Director, Alta Tecnología Andina, Lima, Peru
Keywords: transdisciplinarity, Latin America, Peru, collaboration, art-science, media labs, Escuelab, techno-cultural entrepreneurship, open source
In recent decades, particularly since the advent of digital technology and the Internet, new institutional structures and models seeking to foster transdisciplinary research and practices have become more prominent in an attempt to radically integrate the perspectives of several disciplines in the quest for new and alternative modes of knowledge production.  Media labs, fab labs, and start-up incubators are what Born and Barry defined as “new social arrangements mobilized by distinctive forms of interdisciplinarity.”  These models, which are seen as valuable breeding grounds for innovation in the knowledge economy, however, are not new. Rather, they are based on experiences from the last 40 years in which the structures within certain established disciplines and the use of technical artifacts seemed to limit the complex scenarios and outcomes now available.  Accelerated by digital information, transdisciplinarity brought new ways to create and consume techno-cultural artifacts. In addition, the discourse on transdisciplinarity is mostly based on cases in well-controlled and funded environments.  Such discourse does not address the complex entanglements that need to be deployed in many parts of the world where there is not only lack of funding, but moreover, a scarcity of institutional structures to promote alternative modes of knowledge production. Thus, if we bring the discourse on transdisciplinarity to the realm of non-represented regions of the world, we have to take into account many aspects. First, we must consider the existing, complex, poly-semiotic, cultural forms that challenge the way we understand digital preservation and memory. These forms make possible a creative and original influx of art, culture, and technology created and practiced in scarcity. Because these projects are self-funded and unsourced little documentation of them exists. This obliges us to analyze the concept of transdisciplinarity from very different perspectives.
In what follows in this paper, I will address developing patterns around transdisciplinary models and practices in the fields of art, culture, and technology in Latin America. First, I will present the findings of an extensive research project denominated “Insulares/Divergentes,” which helped to analyze seven spaces for interaction and practice that are nourishing social production and new media culture in Latin America. Then I will present as a supporting case the experience developed at Escuelab, an initiative mostly focused on the Andean and Central American parts of Latin America, and which also prompted other ideas around the real impact that new technologies have in the fields of art and culture in these contexts. Finally, I will contribute some reflections on possible ways for bringing about a transdisciplinary model in Latin America.
1. Nurturing Transdisciplinary and Participatory Practices in Latin America: Seven Spaces of Interaction
New media art recently created in Latin America has become the object of attention in the European and American scenes. Examples abound: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s global works such as Vectorial Elevation, an interactive art project originally designed to celebrate the coming of the year 2000 in Mexico City’s Zócalo Square; Hemmer’s participation in the Venice Biennal representing Mexico in 2007  and a recent major retrospective of his work at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City;  José Carlos Martinat’s Lima: All the Republic in One, an interactive installation built for the 9th Shanghai Biennal City Pavilion representing Lima in 2012, which was also presented at the 2013 Venice Biennal; international exhibitions exploring art-science works, such as Emergentes, presented at LABoral in Spain 2007  and on tour in Latin America; and finally the VIDA Prize,  organized by Telefónica Foundation, and its “Incentive for New Productions” category, which focused on Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. The transdisciplinary approach of the VIDA incentive stipend, an R&D budget, paved the way for artists and creators to stand on the edge of creative production and research in arts and culture infused with technology, permitting them to set themselves free from the mainstream complacencies of the art world and to develop their own spaces for collaboration and knowledge production. The VIDA incentive supported highly speculative and original research carried out by media artists such as Gilberto Esparza (Prix Ars Electronica, Golden Nica 2015), Rodrigo Derteano, and José Carlos Martinat. This marked a clear shift away from the highly regulated funding schemes for the transfer of knowledge, technical infrastructure, or documentation, and thus allowed a kind of experimentation that prompted the production of innovative and contextualized cultural forms, which enabled new patterns for transdisciplinary research and practice in the Latin American region.
Thus, such successful experiences in art-science creation are initially portrayed not by institutional bodies, but by spontaneous initiatives. Such initiatives require an antagonistic view and reflection to elicit differentiated creative uses of technology throughout Latin America, which are changing the field of art and culture in a substantive way. These are areas of creation that presently cannot be considered as existing merely in the artistic or cultural fields, which would be “insular.” Rather, they are unstable and come from particular situations, perspectives, and local contexts that explore the relations between contemporary social life and its connection to art, culture, science, and technology. Thus, they generate new content and establish links and platforms. Consequently, a region-wide study  on the creation and production of art, science, technology, and new media was established, in which we identified seven spaces for interaction in media practice that are nourishing social production. I will use this study to understand some of the common practices occurring in Latin America.
