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What Is A Media Lab?

situated practices in media studies

Author / Hilary Bergen

An Interview with Jake Harries from Access Space, UK

18/10/2017 What is your lab called and where is it? JH: We’re called Access Space, and we are located in the city centre of Sheffield, UK What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab? JH: We have three strands to […]

An Interview with Marcel O’Gorman of Critical Media Lab


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.
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An Interview with Caroline Bassett and Sally-Jane Norman at the Sussex Humanities Lab

Interview by Niki Tulk


“We plan to maintain our breadth across performance/music media arts, history, everyday life and mediated life, critical theory—but/and we also want to push our critical edge. So much work in DH hasn’t been critical in orientation, and we do many of us, in different ways, come out of that tradition. So we’re intending to keep asking questions about gender, power and digital technology, automated epistemologies—and their supposedly ‘neutrality’, and to integrate those into our more material work more deeply.” – Caroline Bassett and Sally-Jane Norman on the future goals of the Sussex Humanities Lab, UK

NT: What is your lab called and where is it?

We are the Sussex Humanities Lab (SHL), based at the University of Sussex, in the Downs outside the City of Brighton, UK. We are a research centre/programme and we span a series of Schools of Study—with a strong base in media and film (School of Media, Film and Music), and in HAHP (History, Art History and Philosophy) also in Education schools and in informatics and engineering (E&I) (computer scientists). ‘We’ are (i) the programme (SHL), (ii) the named and supported members of the team—academics at all levels, technical support people, project manager, admin (iii) we have a physical ‘lab’ space – we call this the ‘Digital Humanities Lab’, It is at the heart of our work, although its not always where we do things…

NT: What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

We are initially funded for four years—so this means our tempo needs to be pretty rapid. We are tasked with providing enough evidence of some form of sustainability at the end of that time, to become a permanent research centre within the University—in some shape or other. We don’t necessarily think we should simply seek to ‘do the same again’, at the end of our project time. We have a bunch of official KPIs (performance indicators) and the plan we bid for the funds with also sets out a series of targets (for engagement, impact—look up the UK meaning of that term…, and for grant capture). Those are rather official though. I would expand all that to say that we want to:
*Generate new forms of thinking and new forms of research—both in the humanities in general (where digital transformation produces new possibilities and opens new perspectives) and in relation to the computational as the subject of inquiry. That’s the big goal really. To do that we need to:
Intervene into the fields that together constitute digital humanities (lower case), by which we mean both traditional DH areas and also cultural, media, digital media, code studies, areas which have been exploring digital transformation in different ways for an equally long time. We think DH can become broader, more diverse, more multi-mediated—and that it needs to become more critical. We recognize the tension between critical theories of DH that can just produce abstraction, and the need to engage materially with new possibilities and new methodologies arising through big data, various forms of automation, and other new computational technologies. We think it can be productive—and that it’s fine if it sometimes produce antagonism. Actually in our lab we argue all the time. We are superb at arguing … including about our name: we deliberately adopted the “Sussex Humanities Lab”—rather than “Digital Humanities Lab”—name, precisely to demarcate ourselves from technical servicing- oriented DH bodies that have spread over the past couple of decades. The frequent mobilisation of big digital infrastructure funds as a rationale for developing (otherwise poorly supported) humanities research has resulted in a lot of projects where the (funded) tail wags the (confused) dog. We did not want to be identifiable with these countless, very similar organisations that have jumped onto the DH/ “cyberinfrastructure” bandwagon (e-science in the UK), simply to
develop new kinds of insufficiently conceptualised and critiqued demonstrations of technical prowess and gimmicky computational affordances doomed to swift obsolescence. We want the dog to wag its own tail – happily and excitedly, and in ways that can energise and contagiously enthuse others.
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An Interview with Professor Meredith Martin of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton

Interview by Melissa McDoniel


“…while the global digital humanities community is constantly defining and redefining itself, we embrace an inclusive understanding that respects and investigates the myriad of ways that digital methods and technology are opening an avenue to research, and the human experience.” – Meredith Martin, CDH Princeton

Melissa McDoniel: Can you say a little bit about your role in Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, and how you came to be involved with DH and also the Center?

Meredith Martin: This is the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton’s second year with a physical location. We started last year officially, but before that, we were an initiative that I started with a number of faculty colleagues as well as colleagues from the University Library and from our Office of Information Technology. We began as a discussion group, bringing together faculty from across all divisions of campus — from computer science, from sociology, from all of the humanities departments. These discussions began in September of 2011. Over the course of the 2011-2012 school-year, we developed four focus groups after holding a a day-long meeting in January 2012. We decided collectively that we wanted to do some research on what Princeton could offer and was already offering, since we are so resource-rich. We wanted to investigate whether we needed to have a Center at all. The preliminary meetings in the fall of 2011 were primarily to talk about what other peer institutions had and what kind of possibilities there were to support digital work at Princeton. We talked about collaborative and interdisciplinary possibilities across campus. Then we thought about how we might develop a kind of white paper that we aimed to complete by the end of the spring term of 2012. We also started thinking about a mission statement for the initiative itself at that January meeting.

After our January meeting, we broke into those four focus groups that met separately over the course of the spring 2012. These were defined by the group as “teaching and research,” “infrastructure,” “funding,” and “programming.” Programming meant basically inviting people to campus to give talks, but also offering workshops Princeton wasn’t already offering. Infrastructure was tasked with thinking about what Research Computing, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, the Library, etc., was already doing. At the end of that spring the four focus groups turned in a separate section of a vision statement to a steering committee that we had assembled. That vision statement was then put together by the steering committee over the course of the summer of 2012.
With the advice of what we called an “executive committee” including the Chief Information Officer, the Deputy Dean of the Faculty, the Executive Director of the Humanities Council, and the University Librarian we turned the vision statement into a document asking for a Center. This was their strong advice.
Over the course of the fall 2012 we revised the document and submitted it, and then I worked closely with the Provost over the course of that year, approved officially sometime in early 2013. In that approval process we were approved to hire an Associate Director, which is the first thing that we wanted so that it wasn’t completely grassroots, faculty run with all of us doing this volunteer work that was not recognized service.

