist whose debut poetry collection, “Love, Robot,” was named a 2017 Best Book of Poetry by Entropy Magazine. “When I received a SUNY Diversity Faculty Fellowship, I wanted to take what I learned from those experiences and begin a lab at UB focused on queer and feminist media.”

Inside the femiist poetry machine, a bookless library — a jar in this case — which presents the works of feminist poets when opened.

The lab is currently working on developing a feminist poetry machine with a fellowship from the Electronic Literature Organization, an international group dedicated to investigating literature produced for digital media, and a video game titled Trans Folks Walking, developed by Mejeur.

“A lot of my work deals with queer video games and the representation of queer stories in video games, and I’m committed to making new queer stories and representations by creating my own games,” Mejeur says.

The game is a first-person narrative that explores different choices drawn from trans experiences, such as a trans man faced with the choice of entering one of two public restrooms designated by gender.

“You quickly realize the benefits and limitations of both options,” says Mejeur. “Do you choose what aligns with your gender identity or the gender you were assigned at birth? Neither choice is safe. Neither choice is without its anxieties.”

Other levels are designed with similar situations that take players through different stories.

Trans Folks Walking is a generational step forward from games of challenge, quest or competition that reflect a mission often pursued by independent publishers and nonprofits that design games meant to educate and share the fundamentals of an experience.

“That’s what we were thinking about with this game,” says Mejeur.

Rhee’s work with the Feminist Poetry Machine is an ongoing project that considers the possibilities of tangible computing and the poetry book of the future.

The machine is a bookless library, a jar in this case, which presents the works of feminist poets when opened, a social rather than remote experience.

“I’ve completed one iteration three years ago and continue to work now on further developments,” says Rhee. “I love books, tangible books, but this is an on-demand digital medium that brings people together.”

The lab, like its affiliated partners at USC, MIT and the University of Victoria, is a group experience rather than a physical destination.

Rhee and Mejeur hope to begin discussions on a location for the lab once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, but for the moment, they’ll continue their work building community connections and social justice.

“If people are interested in what we’re doing, we want them to reach out. We’d love to talk about our work and hear about the work of other artists,” says Mejeur.

“We have a lot to do and goals to accomplish that require a village — and then some,” he says.