Atlántica # 59

In my view, Mexico City’s Casa Gallina, and Madrid’s MediaLab-Prado, two experiences that are attempting to create a new institutionality that is no longer primarily artistic but based on a more integrally social kind of invention and innovation, respond to the call for what Claire Bishop describes as a “transformation of existing institutions through the transversal encroachment of ideas whose boldness is related to (and at times greater than) that of artistic imagination.” This suggestion is made by Bishop (2012: 284) as an afterthought in the conclusion of her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. I say as an afterthought, because the 283 pages that precede this formulation adopt a wholly negative view of participatory art, a label which, for Bishop, encapsulates the “expanded field of post-studio practices,” and a field to which it could be argued—incorrectly, in my opinion—that Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado belong. I have taken the terms that Bishop uses to disparage participatory art as the starting-point for this reflection on a new institutional paradigm because I believe that these terms need to be rearticulated from the perspective of the present, in which participation has a different meaning, one that is associated with use and with the user, which are features of the digital environment but which transcend that environment and characterize the potential of human action.

Bishop seeks to shield herself against objections to her conservatism by referring to the apparently radical relationship that Jacques Rancière establishes between aesthetics and politics. Her critique of participatory art could be summed up as follows: 1) it abandons aesthetics for the sake of social impact; 2) most of this art is therefore instrumental, a means to an end; 3) choosing to collaborate with participants who are not artists and even come from social movements leads to a lack of interest in the quality of the works or actions; 4) these trends are politically ineffectual, because they serve an ideological objective which is then absorbed by the market; or 5) they achieve an apparent success which really obeys neoliberal imperatives by making citizens solve their problems themselves, with the help of artists. To these limitations Bishop counterposes the dissensual redistribution of the sensible, which Rancière proposes as a true politics and which aesthetic experience offers, in that it glimpses another way of organising the world. Hence Bishop, following Rancière, argues for the autonomy of aesthetic experience, which must remain in the sphere of indeterminacy (27; Rancière, 2009a: 63).

This autonomy is endorsed by what Peter Bürger called the “institution of art,” which became visible, according to him, from the time when it was attacked by the historical avant-gardes. This kind of institutionality defines the conditions by which art and the experience of receiving it are recognised. This institutionality, incidentally, is essential to Rancière’s premise; he locates its beginning before the avant-gardes, in modern expression, which broke with the classical division between art and reality, or with what he calls the representative regime of art, which determines which subjects should be represented, the difference between high and low subjects, and the types of reaction that viewers should experience. In the aesthetic regime of art, which Rancière defines as the period from the end of the eighteenth century to the present, any subject can have a place in art—which doesn’t mean that art is dissipated into that heterogeneity of subjects.

It’s worth recalling the principles that Rancière indicates as constituents of the aesthetic regime of art. This regime involves a shifting back and forth between autonomy and heteronomy, due to the fact that aesthetics is not only specific to art but has a role in social organisation and in shaping the sensorium, which refers to the body as a perceptual system registering a multiplicity of dimensions not determined by ideological coding. In this manner the aesthetic affects the political, in that it introduces the unfamiliarity of the heterogeneous—another distribution of the sensible—as against the recognition of codified political engagement:

The specificity of art consists in bringing about a reframing of material and symbolic space. And it is in this way that art bears upon politics […] Politics consists in reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible which defines the common of a community, to introduce into it new subjects and objects, to render visible what had not been and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals (Rancière, 2009b: 24 and 25).

But at the same time, Rancière argues, in its dual nature the aesthetic gives rise to another kind of political engagement, “the political promise of aesthetic experience in art’s very separation, in the resistance of its form to every transformation into a form of life” (44).

The tension between these two politics threatens the aesthetic regime of art. But it is also what makes it function. Isolating these opposed logics and the extreme point at which both of them are eliminated, by no means obliges us to announce the end of aesthetics […] But it can help us to understand the paradoxical constraints that weigh on the project, so apparently simple, of “critical art,” a project which arranges, in the form of the work, either an explanation of domination or a comparison between what the world is and what it might be. (44).


Following this line of argument, Bishop argues that participatory art that seeks to acquire political force ends up being predictable and therefore ineffective, whereas aesthetic participatory art—Bishop gives the example of Christoph Schlingensief’s Please Love Austria—produces an unpredictable subject that defies the distribution of places predetermined by political power. Bishop criticizes participatory artistic initiatives because, according to her, they tend to establish a predictable participant and also undermine the autonomy of art by subordinating it to instrumental ends, such as solving social problems like youth unemployment, racism, etc.

There are several responses that can be offered, all of them related to the two cases that I will briefly describe. Firstly, the term “emancipated spectator,” of which the unpredictable spectator is a variant, a term proposed by Rancière and adopted by Bishop to criticize participatory art, seems to be a last-ditch effort to refuse to recognize that a paradigm shift has taken place, whereby the user—in Stephen Wright’s formulation—is a more appropriate concept for our age. According to Wright, although the market maintains the (economic) value of art, there are a multiplicity of forms of expression, based on use, that break with the performative framework of art, supported by what Rancière calls “the police,” or what we might call a culture of experts: directors of institutions, artists, curators, critics, and audiences who seek to preserve their specific spheres of expertise. Our contemporary world is characterised by a culture modeled by open-source practices, in which right of use and transformation of what is used—hacking—have primacy as the new principles. “A hacker […] refers to someone who hacks into knowledge-production networks of any kind, and liberates that knowledge from an economy of scarcity” (Wright, 2013: 32). Moreover, the value of hacking lies in a form of collaboration: “contributing anonymously to collectively used configurations, in the spirit of free software” (Wright: 33). Naturally, participation and collaboration are practices that have been applied in several types of aesthetic experience (dance and theatre, for example), but in our contemporary world they have become principles of everyday activity, sometimes used trivially (Tweets and Facebook threads) and other times in more complex ways (Wikipedia, Occupy, 15M). Furthermore, like consumer protection groups, citizens’ initiatives, residents’ associations, and so on, users of art experience the use value of art directly.

