[iDC] Expanded notions of research for artists. Interview with Lily Diaz-Kommonen (Media Lab, Helsinki)

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Mon Oct 17 15:39:31 EDT 2005

Dear all,

Earlier this year I conducted a series of interviews about media art
education. This fall, a few more interviews will follow and finish this



Expanded notions of research for artists.

Interview with Lily Diaz-Kommonen (Media Lab, Helsinki)
by Trebor Scholz

Over the past years a few "practice-based Ph.D." programs for artists have
emerged. New media theorist-practitioners get the chance to enter into a
discipline other than art. They learn to speak to it with the necessary
competence and rigor. People stand in long lines to enter these young
programs. While much of this recent development was pioneered in the UK,
also in the United States Ph.D.s in "New Media" are in the making. But only
few of them are "practice-based" allowing artists to develop their art
production parallel to their writing. Many of the communities of new media
art are grouped around festivals and conferences at which they reflect on
their work, present and contextualize it. Computer-mediated art is a
relatively new field and initially there were few media theorists who had
the necessary technical insight to deeply understand the functioning of
media artworks. Media artists bring the wide variety of their skills and a
creative imagination of new methodologies to the production of texts. While
many new media artists in the U.S., are mystified by their colleagues
entering Ph.D. programs, the aforementioned motivations are valid reasons
for such educational pursuits. Critical voices also point to the rampant
competitiveness of caffeinated singles jumping from one opportunity to the
next who may simply need yet another point to add to their vita. Critics
also argue that these Ph.D. programs lack in theoretical rigor.
In the United States, the word "art" appearing in applications to even the
most enlightened foundations often kills those project's chance for funding.
Even some professional art fans turn away from art arguing that it is all
too ego-driven and too often of little social relevance. Resource scarcity
in the cultural sector is met with imaginative alternative economies.
Responses include arts advocacy, alliances with corporations and
self-institutional attempts.
The drive for an artist Ph.D. is seen by some as the search for
legitimization in front of the National Foundation for the Sciences that
favors applications from "principal investigators" who hold a Ph.D.. Artists
in turn shape their projects in science formats to fit into these funding

Trebor Scholz:
How do you place the work of the Doctor of Art (in Art and Design) program
at the Media Lab Helsinki in this context, in between enthusiastic and
critical narratives? Why should artists go down a Ph.D. track? What does
"practice-research" mean in the art context?

Lily Diaz: 
The Doctor of Art (in Art and Design) program at the Media Lab Helsinki
equips artists and designers with the necessary skills for independent
research and practice. Some of the areas being researched by students in the
program are: interactivity design for public places, drama in narrative
interactive media, hci, inter-authorship in interface design, integration of
cooperative technologies in real world scenarios, sound interfaces, content
management in learning environments, socially-engaged and collaborative
practice, domestic digital photography, and collaborative ontology design.

I agree with you that theoretical reflection is an integral, and important,
part of new media art practice. However, I do not think that these
conferences have had much to do with whether there are advanced educational
degree programs in art and design. At least not in Finland, where the first
degrees were awarded already in the early 90s. Furthermore, I do not think
that it is imperative that artists in general pursue advanced degrees.
However, it is a good thing that there are opportunities and options for
those who desire to do so.

We are located in a university that is dedicated to pursuance of knowledge
in the fields of art and design. According to Finnish law, the Doctor of Art
(in Art and Design) degree that is offered by UIAH is a scientific degree
that stresses the role of research. It is equivalent to the Ph.D. degree.
This sounds like a contradiction but effectively we are saying that we do
not recognize the divisions between arts and sciences and that it is
possible to conduct scientific research in art and design.

The DA seminar is the backbone of our program. In this course, students
present and discuss their work. We also have lectures and guest speakers.
The provenance of the guest speakers is varied, they can be from Media Lab
UIAH or from another department in our university. They can also be from
other universities in Finland and from disciplines other than art. In
addition, we feature guest professors from abroad. This week we had Maureen
Thomas, creative director of Cambridge University Moving Image Studio
(CUMIS), who is also a visiting artist in the Crucible Studio research
group, and Marikki Hakola, from the Film department. Maureen spoke about
theories of narrative and their application in interactive narrative design.
Marikki presented her doctorate thesis work.


Aside from the seminar, we also have workshops. These are short--usually
one-week long--intensive interactions in which the student explores and
works with one particular theme. Earlier this semester, for example, we had
a workshop on Scenario-based Design Methodologies with John M. Carroll from
the School of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State University.
Last semester we welcomed Klaus Krippendorff from the Annenberg School of
Communications for a workshop of Research Methods in Design. Next semester
we will be hosting Erkki Huhtamo and Machiko Kusahara from UCLA and Waseda
University in Tokyo respectively.


