Science as a Critical and Participatory Design Project

Critical and speculative design approaches are specially powerful to confront complex problems, to imagine new possibilities and to derive their implications. As Roger Ibars remarked at the workshop that he himself and Lisa Ma gave at La Mandarina Space last December :

  • the goal of critical design is to create a “design without a happy ending,  a quote Roger borrowed from his former professor Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art. This is a type of design that creates friction, dilemmas, debates and questions. The works of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who created apparently useless objects are in every design anthology. They invented the concept of “Design Noir” to show this aspect of design as opposed to the school of purely utilitarian and functional design.
  • the goal of speculative design is to generate new visions and new ways of dealing with the unknown and the ambiguous, as Lisa Ma showed in the same session. Bruce Sterling points to designer Anab Jain and  her “Design for the New Normal” in this sense.

In both cases, these design approches create open proposals. They are specially helpful for dealing with the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the fears generated by the evolution of science and technology. They also help us to free our imagination and create a framework for discussion. Those who use these approaches will find themselves in a place beyond the vested interests of both business and the technological and scientific ”caste” that evolves around science, technology, its processes and products.

All this makes both critical and speculative design approaches particularly suitable for the way we  at La Mandarina de Newton deal with that huge field that has come to be called “science communication”, a label that we find very limited and biased. As several analysis have already exposed, most science communication programs  tend to reinforce the interests of the “scientific and technological complex”. Just an example, let’s remember one of the most common cliché of this approach. Ask yourself how many times you have encountered communication initiatives where scientists were presented as heroes and selfless individuals. Conversely, going to hypercritical extremes does not do any better service to a healthy debate. Therefore, finding methods that allow us to explore and share ambiguity is important.

We champion an approach to science as emergent and and as little influenced by pressure groups  -business or professional- as possible. For this reason, we started our own investigation long ago about the hybridization of critical, emergent and participatory design. We thought that in this mix we could find ways for people to design their own ways to approach science.

There are times when debate can originate from the interaction of people  with  the “dilematic objects” of critical and speculative design. Let’s suppose you are invited to “Nuclear Dialogues”,  Zoe Papadopoulou’s exhibition  (thanks to  Lisa Ma for pointing us to Zoe’s interesting work).  We would approach a table where we would see a very peculiar tea set. The pastries would be “Yellow Cakes”, the name by which a certain type of uranium ore is known. The tea is complemented by the sound of the reading of a nearby Geiger counter.  Zoe is inviting us to reflect on the radioactive pollution of our foods by using a cozy but uncanny display of objects.

Should we or should we not eat the “yellow cake” we are offered? The answer is not so simple and the exhibition as a “dilematic object” originated what it had wanted:  an intense debate among visitors.

Critical and speculative design projects seem especially appropriate not just for “communicating” science but for generating deep public debate and, at the same time, some level of joint learning through discussion.

Therefore, we believe that it is possible to focus public projects that approach science to citizens in a critical way by making use of the  speculative and critical design attitudes. This is a line we’re working on and what we thing  can give interesting fruits.

However … is this all?

What good is a critical design approach  if audiences were just “exposed” to the result of the work of critical designers?  … What would be the effect of the ensuing debate? Perhaps it would be nothing more than the impact of some “ArtScience” approaches. Some are very spectacular in their presentation but have little effect as to learning and mobilization is concerned. There are some signs that science communication projects should go a little further in the design direction. Maybe the recent presentation given at ECSITE by Michael John Gorman points towards the next step along this direction. His presentation at ECSITE was, significantly enough, entitle “Speculative Design”. He seemed to imply where the institution he leads, a flagship of the ArtScience approach, may orient itself in the near future.

We are not interested in this shift as an institutional strategy but because its potential impact. We believe in going some steps further along the critical and speculative design path. Public involvement should move from the receiving the result of a critical design process to the process itself. We are already doing so in our project on internal contamination. We are mixing participatory design methods with critical design methods. This is one of the research areas that we are opening this year. We will be sharing the new possibilities we discover. For now, let’s just close by exploring the connections of these design methods with other critical cultures of practice. Let’s just share with you the opinion of a well-known cultural critic on the importance of finding a  common ground and of hybridising design with other critical cultures as the one of hackers or of the Matt Ratto’s “critical makers”.

