James Wallbank on Sun, 18 Jan 2009 04:11:59 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Harv Stanic: ASCII: Amsterdam Subversive Code for Information Interchange.


Patrice's and Peter's discussion of physical space for alternative media 
lab spaces is interesting. Here in Sheffield the Access Space media lab 
(hacklab? community art & technology space?) has occupied the same 
physical location for nearly nine years - and we have found this 
continuity to be extremely valuable.

In the UK there are surprisingly few sustained media lab projects. We 
have speculated that this may be because UK culture (and law) is very 
resistant to squatter culture and restricts access to cheap property. 
It's almost impossible for a group of artist/activists to take over a 
building and run it as a cultural cyber centre (or whatever you call 
these spaces) for very long. In general, local government of left and 
right seems to be skeptical about the value of any of "the arts" (other 
than stainless steel public sculptures that clearly relate to a 
"tourism" agenda).

We've also noted that local government (and other large land owners) are 
very resistant to letting properties at concessional rates, whereas in 
some mainland European states this is common practice. In the most 
progressive cases (like the Netherlands) I understand that there are 
significant penalties for leaving property unoccupied for extended 
periods. Here in the UK this is not so - in fact it can be 
tax-advantageous to keep buildings empty.

A couple of years ago we ran a project called "Grow your Own Media Lab" 
which explored how other organisations (and dis-organisations) could 
learn from our experience (we're the longest-running open access media 
lab in the UK) and set up and sustain their own open access technology lab.

We advocated our core methodologies...

* Free, open access;
* Locally recycled computers;
* Free, open source software;
* A focus on creative, participatory projects;
* Peer-learning through a skill-sharing community (rather than top-down 

...but we remained open to new, innovative methodologies for sustaining 
such projects. One of our questions was "Is it possible for a media lab 
to sustain itself without a physical space?" Some of the organisations 
we worked with wanted to test ways of existing that didn't rely on a space.

Our eventual conclusion was "No". What we discovered was that, while you 
can do some interesting activity with a peripatetic model (such as a 
"media lab bus" or a series of ad-hoc meetings convened in other spaces) 
it's almost impossible to generate a wide feeling of community without a 
physical centre. A fixed physical space combined with reliable opening 
and closing times are essential to encourage unplanned walk-ins by 
regular participants and new recruits.

Why is community so important? Why not have a series of cool events 
delivered by a small core group to different people each time? Our 
experience suggests that a skill-sharing network is only effective when 
it's a community. When you meet people again and again, you learn from 
them as much as they learn from you, so skilling them up with what you 
know is an investment in your support network - while helping a stranger 
is simply an act of goodwill, without likelihood of reciprocation.

So my question to ASCII is this: How do you maintain a sense of 
community and keep the network together (and feeling, instinctively, 
together) without a physical space? And how do you recruit new people to 
your community?

Maybe you have an answer which we haven't found. If you use online 
mechanisms (wikis, blogs, chat, email, something else...) to maintain 
community, then is there a danger that you only recruit people who are 
already comfortable with trusting digital networks?



P.S. There's a whole other conversation to be had about the difficulties 
of nomenclature of these spaces. This dates back to my discussions with 
James Stevens at "backspace" (London 1996-1999). Hacklab? Media Lab? 
Cyber Lounge? Tech Salon? Hackerspace? We both had issues with the 
prefix "hack" and the suffix "lab". James liked "lounge" - but I liked 
"workshop". He and I were only able to agree on the word "space"! Hence 
"Access Space".

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