Documenting: an activist object



An example of a ‘collective intelligence’. Source: Zoohaus / Inteligencias Colectivas (

By Adolfo Estalella (CRESC, University of Manchester)

Between 2010 and 2012, for almost three years I have developed an ethnography in Madrid in collaboration with my colleague Alberto Corsín Jiménez. The fieldwork has moved between three different sites that are connected. The first one is Medialab-Prado, a critical centre that works in the intersection of art, science and technology where hackers, technologists and academicians meet together to develop what they call prototypes. Our second site was one of the many neighbourhood assemblies that spread all around the city after the sprang of the Spanish Occupy movement (also called the May 15 or Indignados movement). The third site turned our ethnography in a kind of collaborative project with two architectural collectives, Basurama and Zuloark, two urban guerrillas specialized in material interventions in the public space. These three sites are inflected by free culture, the idea that knowledge should circulate freely and without restriction. This is important because the project I want to mention draws inspiration on the philosophy of free culture.

I want to refer to one of the project of Zoohaus that is called Inteligencias Colectivas (Collective Inteligences, Zoohaus is a multidisciplinary platform that functions as an umbrella operation for a variety of urban grassroots and architectural collectives in Spain. All of them share a concern for participatory urbanism, sustainable development, recycling, open-source technologies. It started in 2007 and works as a repository of local do-it-yourself constructive techniques. It was developed mainly during 2010 when some members of Zoohaus travel around different Latin-American countries and document the intelligences they found. The project was connected originally to the realization of workshops in different places of Latin-America; attendants to the workshops were prompted to document to its finest detail the collective intelligences they found in their urban surroundings.

They developed a four-step methodology for documenting and describing such intelligences during workshops. The steps were named: ‘catalogue’, ‘upgrade’, ‘prototyping’ and ‘human network’. There is not time to discuss the different instances so I just want to mention the process of ‘upgrading’. It involves breaking it down into its constituent parts and documenting, step by step, its technical re-assemblage. It is a complex, arduous task, which requires skills in technical drawing, 3D design, often expertise with Autocad architectural projections. The aim of an upgrade is to specify and explain the internal functioning of any device in order to make it replicable.

My description does not justice to the sophistication of the process but, anyway, I have described this project for two reasons. First I present it as a digital object, certainly a particular one: a digital open source database that gathering different ‘intelligences’ make them visible and propose different building solutions for urban contexts. It is an object that establishes a link between different traditions of design: informal design and do it yourself practices are linked to the tradition of free software. Inteligencias Colectivas is an object, and activist one, or a method for documenting design practices and make objects travel to different geographies. Second, I have described Collective Intelligences because it could be a source of inspiration for the process of documenting the objects on the disobedient objects exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum. There is an enormous effort on the process of documentation in Inteligencias Colectivas that we could say that turns it into a properly design process.

I want to add a last comment. I guess that some activist movements and projects will find very difficult to get engaged with a traditional institution as the Victorian Albert Museum. I should suggest that a kind of extensive documentation that provides the conditions for different designs to travel could be a way of giving back knowledge to the people, projects and movements that contribute to the exhibition.