So at some point technology has to be part of the critical conversation. And that’s where hackspace culture, hacker culture, some of maker culture, is so incredibly helpful. It’s equipping people with a basic knowledge of how our world actually works. But you have to add the question of how could it work better, how could it work differently. And as a totality, not just “I want a better widget.” What would be a better system? That’s the whole critical de- sign question. The central question to me now is the avantgarde of design.

McKenzie Wark

And this is the line of work where we will place ourselves in our upcoming projects. Let’s add that we believe that thee main contribution lies in letting people participate in the process of critical design and the associated discussion, not just on one or the other.


The democratization of Technoculture and its labs

Ramon Sangüesa has been busy documenting an ongoing research on the new “labs”. He tried to characterize what it means for an organization to portray itself as a lab and then connected this with the democratization of Technoculture. He has developed some aspects of his research a a paper for the Catalan Review of Anthropology, special issue on “Technoanthropology”.


A homey corner of technoculture: Fablab Amsterdam. Photo: R. Sangüesa cc-Attribution

Here you have the full text in English (.pdf). And here, the abstract:

“The culture that emerges from the computational impact, technoculture, defines a huge innovation and change movement where the concept of design reaches very radical dimensions and consequences. New identities and institutions arise. Among the latter ones, the “Lab”  has been used as a fuzzy descriptor of a multitude of actually rather different entities. It also has been identified as a space to accommodate and promote requests for the democratization of the current changes. This popularity of the “lab” requires some clarification, since the very concept of “laboratory” has exploded under the impact of “the digital”. We contrast these new laboratories with earlier forms of the lab organization. We compare them against technological practices and new forms of innovation and research that are specific to technoculture. This allows us to identify problems and shortcomings of these new “labs” with respect to their ability to contribute to the democratization of technoculture. It also helps us identify new research opportunities in the intersection between technology, design and the social sciences”.

The paper reviews:

  • What technoculture is and how it changes the way that knowledge is created and research performed in our society.
  • What are the core processes of technoculture and how they affect the “public sphere” directly.
  • Why it is important to democratize the control of the “technocultural overflow”.
  • Different frameworks to trigger this democratization.
  • How the democratization of this process takes place or could take place within a wealth of “labs” inspired by the science lab, the industrial lab and the design lab but that are different from each one of this three organizations.
  • How the new”labs” replicate the type of design knowledge that started in the second half of the XXth century in centers that, for lack of a better name, can be called “digital technology research labs”: Xerox PARC, MIT Media Lab, MIT Artificial Intelligence lab, for example.
  • All these forms of the lab were closed organizations with little connection with “the public”. In contrast, media labs, fab labs, living labs, hack labs, makerspaces and world wide labs have an intense relationship with “non-experts”.
  • Each one of them offers different possibilities as spaces where technoculture can be democratized through the appropriation of the process of research and innovation that are distinctive of “the digital”.
Enjoy it! Comments welcome!

Dance and NeuroScience

On Tuesday January 17th I attended the lecture “Dancing as an expression of choreographic thought of physical intelligence” by Scott Delahunta at CosmoCaixa. The presentation was part of the cycle “The brain invades the city”.

Schott Delahunta is trained as a dancer,but his research is not just focused on the artistic sphere but in the area of processes and experiences. His interest is about the mind (not the brain) of dancers and choreographers. He is interested in how they eventually create their pieces and other things.

Delahunta says that the relationship between dance and science goes beyond the motor system. Dance and science also are related through Cognitive Psychology.

For a long time, it was believed that knowledge was only created through words and language. However, Delahunta has discovered that there are other key factors in this process of knowledge creation. In order to reach his own conclusions he has worked with or studied choreographers and companies from different countries such as Malpelo, Wayne McGregor o Trisha Brown.

Ideas in movement change and evolve constantly. Dance is the expression of emotions and thoughts. Perhaps there is no clear-cut distinction between thinking and doing. Delahunta remarks that the doing also has thinking. He speaks of “choreographic thinking” and suggests that there is an emergence of a collective mind when a group of dances are performing a set piece or an improvised one. In a piece where several dances take part, the relationships between them are very important. This suggests the idea of a collective mind. It is in the connections between the dancers that the mind of the piece is located.

Delahunta commented that the questions that dancers ask themselves are very similar to the questions of the scientists ask. For that reason, he believes that both worlds are not so far apart.

