Critical making panel with DoIIIT lab – Part 2

by cindy lin

“The model of anarchist/DIY performativity aims to revitalize political action, though, not first by mapping out the better good life but by valuing political action as the action of not being worn out by politics.” (261-62)

— Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism


During our two-day workshop, the organizing committee of DoIIIT hosted a panel entitled “critical making & body politics” to better understand what the “critical” in critical making look like from different disciplines. We invited experts from technological, designerly and artistic fields—namely, Leah Buechley, developer of Lilypad Arduino and former MIT Media Lab professor, Sophia Brueckner, Assistant Professor at Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design (STAMPS), Nick Tobier, Professor at STAMPS and Erik Hofer, Clinical Assistant Professor and Chief Information Officer at School of Information, University of Michigan (UMSI). In this panel, we put forth three provocations:

  1. In your work, where does the ‘critical’ play out in your making/projects?
  2. As artists and designers, how does your work contribute to sociopolitical and cultural transformations?
  3. What do you envision as crucial for cultivating inclusivity in the spheres or communities that you work in?

We explored themes ranging from infrastructure and the scale it warrants to the marginalizing tendencies of contemporary DIY maker culture. All panelists responded strongly to how they redressed the ‘dark spots’ of DIY maker culture, where exclusionary impulses and uncritical techno-utopianism are animated. Our attachments to particular social values and commitments to DIY making demands that we slow down our claims as to what constitutes making, what it can do for us and others and who can participate in such work.

As the moderator of the panel, i was curious as to how panelists might begin to account for the ‘dark’ side of contemporary DIY tech work from different orientations. Tobier expressed his concerns about how crafting and hands-on work are often positioned as less sophisticated maker skills than digital fabrication and electronics tinkering. This difference, Tobier explicated, could only be read through the gendered histories of craftwork and textile making where such forms of expertise are coded as feminine. To begin to suggest what DIY making is required panelists to first account for crafting traditions and its contemporary remix to broaden the premise of what it makes to be a maker.

One could approach this by adopting what Brueckner calls “critical optimism,” a move away from an unconstructive criticism of technology towards a hopeful approach with the thoughtfulness necessary to guard against its misuse. Brueckner used science fiction stories to offer artists, designers and engineers a common language to communicate and adopt an extrapolative thought process with regards to the ethical development of future technologies. The advancement of digital fabrication, while rife with controversy, has allowed artists the opportunity to deploy alternative technologies within communities, in addition to only showing their work in a gallery context. Brueckner’s work departs from what Buechley later characterized as the naiveté common to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurship culture. Its feel-good sentiments and world-changing rhetoric, as i see toxic to the political promises of DIY bottom-up expertise, hazard the value of collective action and political organizing in other forms (i can elaborate this in a later blog post). Of course, one can also ask: political for whom?

Panelists also foregrounded how scale matters when thinking with and through the infrastructures that enable the practice of DIY making. Hofer discussed how labor is rendered invisible in the maintenance of infrastructure, whether it be knowledge, electricity, water, transportation, cloud data and so on. This is especially so when infrastructure ‘scales up’ to support the production, circulation and access to specific resources. Consider how mass manufacturing of electronic kits in Shenzhen, China is interdependent on the extraction of tantalum in eastern Congo. This process of scaling up, Hofer argues, reveals infrastructure’s “messiness”. Drawing attention to the clunky nature of infrastructure brings into focus how any attempt to nest competing scales of knowledge-making and tech production might disrupt DIY making’s wholeness, legibility and mobility. How might we think differently about DIY making had we attend to where and how Makey-makey and other maker educational kits were being produced? If we had exhausted the spectacle of large-scale maker faires to only notice the precarious labor of aspiring techpreneurs in Jakarta, Indonesia? What is at stake when in Tobier’s words, wasteful plastics are churned out in the name of “rapid prototyping”?

Where education is concerned, panelists are also interested in how DIY making has unsettled the division between theory and praxis. Panelists have interweaved their academic concerns with public outreach through a series of platforms, such as workshops, exhibitions and talks. Their work resembles what Matt Ratto (2011) calls “critical making” – material-oriented engagement that aspires to bridge the gap between “creative physical and conceptual exploration” (252). Critical making demands that panelists “care for” the societal issue at hand by mapping theoretical concerns with material work, albeit at risk of its own translation mishaps. Perhaps Buechley’s designerly transformation of the stiff and forbidding circuit board to the open-source Lilypad board begins the project of unearthing gendered participation in electronics tinkering. The Lilypad also makes malleable our technological interactions with different interfaces and mediums, opening up possible recombinations of different skill sets such as knitting with electronics. Buechley, along with the other panelists’ projects, enact diverse modes of making to take us away from the elusive black-boxes of Technology (with a capital T). It is exactly in this multiple where we can potentially locate moments of care, of an otherwise and to live on.

prepping, with many others (Jasmine, Chuan-che, Licia, Shriti, Yu-Jen), for crit making workshop in DOIIIT lab

Special credits to Leah BuechleySophia Brueckner, Nick Tobier, and Erik Hofer for making the necessary adjustments, edits and guidance for this blog post.

Works Cited

Ratto, Matt. “Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011): 252-260.