Lab cultures are ubiquitous. They are present in museums and factories, in government agencies and enterprises. During the pandemic, the search for vaccines has preoccupied laboratories worldwide. Scientists and biotechnology companies have been searching for effective ways to reenable human contact. Thinking of laboratories conjures images of scientific facilities with vials, pipes, flasks and Bunsen burners, set up in a safe, prescribed manner. Though originally associated with the natural sciences, laboratories are now found in a great variety of fields. Laboratory concepts and branding a project as a ‘laboratory’ are popular far beyond technical and scientific settings.
No concept illustrates the current popularity of laboratories as clearly as the abbreviation ‘lab’. In contemporary labs, work is performed on products, services and ideas. A project can be dubbed a ‘lab’ without even having or implying a physical space. However, the multitude of referents hinders understanding of the ubiquity of contemporary lab cultures. What is this concept that can cover organisations ranging from public authorities and companies to art facilities?
The term ‘lab’ is so ubiquitous that the effects and purposes of labelling a project a ‘lab’ demand further investigation. One line of inquiry lies in the connection between laboratory and labour. This connection is both practical, as laboratories are used for labour-related experimentation and collaboration, and etymological. The Latin root laborare means ‘to work’, but also ‘to suffer’. Given this origin, labour might be at the centre of contemporary lab cultures. In labs, new ways of working are tested and incorporated into existing organisational contexts. Designating a project or place a lab suggests both the hope of achieving a scientific breakthrough as well as energising organisational processes and fostering agency and grounding agents in complex situations.
Creativity, cooperation and the search for innovation determine forms of work in lab cultures. This search can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, which makes the examination of lab cultures a complex subject rife with contradictions. Megatrends, such as digitalisation and the climate crisis, challenge individuals and organisations to redesign existing business models and reconceive their institutions. The recourse to laboratories promises to address the challenges and reformulate what constitutes success. Consequently, labs’ range of applications has extended from technical workshops and life-science facilities to include companies and design agencies. Laboratories now refer to a variety of settings, blurring disciplinary boundaries and institutional frameworks. Outcome-oriented processes that emphasise interdisciplinarity and collaboration in an everchanging environment, have come to supplement the original scientific, technical definition. As attitudes and habits of thought and action, lab cultures are contemporary topoi that transcend diverse social systems from the economy to science and art. Lab cultures are changing the world of work.
Organisations such as the MIT Media Lab have been investigating the rapid changes in information technology since the 1980s. Many organizations and projects want to adopt the founding spirit of the early days of digitalisation. Consequently, the open, underdetermined notion of ‘lab’ is a productive way to describe new forms of collaborative and interdisciplinary labour. Despite — or precisely because of its various meanings — the term ‘lab’ is more popular than ever. As a concept, ‘lab’ oscillates between necessity and arbitrariness.
The first volume of Cultural Policy Lab publication series with Sorry Press addresses the question of what makes a lab a ‘lab’. How do labs change organizations notionally and in fact? The publication also investigates the origin of labs’ current popularity and, perhaps, necessity.
Cultural Policy Lab
The Cultural Policy Lab at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich provides a space for interdisciplinary reflection. It starts from the perspective of ‘institutional aesthetics’ and seeks to erect a dynamic institution that serves as a thinktank as well as a dotank from inside the physical and ideational space of the university, a place where this space can be reconceptualized through the lens of cultural policy.
With our pioneering work on transferring research between the arts and the humanities, we are forging new alliances. Cooperating with partners from arts agencies, cultural policy, the arts, and academia, we’re developing sustainable strategies for our cultural and creative economies.