1.1 Nurturing Civic Software (h)Ac(k)tivism
Social media and blogs are a new force in social communication that offer formats and content to which young audiences relate more easily compared to traditional media. Using new media in socio-civic mobilizations enables the incorporation of popular demands into a system. Tech camps and hackathons that involve communities of software and web developers, along with Internet and cultural activists, are successful and innovative enablers for addressing social problems. They don’t simply set a space for intensive hands-on development sessions, but more importantly they demand access to public data as part of the citizen’s right.
1.2 Promoting New Media Alphabetization and Education
New media education cannot be limited to teaching students how to use computers—it has to be understood as a catalyst for change in the way teaching is being executed and must take the local context into consideration. Digital alphabetization such as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement in Uruguay, involves an ecosystem of organizations and collaborators that are instrumental to the success of such endeavour. Using standardized “out-of-the-box” technology disregards the complex poly-semiotic nature that exists in some oral cultures and traditions in Latin America and that will be lost if not preserved with all its rich and complex form.
1.3 Enabling Opportunities for Small Techno-Cultural Entrepreneurs
Most of the different types of innovations in Latin America are connected either to social impacts and/or entrepreneurship.  Though there are many entrepreneurial and social responsibility mentorship initiatives in the region, few are focusing on culture and technology. Techno-cultural entrepreneurs are socially driven individuals whose aim is to develop initiatives in the field of culture similar to those found in the world of start-ups.
1.4 Establishing Latin-American Meetings and Workgroups to Rescue Local Traditions and Memories with the Use of New Technologies
Connected to the previous point, certain projects aim at memory building, memory reconciliation, and rescuing local traditions that act as cultural repositories by using new media. In many cases these initiatives act as dynamic repositories and revitalize the local (i.e. indigenous) languages and oral traditions on digital platforms. This is a mission that governments neglect to do as they opt for the “cultural cleansing” of those memories, simply disregarding the valuable and sensitive memory assets that exist today.
1.5 Enabling Institutional and Governmental Support, Partnership, and Sponsorship
Few initiatives and organizations have become institutionalized and receive sustained financial support. The few that do are connected to cultural spaces, funded locally by cities, universities, or foundations; by international corporations; or even by networks of independent spaces. However, it is fundamental for governments to adopt a concrete long-term vision for artistic and cultural practices and aim part of their financial schemes to both local initiatives and nationwide projects.
1.6 Empowering Media Labs as Cultural Accelerators
Besides the transdisciplinary approach to creativity, culture, and technology, it is fundamental for media labs to focus on digital literacy and initiate more socially driven practices. New types of collaborations among media labs as self-organized networks are being nurtured to create opportunities for learning and sharing projects. Networks are expanding critically, addressing issues such as publishing, training, management, networking, feasibility/sustainability, and visibility.
1.7 Collaborating and Transferring Knowledge in the Age of the Internet
Few countries in Latin America (with the exception of Brazil) are strong in terms of knowledge transfer through education, support for research, and cultural production. Issues such as working with indigenous groups in the countries or areas with large indigenous populations (e.g. Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Ecuador) do not lend themselves easily to collaboration on a regional scale.
Perhaps one of the main findings is that, in contrast to Western nations, Latin Americans have a more participatory view of information and communications technology’s (ICT) use: the initial individual knowledge of a technical artifact becomes the reason to expand its use and share it with other people. It also points to evidence that one of the most invigorating aspects of digital technology is its fluid reach and its ability to mutate into different, unexpected forms, thereby fostering new social practices. We suggest that the potential of media art and cultural practices is not based solely on their transdisciplinary cultural value—the use of technology can trigger a second stage based on the participatory practice of non-experts and publics that look at local problems from different points of view. Furthermore, some of those participatory practices may reach a third stage that can lead to a process where new techno-social transformations are shaped and scaled up for the benefit of the local society. They are even potentially scalable regional projects, as we will see in the next section.
2. The Case of Escuelab
Spaces for art, cultural practice, and media technology have recently blossomed in Latin America. No attempt is made here to present their multiplicity and diversity, or how they aim for social production. Instead, a particular case, Escuelab,  is reviewed here as a new media residency and research program building on the idea of supporting transdisciplinary experimentation by learning through practice.
