>>> CIS Project Overview
The Critical Information Spaces (CIS) study project was carried out in 1999-2000 at the Media Lab, University of Art and Design Helsinki. Based on previous research on social production of information environments and the cultures of design, production and use, the project coordinators wished to create a platform for experimental design. The aim was to start working towards a critical design practice through insights from art, cultural and social theory and critical reflection.

A note on pedagogy
The start of studies in the MA in New Media programme involves a research proposal/application written to one of the Media Lab's research projects. The idea for this arrangement is to strive at a more research-based curriculum in digital media design, but also to create a fruitful dialogue and collaboration between the students and the research staff.

In the CIS project, the students were expected to formulate research agendas and project briefs based on the specific interests laid out in their original proposal. The role of the tutors was supportive and dialogic: their contribution consisted of providing the necessary framework in the form of readings, talks and class discussions as well as individual in-depth tutorial discussions.

Project timeline
In the first session, the students formulated a common aim for the work: they wanted to look for biases in the design of information spaces. This 'bias scan' would involve uncovering the assumptions and defaults in media and information design - making visible the aspects too often taken for granted.

In the search for critical tools the work during the Fall term was developed in two parallel bigger groups - Public Space/Community and Rhetoric/Narrative. Both groups started mapping and analyzing means through which information spaces are constructed. An informal research agenda was formulated for the team work, consisting of case studies, analytical and conceptual work as well as fantasizing other kinds of information environments.

The tutors, together with visiting media theorists Lev Manovich and Geert Lovink gave talks on Internet politics; digital communities; negative practice; cultural interfaces; production of space; sampling, etc.

Based on the students' interests, additional discussions and experiments concerned interventionist, surrealist and situationist practices, manipulation and surveillance techniques; the gendered, bodily aspects of information spaces as well as alternative information and design structures. This wide conceptual-empirical fieldwork of the Fall term was documented in a concept map, and by the end of the term the students had written small critical essays and presented a tentative work plan for Spring.

During Spring, the work was oriented more towards production. Via experiments and sketches, the projects were developed towards prototypes within the teams, backed up by bi-weekly common sessions.In addition to project-specific issues, discussions were organized on design-related questions of strategy/tactic as well as theory/practice. Related workshops were by George Legrady (Information Architecture and Cultural Practice) and Stefan Berreth (Multi-user Interaction design).

Results and evaluation
By the end of the study year, the study project produced 7 concepts and prototypes, which relate to the textual, spatial and audio/visual aspects of information spaces and propose new ways to interface with them.

Some of the student projects were also brought to a wider audience outside the university. Meta-Matic was presented at the International Browser Day event in Amsterdam. A subproject, Villa Mirdja, by the active Clashscapes team received a 2nd prize in the competition for IT innovations for women. Virtual Homage will be exhibited as part of the Continent project in Helsinki and Brussels. And the Screamactive screening at the LUME Centre was a definite highlight of the Media Lab Spring demos!

For the tutors, the project was extremely successful and rich in terms of creative and critical input from the students. In the student feedback it was also evident that the critical framework presented by the project had provided a relevant filter and guide through the variety of other courses - practical as well as theoretical - in the curriculum.

There were however many hard phases in the process too. In many projects, the shift from the analytic to the productive mode of working was difficult. In some projects, it took time before the right team composition and a common language was found - a general problem of multidisciplinary work (the student's backgrounds ranged from art, architecture and humanities to engineering).

The openness of the project 'brief' was also difficult to some students, whose background involved a more rigid approach to study and research. Instead of a series of tutor-defined tasks, the project allowed flexibility in the process of looking, questioning and reformulating - thus favoring a curiosity-driven instead of a deadline-driven research approach.

Many of the CIS prototypes and projects will be developed and presented as final thesis projects by the end of the second study year in 2001. In Fall 2000, a seminar hosted by the Cultural Usability research project will take the theoretical-pragmatic considerations further.