Why We Make
“Maker culture” is not one thing. As Teresa Dillon describes in this reflection on the Anxious to Make stream she curated at transmediale 2016, the multitude of practices that make up the world of making are what make it impossible to summarize. The events of her stream focused on crossover and common ground as well as contradiction, rather than a “bottom line” answer to what it means to be a maker today.
One of the main challenges in curating the Anxious to Make stream for transmediale 2016 was that “maker culture” often serves as a blanket term, encompassing myriad approaches and positions, from craft and design practices to cooperative and collective methods, to DIY (Do-It-Yourself), DIT (Do-It-Together) and hacker mindsets. Over the last few years the culture (if this is even the right word to use) itself has mainstreamed. Trending alongside the sharing economy, pop-up shops, and home-brewed beer, it could be argued that the vogue of maker culture is yet another turn of neoliberal economics.
Given this, one of the central questions posed within the stream was why such “cultures” have become so popular. The second goal of the stream was focused on creating a conversation about this topic that positions the maker at the center and emphasises the sensory, the performative, the playful, and the aesthetic.
The keynote and panel discussions (Future Factories and (Re)Positioning Maker Culture) centered on the “why such cultures have become popular” issue by contextualizing the field. This included historical overviews presented in relation to shifts between cottage and industrial changes, as well as the contemporary turn from human to machine learning and production.
Issues relating to the overproduction, for example, of Yoda heads (aka the Jedi Master from the Star Wars series) and the pros and cons of micro-scale manufacturing techniques, brought up further questions about to the re- and up-cycling of materials and repair culture. The latter was brilliantly highlighted by Alison Powell in her discussion during the panel Future Factories, where she spoke about what it means to be “open” in terms of production, and concluded that there is an urgent and long-overdue need for legislation of material-technological cultures and their associated extractions and wastes, with lobbying and policy required at both governmental and corporate levels.
Changes in production processes including new discourses of Industry 4.0, which were also discussed in the panel discussions, focused on training and education and the emergence of fabrication and maker labs across cities, towns, and villages. This resulted in conversations about how such spaces enable different levels of entry (from expert to beginner) and how, in the wider scheme, they act as soft sites for the incubation and education of a “new” workforce.
From a different angle, micro-scale manufacturing hubs and fabrication methods, including milling and 3D printing processes, are enabling changes in designer-client relationships, whereby the potential for more detailed feedback loops during the production process can provide for greater customization. Such points were clearly illustrated by designers Jussi Ängeslevä and Iohanna Nicenboim in the workshop Crafting New Methods for Learning and Collaboration. Both designers have been experimenting with such processes. Their work builds on older craft traditions, with aesthetics, material quality and artistic hallmark remaining central to their approach. A key conclusion from their work was how this hallmarking can be retained while also providing the client/customer a meaningful way into the object's creation process. For designers, this changes the nature of the process and interaction, or, as Ängeslevä pointed out, the way we view the role of the designer as well as educate younger designers—both of which will inform how new studio practices unfold. In essence new manufacturing processes are changing the designer’s position and perhaps even power relations within the design and build process, and although this does not mean that their role will disappear, it does mean that new skills are required. Yet despite these changes, the need for expertise and specialist skill sets, including mediators who operate between communities of practice, production, and use, will remain.
Within the same panel and using similar manufacturing processes (milling, 3D printing, and so on) but for different purposes, members of the education and FabLab teams from LABoral in Spain discussed how their approach to working with artists, designers, and engineers is re-engaging hundreds of young people who had become disengaged with traditional, school-based learning. LABoral’s head of education, Lucía Arias, discussed how the region within which LABoral is located (northern Spain) has been hit with a series of social and economic issues (unemployment, financial crises, changes in family structures), which have resulted in many young people dropping out of school at an early age (13-16 years old). The FabLab at LABoral joined forces with over 30 schools to address this issue, and to date their analyses shows that engagement in the FabLab is positively influencing attendance and reintegration into schools.
