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'Your presence will alter things'

Step inside a radically open research culture at Concordia's SenseLab
March 19, 2018
By Vanessa Bonneau

This isn’t your typical research group.

At SenseLab, everything starts with being open — to questions, to members and to transformation.

Established in 2004, the group was newly formalized in 2017 as contributors to the performing arts research cluster (LePARC) of the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology at Concordia.

“What we bring is a sustained thinking around collaboration and research-creation, which we define as an encounter between making and thinking that doesn’t prioritize one over the other," says Erin Manning, SenseLab’s founder and director, and the Concordia University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy.

"We want to amplify what the university can do."

The questions addressed by SenseLabbers, as they call themselves, depend on what they encounter, but tend to concern pedagogy and research-creation.

"Our ethics is about having the curiosity to keep learning, and that brings with it an enormous fragility because there are constantly things we don’t know how to do," says Manning.


Global engagement and practice

About half of SenseLab’s members are university-affiliated, while the other half are independent artists and activists. Manning also adds members to ongoing online discussions on both Basecamp and Slack.

Because of its open nature, the organization doesn’t count its members, though around the world about 700 people sign in to SenseLab’s Basecamp. There, they discuss and propose upcoming “practices.”

These include — but aren’t limited to — reading groups, workshops, and speaker series.

Anyone can propose these, Manning explains, and everyone is welcome to attend.

While the line-up of future practices is still open, Manning does describe an emerging focus: “We feel a strong sense of wanting to learn from Indigenous and non-white practices.”

The practices and philosophy work lead up to what’s called an “event,” a large, unstructured collective research-creation project where something is transformed.

The last event was in Brazil in December 2017, and the next is in Naples in May 2018. Both concern alternative and crypto economies.

These themes are of particular interest to SenseLabbers as they research alternatives to fund, build and run a new physical space geared toward inclusive learning.

For a decade, members have been concerned with neuro-diversity and questions of inclusive education.

“How can we create opportunities for more complex ways of learning that include those modes that don’t look neuro-typical?” asks Manning asks Manning, who will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts Helsinki in June.


What radical openness looks like

Located on the 10th floor of Concordia’s Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex (EV), SenseLab is the oldest and largest of four international hubs. A 2012 Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) made it possible to launch the others, in Australia, Brazil and Europe.

In the EV Building, a key is needed to enter, but anyone who asks can get one.

Once part of the group, there’s no pressure to participate.

“We honour lurking. Lurking is also a practise. Your commitment is your own...” says Manning.

“You come once, that’s great. If you come 50 times, that’s super. Your presence will alter things. If we meet someone who needs child care to participate, we’ll try to organize child care. We really work to facilitate entry.”

This openness applies to all SenseLab activities. There’s no call for proposals for SenseLab’s two book series or for papers for their journal, Inflexions. This deadline-free way of operating means works are collected for publication in an open-schedule way based on “appetite and necessity,” explains Manning.

Find out more about
Concordia's SenseLab.


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