18 August 2016

I just received a shiny book of pictures of people at Digital Media Labs 2015 and thought it timely to reflect on this brilliant project and on the artist lab in general.

I’ve a funny relationship with using the term lab. My first lab I could say I ever did any work in for art was as artist in residence at a Glue Factory in my hometown of Widnes. Croda Colloids made high grade proteins and had a lab where you could analyse the protein they were making. It felt good to be allowed into an important and serious place that needed safety shoes glasses and how to use an emergency shower in case you got Hydrofloric acid on you. I’ll be honest and thought this is what being an arist is all about, wearing a white coat and wellies and making words in bacteria on SVHS in an industrial laboratory.

Later on I worked for over 10 years as a freelancer (and still do) for FACT and often used their ‘MediaLab’ well before their current lab which is actually a lab, FACTLAb which is currently inhabited by recent DM-Labber the awesome Rademas Ajna: The ‘medialab’ was quite typically for the 2000’s well before the Maker meme, a bespoke clean white room full of desks, Apple macs, wifi, speakers and projectors. Over the years I did surround sound, woodworking, gardening, youtubing, MC’ing, blogging, editing, hacking, minecrafting, music and bid writing in that white room with all ages and all backgrounds with many other brilliant artists and people. In the mid 2000’s I setup a temporary Art lab in Medlock Primary school, MedLab to do science inspired workshops and animations, make glitchy speed garage and kraftwork cover versions for school assemblies and think about the primary school of the future. There we decorated a part of the school to look a bit ‘labby’ and used Sci-Fi ‘futuristic’ looking furniture and shelving.

So off and on I’ve used the conceit of a lab as a framework for experimentation. Reflecting on this I think as artists we fetishise the lab concept a little; it lends us some seriousness and validates experimentaton somehow; I’m always going on about how art’s role in the world is in flux and perhaps is having an identity crisis: or at least I feel like that. Maybe it’s not an identity crisis but a validation crisis. As political forces push art and other forms of creative or critical thinking/practice ever further to the margins, maybe appropriating the lab term validates and lends credibility to a field that not everyone ‘gets’ or thinks important. It also raises the opportunity to make a ‘lab’ and a methdodology on artist’s own terms.

But I worry about this appropriation somehow. Art should be as important as science and any other human endeavour but is using the lab model the best format we can think of? Science and engineering pretty much validates itself by it’s utility and our societies relience on it for infrastructure and indeed those in power’s incessant exploitation of it. Should art have to borrow that format? Or maybe that’s the point? Borrow & bastardise, hack and modify and re-form in unexpected ways; something like hackteria, Public Lab or Tad Hirsch’s Public Practice.

Art for me is the possibility to resist the predominant mainstream mass media content providers; generally they present surface presentations of how the world is: if we can make any spaces to encourage creative critical thought then worrying about it’s format is perhaps unnecessary. I suppose my concern is that the over use of a term and format can just homogenise and then marginilise true experimentation and exploration; it’s not enough to just call it a lab, a makerspace or accelerator or catapult or trebuchet or whatever and magic innovation will happen; it needs a little ‘something’. A bit of thought, a bit of care, a bit of space, a bit of support, a degree of openness and a bit of just letting things happen or not happen.

This is the dark matter of a successful lab; its not making it look like a lab, it’s having a diverse mix of people, supporters, technicians, mentors and cooks; it’s having a sensibility of people doing interesting work who can get on with others or disrupt things. And then it’s the people organising it and the background radiation of the culture of the host organisation, Octopus Collective and FON Festival who are well versed in being open and committed to ideas, letting them brew and letting them grow. Thinking on what DMLabs is made me think of Adrian McEwen’s blogpost about the Dark Matter of Maker Spaces and I think Digital Media Labs has that dark matter something; it’s not a shiny new build lab and it doesn’t have all the latest things: but it’s a starting point and a growing network and I think it’s had a subtle transformative affect on art practice across the North. It’s not often you leave a lab and then continue to work with the people you met there for another 6 years.

Part of the lab meme is isolation from the world outside; DMLabs happens on a lesser visited western point of the North. And that isolation from the big heavily subscribed and culturally colonised metropoles could be a positive factor. A good writer friend of mine Shivdeep Grewal said "Artists just need to do nothing" and I still think that’s true; in a world where we can get bogged down with emails, contracts, social media strategy, wordpress updates and endless chasing of funding, DMLabs makes you re-connect with whatever your art practice is: it gives you that space to do ‘nothing’ but by doing things with other people in the same boat; sometimes literally, as each DMLab seems to involve a boat trip or a swim or something.

And whatever people make it has value because of the time and space to think, develop and explore something. For me especially, it was access to other people and the working relationships I had with them after. Here’s a list of just some of the things that happened after to me with people after the first DMLabs

Finally perhaps the best thing about being involved in DMLabs is nominating someone for it; so they can do nothing in the best and most productive way possible with inspiring creative company on a lesser known peninsula of the North West.