Interview by Robin Graham
Eastern Bloc is an artist-run centre and media lab in Montreal. Since 2007, it has been exploring and pushing the boundaries of the intersections between art, science, and technology. By facilitating hands-on workshops, the centre sets itself apart from commercial galleries insofar as it not only exhibits digital and new media artworks, but helps to educate and provide resources for their production.
The lab’s mandate states that it “provides a platform for experimentation, education and critical thought in practices informed by hybrid, interactive, networked and process-driven approaches.” This includes a mandate to offer a shared lab space involving tools and resources for electronic and digital/new media art. Operating such a lab includes offering technical support, engaging with the community, and reaching out to people who are interested in the artistic use of technology, but may be without the means of producing it. Ideally, this is all in the service of the democratization of technology in a time when we are increasingly alienated from it, despite its prevalence.
I spoke to the Lab Coordinator, Martin Rodriguez, in order to get a better sense of what happens here:
What, if anything, would you say you produce? Is there something material that comes out of this lab, or is it something more intangible, like “knowledge”?
There’s a lot of music synthesizers that are being produced here. That’s one of the main things. There’s a lot of audio works that are happening in our lab right now. We can do everything from fabricating the PCB board, which is like the electronics aspect of it, like just the circuit so you can do multiples. We can make all the casings for them, so there’s the CNC machine which would allow you to cut the wood. Hopefully we will be able to cut aluminum with that.
We also have various different types of woodshop tools. We have a 3D printer there, which we just got up and running. That will allow artists to design 3D objects that are more complicated, something that you couldn’t do with a regular wood and milling machine.
Our lab is really geared toward the creation of electronics projects. What I mean by that is we don’t really have a lot of computers in here, it’s not really made for people to be programming software. So we have all the materials you would need for soldering, and different types of wires. Stranded wire and solid wire, different components, different resistors and capacitors.
Do you think a large part of what you do is educating people on how to use these materials? Or is it more of a resource for artists who already have the knowledge to have access to equipment?
The way our lab functions is a little bit of both. We have lab members who pay a fee to have access to the lab 24 hours a day. They often bring a lot of their own equipment because this is just standard stuff. We also offer workshops, which is a way of generating income for ourselves. But it’s also a way for us to talk to the community. I think a lot of the workshops here are getting people to feel comfortable, and understanding what media and electronic art is. So a lot of our workshops will be like intro to arduinos, or introductions to MaxMSP, Pure Data, or Python. And we also have other workshops which are more like, how to do VHS glitch art. We’ve had workshops that are more panel-based, discussions around artists and their processes.
How do you choose who does the workshops? Do you have artists come in or is it the staff that hosts them?
Because the lab is attached to Eastern Bloc, which is an artist-run centre, we have a mandate to support emerging artists so we offer workshops that are given or facilitated by emerging artists. Oftentimes we find that is more engaging or interesting. Because Youtube is such a powerful thing right now, people can find videos and find out how to build a lot of stuff there, but what’s interesting is coming here and being with an artist and finding out what their whole process is.
What is the relationship of the gallery to the lab? Are their projects similarly aligned? Do you integrate the workshop element into the exhibitions?
Yeah, that’s one thing I’ve been trying to pull in recently with the lab. When we have an artist who comes and presents something to also present a workshop. In the summer, an artist called MSHR came and presented here, and after their presentation we tied in a DIY synth workshop. We had these biopolitics exhibits that happened during Fall with workshops tied in. We also have an artist residency program, where an artist will have full access to the laboratory for 2-3 months, and at the end of that they’ll present what they’ve built during that period.
What are your feelings on the space itself? What is its story, and how does it shape the lab?
We’re currently in the process of acquiring more space for the lab. It’s quite small as you can see, it’s under 500 sq feet. So we wanted to switch it over to where the offices are. Right now there are only two of us working, but with interns we can get up to about 5-7 people in the office. The lab needs to be bigger, there are more demands and we need more tools.
A bigger space would allow us to have more machines. If you go to some of the FabLabs, like FabLab du PEC, which is in Hochelega, they have a much bigger space and a lot of interesting tools. Two different types of 3D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, a CNC machine. It’s just a massive space. But it’s different, they don’t have a lot these electronics things. We are kind of limited by the space that we have, it’s not easy to create large pieces because there is not a lot of elbow room.
What are the open lab nights like?
Yeah, we’ve been doing the open lab nights, they’ve been running. But as of recently we’ve switched the programming because it was so open that no one came. It was just like, “hey it’s an open lab night come and check it out.” People would just not show up. So I was like, this isn’t working, we need to find a different model. So what I started doing was trying to create themes so we could target specific people. Right now the open lab night we’re having is a sound lab night. I’m hoping we can do something like a programming one, or now that the 3D printer is running we can do a 3D printing lab night.
Is the idea for open lab nights that you can bring people in who aren’t familiar?
Yeah, to bring people in who aren’t familiar, but also to grow a community. With the sound lab night there are a lot of people in Montreal that are fabricating sound, or experimenting with instruments. So we’re trying to create a community around that. And an exchange of ideas, of circuits, of concepts.
Why ‘lab’? What about this space makes it a laboratory, or just, what comes to mind when you hear this word?
Outside of this context when I hear ‘laboratory’ I think of beakers. But I think the larger concept behind it is like, experimentation, and developing something to be accurate and fully functioning. I think that is a lot of what happens here. Maybe the word ‘lab’ has been used so much it’s getting played out, and that’s why people have a bad feeling against the word, its overuse—
Oh, not a bad feeling. But it has certain connotations. Experimentation, a collaborative space where people have to work on ideas together. It’s different than a factory or something where you know exactly what is being produced. It’s kind of indeterminate in that way. I think that’s why people feel compelled to call their space a lab.
Yeah definitely, I think so. I think sometimes the startup scene tries to take those types of words, those buzzwords and make it something. I feel like what we have in spaces like these feels more like a lab, like what we know as a science lab, because of the machines and what is produced and experimented with.