The objective of Escuelab was to discover new talents while offering a working space as well as a local and international platform for work. Their work could thus impact both the local context and a network of collaborators. We were persuaded that the only way to practice new media was by developing a laboratory of experiences based on two key aspects: research and production. In new media, these aspects are intermingled, occurring simultaneously. They usually result in highly transdisciplinary outcomes in which different communities from specific disciplines work together to create new cultural artifacts. Thus, the aim was to generate hybrid interpretations and critical reflections by giving residents who came from different backgrounds and contexts enough time for research, creation, and development.
From 2009 to 2011, Escuelab ran an Advanced Residence Program for Project Development on Art, Technology, and Society, which was aimed at artists, creators, and activists in the Andean Region, Central America, and the Caribbean. The program consisted of a grant for a stay in Lima of 8 to 11 months, where they were residents at Escuelab’s facilities in Plaza San Martín, in the heart of Lima’s downtown. After the residency ended, grantees would become activators to transfer their knowledge to their local contexts. We also realized that the main reasons why some of the projects failed had to do with a lack of time for their deployment in Lima. Therefore, in some cases, the program extended the time for residents to work more thoroughly on their projects during a 6-month “project incubation” period.
Another key aspect of Escuelab’s program was the Open Practical Workshops (OPW), a set of activities, talks, and mostly hands-on activities that were open to the general public. These workshops served as a space of reference in the city and a hub for local media cultures, promoting the interaction of the residents, the local creative community, and any other interested participants. The content of the OPWs was dynamic, evolving to address different subjects through various techniques. The workshops adapted constantly to the creative community’s needs, from basic electronics and hardware hacking to handcrafts and recycling materials, as well as any other subject matter of interest.
During their residency, the residents were asked to share their research process with the local community. At the same time, a diverse set of other “unplanned” activities emerged over time, resulting from the interaction with other cultural and research communities that had strong and defined interests. These communities met at Escuelab in search of a media lab infrastructure and knowledge space.
In turn, Escuelab acted as an open hub for the local community of creators while simultaneously providing a flexible platform and infrastructure accessible to the creative community of Latin America. This allowed for both social interaction and transdisciplinary experimentation with technology, creativity, and cultural production.
As a result, there were a large number of projects supported; most were sustained during their initial stages in order to secure a prospective success. Some such projects eventually generated spin-offs such as the Fablab Lima  and Datea.pe. Escuelab bootstrapped several communities like somosazucar.org (sugar camp), OLPC, Drupal, Literary Network, OpenStreetMap Peru; and fostered civic camps and hackathons: WaterHackathon, Developing Latin America,  and four editions of the Lima City Council Hackathon. Research projects and development projects such as Ciudad Nazca (Nazca City), by media artist Rodrigo Derteano, were also supported. It additionally created the need to build new models of collaboration and information sharing (e.g., Open Data initiatives), leveraging the citizen’s rights.  Finally, some projects expanded nationally in certain cities (e.g., Puno, Huancayo, Arequipa) and regionally, with the creation of Diferencial,  a media lab in Guayaquil, Ecuador, created by one of our residents.
In a nutshell, we learned that the use of agile software development processes is an efficient way to foster socio-cultural projects, making Escuelab one of the most active and engaging platforms for supporting projects in culture, technology, and society in Latin America.
3. In Search of Transdisciplinary Models of Creation in Latin America
Some researchers estimate that by 2025 the digital economy will be as large as the 1995 physical economy.  By deploying nationwide fibre-optic networks or implementing computers in schools, in the last decades most of Latin America’s governments have focused on developing a technical infrastructure to catch up with the forthcoming digital economy. Thus, the challenge today no longer concerns physical infrastructure; rather, a subsequent concern is what should be moved through the existing infrastructure to promote the economic and social prosperity of the people. It is by developing skills and generating services that promote innovative answers to longstanding local problems that different groups will be able to participate in the global knowledge market and the digital economy.
One dimension of social production is the creation of value by a group for its own benefit. This mode of social production is an important pre-condition for obtaining a basic platform for sustainability and support for more innovative and experimental endeavours, as was the case for Escuelab. Thus, such endeavours are based on conditions that promote transdisciplinary models of production through active experimentation and the facilitation of interaction between practitioners and local actors.
