The Faculty of Arts made a brave decision

The natural sciences have made unparalleled advances, among other things through working systematically on experimentation and doing so in the controlled environment that we call the laboratory. The cultural scientists have declared in their programmes that this is nothing they are interested in. They cannot make laboratory experiments.  Humanists in particular study what is uniquely human and a diversity of distinctive artefacts. But modern information technology has perhaps changed science’s basic conditions and created possibilities to rejuvenate the humanities. Why not play with the idea of a culture laboratory?
Janlert, Lars-Erik and Jonsson, Kjell (2000),”Kulturlaboratoriet” (“The Culture Laboratory”) in Tvärsnitt, 22(1), 54-61

Top image: Torbjörn Johanssonkjellotobbe
Bottom image: Kjell Jonsson

When the article “The Culture Laboratory” was published in Tvärsnitt in 2000, the University Board had decided the same year to set up HUMlab as a formal unit.
“I was the first chair of HUMlab’s steering committee in 2000 and the decision to form HUMlab had been preceded by years of intense effort,” says Kjell Jonsson.

A language lab turned into HUMlab
In the mid-1990s, the Faculty of Arts at Umeå University wished to modernise its language lab. The machines in the lab, which was mainly used by linguistics researchers and students, were aged and the intention was to buy new, more modern computers. This work led to a faculty committee producing a concept for a multimedia lab, although the resultant external application did not render any funding. Torbjörn Johansson, a researcher in mathematics but at the time employed at the university’s IT unit, was appointed project leader for a renewed effort.
“I began my assignment by going round and talking to employees at the Faculty of Arts to find out what was needed in the way of IT. I soon realised that it would not be easy to secure external funding just to buy new computers; we would also need to build up some kinds of activities to use the equipment for. My discussions with, among others, Kjell Jonsson and Lars-Erik Janlert, a researcher in computer science who was also very interested in humanistic subjects, awakened thoughts of why only the natural sciences and technical subjects should have advanced IT. Would it not be possible to also combine the humanities and culture with interactivity and digital technology?”

When Torbjörn had drawn up a proposal for how the new IT lab, known by the working name of ‘HUMlab’, would function, the board of the faculty needed to decide whether they wanted to back the project or not. This was during a period when the faculty’s financial outlook was bleak and the new lab venture would represent a sizeable item in the faculty’s budget.”It was an incredibly exciting vote! When all the members had voted, the result was a tie and the decision was made by the chair of the board, Professor Lars-Erik Edlund, using his casting vote. He voted for the new lab and I naturally think it was a very wise decision – both for the faculty’s development and for the development of the university in general.”

Advanced digital technology for humanists
When the faculty had taken the decision to establish HUMlab, work then began to set it up. After suitable premises had been found in the basement of the university library, advanced technical equipment and software were purchased.
“We received funding from the Kempe Foundation, which was crucial for HUMlab to begin operating,” continues Torbjörn. “We also fought to purchase advanced technology, some of the best computers that money could buy. It sounds crazy today, but why the lab should need an internet connection was actually questioned. The doubters asked me: ‘Why should humanists have such advanced equipment? They’ll never use the capacity!’ I replied then, and have continued to claim, that humanists cannot know what technology they need if they are never allowed to test it. We did not know exactly what IT was needed in the humanities, but we thought that the only way to find out was to try things out.”

“It was difficult to get people to come to the lab in the beginning so we began a kind of missionary effort. Several of us went round telling people in the other departments at the faculty about HUMlab and tried to explain why our activities were interesting,” says Kjell Jonsson.

“In fact, I think attitudes changed already then,” Torbjörn adds. “People became more open to the idea of a humanistic technical lab.”

Visions that stand fast
Torbjörn Johansson became the first director of HUMlab, but handed over the reins to Patrik Svensson already in 2000. HUMlab’s reputation quickly spread around the world, partly due to many international contacts in the research community.
“I was very interested in Artificial Life, a branch of research that is based on biology and philosophy and where the idea is to study systems of artificial life with biological systems as the starting point. I came into contact with Christopher Langton and Glen Ropella at the Santa Fe Institute, who were prominent figures in the development of this particular branch of research, very early on.”

“Many of the visions we had for our activities were the same then as today,” Kjell says. “We wanted to explore how digital technology can be used to develop humanistic research, test how to use making in research and how to explore technology with a distinctly concrete perspective. What also became clear when we set up HUMlab was that creative processes do not begin by themselves just because we had bought advanced technology. Good personnel and support from the rest of the university are also needed.”

“If you want to initiate creative processes, it is important that people with different kinds of competence are allowed to work together,” continues Torbjörn. “One mistake that is often made when it comes to technology is that a person with no technical competence orders what they want from an engineer or technician. This does not produce good results; you have to give people the opportunity to meet and work together – researchers, developers, designers and artists, among others. I think another important reason for HUMlab’s success is that we always dared to believe in the project, even when other people did not. We dared to stick our necks out. I think that you need to have visions that you hardly believe in yourself to begin with. If you just continue working towards your goal, you will ultimately come to believe it is possible and then it is possible.”

