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Media Lab celebrates co-founder Davenport's career

Symposium honors interactive media pioneer's legacy
Glorianna Davenport
Glorianna Davenport

Dozens of Media Lab faculty and alums gathered for a daylong symposium Friday, June 20, to celebrate the career of Glorianna Davenport, head of the lab's Media Fabrics group and a longtime innovator in film, video, interactive media and new ways of storytelling.

The event was in honor of Davenport's retirement after more than three decades at MIT, where she initially worked in the Film/Video Section before co-founding the Media Lab in 1985. In 2000, she was a co-founder of Media Lab Europe, based in Dublin. Over the years, dozens of her graduate students have gone on to found innovative companies, and many of them returned to describe their work at the symposium (or "media jam session," as the program described the event).

"I'm a media junkie," Davenport said at the event, held in the Media Lab's Bartos auditorium. "Not so much for the media that's out in the world," she explained, "but for using video to understand what I see."

That concept of using video as a tool for understanding has been a key element of Davenport's work through the years--both in her own creative endeavors, and in the methods she encourages her students to try. "There's no such thing as an unbiased story," she said. "When you play it back, it's never like it was."

That has often been a revelation to people, she said. "Students thought they could be neutral, but in fact the media maker is an improvisational collector."

Among the projects Davenport and her students have worked on were "Elastic Charles," in which a group of people each shot films depicting different aspects of the Charles River, and a three-year New Orleans project that resulted in a set of videodiscs (this was in the pre-DVD era) depicting how the city changed over time.

She has always emphasized the use of film or video cameras as a way of reaching a new understanding of one's environment, and has been especially interested in giving young children a chance to explore the media as a tool for learning.

One of her former students, Hans Peter Brondmo, who has created an online company called that provides a way for people to collect and share pictures, video and audio files, documents, and web pages in an online archive, summed up the feelings that many of the event's speakers described in one way or another: "You would never say no," he said to Davenport, "though sometimes you would say something was kind of stupid. You would always inspire and encourage. You were a big inspiration to me."

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