Users don’t lie outside mechanisms of control and discipline; many types of user arise within those frameworks, not just rebels or automata subject to external rules. Use is opposed to property and is related to the idea of a commons. It differs ontologically and performatively from spectatorship and is pragmatic and interested—not necessarily in an instrumental way—in contrast to the disinterested Kantian spectator that is still prevalent in the idea of the autonomy of art, even in Rancière’s formulation. Moreover, unlike Rancière’s example, the idea isn’t that a set of pupils and a teacher reverse their roles, producing emancipated novices and an ignorant schoolmaster, but rather that everyone is a pupil and a teacher at the same time. Collaboration in the hacker ethic transcends the binary system of pupil/teacher and ignorant/knowledgeable. It’s also similar to the communal work or minga characteristic of indigenous peoples in Latin America.

Applying the hacker ethic to the museum, Wright wonders what a museum 3.0 would be like, “where use, not spectatorship, is the key form of relationality; where the content and value it engenders are mutualised for the community of users themselves […].” (40). And this mutualisation is a fundamental part of constructing a commons, a practice (not just a concept) that goes beyond the notion of the public sphere. Although neither Casa Gallina nor MediaLab-Prado is a museum—and incidentally, it’s just as well that they are not, because it would be more difficult to restructure them than to design institutional forms—I think both of them fulfill some of the principles of 3.0 institutionality. First of all, they offer sets of tools to use, and reward use that creates value, not necessarily in economic terms, but certainly in the form of services, and exploitation of prototypes produced through collective activity, for when I speak of use, I’m referring not to individual use but to collaboration. Another principle that is merely sensed in Wright’s museum 3.0 is the adaptation of what Rancière regards as the mediating role of the artwork: he says that between the ignorant schoolmaster and the emancipated novice there is a third thing—a book, an object or a performance—that is alien to both, to which they can refer to verify what is seen. “It is not the transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect” (Rancière, 2009a: 14–15). Indeed, as an exercise in mediation the new institution transcends the already criticised binary system. Mediation is precisely what makes it possible to transcend it.

At Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado this mediating function is the very process by which the institution operates, but not with the object of creating a community, to which both Rancière and Wright object (because it reinforces a sense of the commons that is disciplined). By contrast, defenders of a commons seek to invent the procedures—the tools—that safeguard or construct it, in relation to the goods or subjects addressed. Rather than a community, the agents who maintain the commons are more like a “commons-oriented network.” According to Bernardo Gutiérrez (2016: 133), “being oriented to the ‘common good’ of a network—which may be asymmetric, may have several communities interacting and may have clusters and hubs—is the key. The care that members of a network take of it, the will to preserve the network, to understand it as a collective body, as an open, live process, are characteristics of commons-oriented networks.” The two experiences I am referring to operate precisely by mediating among several kinds of knowledge until ways of making them extend the commons are discovered. Mediation doesn’t disappear; on the contrary, both cases use mediators, with their own expertise, but they gradually learn together with the users so as to guide those who approach and want to enter this open process.

Both Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado give free rein to the principle of dissensus—a defining principle of art, according to Rancière—in the mediated meeting of various forms of knowledge, among which art figures as one among many others. They are experiences in which this new type of institution excludes Rancière’s”police,” defined as “an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable […]” (Rancière, 1999: 44–45). In other words, at Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado the distribution of places and abilities is kept open and no type of knowledge takes precedence over any other. (It’s curious that Rancière emphasizes making art visible, rejecting what he calls the ethical regime of art, since he ends up seemingly exercising the police function.) At Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado that function is not exercised; the world of art with its police is kept at a distance, but not art as use and as a heuristic tool.

I now move on to a brief description of these two initiatives, with the proviso that I can’t do justice to the hundreds and thousands of experiences already undertaken there.

Towards a New Institutional Paradigm | Atlántica

Shutter Sastrería Marilú

Casa Gallina (literally “Hen House”) is the most recent edition of inSite, an art program held five times between 1992 and 2005 within an 80-kilometre corridor along the San Diego–Tijuana border between the USA and Mexico. At Casa Gallina, which was launched in 2013 and whose first cycle will end in 2018, the initiatives are developed in one particular neighborhood, Santa María la Ribera, a hub of hybrid public life in the megalopolis of Mexico City. Casa Gallina fulfills a dual role: as a place to house processes of participation in the neighborhood, and as a residence for artists who work with the local people. All of this is undertaken outside the scope of the conventional art world, because, according to the project director Osvaldo Sánchez, a well-known curator and director of several museums in Mexico, the art world perverts relationships between people (which doesn’t mean that art isn’t one of the main components of the project). The meeting spaces include a kitchen garden / urban farm, a kitchen open to local residents, a space for ideas to be exchanged and developed by artists and their collaborators, another space for technical workshops, and a further open space devoted to accumulating and exchanging knowledge produced by carrying out projects and programs.

The aim of the project is to bring about transformations in the local area, but to do so through the initiative of the residents with whom the artists associate; in this process the artists and other professionals learn at least as much as the local people, reminding us of the schoolmaster/novice and knowledgeable/ignorant dualities put forward by Rancière. It’s not a “community house,” reinforcing the identity of the community—which would mean conforming to a police principle in Rancièrean terms—precisely because the intention is to keep open the potential not only of the results (projects), but also of the subjective experience of those participating in the collaborative activity. Although the projects seek to achieve transformation, they do so on the basis of everyday life, such as cooking (exchanging and experimenting with recipes), organisation of local shopkeepers, revival of traditional hand-painted signs, quality of life in the neighborhood (traffic, street lighting, public spaces, etc.). “Casa Gallina chooses its social modes of operation and its strategies for structuring situations from the experimental heritage of contemporary artistic practices; but above all from the utopian, revolutionary and transformative legacy of everyday experience, within the framework of available community association and welfare models” (inSite / Casa Gallina).

A good example is the Diagnosis and Mapping carried out through interaction with members of the community. This project revealed that the most important enterprises are family restaurants. Hence the idea of creating a platform called Open Kitchen. Sánchez and the two curators from Casa Gallina’s Department of Knowledge invited 14 family restaurant owners to take part in a series of cooking workshops, in which they would be able to interact with the most famous chefs in Mexico in making sauces, pasta, desserts, etc., over the course of a year. These workshops provided an excellent opportunity for “critical reflection and collective action on everyday practices connected not only with the culture and creativity inherent in culinary art, but also, primarily, taking account of the importance of reconsidering dietary and consumption habits, as well as assessing the social rituals and political and economic implications surrounding food” (inSite / Casa Gallina).

