1 November 2003
a-n Magazine (p.32-33)
PVA Medialab in Bridport, Dorset, hosted their second LabCulture Symposium on the weekend of 12 September. Since 1996 PVA MediaLab has developed a national track record working with artists and new technology. The organisation has adhered to “artist-led” values and has now worked with hundreds of artists from the UK and abroad. The term LabCulture has become synonymous with the process of hot-housing and collaboration which has evolved since 1999. The focus has always been on the “lab” – a place for exploring, experimentation and developing work with new technologies. Yet something quite unexpected also seems to have happened, the forming of a “cult”!
The symposium brought together many people who had participated in, or facilitated, labs over the past five years. Previous participants identify themselves as “labbers” and rather than asking the usual “Where are you from?” or “What area of practice do you work in?” the overwhelming question was “Where did you do your lab?” It was this sense of familiarity that enabled symposium delegates to dispense with the formalities of introductions. Any reader that has experienced the LabCulture process will appreciate this, but for those that haven’t, it needs a little explanation.
Once accepted onto a LabCulture residency, participants spend a week together at a venue that can provide suitable resources. This has included Lighthouse (Brighton), ArtSwat (New Forest), Watershed (Bristol), Eden Project (Cornwall) and Vivid (Birmingham) and, of course, PVA (Bridport). The programme is intense and provides an introduction to several software programmes and digital processes. By mid-week the labbers are expected to either focus on their initial proposal, or come up with an alternative idea they wish to pursue, and essentially have three or four days to develop that idea. The final day involves a presentation – not only to the group, but also to an invited audience of interested parties or associates of the host venue. LabCulture offers a unique experience and in doing so has created a sense of belonging that was evident at the symposium.
Simon Poulter (co-founder of PVA) and others commented that it felt more like a wedding than a conference, whereby you either know everyone or know someone who knows someone else through association. Like a family network, all ex-labbers have something in common, a shared understanding of something that is hard to explain. There has always been a place for what PVA calls “a wildcard”, someone from outside the field of art and technology. Often these people are the ones that gain the most, as indicated by Ed Patrick’s (aka musician Kid Carpet) feedback: “PLEASE try and involve more folk from outside the “art scene”, maybe try advertising or presenting LabCulture in other areas of media where “normal” people will look. Art is for everyone, not just artists”.
The symposium extended the philosophy of the labs themselves. The work hard/play hard approach began with play on the Friday evening, a chance to renew friendships and make new ones in a social environment, entertained by the Ragin Cajuns. Saturday provided presentations by artists who have participated in LabCulture. Following and introduction by Directors Monica Biagioli and Dew Harrison, artists Alastair Gentry, Ellie Harrison and Damien Robinson gave fascinating talks about their practices, ranging from text to video, audio to statistics. The afternoon continued with further engaging presentations by Lucy Kimbell, Rod Dickinson and a plenary discussion by all the speakers.
The evening yet again provided a social networking opportunity, enhanced by performances from The Amazing George, Michael Kosmides, Machines from the Future, Emilia Telese and Mark Crane, the Salad Producers, Rachel Kitten and finally Kid Carpet. The performances all used, or referred to, technology in some way, offering a unique evening of entertainment. Coming down from the hi-tech approach of Saturday, the symposium culminated in all the delegates meeting up on the beach at West Bay and enjoying poetry performances by Alastair Gentry and Ralph Hoyte, alongside swimming and lively conversation.
LabCulture has evolved into a model of practice that has been fine-tuned over the years in response to feedback from the participants. The symposium not only celebrated the success of LabCulture so far, but also contributed to its future development, which includes plans to extend internationally (R&D visits to Singapore, Norway and Palestine are in the offing). During residencies a daily plenary offers the chance for artists to feedback openly and honestly and it is this ethos that has enabled PVA to focus on individual artist’s development. Few organisations have invested such care and attention to listening to artists’ needs and responding to them. So if LabCulture has gained cult status, it is because it deserves to.