It may be true that art-science prototypes are not born with the limitations of the real world, and thus, they could benefit from the possibilities of social production in the digital world if it is relevant to local concerns. However, such transdisciplinary models will also benefit from a critical stance toward the use of certain technologies, an understanding of the alternatives that exist, and an awareness of the social and personal impact that such technologies may have in the long run.
In this context, the challenge for art and cultural entrepreneurs is to question the way in which social problems are being interpreted and envisaged. Some might argue that this has been the function of art, especially since the 1960s, at the inception of conceptualism and the dematerialization of the art object.  However, what is different is that most ideas have the potential to be brought to the realm of active, local participation by fostering a socio-cultural stance that reinforces community-based development and practice. The case of Escuelab shows that the use of information technologies in the realm of social production may prompt its systematization and dissemination. Over time, projects that originally came from practitioners of specific disciplines evolved into hybrid cultural forms that took on new social roles. Latin America’s contribution to new media comes from connecting such futuristic endeavours with more solidly grounded socio-cultural considerations of how technologies might have an impact on people’s social lives. The proliferation of technologies alone does not suffice to account for a phenomenon that has subtle social implications. The space for digitally driven initiatives, particularly in Latin America, carries a profound ideological signification as it differentiates the banal consumption of technologies from practices that use technology to transform particular aspects of society.
- Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); Andrew Barry and Georgina Born. “Art-Science: From Public Understanding to Public Experiment.” In Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, ed. Andrew Barry and Georgina Born (London, New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 247-272; Andrew Barry and Georgina Born. “Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences,” in Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, ed. Andrew Barry and Georgina Born (London, New York, NY: Routledge, 2014) 1-56.
- Andrew Barry and Georgina Born. “Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences,” in Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, ed. Andrew Barry and Georgina Born (London, New York, NY: Routledge, 2014) 1-56.
- Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).
- Jill Scott, Artists-in-labs: Processes of Inquiry (Zürich: Springer-Verlag, Wien and HGK Zürich, 2006); Jill Scott, Artists-in-labs: Networking in the Margins (Austria: Springer-Verlag/Wien, 2010).
- The VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards commenced in 1999 to support artistic research on artificial life and to promote production in this field. It ended after its 15th edition in February 2015.
- The following research is based on “Insulares Divergentes: Towards a New Technological Culture in Latin America,” a regional study on the creation and production of art, science technology, and new media in Latin America. This project, comprised of 131 cases through out Latin America, was conducted by Alta Tecnología Andina (ATA) and supported by Hivos and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). Observations and data collection took place between January 2010 and November 2011. The research team was comprised of Jorge Villacorta, Victoria Messi, María José Monge, Enrique Mayorga, and the author. (http://insularesdivergentes.org/)
- Lourdes Casanova et al., “Innovation in Latin America: Recent Insights,” in The Global Innovation Index 2011: Accelerating Growth and Development, ed. Soumitra Dutta (Fontainebleau: INSEAD, 2011).
- The program was founded by Alta Tecnología Andina (ATA) with additional support from the Prince Claus Fund (The Netherlands) and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). The program ran from 2009 to 2013. (www.escuelab.org)
- Fab Lab Lima was the first digital fabrication lab created in Latin America. It was bootstrapped by Escuelab and supported locally by the National Engineering University, and internationally by MIT, and the IAAC of Barcelona. (http://fab.pe/)
- Anita Chan, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
- Diferencial: arte-tecnología-sociedad. Supported by the Quito City Council. (http://diferencial.org/)
- Brian W. Arthur, “The second economy,” McKinsey Quarterly (October 2011): 1-9.
- Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
José-Carlos Mariátegui (Lima, b. 1975) is a scientist, writer, curator, and scholar on culture, new media, and technology. He studied Biology and received his Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics from Cayetano Heredia University (Lima), and both Masters and Doctoral degrees in Information Systems and Innovation from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE, London). Dr. Mariátegui conducted research on the implementation of the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI) by studying digital video as an image-based artifact in both news and long-form productions. He is founder of Alta Tecnología Andina (ATA) and co-founder of Escuelab. Some of his curatorial projects include: Videografías In(visibles); Emergentes; VideoXXI, Lemaitre Collection; and the Lima Pavilion at the 9th Shanghai Biennial. He is a member of the National Commission of Culture of the Peruvian Government (2001-2002) and the Advisory Board of the Ministry of Culture (2010/2012-2013). Currently, he is an editorial board member for Leonardo Books at MIT Press. He lives in London (UK) and Lima (Peru).