Why Umeå and HUMlab

I am mainly writing this post to give prospective applicants an idea of HUMlab, Umeå University and Umeå. The Department of Culture and Media Studies and HUMlab have advertised a chair in Media and Communication Studies (deadline: January 14, 2013) based at the department with a secondary affiliation to HUMlab. This position is part of an initiative to strongly develop the humanities and information technology at Umeå University. There will be other positions later on.

So why come here? Umeå is a mid-sized town (of about 120,000 people) which in many ways is optimally energetic and international given its size. It is a college town in the sense that there is a fairly large student population here, and Umeå is a cultural, administrative and regional center. There are many cultural institutions here (many more that you may not expect in a town of this size), a great deal of ‘underground culture’ , a comprehensive university, lots of talented individuals,  a growing digital media/production industry, and importantly a culture and size that makes collaboration and doing things together quite important (not easy always, of course, but this collaborative sentiment is critical I think to Umeå as a platform). Personally I also also appreciate the high density of coffee shops and bars in Umeå.

I have heard several internationally competitive people (in their own respsective areas) say that Umeå is a great place for doing work, building, and that you can get support/have a platform for doing great work/making a difference. I agree. Also, the airport is 15 minutes away from the city center/university, and it is easy to get in and out. The flight to Stockholm takes about 55 minutes. And as you would probably expect, Umeå is an excellent place to raise a family. Umeå will be the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2014. There is quite a bit of regional collaboration including Umeå, other cities and the whole region.

In some ways, this is quite an exotic place. I find the light here marvelous. Both the actual quality of  light, but also the changing patterns of light over the year. I am writing this on December 22, and today sunrise was at 09:28 am and sunset will be at 1:48 pm. On June 21, sunrise is at 02:21 am and sunset at 10:59 pm. Fully spectacular, and not quite as dramatic as it may sound.

As I indicated above, Umeå University is a full comprehensive university, and although there are some satellite campuses outside of Umeå proper, you will find what is essentially all the parts of the university on a condensed campus (i.e. you can easily actually walk over to other schools etc. – in most cases without stepping outside). We now also have an Arts Campus, which is located about a 15-minute walk from the main campus in between the main campus and the city center. A fairly perfect arrangement in my mind. The university has some 36,000 students and about 4700 employees.

The Umeå Arts Campus houses the Institute of Design, the Academy of Fine Arts, the School of Architecture, Bildmuseet and HUMlab-X. A very special place indeed, and a demonstration of the commitment to the arts and culture. Towards the end of 2013 there will also be a new refurbished facility for creative work, industry collaboration and incubation in the old Academy of Fine Arts building. ´So there infrastructure in place, some very good programs etc., and it is our job to make the Arts Campus scale up and infuse Umeå, the region and the world. And as always it is about people and ideas.

HUMlab has a new great space and operation in the midst of the Arts Campus, and we are currently getting fully installed (on multiple levels). Below you see the interactive floor being installed and at the back (on the wall) there is a (faint) 3D rendering of the space.

The physical location of HUMlab- X really mirrors the conceptual placement of HUMlab-X (the name of the Arts Campus lab) – just next to the schools and the museum, very close to the coffee shop, and very transparently part of the Arts Campus and the city of Umeå. There is a lot of work left to do, but the potential here is enormous. Below Fred Turner talking to two of our researchers when he visited the lab for a week in September.

It has been important for us to maintain the idea of HUMlab as a single (if multivalent and multifarious) operation. The rest of this post concerns HUMlab and our work/conceptual foundation.

HUMlab is a meeting place and platform  for the humanities, culture and information technology at Umeå University. We have a broad interest in the digital – as a tool or instrument, study object, expressive medium and laboratory. We also see the digital as a boundary object and the lab as a trading zone (these notions can and should be discussed critically of course). This means that our work extends from studies of religious rituals in online environments,  the life of screens from birth to recycling and negotiations of caretakers-caregivers in physical/digital environments to artistic performances, building tools for accessing and experiencing cultural heritage and providing experimental technological and infrastructural platforms for what Matt Ratto (former HUMlab postdoc) calls ‘critical making’.

Another way of putting it is that HUMlab is a place where individual scholars may be working on monographs at the same as a group of scholars and technicians are working on an academic installation at the same time as a student group engages in some kind of learning experience at the same time as there is a workshop on the development of digital creative industry in the region. HUMlab is essentially about curatorship and empowerment. We can empower students, researchers, artists and others who want to do work they cannot easily do within their own context, and we curate different kinds of events, activities and projects around boundary objects and questions that may not have not arisen elsewhere. This is not necessarily easy or always successful, but we really believe in this role and function.

HUMlab is an intellectual community and platform for engagement. The labs are quite important for our work, and importantly we are not only taking about technology and devices here, but about seminar tables, people and, of course, also mostly digital environments. Really, the environment is a mix between lab, studio and seminar room. An important part of the ‘infrastructure’ is the great group of people engaged in the lab – researchers, technicians and administrative staff. The mostly physical labs are distributed across two main sites – the main campus and the Umeå Arts Campus. Below is a 3D rendering of the main campus site (itself an interactive environment with its own properties – here only a screenshot).

HUMlab works closely together with the humanities departments and other partners from within and outside the university. This is a very important point. The idea is not that HUMlab should be an exclusive research center, but rather a very open environment, where much of the expansion and engagement will happen at the humanities departments and elsewhere. In this way, the model is scalable, and the association with the disciplines very significant. The aforementioned chair in Communication and Media Studies is a very good example of this type of collaboration. With the Arts Campus, we will be more engaged in collaboration with the schools and museum there, but also with industry and artists, cultural institutions etc. We already do this to some extent, but it really helps to have a site for this kind of work. The students will be instrumental for helping us shape the new (and the old) environment. Another important tenant is the international outlook and having exchange outside the country. Alumni postdocs include Matt Ratto (University of Toronto), Erica Robles (New York University), Astrid Mager (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Jenna Ng (University of Cambridge) and Paul Arthur (Australian National University).

See our seminar archive for some examples of guests or the website of the Media Places 2012 website for an example of recent activity.

While we may not be fully comfortable with describing the totally of what we do as ‘digital humanities’, we are certainly invested in the digital humanities and in the future shaping of this field. We want to be a place where an inclusive, exciting, intense, technologically engaged and scholarly solid digital humanities is demonstrated every day.

What we are looking at now is taking the next large step for HUMlab together with the Faculty of Arts, the departments and our partners here and elsewhere. I hope you want to be part of taking this step and the next one. It will be exciting!

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One Response to Why Umeå and HUMlab

  1. Pingback: HUMlab FAQ (part III) » The HUMLab blog

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