What is your lab called and where is it?
MO: The lab is called Critical Media Lab. It is located in the downtown core of Kitchener, Ontario, amidst a burgeoning tech hub with multiple tech incubators and a Google headquarters. The lab is off the UWaterloo campus. Kitchener and Waterloo are technically one urban area, but for political reasons, each city has kept its distinct name. Waterloo is traditionally a university town. Kitchener is a grittier place rooted in a history of manufacturing.
What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
MO: In the lab, we create digital projects that reflect on “the impacts of technology on society and the human condition.” That is not entirely accurate, however, since we study more than mere “impacts” (e.g., the human is always-already technical) and more than “humans.” Still, this is what we tell the public. We create projects that are somewhere between digital art and hardware hacking experiments: sensor-based environments, public video projection, small gadgetry, software, wearables. Often, we will take an off-the-shelf kit or product and hack it to make an argument. In general, we create projects that embody specific concepts from media theory and the philosophy of technology. I have called this Applied Media Theory in my published work (see Necromedia form 2015 or “Broken Tools and Misfit Toys” from 2010). I often use the term “objects-to-think-with.”
Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
MO: The lab is used for graduate seminars, research by grad students and faculty, workshops, public exhibitions, and public speaker events. Students have their own cubicle/workbench space in the lab, so they are the main occupants. We have relationships with community arts and culture groups, including a local makerspace called Kwartzlab. The lab hosts regular exhibitions, and so it is also a gallery of sorts.
What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce and how is it circulated?
MO: The lab produces objects that get shown in exhibitions (some we own, some are elsewhere) and discussed at academic conferences. We also publish about our work in academic journals, the press, and in social media.
Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
MO: Space has always been key because I wanted to be off campus. This has caused many problems, including the problem of moving four times. The lab started in my office in 2007, then moved to a glorious building across from City Hall in Downtown Kitchener in 2008. The building was a bank for several years, and before that it was the Public Utilities Commission building, which first brought electricity to the city. Unfortunately, rent was too high for our Faculty of Arts to manage. In 2009, we moved into a space at the local museum of ideas called THEMUSEUM, but that only lasted for one year due to security issues that limited our access to the space. In 2010 I signed a lease with the City of Kitchener for an unused retail space with a highly visible storefront on the main street. We were there for three years until the building was condemned. I decided to stop signing shady lease agreements, and worked with the university to find a more sustainable location. We ended up at what the city calls the Creative Hub, which is in an old mail sorting facility. We share space with several start-ups and some arts groups.
The problem with moving so many times is that each move destabilizes the culture that was developed in a space. It is difficult to get things to “stick” when you keep shaking the petri dish.
What sort of support does the lab receive?
MO: The lab receives funding from the university for space and a part-time lab technician (10 hours/week). Beyond that, we rely on government grants that are under my name and linked to my own research. The lab has been central to over $1 million in competitive grants that I have received from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
What are your major theoretical touchstones?
MO: The lab’s name was inspired by the MIT Media Lab. The goal was to create a media lab that steered clear of corporate interests and did not revel in an uncareful and uncritical celebration of technical progress. Today, I would say the lab is inspired in part by the Frankfurt School and in part by posthumanism. But that could change if you ask me tomorrow.
What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?
MO: The lab was central to the production of my book Necromedia, and it is discussed throughout this book. But accomplishments include the many successful grant applications mentioned above, which have funded the projects of students and collaborators. I could wax philosophical about this and say that the lab’s greatest accomplishment is a series of micro-accomplishments in the shape of English majors learning how to make philosophical hardware.
Maybe the greatest accomplishment is that the lab has managed to survive for a decade amidst constant cuts to funding in our Faculty of Arts. Part of this story is that the lab prides itself as being techno-critical at an institution that prides itself as being Canada’s most innovative university. We are in the belly of the beast, so to speak, and we have yet to be kicked out.
Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?
MO: We have just received a grant to update our makerspace (new 3D printers, laser cutter, soldering stations, parts for wearable computing, IoT, sensor-based applications, etc.). Essentially, we will be focusing on fast prototyping for some new projects that involve people from Environment, Psychology, and Computer science. The lab will work to put more students into tech incubators, where they will focus on what might be called “social innovation” projects. The idea is to have projects move outside of the classroom and lab so they can go public, which will help us engage the tech community more intensely.
What makes your lab a lab?
MO: To me, a lab is a place for experimentation and invention, some of it ludic and some of it guided by very specific objectives. A lab involves not just the production of research, but also of culture. A strong lab culture can be very generative; it can have a great impact on the surrounding community and expand well beyond that to infiltrate culture more broadly speaking.