I have to admit that it was only a few weeks ago I heard of the term Critical Making and thought oh, no, this is academic speak that sanitizes what curious and innovative people are doing to find new ways around planned obsolescence or to fix or improve the things they need. I am happy to say that I was wrong about that.
I am a woman and was shown from an early age how to do things that had no gender specificity and that holding a hammer or knowing how to use a solder gun were just paths to personal problem solving. My dedication to learning a skill came from my family who made most of what we had. When I wanted or needed something, I had to learn to make it. Like my grandfather who made me wooden shoes, we just made almost everything we consumed, from the root beer we drank to the jeans I wore. Yes, I made my own jeans. So making is a part of my behavioral DNA.
I mostly think of myself as an artist rather than a Maker, but the definitions of both overlap. My interest has been to introduce new ways to approach art. In the mid 1990s when I graduated with my MFA I decided to focus not on setting up a studio with traditional sculpture tools but to investigate sound. I was very motivated by a definition of sound that I heard which was “energy made physical.” When hearing that definition, I realized this was my medium. It was an elegant and universal way to approach the issues of material in sculpture. I was simply working with energy. To build my work I needed to learn the techniques of recording and processing sound and develop the knowledge of wiring and systems building to make it physical. I achieved all of that in a kludgey but effective way. When I am soldering up circuit boards I am not interested in just the how of wiring and soldering properly but also if the end result will provide a critical social contribution. I think that it is not only in the introduction of a self-made circuit board that will help push the topic along but if the components instill meaning and provide some social value. I feel that this is as true for art as it is for any other fabrication. The circuit is just part of the story.
Over the past few years I have been thinking that the Maker movement is a valuable cultural addition that engages people with not only the process of making but also as the creation of a cottage industry of rehabbing and repurposing electronic components. But I have been concerned with the fact that the maker spaces are often disconnected from the general public and each other, with no discussion of a critical nature of the movement. It needed a voice, a place to bring people together to discuss where all of this know-how takes us and what kind of contribution it makes. I feel that Garnet Hertz’s zine Critical Making does just that.
This wonderful zine of ten photo copied volumes of submissions by 70 contributors. It was delivered to me in a humble 5”x 6 ½” inch pile, red twine tied together and with a hand written note saying “here is a lovingly handmade copy. I hope you totally love it”. With frayed edges from the hand cutting and assembly it is a beautiful, personal as well as multi-voiced response to the question of what is Making now.
In Introduction, Garnet explains how after much deliberation and discussion on the “vacuum of thoughtful discussion on the topic” he sent out a call for submissions for the zine through Facebook. Because he received such a large number of responses he decided to group the submissions to his call into sub-categories like: Projects, Manifestos, Science, Places, Make, Conversations, History, Childhood and Terms. Each category is a selection of 3-11 or more unedited contributions written in various styles. Some are typed with footnotes and some hand written with corrections intact, while others are complex drawings with text incorporated in and around the imagery. Laced around all of this content are wonderful images of sheep, circuits, a handwritten list of contributors and anything else that fits the theme or content.
In Terms among the 10 contributions Amanda Williams and Joshua Tanenbaum flush out topics like ‘hacking for survival vs. hacking for hedonism’ and how DIY creates a “safe space for people to challenge entrenched political and economic structures.” Other terms like entrepreneurism and Wabi-sabi as well as participatory decentralization are discussed in context to the DIY movement.
There are 11 contributions to Manifestos. In this segment Daniel Charny points out that “making is something everyone can do” which seems obvious but may be lost to recent generations. He does go on to say that the reasons different people make varying from whether it is approached as a vocation or if it is necessary for survival. Carl Di Salvo though gets to the crux of the matter by stating that the “scale of impact is what making should envision.”
The 8 submissions to Places zine, cover a broad selection of locales ranging from the Maker Fair to South Sudan, Brooklyn and South Los Angeles to Shenzhen, China. In McKenzie Wark’s “Making New York” Wark criticizes the Maker Faire and points out that the maker culture in NYC is not mechanical or electronically oriented, but is more about food, leather goods and furniture as seen in Brooklyn’s artisanal stores where products range from “bacon to organic beard oil.” Stephen Kovats brings up the worlds first open source city in South Sudan where DIY is “fundamental to survival of every day culture” and Kaiton Williams’ insight into Jamaican DIY culture states that this is a “way to repair a break in continuity of people and culture sustained in the creation of our new world.”
Denisa Kera’s contribution to Science is to point to hardware projects like SETI@home and crowd sourcing like citizen science projects as a “form of rebellion against social and other conventions.” From the History zine we learn about Frank Malina, a pioneering rocket scientist and kinetic artist who promoted a combination of scientific making, math and rapid prototyping. When faced with institutional resistance to collaboration between science, engineering and design, he decided to form Journal Leonardo which is now 45 years old. In this edition you can also see 1927 illustrations on how to build things like a crystal radio receiver, a mainstay of early 20th century home engineering, and an analysis of Hackerspaces past, present and into the future.
In Conversations there are some very thought-filled conversations between Hertz and Matt Ratto who established the term Critical Making. Natalie Jeremijenko who questions technofascination and points out that “it should be parlayed into how does this address the challenges that we are facing?” Analysis of countercultures is provided by Alex Galloway who talks about the arc of counter cultures over time moving from critical to mainstream and Phoebe Sengers who feels that the “Maker is a built in critique of society.”
For Projects Patricia Watts writes about Vollis Simpson, a 94 year old outsider artist and mechanical genius with an 11th grade education who makes whirligigs and windmills from junk. Jay Silver writes about his Invention Kit: MaKey MaKey that requires the user to repurpose something, make it interactive, and through that process challenges the user to design in meaning. Ken Gregory writes about his Hazmat Kite that warns people in Windsor Ontario about the dangerous air quality there, to name a just a few great projects covered. In Make you will read about the controversy around the Maker Faire and O’Reilly’s relationship with DARPA. And, in Childhood you will see the all too cute picture of Scott Snibble with his handmade plywood Easter basket and read about the Free Culture concept badge and other badge concepts designed by Liz Losh.
What I find problematic (aside from the fact that the tiny typeface sometimes borders on unreadable), is that the topic of innovation itself is implied but not broached. What has resulted from the Maker movement is a heightened interest in innovation. This word is used so often now that it is almost trite, ranging from the title of the WGBH radio show Innovation Hub to an almost requisite term used in promoting start ups and business incubators. Innovation is something that a lot of start ups are striving for so that they find the next great thing to sell. But innovation is more than just a business goal. It is the result of a large investment of time in experimentation and thought and this in many ways defines what the Maker movement is doing. What I find wonderful about Critical Making is the numerous voices ranging from the academics to the Lowrider Bike Club writing on the Maker topic. It shows how broad based the interests and concerns are, the incredible diversity of people involved and the density of thought invested in Making and the movement; you will not find this scope on Making anywhere else.