Other similar projects are the Urban Market Garden, Herbalism, and Natural Cosmetics, all of which reflect the interests of the local residents who gather at Casa Gallina. All of the projects, those involving working with artists as well as others in which the curators create platforms to meet the needs of residents, have a heuristic side. By heuristic, in this context, I’m not referring to the definition of some philosophers who state that a heuristic act consists in applying rules that simplify the process of discernment or judgment (Richardson, 1999: 379). It’s a matter, rather, of discovery, requiring originality and invention (Bunnin & Yu, 2004: 304.). But in relation to the types of process that Casa Gallina explores, the originality and invention lie not in the brains of individuals but in the interaction of various kinds of knowledge, and this helps to prevent the resulting modes of action from being conditioned by ideological frameworks.

Another example is the regeneration of the local urban landscape through the joint efforts of residents who take workshops in graphic design focusing on images of the neighborhood, local shopkeepers, and signwriters, with the assistance, when requested, of mediators from Casa Gallina.

This is one of hundreds of projects and synergies articulating socially committed aid initiatives and economic and professional collaboration networks.

In every project the house hosts a whole range of communities that are constantly being re-configured, groups that accept and face up to each other as a specific critical social condition: a body exposed to conflict, entropy, and resistance, and obliged for that very reason to constantly generate new imaginaries and desires for articulation, contact, and social and spiritual mobility in the local environment of day-to-day life in the neighborhood. It is in this context that inSite / Casa Gallina sees the artist as an agent of change, in the re-enunciation of the public domain, as a regenerator of civilisation in the paralysis of urban entropy. (InSite / Casa Gallina)

Towards a New Institutional Paradigm | Atlántica

Shutter Bello Café

The projects are very diverse, but what they have in common is that the artists don’t come with the ideas for their projects worked out in advance. The ideas have to emerge from the process of collaboration. Another basic principle of the modus operandi of inSite / Casa Gallina is the desire to create a working atmosphere outside the world of capitalist modern art: in other words, with no visibility, show, audience, production, schedule, or money—which doesn’t mean that the projects can’t collaborate with or even emerge from local enterprises. The works and performances resulting from these partnerships are put on with the partners for their own enjoyment, and the artists are also free to take the works they create through the collaborations to exhibition spaces.

Among the artists who have already exhibited works, the Mexican artist Erick Meyenberg showed La rueda no se parece una pierna (The Wheel Bears No Resemblance to a Leg) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (14 October 2016–19 February 2017) and at the Americas Society in New York (4 May–22 July 2017). Meyenberg created this piece by working for two years with the young members of a school military band, who designed their costumes and part of the choreography with a professional choreographer, and also received advice from the curatorial team at Casa Gallina and from musicians, composers, designers, and video producers. The work isn’t easy to describe, as there is no image that encapsulates the complexity of putting it together, let alone the long process of collaboration. Meyenberg’s interest in these young people began before he was invited to produce a project with Casa Gallina. From his studio in Santa María la Ribera, he watched them with fascination as they submitted to the discipline of body and sound that a military band requires.1 Meyenberg visited the school, explained his interest in working with the youngsters, and began a long process of listening and interacting, finding different ways of being together, improvisations that transformed the discipline—in military, national, television, consumerist, and status terms—into something else, a sensory observation of the way young bodies register and deflect control by virtue of being adolescents, still in the making. Osvaldo Sánchez describes the process, providing insights into that transformation:

Musicians, choreographers, and costume designers brought together by Meyenberg organised conversations, visits, and actions that would make it possible to de-alienate the assimilated routine of this school “war band.” The first step was to disobey the instrument. To learn to howl. To find “that something in me that only I can offer.” To turn the instrument that regulates the machine into an obscure game of chance. To think about the memory of a sound, the cracked ceramic coating of the mask, the cynical elitism of each costume… They visited sound archives, contemporary museums, costume stores. Then came the video sessions: observing the hierarchical position of the teacher/guard in the service of the machine, the regimentation of shared existence choreographed for the group as a technology of oppression. How can we reverse History using the already accepted paraphernalia of its own hegemony? How can we discredit the trappings of obedience? How can we fail to applaud the pantomime of war which foresees a monument in each body? By over-signifying the heroic dramaturgy of the nation-state and bleeding it dry with its own emblems? (Sánchez, 2017)

The metaphor of the machine arose in multiple dimensions, both in the process of developing the performances with the students and in setting up the piece. The machine refers both to control, in state, military, cultural, consumerist, racial, and nationalist terms, expressed in the bodies, and to the machine to which the avant-garde paid homage. The young people put on their musical and choreographic performance at four symbolic sites, each of which functioned as a machine of control or failure: the Hispanoamerican School, where Meyenberg met them; the Monument to the Revolution, originally a monument to Porfirio Díaz’s regime which the revolution converted into a celebration of itself; the Forum Buenavista shopping mall, a monument to consumerism; and the Tlatelolco esplanade, where in 1968 armed forces of the Mexican government massacred between 200 and 1,500 people, most of them university students demonstrating for greater democracy in the country. If we add to this the discussions that the young musicians conducted regarding the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014—being young in Mexico is a hazardous business—we can appreciate the emotional charge running through the performances.

Meyenberg’s installation doesn’t document the two-year collaboration, nor does it translate the discussions or the performances in which the young people took part into audiovisual language. You might say that the energies unleashed in those acts served as an emotional basis for creating a work which contains a record of them but to which Meyenberg gives shape by drawing on a series of artistic and historical resonances. The placards that accompany the visual installation are inspired by Francis Picabia’s machine paintings; another section of the installation appropriates a map of Paris, to represent Mexico City, and a soldier’s helmet, taken from Léger, a painter strongly influenced by mechanised warfare. Meyenberg uses these elements to allude to the state of war in the country, and the title of the piece comes from Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias, in which the term surrealist was coined for the first time, making reference to the mechanisation of the body. Mechanisation is also expressed in the images of clockwork included among the drawings that accompany the video and in the cadence of images and sounds that are coordinated in cycles that move in and out of phase, producing a physical and mental sensation of parallax, at least in this viewer. This feeling is also created by the three screens that are arranged in a triangle, with the audience in the centre almost overwhelmed by the rapid succession of images around them.

