The Commons at Stake: The Enclosure of MediaLab-Prado


The Commons is under fire in Madrid, and we need help. To give you some context to understand what’s happening right now, we’re reposting this article written by Bernardo Gutiérrez, which originally appeared at Guerrilla Translation.

MediaLab-Prado, located here in Madrid, is on the cutting edge of investigative practises related to Free Culture and the Commons. It’s also one of the collaborative spaces where the initial gestalt of the 15M movement was born.

7 million Euros of public funds was invested by the local government in the rehabilitation of an historic building in Madrid (the Serrería Belga), in order to house MediaLab. The building was leased as a public space for the development of the lab’s activities, projects and openly accessible workshops.

On Friday, April 4th, Madrid’s local government’s plan was revealed. They intend to rent out this public space – again, paid for with public funds and for public use – to Telefónica. The irony is rich: Telefónica was Spain’s nationalised public telecommunications provider, later privatised in 1997 under the neo-liberal government of Jose María Aznar. Today, Telefónica is a private global telecommunications conglomerate, and the fifth-largest mobile network provider in the world.

History repeats itself. With total opacity, the local government is evaluating Telefónica’s proposal. Obviously, Telefónica wants to hitch a ride on the emergent P2P revolution by having the building host its “Open Future” project – which, according to them, “will lead the third Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution”. This blatant appropriation – enclosure, if you will – of P2P-Commons movement rhetoric is yet another example of the dangers posed by Netarchical Capitalism’s encroachment on vital projects like MediaLab Prado.

See what’s at stake. Read Bernardo’s article (below), and follow the updates on MediaLab’s newly created Twitter account for its defense: @savethelab.

UPDATE: We’ve also published MediaLab’s call for help in this link.

MediaLab PradoImage adapted from an original at Nómada Blog


It seems that “lab” is the word making the rounds amongst innovation buffs these days . Maybe the term “laboratory” isn’t the most appropriate analog, given that its dictionary definition, “a facility that provides controlled conditions in which scientific research, experiments, and measurement may be performed”, falls short in describing the present day use of “lab”, and what these spaces are about.

This divergence of terms originated with the foundation of the first Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in 1985, a space characterized by its convergence of technology, multimedia art and design. However, in recent years, MIT’s model seems obsolete and at a standstill, especially when compared to a newer and more relevant generations of labs. Madrid’s MediaLab Prado, currently celebrating its tenth anniversary at a new location -la Serrería Belga– stands out as the premier reference points for labs worldwide.

So, what is a lab, exactly? A technical laboratory? A multidisciplinary space open to the public? Rather than nailing down one definition, it may be better to observe some of these labs worldwide, and notice the local idiosyncrasies. Any city eager to reinvent itself and adapt to the networked society invests in an urban lab, such as the Laboratorio Procomún in Rosario, Argentina. Cultural centers like, for example, Ljudmila Media Lab (Liubliana, Slovenia) are currently mutating into places where the artistic paradigm goes beyond art objects.  Digital art spaces, such as the prestigious Eyebeam in New York, are recycling themselves following collaborative models. All of the above share a common source of inspiration: Medialab Prado Madrid.

This could likely be said about many other institutions, labs, universities and cultural centres around the world. Any city would be proud to host something like a Medialab Prado. What is it about this media lab’s DNA that makes it so desirable in areas as diverse as technological innovation, culture and civic participation?

Captura-de-pantalla-2013-04-18-a-las-07.12.11The key to MediaLab Prado’s success may be held in a definition first proposed by José Luis de Vicente: “it’s a community incubator”. In fact, both words, “community” and “incubator”, have been the trend amongst Silicon Valley circles and community managers alike. It’s also worth noting that, as terms, they are seldom seen together. And, as Juan Freire and Antoni Gutiérrez Rubí express in their book “Manifiesto Crowd”, in the age of networks, innovation walks a different path. “The factories that were churning out companies in the 20th century are dead. The 21st century is witness to the birth of spaces for collective innovation”. An incubator lacking a community will never be enough. This is the reason why a lab – both in its physical and digital realms – needs to be an open platform. And that is precisely why MediaLab Prado has become such a a relevant space for coexistence, innovation and mutual co-creation.

MediaLab Prado is both a physical and a digital platform. Physically, it’s a space where anyone can walk in, while online it functions as a laboratory for connecting ideas. MediaLab Prado is an interdisciplinary workspace for creation and innovation. And here’s an important detail: its strength doesn’t reside in its own programming, put together by stewards and specialists. It lies instead in the various working groups, projects and encounters collectively cooked up by the citizen communities who frequent Medialab’s headquarters, or participate in its digital channels. Every Friday, for example, there’s an open lab where anyone can collaborate with anyone else in the creation of new projects.

Another defining feature is its focus on prototyping – another digital culture and IT term. Prototyping culture doesn’t seek definitive or finished products; instead, it prefers to function in a transparent and collective  manner, employing open projects in a constant, citizen-fueled process of improvement. All in all, MediaLab Prado has become a catalyst for culture, technology, networks, science, education, and innovation.

Evidently, MediaLab Prado’s official areas of competence are both necessary and relevant. Interactivos? (a laboratory for creative and educative technological applications) Visualizar (data and citizenship visualization) or its Commons Lab (transversal investigation centered on the Commons) are clear international reference points. Additionally, self managed working groups, such as “Funcionamientos: Diseños abiertos y remezcla social” (Functioning: Open design and social remixes) or “Género y Tecnología” (Genre and Tech) are just as influential. MediaLab Prado cannot simply be described as a  “Cultural Centre”, as it is so much more than a building populated with works of art or technological infrastructures. It’s a connector, a hub, a platform for the collective intelligence that is transforming industry, economics, technology, education and art throughout the whole planet.

