Leeds Creative Labs

Collaborations for Academics & Creative Innovators

To survive and prosper social labs need to be less lab, and more social: helping people find their own solutions in unique situations rather than discovering universal laws to scale and to replicate. We need more labs. But we also need a mixed ecology of innovation spaces – the trans-disciplinary studio, the Utopian experiment, the engineers’ test-bed, the artists’ colony – blending the science and tech with the art and craft of the (seemingly) improbable.


Closing the DARE Edition (2015)

Earlier this the cohort for the DARE Edition of Leeds Creative Labs gathered to present their journeys over the course of the last month.

The lab team’s motivation for the DARE Edition was to understand if the labs model could be as effective a catalyst for innovation in areas such as the arts, culture and performance. That this notion made us uncomfortable also helped us understand that it was a risk worth exploring. Indeed, the DARE Edition has already helped innovate the labs overall; our terminology for curated participants was previously ‘technologists’ but now we think of them as ‘creative innovators’. Continue reading

The Power of Play: Launching the DARE Edition 2015

The potential of academics and artists to share knowledge and practice in a way that sparks new thinking, new debate, and new ways of doing things, could be considered to be under-exploited – under-celebrated.  It is often more one-way; an academic seeks a vehicle to communicate specific research; an artist seek knowledge that informs a project.

So it was exciting to be in the presence of talented researchers and arts practitioners in the arts at the launch of the DARE edition of Leeds Creative Labs, when we all readily admitted that we don’t have specific goals, or know what the result of our collective conversations might be.  As project manager for the programme, it felt a bit odd not to have a target to aim for other than to ‘see what happens’.  Felt a bit naughty.  It felt like we were embarking on a real adventure when technologist Imran Ali and academic  Simon Popple described their own Leeds Creative Lab experience as a two year journey which started with a chance connection and a caffeine fuelled conversation, and is now a Connecting Communities funded technology framework with national reach and the potential to change the way our stories are archived and shared.

The Labs give us permission to remove the shackles of objectives and targets, to breathe and think freely.

I was interested to hear why DARE Lab team members wanted in, and I’m particularly keen to see how the relationships develop.  Brad from Cap-a-Pie’s description of their first Lab encounter with Dr Lou Harvey as kicking off with a ‘hiss and a roar’, makes me really look forward to learning how their combined experience and spirit of adventure approaches a topic so relevant to contemporary society – how struggling with a language influences a person’s connection with a different  culture.

Never having worked with academics, Keranjeet from SAA-uk, who is committed to enabling audiences to experience meaningful engagement with South Asian Arts, is curious to learn how research and academic expertise might influence her practice.  Cue Doctors Joslyn McKinney and Anna Fenamore, who are interested in experimenting with research methods that explore how an audience makes sense of what’s on stage – how we experience a performance as a spectator.

It was refreshing to hear Katie Brown, Social Innovator and artist, speak about her Hepworth Lab experience – how by simply ‘hanging out’, researchers and artists can find the synergies and conflicts that make for the most creative conversations – that can change the way we think, and enable us to understand our own practice better.  I love the idea of ‘collisions’ of conversations – a few ripples can be a good thing.

So, what happens when the driver is simply curiosity?  When there isn’t an objective or target?  An expected measurable outcome or definition of success?

I have no idea.

Watch this space!

A Hiss And A Roar

After the launch event on Tuesday, the very next day Cap-a-Pie and Dr Lou Harvey started off with a hiss and a roar at the Cap-a-Pie office at the Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle.

We’d both expressed an interest in carrying on our collaboration beyond Creative Labs and were seeing the event on the 6th of July as an opportunity to show something that we’d created in the manner of a ‘scratch’ performance or work-in-progress.  So with that in mind we set to work.

One of the great things about Lou’s research is that it’s instantly relatable for almost anyone.  At the core it’s about people learning English and coming to Britain and struggling with the language for one reason or another.  But its ideas can be applied to experiences of English-speakers learning other languages or anyone going to another country or simply just coming into contact with another culture.

But the crux of it is about (as put succinctly by Lou at one point):

“the assumption that you understand what’s going on around you, but then you realise that you don’t actually know the rules”.