Meyenberg explains that he very carefully synchronised the successive sequences of images, coordinated in cycles or loops that move in and out of phase, with the soundtrack. In this way he seeks to impose a pattern on randomness, in image and sound scores, created with the help of a composer, that “frame chaos.” He compares his way of working to a clockwork system that can include errors and yet remain self-regulating.2 The parallax produced in this piece by the loops moving in and out of phase is the space of randomness arising from systematisation, from mechanisation. His work produces, but does not document or represent, a heuristic experience equivalent to that which occurs in collaborative processes. In this regard, the conclusion to Osvaldo Sánchez’s text is worth quoting: “The creative—essentially heuristic—experience is played out on a parallel level of the individual consciousness of each participant, over the course of two years. It is a process of becoming aware of one’s own subjectivity, which re-conceives itself as the confirmation of a still possible other-self—neither constrained nor designed by the dictates of capitalism—but now re-viewed, empowered, and protected within the group. […] In each person, the co-participatory process produces a spiritual revelation, of psychological and ethical re-focusing, within the community experience. And this could, perhaps, be its most obvious socially ‘committed’ attribute.”

Towards a New Institutional Paradigm | Atlántica

Shutter Prestaduria Vecinal

Another artist I interviewed is Cadu (Carlos Eduardo Félix da Costa) from Brazil. After several tours to get to know the neighborhood and its people in 2014, Cadu approached a group of elderly women dancing in a local cultural centre, a group of blind people from a private organisation, and a geologist from the Geological Museum who was researching public awareness of minerals in Mexico. Cadu, who is very sensitive to the passage of time, became interested in the women’s leisure activities and enjoyment of life, especially the temporality of their dances (mambo, danzón, and cumbia) and their crochet stitches. Over the course of two years an emotional fabric was woven between him and the women; the choreography is infused with it, as they themselves testify3, and is also expressed in the fabric of the mandala that they unstitched as they danced, which felt to them like the passage of time in reverse, a look back at their long lives.

The result is a ritual expressing temporality in the work of the dancers, who unstitch a mandala while the choreographer Estel Vogrir recovers the most significant steps in the dance. This ritual is for the women only; it doesn’t have an audience. The video recording can be shown on other occasions, even at art events outside Casa Gallina. The emphasis at Casa Gallina, however, is on the local participants.4 The women I interviewed felt that the private ritual to which the collaboration finally led changed their lives, reaching the very core of their feelings and making them conscious of “the sense of their own body and of life itself.”5 The collaborations make specific social contributions, and are like an initiation for a more fully developed project on subjectivity. The people who come to Casa Gallina emphasise their confidence in surrendering themselves to shared actions that create new dimensions of consciousness.

The other initiative that heralds a new institutional paradigm is MediaLab-Prado in Madrid. It describes itself on its website as “a citizen laboratory of production, research, and broadcasting of cultural projects that explores the forms of experimentation and collaborative learning that have emerged from digital networks.” It’s worth reproducing its goals:

• To enable an open platform that invites and allows users to configure, alter and modify research and production processes.

• To sustain an active community of users with the development of these collaborative projects.

• To offer multiple forms of participation that allow people with different profiles (artistic, scientific, technical), levels of specialisation (experts and beginners), and degrees of implication to collaborate. (MediaLab-Prado, n.d.)\

To achieve these goals MediaLab offers a variety of contexts for collective experimentation (such as open calls to take part in workshops, laboratories, and work groups), “where communities of practice are formed, which are in turn communities of learning,” and which learn by doing, in an open, distributed, diversified environment focusing on competences.6

The reference to “culture” in “cultural projects” perhaps requires further explanation. What is meant by culture is certainly not concerts, art exhibitions, poetry recitals, or expressions of community culture (which doesn’t mean that these can’t in some way form part of multi- and trans-disciplinary projects). MediaLab uses a different idea of culture, one referring to processes of public collaboration that transcend the limits of disciplines or institutionality, whether they be artistic, museological, technological, or political. It therefore belongs to a new form of trans-disciplinary expression (not to say genre or institution), one which subverts the operating rules of social fields as Bourdieu (1993) defined them. These rules make it possible to recognise and establish the possibility of accumulating a particular form of capital (artistic, educational, scientific, political, economic), which in turn confers a certain social transferability (educational capital which brings with it economic or political capital, for example). As Rancière has argued, it’s perfectly obvious that access to recognition is unequal, for many reasons, and a characteristic feature of modernity has been the struggle to increasingly blur the rules governing admission to and use of institutions. Some struggles are progressive, because they seek to open up access to any individual or social group. Even so, it’s not enough to open up an institution already defined by hierarchies. As Tomás Ruiz Rivas writes, “These [experimental and participatory] experiences are of little use when transferred to museums […] because the museums carry the heavy hand of the State in their very being” (2015, 5 February). Other struggles are reactionary, seeing the institutions of modernity—especially those of the welfare state—as barriers to a social organisation based on market principles (i.e., neoliberalism). But there’s another perspective and practice, which also bears on modern institutionality; this approach doesn’t limit itself to including more categories but breaks down the principles of recognition, which, after all, invariably maintain inequality. Modern institutions established principles for distributing recognition and other assets, based on a hierarchy of evaluations and the establishment of tiered roles. This other way seeks to de-hierarchise: “to declassify, to undo the supposed naturalness of orders and replace it with the controversial figures of division” (Rancière, 1995: 32–33). It doesn’t necessary involve destroying institutions, but it does mean putting them to the test of allowing everyone, anyone, to intervene, as Rancière would say. “We must allow society to have its say,” recognising that “it does not speak with one voice,” that it is polyphonic (Ruiz Rivas, 2015, 5 February). And this entails paying attention to practices that are unrecognised or undervalued because of the ways that modern institutions have defined the subjects that interest people. In other words, institutions themselves must examine and change the way they have defined the concepts by which they operate: property, goods, rights, art, culture, service, production, consumption, etc. And this will only be achieved if the diversity of the public has a voice and is able to intervene in the orientation and management of institutions.