Kjell Jonsson is Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University. Between 2010-2013 he was the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University, 2006-2010 he was the Library Director of the Umeå University Library.

Torbjörn Johansson is a researcher in Mathematics and was the first director of HUMlab. He was also the director of the Interactive Institute’s TOOLS Studio in Umeå 2000-2005. He is currently part-owner of the company Innovation Impact.

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An exhibition presented in HUMlab-X between 7th to the 8th of November.
The artists Malin Tivenius and Ylva Westerhult, have collaborated in the project Anti-Atlas. The project was granted aid from Kulturskjutsen and was part of the program Umeå Capital of Culture in 2014. The piece was as displayed in the exhibition based on an artistic exploration of meetings of the geographical triangle Algeciras, Gibraltar, Tangier. Here Africa and Europe meets, different cultures and religions. In a very limited geographic area three different nations with significantly different identities meet: Spain, UK and Morocco. Two oceans, Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet in the Strait of Gibraltar. On a clear day you can see Africa clearly visually from Gibraltar. It is also one of the European Union’s external borders and the meeting between the richer and in the moment of currently less well-off region. The physical distance between Africa and Europe is short.

Litterature often use images of landscapes to tell interior human condition. The visual image of the Strait of Gibraltar reflects well the historical and current charging around the place. In the exhibition  at HUMlab-X the environments and landscapes became the medium for personal consideration of how the boundaries are clear, while the relaxed by different cultural expressions moving across geographic territories.

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2014 Eduplay Challenge in HUMlab-X!

Eduplay Challenge is an initiative that challenges teachers to gamify their teaching. During the fall of 2014 Eduplay Challenge is offering teachers of Västerbotten a creative method support for the schools to learn to use game mechanics and game design thinking in class.

During the fall of 2014, Eduplay Challenge has invited teachers in Västerbotten to participate in workshops and seminars on game based learning, many of them taking place at HUMlab-X.  Finaly, the workshops and seminars will lead up to a 24h ”Game Based Learning Hack” where teachers will be allowed to create educational games together with professional artists and developers.

Eduplay Challenge events held in HUMlab-X:

”Game concept development workshop”
Carl-Erik Engqvist
Date: October 9, Time: 6-9 pm
Venue: HUMlab-X

Carl-Erik Engqvist is an artist and artistic leader working at HUMlab and Kulturverket. Among other things, he works with concept development and game production related to culture pedagogical projects.

The workshop will concern understanding and working with games as learning tools, as ways of thinking and as modes of engagement into exploring, reifying and concretise questions regarding power and empathy.

”Games to reach goals and knowledge in school”
Felix Gyllenstig Serrao
Date: October 23, Time: 2-4 pm
Venue: HUMlab-X

Felix Gyllenstig Serrao is first teacher in Gothenburg. He also runs the blog Spelläraren ( where he writes about how you can use games in pedagogy in teaching. The blog has been acknowledged in media several times and Felix is an often seen guest in SVT and Radio. He also runs a project with Minecraft classes where he teaches other teachers how to use Minecraft as a tool in the classroom.

How can school use games to reach goals and knowledge? How do you make school more exciting and fun? Felix will share his experiences and show actual examples of games in classrooms and what pedagogical models he uses when he creates classes with a game focus. He will also discuss what distinguishes a good game from a bad when it comes to learning.

The 2014 Eduplay Hackaton

October 27-28, 24 hrs starting at 5 pm October 27.
Read all about the event at:


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change in HUMlab leadership

Effective from July 1, 2014, I stepped down as the director of HUMlab. This is a most undramatic shift – a regular change in academic leadership – but given that I have had a rather long tenure, it may be worth making a few comments. The reason for my stepping down is that I have so many other responsibilities, not least as Chair of Digital Humanities (funded by the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation) and in relation to some university projects, externally funded projects and international networks, and that I want to spend more time on research, being in the lab and taking some of our research and development activities further. I will finish coordinating some of the infrastructural installations underway. Also, many of the things I set out to achieve have been achieved, and seeing HUMlab moving towards another phase (we now have two fully set up labs, 25 employees, 10 new Ph.D. students in different disciplines with a digital inflection, 10+ external projects with partners etc.) with new challenges, it makes sense to shift leadership. Also, much of the operation is  carried out on a daily basis by a large group of amazingly competent staff and faculty. I am most eager to continue working with everyone!

I am very happy that Cecilia Lindhé, literary scholar with a long experience in the digital humanities and earlier as assistant director of HUMlab, is the new director (appointed by the Faculty of Arts).


Cecilia’s work is fantastic and she has strong leadership qualities and the two of us (and the people in the lab) share a vision of what HUMlab is and can be in the future. I am eager to follow how she (together with the team) will choose to develop HUMlab as a platform. There is great potential ahead and much exciting work to be done, and I am looking forward to being part of it (although in a different capacity)!

