Media Lab Melbourne

Published:  February 12, 2013
Media Lab Melbourne

Each day this week we’ll be taking a look at a different innovative organisation leading the way in the fields of education, research, exhibition, community engagement and collaborative practice in Australian design.

Our second feature is Media Lab Melbourne. You can read our profile on Queensland’s Griffith University, and its Bachelor of Design Futures over here.

Interview with: Pierre Proske

How do you define Media Lab Melbourne?
Media Lab Melbourne is a hub for experimentation at the intersection of art, design and
technology. We refer to art and design in the broadest sense – it’s inclusive of music,
performance, dance, theatre and so on, with technology being the glue. Currently we have two main categories of events – Sprints and Open Lab. Open Lab is our new community meet-up that takes place once a month where speakers on various topics present their projects and process. This is followed by an informal hands-on session where participants can demonstrate or open to critique projects they’ve been working on.  Sprints are a more involved and in-depth experience, essentially workshops spanning either 48 hours or sometimes nine days for the longer version. Sprints see people with a diversity of talents come together to guide a concept to creation and then present or exhibit it.

Media Lab Melbourne

What are your short and long-term objectives?
The impetus for starting up the lab came from a desire to bring together practitioners in this field as well as expose and educate others to the importance of critical and creative approaches to technology. Out of this will hopefully spawn many other benefits and collaborations, as well as spearhead experimentation, research and commercial opportunities. However for the moment the principal objective is simply to exist and slowly diffuse ideas and events. Acquiring tools and equipment for the lab that can be shared by lab members and participants is vital to supporting such a community.

Working closer with research institutions is something we’d like to do in the longer term.  Initially we saw ourselves positioned somewhere between DIY and academia and to a certain extent this still stands as we try to encourage both critical thinking as well as skills and craft. Perhaps an exchange or formalised association with a relevant master’s program could be desirable in the longer-term to provide more cross-pollination.

It would be great in the future to see the lab become self-sustaining, with an operating budget  and paid staff to take on the administration, but I’m not holding my breath! It would also be grand to be able to link up with other organisations in the Asia-Pacific region, this would open up the diversity of thought and practice.

Who is your audience, and what do you understand about them?
We are still in the process of discovering our audience as the lab was really created out of a
vacuum – purely conceptual in its origin. Our first event taught me the importance of discovering who our audience is. Combining art and technology is still a mystery or a complete novelty to a lot of people, but the invasion of mobile devices and increased participation rates of Twitter and Facebook for example have done a pretty radical job at educating people in the mind-altering effects of technology, and this is helping contextualise the work we do. Documentation of  international projects on YouTube and Vimeo has also helped expose the medium. For the  moment, I believe that through the Open LAB event we will get to know our target audience better, because it’s our most accessible event to date, as I suspect that the technical side of what we do can sometimes be intimidating to the uninitiated. The plan is to build up a community  who will help feed into our more involved workshops.

Media Lab Melbourne

What is Media Lab Melbourne modelled on?
The Sprint model that we have been running was heavily based on the workshop series coming out of Media Lab Prado, a fantastic Madrid-based lab that has produced some amazing projects and supported some great people. Other people we admire are the gang from Kitchen Budapest, a small innovative team from Hungary. I also have a lot of respect for the Dutch, especially the venerable V2 Institute for Unstable Media. There’s also a small but impressive new group called Lab Marginalia in Brazil who are doing some great stuff. Other heroes of mine come out of the open source movements, people like Kyle MacDonald and Arturo Castro from the openFrameworks project that I’m peripherally involved in.

Where do you see emerging technology taking us in the short term?
If I were to take a stab at the future, I would say that it will be more psychologically dislocating than ever, will require sustainable technologies and low power devices and will move beyond  novelty and into total ubiquity. The minification of devices will continue, but these will also put pressure on rare earth metals and the like, so we’ll have to get a lot more innovative and turn to unusual, more common materials. I’m also taking a bet that there will be more friction and divide between corporate owned technical infrastructure and community based, open source solutions.

The power of technology, design, and manufacturing is increasingly becoming available to consumers and across different disciplines. Do you think that it’s being adopted to the extent it should (or could) be, and what do you think that means for the future?
It has created a return to craft, which we’ve seen in the Arduino explosion. We’re entering a  weird sort of post-industrial phase where people can now afford to build things again, after having lost that ability to manufacture. The truth however is that manufacturing will not disappear in the short term, but may work in conjunction with design and technological tools to assist the maker movement. There’s no ‘could’ or ‘should’ in this equation, it’s just the natural playing out of our cultural response to the new technologies. The obvious implication in my mind is the shift in consumption from industrial products to more of a marketplace/agora scenario of custom, community funded and built objects.

What is your most significant achievement to date?
Each Sprint has produced unexpected and amazing outcomes, but a definite highlight was when we finally got the right mixture for the ferrofluid based wearable Aurora Borealis sensor. Ferrofluid is a fluid made from magnetisable particles that can assume different geometric shapes when it is exposed to a magnetic field. We found it to be both frustratingly inert at times and then highly unstable at others. We had a ferrofluid explosion in the kitchen, it took me forever to clean! Seriously however, it’s that feeling of wonder and amazement you get when something abstract and seemingly unachievable comes together through the expertise, blood, sweat and tears of the people dedicated to realising it. That’s what the lab does best.

What is your vision of the future?
I’ve decided that the future is always going to be so much more mundane than we would have hoped, but at the same time so much more amazing than we could ever have predicted. In the last five to 10 years our relationship with technology has become much more intimate, but after some initial resistance and suspicion, it’s easily forgotten how readily we’ve come to embrace it and demand it.

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