Understanding what we do

We just call it ACTLab stuff, because it's unique. One technical term for it might be intermodal expressive art/tech with a theoretical component. Or you might think of it as New Media Art. But those are just names, and not even very good ones. Occasionally there are naming races among people who do similar things, and a gazillion names are springing up -- digital media, digital arts, intermedia, transmedia, convergent media, transvergent media, etc., etc. -- since the people who began this stuff (maybe we were among them, depending on who's counting) started doing it in the early XXth Century.  You can call it whatever you want. For us it means doing new things with old (and new) tools.

We use a lot of digital stuff, but we are not head over heels in love with the catchword "digital", except as digital equipment enables new forms of creativity. Digital is lovely and logical and highly seductive, like tulips in the 1600s. Creativity, on the other hand, is unruly by nature and unsettling while in progress. Our focus is primarily on creativity and secondarily on technology, on circuit bending rather than using prepackaged devices, on ripping up technology, reassembling it in unfamiliar forms, and making it do unexpected things.

When the Yale School of Architecture asked what we called our discipline, all the actlabbies sat down and wrote random syllables on pieces of paper. We put those in a box and shook it up, to the accompaniment of tribal noises. Sandy drew two slips out of the box, and on the basis of that she went to New Haven and told them what we did was called Fu Qui.

Allucquere (Sandy) Stone designed the program and the space. That, in a nutshell, is our pedagogy. Collectively, it's called the actlab. Now, as per Sandy's original concept, the actlab is a moving target, continually being re-imagined and redefined by the students, the TAs, Sandy, and people we call repeat offenders -- students who have taken more than one actlab class and can help newbies understand the unusual expectations we have for them. Currently the symbol we use for the actlab is an umbrella. To get a better idea of the significance of the umbrella, and for a potted description of the theory and pedagogy of the actlab, read Under the Radar. (To purchase umbrella swag, go to the ACTLab TV store.) Sandy was invited to write Under the Radar  for the ISEA (International Society for the Electronic Arts) publication Switch as a thought piece for their 2006 conference.

People who work best with us are naturally curious, have had some experience in the world, may not understand technological or mechanical stuff but are not unduly intimidated by it, and are interested in an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Some of our students go on to start odd programs of their own, which may be the highest compliment they can pay us.

How projects work

"Making stuff" is the heart of our pedagogy and the launchpad for discussions. The key to making stuff is the project system. Projects kick off the discussions which illuminate the theoretical dimensions of each course's theme.

Each ACTLab student makes three projects each semester at intervals of about a month. When you start working on projects, you will join a team of roughly five people. Each team has one member who has done an ACTLab class before, and is there to help you understand what we expect. You will have that person's email address and/or phone number. You also have the email addresses and/or phone numbers for the instructor, TA, guest lecturers, and volunteer "repeat offenders" -- labbies who have taken an ACTLab course before and understand our unusual expectations and procedures.

Although you are part of a team, you will not make a "team project" -- you will make an individual project. Teams are there to give you support, someone to ask for help, advice, welding or casting skills, a shoulder to cry on, etc.

A project can be anything -- video, sound, performance, sculpture, painting, assemblage, projection, movement, film, or anything you can think of that can be made. "Make Stuff."

The purpose of a project is to illuminate some aspect of the theme of the course. It should relate in a demonstrable way to preexisting work in that theme. For example, if the theme of the course is science, a project should relate to some pre-existing work in science, in the same way that an academic paper would discuss academic work done by someone you have read or were studying. Your project may extend that work in a legitimate research manner or may fantasize on its theme. We do expect you to situate yourself in ongoing discourses, not merely pull stuff out of your hat. Within the course theme, you choose your topic and do such research as you see fit. For our purposes, your research tools include textbooks, articles, Google, and other online search methods.

When you arrive on project day, we'll have a signup sheet ready. You will present in the order you signed up. The three projects each have different expectations regarding how long they should take. For instance, you have a maximum of two minutes to present your first project. If you think this isn't enough time, fear not. Two minutes may sound like nothing, but when you're up there for the first time you may discover it can feel like eternity.

After you present your project, we'll take ten or fifteen minutes to discuss it. The class can ask anything or make any comments that seem helpful. We may ask you about why you chose your topic, why you handled your materials the way you did, how it relates to the field, why you chose to do this or that. The purpose of the discussion is to draw out other students' understandings of the course theme and your work, and to give the instructor, TA, and guest lecturers a chance to see how the class is thinking about the course material.


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