He got interested in the different ways in which dancers annotated dance. He asked himself how dancers’ notebooks and each of their pages could become for a dancer an extension of his or her own body. The annotations that dancers create are related to a type of knowledge that is inside the body itself. In fact, dancers have to externalize and represent a great deal of knowledge that is in their inside.

Delahunta and his collaborators have carried out projects related to the previous topics and also published several scientific articles about these issues. For example:

  • Choreography and cognition (AtaXia 2004)
  • Chroreographic Thinking Tools: The goal of this project was to augment the creative process. The idea was to study the stimuli for the minds of the dances in order to help them understand their own creative processes and increase their imagination.
  • The choreographer language agent
  • Improvisation technologies: a tool for the analitycal dance eye 1994/1999. (William Forsythe: Improvisation Technologies. A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye. CD-ROM and booklet with a text by Roslyn Sulcas. Stuttgart, 1999 – ISBN 3-7757-0850-2)
  • Synchronous objects for one flat thing beta, reproduced by William Forsythe

Delahunta explained several creativity techniques used by different choreographers. He also remarked that in contemporary dance, choreographers no longer mark the steps for dancers but, instead, design processes of creation and it is the dancers themselves who actually compose the piece. In this way, everything is richer and dancers find the whole experience more fulfilling.

Some tasks to stimulate creativity:

  • Visualize images
  • Remember melodies
  • To try to translate acoustic images into visual images.
  • The 27 points of a cube (Trisha Brown Locus) –> 27 point –> 27 letters => words –> emotions –> movement. (It goes way beyond the aesthetic form. With this technique one creates new spaces)

Delahunta pointed to reference sources were a wealth of creative techniques can be found:

To know more you can consult:

You will find other lectures and presentations by Scott Delahunta on Youtube.


Citizens and scientist co-investigating: opportunities and problems

This new century has brought us the prefix co-. Co-working spaces, to work together, have popped up in every corner of the globe, co-creation initiatives abound in order to create products with users and co-owners share the ownership and use of an object when it is not needed. The 2.0 philosophy has popularized crowdsourcing initiatives, voluntary collective efforts to solve problems together.

This has also reached the world of scientific research. In 1999, the SETI@home project encouraged groups of volunteers to help in the search for signs of extraterrestrial life by sharing the computation time of their personal networked computers. In 2002, engineers at the University of California Berkeley Open Infrastructure created the software Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) that allows any researcher to perform his investigation tasks by using the distributed computing resources of citizens.

In a similar vein were born other projects such as Rosetta@home. The biochemist David Baker, its founder, with other colleagues, adapted BOINC to solve the difficult challenge of understanding how proteins fold. Thousands of volunteers saw on the screen of their computers how advanced calculations tried to find a linear curve in a three-dimensional structure of amino acids to minimize tensions. But people have superior spatial abilities to computers. Soon, volunteers began to write to the scientists proposing better solutions that they have found by their own. This inspired Baker, who with the help of programmers developed FoldIt!, a game where you earn points and compete with other volunteers in helping to devise strategies to fold proteins. FoldIt! remains a success. Not only has it resulted in publications. There are volunteers, like Scott Zaccanelli, who have begun to design new proteins. Some of these proteins have eventually been synthesized in the lab.

Michael Kearns, a computer scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, believes that we have entered a new era in which people and computers work together to solve great challenges.

Bringing science to the public by sharing the research process

Science is a way of describing the world we live in. It helps us satisfy our curiosity about our environment, and our basic needs. Unfortunately, the origin of the funds needed to do scientific research, the importance of scientific careers and the biased role that science publishing companies are playing, is darwing science, this rational this systematic and methodical knowledge-building enterprise that helps us understand and modify the environment, away from the public.

There are many skeptical scientists who believe that using strategies such as distributed computing they lose control of their research and that i diminishes their own relevance. I, however,  think that any action that supports open science and creates closer ties between people and knowledge is positive. Initiatives such as co-research bring leading edge knowledge to the public. It also illustrates the collective wisdom and the value of individual contributions. Science is by all for all: Co-research. However, I think there are still details to polish in order to have a good working model for this type of collaborations.

