Laura Fernández & Marcos García run Medialab-Prado in Madrid. They were interviewed at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York on Thursday July 3, 2008 as part of the collaborative Interactivos? workshop happening there, “Better Than the Real Thing”, in which CRUMB researchers Verina Gfader and Beryl Graham were documenters and Sarah Cook was a guest co-curator of the resulting exhibition, “Double Take”.
The interview covers questions of collaborative structures for new media art production, issues of timescales, cultural contexts, and the roles of participants, audiences and “cultural mediators”.
Beryl Graham: The first set of questions are about the way that you produce media art at Medialab-Prado. When you were first setting up the lab did you base the structure of how it worked on any other examples that you have seen, for example a university or an artist lab or any other platforms?
Marcos García: We started working at what was called then MediaLabMadrid at the Centro Cultural Conde Duque. We started running the educational programme there, and there were exhibitions, big exhibitions on media art, workshops, seminars, and there was also a lab where artists could come and develop projects.
Laura Fernández: We didn't start the programme there, but we did start the educational programme, focusing on workshops, on educational issues and learning environments.
MG: After organising some workshops which were three or four days long, we thought that it would be a good idea to make longer ones more oriented towards production. One was “Making Things Move” by Zachary Lieberman, and the other one was "Arduino: open hardware tools” by David Cuartielles. We thought it would be a good idea to try to connect physical computing, computer vision, and, under the philosophy of Free Software, develop some projects in the workshops. These workshops were two weeks long, which is much longer than the usual workshops.
LF: So there wasn't one model, it was more based on our experience of the previous workshops and things that we had been doing. And it was through this experience that we started to configure this model even if of course we took some ideas from the labs at other institutions.
BG: Were there any particular examples?
LF: Maybe the ‘hack labs’ – independent places where people who are interested in social uses of technology gather and test their things and share knowledge. They are open spaces where everyone can go in, and they are also collective learning environments. So maybe that was one of the main models.
MG: At hack meetings, the programme is not fixed. It's all made by the contributions of the participants. So the great inspiration came from these free software processes – production processes where participants create the contents. And everyone can join in as a collaborator. That was something very important, that it's not only the promoters of the project that develop the projects, it's everyone that wants to join.
LF: So the idea is not a very structured model, as in the university or in a scientific lab, or as in ‘research and development’ where everyone has a very specific role and everything is very structured from the beginning and is a closed space. It is more this kind of chaotic environment where things get organised, self-organised in a way, and people find their role in the whole structure.
BG: This brings me on to my next question, which is about collaboration. You state on your web site that the workshops are collaborative. There are lots of different kinds of collaboration, however, and I wondered if you'd identified what different kinds of collaboration are working in your context?
MG: One of the first ideas was that normally one person doesn't gather all the skills or knowledge to develop a new media art project, because these projects usually require different skills: electronics, programming, the conceptual part, or even the setting up. Different skills are needed. So in a way new media art requires collaboration.
LF: [We understand] collaboration in the sense that everyone is getting something of the experience. Someone is presenting a project and other people are helping him or her to develop it. But the collaborators are also gaining experience and learning lots of things through the exchange. We try to offer a system where a “weak participation” is also possible.
BG: And does it always work in the same way? Do your collaborations sometimes not work?
LF: Yes, it can happen. There are always conflicts like in every structure with many people participating. But in our experience, in the workshops that we have organised, these conflicts have been over small things. And of course there is always negotiation inside each group in which we try not to impose anything, except for some basic things, for example, that the collaborators have to be acknowledged. Sometimes there are negotiations. For example, in one group, collaborators might become co-authors of the project. In other cases they have different levels of acknowledgment. Some of them just say "Thank you" because they [the collaborators] collaborated just on one idea or participated just for one day. But in other cases they might have a bigger role, such as they developed all the programming, or they had a key role in the conceptual ideas of the project. There are always these negotiations inside a group that sometimes can create conflict. But it always gets to an agreement, more or less.
BG: You also mention a specific role of “cultural mediators” in your projects. Could you tell us a bit more about what exactly that role is and what they are mediating between?
MG: This has to do with the openness of the project. Because sometimes we say certain processes are open but it doesn't mean that they are effectively open.
LF: Or accessible, no?
MG: Yes. So we have to find strategies to make this openness effective. One strategy is the cultural mediator, who is very important, a crucial figure in this idea of openness. They are the people that welcome visitors or anyone that enters into the working space and introduces them to what's going on, and how they can get involved.
