The Future of the Lab-1


Horst Hörtner / Managing Director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab

When we consider the history of new media technology and art, the concept of the lab has played a significant role as a symbol of the experimental nature of media art and as a provider of infrastructure and expertise for these cutting-edge developments.
Ever since the MIT Media Lab was founded in 1985, or in the early years of Art+Com in Berlin (1988), it has also become synonymous with the encounters and exchanges between art and creativity on one hand and engineering and science on the other. The 1990s saw the propagation of this idea beyond universities and corporate R&D departments; artist-run labs like x-space in Graz (1990) and the Ars Electronica Futurelab (1996) in Austria were among these early adopters.
Nowadays, “lab” is a fashionable yet also inflationary term, used for almost anything that aims to be cool and experimental—for instance, fashion labs, food labs, beauty labs and inspiration labs. And, of course, in the age of ubiquitous technology there are pop-up labs in kitchens, living rooms and garages of all sorts.

So what’s left or, even more important, where are the new frontiers for the labs of the future?

One of the lab’s purposes is derived from its nature as a place for scientific experimentation (experimental science and research)—to verify or falsify hypotheses and generate proof of concepts and demonstrations.
Labs soon changed from workshops to places where the actual research is done. This practice-based research approach allows artistic practices to become part of the scientific toolkit. Since the early days of these proving grounds, labs have also been ateliers (and vice versa). One reason may be the fact that the field of work seemed to naturally transcend the borders of discrete disciplines, and the particular question or project was more important than the disciplinary borders were, and still are. The nature of the work in labs incorporated the requirement of at least working in cross-disciplinary teams and, depending on the research question, perhaps required interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches entailing several disciplines. Work at a lab makes cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration an everyday practice rather than just a concept to be praised. This allows for the easy adoption and integration of further disciplines, and this potentially works almost naturally.
By implementing a transdisciplinary environment, labs provide accessibility: accessibility to an often costly technical infrastructure, at least in the past; shifts more clearly to provide access to other methods; inspiration and direct exchange among staff; and an environment built to support fast and fluctuating collaboration among them.
As new technologies (such as 3D printing) become widely accessible almost as soon as they appear and corresponding knowhow is accessible online, the role as the provider of accessibility to technological infrastructure will increasingly lose its relevance. In fact, at this point many Ars Electronica Futurelab staff members bring new technologies to the lab with them—having found something promising on the Web, simply having constructed their own tools to meet the requirements of a project, or in pursuit of an idea.

Lately, the Ars Electronica Futurelab has recognized a growing demand for new or changing forms of collaboration with the private sector. Industries have begun to focus on their role within our society, and started to open up towards projects that aim to discuss the relationship between themselves and a future society.
The Ars Electronica Futurelab is not any better equipped than anybody else when it comes to the ability to predict the future—the difference, as we see it, is in the way Ars Electronica embeds art in its activities.
The Ars Electronica Futurelab is investigating the way art projects take shape and take off. It is very hard even to describe the many different approaches, and it is probably impossible to create modules and a method that incorporates all the diversity. Nevertheless, “Art Thinking” has been made—almost naturally—one of the lab’s core processes. In contradistinction to “Design Thinking”—as an iterative process and method to find creative designs and to generate specific solutions for a specified task—Art Thinking is a description of a process that generates visions rather than solutions.
By identifying new ways of looking at a task, raising questions about it, a solution increasingly disappears from the focus of the team. Strategies rather than solutions are discussed. That in turn leads to new fields of potential activities, which results in something like a vague description of a vision and a catalog of questions. Accordingly, the Ars Electronica Futurelab does not refer to art in terms of artistic results, the process of art production, or artists as the key, whereas all three might be valuable as starting points or destinations.

Art Thinking

In referring to art, the reference is to a very specific artistic knowhow that exists in most if not all art forms in varying amounts and qualities. This knowhow concerns the very abstract ability to express something in a very specific way, which allows an audience (visitor, user, etc.) to learn or understand by experience. This “art of mastering a communication layer” is specific to the arts (at least—and potentially limited to—the type of art that in the past few decades has roughly been subsumed under the term media art and which has evolved into so-called key technologies). At the same time, art is very open with respect to its addressees, with open referring to its character as “an open invitation to everybody.” Not only do art pieces “speak” to people of all ages, but art also invites people of all levels of education and experience. Art communicates on a layer of the “meaning of . . .” rather than its layers of the “making of . . . and its “layer of communication” sets it apart from scientific concept demos or tech demos of applications.
Some examples may help to explain this complex construction a bit better.

*Image Source : Ars Electronica Futurelab (