An interview with Lily Diaz-Kommonen and Philip Dean of the Media Lab Helsinki in Aalto.

Can you tell us about the background and emergence of the Media Lab Helsinki?

Lily Diaz: The Media Lab Helsinki came into being in 1994. It was formed by merging the existing resources of the Computer-aided photography lab led by Philip Dean and the IMI (Image Media Institute), an experimental unit created in 1992 to investigate high-end 3D animation and 3D computer-aided design (and provide master’s-level education in those areas). Because there was a need to create an academic unit that would concentrate on the potential of digital technologies to transform media and create new markets for new media content, a discussion ensued (involving the Ministry and other key players in the Finnish education scene) as to where to host such an environment. At the time there seemed to be a desire to focus on the education of new media content developers as well as to further develop collaborative applied research with Finnish industry. These orientations might have played a role in the decision about where to locate the unit, so that it was eventually placed at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (Taideteollinen korkeakoulu).

Originally the Media Lab project received three years additional funding from the ministry. This institution – that in 2010 became the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University – has deep roots in the history of Finnish design, from having been the descendant of the School of Craft and Arts, initially based in the venerable Ateneum building during the late 19th Century.

The Lab opened its doors in 1994 and was a key partner is hosting the 4th International Society of Electronic Arts (ISEA) Conference. The Conference itself was a highlight, featuring the best and latest [research and innovations from] the international electronic arts/media culture scene.

The initial team at the Media Lab Helsinki [was] comprised [of] Philip Dean, Kari-Hans Kommonen, Isto Männistö and, later, Minna Tarkka.

Having [just] started the master’s studies program in the previous year, the Lab did not have a post-graduate program of studies when I arrived as a doctoral student and researcher in 1995. Post-graduate studies were done independently with tutoring by professors in the departments of Design and of Art Education where postgraduate programs and communities of researchers already had existed since the late 1980s.

Art and design research is certainly not a new endeavour. What is new is the growing trend by which artists and designers have become involved in research activities as part of their practice, cultivating and acquiring a voice as researchers and with an understanding of their role as creators of primary sources.

I think that my most important contribution during these early years was combining new media and design with a scholarly-oriented research perspective. In 1996 my thesis work proposal to the Academy of Finland Research on Knowledge (Tiedon tutkimus) became the Media Lab’s first externally-funded research project. Since then I have continued to push the boundaries of this transdisciplinary area of knowledge, through my research and media design, on the topic of digital heritage.

Media Lab Helsinki has certainly been [a] pioneer in [discovering] some of the first high quality examples of digitally-born heritage artefacts used in international exhibitions. For example, the digital facsimile of the Map of Mexico 1550 was a ground breaking project that successfully brought together art, science and the humanities. It paved the way for a three-pronged approach to media design:

1. A data acquisition strategy with an eye towards the needs of future generations.
2. Reconfigurable and modular interfaces design that can accommodate diverse exhibitions and work situations.
3. Content development done in participation with multiple local and international communities.

This project was followed by other substantial engagements using virtual reality to provide accurate reconstructions of tangible and intangible heritage: The Pavilion of Finland at the 1900 World Fair in Paris and the Interactive VR Reconstruction of the Vrouw Maria are examples of this work. Though these works are carried out within the Systems of Representation research group and often involve the use of doctoral students and professional researchers, the work also includes our master’s students.

Why do you call the Media Lab Helsinki a “media lab”? Is it because of the role certain technologies or apparatuses play in the lab?

Philip Dean: With respect to the last 10 years the ‘lab’ concept has changed somewhat, [especially] when compared with our earlier history. In the early years much of the investigation of new technologies originated from students’ interests in experiencing novel technologies that ‘normal’ people would have little access to. As new media technologies [have] became more pervasive as consumer products on mass scales (mobile phones, laptop computing, digital imaging devices, computer vision/motion detection systems for games, etc.), [our] emphasis has shifted towards the hacking of technologies as opposed to the integration of exclusive or expensive technologies within media art projects. This can include combining various technologies [and] creating experimental content, as well as [the] more widespread use of rapid prototyping methods for electronic (digital) devices, digital controllers and attractive physical design of unique interactive objects.

The existence of several research groups whose work [here] involves creating experimental designs (virtual reality systems, haptic sound interfaces, new musical instruments, physical interactive games, etc.) enables a much more critical and [generative] environment for the students’ work [than in our earlier years].

Lily Diaz: From the onset and ever since, the Media Lab Helsinki has been deemed as a place for experimentation [that pushes] the boundaries of the latest in digital media. Quickly our site became an attractor hub for all kinds of interesting people and activities. For example, in the early days of Internet, the Lab was the host of Daisy’s Amazing Discoveries, one of the first online soap opera productions, led by Mika Tuomola (1971-2016), who at the time was a master’s student in the department. Tuomola returned to Finland and to the Lab as creative director for Crucible Studio, after a stint as director of a research studio concentrating on interactive narrative at the Interactive Institute in Sweden.

Possibly because of its being situated in a design institution, [our] emphasis was never based on new gadgets as such; the work at the Media Lab Helsinki has had more to do with developing different ways of thinking, of approaching new media, designing for it and relating to [its] audiences. As an example of such work I can cite the developments of Design Fiction 99 as a strand of research in design by Kari-Hans Kommonen and the ARKI research group. The group organised an experimental minor subject study program (1998-99) and went on to stage one of the earliest exhibitions devoted to this topic.

