A "third place" research lab
What makes a laboratory like Origens Medialab unique? In what sense is it a “third place” laboratory?
Our lab hosts researchers in the same way as a conventional lab, however, our structure is unique in that it enables them to extricate themselves from the shackles of traditional academic research. It is indeed very difficult in a traditional context to conduct experimental research, especially in the fields of the humanities and social sciences due to the fact that laboratories adhere to well-defined strategic directions, financial constraints on developing new programs and the project-based management of research. These constraints limit personal discretion in the choice of research problems, and thus leave little room for aligning research on emergency situations (relating to social issues, climate, or public health for example) and grassroots commissioning.
Clermont-Ferrand’s plan to create a waste incinerator in 2012–2013 was instrumental in defining our mission. The project caused an outcry in civil society, and local residents, officials, and activists in particular organized to try to stop the initiative. They first appealed to researchers from traditional research laboratories to help make a case against the project based on scientific arguments relating to the environment and public health. A few researchers supported these efforts on an individual basis, but institutional research unfortunately couldn’t respond positively due to administrative and academic constraints (as person hours and funding were already allocated to ongoing projects and many deliverables, papers and conferences already planned).
Although this may seem anecdotal, it speaks to the inability of the French research system to respond to critical environmental situations and to the requests from collectives wishing to initiate research efforts and surveys. Reflecting on this situation, we resolved, together with Alexandre Monnin, and, later, helped by a collective of twenty researchers hailing from different disciplinary backgrounds, to draw on the protocol of the “New Patrons,” introduced by François Hers in 1990 and which helped trigger a democratization of the commissioning of art. The intention was to find ways of addressing and helping citizens to prompt investigations when faced with critical ecological, public health or social situations for instance, via what we called the “CooPair” process.
Research is unfortunately not adequately equipped to face situations requiring a rapid response, in part because the search for financing and the mobilization of staff take time. This creates a real discrepancy between the reality in the field (which is made of accelerations and critical situations) and academic and institutional financial strategies (especially in the context of liberalization of public research). We therefore invented a laboratory that is adapted to emergency situations, often of an environmental nature, highlighted by various grassroots collectives. At the time, I was finishing my doctoral studies at Cerdi, a research laboratory affiliated to CNRS, which helped us benefit from a certain number of sources of institutional financial support in the territory of the Auvergne region. We then chose to register as an association in order to become fully self-determining.
Your laboratory came into being following the realization of organizational shortcomings as well as being spurred by the current ecological emergency. What are your main research topics?
We work on two main topics:
— The Anthropocene and our relationships with nature. In particular, we devoted a significant amount of time working on the question of legal animism, that is the legal and judicial innovations that would have to be implemented to recognize legal rights for natural entities. Currently, our teams are looking into “animistic revitalizations,” in animal husbandry in particular, as well as the analysis of zoonoses, and the new forms of agriculture appearing in France.
— Issues related to the necessary strategic adaptation of institutions, organizations, and private companies to the Anthropocene. In order to help them along that path, we invented the concept of “ecological redirection.”
Our starting point is that the conventional imaginaries of management and engineering are no longer adapted to the critical environmental situation. The required bifurcation of these imaginaries therefore requires inventing a full universe of concepts, methods and techniques that the members of our lab can deliver to organizations and companies in order to help them devise strategies that are commensurate to the challenges involved. In order to deconstruct and redirect people who have learned to manage a company by aiming for systematic growth and intensive innovation, it is very important that we develop an innovative method and pedagogical approach to match, however.
This is why we created the very first Master’s degree in Ecological Redirection, in partnership with Strate École de Design. Our intuition is that design holds a greater potential than engineering or management in terms of imagining methods for “landing on Earth,” as Bruno Latour put it. The question of livability cannot be reduced to technological solutionism, market-related issues, performance, or profitability. It must take into account uses or social and political functions that design can embrace, as well as its propensity for thinking about materiality and the social role of infrastructure, technology and techniques.
From an educational point of view, we work based on commissions and surveys. Our exploratory walks, the “Anthropocene walks,” might, for example, lead us to meeting what we call “sentinel organizations”—hospital staff, farmers, or managers of ski resorts, or threatened ecological reserves…—who, due to their situations on the front of the concrete manifestations of the Anthropocene, help us grasp the scale of the challenges ahead. Having this sort of approach is critically important as we believe our students must get their hands dirty in the difficult ecological transition. It is also a way of not only involving lecturers-researchers, but also getting them to meet local stakeholders who are focusing on alternative models for livelihood and livability.
We operate on the basis of what we call “ecological commissions,” which can be placed by a territorial authority, a company, an organization, or an institution. It could be a plant manager seeking to combat robotization, a “collapsologist” business owner looking for ways to attempt to shift their company to better address the climate emergency, or a local authority representing a territory under severe water stress striving to phase out private swimming pools. They all face the same lack of understanding or even rejection by operators, shareholders, or populations that haven’t taken stock of the fact that the situation is both irreversible and catastrophic. These are the people we must help them convince. Our students are then mobilized to develop a strategy and to design redirection protocols that can be delivered in the concerned companies or institutions in order to transform the vision of these stakeholders and attempt to create coalitions that are capable of carrying out these trajectory changes.
The ecological transformation cannot only be achieved through agriculture, livestock farming, agroforestry or water management. We are convinced that redirection will happen primarily through industry, technology, finance, existing power structures, and organizational models, and that is what we’re particularly interested in this line of research.