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Media Lab Culture in the UK

By Charlotte Frost, 24 January 2012

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Though the term ‘lab’ conjures the image of a fairly sanitised environment optimised for scientific experiments and populated by people in white coats, media labs – centres for creative experimentation – are quite different. At their most basic, they are spaces – mostly physical but sometimes also virtual – for sharing technological resources like computers, software and even perhaps highly expensive 3D printers; offering training; and supporting the types of collaborative research that do not easily reside elsewhere. In the early-to-mid-1990s, partly propelled by the exciting possibilities of the internet and associated web browser technologies, groups began to coalesce, bent on developing access to the inherent potential of collective creativity. With the exuberant new businesses fuelling a ‘creative economy’, the Californian ‘cybercafé’ (surf the internet and slurp the coffee) was emulated in urban centres around the UK and in some cases artists were heavily involved. They saw the internet’s myriad ways of changing the way we make, think about and share art – not to mention its capacity for social empowerment – and wanted to harness these qualities quickly and effectively. With many practitioners coming from the spaces, practices and communities forged by the independent film and video movement, the phenomenon of the UK media lab was born. However, despite the importance of these spaces as the hybrid homes of the then emergent and now embedded creative activities that characterise today’s rich field of digital and media practices, their history and contribution to current lab environments has been little discussed outside a niche arena.

Early Media Labs

Two of the earliest UK media labs were Artec and Backspace (aka Bakspc), both based in London. Artec, which was established in 1990, was initially funded by Islington Council and ESF (the European Social Fund), but soon won additional support from Arts Council England. Conceived by Frank Boyd and Derek Richards, its focus from the outset was to deploy technology for social empowerment and, early on, it provided valuable professional training to the long-term unemployed. In this sense, it did not operate from within an arts context proper, but combined art and technology in the name of social integration. Creative projects were led by Graham Harwood, whose own artistic practice and his collective Mongrel were formed through associations at Artec.

Harwood and Mongrel’s practice is known widely for scrutinising social, political and cultural divisions through a framework of technology. A notable piece from this period was Rehearsal of Memory (1995), which took the collective experiences of staff and patients at Ashworth high security mental hospital, near Liverpool, and presented them as a unified and anonymous computer-based group portrait. Now available as a CD-ROM, the work strongly undermines the assumptions we make about mental health, blurring the line between those branded ‘normal’ or not. It is an excellent example of the way artists and media labs habitually combine creative activities with technology to give people a renewed agency. Around 1995, Peter Ride was brought on board to curate a stream of activity called Channel, which lead to further powerful artworks including Ubiquity (1997) by David Bickerstaff and Susan Collins’ In Conversation (1997).

Without regular public funding, Backspace started out as an independent self-organised cybercafé. Initiated by James Stevens as a ‘soft space’ adjunct to his commercial web design business, Obsolete, it had a physical studio and lounge on Clink Street. People could drop in and use the web access and computer terminals in exchange for a nominal membership fee and commitment to maintain the space. What is notable about the Backspace model is how it attempted to foster a co-operatively managed resource. It exemplified a preoccupation amongst internet culture devotees with autonomy and new forms of governance, and struggled with all the contradictions of such ideals alongside the fact of its commercial parent entity. Obsolete shared its (at that time) capacious bandwidth. This gave people web hosting and streaming capabilities that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive; allowed for the hosting of many artistic projects produced within the space itself; and facilitated many early streaming experiments with link-ups between other European media labs including as E-lab in Riga, Lativa and Ljudmila in Llubljana, Slovenia. Early attendees and co-facilitators of Backspace now list some central figures of the Digital and New Media art fields including: Matt Fuller, Simon Pope, Armin Medosch, Heath Bunting, Ruth Catlow, Pete Gomes, Manu Luksch and Thomson and Craighead – even Turner Prize winner Mark Lecky was a regular for a while.