Who uses the lab? What sorts of people visit and participate in the physical space of the lab? Does the lab have employees? Are they students or professionals?

Lily Diaz: Media Lab Helsinki’s staff [is made up of] professors, lecturers, producers, [and] researchers as well as post-docs, research fellows, doctoral candidates and research assistants. Currently there are 14 professionals employed by the Lab. In addition there are 150 master’s students and 20 active doctoral candidates. The students are primarily engaged in one of the three orientations of study in the New Media Masters Program: New Media Design & Production, Sound in New Media, and Game Design. As per all departments of the school, the contributions of part-time teachers, tutors and lecturers is common. Visiting foreign guest teachers are often invited to provide one-week workshops as a standard part of the MA curriculum.

There are also several minor subject areas of study, including Dynamic Visualization and General Media studies. Students from other departments in Aalto University as well as other universities in Finland and abroad can apply to do studies in these areas.

The unit can be characterized as an evolving ecosystem that sustains difference. All kinds of people are involved in the day-to-day activities at the Lab throughout the year, including academic staff as well as artists and researchers in fields [such] as human-computer interaction, archaeologists, biologists and naval architects involved in trans-disciplinary projects. [This last one] was the case with the “Re-discovering Vrouw Maria” project, done by the Systems of Representation research group, which produced a virtual reality reconstruction of the 17th Century Dutch vessel that sank in Finnish waters bearing a cargo of precious art for empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce and how is it circulated?

Lily Diaz: For the past 20 years the main vectors for activity in the Lab have been artistic and design education and research about new media. Within both of these [categories] you can find experimental art projects, lectures and seminars. The lab’s research is published and otherwise disseminated through standard practices of academic research, in peer-reviewed publications, in conferences, monographs and in open seminars and workshops.

Openness is [essential] to our way of working. Students in the Lab are quite free to develop their own methods ([both] in ways of working and in showcasing their work), and faculty is often involved and supportive of these efforts. As an example I will cite the Dash’16 New Media Festival, organized for the first time by our master’s students with the assistance of Koray Tahiroglu who is research fellow at the Lab, and Rasmus Vuori and Antti Ikonen who are the heads of the MA in New Media and MA in Sound Design programs respectively. The festival schedule offered presentations, workshops, performances and exhibitions that included a game corner and a prototype table.

What kind of financial support does the lab receive? 

Philip Dean: The Media Lab was elevated to official departmental status in 1998 and existed as a ‘permanent’ part of the university with its own professorships, lecturers and study programs receiving a yearly negotiated budget as per all other departments. In the late 1990s and early part of the new millennium, the Media Lab was successful in gaining much external funding from both national and EU funding agencies, in order to pursue diverse research topics, typically in applied research undertaken in public/private consortia. At some points the Lab’s external funding was at similar levels to the basic (OKM) funding received.

In 2010 the Media Lab was merged with the units of Photography and Graphic Design to create the Department of Media within Aalto Universities School of Art & Design. Due to many changes in financial administration and personnel policies, it is hard to measure accurately how the Media Lab’s financial situation has developed. Whereas earlier annual budgets were negotiated in terms of overall needs and planned developments, now the majority of internal  funding is tied to the number of existing Professor ‘slots’ and some funding is linked directly to results based on universal key performance indicators. A far smaller percentage of internal funding is actually negotiable for strategic development compared to earlier years. The effects of the Aalto university personnel strategy have also been felt (negatively) and it remains to be seen whether the university’s current research policies can be supportive of the Media Lab’s academic community. It also has to be stated that interdisciplinary work is not necessarily supported by many of the KPIs that have been created in recent years by our national administrators. At the time of [this interview,] a new financial system is being implemented which aims at more transparency in the (university’s internal) financial rewarding of successes (based on a set of pre-defined key performance indicators). However, as the Media Lab is one part of the Department of Media and, as the output of the other academic units (Photography and Visual Communication Design program) [are] essentially of a different nature, it may be difficult to assess the exact effects of the new system before we have [a few years of] practical experience [with it].

In terms of corporate funding there are now considerable challenges due to the management of external relations with corporations by central university management as well as the massive reduction in national applied research funding via TEKES imposed by the current government.

The Media Lab was born during a particular period of consolidation of media practice-based education (the mid 1990s), but also during a period when new digital technologies were starting to become institutionalised. How does your lab differ from the current iterations of the ongoing interest in maker spaces and such, and the attempts to integrate those in university spaces and curricula?

Philip Dean: As part of the developments at Aalto, the Media Factory was created as a ‘horizontal platform’ for internal/external collaboration under the broad gamut of Media. After a year or so, The Media Factory was redesigned along the lines of the Media Lab’s original operations, as a rather open resource providing basic facilities [to] anyone [who was] interested. As part of this development, the Aalto FabLab — a purpose-built facility for entry-level rapid prototyping — was created. The Media Lab’s community, faculty and students, had a key role in this development. It could be argued that the FabLab (and other activities developed in the Aalto Media Factory) could have been developed directly within the Media Lab as an extension of the existing environment. However, according to Aalto’s strategy there has been a strong push to create new platforms for the whole university, as opposed to directly supporting the success [and expansion] of existing units.