Interdisciplinary Challenges

3rd International Interactive Media Lab in Göttelborn, Saarland (18-31 July, 2005)

Johannes Birringer interviewed by Uschi Schmidt-Lenhard


Dr Johannes Birringer is a choreographer and media artist who also works as a research fellow at Nottingham Trent University (UK) where he directs a digital design studio. He is currently preparing an international workshop on “Digital Cultures" to be held at Nottingham in late November. This summer he directed the third Interaction Lab at the former Coal Mine Göttelborn.


Question: Was this year's international laboratory different from the previous two labs in 2003 and 2004?

Johannes Birringer: The political climate in the region has changed because of the difficult economic situation, all funding for art and culture has been frozen, and we found out about this early in the year (2005). This has been a serious problem for us, but we decided to continue operations and concentrate more on research this year. We reduced publicity and promotion of innovative artistic media projects, thus approaching more intimately the original concept of the lab, with a focus on software development, research investigation, and the building of small prototypes of interaction design, attracting a small group of experts from this country and from abroad. We considered not having any public presentation of the work process, as such displays raised false expectations in the past years with audiences and critics. After two weeks it is not reasonable to expect to show a finished artwork or media product. The "Night of Interactive Media," in 2003 and 2004, merely offered a preview of design processes which were under way. The programming and designing of new interfaces are at the core of our laboratory, but such design research is not always easily understandable to a broader public, especially if we are testing new and innovative ideas. On the other hand, if one builds a prototype, it is good to test it with a public and listen to the feedback. We tried in the past to have an open door policy, always welcoming visitors, and last year we expended a lot of energy creating public lectures, and exhbitions in other sites to share the work, but I think we tried too much and lost our focus.

This year we first wanted to work just inside the lab, but eventually we agreed that it would be in everyone¹s interest to have a small final exhibition in the new building we call “Gray Gallery," a striking neo-industrial architecture which is just being completed by the IKS (Industrial Culture Saar) as an addition to their renovated office and workshop space. We exhibited three new projects that we had begun, they are more than sketches, I think we were able to convey the purpose of the designs and interfaces. Last Saturday turned out to be a very exciting night, we never had such a concentrated, quiet and attentive environment, and our audiences stayed for several hours and helped to make the concentrated experience possible. We are very grateful for that. The partners in the lab colleborated really well this year in the smaller groups, although this has always been the case in the previous years. The method of our lab, allowing quiet and intense focus on experimentation and project development in a unique environment, is something that really attracts people to come here. It is this attractiveness, this richness, which we need to communicate to the critics or the interested media and institutions, and to our future sponsors and supporters.

Question: Can you give examples of the development of such projects?

Johannes Birringer: An architectural prototype (1:1 scale) for interactive living, the so-called “future house", was created last year by Marion Tränkle together with the Canadian engineer Jim Ruxton. Both have continued to work on this project, they met in Toronto meanwhile and the second prototype was presented at the Subtle Technologies congress in May. Camille Turner, who is also from Canada and participated in the lab in 2003 und 2004, developed a documentary film project, along with Brasilian composer Paulo C. Chagas und local computer technician Willi Meiser. This project evolved from her encounters with former miners from this region, and her poetic film explores memories of her own life story (her father was a miner) mixed with those of the Göttelborn coal miners, and it also draws a connection between the patron saint (St. Barbara) and her own Yoruba religion. A choir from Quierschied, a nearby village, also participated in this film which offers impressives images of an abandoned, changing industrial landscape.

Question: Camille Turner also collaborated with other artists from the lab last year: is it a good example of the kind of international artistic relationships between people that are fostered by the lab?

Johannes Birringer: Correct, quite a number of personal relations evolved in the workshops which we could not have foreseen. But we do not only see such artistic collaborations which create human friendships, we also pay attention to the technical expertise that is exchanged during the work processes. Paul Verity Smith, who came for the third time this year and brought several other media artists from Bristol and London with him, has dedicated his research to the specific development of interactive software linked to sensors which allow a performer to control media elements (images and sound) in a virtual environment through the movement of the body. His team built a complex and challenging interactive system linking several computers which receive wireless input from the performer, Kasura Isobe, and process this input which she generates in real time through her gestures. . In my own project, which explores voice, film, and sensory processes in a collaboration with composer Paulo C. Chagas, dancer Veronica Endo and two sopranos, we are writing a story about visibility, visual perception. We are creating the building blocks for a five-channel DVD which we plan to complete this year. The lab team also includes Berlin-based media artist Götz Rogge who is developing a very interesting streaming media project, "Streaming Poetry," which is one of two investigations of the surrounding natural landscape. In the other work, Götz has installed a sound installation in a forest region located 20 minutes from the Mine, a particular area that has been turned into a natural park (“Urwald").

Question: All the participants I interviewed in the past years emphasized the extraordinary location, the site of this laboratory. What ae the unique aspects of this location, how would you describe them?