Economic models of collaborative processes are a field of scientific research by themselve. The Nobel Prize in Economics Elinor Ostrom has been working on fidning ways to maintain a balanced self ofganinzing forms to manage a common resource, for example: You can also find references to these topics in game theory or complex networks.

The difficulties that lie behind collective work

It is easy to be in favour of  collective progress, of the joining efforts and of the sharing of distributed resources. Where do the problems lie? Today, almost two million people worldwide participate in some type of distributed research. They are motivated to belong to a network that advances science. Michael Kearns, a computer scientist of the University of Pennsylvania remarked, however, that the day may come when all these contributions are no longer a novelty and do not seem attractive. Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist behind computer FoldIt!, thinks that if the public is expected to keep contributing to solve protein folding problems, someone should offer to people exciting environments that give some entertainment in return. Therefore, the opposite can also happen, that everyone is so busy co-researching in some project or another that there is no more time left for new initiatives. If this were the case, the system would become saturated.

The problem of the amount of participation is not the only o ne. The balance between the payout of individual effort and the group benefit is also a point where many projects fail. In any collaborative process it is necessary to define very well what is offered to the different parties involved. In this case, scientists and volunteers. The volunteer Scott Zaccanelli, feels he is being paid well enough by being able to contribute to the solution of major problems such as AIDS or cancer. In conrast to these reasons, Michael Kearns, comments the need in the near future, to start paying volunteers. For me, however, what is more worrying is that the work of many individuals may be associate to a single name, that the economic benefits of many sleepless nights of many enthusiasts are accumulated in one single pocket or that an academic affiliation serves to create barriers between scientists and volunteers. Trebor Scholz, of The New School in New York, has spent time studying the perverse relationship between the Internet, games, and exploitation of labor. Could science fall into the abuses of crowdsourcing as it has happened in other environments?

Scientific co-research is an exciting way that is opening up right now and seems that it will continue a long way into the future. Now, if we want citizens and scientists to co-create the science of the XXIth century we will have to ensure that someone guarantees the right balance between effort and return.

Trebor Scholz, professor at The New School in New York, in  his work “The Internet as Playground and Factory” has compiled cases where the use of crowdsourcing is close to the hardest forms of exploitation of unpaid work.


On-Off, Think-Do, Play-Build: the many paths to results in an world of open processes on digital matter

Last May, we were invited to the Arts Santa Mònica Center in Barcelona as participants in a very interesting series of meetings, organized, among others, by professor Gerard Vilar: Catmeeting III: First Workshop with Laboratoire Paragraphe “Digital art: myth or reality” (see the program here, pdf).

We met there very interesting researchers and practitioners of digital art, from literature to gastronomy. Our contribution was centered on the methodological side, putting in context some practices of participation in view of the different new possibilities opened by digitization.

Here you have the our presentation:

We tried to remark the different exchanges between the digital and the physical and what they might involve in terms of processes and methods of creation and curation. We just wanted to put the focus of several concurrent phenomena and their relevance to the creation of the “digital” in an open way. Perhaps under the spell of this year McLuhan celebration we used as our starting point the affordances of digital media: programmability and hyperconnectedness.

Programming and reprogramming hyperconnections

Because of digitization, media becomes more and more programmable. Programmable media are hyperconnected and, as many others have already remarked, the digital is open to the participatory reinterpretation of media. However, participation with reprogrammable media goes a bit beyond the concept of “remix”. “Reprogramming” is much more than just “remixing”.  This is all the more important when we take into account another factor: the blurring of physical and digital matter.

The digitization of matter and the materialization of software

The invasion of the digital goes way beyond electronic supports. Matter is becoming programmable because of the explosive use of the idea of “code” in genetics and materials. Our example of reprogramming matter and using live matter as “media” was exemplified by several references to Eduardo Kac well known “green rabbit” and other “real chimeras” (Pau Alsina, who also attended the meeting elaborated on the role of chimeras in BioArt and he also referred to Kac’s work). All this leads us to the methodological question of how to confront new processes around “the digital”. For us, programmability brings in design. Operating on hyperconnectedness introduces processes of participation and emergence.


The clash of the virtual and the material opens up a rich combinatorics of methods first tried in user-centric design and open source communities. We used a couple of our projects as examples to illustrate how several well-known methods from user-centric design could travel towards the digital and vice-versa and also which were the difficulties.