Globally distributed discussion networks provided a discursive layer for these media labs, with early mailing lists such as Nettime, Rhizome and Syndicate forging international connections around technology, art and politics. Likewise, Mute (at first a newspaper, then a glossy magazine, now a web journal) provided regular critical commentary on burgeoning digital culture.

Foundationally different, Artec and Backspace were united by a belief in the importance of access to tools and training within a social context. In slightly differing ways, they put creative experimentation and social concerns at the centre of the agenda via technology. This was to become an important organisational strategy for this sector. Though both spaces have since closed, Stevens continues to build social and technological infrastructure as Deckspace, at Borough Hall, Greenwich. Without a physical space, Frank Boyd has evolved his media lab system into an industry-orientated programme called Crossover, which assembles creative professionals to workshop cross-platform ‘experiences’ from a variety of creative arenas including film TV and the computer games industry. Crossover is one of many peripatetic media lab models that privilege collaborative creative processes, although it is more goal-orientated than most as participants often pitch to a panel of industry commissioners.

Process over Product

With less of an eye on industry and an abiding interest in the creative process itself, PVA MediaLab was formed in 1997 by artists Simon Poulter and Julie Penfold. In its first incarnation, it took up residence at Dartington College of the Arts, with funding from South West Arts. While there, artists were offered a well-equipped space in which to experiment with technology and develop ideas. In fact it is this developmental freedom that forms another core operational component of the media lab. Rather than asking artists to arrive with pre-formulated projects, or expecting them to see a piece through from start to finish, media labs have consistently placed value on self-determined exploration. PVA helps artists to manufacture methodologies rather than final artworks, fully designed products or content packages. They have also led the way in assisting other media labs to produce a similar system, through their Labculture programme. Highly itinerant, the Labculture model adjusts itself to host organisations, like Vivid, in Birmingham, so they can learn how to set and achieve goals while building the sorts of lasting partnerships that will sustain future activity.

This shared or Open Source way of working integral to media lab culture is also exemplified by GYOML (Grow Your Own Media Lab). A collaborative project between media labs Folly, Access Space and the Polytechnic, GYOML was designed to help generate more media lab initiatives. It has included: ‘GYOML in a Kitchen’, a sound recording and editing workshop by Steve Symons (Lancaster); ‘GYOML in a Van’, which staged an introductory workshop in media-lab culture for community group leaders (Lancaster); a game-centred ‘GYOML for teenagers’ (Rochdale); and ‘GYOML at the Canteen’, catering to film-makers and professional artists with an interest in open source (Barrow-in-Furness). Legacies of this project include the Digital Artists Handbook, an impressive guide to Open Source tools and techniques and ‘Grow Your Own Media Lab (the graphic novel)’, a set of inspiring case studies. Folly continue to work very much in this manner, forming essential infrastructural relationships as and where needed and guiding others through the adoption of free software.

Another example of this attention to operation and openess comes from GIST Lab, in Sheffield, which energises community-based projects through a space that hosts meetings and workshops. Even without a dedicated tech suite, their knowledge-exchange is a short-cut to all manner of original cross-over work, and they have supported yet another project that literally and metaphorically recreates aspects of the media lab model. 3D printing (or rapid prototyping) is increasingly popular in producing anything from car parts to jewellery, by layering materials like plastic into finished three-dimensional objects. RepRap, however, is able to print the spare parts it needs to be built while it is still itself under construction. Just like media labs, this self-replicating 3D Printer is all about sharing access to a successful system.

Ideas over Technology

If media labs are not driven by material production, neither are they all about technology. Arising from the work of the art group, Redundant Technology Initiative, Access Space in Sheffield established its media lab through the use of free and recycled technology and learning. Given our cultural predisposition for wanting the latest, fastest equipment and our reprehensible dumping of perfectly serviceable technology, abundant hardware is sourced from all manner of locations. The latest Free and Open Source software is installed on the hardware where expensive proprietary software once lay and the media lab space, complete with this equipment, is opened to the public five days a week. The one proviso placed on this access – continuing the recycling theme – is that once a media lab participant has learnt how to do something, they should pass this knowledge on. As evidence of the success of this system Access Space boasts impressive outreach capacity: more than a thousand regular visitors, of which only about thirty-five percent are university educated, and over half are unemployed, and they habitually work with people experiencing disabilities, learning disorders, poor health, homelessness or other measures of exclusion.