Johannes Birringer: A media lab full of digital instruments is primarily a networked computer workshop, and we spend a lot of time with computers and software programming, when we are not outside filming or exploring motifs for our projects. We work with digital media and new technologies, but the site itself, the former coal mine with its entropic history, of course is a unique, paradoxical inspiration, a place of past labor which for us points into a different future, a time in which we communicate with mobile, wireless devices and produce virtual spaces and - this is our main objective: innovative connections in interaction design linking the physical with the virtual. The sources of our current inspiration, as well as our economic future, no longer lie underneath, in the earth, but in the microcellular, in the domain of computer science and the creative jndustries, but also in biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence which, the regional government anticipates to become new sectors of industry. We are not a company that can invest in product development, but we are a small research lab that attracts creative artists, programmers, architects, engineers and performers who explore interdisciplinary connections between arts and science, between computing and biology, telecommunications, robotics, and interaction design.

The Lab, in other words, opens itself to a new dialogue that is crucial in our times, an exchange of knowledge and innovative ideas between various research disciplines which concern themselves with the human and the natural environment, with other species, intelligent machines and distributed information processing. This means we are very concerned with the question of integration and integrative, interactive contexts, and in our work, which derives from an artistic sensibility, we look for cultural dimensions of those scientific processes which allow us to imagine new dimensions of living and communicating, perceiving and experiencing. These dimensions, for example in the experiments we do with sensors and wireless computing, are creatively and critically reflected in the work we make and show to those who visit us. We continuously encounter the enormous mutability and manipulability of digital data; everything can be done now on a microlevel, but we tend to emphasize the social dimension of interaction, the physical and cognitive experience of interactions that involve human choices and responsibility and continue to depend on our physical bodies, our virtuosity with bodies. Musicians and athletes work with engineers, craft enters into programming, as does writing and poetry. We make images as well as the tools to make such images. Unfortunately our laboratory is now better known internationally than in the region itself, it came as a shock that we could not get more funding support, any funding support, by the region, apart from a few individuals who help us because they understand how vital it is what we do. We are fortunate that our lab is internationally networked; quite a few of the media researchers who came this year are affiliated with universities in other countries, and they enjoy the opportunity of a concentrated, intimate workshop environment.

Question: Does this mean the Lab does not just exist in the two weeks in the summer when the participants meet in Göttelborn?

Johannes Birringer: Yes, one could say the lab exists throughout the year as a networked community, we are a group that is connected all the time and communicates about project development. Further links are being built, since the exchanges we have made tend to multiply, we grow a little every year, and through our work outside the lab we open other paths. For example, in the last 8 months I have worked on a book on movement analysis and neuroscience, and it was fascinating to discover that our work with sensors and visualization technologies is not so different from the research being done in the cognitive neurosciences. The brain researchers sometimes use the same software, and they are also interested in sensorimotor and perceptional data that we can create. In my design lab in Nottingham I have also started a new project that involves creative artists, textile and fashion designers, and in collaboration with a company based in England and New Zealand we are working on the prototype of an intelligent garment that incorporates transductors and wireless sensing into the design concept (“Tedr"- Prototype). It is a very fascinating epxloration, and my team has already been invited to show a film of the prototype at the "Wearable Futures" conference in Wales in September.

Question: How many participants did you have in the lab this year, and where did they come from?

Johannes Birringer: - Compared to previous years our group is smaller this year, due to our limited budget. We have a few designers and writers from Germany, then Paul Verity SmithŒs group from England, as well as a researcher from Portugal, performers from Japan and France, and the composer from Los Angeles, USA. During the second week we had two more visitors, Japanese dancer Gyohei Zaitsu who joined Götz Rogge's Streaming Poetry project, and a Scottish soprano, Hannah Morrison, now based in Wuppertal, who came for several days to record her voice for our DVD project Canções dos olhos. We present descriptions of all of our research projects on our website (

Question: How will the lab sustain itself?

Johannes Birringer: We have to manage the workshop this summer with a very small budget, and therefore we had to be modest and careful, and also attentive to the possibility of generating income and finding sponsors who support us as an independent lab. In the past we were supported by the IKS, now we have to manage our own resources. We are optimistic for 2006, as we were successful in receiving a large grant from Brussels (Europe Culture 2000 program), based on an application for a network project we designed in collaboration with partner labs in Athens, Amsterdam, and Sofia. This project, called "I-Map", will be developed in the four sites throughout the coming year, and Göttelborn will be the last station at which the project is assembled as a prototype for an integrative media system allowing participants in multiple sites to manipulate data in a virtual space, and to rehearse a shared dramaturgy of communication through sensory data analysis.

The concept for "I-Map" is dedicated as well to our vision of such laboratories, namely to bring together dynamic and creative people and generate impulses for social interaction and communication via audio-visual and digital media. The communication often uses theatrical forms, but can also be related to games and to social, everyday interaction, it uses film, music, sound, stories, photography and writing, all the creative genres with which our cultures transmit ideas and values or propose new ways of seeing and ways of living. Digital media, after all, have a deep impact on our consciousness, on our cultural imagination and the social forms of interaction in a global world. Our small laboratory tends to make a lot of sense next to the large photovoltaic plant which was built by City Solar AG on the hillside behind the Mine, since we also produce energy. It is not electrical energy but energy for social integration and creativity with dynamic media. With our work we want to point out that media are by no means just consumable or entertaining, they are not just i-pods. They are lively, dynamic techniques with which we act. This year our actions were examined through the role of "gesture". Next year it could be sleep, brain activity, dysfunction, language, eating, game behavior, learning techniques, machine behavior, or other possibilitiies. The range is very wide.


german version