So for the morning we just spent a few hours talking about the research, drawing on our own experiences and putting forward some raw ideas for what we can do at the event in July based on the above quote.  And we felt like we were moving towards something that was interesting for us and useful and spoke to the research.

In the afternoon we changed tack a little a bit.  In the morning we felt that we had created an interesting form but felt it might be good to think about content.  We did a small version of a ‘Creative Inquiry‘, a Cap-a-Pie method developed years ago that mixes creativity and Philosophy for Children (but is suitable for any age or ability).

It basically involves starting with a stimulus (in this case, a piece of verbatim text from Lou’s research), extracting themes from that stimulus, responding creatively to those themes (which could be through creative writing, poetry, drawing, drama, sculpture – anything really) and then formulating philosophical questions.  One of these questions is chosen as the one to focus on.

The question we chose to explore for our content is:  “how do we decide what ambitions are acceptable?”  It’s a question that links well to the research and has a lot of artistic possibilities.

And for the last half hour we set about creating some characters, stories and scenes from scratch as something to potentially draw from in the future.

All in all we felt it was a super productive day.  We now have a few weeks to let the ideas marinade before re-convening back in Newcastle at the end of June.

Data Staffs, Knitted Pixels, Invisibility Cloaks

One of our favourite creative labs alumni, artist Dave Lynch, has also been involved in designing and producing a whole other creative lab programme, specifically to help artists and creatives find time and space to conduct R&D.

Schemes &  Dreams

The second iteration of Dave’s Digital Media Labs took place as a week long residency in Barrow-in-Furness last September. Dave asked me to attend the final presentations and document my observations for later publication.

You can read a preview of my experience in a piece over at Medium

In a park at the end of the world, I found the blended artefacts of ancient and new cultures — data staffs, knitted pixels, invisibility cloaks, messages suspended in the ether, sardonic software and code as poetry.

Entanglement, Entropy

Fantasy Technology + Everyday Magic

As we started to think about the final series of presentations by the cohort for The Hepworth Wakefield edition of the labs, we wanted to bookend Cory Doctorow’s thrilling provocation from our January launch, with an equally compelling message on the intersections between culture, art and technology.

I’m really excited to confirm that Leila Johnston, founder of Sheffield-based Hack Circus, will be presenting a keynote on Fantasy Technology & Everyday Magic at our closing event tomorrow afternoon.

I first came across Leila at FutureEverything’s Global FUTR Lab earlier this year in Manchester. Her work on Hack Circus is “dedicated to celebrating the entertaining and engaging side of inventive thought, whether that manifests physically with wires and batteries, or conceptually in artistic or philosophical ways.”

Leila’s perspectives seem to be a fitting coda for what we’ve been aiming to achieve with this edition of the labs, in remixing the gallery and discovering new futures for our cultural institutions.

Hepworth Session 4 – Joanne, Louise, Rob, Steve

We roved far and wide in previous meetings, leapfrogging from one idea to the next, careful not to kill anything with even the whiff of goodness. But with the deadline just over a month away, the next two meetings at the School of Music in Leeds were time to focus. As it turned out, four strands emerged quite naturally, each around a certain aspect of the object, its place in the world and its relationship to the gallery and the audience.

  1. The iterative object is about encouraging people to re-work and re-use works of art, to “fork” them (in web parlance) and do their own thing with the original artworks as the basis. Monkey Jesus cropped up. Cecilia Gimenez’s attempt to restore a fresco by Elias Garcia Martinez was derided at first but has become an attraction in itself. What would happen if we provided people with a framework to encourage this kind of behaviour with Hepworth’s sculptures?
  2. The venerated object pokes at barriers – physical and otherwise – which can placed between the viewer and a work of art. Consider an object encased in glass which becomes gradually more opaque as more people look at it. Or even one which would be destroyed if viewed too many times. Taking things to extremes helps to highlight how things are at the moment, to understand the current situation and try to change it. The practical ways we could make this happen – such as electrochromic glass and Sonte glass – also made interesting discussions.
  3. The decontextualised object is crammed with hyped technology such as 3D printing and computer vision, but at heart it’s about trying to bring some of the qualities and affordances of the web to our physical interactions with works of art. Most good gallery and museum websites have ways to explore the collection, placing an artwork in context of its metadata such as artist, country, date, materials, period, etc. Lots of people are already scanning works of art. What would it be like if people could handle 3D prints of works of art and be presented with relevant information projected around it?
  4. The unrealised object plumbs the depths of the Hepworth archives for sketches, notes and other fragments which the artist did not make into sculptures. What if we could bring those works off the page and into the world?