It’s in this sense—that of declassifying and promoting participation on “the assumption […] [of] the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being” (Rancière, 1999: 32) in setting agendas—that I believe MediaLab-Prado is shaping up as a new kind of institution, under the impetus of the “new ways of doing things” that had been appearing during the 1990s in self-run spaces and laboratories where artists, activists, and local residents worked together. Thus there arose, as Gloria Durán relates in her history of the transformations in the artistic landscape of Madrid around the 2000s, “a management model in the Laboratorios, ‘los Labos,’ and the theoretical foundations were laid for an artistic model that was to influence not only La Casa Encendida, but also Matadero, Intermediae and Medialab […] [and] Tabacalera […].” (2016: 275). Durán’s essay is about the artistic landscape of Madrid, but it’s important to remember that although MediaLab arose in an artistic context, it isn’t limited to questions of art. Rather, it adopts a model in which the aesthetic plays a part in constructing the prototype, together with other ways of doing things, particularly those of an activist and technological kind. In my view, ways of doing things have aesthetic and political value, both of which are shaped by the powerful heuristic element that arises in the activities taking place at MediaLab.

Towards a New Institutional Paradigm | Atlántica

Americas Society, New York, 4 May–29 July 2017

Much more could be said about the relationship between these institutions and the transformation of Madrid, but for reasons of space I merely refer the reader to the writings of Durán and Ruiz Rivas. At this point it’s worth elaborating on the ways in which the practices implemented at MediaLab conform to the principle advocated by Rancière and Ruiz Rivas with respect to polyphonic involvement in decision-making. And the polyphony in this case is not representational, as in Noah’s Ark, with a pair from each species representing that particular kind of creature. The heuristic value of the practices at MediaLab isn’t a sum of representations, as in identity politics. Far from laying down the rules of the institutional game, what Rancière promotes is “the continual renewal of the actors and of the forms of their actions” (1995: 61). That’s precisely what I find in MediaLab’s desire to receive proposals for its open calls that establish a dialogue between actors with different knowledge and skills (scientific, artistic, technical, activist, experiential), levels of specialisation (professionals, enthusiasts, amateurs, novices) and degrees of involvement. More important that any expertise or individual perspective is the meeting of various kinds of knowledge and sensibility that leads to innovation.

The interesting thing about innovation in the Spanish context in the last two decades is precisely this interaction of “many different types of people and their will to go beyond protest and create their own solutions” (Moreno-Caballud, 2012: 539). The forms of self-organisation put into practice in the 15-M movement—as in Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and other similar movements—show the artistic, social, political, and economic irrelevance of the great cultural containers criticised in Ruiz Rivas’s blog entries. These containers are devoid of content, especially in light of the economic crisis, and neither do they fulfill a political role of renewal. “Everything has been done to prevent interference from civil society and the emergence of a critical culture” (Ruiz Rivas, 2015, 11 February). One of the agents of the “chemistry” that leads to creation at MediaLab-Prado is precisely the interaction of artists and activists in the alternative, self-managed spaces mentioned by Durán and Ruiz Rivas. Durán writes: “From 1997 until 2004 the Laboratory, at its various venues, was the meeting place for many artist collectives and activists. It was the seed which later bore fruit in the institutional art centres (MediaLab and Intermediae), on the one hand, and on the other, in the more politicised current that converged in 15M and subsequently in Podemos and other forms of political action” (Durán 2016: n. 26, 270–271). In both cases a redefinition took place: of culture in MediaLab and other similar initiatives, and of politics in the 15-M movement, “as a possibility within anyone’s reach,” of the “desire for and practice of a ‘politics of anyone’,” writes Fernández-Savater (2016, 11 May), echoing Rancière. It’s exactly this spirit that infuses both culture and politics—and other sectors such as technology, education, and urban planning—so that through their interaction they put forward “a different experience of the world” that breaks with the ground rules of autonomous social fields as Bourdieu characterised them.

The analysis proposed by Fernández-Savater for politics—that renewal doesn’t come from intellectual leaders and experts, from parties or institutions, or even from social movements, but is rather a product of “society on the move,” of society redefining itself—is also valid for culture. He quotes the hacker Margarita Padilla, who suggests the image of “multilayer and multichannel change” to characterise this reconsideration, “enacted by a plurality of subjects, taking place in a multiplicity of times, and involving a variety of spaces. Institutions are one more among others, but not the only one, nor the most important.”

Is MediaLab an institution? Yes, of course; it has an address, a staff, a budget from the City Council, and a planned program of activities. But at the same time it has been affected by the violent winds of change and is behaving like a seedbed of possibilities. It is therefore a hybrid. On the one hand, it retains some of the dynamism that fueled the “ability to create a world here and now,” but as an institution of the State it runs the risk of becoming a function of it. In my view, as long as it remains open to anyone, values the interaction of knowledge above the expertise of a single sector, and upholds and engages in struggles to resist forms of governance that are deaf to ordinary people, it will continue to fulfill its transformative role. That’s why I don’t see it as a cultural institution—or at least I hope that isn’t what it is—because culture, as it is now being promoted by the managers of the cultural and creative industries, is part of the empty and devitalising theatricality of gentrification, branding, and promoting the city.

The third element that infuses MediaLab-Prado—the first two being the alternative/artistic and the political/activist—is the digital dimension. In its first incarnation, in 2000—which its founder, the art historian Juan Carrete, describes as its prehistoric stage—a digital art learning centre or workshop was created at the Centro Cultural Conde Duque, an institution devoted to contemporary art exhibitions and documentary heritage conservation. In 2002, under the name Medialab Madrid, it embarked on a wide-ranging program of educational activities, research, production, debates, and exhibitions focusing on fostering dialogue between art, science, technology, and society. But it was in 2007, with its move to the basement of the old Belgian Sawmill in the Plaza de las Letras, close to the Paseo del Prado (hence its new name), that the process of collaborative production with members of the public was stepped up. Carrete makes it quite clear that the exhibition side was becoming less relevant, and the new director from 2013, Marco García, explains that the move was a watershed, a turning point in the method of calling for contributions from the public and in the participatory approach. Transmitting culture was no longer enough; “culture is something that is constructed collectively, with different kinds of involvement but without such a clear division between producers and spectators.” The changes introduced by the internet and digital culture “have brought about an expansion in the competences and scope of action of cultural institutions, and in general new modes of access, production, management, and dissemination of cultural assets.” The new Interactivos? initiative launched a dual open call to the public to take an active part in projects that MediaLab would adopt as part of its program.7 Indeed, David Cuartielles, co-founder of Arduino, participated in the first Interactivos?, collectivising the increased facility that the device offered for constructing the prototype.

