From Iceland — LAB IT UP!


Published December 2, 2011

How a group of artists, technicians, computer experts, musicians and sundry others have created an organisation where everyone helps one another make their wild ideas come true

Haukur S. Magnússon
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How a group of artists, technicians, computer experts, musicians and sundry others have created an organisation where everyone helps one another make their wild ideas come true

“This is an idea generator. When you have conversations, ideas are passed around and people make use of them.”

Media labs have been around for about a quarter-century, the most famous being the original one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They have yet to fully enter the mass consciousness, but media labs have sprouted all over the world. The basic idea is to bring together people interested in various disciplines—usually some form of technology or art—and to have people learn from each other and bounce ideas back and forth, figuring out new applications for existing tools or ways to make new ones. What comes out of the media lab process can be anything from highly practical inventions to madly beautiful art and most everything in between.

Margrét Elísabet Ólafsdóttir, aesthetician and lecturer at the University of Iceland and the Iceland Academy of Arts, organised the first meeting to get a media lab going in Reykjavík and in 2010, LornaLAB was founded. The lab now runs monthly workshops at the Reykjavík Art Museum, which tackle the theme of musical instrument building from various perspectives. At the October session I attended, two violinmakers, Hans Jóhannson and Jóhann Gunnarsson, gave short presentations on their craft and showed the audience some of their violins. 

They work on different principles, the former using technology to make all kinds of non-traditional violins, while the latter works along more traditional lines (hot tip: if you think violins are pretty, wander to Óðinsgata street, the violin repair shop of Jónas R Jónsson is one of Reykjavík’s most beautiful sights). Then two members of LornaLAB, Þráinn Hjálmarsson and Halldór Úlfarsson, talked about the instruments they were building and gave demonstrations.

After the workshop I sat down with the latter two, and three other LornaLAB members, Bjarni Þórisson, Hannes Högni Vilhjálmsson and Jesper Pedersen. The group provided a good overview of the type of soul that flocks to the media lab banner. Halldór is a visual artist, Bjarni, Þráinn and Jesper are composers and Hannes is a professor of computer science at Reykjavík University.

For a group like LornaLAB, it is important to have a diverse membership. There are few venues that bring together people on both ends of the arts and technology spectrum like LornaLAB. As Þráinn puts it: “It is good to create connections like that. LornaLAB is primarily a place for conversation. It is necessary that it exists.” 

One of the main aims of LornaLAB is to share knowledge, through lectures, conversations, and perhaps most importantly, letting people play around with the various technologies and instruments that members bring to meetings. Bjarni says: “The first thing that got me excited was attending a course where I got hands-on experience with Arduino.”

Arduino is a good example of the kind of technology that is spread through an organisation of this nature. It is a tiny computer that is designed to make it easier for people to craft their own electronics. A lot of the members and workshop regulars got involved because of their interest in that, as Halldór puts it: “In a small way we became the shepherds of that flock.” Jesper had started working with Arduinos well before LornaLAB was founded. I asked him if he had been teaching other members of the media lab. “I have taught, but I have also been taught by others. Everyone takes part, teaching each other. That is what is so wonderful, sharing knowledge. I am not an expert, but you also learn by teaching.”

Hannes adds:  “I was at the MIT Media Lab for eight years, and so in a way I was raised in an environment where everything is allowed, where everyone thirsts for knowledge and ways to apply it.” This organisation has great personal importance to its members. “I do not feel like a complete human being without something like it,” Hannes says, to enthusiastic agreement by the others. 

For the members of LornaLAB, the organisation is like a research and development centre. Halldór describes how it functions for him: “If I have an idea for something that I am unable to figure out how to make, instead of wandering around lost in a fog, there is so much knowledge within the group on the subject of what I am trying to create, that I can move straight towards my target.” Bjarni picks up that thread: “Maybe you have somewhat silly ideas you want to make happen and if you explain them to others you get blank stares. But in LornaLAB you get concrete feedback from people that understand where you are coming from.” Þráinn continues: “There is a lot of wasted effort in being completely independent and trying to reinvent the wheel. Here I have people who can help and tell me when I am doing something wrong.”

Though the group is quite active, and has led to a number of different projects, from musical compositions to university courses, the members feel that it would be even more fruitful if there were a set physical location where they could meet. Until January of this year, LornaLAB had space in Hugmyndahús háskólanna (“The Universities’ House of Ideas”). It was a building with facilities for business start-ups and organizations that might generate interesting ideas. Since it was shut down, LornaLAB has led a nomadic existence. Halldór stresses that having a home is important: “With physical proximity, intermixing happens, arbitrary connections are made because people are open to one another and contribute to each other’s ideas.” 

The members feel strongly that a media lab benefits society, as Hannes explains: “It should be pointed out that groups like this are seeds which can grow in any direction. Some may even become business ideas, even though it is terrible to be always thinking along those lines. But business people should have no problem finding justifications to assist something like this.”

One of the organisation’s goals is to have access to a fab lab, even run one in association with like-minded groups, such as Hakkavélin, a hacker space currently located at the Reykjavík University. A fab lab, short for fabrication laboratory, is a physical space with a set of high-tech tools, usually computer-controlled, that can make pretty much anything that people can dream up. Most have laser cutters, 3D printers, lathes, grinders and tools for making circuit boards. These are often associated with media labs, which is not odd, considering that the fab lab idea was first developed at the MIT Media Lab. 

Three fab labs exist in Iceland but, as Halldór points out, “it is weird that none of them are in Reykjavík. They are in Sauðarkrókur, Akranes and in Vestmannaeyjar. Many of our members are interested in working with others on running one, and there is work being done on making that happen. If the fab lab would become reality, then we have an anchor for our work.”

One of the driving impulses behind the fab lab concept is that they are open to everyone, that any person can come in off the street and work on their idea. Halldór stresses this aspect: “It is a damn beautiful gateway for the general public into this ‘do it yourself’ maker culture. [Fab labs] and the Arduino work hand-in-hand in a truckload of projects. You design a system, cut out some custom parts, rig it together and the Arduino controls it. Whether it is a robot or…” Bjarni interjects: “a cooling system for beer brewing.”

LornaLAB, as an organisation, could develop in many different directions, which excites its members. Þráinn says: “This is an idea generator. When you have conversations, ideas are passed around and people make use of them.” During our conversation so many different ideas for projects and ways that members of LornaLAB can help each other are brought up, that it can be difficult to figure out exactly how the organisation will develop in the future, and that is the point. Hannes explains: “Where it could lead is also important to me. Seeds are being planted, and the promise of future possibilities, which alone is enough to keep me going.”

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