Through these activities, students have access to experts from diverse
disciplines. The objective is for students to draw from these sources and
produce their own contribution. Students are also encouraged to seek their
own group of experts which they can consult and work with.

An example of the output, or outcome, of the program is our next doctoral
dissertation: Cinemasense/Elokuvantaju, by Antti Raike. Cinemasense is a web
portal about filmmaking. In addition to the portal which has been translated
into English, Finnish Sign Language, Spanish, Colombian Sign Language and
Japanese there is a written dissertation where the researcher/film-maker
discusses the theoretical underpinnings of his work, with respect to
accessibility and Design for All.


We are also seeking to develop methods that are "of design" and "of art."
And like other disciplines, we are also looking for ways to customize the
methods of other disciplines and adapt them to the needs of our areas. This
is something that all the other fields of knowledge are constantly doing and
have always done. Archaeology, for example, has substantially borrowed from
chemistry, geology, history... Ultimately in our current world situation,
bringing the way of thinking of the natural sciences, the social sciences
and the humanities closer to the world view of designers and artist can have
a positive influence in the "knowledge-sphere."

TS: Would you say that cross-disciplinarity is endangered when artists focus
exclusively on one topic? How do you encourage an interdisciplinary

LD: We believe that it is good for artists and designers to concentrate
deeply on the subject-matter that they have chosen. I think that this is one
of the reasons why they come to our program. We have a deeply ingrained
multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary culture that is already evident in
our MA program in which students of different backgrounds work together
throughout their studies. It is important not to confuse
trans-disciplinarity with lack of depth. Actually it demands that students
spend more effort developing their line of thought, since they cannot simply
follow the paths of their disciplinary ancestors. In addition, our program
is not only about art but even more about design. Design always requires

There is a very interesting book edited by K. Styles and P. Selz, Theories
and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook for Artist's Writings.
Although the book does not claim to be about artist's research itself, it is
a sample of artists notebooks which provides insights into different
processes involved in the creation of art and how an artist's make use of
sources from disciplines other than art.

TS: When visiting UIAH's Media Lab, I was impressed by the small research
tanks that you have on your premises: glass cube laboratories that are
dedicated to one project of 3-4 artist/researchers with specific funding
from outside-university funding.

LD: We do have a large number of projects, some funded, some not funded.
Some more production-oriented and some more oriented towards basic research.
Our education builds very strongly on the research we do. We try to
construct ways in which students can be involved in research and find out
for themselves if that is an interesting activity for them. We have several
thematic research groups. The students in the Doctor of Art (in Art and
Design) program can pursue their work independently or in collaboration with
the research groups.


Media Lab Research Groups:
ARKI (Digitalization in the context of everyday life)

Learning Environments for Progressive Inquiry Research Group

Crucible Studio research group

Systems of representation (Representation of knowledge in digital dimension)

Research-Based Ph.Ds:



PixelACHE 2005
Upcoming new media festival

The big annual demo event

Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art

Mind Trek (2004 pages)
conference held in Tampere

Artists Association MUU
Finnish Artists' Assiciation MUU, founded in 1987, is
an artist-run interdisciplinary artist association.


Centre for New Media Culture

Computer Arts Center at Espoo
Develops and produces new media arts events.

"The ABC's of Conferencing" by Trebor Scholz and Geert Lovink

Some Finnish Media Theorists:
Resurrecting the Technological Past by Erkki Huhtamo
An Introduction to the Archeology of Media Art

Towards Computer Game Studies by Markku Eskelinen

Minna Tarkka (new media)

Experience, play, and interpretation - discontents of usability by Tapio
Mäkelä (abstract)

 Lily Díaz-Kommonen (a.k.a. Lily Díaz) is a designer and anthropologist
working with information technology (IT) and multimedia since 1985. She is
currently a professor at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design
Helsinki, where she teaches Visualization and Dynamic Processes, a focus
area of studies that she developed. She leads the Systems of Representation
research group that is developing software tools for cultural heritage as
part of the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme of the European
Union. A graduate of the Studio Program of the Whitney Museum of American
art, she has received fellowships in recognition for her research in
information technology and digital cultural heritage such as a Fulbright
Fellowship (Spain, 1990), Young Researcher's Award from CIMO (1995), and
Doctoral Studies Stipend from the Academy of Finland (1996-2000). Her work
has been published in diverse international journals such as Computer
Graphics, Flash Art, Leonardo, and Revista Internacional de Arte LAPIZ. Her
dissertation, Art, Fact, and Artifact Production, Design Research and
Multi-disciplinary Collaboration was published by Ilmari Design Publications
in 2002.


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