Posted by Madeleine Clare Elish (Medialab-Prado–Madrid, Spain)
Pues, it’s been a real pleasure reading all these entries! This afternoon I thought I’d share a bit about one of my own recent experiences…
Here in Madrid I’ve been working with an organization called the Medialab Prado. And no, it isn’t related to MIT’s Medialab or the Prado. However it does share the mission of both of these institutions.
Funded by the city council of Madrid, the Medialab Prado is a production-oriented cultural space that explores the intersection of art, science and technology. Through workshops, conferences, lectures, events and exhibitions, the Medialab Prado, like MIT’s Medialab is kind of laboratory for experimentation with new technologies, new ways of collaboration, and new ways to think about the production of art. Needless to say, it has been a truly exhilarating experience thus far.
After graduating college (I’m currently a graduate student in the CMS department), I worked for a prominent contemporary art gallery in New York, called Gavin Brown’s enterprise. In the gallery, a great deal of my work involved public relations. I wrote press releases, contacted journalists, maintained press archives for the gallery and each artist, made information packets for potential collectors and museum curators, and an array of other activities involved in documenting and shaping the image of the gallery and its artists. I think these kinds of activities are the norm for American galleries and for international art galleries whose aim is to be part of the international art market. However, these kinds of activities don’t quite fit with the content and –- more importantly –- ethos of the Medialab Prado. They’re not trying to sell anything to anyone. Here, it is very much about action and production and discussion. Part of my work here is to contribute documentation of what’s going on, to contribute to the collection of materials that informs the public about what the Medialab does.
It is interesting that “marketing” has become a word in Spanish, an anglicismo. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to agree with an off-hand comment my Spanish roommate made: “You guys [Americans] are just really good at selling stuff.” Of course, this is a generalized observation that will disintegrate upon further inspection. Of course, there are brilliant marketing and PR people in Spain. However, I can only speak about my immediate experience here at the Medialab Prado and what my colleagues tell me. And it’s clear that they admire (although sometimes disdain) how Americans give presentations, how they seem to effortlessly sell themselves, their ideas, their products. (I’ve been asked by handful of people I’ve met here in Madrid if I might have time to coach them in making presentations.) What I’ve realized, is that the idea that it — selling an idea, having an elevator pitch — is normal is perhaps part of my own American-ness.
This came to my immediate attention recently when I spent a week developing a presentation with the directors of the Medialab Prado for a presentation that Marcos, one of the directors, was going to be giving at LIFT. LIFT, this year held in Marseilles, France, has been called the TED of Europe. The style of presentation is more or less the same, and so is the concept: interesting people come give short talks and lots of discussion and networking occurs. Marcos, who speaks English very well, was nevertheless very nervous about the presentation. He’d never been before such a large and important audience. His theory about why Americans tend to be better at presentations is because we are taught the skills from an early age. Not until college, Marcos explained, are Spanish students really required to present ideas or projects before the class. The lack of “interactivity” in the Spanish education is something I’ve been hearing a lot about this summer.
In any case, Marcos asked me to help him, and I happily accepted. We refined the text, added phrases he didn’t usually use and worked on diction. At first, I think I was coming on too strong, too “marketing” orientated. I kept repeating “Tell them why this is the most important thing in the world and convince them of it!” But Marcos’ was goal was to explain, to present, — and really, — to share what he and his colleagues do at the Medialab. He wasn’t as interested as I seemed to be in convincing anyone. Besides the fact that we were speaking in English, (usually, we speak Spanish at the lab) I felt very American. Like an interpreter who didn’t quite get it. Over the course of the week, though, I came to understand better what exactly the Medialab was, and how it really is a unique space run by amazing people. The process itself was fascinating; he’d propose a sentence in English and/or Spanish, then I’d propose a more precise/strong/sophisticated way of saying it in English, then he’d propose a new sentence in English, based on my words but still definitely his own. It was a complex dance of negotiating meaning that we performed each day.
To a great extent, the questioning and reassertion of meaning is a part of living here in Madrid, not just helping Marcos with a presentation. Even in a European culture relatively similar to the US, sometimes common sense gets turned upside down. And those moments of disorientation and subsequent mind-expansion are why I love living and working abroad.