  • On-Off: online methods for triggering participation are similar to the ones used in face to face work with user groups in open product, and service design but to a point. Virtual dynamics of participation is very fast and can involve massive amounts of people, but open face to face methods tend to involve much smaller groups. How to use the best of the two worlds?.
  • Think-Do:  collective prototyping is central to the open design approach. Shared reflective practice explores the affordances of materials and prototypes to ideate,  learn together and finally build something new. Working online one loses part of the power of dialoguing with matter. On the other hand discussion can be explicitly documented and shared. Programming is a deep dialogue with virtual matter. The open documentation and processes of open programming methods, hint at interesting methods of sharing practical reflections about ongoing processes of design where design and realization are almost indistinguishable.
  • Play-Build: beyond a simple-minded embrace of “gamification” as the only way to create massive participatory experiences of shared work with digital matter, playfulness has been used extensively in innovation, creativity and design (see the very interesting Gamestorming book for an extensive catalogue of low-tech creativity and innovation games). As a result of playing, prototypes are created and evolve quite fast into products. Digital games as a metaphor and as a method sometimes end up with the creation of a digital product through a very accelerated dynamics. Is it useful  to connect the face to face, low-tech games with high-tech virtual ones?.

These are just three types of processes that can be used to spark the interaction between face to face open design methods with virtual design methods.  We see them just as catalyzers of emergent process building. They are just part of a toolbox for process designers.

The need for research in hybrid methods

In our view, the most convenient framework for understanding the interplay between participatory design methods created for the digital world with open design methods is complexity: the interaction between programmed and self-programmable media, people and media, people and people are the basis of new emergent processes in the creation of meaning and value. And of the aesthetic experience too. There is an aesthetics of participatory complex process in the making, we guess.

Theorizing about this aesthetics is well beyond our goals and abilities, so we just shared the need for a thorough research on what is there to be explored and used and we limited ourselves to the insights gained from the practical side in testing the applicability of methods coming from design and open source, in order to find new possibilities, misunderstandings, difficulties and opportunities. We ended by remarking how this complexity is tied of reflexivity of user and product in open participatory processes and systems based on digital matter: the users design systems where they are as much part of the process as of the final part. The key is connecting design with collective emergence processes.

Design and emergence are usually seen as opposing terms. Emergence goes against the idea of a designer.  However, the exploitation of the apparent dilemma can lead to the fruitful developments. Just follow the tags Metadesign, Design for Complexity and Design for Emergence.


Products and processes open to participation

Products vs processes

A product can be any object that can be offered in a market and that satisfies a wish or a need of a given consumer. Products can be understood as industrial products, that is, the results of a process of fabrication. But we cannot take for granted that products are physical objects. Products can haven a very ethereal reality: a touristic route, a massage, a show, a lesson, and advice…

On the other hand, processes are sets of operations, reactions, calculations or the steps that are needed to change some given initial features. What is relevant for a process is its ability to induce change or transformation.

We live with products and processes every day in a very natural fashion. Creating a product requires a process. The realization of a process ends up with the development of products. A process can be a product. This is not a problem, in principle. If times were not changing as they are, we wouldn’t event bother to talk about products and processes. Where do dissonnaces occur?. Let’s go step by step. Let’s try to unveil the mistery of the process of writing this blog entry, which is our final product.

Processing dissonances.

The word “process” became very important during the second half of the XXth century, very probably because of cibernetics, computation and systems theory. For a long time, our focus was set on the results of our actions. We lived in “product times”. Cibernetics, computation and systems theory made visible the difficulties of programming changes and transformations. In doing so, they suggested the need to be more attentive to processes. We live in “days of processes” but products are still on the market!. What has changed?

Nowadays we don’t only give value to results but also to the path followed towards this result. In fact, we have learnt to see these paths, when, in the past, we usually forgot about them. With this learning also we have been made conscious of the fact that, although the focus is on the process (enjoy, have experiences, etc.), we still put it on the product (clothes, books, swimming pools and many other surrounding objects). In other words, even if most processes and products live together in harmony, most of the times one is more relevant than the other. This difference can have important consequences.

The XXth Century: the century of openness!

If the XXth century has brought us processes, it also has brought open processes of interaction, participation and co-creation. Increasingly, more initiatives pop up that invite citizens to start collaborating with each other. We live days of “co-”: “co-creation”, “co-production”, “co-ownership”, “co-working”. The “co-” philosophy has wonderful facets and, I think, it represents a general positive trend in humanity. But it also has important dangers.

