Blog Post

HASTAC@HumLab (Umea, Sweden)

The leaves are just coming on the birch trees that line the streets and the river banks of Umea, Sweden.  At 11 pm, the dusk is a deep blue and by 4 am it is hazy azure, almost light again.   It happens to be sunny, one of the first real spring days of the year, and everyone is out, sunning, smiling, happy.  That's above ground.  Below ground, at the legendary HumLab at the University of Umea, there's a hive of activity, people creating, working together, teaching one another, faculty and students and artists and others just using the space for their multimedia ideas.   If collaboration can happen, it is at a place like this, a central node on the Umea campus, right in the main student building.   It's a space where many of the walls are virtual--pillars covered in wallpaper, translucent screens, area rugs designated spaces without creating barriers.  The point of entry is open too:  anyone in the town or the university can apply to use the computer lab, almost everyone is accepted, day or night people are here creating things.

I am paying particular attention because the Franklin Humanities Institute, where HASTAC Central is housed, is moving to a Humanities Lab model and also thinking about designing spaces for this new humanities model.  The HumLab provides a great one.

The director of the HumLab is the delightful, engaging, warm, and expansive Patrik Svensson.   A place like this only works if the people are right and he's exactly the right person.   Currently writing a book on the ontology and epistemology of digital humanities, and the flow from humanities computing to digital humanities (with bypasses to science and technology studies to hybrids like HASTAC), Svensson quickly eschews binaries in favor of connection.   You can see that all over the HumLab.   A mathematician was foundational in getting the HumLab started.  Now, anyone might be there, writing code or making art.   The projects vary.   In our very short visit (so far) our guide for the day was  Emma Ewadotter, one of the administrators of the HumLab who is also writing a dissertation in art history focusing on three marvelous young British women photographers who are all concerned with memory and persistence, avatars of themselves even in analog mode.   Emma also practices kung fu and her range of interests is again as expansive as the HumLab.  


Emma introduced us to several very interesting people who happened by HumLab today.  One was Stefan Gelfgren,  an Associate Prof at Umea who is finishing a new book on digital faith and culture and who brings a history of ideas approach to the practices and futures of "God online."  Carl-Erik Engqvist is a multimedia artist interested in "providing insight through technology" and he runs something called the Visionary Existence Laboratory, a digital artist's  fabulistic imaginary of a space of new bodies and new technologies.   Jim Barrett, an Australian who plays and composes music and soundscapes featuring the didgeridoo, interrogates reading practices for a digital age, partly by rethinking what does not go in the archive, including the 30,000 year tradition of Aboriginal readings without print and only through oral preservation.  When he turns his eye to "books," it is with the theorist's ethnographic perspective:  what does the copyright page do to form the book?  what about the title page?  what about the author page?

Could all this happen in a walled space?   Certainly not in a walled disciplinary one.  Certainly not in one where what defines "digital humanities" was carefully conscribed.   With all the enthusiasm of our maestro of national digital humanities NEH Digital Humanities Director Brett Bobley, Patrik too is both an advocate for new ways of threading the digital and the humanistic and a "network weaver."   Walking through his shop you see poster after poster representing the visit of just about everyone in the expansive world of digital humanism.   It was like being in a room filled with many of one's virtual friends.  Or, rather, less a "room" than an environment, an ecosystem, with the species (that would be you and me) thriving.

One screen at HumLab, among the many screens, was covered with a "cozy," a beautifully hand-embroidered cover that brought together code and handcrafts in Steampunk fashion.   That was the melding of many forms of expression, all of which ask us to think what constitutes "expression" in a digital age.   I'll be back in the HumLab tomorrow, giving my own talk on "The Future of Thinking"  Reinvisioning the Role of the Humanities for a Digital Age."  I'll report back later!  Meanwhile, here's the link:


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