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10 October 2011
The museum of the multitude: two hypotheses

Eduardo Pérez Soler

Communities of developers elaborating free software projects crucial for the advance of computer technology and the Internet; groups of scientists working together via the web to create public databases with genetic information of the world; legions of writers and editors elaborating enormous encyclopaedic compendia of knowledge that are open and freely accessible from any terminal connected to the web; citizens movements that arise spontaneously to overthrow dictatorial governments or demand political transparency in democratic States. These are just some examples of one of the most notable phenomena of the last few years: the emergence of numerous self-organizing networks that use new digital technologies to establish collaborative relations.

One of the most notable consequences of the implantation of the new communication technologies has been the appearance of large groups of subjects who interconnect through their personal computers and mobile devices to become involved in joint projects. With the spread of digital networks, we are seeing the apparition of new forms of collaboration and collective interaction that are transforming the manner in which we understand social relations, the way knowledge is generated, and even the strategies for political action and mechanisms for democratic representation. Congregated in the new virtual agora of the Internet, huge groups of people organize themselves to promote joint projects with recreational, entrepreneurial, political or social aims. Together these groups constitute what are called the “smart multitudes” – to use the term coined by Howard Rheingold- that have become an important factor for creation and change.

One of the most significant characteristics of the smart multitudes, the imprint of which is felt in almost all aspects of our lives, has been the capacity to make new effective forms of organization, that are capable of questioning the functional models of traditional institutions. In contrast with their vertical, rigid and centralized modus operandi, these interconnected web collectives have known how to generate forms of organization that are relatively informal and decentralized, characterized by the horizontal relations between members and by their lack of predetermined hierarchical structures.

It is no surprise that the art museum, a conservative institution by definition, represents one of the ambits that is most resistant to the actions of the mob. Created with the objective of preserving the (supposedly) most significant and valuable creations of our societies, the art museums have usually elaborated discourses based on the social legitimacy of the institutions that create and maintain them (as a general rule, States and public administrations, or otherwise large corporations) and the academic prestige of the curators and directors that organize and direct them. Ultimately, these centres – the function of which is none other than to establish the limits of cultural consensus and to expel beyond its margins all creative products suspicious of eluding these norms – have elaborated their narratives from a position of hegemony and have maintained a vertical relationship with the public.

Given their flexible, horizontal and non-hierarchical forms of organization, the interconnected multitudes represent a thorn in the side, if not an outright danger, for museums. For this reason, directors and curatorial teams tend to act as if they don’t exist. Some of the contemporary art museums, when they create networks and communities to enter into contact with the users, even endeavour to control their relation with them. Be that as it may, as we have seen in the last few months, the behaviour of multitudes can be unpredictable and what is more their interests don’t usually coincide with those of the institutions who purportedly represent them. However art museums can’t remain on the fringes of the profound cultural transformations taking place with the irruption of these smart multitudes.

It is evident that the power of the organized collectives on the web will produce, if they are not already doing so, notable changes in the identity and functions of the aforementioned institutions. We can hazard two hypotheses about the nature of these changes.

The first stems from the supposition that museums will seek to adapt gradually to the expectations of the smart multitudes. To give their websites a more open character, they will probably try to open up two-way modes of communication that will go beyond the clichéd profiles of social networks. They will perhaps seek to create mechanisms and tools that enable the effective participation of the users and endeavour to favour the development of open environments for research and collaborative work via the web.

There is even the possibility that, in the most extreme cases, they will dare to create applications that enable anybody to add contextual information to the files of the online catalogues, or will even offer the opportunity to some user or group of users to propose distributions of the collection distinct from those proposed by the curators of the museum. According to this idea, art museums will harness the technology to facilitate interaction with society. With the aim of redefining their relations with the public, they will endeavour to create channels, with the new digital technologies, that open up to the outside world. In fact some of the museums around us are already preparing to do so, as is the case of the Antoni Tàpies Foundation, with their project Arts combinatòries (Combinatory arts), still in its early stages.

The second hypothesis is more radical, as it is based on the premise that the smart multitudes are beginning to develop strategies for the museumification of our cultural legacy beyond the museums themselves. In line with this hypothesis, the task of selecting the most significant creations – and as such, the job of deciding which fragments of our patrimony are worth preserving – no longer falls upon the museum institutions but on the collaborative networks operating on the Internet. It is a recent phenomenon, but a highly disruptive one: in a short time the users of virtual communities have managed to create more or less spontaneous structures, capable of emulating the mechanisms used in the creation and articulation of collections in traditional museums.

Through the social networks and collaborative applications available on the Internet, the smart multitudes are generating previously unknown forms of collecting, the potential of which goes way beyond that of traditional museums. Extensive communities of individuals connected on the web have managed to design informal strategies of cooperation to create and grant meaning to magnificent collections of creative proposals and cultural heritage. These collections emerge and grow in real time thanks to the activities of the people who publish archives and multimedia documents on the web: they are gaining order and significance thanks to the work of the individuals who add metadata and contextual information to the published archives: and are gaining visibility in that users recommend and link them to other published material.

With the help of the new communication technologies, millions of people across the world are granting life to the museum of the mob. It is a virtual space, constituted by multiple collections of interchangeable pieces, that grows and is constantly reordered thanks to the untiring activity of innumerable people who collaborate on the web. It is the result of the intelligence of the multitudess who, coming from complex but flexible modes of organisation, carry out inventories of our cultural patrimony, proposing new methods of approach and offering us information with which to analyze and understand it.

If we agree with the hypothesis that the mob museum is a reality, there is no other option than to recognize that traditional museum institutions are facing a huge challenge. For a long time they have enjoyed a position of hegemony that has enabled them to elaborate almost unhindered their narrative about creation and to maintain an authority that has helped them silence any discordant voices.

However, the new communication technologies, that have opened up the possibility for any user connected to the Internet to enjoy powerful instruments for producing knowledge, have permitted the irruption of unexpected protagonists: the self-organised communities, possessed with the capacity to discern, autonomously, what is valuable from what is not and with the necessary tools to grant public relevance to their choices.

Museums will have to make major changes if they don’t want to lose influence in the face of the new communities of users who have discovered the relational power of the digital technologies of communication. If museum institutions are not able to open up real channels for interaction, based on equal relations and for the common good, with the digital citizens they will quite probably be ignored by them. All things considered, the smart multitudes have discovered that they possess formidable weapons with which to decide what aspects of our culture are worthy of being distributed and conserved, regardless of what the directors and curatorial teams of traditional museums might think.

(CC picture from Mark B. Schlemmer)

Eduardo Pérez Soler thinks that art –like Buda– is dead, though its shadow is still projected on the cave. However, this lamentable fact doesn´t impede him from continuing to reflect, discuss and write about the most diverse forms of creation.


10 October 2011

The museum of the multitude: two hypotheses

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)