What happens when we open a process where the important part, the focus of action, is the process itself? What happens when we open a process where the most relevant part is the resulting product? And what happens when we open to participation an action whose result will be beneficious to humanity in general but there is a chance, however slight, that the result of the participatory process developed ends up in the hands of just a few?

Let’s take the case where we open up a learning process where the most important thing is that a given group, that is invited to participate, obtains new knowldge. If we start this process and we think that participation will result in greater, deeper learning, openness is justified by our goals. It is a well-known fact of learning, that teaching is learning twice. If, for a student to better acquire knolwedge about, say, fractions it is more interesting that we invite him or her to shoot a video about fractions than submitting the student to a long-winding lecture about mathematics, let’s do it!. In this case, the product, a videoclip, will be interesting, but the focus will be clearly on the process. We’d like the student to behave independently, perform information research, analysis, and process. Finally the student organizes this information as a video script, learning in the process how to translate it into the language of images. Eventually the student will be able to observe the result and even evaluate it!

If what we open, on the other hand, is the creative process leading to a new advertising campaign, with the only goal of developing a business strategy that will attract more consumers, then we, again, have a very effective method, but we don’t have a justified openness. In this case we are just lowering costs and improving efficiency. The focus is on the result, the product, but not on the process. Let’s add that if this process is presented to the public straightforwardly in its real terms and the public still wants to participat, because they feel that they will be compensated in some other way, then let’s welcome this initiative too!. Eventually, everything is an interchange. The important thing is that all sides feel compensated. Personally, I am not that confortable with participatory processes that just focus on the product.

The biggest difficulties arise when things are not white, nor black but grey!

In “twilight zones” difficulties pose even bigger challenges. Sometimes the focus is on the product but it has a positive impact on humanity. Take for example the cure for a disease o the creation of a given content. It is difficult not to agree that for these goals, the more people that gets involved, the more we open the process, the better. I am the first to be in favour of openness. I’d like to put as an example of success, a product such as Wikipedia. But I also want to flip the coin and look at its other face. In this case, The Huffington Post. All people who devote effort to create participatory processes or who contribute to collective benefits through group collaboration, have the right to attribute themselves the merit of the ideation and realization of the process but they wouldn’t be allowed let the benefits be enjoyed by a small and closed group nor allow them to exclusively enrich themselves from the co-created results. If a group develops together something to go forward together, this is something that has to be a progress for all the group not for just some part of it!

These reflections make me think that is important to understand what process are, what products are, where we put the focus of our actions, which are our goals and what is the return for the involved people, both those who created participatory processes and those who participate in these processes. It is vital that we analyze each case in turn. Not only because I believe that these processes should created collective benefits but because if we don’t understand the difference between product and process we will miss the advantages of opening up. I just want to end by bringing these considerations to the world of museums. What is more important for a museum: to have objects, collections and exhibitions or to promote culture and induce social change? Does this correspond to a product or a process? Can we all benefit from these paradigm changes?



Credits of photographies:
- Rowdy Kittens
- Seychelles 88 

The virtualization of the curator

In a recent post, we commented on the different types of projects that range from creating an open exhibition to full co-creative exhibition. In this process, the central role of the curator is still central but, at the same time, changes. Let’s take, for example, the participatory exhibition on Travel that was created by Mediamatic of Amsterdam a couple of years ago, MediaMatic Travel. It could serve us as a way to illustrate this process of “curator virtualization”.

A curator gives meaning to a selection of artists and works because of the message that he or she wants to convey around a topic. This topic may have been suggested or decided by him or herself. Curation is a process that is not always closed or unidirectional. Curatorship does not need to be performed by just a single person. Collective curation is a common practice. Also curation is not just the selection of existing works but also a way to manage comissions to artist according to the goals and criteria of the curator.

In participatory processes, such as the Mediamatic Travel exhibition, the relationship between the curator and decision-making changes both in the in the sharing and the timing of decision making. In Mediamatic Travel, for example, because of the use of voting mechanisms the curator, so to speaks, retires into the background: selection of artists is made indirectly by the audience (of an exhibition still to be made) by voting on artists. In other cases, not just artist or exhibition items are decided this way: the topics of the exhibition itself may be decided in a process led or shared by would-be visitors of the exhibition. Also curators can ask for and receive objectsand finally express their curatorship in defining their role in final exhibion.

