Shawn Micallef at Habitat New Media Lab

Osunwunmi: Could you describe what the Habitat Lab is designed to do, and how it came about?

Shawn: Habitat is like a new media think tank. They take a diverse selection of people (10-12-14 people) and make them residents for 6 months. The first 1/3 of the residency they are immersed in new media theory, hands on demonstrations, guest speakers, a super-capable faculty for all sorts of backgrounds. The last 2/3 of the residency saw us take everything we knew before and the new stuff we've learnt along the way and create a New Media Prototype of some kind. There are no limitations put on what can be created - just that at the end, we need to have something!
It came about in 1997 when Ana Serrano, the director, established Habitat at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto - a film and television centre started by the director Norman Jewison in 1986.

Osunwunmi: Could you say how you got involved, what was the selection process, who were the other people taking part, and what is the thinking behind bringing together such a group of people from different disciplines?

Shawn: I was reviewing films at HotDocs, a documentary film fest here in Toronto when I saw a flyer for Habitat. I had a lot of different interests and
thought Habitat might be a place where they can all come together. I have an MA in Political Science, and did a few things including freelance writing. Other people had more traditional arts backgrounds, one or two were web developers, an actor, an industrial designer, two musicians....there were a few other people like me who had very little technical proficiency (and still don't!). The idea is that if you put people with backgrounds that usually don't get to hang out together in a constructive and creative sense together - some neat results might happen. IDEAS are the focus of Habitat - figuring how to make them into a reality comes later.

Osunwunmi: Could you describe the workshopping process?

Shawn: Groups are formed around prototype ideas - then each week there are critique sessions where all aspects of the prototype are examined. All residents and all 13 or so faculty got together in a big circle and talked about issues brought up by residents and those brought up during the critique. We would report on our progress each week. They ended up being really good experiences. There was some resistance by some residents who didn't fully get into the idea that everybody was there to help. There was some resistance to certain criticisms and suggestions because people had very strong attachments to their original ideas. Our [murmur] group was fairly open - we knew we didn't invent the wheel with this thing, but we figured we could reinvent it a little better if we listened to other people. We didn't use every suggestion of course...but it was a good experience. I hadn't been part of a critique set up like this before, so it was new to me.

Osunwunmi: What was the end result?

Shawn: We launched a prototype of [murmur] in December of 2002 - a few stories about the Habitat site (a former estate). We had such a good reaction from people that we decided to try and make it a "real thing" - by spring we had found some funding from a gov't funded group called terminus 1525 and we launched real iterations of the project in Toronto's Kensington Market, in Vancouver's Chinatown and in the Plateau neighbourhood in Montreal. This spring we got a Toronto arts council grant to do the project in another Toronto neighbourhood. Some prototypes don't make it out of Habitat - the people get other jobs, start other projects, and just take what they learnt with them. Thus far, we've had a fairly good run with the project.

Osunwunmi: What support mechanisms are in place for the prototypes, after they get into the ‘real world’?

Shawn: There aren't any formal mechanisms in place. But we did and continue to receive lots of support from Habitat and the Habitat faculty. It's like a very supportive community that you suddenly belong to - and one person's success in this field translates into long term success for this whole field. So we are still very much attached to Habitat.

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