I run the Synchroton Media Research Laboratory, located in Milwaukee, WI USA. It is augmented by the Geographical Research Unit, a nomadic dwelling and testbed for alternative living and my personal R&D/performance activities.
At its core I view one of the primary roles of the SMRL is as an extra-institutional research/collaboration center for projects and people related to my personal fields of interest. Located in an old factory building, it comprises a workshop and test bench for electronics design, modification and testing, and a large studio space suited to facilitating a wide variety of experimental endeavors, mostly alternative media production, forms of performance or creation that tend toward interdisciplinarity and are strongly non-traditional. It’s a direct reflection of my own attitudes toward prevailing and minor forms of creative production.
It is a loose resource network for those around me (perhaps a few dozen) with limited/nonexistent access to resources that might otherwise be provided by universities or makerspaces. The lab stocks, accumulates, and redistributes equipment and supplies (especially electronics components and such) to people around me — in particular the group of artists that occupy or regularly work in the building in which it resides, which is a large (broadly defined) artist studio space. I do everything I can to provide technical assistance, tools, etc. to those around me.
It is personally funded – the only real support it receives is rent-compensation in exchange for my own activities managing the artist space. I believe its continued existence for over a decade to be one of the exceptional accomplishments of this space as existing outside of those institutional opportunities(which also entail certain demands and expectations) although it is largely owing to self-sacrifice. It is not suited towards entrepreneurship, perhaps the opposite – rather towards encouraging those things that are incapable of surviving by way of mass appeal. I have had bad experiences with grant-based funding in the past, and prefer to pursue a course of minimal financial requirements.
Much of the ‘research’ has lately been in the realm of analog audio/visual synthesis but it is one of many meanderings. The studio has a vast array of obsolete and obscure technology and one strong focal point is an attempt to discover lost technologies or re-contextualize old technology to new ends – a prime example being the large array of nuclear instrumentation modules which have been at one point used to design a computerless interactive audiovisual game. Although much work is done around the lab involving the state of the art as well, I believe that one of its strong focal points is taking a critical stance to the notion that technological progress invalidates and ‘obsoletes’ old technologies. Also, working against the sense in which media production comes as the second half of a process which first involves consumption of corporate/mass-defined tools. A primary objective is to change the media landscape through an engagement with the tools themselves, crafting or modifying, prototyping, creating bespoke technologies, relying on and contributing to the open-source landscape. Technological engagement at a low level rather than buying a few apps and calling oneself a ‘media artist’. On a related note I personally find the term ‘artist’ to be problematic and I believe my problem domain to be much wider than creating aesthetic works (that perhaps include some ‘commentary’ or something).
The Geographical Survey Unit is just my own escape pod from the lab, an experiment in self-sufficiency, and it contains within it everything needed to pursue these activities on the road, deal with space & location creatively (data driven/remote/telematic stuff a current effort) and to connect with a larger group of people. I have personally shunned many forms of broadcast or untargeted communication such as having a website, social media etc. and prefer to engage individually – which of course makes the situation even more difficult.
The knowledge produced at the lab is shared mostly tribally, with those working in the lab and engaging with it using and developing said knowledge. Of course it influences the work they produce. In the case of audiovisual synthesis it’s shared with practitioners on online forums, and distributed as open-hardware kits, schematics, conversations, etc.
The plans for the lab are very much up in the air at the moment. It has increasingly become a burden to my own life and autonomy. I’ve been the primary one to benefit from the space, and it’s shifted the space from the dream of a community-oriented space to one of my personal peculiar interests and endeavors, and has been at least as isolating as it has been connective. The Geographical Survey Unit is the great crowbar to pry me out of that space, and try to expand my personal potential and perhaps reinvent/reinvigorate the lab.
As far as “what makes a lab a lab” and not a studio – this is a difficult question. In my case I see it as a space which is inherently collaborative and not defined directly producing objects: process, learning, collaboration, experimentation is foregrounded, resources that extend beyond personal needs or that are truly rare or require special accommodation are shared, etc.