In fact, it’s been one of the citizen hubs where civic activism slowly forged the 15-M/ Indignado movement that heralded Occupy Wall Street and the global revolution. To give an example, in early 2011, while Spanish mass-media ignored collectives such as Democracia Real Ya or Juventud sin Futuro, the Redada Encounters in MediaLab Prado transformed an incumbent and collective -as opposed to hierarchical- form of web activism into a palpable phenomenon. Open code practices, now essential to modern activism, have always been central to MediaLab Prado.

Serreria Belga

The challenges in this new chapter in MediaLab Prado’s history are undoubtedly many. One of the most important will be channeling corporate innovation and navigating new economic paradigms. At a time in which The Economist, no less, dedicates its front page to the sharing economy, MediaLab Prado is in a better position than many. By developing its own trajectory, it could well become a great catalyst for the future networks of innovation, open culture and citizen intelligence that will soon be needed in Europe. In fact, connections established within MediaLab Prado in these last few years have given rise to projects and citizen start-ups such as MLP, Play the Magic, Open Materials, Hackteria, Lummo, Muimota, Máster DIWO, Ultralab and Data Citizen Driven City, amongst many others. Certain working groups, like IoT Madrid (Internet de las Cosas) or exhibitory projects such as Impresoras 3D: Makerbot y Reprap clearly lead the way to the future.

Living at a time when most of the world’s population is concentrated in cities, urban innovation may well be MediaLab Prado’s greatest challenge. It’s no coincidence that some of the most influential labs in the world, such as CityLab in Cornellà, Barcelona or the BMW Guggenheimlab in New York, are focusing their efforts on urban innovation. This is the reason why Medialab Prado’s new location at the heart of historic Madrid is so essential. Its urban vocation is most evident in working groups such as Ciudad y Procomún, the new Ciencia Ciudadana (Citizen Science) station or projects like Hacer barrio or Quality Eggs.

The history of Barrio de las Letras -or “writer’s district”- where Medialab Prado is currently located, is another key facet. The scientific institutions of the 18th Century were responsible for the first major developmental push in Madrid, which then led to the expansion of Barrio de las Letras. During this time, the city witnessed the construction of the Botanical Garden, the Astronomical Observatory, the Academy of the Sciences (which now houses the Prado Museum) and the General Hospital (currently housing the Reina Sofía Museum) and the “Gabinet de Máquinas” a demolished Industrial Engineering museum from that era and situated quite close to the old Army Museum. All of this frantic building activity took place in less than 3 decades. MediaLab Prado´s new location in the Serrería Belga, an old abandoned industrial building, is another telling metaphor of an industrial era that left so many urban carcasses in its wake.

In summary, the conversion of an old,  abandoned, industrial space into an citizen innovation lab in the same area where literature and science flourished in centuries past, is a promising metaphor indeed. MediaLab Prado is one of the closest examples of the new Partner State proposed by Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation. A State which guarantees the necessary space and resources to activate a P2P society’s collective intelligence for the improvement of the Commons.

7 Comments The Commons at Stake: The Enclosure of MediaLab-Prado

  1. Avatardavid hartley

    thanks ! Very informative, and inspiring.. BUT:
    I was drawn to read this by a facebook post, suggesting an imminent closure of the Madrid lab, and I was sort of expecting some kind of a ‘call to action’ .. how can people help to keep Telefonica from taking the lab’s space ?

  2. AvatarStacco Troncoso

    Hi David,

    They’ve just started planning how to counter this blatant enclosure, so expect more info soon. For the time being here’s an excerpt from José Luis De Vicente Open letter for supporting Medialab-Prado’s campaign. We’ll publish the full text tomorrow:

    “We need to show the City Council in clear terms that Medialab Prado is an important institution that is highly respected and valued internationally. One of the most ironic aspects of this situation is that given the problems they’ve always had to understand what is Medialab Prado -not being a museum, a gallery, or an arts production center- they have never been understood that this is one of the most influential and valued cultural institutions today in Madrid and Spain.

    There’s no one better than you to help us to make them understand how important is protecting and preserving the valuable role that Medialab Prado has played in the last ten years. For this, we are requesting any of this three things:

    1. A statement or blog post in your own website explaining why you appreciate and value the role of MLP and showing your concern for how the current situation could threaten it. We will link to it and translate it from the website of support we are currently setting up, that should go live in the next hours.

    2. For those of you with affiliations with universities, museums or companies, a signed letter of support with the logo of your organization. If you can send it to me I will get it into the website and also printed to send them all together to the City Council.

    3. A short video that we can embed in the website, offering your support. Here are some videos from 1 year ago -before the crisis started- that can be used as a model:

    That is all. If you have other suggestions or contributions, please let us know. Thanks for helping us keep Medialab Prado alive.”

  3. AvatarJ.B.

    hello Stacco,

    You say: “For those of you with affiliations with universities, museums or companies, a signed letter of support with the logo of your organization. If you can send it to me I will get it into the website and also printed to send them all together to the City Council.”

    But there is no email address. Where can people send those support letters?



  4. AvatarStacco Troncoso

    Hi JB.

    We’re trying to get in touch with José Luís to get a mailing or e-mail address (it may be the address of the Lab itself). I’ll update the post as soon as I can.

  5. AvatarTherese

    I was in Spain recently and notices many innovative ideas in the public sphere as I traveled about – particularly in the Bilbao area.
    I wonder how many of these ideas for living were sourced in a setting like Medialab Prado.

    The telephone company wanting the space for their “open future” project – What Cheek? – I’m gobsmacked.

    Co-opting in progress.

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