One of the projects that clearly shows what they do is Zero Dollar Laptop, a collaboration with the Furtherfield organisation and community. Through a series of workshops, homeless participants are given the ability to use and maintain a free laptop complete with free software in self-led creative projects. It is this model of learning through self-directed creativity that arises again and again in media labs because it provides demonstrable results in helping people acquire and retain the skills they need. Without ‘bells and whistles’ new technology, Access Space emphasise the importance of ideas over technology and demystify all manner of computer-based skills.

SPACE Studio’s MediaLab is also an excellent example of a lab working at a range of levels to offer beneficial specialised training. They teach software packages at a professional level to film makers, artists and a range of media industry workers, as well as offering film-making and media training for NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) teenagers in the local area. There are also a number of DIY Technology workshops including those regularly hosted by MzTEK who have expanded their operation as a result of their connections with SPACE. MzTEK are all about encouraging women to build technical skills and enter the new media sector. Growing from a small group to wide and supportive network they answer underdeveloped areas of knowledge. In addition to this, SPACE’s PERMACULTURES residency series has, to date, hosted eight residencies supporting over eleven artists, helping them explore technology and go on to show in a range of spaces.

Partnering Galleries

The media lab also plugs an important gap in the art gallery and museum network. Digital and New Media arts are distinctive for collapsing boundaries between the place of production and exhibition. As a result, few existing art spaces have been in a position to fully represent it. Media labs, as well as community websites like Furtherfield and Rhizome, international festivals including ISEA and Transmediale and curatorial resources like CRUMB (the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss) have imaginatively responded to this situation. Media labs in particular have been very successful in fostering relationships between artists and galleries. They have helped to translate not only the ideas expressed by this type of art – which can require much additional contextualisation – but also their physical installation in spaces not designed for this new breed of work.

For example, Folly recently collaborated on an experiment in the exhibition and acquisition of New Media art with the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Entitled Current, the project saw expert panels first select works to be exhibited at the gallery (in Spring 2011) and then choose one to enter the permanent collection. Not only did this give the gallery the chance to add a timely contemporary work to their collection but it formed a useful public case study showing other institutions how they might engage with emergent art forms in various new media.

Collaboration, Interdisciplinarity and the University

Media labs greatly contribute to the collaborative working methods the creative sector now thrives upon. Cross or interdisciplinary partnerships involve people from very different industries or working cultures combining and even reinventing the way they work in order to unearth all manner of new practices and products. Many universities, having born witness to a boom in research which straddles different academic subjects and industry sectors (due in some part to government funding imperatives around ‘knowledge transfer’), have established their own media labs. A relatively early example of this was i-DAT (the Institute of Digital Art and Technology) at the School of Computing, Communication and Electronics at the University of Plymouth. A large project with many interrelated strands is their op-sys (operating systems) network of research into architectural, biological, social and economic data and how it can be made publicly available and useful.

The University of Nottingham has the Mixed Reality Lab, which was established in 1999 with £1.2 million in funding from the JREI (Joint Research and Equipment Initiative) programme as well as ongoing grants and investments. Run by Steve Benford, it hosts around eighteen PhD students providing resources for researchers and post-graduates working in areas that intersect its host department, the School of Computer Science, and associated training facility, the Horizon Doctoral Training Centre. It maintains a number of diverse projects, some of which have won prestigious awards and award nominations including Can You See Me Now, a collaboration with Blast Theory. The CoDE (Cultures of the Digital Economy) Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge has a digital performance laboratory that focuses on sound-based work. Culture Lab is Newcastle University’s bespoke unit of media-lab-style flexibility, where artists work experimentally and across disciplines, and Sandbox, a similar resource, is located at the University of Central Lancashire.