What happened in the case of Mediamatic? The curator did not intervene so directly because his main contribution was the design of an automated process for selecting artists (not works).

One wonders which new skills curators who want to venture into these new forms of participatory exhibition design may need.

  • Platforms. The curator’s role now includes the ability to design platforms that support a process of invitation to artists and groups, facilitates to artist the contribution of their material or the description of their project and orchestates emergent selection processes. These processes must be able to respond to the changing evaluation patterns of the participants in the exhibition project. A popular way to implement this type of process is by offering voting mechanisms.

  • Dilemmas of voting. Any open system faces difficulties in form of ill-will and other malicious behaviors that can result in harmful effects. For example, identity theft. Also, collusion among many voters can be prepared to harm or to favor one candidate over another, in this case, artists. This is a problem that can be observed in various open systems of voting as, for example, “Digg”. These evil dynamics are difficult to counter but the use of reputation mechanisms on the voters behaviours may help. Mechanisms to develop trust can also help. Mediamatic, for example,  gave a considerable time and resources to the interaction between  the would-be public and artists, which may have helped in offsetting negative emerging mechanisms. Also the fact that the vote took place both continously and after interaction with the artists themselves, through dialogue and by allowing time to consideration may also have helped.

  • Redesign. The voting phase is not the only time when a curator may be watching what happens in the process that will culminate in an exhibition. Monitoring the process of dialogue, observing emerging trends, allowing the reconsideration of some aspects of the original design, are also tasks to be made and that should take place all along. And also redesigning the components of the final result.

  • Transparency. Open processes involve require clear communication of the decisions to be taken. Not only comment on what is decided, but why. This has to do with the necessary expectations of justification of the curator’s decision by the public that has responded to a request for participation. It adds to the legitimacy of the process too. Therefore, there is a need to change the present patterns of communication with the public, before an exhibition. We’re not in the usual marketing framework that warms up public interest before the actual opening of the exhibition. You can almost say that there  is no “before the exhibition.”

  • Research on the process. The fact that many of the platforms allow to keep track of the interactions that occur all along the participatory process in terms of voting, discussion, or suggestions provides explicit material can be structured for analysis. This analysis benefits the curator himself or helself as well as the institution that promotes the exhibition. It is an excellent opportunity for research and learning about the participatory process itself, and about the expectations and motivations of the public and its relationship with the institution.

In sum, if they want to get into participatory terrain, curators must be able to carry out a new type of exhibition design process closer to the open design processes than to traditional closed design. This should give us clues as to what new types of training for the practice of curation should be promoted. Certainly curators need to be more familiar with the dynamics of emergent and complex process and with open user-centric design processes. Thes are tools that would be useful and should be added to the toolbox of the new curators.


From Interaction to Co-Creation

Some days ago we had a long discussion among several members of A+C+C CoCreation about the differences between the various projects that we have been reviewing.

It helped us to ask ourselves about what characterizes the different labels that are being used by several projects and cultural institutions where new forms of relationship with the public are experienced. We also wondered how the public is no longer a passive element and to what extent each institution or project dares to change.

Each one of the used terms has its difficulties and ambiguitie. Certainly each one can evolve on a different scale. But for the time being, the scale of co-creativity that we present helped us in thinking about several projects and cases. Somehow, we have simplified the scale of participation that can be found in “The Participatory Museum“. We tried to introduce our own vision to go a little beyond participation. At least if participation is understood mostly as the promotion of social relations between the members of the communities around a project or a cultural institution. That is, we go a little beyond the concept of contribution, contributory projects and try to see how to characterize co-creation.

So here are some adjectives that we worked with.

Interactive: These are projects and institutions that promote participation in a limited and predefined way. Much of traditional science museums that were created or renovated between the 60s and the 80s fall into this category. Clearly, this was an important step for museums at that time. A paradigmatic example in the field of science is the Exploratorium in San Francisco. In art, the concept of interactivity is perhaps wider, but it could be identified with a tradition of interaction with viewers. We can book this definition for all projects in which the user does not provide content and reacts to the content prepared by others who are not part of the group of viewers/users.

