Hybrid Lab Policy for the New Millennium
Michael Century’s “Pathways to Innovation in Digital Culture” is a report written for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Arts and Humanities division in 1999 and updated in October 2013. The report foregrounds the role of the “studio-laboratory” in networked digital culture as the privileged site for the production of innovation at the end of the millennium (6). It also brings to the fore how labs are at the center of an emerging debate about media arts as a point on a continuum between critical practice and creative industries.
From the outset of his report, Century recognizes the complexity of the studio-lab as an ongoing emergent phenomenon:
The studio-laboratory as a class is by no means homogenous. Some are privately funded by corporations, seeking to understand the properties of radically new media technologies via aesthetic R & D programs; others are public funded and linked to traditional museological mandates for public education; others are industrially sponsored precompetitive laboratories based in universities; still other models are network-based and more or less explicitly tied to long-term state or regional industrial development objectives. The studio-laboratory can be understood as providing a site for an ongoing and progressive series of negotiations between artist-users and technology designers, which simultaneously shaped the technology, its use, and users. (14)
Like us, Century identifies these labs as “hybrid” institutions because of the types of activities that occur within them (3). Importantly, he resists the temptation to locate the relative beginnings of the studio-lab at any particular point in modernity, instead correlating its peaks of activity to Schumpeter’s five “waves” of modern technological innovation which occur at approximately 50-year intervals, beginning in the late eighteenth century (13, 52). The report claims that studio-lab activity becomes more pronounced around 1960 in the wake of both the avant-gardes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and a shift in the industrial, military, and scientific modes of post–World War II knowledge production (9, 4).60 There is another intense wave of studio-lab activity in the 1990s, which is the impetus for the document’s production: “This pace has now reached a point where it is no longer conceivable to keep accurate track, particularly with the proliferation of all manner of ‘new media centres’ at various degrees of sophistication and scope on university and college campuses, within corporations, as regional industrial development efforts, and as catalysts for public access and digital literacy efforts” (11). Part of the reason it’s becoming harder to track the proliferation of hybrid labs is that specialized equipment is becoming less important to their functioning. What matters, increasingly, is the type of collaborative dynamics they can foster. As a result, such labs pop up in a wide range of environments, including the home (44). Instead of attempting to produce a comprehensive list of studio-labs, Century focuses instead on the various approaches to innovation that such labs take—what we call “situated practice” in this book.
For Century, the precise point of the epithet “studio-lab” is to correlate basic but underexamined shifts in culture and avant-garde aesthetics to the more instrumental knowledge production modes that business, industry, and government take as their priority (8). This correlation is also why “Pathways to Innovation in Digital Culture” was created as a policy instrument rather than as an academic essay. Century contends that the increasing density of studio-labs and other kinds of hybrid labs is an index of how cultural producers are busily networking with science and industry. In turn, this emerging network of new kinds of productive relationships requires bureaucrats and administrators to rethink cultural policy as well as innovation and research policy in order to better support these new types of activities (3).
From Century’s perspective, the major issue for North American independent media labs is sustainability (or whether, for that matter, lab projects should have a built-in expiry date). The traditional homes for such hybrid labs are on a campus, whether that campus belongs to a university or a large corporation. But the report notes that there is another underutilized option, namely, utilizing the infrastructure of other kinds of cultural institutions, such as theaters, museums, or public libraries (45). A more contentious question is how to allocate public funding and other resources—should they flow equally to all applicants, or only to a select few, and if so, who will establish the criteria? The answer, as the report notes, is geographically and culturally specific and often requires integrating digital media with older, residual forms that are still in use in various locations (45).
Other than the issue of sustainability and geographic specificity, the report raises a number of pertinent questions about the role of hybrid labs around the globe. What kind of infrastructure encourages a higher degree of networking between such labs in more and less economically developed countries? Is it possible to make corporations see the value of “an engaged type of cultural support” that promotes innovation without duplicating the shortcomings of traditional models of patronage? And is it possible for a network of hybrid labs to bridge the gaps between the art world, research culture and civil society? The report imagines some sort of “cultural informatics,” which might yoke the progressive agenda of social and cultural theory to techniques from computer science and engineering (46). The emergent field of cultural analytics might be part of such a project, but it hasn’t yet come close to realizing the ambitious mandate that Century’s report establishes.
For that, we have to look elsewhere. But the reality of the sort of transformation in knowledge production that we have been describing here has a much more ambiguous politics than Century might have anticipated.