LF: In the Medialab-Prado the cultural mediators are there not only during the production workshops or during the exhibitions, but always. The space is open six days a week, the whole day, and they are always in this activity space because we always have things to show, and documentation and books. They are there to orient visitors who might be very different [from one another]. There are all kinds of visitors, not just people coming from the artistic world, or those who are very skilled with technology, there are also old people, families, anyone. The idea is to try to present to them what's going on, to listen to them, their suggestions, their ideas, and if possible, incorporate them to the production and documentation processes. So they have this dialogue with the visitors.
MG: This is important. The research and the content, they talk about them, but the most important thing is that they listen to the people that come.
LF: The cultural mediators are really fundamental in the functioning of the Medialab-Prado. They are not just transmitting discourse that is already set or closed, but they are researching and incorporating their own research and ideas into the whole workshop/project/environment.
BG: So the mediators will directly influence the artistic production and the artists' presentations?
LF: Yes, during the production workshops they help with the documentation, they talk to each group, they help to organise the groups. And when someone comes from outside the workshop they welcome them, they talk to them, they orient them in this chaotic space and explain what's going on, what are the main ideas in the workshop, in the format, in the different projects that are being developed. So it's this connection between the things inside the space, and things happening outside, more or less. That's the mediation.
BG: Is all of the artist's process or the collaborator's process public? People can walk in at any time?
LF: Yes, any time. From the beginning the space is open, when the workshop is taking place it's more disorganised, many things are happening at the same time, and then the role of the cultural mediators is crucial. And when the exhibition is taking place after the workshop is finished, this connection to the public takes place to explain that what is being exhibited is the result of this whole process, not just art pieces that are assembled in the space, but all the things that led to these results.
MG: I would like to add that saying that the whole process is open doesn't mean that the working part is an exhibition. So the working space is an open working space but it's not an exhibition. It's not people working that are exhibited.
BG: I've got questions more about the Interactivos? project in particular. I was wondering why it is a particular structure: it's two weeks, and it's collaborative. Is that a structure that has been built on your previous experience? And why that time structure?
MG: We thought of two weeks because two weeks is long enough to develop a project or a prototype, and it's not that much time if people cannot stay away from their work or their daily life for long. It just works out that way. Maybe we could try to experiment with longer timeframes, one month or so. Our intention is to develop the same structure, this collaborative structure, but during the whole year. That would happen more with local people. We already gather in this way – we have “Fridays OpenLab", and a group called “Light, Space and Perception”, and they gather once a week or once a month depending, in order to develop projects.
LF: The idea of the two weeks is mainly that people from outside Madrid, or outside Spain, can come and this mix of different people from different origins is very interesting and can be a very vivid experience. So it's this middle point – sometimes it's too short to finish projects but it’s the maximum that people can take out of their daily duties.
BG: Moving from time to scale, do you suggest the numbers of people who might collaborate in each project?
MG: Normally we try to accept all collaborators. There is a limitation in the number of collaborators coming from outside Madrid to whom Medialab-Prado can offer accommodation, which is a maximum of 25.
LF: … because of the budget. But then we try to leave it as open as possible. People go to one project or another depending on their interest, or maybe they collaborate on two or three projects if they have time.
MG: Until now we haven't had problems with too many collaborators coming.
LF: We try to interfere as little as possible, and when things need to be organised, we try to have the forum or a presentation in the middle, so that people can ask for help if they need more collaborators. We try to leave it as self-organised as possible but be supportive when some help is needed, or things are not going so well.
BG: The structure of the Interactivos? workshop is a touring structure: it started in Madrid and now it's in New York and next it’s in Peru, and I wonder, although this is only the second workshop, are you noticing working differences between the locations and the contexts - certain differences about New York?
LF: I think there are some differences between Eyebeam and Medialab-Prado. Maybe not just the geographic location, but also the kind of institution where the workshop takes place, and the specific location inside the city. For example, the Medialab is at the very centre of Madrid, it's the place where many people pass by because it's in the middle of all the museums. And it's an institution which is dependent on the city council so it's a public institution. It's not very focused on art, specifically, but is very wide ranging - so that makes a difference I think.
MG: I suppose we should wait and see. I feel here in New York it's a bit different and we also want to know more about Eyebeam and how it's structured.
LF: Maybe the other difference is that in Madrid all the people were staying at the same place more or less, and that also makes a difference. Small things in the organization [of the workshop] change the general atmosphere. Also, New York is a much bigger city, so it can be more dispersed - so each one goes out to a different place for dinner or to have a drink after the workshop finishes each day. In Madrid everyone hangs out together.