Open: These would include projects or institutions that intend to show their work processes that are needed to prepare their contents or activities. For example, the MOMA in New York is inviting the public to see the “props” of preparing exhibitions. Halfway between the observation and the collection of interests and needs of the audience, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey has opened a part of the exhibit design process to users, who may participate in meetings of museum professionals. This could be the zero level of participation.

Participatory: The institution or group leading a project invites participation, with great variability of what is required in this participation. Here sometimes it is worth making a distinction between what is “participatory” and what is “contributory” as Nina Simon remarked in her book. Participatory actions can simply consist in giving opinions, However, they can be more than that and eventually affect the decision making process of the project itself (event, exhibition, etc.): these are the ends of the famous scale of participation of Sherry Arnstein. Contribution also evolves from the simple action of minimal interaction, provision of feedback in the form of opinion, to the contribution of content.

An possible example in the participatory category would be the exhibition organized by Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture, CCCB, “La ciutat dels horrors” (“The City of Horrors”) where they asked viewers to contribute with photographs of their town that would show some show some “horrific” aspect of it. We have analized this case and we will discuss it in more detail on a future post.

Another example would be the exhibition organized by Mediamatic in Amsterdam around the concept of travel. Mediamatic developed several cycles of invitation and group curation. They created a website on cities around the world, imitating the typical site of a travel agency informative website. They invited local artists of the different cities to act as “guides” in their own city. Travelers scored the artists according to their proposals as guides. This was the basis for selecting an artist from each city to produce an exhibit about his or her city (which should occupy a space of 2x2x2 m in the final exhibition venue). Finally, the  global exhibition was held at Mediamatic. The process was not designed by the participants but by the institution, that is, Mediamatic. Contribution by each artist was done on an individual, apparently there was no much cooperation between artists working on the exhibit of different towns. The institution acted mostly as a promoter of the initiative and as a content aggregator. It was not clear if there was interaction between artists and the public during the process conducive to the final exhibition other than in the “tourist guide” phase.

Co-Creative: In these processes, it can be difficult to tell who is the “public” and who is the institution or the artistic or scientific leader of the project. At the top of co-creativity, the public creates as much as the institution or there is not institution to speak of (apart from the fact that the relationships between the public conducive to the project are a set of norms that can be understood as a temporary institution). The public helps defining the process, its content and its outcome. It is difficult to find fully co-creative projects either in the field of arts or in science. CoCreative processes have some similarities to the processes of meta-design (or P2P Open Design, for example) in which participants (“co-creators”) decide how the process will proceed and then, they join the project playing various roles at different levels of commitment and responsibility, building and providing knowledge in the process. In the project “From contemplation to participation and beyond,” participants co-created the exhibits, but the design process was defined by the leaders of the project. MediaLab Prado has several open formats in which the objective of the project, its process and the contributions are defined by working with the “public.” In these cases, collective creative dialogue is generated.

Traditional institutions are rethinking where they stand in terms of these categories. There is a wide range of response from those who believe that traditional forms of the museum should remain as they are to those who believe that these institutions, both in science and art, must work in more open spaces and weave co-creative relationships with the “formerly called” public. The question is whether or not each institution wants to evolve towards symbiosis (a concept of the A+C+C CoCreation Contextopedia which we will comment in the future), or explore other possibilities in between.


Credits of photographies:
- Alaskan Dude:
- La Mandarina de Newton S.L. 

Museums are not buildings but processes

An activity. A museum is not the building, not even its collection, although works are the DNA of many museums, a museum is but an activity for citizens, which can be done anywhere. Vicente Todoli, ex-director of the Tate Modern

Vicent Todolí , who was in charge of Valencia’s  IVAM and the Tate Modern with this sentence highlights a very important aspect in the evolution of cultural institutions: the move towards an activity- and the process-centric vuews and also the approximation to citizens.

This is precisely our line of work. We started with the clear idea about  cultural institutions (among which we always had included science and technology museums and center). We think of cultural activities moving from objects as the core to processes and the relationship with citizens. That is why we insist so much in finding new ways of involvement and co-creation and new opportunities to carry them out. A street can be used to explain science. A private home for  inviting audiences to see new theatrical performances. In fact this las idea was one of the projects proposed by participants in the workshops about 2.0  practices for cultural practices that we run in Barcelona and other places.


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