Addressing changes in manufacturing processes from an open-production perspective, Matthias Tarasiewicz discussed how his project partners on Apertus.org are now producing professional-quality filmmaking tools that incorporate open processes across the hardware cycle. In the panel Future Factories, Tarasiewicz and Alison Powell clearly articulated the realities of open hardware production. Both speakers noted how the objectives of open hardware are often derailed or reduced by existing and outdated licensing laws, industry standards and blind spots, obsolete tech, and documentation glitches (i.e., its lack or loss).
In addressing what it means to actually have a “conversation,” as noted, a secondary goal within the stream was to move beyond the didactic and exclusively verbal by focusing on the performativity of exchange and interaction, with emphasises on the sensorial and the humorous. This was best explored in the workshops and live events, which were led by artists and musicians whose work visually, acoustically, and physically (through dance and movement) deals with the issues raised within the stream. Examples include the opening night performance Before All Hell Broke Loose, where close-knit members of Helsinki’s electronic and contemporary music scene played solo and duo sets in rotation, swapping and musically chatting or jamming together for almost two hours. Another was Liat Berdugo and Phoebe Osborne’s active Unpatentatable Multi-touch Aerobics session, where they physically brought participants through the implications of gesture commodification, as a result of tangible and haptic interfaces. In Brody Condron and Nina Runa Essendrop’s Affecting Systems workshop, they adapted therapeutic and LARPing techniques as a means of activating a deeper sense of our physical, bodily awareness in relation to others.
Like all good things, neither image nor word gives the full flavor of what unfolded. However, key elements which still resonate strongly relate to this overarching question: why are we witnessing this mainstreaming of maker culture?
In answering this question and further digesting the stream conversations, three interrelated elements seems to be at work:
1. Humans love to make. The historian and architect Kazys Varnelis and the designer Tuomo Tammenpää noted that maker culture evokes the amateur’s love and passion for tinkering with the material world. Kate Rich articulated this as “the pleasure in doing things” and the “spirit of trying to live differently.” These points struck a cord. These positive attributes relate to the joy and pleasure in making, which we can all relate too. Such attributes are extended in relation to the pro-social behaviors that we engage in when we collaborate and cooperate with others. As social, creative creatures making provides numerous feedback loops that serve our individual and social orders.
2. Making can make us feel good. Related to the first point, the raise in maker culture could also be viewed as a response to certain contemporary anxieties and the human need to control or call out to the material world. In this sense, making could also be viewed as a response to what Kazys Varnelis referred to as a lament for something or someone lost. We literally make in order to feel better, to address grief and distress, to relax. If we focus here on the lament, then the question becomes what we are lamenting. Jutta Weber addressed the automatization of everyday life and the ethical challenges of AI. If, as noted by the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, “technology is the active human interface with the material world,” then perhaps it is the loss of the material as it disappears into “smart” and embedded systems that we are grieving. So although maker culture at a domestic level (baking, brewing, cooking) has never disappeared, its current “hipster” vogue and popularization could be viewed as a turn and wider reaction or even opposition to the forms of material disappearance and change that we are witnessing through smart and automatized tech.
3. Humans make so as to learn and conquer. The popularity of maker culture could also simply be read as the next level or method in preparing for a more entrepreneurial work force. School’s out: it’s broken, traditional, and not working for everyone. Companies need more flexible, creative employees. Community-run spaces or places outside of “normal” institutional frameworks and disciplinary boundaries are potentially more fruitful sites through which to train or level up this new workforce. This of course begs further questions about whose agenda maker culture is ultimately serving—including where makerspaces are being set up, under what conditions, and who they are including or welcoming.
It is likely that the all three of these elements are working simultaneously, and when we look back towards the history of maker culture as contextualized in relation to various Arts & Crafts and industrial movements, these aspects seem to be historically relevant too. Whatever the case may be, the act and art of making is as old as humans banging on stone and rubbing wood together. It will not go away; instead it will continue to evolve and transform, taking its position within our cultural milieu as we transition into different living conditions. What appears to be a pressing and characteristic feature of this current wave of maker culture is the need address our zealous lust for making, in and of itself. Therefore to care and repair seem, in the wider context of environmental change and over-the-top consumption, the relevant “big” conversation that we need to be having when it comes to maker culture.