It could be said that Interactivos? hacked the workshop format, empowering participants to be more than mere receivers of knowledge. “The group of experts sharing their knowledge includes the participants themselves, and more importantly, the whole process is opened up to a wider public (who are also offered the chance to become participants)” (MediaLab-Prado, 2008, 31 January). Hacker culture, with its emphasis on free access and contributing to improving society, is integrated with the other two founding elements of MediaLab. Among the many hacker activities, two examples that could be mentioned are “Hacks/Hackers MAD: La tecnología en el emprendimiento periodístico” (Technology in Journalistic Enterprise) (2011) and #ResidenciaHacker: nueva línea de residencias (New Line of Residences) (MediaLab-Prado & Civic Wise, 2016) for developing prototypes aimed at public participation.

I became acquainted with MediaLab in 2009 when the projects for INTERACTIVOS ’09: Ciencia de garaje (Garage Science) were exhibited from 28 January to 14 February 2009. They were proposals in which “science, technology, and art come together to develop projects using software, hardware, and biology.” According to the call for submissions, the workshops in which the contributors took part were “conceived as spaces for collaborative work, knowledge exchange, and theoretical and practical training, in the context of a horizontal relationship between teachers, developers, and the collaborators themselves” (MediaLab-Prado, 2009). Among the nine projects presented, those that particularly caught my attention were the following: aerial monitoring of the environment; creating a colony of robot ants to experience interaction between mechanical systems and human groups; creating a device to show the presence of contaminant gases in the air; exploring free access to information by evading the five filters that media organisations use to subject us to advertising; and creating tools for planning, managing, and monitoring an urban garden focusing on local plant biodiversity and its gastronomic culture.

It could be said that MediaLab-Prado manages to facilitate public innovation through the “chemical reaction” that takes place when different kinds of knowledge interact. This kind of innovation requires going beyond the compartmentalised and hierarchical nature of the knowledge promoted by the institutions that we’ve inherited in our societies. In the projects sponsored by MediaLab, the problems or themes that people are working on call for a cross-cutting, horizontal approach, where the subject at hand and the experience of the participants have priority. The simplest definition of a citizens’ laboratory, according to García (2015), is a place where people go to do things together.

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Americas Society, Apollinaire text, New York, 4 May–29 July 2017

You might say that this collaboration of citizens to achieve innovation has a strong heuristic dimension. The philosopher C. S. Peirce describes heuristics as an insight that occurs in the process of abduction, pertaining to the processes of formulating and confirming hypotheses. Abduction is distinguished from deduction, which draws the consequences that confirm a hypothesis, and from induction, which confirms the hypothesis experimentally in a certain number of cases. Neither deduction nor induction adds anything to perceptual data, but abduction, in contrast, “suggests a statement in no wise contained in the data from which it sets out” (Peirce, 1901, 692). That is where innovation comes from.

In Peirce’s view this insight is a riddle about what is perceived, but in the cases developed by the participants at MediaLab it’s not a matter of a personal riddle but of a process of discernment arrived at through a dialogue between different kinds of knowledge, one that enables us to put together what “we had never before dreamed of putting together,” and that leads to prototypes constructed from ways of doing things that are discovered in those processes. I believe that what we observe in the procedures at MediaLab is a form of discovery common to art and science, and apparently to collective intelligence. You could say that what MediaLab’s projects are seeking is to free that collective intelligence from the straitjackets of current cultural and social institutions. For Marcos García, “the promise of the prototype comes from everything that is done when we are still operating in the phase of the open, the tentative, the informal, the hybrid, the inclusive, and the horizontal.”8 This conception shares an aspect of the aesthetic, as Rancière understands it, that state of suspension and irruption of the imperceptible, of a statement that is not contained in the data from which it sets out. Moreover, “it is inhabited by a heterogeneous power” which “disrupts and reconstitutes the distribution of the sensible” (Rancière, 2004: 6). Hence its political value. In practice, then, heuristics and aesthetics are successfully combined, with an added collaborative factor in the case of MediaLab: collective intelligence.

It could be said that this methodology of encouraging collective intelligence infuses all of MediaLab’s lines of work: creative uses of electronics and programming; investigating and reflecting on the culture of networks; strategies and tools for visualising information; discussion of the common good in all disciplines; and creation in sound and audiovisual media. Some projects, such as Open Source Estrogen, combine very different kinds of knowledge. According to Carlos Gámez-Pérez, my tutee at the University of Miami and a participant in this project, there was a meeting of various types of knowledge in which it was necessary to “make concessions and include new concepts in the language of each participant in order to initiate communication” and to conduct it in the heuristic process (Gámez-Pérez, 2017: 373). The project explores the ways in which estrogen leaks into the environment, contaminating and mutagenically transforming all sorts of species, including humans. Carlos, who is a scientist and a theorist, contributed a theoretical element concerning the anthropocene and the concept of “slow violence,” summed up in the neologism “bio-lence,” which the group coined to describe the various ways in which “estrogen performs molecular colonisation of human society, our bodies, and ecosystems” (MediaLab-Prado, 2016a). It is one of many forms of violence that are invisible to our bodies.

MediaLab could be described as a laboratory of the commons, one open not only to proposals from work groups such as the one just mentioned, but to others with a multiplicatory value aimed at Madrid and other cities. That they really are about constructing a commons is confirmed by the work being done at MediaLab to encourage processes of governance. For this purpose, it acts as a connector or hub for communities of practice at both the local and the municipal levels. The internet provides means of communication within and between neighborhoods and MediaLab is a suitable space for multiplying conversations and processes of collective intelligence. MediaLab-Prado has been a seedbed of innovation for the city of Madrid, especially since the election of Manuela Carmena as mayor in 2015. Both the city and MediaLab are part of a municipalist movement in Spain and other countries. In Spain, several cities of change, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, A Coruña, and Cádiz, were reinvigorated by the strength of the 15-M movement, and the new kinds of tools being developed in MediaLab and similar spaces are contributing to running them.

