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What Is A Media Lab?

situated practices in media studies

Tag / teaching

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

Interview by Niki Tulk

11/2017

“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 Lara Stein Pardo of RAP Lab

Interview by Erin Armstrong

Lara Stein Pardo is a cultural anthropologist and visual artist currently working as a Research Associate in the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture (RAP Lab) at University of Colorado, Boulder.

 

EA: Lara, I want to start by thanking you for taking the time to speak with me and to explain to our Digital Humanities class about your work. As you know, I’m incredibly interested in your Mapping Arts Project, which has led to some interesting developments in my own pedagogical aspirations. Could you tell us a little bit about what the Mapping Arts Project is, and where it is headed?

LSP: The Mapping Arts Project is a primarily web-based project that maps cities through places where artists have lived and worked historically. The project is online at mappingartsproject.org, and includes Miami and Providence so far. Denver and Chicago are in development. The project includes archival, spatial, artistic, and ethnographic research and materials. Future plans include continual technological improvement such as the use of mobile locational technologies and the redevelopment of the website to show a global map (vs city maps). In the Spring I’ll be working with students in the course, “Geographies of the Arts,” to launch Mapping Arts-Denver.

EA: Could you explain what started the project? What were some of the biggest challenges (knowledge of coding etc., economically, gaining interest, etc.) you faced, and ones you may still be facing, when you started this?

LSP: I started the project in 2009, while doing ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation on contemporary arts. I wanted to find a book that would tell me about the history of the arts in Miami. I could not find such a book. Instead, I began to conduct archival, ethnographic, and historical research. At first, I thought the project would be a short-lived participatory art project. But, the more research I did, the more I realized it needed to be a bigger project. That’s when I designed and developed the website – to be able to create a broadly accessible and continually growing project. Some of the biggest challenges in the beginning were time and funds to do the initial web development. Oh, also, finding the right team to work with. I have kept the project manageable thus far. Eventually, I will need to raise funds again to expand the technological capabilities of the project.

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An interview with Professor Claudia Mareis and Dr Jamie Allen from the Critical Media Lab, Basel

The lab is a space where things are unready, unfinished, at risk and without known utility. The common root of ‘lab’ and ‘labour’ is also helpful in that it evokes an active, physical space with bodies in it doing things (which can be a rare thing in the hallowed but empty halls of academia).

An interview with Professor Claudia Mareis and Dr Jamie Allen from the Critical Media Lab in Basel.

“We need places, laboratories, fundamental labs to discuss the terminology, the conceptual schemes, the pedagogies, and the value systems. We need to work on this. This is what the humanities should be doing. Fundamental research like they are doing in the labs.” — Rosi Braidotti

How do you characterise the Critical Media Lab’s work and mission statement; what are the defining characteristics of what you do?

The Critical Media Lab is a place, a physical location and discursive locale, where we attempt to strike a balance between research, writing and reflection that critically examines our contemporary and historical practices of media, design, art and technology, while allowing space and physical resources for these practices themselves. Simply put, production, in the sense of actually producing something that is not a research paper, book or essay format reflection on some other practice (as writing, after all, is also a practice) should not necessitate either tacit or explicit support of the means, techniques or technologies of that production. Making media doesn’t mean you are ‘for’ more media in the world, and having knowledge of the institutional, organisational, social and political effects of media, technology and design making should allow for more, not less, reflexive practice in these areas. McLuhan once quipped regarding his own status as a reluctant hero of media studies how talking about something does not mean you are in favour of it. Making, doing and practicing media, art and design, although productive, need not be productivist in the sense of exacerbating the logics of mass-media, corporate or ahistorical techno-capitalism.

The ‘mission’ of the lab then, which is by no means singular as the lab comprises a number of individual researchers with different interests, styles and directions, is largely to explore what it might mean to make media by ways other than by mainstream, corporatist, or unreflective means. For example, what would a historically informed, contemporary media art practice look like? (“Media archeology as an artistic practice”, Allen & Miyazaki) Likewise but in a somewhat opposing direction, we also speculate as to what ‘other forms’ cultural studies and media studies discipline-oriented research (into the history of cybernetics, say) might take (see collaboration with Kevin Rittberger, where Critical Media Lab interests and research were turned into a public theatre piece, staged in the environment of the lab in Basel). Also important to our work is how new forms of collaboration and research methodologies can bring about these kinds of modulation in formats of presentation, how these presentations remain critical and thoughtful, and a concern for communicating and educating in the context of the lab, within the lab, close to research driven issues, methodologies and materials.

Syntegrity Bild copy

Kevin Rittberger’s “Syntegrity” (2015)

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