Basically 2012/2013 was revising the proposal, and 2013/2014 was the year of the search for the Associate Director, and that was also the year that I was officially named the Faculty Director of the “Center”; however we didn’t yet have a physical Center. I spent most of that year (13/14) fundraising, and I raised half of the total operating budget with support from 25 different departments and divisions as a three-year commitment with a substantial amount of that support coming from Princeton’s Humanities Council. I took this broad-based campus support to the Provost’s Office and the new Provost (the former Provost had been named President) were very supportive when they saw the work we had done. The University Library took the Center for DH as an administrative home at the University and funded the search for the Associate Director, as well as helped us to become a fully-fledged academic unit (the first in the University Library). Being an academic unit rather than an administrative unit at Princeton means that we can have faculty teach, support research grants for graduate students and stuff like that. Jean Bauer was hired in the academic year in July of 2014, and 2014/2015 was her first full year, and now 2015/2016 is her second year.

We now have a temporary (they call it “swing”) space that we were given at the beginning of last year, Fall 2014. It’s in the former psychology department. Some of our offices are converted observation rooms that are more like small closets with one-way glass. We put some particleboard up so that they don’t look so horrible, but we have equipment, we have space, we have our stuff there. We’re in our official third year as a Center, but we didn’t have any physical space except the last two years so we really think of this as our second official year.
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An Interview with Lily Diaz and Philip Dean at Media Lab Helsinki

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.

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An Interview with Rob Duarte, director of the REBOOT Laboratory

REBOOT operates at the edge of visual art and something akin to scientific inquiry. We exist in a research university and part of the concept of the lab is to have our work creep into traditional research venues. In this way, we might be able to subtly inject critical, subversive, political ideas into contexts that might otherwise be driven by the apolitical pursuit of strictly technical knowledge.

In addition to founding the REBOOT Lab, Rob Duarte is an artist and an assistant professor in the Department of Art at Florida State University.

What is your lab called and where is it?

REBOOT Laboratory lives in the Facility for Arts Research (FAR) at Florida State University. In addition to directing the lab, I’m also an Assistant Professor and Digital Media area head in the FSU Department of Art.

What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

From the website:

REBOOT is a laboratory that looks toward our culture’s production of waste as a point of departure for a critical engagement with technology. Our approach is rooted in the visual arts and is driven by our collective knowledge of process, materials, and experimentation; as well as a commitment to revealing the social, political, and cultural aspects of technology.

Through collaborations with artists and researchers at FSU and beyond, REBOOT projects cast a critical eye on technoculture and the logical consequences of the ways in which we produce, consume, and discard technology. This examination of the political components of technology occurs through a hands-on process of thinking and making, with the goal of provoking discussion and action that will bring about alternative, preferred futures.

The lab has two projects at the moment: FixShop is an art project that takes the form of a repair shop storefront. Through the theatrical play of a repair shop and its employees, we accept “broken”, outmoded, and obsolete designed objects from individuals. We discuss the owner’s relationship to the object as well as their expectations and desires for the “repaired” object. The objects are rarely restored to their former function, but are instead transformed / redesigned / reinvented to become alternately humorous, contemplative, or poetic reflections on our consumer culture, the value of mass-produced vs hand-made objects, etc.

The other project is called DIY Resource Recovery and is driven by experimental research into waste products. The aim of the project is to discover low-tech ways of converting waste into useful materials for making. The focus is on finding low-tech, personal or studio-scale methods that provide a sustainable alternative to municipal recycling. The goals for this project are not related to technical efficiency or commercialization, but pure experimentation and materials-based discovery.

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An Interview with Andrew Quitmeyer of Digitial Naturalism

An interview with Andrew Quitmeyer, a PhD student at Georgia Tech whose research investigates the role that Digital Media can play for Biological Field Work. What is your lab called and where is it? Digital Naturalism – Mobile Studios Location: Anywhere (theoretically), often in tropical rainforests that we have hiked into with some field biologists and artists. […]

An Interview with Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum of Maryland Institute for Technology

Interview by Jaime Kirtz

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied thinktank for the digital humanities). He is the author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JK: Can you explain a bit about you, your role in the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and how you came to be involved?

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An Interview with Professor David Radcliffe of the CATH Lab at Virginia Tech

Interview by Rebecca Jones

Note: My recording application for this interview failed, so the information below is a compilation of the notes that I took and is not verbatim. To read more about how Professor David Radcliffe became involved with humanities computing, read this article

RJ: How did your interest in digital humanities develop?

DR: Quite pragmatically. It was before DH had become a term. I was trying to find tools to perform the research that I needed. I had bibliographies on note cards that I wanted to migrate using a word processor. From there, I started to learn SQL and other programming tools. For me it was a problem solving enterprise. It was really funny, I would have a list of 500 citations and using a word processor, 30 seconds later I would have a process that could pull up the requested items.

RJ: How did you learn your skills or programming languages?

DR: I was self‐taught, we’re talking the late 70s, early 80s. You could do a Cobalt class at community college. You had to learn it by yourself. I’m an antiquarian, so I had lots and lots of information that I needed to work with and needed to figure out how to do it.

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