[-empyre-] the media lab environment

Sally Jane Norman s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk
Tue Sep 2 01:36:33 EST 2008

Dear all

Apologies for a "beyond-the-month" post-script to discussion key to my
work that I've followed distractedly. To pick up on earlier prompts,
some elements from organisations I've been involved in with very
different attitudes/ philosophies re university/ institution/
cross-sector etc relations:

An artists' cooperative called CAIRN founded in Paris in the
mid-seventies, which lasted ten years as an independent self-funded
venture for interdisciplinary arts (performance, installation, analogue
video and early digitally processed work for the lucky minority
wheedling its way into facilities with Grass Valley, Harry etc).  We
were based in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, near Bastille, when this was
not trendy and rent could feasibly be split across our meagre personal
earnings, which had to fund our own art work, lives, etc. Our position
re institutions (i.e. anti) was adamantly seventies Paris, albeit
ambiguous when a couple of the members worked in art schools, and
decidedly uncomfortable when we finally pitched for ministerial funding.
Our quarterly publication circulated widely so we were well networked
with similar cooperatives all over the world, hosting artists coming
through Paris who would carry our work or stories in their respective
spaces. In 1981 we staged a non-stop "event week", large-scale by our
standards, for which we spent all our energies creating space for others
to show their work. Some were great but others had no idea how far we'd
sacrificed personal activities for them, showing limits to the
reciprocity on which our effort depended. After this ultimately
successful event we made a funding application for equipment so we could
get on with our own work. We received money for video kit but its
apparent availability again attracted a host of users who had no notions
of reciprocity and certainly no intention of helping bear collective
costs so we ended up folding. Not quite the Star and Shadow story though
perhaps a similar ethos and different generation/s. 

ZKM re institutional / academic/ public links is a funny one - or was a
decade back when I worked there. It has/d privileged links to Karlsruhe
University, one of Germany's biggest and wealthiest, providing a pool of
technical expertise for certain ZKM computing-based projects, though for
star ZKM artists with their own - often fairly anonymous - personal
programmers, these kinds of connections didn't exist. I was lucky enough
to work with a computing scientist called Bernd Lintermann (x-frog
genetic algorithm based software) enrolled at the University who drifted
into the art world this way and interestingly now directs the Institute
for Visual Media. Local public outreach was limited to those who'd cross
the road from a highly conservative town; if they weren't run over by a
tram or put off by the barbed wire round the supreme court building in
front of the ZKM (a converted munitions plant), they were curious
survivors. The biggest publics came from further afield, cruising in
from Frankfurt airport or across the border from Strasbourg for prestige

Culture Lab which I set up as a part of Newcastle University is unique
infrastructure designed to broker innovative research needing neutral
territory outside of the often over proprietary confines of schools and
institutes. In addition to/ sometimes as part of our research remit, we
work with outside gallery-type organisations. For example, Alt-Gallery
is a very small curated sound art space for which we recently hosted a
seminar related to their exhibition, creating synergies across a broader
platform. We work closely - as do Sarah Cook and CRUMB - with the AV
Festival which is a major public media arts biennial, inputting
resources (spaces, networks, management, academic and curatorial
competence, kit etc) towards a broader regional initiative. We also hold
events that specifically involve mixed artist cohorts, academic and
non-, producing a useful sounding board re questions of access, criteria
etc to which we might otherwise remain deaf. Our outreach work is not
exclusively artistic: because of the kinds of research we house, we're
just as likely to host an NGO working on sustainable architecture using
recycled materials in poorer countries, or a specialist (public) event
on Alzheimer's, as a performance or lecture or exhibition. We have to be
acrobatic to deal with the hoops of full economic costing - total
coverage of overheads - which seemingly afflicts all aspects of academic
activity in the UK. Defense of the university's broader public remit
provides one way around cash-up-front imperatives.  Another interesting
argument is that if we systematically tax resource usage for
non-academic artists at (for them) accessible levels, we're undercutting
professional services - disloyal competition from state-subsidised
facilities - making it ethically preferable to "collaborate".  We have
to be careful about how we couch this stuff - no standard answers, it's
a permanently slippery tightrope. We bring artists, engineers and
scientists to work together, in mixes and practice-led creative projects
that can have a highly unusual thrust - that's our remit - though these
categories show productive slippage at times. 

Sustainability?  Per se I find this term meaningless as it's a question
of temporal framing - what in France we call "la conjoncture". It's not
necessarily a criterion for me unless we're talking about creative
energies. Structural or organisational or institutional sustainability
can be desirable and it can be highly prejudicial. Sustaining the
ability/ agility to adapt, to renegotiate one's relations, is crucial.
Senselab's workshop in Culture Lab last year made total sense. But I've
no idea whether this could be done again. Sometimes to sustain one's
creative energies one has to abandon infrastructure that was previously
vital. Panta rhei. Apologies for lieux communs. Part of wayfinding.