BG: Because Interactivos? is about interactive works in particular, I was wondering, were there particular challenges for production, for working in collaborative groups, that were specific to interactive works rather than, say, visualisation projects?
MG: When we put the name to this workshop a couple of years ago, we added a question mark, in a way questioning the kind of participation that usually the so-called interactive art offers the recipient, user or public. We wanted to focus on the interaction within the production processes.
LF: Interaction between people.
MG: Interaction between people working together and exchanging knowledge. At the same time, the production, the outcomes of these kind of workshops are also interactive projects. I think new media offer new possibilities to experiment with how we create images, and how the users can interact with these images or with these installations, sound installations also – it's not only images. And how the user can get involved with the outcome that's also very challenging and might create a lot of wonder and knowledge. Interaction is not something good in itself, it depends on how meaningful the projects are, and the experiences that these projects generate. But the interaction that we were thinking of was the interaction in the production processes.
BG: My final set of questions is about the relationship between the production and the dissemination of the work. You have already identified that the process is not an exhibition in itself, but I am wondering if you can describe how the works are exhibited at Medialab-Prado, and then with this Interactivos? in particular here at Eyebeam; what might happen to the works after they are produced?
MG: This is really challenging, how to make an exhibition out of what has happened during two weeks. It's interesting how we make decisions all together – the leading tutors, the staff, the collaborators – concerning how to figure out how to organise the space; how to set up a lab. This is something I think we have to work on in the future more. I think here at Eyebeam it's going to be a great opportunity to do that because there are a lot of people, like you from CRUMB, here who have been working on curating new media art.
LF: In the exhibitions that come out of these production workshops, everything is discussed within the groups, together with the instructors of the workshop and the Medialab staff: how to put things into space and what's the best way to show the results of the workshop. But we make very clear from the beginning that we are just showing some prototypes from first results of a process that can go further for a long time. So it is trying to show in the best way what has been done. Then the role of the cultural mediator is really important, and also the documentation that we try to gather during the workshop. Because this idea of openness is not just manifest in the physical space and in the specific times when the workshop is taking place, but is also in the opening up of the process itself and making it continuously transparent. For example, by having online documentation of the concepts that have been discussed, and maybe also the code of the software with which the project has been made. Trying to have all this online documentation of the project makes it easier to disseminate and also to show [the work]. The other thing is that as we are not specialising in exhibition and we don't have a proper space for exhibitions in Madrid. So we try to connect the different groups and the projects with other institutions that are more focused on exhibitions. We have, for example, some agreements for collaborations with other institutions, one of them with the Sonar Festival in Barcelona. Last year and this year they have had some of the interactive installations developed in the Interactivos? Workshop presented there in a more formal way, an exhibition way. We also have an agreement with a production centre in Barcelona, Hangar, which has residencies for artists. They will select one of the projects and they will offer a residency to keep developing this prototype, this first result of the two-week workshop. So with these two relationships for example, we try to make the connections to support the projects.
BG: Has there been any interest from museums or galleries in Madrid?
MG: Yes, for example one of the results of last year's Interactivos? Magic and Technology, a work by Daniel Canogar (with Jordi Puig, Javier Lloret, Paola Rodríguez, Domingo Martínez, Patricia Casado and Yolanda Spinola) who was one of the leading tutors, is now exhibited in the Reina Sofia museum in an exhibition called Machines and Souls.
LF: And then another one, a project developed during the first edition of Interactivos? In 2006 called “The Magic Torch”, by Alberto García Pi, Julio Obellerio, Martín Nadal and Alberto Cortés is exhibited in a permanent collection of a science museum in Madrid, the Cosmo Caixa Madrid.
MG: Two of the works also have been selected for a Prix Ars Electronica: LevelHead by Julian Oliver and Augmented Sculpture Series Julian Oliver and Augmented Sculpture Series by Pablo Valbuena.
LF: Those are, for example, projects that have continued their development. So after one year of more development they are even better projects.
BG: Concerning projects rather than objects: often these experiments don't actually come up with an object to exhibit, so are there also tactics using websites, documentation or other means, for how those ‘non-object’ projects might get exhibited?