I had the opportunity to participate in several workshops during my last visit but one in November 2016. At a local level, I attended two sessions. One, on social innovation, sought to draw up a call for participants in workshops aimed at formulating a prototype methodology for bringing civil servants and public employees closer to the public. Those present included public servants and members of third-sector organisations, lawyers, academics, and activists. The other workshop brought together cultural agents, municipal experts, activists, and artists in general to develop a diagnosis of the situation in district cultural centres and local cultural policy in the city. In what follows I offer a brief sketch of these laboratories and work groups to give an idea of how they operate.

I attended the third session of the social innovation work group that was preparing the call for the project “Madrid Escucha. Ciudadanos y empleados públicos mano a mano” (Madrid Listens: Citizens and Public Employees Hand in Hand), in which “citizens and municipal employees [meet] to experience and learn together through initiatives that contribute to improving the life of the community” (MediaLab-Prado, 2017). There was a discussion of several projects selected by two programs—Innovando Juntos (Innovating Together) and Funciona Madrid (Madrid Works)—which seek to channel the talents of public officials for the benefit of citizens. The most notable ideas included opening permanent channels to provide an outlet for ideas from people with potential for innovation; considering whether innovatory ideas necessarily occur in cross-functional configurations or whether they are more effective when grouped in their own areas of government; fostering recognition of small ideas that tend to be obscured; looking for ways of providing continuity for projects that develop new flexible collaborative processes so as not to discourage those who have other commitments; and designating a monthly meeting space at MediaLab to inspect its planning software and open it up to the public as a contribution to the open governance model.

This group’s first session already established the main lines of work: innovation for democracy; Madrid learns, Madrid in its neighborhoods; digital Madrid; a legal innovation laboratory; Madrid, city of cities; funding and its influence on implementing projects; “re-conceptualising” and redefining processes; the law on granting use of spaces; and open methodologies. The second commented on a presentation given by Alberto Corsín, from the Centre for Human and Social Sciences of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council for Scientific Research) in Madrid, on the concepts of “innovation” and “public-social innovation.” Recognising that these subjects have a long history, Corsín emphasised the experiences being conducted in Madrid as a hotbed of innovatory initiatives that should be used as a basis and an instrument for gradually constructing methods of bringing civil servants closer to the public. In other words, the proposal is to learn from public processes that are already underway.

Madrid has witnessed the configuration of a kind of “ecology of learning” among many of the initiatives, collectives, networks, and spaces that make up the city’s fabric of local areas and associations. From the Red de Espacios Ciudadanos (Citizen Spaces Network) to Hacenderas, La Mesa, and Citykitchen; from El Campo de la Cebada (The Barley Field) to the Red de Huertos Urbanos de Madrid (Madrid Urban Allotments Network), and including Medialab, Intermediae, and the FRAVM (Regional Federation of Residents’ Associations); from Patio Maravillas to Seco and Esta es una Plaza (This is a Square), activists, local residents, architects, hackers, and academics have participated—sometimes intensely, sometimes tentatively or on isolated occasions—in numerous conversations, events, and activities, not always with common or shared goals, but always with a sensitivity to the potential of a burgeoning city. Their agreements—and disagreements—have shaped an ecology of knowledge and learning: ways of telling, of documenting, of producing and self-constructing, of walking and looking, of managing times and emergencies, of listening… (MediaLab-Prado, 2016, 22 November).

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Americas Society, New York, 4 May–29 July 2017

The other local workshop I took part in was part of Laboratory 4: Centros de distrito y Cultura de Proximidad (District Centres and the Culture of Proximity), the first session of a five-month project (from November 2016 to March 2017). The purpose was to formulate a diagnosis of the viability of turning Madrid’s District Cultural Centres into public innovation spaces. This is seen as a very necessary transformation, considering that the city’s cultural investment model centres on creating large infrastructure projects (we have already seen the criticisms of Ruiz Rivas, quoted above) and their relationship with the cultural and creative industries. The aim is to find new management, production, and programming models prioritising “restoring territorial balance, supporting plurality and diversity in the cultural fabric, and the leading role of the public as a cultural agent” (MediaLab-Prado, 2016, 16 November). After the presentations from the participants—several of the Centres’ directors or administrators—their problems and limitations were rapidly listed, including the fact that these centres provide services of a very traditional nature, a fact that would be difficult to change due to the regulations governing their management. One of the participants felt that the ideal solution would be to turn the centres into facilitators of collaboration among citizens, in the style of MediaLab, so as to have innovation platforms in each neighborhood.

MediaLab-Prado acts as a connector or hub for communities of practice at both the local and the municipal levels. The internet and social media provide means of communication within and between neighborhoods, and MediaLab is a suitable space for multiplying conversations and processes of collective intelligence. Something similar occurs at the international level, where MediaLab also connects agents wishing to participate in transforming their own environments. Often local and international processes link up in meetings for mutual learning. This is what I observed in the international workshop on Collective Intelligence for Democracy, a two-week program of work sessions held from 18 November to 2 December 2016. The call invited hackers, activists, politicians, programmers, designers, participation experts, and any other interested parties to take part in evaluating and designing “new tools to help us on the path to direct, deliberative democracy using the possibilities provided by networking new technologies” (MediaLab, 2016, 18 November). The participants who attended included forty international agents, several of whom were local government officials, and I struck up a good relationship with one of them. Some e-government tools had already been set up in his municipality, but what they were looking for was tools to get the public more involved.

