Open Up! On Laboratory Cultures

SenseLab. Mobile Media Lab. Speculative Life Lab. As I’m giving a tour of the Milieux Institute, I catch myself repeating the word “lab” and thinking of the varied problematics that each of these labs take up in their respective research. Rather than trying to pin down definitions of what constitutes a lab or police what counts as a lab, I find it more useful to wade through different laboratory spaces and observe what thematics emerge.The history of traditional, bounded, scientific laboratories can be limiting and have a legacy of exclusion. In a recent interview, Dean Duclos of the Faculty of Fine Arts commented that calling a space a lab already privileges certain kinds of intelligences over others. She adds, “It’s an interesting time for us to think about how we can use some neutral terms—like zones, hubs, or fields—to then parlay into discussing or even adding a new contemporary history onto the way we think about [these spaces].” Some labs in and around Milieux are deliberately mixing vocabularies and methodologies in order to bridge these gaps and welcome a larger variety of research interests and approaches.


mLab is a lab devoted to methods in games research. As one of its members, Sarah Ganzon, explains, “the mLab feels like our play space that also happens to be our work space,” adding that in many ways “a lot of things we do destabilize the work/play divide.”

The notion of play can extend beyond subject area and figure into the philosophical backbone of a space. This is also true for the Topological Media Lab (TML). Navid, one of the co-directors, explains that TML uses play as a self-perpetuating process. This constant opening up to more and more play imbues research with childlike wonder and the power of “what-if.”

Similarly, Céline Perreia describes the SenseLab as creating an open space for possibilities to emerge. Epitomizing the emergent properties of process philosophy is SenseLab’s current project on “anarchives.” The oppositional prefix an- alludes to the too-linear, too-curated nature of traditional archives. The anarchive is meant to act as seed for future projects which, in the room SenseLab occupies, doubles as a space full of latencies. Trying to describe the complexity of research necessitates an equally complex vocabulary set. Whether it be play-work, what-if, or even (groan) research-creation, these mish-mash thematics —or what Dean Duclos calls a hyphenated practice— allows for the type of complexity that labs thrive on.


How do we come to ideas? And, how are those ideas decided upon within a lab? Céline at SenseLab reported that nobody comes in with an independent project at SenseLab: “We all think creatively together without any sort of preformed idea.” Navid at TML referred to a similar ethos, describing the process as “felt knowledge, which isn’t taught, but felt through living together.”

Sarah at mLab reiterated that “Mia [Consalvo, the director] allows us to bring our own research interests into the lab space, and because of the diversity of interests that we have alongside hers, I think that allows for a lot of creativity.”

Creativity, then, emerges as a collective phenomenon instead of an inherently individual trait. Parallel interests generate the buzz of a group, contributing to the liveliness of research labs.

“Access alone is gold dust around here.” – Dean Duclos

Supporting hybrid programs like the Convergence Initiative: Perceptions of Neuroscience and FOYER, Dean Duclos described that one of the fruitful seeds of thinking across disciplines is when participants get to cross fields literally as well as figuratively. A space where engineers can walk into artist spaces and vice versa, seeing and feeling the very stuff of knowledge production, live, in situ, and in vitro.

She lamented that even her status as Dean could not open the engineering labs. She described how “Access alone is gold dust around here,” and I immediately thought about my own keycard to access the Speculative Life Lab. By the very fact that it is a scientifically registered laboratory space, access is limited to the few who have cleared the requisite trainings and standardized tests. The term “laboratory” then, while latent with possibilities for openness, wonder, and collective research, is still a term of exclusion.

Porosity is the lifeblood of all that is lively, from cellular respiration to the creative spark of research groups. I agree with Dean Duclos, who comments, “We’re sitting on this delicious network of ideas and it’s just a shame to think that we spend so much time in our cubbyholes.” I spend so much time in my own cubbyhole of EV10.835, aloof to the myriad of other fantastic ideas taking root in other labs within Milieux. How could we cross over more from one lab to the next?

As a start, I invite you, dear reader, to please come by. Yes, our door has the tiniest of windows and, while laboratory protocols prevent me from propping open the door, I would happily walk you through our peculiar, playful space.