LF: Particularly in the Interactivos? project they are mostly installations, so they are kind of objects. But, for example in this last edition in Madrid there was one project, “Immodesty” by Karolina Sobecka that was more like a platform to connect different digital cameras to create a record of a space from different points of view, like controlling the relation between time and space. This was more about creating the structure, so the ‘object’ (the cameras, etc.) were not the important thing to exhibit, but part of the process. So what they are showing is a video, a result of the experiments that they were doing. And then we have some pieces of the structure to show and to explain to people how it was made, but that's not the main feature.
MG: There are also projects that are software applications, and for example, some of them have been presented in the Science Fair in Madrid, as well as being presented in articles, in the newspapers, or on the internet. But mostly, at the Medialab-Prado space we have the computers with those projects on, so people can use the applications or visit these sites with the orientation of the cultural mediators.
LF: If the project is a web-based project, then what we usually have is the computer with the website, and then the textual documentation about the project, and also usually in the workshops, each group designs a poster with some pictures and diagrams of the projects. Then the cultural mediators can show on the computer all the documentation. That's the way we do it. But they are online anyway.
MG: There is something more about the outcomes in relation to documentation – how the projects are exhibited and how they can continue to evolve. We consider that the outcomes are not the art pieces and we think of them more as prototypes. So then these prototypes can be exhibited in an art context or maybe another educational context, like a science fair for example, or they could even have a commercial development. But we like to think of them as prototypes so it's not closed to one field from the beginning.
LF: Because there is this idea of supporting production and trying to fill this gap; at least in Spain, there are lots of places that are focused on exhibition and lots of museums – new contemporary art museums which have been opened recently – but there is a lack of production spaces. So we are trying to support production even if it's in this first stage of producing lots of prototypes and then trying to connect them to other institutions.
MG: Also we try to ensure that the call is not only addressed to artists, so that other people with ideas might come. The goal is to connect people that have a specific proposal, with people that want to help in the development of this proposal, so they might have a more technical background, or more artistic background, or whatever. That's really important: that the group is composed of people with very different backgrounds.
Verina Gfader: I have one last question. You talk very positively about your activities and what happens, but I am interested in what are the difficulties that occur, what are the risks you take as organisers, and the unknown quality inherent to your work – that you really don't know what's happening! I am quite interested in how you deal with things that don't work out – where are the limits of this kind of openness? To what degree is it really open?
MG: I think sometimes the weakness of the project could be the lack of solid theoretical research - because we are too engaged in the structures, the models and the formats. But maybe that could be solved with longer-term research including on the curatorial side. Although there is theory, [during the workshops] there are always seminars, there are talks by people whose theoretical research is involved.
LF: Yes, and [we also organise] critical sessions to discuss each of the projects with the leading tutors and all the people who are involved.
MG: I think that's the next step […] to go beyond the event. Because this is still like a festival, a two week festival, a two week production festival.
LF: A concentrated event.
MG: …But still an event. This is something we are considering – because if we intend to generate communities of producers, of people that participate in theory or media art production, or more in general cultural production, then these kind of events are good - like an impulse. However, they are still one-off, time-limited, international events, and after they finish the room is empty again. It's the local people with whom we are working more continuously. This is a very slow process.
LF: Sometimes this two week process is too fast. Sometimes it can be too chaotic. From the chaos lots of good things result, but there are negative things, of course. Some of the projects maybe stop when they really needed more time because people have to leave. And maybe they can't continue with the project because they just go to other things and the project ends there when it could have been more deeply developed. Medialab-Prado has a much smaller space than Eyebeam has, the space can be very noisy sometimes and it can be difficult to concentrate, and maybe visitors come from outside and they would like to get involved but the projects are already too developed and it's not so easy to enter or access.
VG: It's probably because it's always changing anyway, in each location, from people to place, you can't really set up a fixed structure?
MG: I think the model is working alright. I don't find it so chaotic. I would say that it's a very meaningful experience for the participants because the context for learning is great. And then also the social part is very important for that – going out together. Participants are all living together in the same place and that's very good. So it's not only the temporary projects that are developed during the workshop, it's the projects that come out from these new relationships and so on.
LF: Yes, it's also a meeting point.
MG: I think what is really important in terms of cultural management is to think of how we can optimise resources. And we think this is a very good way to optimise resources in terms of how funds are expended on the people's projects, on this really open model.
LF: I wanted to add, when I say chaotic I don't mean it in a negative way. Someone participating in the last Interactivos? was talking about 'functional chaos'. In a way it works. Of course, that means that in the small things there are lots of conflicts and negotiations but things work! It doesn't mean that there are not things that can be done in a better way, (and this chaos then changes). And we learn through the experience, for each workshop we try to improve things and to adjust details.