MediaLab also acts as a connector in the international context. It plays a central role in the citizens’ innovation program of the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB in Spanish), which brings together citizens’ laboratories from all over Latin America. In my capacity as Vice-Rector of the Universidad de las Artes (Guayaquil, Ecuador), I invited Marcos García to advise the university on setting up an innovation lab, which could serve in turn as a connector with other local cultural processes and help to formulate new cultural policies. A crucial tool that SEGIB incorporates into its network of laboratories is its work as a mediator: “Citizens’ laboratories are open and collaborative contexts of production demanding new mediation practices to make these spaces effectively accessible and inclusive. Hospitality, listening, and connecting potential participants are essential for the projects to work successfully” (Innovación Ciudadana, 2014, May). Mediation is practiced in several ways at MediaLab. Since it isn’t an immediately recognizable space, like a museum or a cultural centre, those who visit it use the mediators to explain what goes on there: the range of activities, lines of work, projects in progress, and networking among the various agents and projects. The mediators are selected by a call for applications and formulate their own projects during the year of their contract. An example is Julio Albarrán, who developed his Crónicalab project with the aim of listening to the people who use the space. Those interviewed include project developers, other mediators, the cleaning lady, and the security guard. Several acknowledged that an apparently empty building with no exhibitions can seem strange at first, but they soon find that they are welcome to enter into dialogue, become acquainted, and get involved with others to learn and do things (MediaLab-Prado, 2016b).

Some of the projects take an unexpected turn through encountering others. This is true of Tejiendo MediaLab (MediaLab Weaving), a work group of women from very diverse backgrounds who weave collaboratively. One day they wanted to create a crochet robot, and got together with a philobotics group, which helped them to do crochet using conductive wool. The result is Electroganchillo (Electrocrochet), a product of different worlds, one associated with women and the domestic space and the other with men and the work space. But they realised that they had some features in common, such as patterns (MediaLab 2016, 28 December). This case not only shows the value of mediation—of hooking up, as the collaborator Maialen Parra puts it in the video—but also highlights the collective intelligence involved in articulating the knowledge of the commons. To my mind, all of the activities conducted at MediaLab, whether they are the other technical-cultural or social collaborations such as the Portable Office or the mechanical prosthesis by Autofabricantes, which are on MediaLab’s video channel (MediaLab-Prado s/f b), or the memory (re)construction project Hebras de paz (Threads of Peace) and the collective intelligence or social innovation workshops and laboratories, are part of the construction of a commons. That is why the reflection on the commons at MediaLab, dealt with by the Commons Laboratory, directed by Antonio Lafuente, and more than 25 work groups between 2009 and 2014, is so important.

The projects themselves, all of them transversal and multi- and transdisciplinary, as well as reflecting on them, lead me to think that a new cultural paradigm is being practiced at MediaLab (if we should continue to call it cultural), one closely related to the idea of the commons. In any case, the “cultural projects” mentioned in the definition of MediaLab quoted above might be unrecognizable as cultural to those with an idealist or artistic or Bourdieusian understanding of culture. It’s not necessarily about an asset (artworks, heritage) or a resource for generating financial returns (as in the programs of creative industries) or for solving social problems (crime, poverty, exclusion). In my 2002 book El recurso de la cultura (The Resource of Culture) I detected a new paradigm linked to the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s. From that point of view, culture is an exploitable asset or process, even for charitable purposes. The processes activated in the citizens’ collaborations promoted by MediaLab point to another paradigm, one far removed from neoliberal influences, although—as we know—capitalism has managed to appropriate (and in the process transform) almost any alternative. And incidentally, the commons (as least in its internet incarnation, but not only there), a central issue in MediaLab’s actions and reflections, show many signs of being privatised and put at the service of the market. Nevertheless, if we understand the processes fostered by the collaborators at MediaLab as a mutual and reciprocal care for their relationship, expressed in their collective intelligence, I think we’re seeing a new paradigm in the making. Does it matter whether we see it as cultural? Perhaps it’s cultural because of its origins in the impulse to overcome the limitations to which so-called cultural institutions accustomed us, insofar as they still have them.


Both Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado obviously involve processes of innovation, but not in the sense of the creative industries, which offer capitalism new opportunities for investment and wealth accumulation (for example, gentrification led by the avant-garde of the creative classes), in many cases at the expense of the urban fabric in which most of us live. On the contrary, they are breeding grounds for solidarity and processes of creating commons. As spaces fostering collaboration and participation, they might seem to be guilty of the “failings” that Claire Bishop attributes to these trends in contemporary art. Moreover, these spaces don’t endorse the autonomy of art, but neither do they devote themselves to promoting identity politics like many expressions of community art and collaborations with subaltern subjects. They don’t operate in the field of consolidated identities and ideologies. The coming together of subjects with various kinds of training, profiles—professional or not—and disparate forms of knowledge is what allows them to be open to and even to serve as prototypes of potentiality. In this sense, they embody one of the principles that Rancière attributes to art, but without being art, or at least not only art. They share collaborations and actions with other forms of expression, from politics, employment, gastronomy, permaculture, etc.; there are almost no limits to the range of dimensions potentially embraced by this prototype. Art, of course, is one of those dimensions, but it doesn’t have priority. I believe that two of the outstanding principles in both projects are working on subjective innovation and constructing a commons. What is interesting about them is the absence of anxiety about being seen as insufficiently artistic. Rather, one of the fundamental principles of modern art—formal experimentation—is found in these projects, but manifested in social processes. The art and culture that participate in their processes don’t require the same autonomy that they seem to protect. Indeed, as Osvaldo Sánchez explains, it’s the (not-so) autonomous institution of art that must be kept at a distance: that institution that compromises with the media, fame, the most aspects of the market, and class snobbery. What is required is rather autonomy from that institutionality, as well as autonomy from the bureaucracies and artistic interest groups defending their sectors. If there’s one thing that’s obvious in the behaviour of Casa Gallina and MediaLab-Prado, it’s that there is no restriction on the spheres in which they operate.

Towards a New Institutional Paradigm | Atlántica

Americas Society, New York, 4 May–29 July 2017

1 – That discipline can be seen and felt in a video sequence—which forms part of the finished work—in “Banda de Guerra Logos CDMX,” But of course one has to witness the work in its entirety to appreciate the impact of the multiplicity of elements it contains.

2 –  Interview with Erick Meyenberg, 6 May 2017.

3 – Personal communication from several participants in Soy mandala (I am a mandala), Casa Gallina, Mexico City, 6 December 2016.

4 –  Sánchez, O. (Casa Gallina, Santa María la Ribera, Mexico City). Personal communication, 16 April 2016.

5 –

6 –  Marcos García, personal communication, 17 July 2015.

7 –  Marcos García, personal communication, 17 July 2015.

8 –  Marcos García, personal communication, 17 July 2015.




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