Another approach for universities is to partner with existing media labs. Pervasive Media Studio, a Bristol-located media lab, was set up by Watershed, a cross-artform production organisation, HP Labs and the South West Regional Development Agency. They have a partnership which runs for three years with the University of West England’s Digital Cultures Research Centre and work in a number of different ways including offering Graduate and New Talent residencies for those just starting out in their careers. The Pervasive Media Studio has helped to establish events like Igfest, the Interesting Games festival, held annually in Bristol, as well as development platforms such as Theatre Sandbox, which helps theatre makers introduce technology to their practice. They also support artists, including: AntiVJ, Duncan Speakman and Luke Jerram.

Current Media Labs and the rise of the ‘HackLab’

As we have seen, some labs have been nomadic or temporary while others have evolved into new incarnations. A media lab might be part of an array of dependencies with institutional responsibilities i.e. Folly, Isis Arts, Lighthouse, Pavilion, Pervasive Media Lab, PVA, Vivid and more, all of which regularly produce an abundance of quality experimentation in Digital art and culture. While new incarnations of the media lab may respond to three distinct but related phenomena: the rapidly evolving technology sector; the transient networks of geeks and digital experimenters; the need for sustainable models for innovation in industry.

MadLab, in Manchester, provides space and facilitates meetings and workshops for ‘geeks, artists, designers, illustrators, hackers, tinkerers, innovators and idle dreamers’. Their ‘drop in’ events, commonly known as ‘Hacklabs’ (for example *Hack to the Future* during the Edinburgh International Science Festival), give people instant hands-on experience with all sorts of code and kit. Although hacking is still seen as a specialist and somewhat murky activity, the term is being increasingly decoupled from its conventional criminal associations and made accessible to mainstream arts territory. In January 2011 the Royal Opera House facilitated a ‘Culture Hack Day’, bringing cultural organisations such as the Crafts Council and UK Film Council together with software developers and creative technologists to usefully open up and share data. Other HackLabs may have less of an arts focus, but do have impressive resources built using the open membership model (pioneered by the likes of Backspace). The London Hackspace boasts a laser cutter, digital oscilloscope and kiln, all donated or collectively purchased.

Scattered through many of our city centres are office/studio-based working spaces which cater to the creative industries by offering flexible working environments and abundant networking and training opportunities. The Hub, in London’s Islington and Kings Cross areas (with up to thirty further Hubs in cities across the globe), gives fee-paying members access to facilities and a way of working orientated towards connecting people from across the network in cost-effective innovation. These spaces are indicative of the emphasis placed on the creative economy as the big hope for economic renewal driven by small entrepreneurs grabbing and shaping the opportunities in technology, entertainment and design.

Inspirational before Institutional

Looking briefly at some of the ways media labs have operated since the 1990s shows them as uniquely fertile spaces for all manner of shared expertise and creative innovation. They have made a fundamental contribution to Open Source culture. Working as openly and collaboratively as possible, participants have found ways of sharing process and product, while an interdisciplinary nature has revealed a plethora of creative possibilities. Fulfilling a difficult remit by offering a home for many of the emergent artistic practices currently transforming artistic activity, they have led us away from ‘art for art’s sake’ and towards work which has demonstrable meaning and lasting social and economic benefit. Large institutions might be extremely well-versed in mounting financially advantageous blockbuster exhibitions, but the beauty of media labs derives from their ability to develop and disseminate the socially-transformative systems that have already and will continue to shape the future of the arts.

(A big thank you to everyone who contributed to this research despite their incredibly busy schedules and a special shout to: Simon Poulter for pulling over his car, Clive Gillman for kindly kicking things off, Sarah Cook for an innovative approach to note sharing and Peter Ride for not taking a lunch break.)