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Guest Bloggger: Oliver Bendorf

HowtoGettoHUMLab2Oliver Bendorf is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, and teacher, currently living in Madison, Wisconsin. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now earning an MA in Library and Information Studies. His book of poems, The Spectral Wilderness, is forthcoming from Kent State University Press. In March, he participated in the HUMlab workshop: Digital gender: Theory, Methodology and Practice

“Digital Gender, like any good event, quickly became much more than just the workshop– it became a state of mind; a method; a movement; #DG. There are magical things happening at HUMlab, and it’s not just the baked goods, though those are plentiful and certainly don’t hurt. HUMlab is hi-tech but not at the expense of coziness– think touch screen floors under a plush rug, bean bags and our live-tweets projected onto yet another screen — and this to me seems one possibility of the digital humanities: that they are ultimately about the human if they are to matter at all.

I arrived at Digital Gender with hand-painted slides, or scans thereof, of my initial research questions into the trans-digital hand. My fellow workshoppers’ projects and feedback fueled and inspired me to continue with this research, and cracked open my sense of possibility for what it might mean to “do” and “think” digital gender.

From Micha Cárdenas‘ very first invitation to us to breath, to Nishant Shah‘s suggestion of the USB as the “universal slutty being” for how we swap and share digitally, to Lewis Webb‘s and Anna Foka‘s historicizing of digital “slut-shaming” and gender on-screen, Carl-Eric Engkvist‘s workshop that had us designing games, and Jenny Sundén‘s virtuality, futurity, and temporality in digital transitioning, Roopika Risam on race in digital feminist spaces, Julienne Corboz on the limits of the digital in gender field work in Afghanistan, Annette Markham on method, remix, resistance, ginger coons with a workshop on on concealing gender in digital spaces, Camilla Hällgren with miniature art as feminist research, Viktor Arvidsson on people and things, people as things, people thinging…

And the best part is that there was more than this, more talks, more ideas, and a pretty excellent archive of it at #digitalgender2014 on Twitter. I peruse the hashtag when I feel the need to tap back into the stream of information and ideas that flowed through HUMlab in March 2014. I think about Digital Gender every day, and can’t wait to get back to HUMlab, but in the meantime I know that digital gender is here and now, as well as then and there, and that the work continues; the possibilities expand outward, always more to breathe, more to share, always more to remix and resist. Thank you HUMlab, Patrik Svensson, Anna Foka, the whole organizing team, and every participant for this Digital Gender state of mind!”

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The Augmented Plateau: Art and Virtual Worlds in HUMlab 2007-2013


10 – 30 April 2014 @ HUMlabX, the Arts Campus at Umeå University, Sweden
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday, Noon – 4pm
(17, 18 and 21 April Closed)
Opening: 10 April between 4 – 6 pm

HUMlab is a humanities-led, interdisciplinary digital lab at Umeå University in Sweden. For the last seven years, HUMlab has given support to Second Life artists by hosting their works on SL HUMlab Island for constructions as well as organising exhibitions at HUMlab’s Real-Life multimedia venue.

In 2007-08 Humlab hosted on its Second Life sim Goodwind Seiling’s “N00sphere Playground” for the Virtual Moves exhibition at the National Gallery in Copenhagen. Later, it further supported Avatar Orchestra Metaverse for their constructions and premier performances of “XAANADRuul” and “The Heart of Tones” before providing a home for the Yoshikaze “Up-In-The-Air” virtual artist residency programme in 2010. Since then, HUMlab has been a host for nine Second Life artists in Yoshikaze artist residency as well as one artist talk by Kristine Schomaker on her project “My Life as an Avatar.” The work conducted in HUMlab and Yoshikaze by virtual world artists and creators has led to a number of academic publications and conference presentations and also resulted in two self-published artist books. Another outcome of HUMlab’s engagement for the advancement of virtual worlds and art was their assistance in bringing an ambitious mixed-reality project by Goodwind Seiling to fruition. The project “Experimentation #1″ was based on the use of Kinect to control avatar movements and would have been unable to be realised without HUMlab’s support.

This year between 10 April and 30 April, HUMlab and Yoshikaze proudly present a group exhibition with all the artists who have been involved in shaping HUMlab’s engagement in supporting SL artists and their art. This include, besides those mentioned above, Alan Sondheim, Juria Yoshikawa, Garrett Lynch, Selavy Oh, Katerina Karoussos, Fau Ferdinand, Pyewacket Kazyanenko, Oberon Onmura, Alpha Auer, Maya Paris, Eupalinos Ugajin and SaveMe Oh. We would also like to acknowledge the following SL artists for this show: Machinimatographers Marx Catteneo, Mab MacMoragh, Steve Millar, and Evo Szuyuan, as well as Puppeteer Jo Ellsmere. The exhibition takes place at the newly acquired HUMlab-X at the Art Campus of Umeå University. We, who have been working with this project for seven years, would like to thank all the participants. Thanks are also due to the HUMlab technicians, poster makers, and HUMlab director Patrik Svensson.

Sachiko Hayashi (Yoshikaze Curator)
James Barrett (SL Humlab Sim Manager)
Carl-Erik Engqvist (RL HUMlab Artistic Leader)

April 2014

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