Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

Exploring Artistic Research

At the Artistic Technology Research Lab we deal in general and broad terms with the various ways technology is used and developed in creative processes. Acknowledging that technology is an active agent of everyday life, we observe how hackers, artists and activists use technology and tweak it to their needs. Designing technology in these contexts does not necessarily tend to an elegant design solution for a prior defined purpose. Often it is simply playing with the new material, exploring possibilities and developing an intimate knowledge of its qualities. It also is an aesthetic and political statement, reflecting on and engaging with the social reality that is shaped through technology, it's design decisions and it's implementation into society.

The Lab as Method

In order to investigate the diverse ways artists, hackers, activists and engineers deal with technology and its meaning we decided for a twofold approach: on the one hand we run a lab for artistic technology research. Matthias Tarasiewicz and his team therefore created a space where things take place that fit this common research interest. The core team consists of media artist Matthias Tarasiewicz, computer scientist Max Gurresch, philosophy graduate student Astrid Exner and myself, a media scholar. Reaching out to an international network, this core team joins forces with hackers, engineers, researchers, media artists who temporarily visit the lab as artists in residence or who use it as a base for their own endeavours.

The lab provides the space and a base for interacting with creators and experiencing how knowledge diffuses in production communities. We can map the networks that inform the work carried out in our lab and can document how technology is tweaked, how knowledge is generated and how collaboration unfolds. Having the opportunity to invite people to the lab and provide space to work and to connect with peers creates a dynamic and creative environment, that provides us with many findings. It is also a way of participating directly in the object of research. While we are interested in analysing the ways knowledge is created, information is archived, work is documented and communication is organized we engage ourselves actively in developing methods and tools as well.

Additionally to the “lab wildlife” we organize informal round tables to discuss with persons in whose opinion and expertise we are interested how they feel about their work and which role technology, innovation, and socio-political issues play in their work. Deliberately, we decided against formal interviews or questionnaires, because we were afraid that they would either confirm what we thought we want to know and disguise what we actually need to know. Visiting other labs and studios might qualify as field trips that are aimed at investigating how work processes are organized elsewhere. It is clear that those investigations, the interviews, studio visits and round table talks are explorative. But this method will still provide many fruitful insights in the working mechanisms of epistemic cultures that are rather informal, thriving on individual engagement and intrinsic motivation and where knowledge is rather tacit than explicitly structured, documented and retrievable.

The Artistic Technology Research Lab has been invited by the Vienna Museumsquartier to curate a talk, an exhibition booth and an open studio during the Digital Tuesday in November 2012. Together with SETUP, a group of artists, media designers and hackers from the Netherlands forms of instant collaboration have been explored. Employing data sets from mailing lists an attempt has been made to tap these archives as sources of information about community organisation and communication. (watch a video of the exhibition here)

Follow the Natives

For me, as a trained  media scholar, this entire research design is exciting and challenging. Not only do I have the privilege to get acquainted with a complete new body of knowledge (media art) but also with new methods. My main task was to investigate to what extent the practices of creative developer communities can be labelled as research processes, but what I am eventually doing is to revisit research methods in general. I started this research with mapping the discourse on the controversial concept and term 'artistic research' and creating an inventory of examples in media art, hacktivism, DIY culture and critical engineering. But mostly I learned about the different ways people think in different institutions and to what extent actors such as discursive space one is moving in, the economic circumstances, the political issues including institutional politics affect the work, the self-image and thinking of individuals involved. As an external participant, sometimes as welcomed collaborator, sometimes as a fly on the wall, and at times an irritation, I am all of a sudden in the position of the participating observer.

In the beginning, I actually tried to avoid it, tried to seek comfort behind my desk and books and to find shelter in an office, retrieving information the safe way through talks, interviews and literature study. But then, when I moved into the lab, the lab as a method just hit me: I was sitting in the larger work space of the two room lab which opens up to another lab, where people experiment with liquid surfaces. I was trying to write a brief text for an exhibition in which the lab's artists were participating, and then someone (Damian) next to me started soldering, while someone else (Max) filmed process artefacts while conversing simultaneously with Matthias about the latest video camera hacks. And when I was about to get annoyed about the interfering noise, the smell of melting metal and the nerd jokes I won't get, I became aware that I wanted to exclude the very ephemeral information that might be crucial for getting this job done. Any anthropologists knows this of course; it was just me being blind. A culture where individual contribution, the personality of its participants and their intrinsic motivation are crucial, and where tacit knowledge, undocumented work processes, informal collaboration are more common than any form of formal organisation can only be studied by experiencing it, through being there, and being aware. For my next term in Vienna, I will do as anthropology godfather Boris Malinowski stated when embarking on his investigation of South Pacific trading systems: Follow the natives! I will sail with the argonauts of the media space and map their practices of navigation, listen into their conversations and documenting their ways of passing on information.

Foto: Max Gurresch

Date February 2013 Category News

Last year I have been appointed research fellow at the Vienna University of Applied Arts, where I joined the Artistic Technology Research Lab. A first term of research took place during September and December 2012; the next term will start in April.

Tags research

2000 - 2017 Mirko Tobias Schäfer

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