>-----Original Message-----
>From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au 
>[mailto:empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of 
>Anna Munster
>Sent: 31 August 2008 00:38
>To: soft_skinned_space
>Subject: Re: [-empyre-] the media lab environment
>Hi Johannes and all,
>> Another issue, which i didn't address (and now that you mention 
>> SenseLab or Hexagram or other larger institutional venues one might 
>> consider, ZKM, or even ars electronica or also the kind of 
>> forum created by Jim Ruxton and his "Subtle Technologies"  event in 
>> Toronto) ..... is the relationshop of alternative media labs or 
>> "centers" and the universities.
>Yes...I also think this issue is extremely important and must 
>be carefully thought through as neither entirely problematic 
>nor entirely productive! Just for clarification - Senselab is 
>not university based but is housed through the Society for Art 
>and Technology in Montreal (although the SAT is itself aligned 
>in various ways to the University of Montreal mainly through 
>academic staff involvement in both places and through some 
>co-funded projects). The motivation for Senselab was 
>primarily, I think to do something away from the constraints 
>of university-driven agendas for research production. 
>Motivation and labour is all voluntary but they are doing some 
>great things I think, including organising events, exhibitions 
>and the new online journal
>where the first issue is about 'research-creation.
>> What I observe is either a low level of technical knowledge 
>(which is 
>> the case for some of the work developed at the
>> Interaktionslabor) or a low level of artistic knowledge 
>(which is case 
>> at most of the universities that have a program on arts and
>> technology>>
>Indeed an interesting observation...personally, I prefer a 
>low-level of technical knowledge than low-level of artistic 
>knowledge!! This question of leaving the art out of the arts 
>and technology university programs runs all the way through 
>the curriculum now and will be part of the future problematic 
>nature of technically inflected art production. Until we move 
>away from the currently dominated landscape of 
>utilitarian-based university education we won't get a good 
>art-tech interaction outside a few people who really believe 
>in the value of media arts' histories, for example..
>But I do think there are signs everywhere that artists, 
>technologists, cultural makers and thinkers are bored with 
>this utilitarian model and this is why small social 
>networks,independent festivals, workshops, even reading and 
>thinking groups are back on the rise again after what seems to 
>have been a couple of decades out in the cold!! So, I feel 
>hopeful that we are and will also see entirely new arenas and 
>practices for media arts which incorproate questions of 
>ethical and social dimensions into their heart as absolutely 
>fundamental (rather than as something we might use the art 
>'for' , for example)
>On the other hand you ask:
>>   Could a group such as Transmute (for a review of the book 
>> after their successful work, see 
>>   have completed their ambitious "Intimate Transactions"  
>> telepresence installation without the funding and logistics 
>support of 
>> several universities down under?
>and the answer is no. However, I think Transmute is an 
>interesting example of combining collective artistic practice 
>with a university structured research program ( it's only 
>Keith Armstrong in that collective who received the specific 
>research funding) Universities certainly don't fund 
>collectives!! But what has happened here is a smart marriage 
>of hope and pragmatism. By this I mean using the institution 
>to leverage funds but still having a very well worked through 
>philosophical and creative approach to art-making and artistic 
>collective practice. This means that the work doesn't get 
>subsumed by the research agenda. But this is very rare and a 
>difficult balance to maintain. As someone who has also had 
>this kind of research funding for theoretical work, I know the 
>insane models and language one has to push one's ideas through 
>in order to get the funding - ie what hypothesis are you 
>testing, do your aims align with you outcomes, do you meet 
>national priorities such as providing research that will make 
>your nation more secure!!!! I believe the key to this stuff is 
>to run with it but not get sucked into the rhetoric and see 
>the rhetoric as somewhat absurdist - like a script from a 
>Charlie Chaplin movie. The other key, I think, to balancing 
>the relation to universities with respect to research 
>creation, is to make sure that not all of one's research and 
>art-making relies on this as a source of support. I still 
>believe in going it alone on some projects - ie not seeking 
>support from the institution but just getting out there and 
>making/doing things with others in more informal and looser 
>As well there are really good w'shops run by arts 
>organisations - Johannes mentions some- I would also add an 
>Australia-wide initiative for emerging performance-media arts 
>practioners called Time_Place_Space 
>where selected participants often go to more regional areas of 
>the Australian country for a couple of weeks with performers, 
>technicians, mentors, directors etc and work on skills, 
>interaction and producing their own projects. Some of the best 
>work being done by younger Australian artists has emerged as a 
>result of this initiative. It's certainly supported with lots 
>of Australian arts funding but the thinking behind it is for 
>real interaction and real creation - not spurious research rhetoric.
>Dr.Anna Munster
>Senior Lecturer
>School of Art History and Theory
>College of Fine Arts
>P.O. Box 259
>NSW 2021
>612 9385 0741 (tel)
>612 9385 0615(fax)
>a.munster at unsw.edu.au
>empyre forum
>empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

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