These ideas started to hang together quite nicely. In each case we picked up on stuff which is already happening and tried to create a framework which would encourage that behaviour and help people present it back to the world. The idea of “open source” kept cropping up as a model for collaboration and co-creating. Perhaps an even better one is “view source”. Being able to view source on a HTML page is a vital part of seeing how a webpage is constructed, copy and pasting it and using it yourself. This approach seem to be at the heart of each of our explorations – what would the ability to “view source” look like for sculpture, what behaviours would it encourage, would they be worthwhile? Come along to the Hepworth on 4th June to find out.

Hepworth Session 3 – Joanne, Louise, Rob, Steve


We met at the suitably named Create Cafe building for an afternoon of Hepworth-related chatter. We were missing the priorly engaged Rob, but managed to trundle on through. Perhaps we were somewhat more cryptic about our ideas than other groups, but decided to store and reserve energy for the final ‘reveal’.

Although everyone seems to be working towards some form of prototype, it doesn’t appear necessary. Our group is, however, finding some cohesion through developing practical elements of our conceptualisation. Some form of proof of concept, we feel, provides useful solidification of ideas.

Questions were raised as to the ‘end product’, ‘feedback’ and ‘next steps’, which for us further highlighted the flexibility of the lab’s brief. Perhaps this openness and blue sky trajectory is our answer to the question, “what has your group found most challenging”.  It reminded us to ensure that we were enjoying the freedom and flexibility of exploring as many wild, basic, complex and outrageous conceptual avenues as possible.

Pleasure to see the entire cohort and organisers.

Rewriting, reaffirming and and realigning our trailing thoughts are deemed suitable next steps.

Creative Lab’s Meet 2 – Katie, Laura, Andrew & Eun Suk’s group

Create Cafe
(photo courtesy of Imran Ali)

A few general notes on the lab experience

All of the groups have had a certain proclivity to subvert curation, take art outside of the walls of the Hepworth and to apply any digital applications somewhat further down the line of the process.

The process is as interesting for where there are conflicting directions as there are synergies.

Balancing the desire to design something that is both challenging and relevant means understanding more of the Hepworth’s drivers and to some degree, making a decision about how much this informs a more objective approach.

There is a difference between feedback on the overall outcomes of this edition of Creative Labs and individual feedback on our ideas. The former is more realistic (I made a point of requesting this!) and the latter being entirely subjective at such an early stage.

And finally, it isn’t often one gets the opportunity to think and work so freely on such a creative brief, with an equally interesting array of people. It is not difficult to hold on to that thought as we progress further.

Katie Brown

Hepworth Session 2 – Joanne, Louise, Rob, Steve

For our second meeting, our team convened at the School of Music at the University of Leeds – Joanne’s Armitage’s crib.  After mastering the technical complexity of the Light Hadron coffee machine, Louise Atkinson, Rob Carroll and I were by joined by my old friend and Joanne’s colleague Dr Kia Ng, co-founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Research in Music and an alumnus of the second Creative Lab last year.

We resumed our progress to date for Kia and he told us a little about how the previous team had tackled their brief last year.

Two notable strengths of our team served us well at our first meeting and even better at this one.  Firstly, we really get on with each other and secondly (possibly because of the first), we enjoy developing and expanding upon each other’s thoughts.  This generosity of working meant that when we looked at our whiteboard notes at the end of the session, we were all represented.  The core concepts we had settled on were our joint work.

We don’t, at this stage, want to go into too much detail about our ‘modest proposal’: we’re still developing the means by which our ideas may be expressed.  But our discussions were an evolutionary development of our initial discussions around the relationship between the museum, the object and the audience.  In particular we explored the notion of the ‘authenticity’ of what we termed the ‘venerated object’ and how we might employ ‘inauthentic objects’ and mediated audience interaction with objects to create new audience experiences and relationships with art.  It was all a lot funkier than that description makes it sound, though.

We hope to be able to go into more detail regarding our suite of proposals at the coffee shop event on the 15th.

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