I’m just on the train on my way back from a great few days at the All Makers Now? conference in Falmouth. I was hoping that by now I would have a much more edited version of the final chapter of the PhD thesis in the bag, but the time away has actually helped me re-think how to get from 16K of rich detail summarized into 8k, without being too reductive. It’s amazing what a little breathing space and time away thinking about other things can sometimes do to the old brain cogs as I was really struggling with the best way to approach this.
So what did I get out of being there? Here’s a short list – because I like them.
- Shift from objects to thinking about how things connect within networks of consumption and production in a new materialities of data.
- Making is not just for craft makers or professionals, although expertise still has considerable value
- Making is a useful way in which to encourage a healthy sense of well-being
- While digital tools are helping to innovate around particular kinds of making with materials, human adjustment and tweaking is necessary
- The curriculum is now turning towards computing science rather than digital literacy as a compulsory component of secondary education, which could integrate aspects of art & design and deliver aspects of the current STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) agenda.
In more detail … Well first of all it seemed to be pretty open to what the conference organisers considered ‘making’ is and what it could be from the prosaic to the well accomplished and well established craft practitioners using digital tools. It would be too difficult (and pointless) to try and summarise the whole shebang, but I’ll mention some of the things I felt I got out of it.
There was a rare combination of technologists and crafts people (who no doubt don’t align themselves with those categories) were all open to listening to one another. While there were some key critical discussions and highlights in the key notes and the breakout sessions, the time for discussion afterwards felt there was more time to unpack some of the really tricky issues that are often not discussed within the fields of HCI or research on material cultures.
So the wonderful Chris Speed started us off with key thoughts on what it means to live in a world where objects are producing data that have material consequences as commercial companies re-configure models of anticipated consumer spend.
In the first strand of talks that I went to, researchers and makers explored how technology was democratizing making experiences within education within jewelry and crafts higher education, engineering and secondary schools.
In the Enhancing the Object strand I was part of, there were interesting discussions about collaboration, reflexivity, and process. There was a question about abstraction, how much technology abstracts from one experience and brings this into another without the additional contextual information from where something was created as a form of exchange. When the question was raised, I didn’t really understand the question at first, and then it started to bug me a little bit, as I sometimes feel that thinking about the technology as some form of abstraction, moves away from understanding it as part of and integral to any experience and there’s probably a lot of subtlety to what abstraction actually means within particular experiences.
At the end of the day we had an amazing trip down the river to Trelissick House, where some of us had contributed to an exhibition of works, followed by dinner. There was a hilarious talk by Fred Bier who discussed his somewhat crazy experiences of turning to computer technology to start to map out furniture for unusual houses. He said he had started by making barrels and wheels before making some crazy furniture.
The Friday started with a rich overview of the work of SODA, a London based collective managed by Fiddian Warman, who had started as a sculptor, moved into furniture design and then interactive objects for exhibitions. He showed an impressive portfolio of work with museums, charities and schools over the last 18 years and highlighted the challenges with current economic models of software and hardware development. Fiddian discussed the realities of what he felt was a current market of young tech start-ups and the challenges of sustaining these.
Coffee was enlivened with a number of workshops in the design school where I took part in trying out smart textiles with Kathy Vonnt and Aestheticodes with Emily. After an early lunch Justin Marshall kindly gave myself and Bettina a tour of the different facilities and studio spaces in the design school which was incredibly exciting and inspirational. Bettina and I both felt this was the kind of lively making environment that we missed being around at Newcastle.
In one of the final sessions I dipped in and out of the two discussions. I sat in there was a discussion about whether ownership models mattered anymore and if they did, could we, or should we be renaming ownership as something else, that reflects a more distributed sense of the connections and associated chain of makers involved in making something happen.
The brilliant Jayne Wallace finished off the conference with a vision for propositional forms of embedded and embodied technology. Her focus as a jeweler focuses on technology that can be work on the body, and the potential this has for connecting people and their life stories. She usefully drew on the expectations we might have for technology and what it might mean for designers to think about other qualities of human experience that craft and making can support.
In pulling together themes from the conference in the plenary, Jason Cleverly highlighted the importance of what he felt were ways that practitioners could hand over control of the making to somebody else and building trust with others in order to collaborate on projects that couldn’t be achieved otherwise lots of different people and skills were somehow involved.
So in reflecting about things a bit more on the train on the way home, I’ve been wondering about a few of the things that were discussed.
Part of me believes that making stuff is beneficial for people’s health and well-being, but not if it is done in a piece-meal kind of way and not if it’s done within institutions that don’t believe in it as this can also be damaging. Also accepting that making is not for everyone and can not be facilitated by everyone is also important.
Also getting a better understanding of what it means to make – often there’s just a blanket discussion of what making is – so talking about specificity of making that include relationships, materials, objects that are made and taken away, would be useful. A social group that has known each other for years and has made together for a long time, could also be very exclusionary to others or new ideas and a new group that is coming together might find it important to play around and experiment with what they are and what they want to achieve in the future and so be more open to change. I’m not saying that these are mutually exclusive, but understanding the specific conditions of what brings and motivates people to come together also has an influence of how people work and come together.
David Gauntlett argues that making things is a way of making sense of the material and social world and as a way of connecting things – that seemingly might not connect literally – but they connect when put together. His work, however, has been criticized for its convivial almost evangelical promotion of making culture without considering some of the social challenges of people engaging with making and some of the invisible work that goes in to making these things work, and encouraging connections between things and people. I’d like to see more of this focused work on what is going on when making.
While I don’t identify with being a craft maker myself, in light of above, I do think when I am running workshops I try to craft experiences of making something happen. Some of this is tightly scheduled and some is less so and more chaotic. So I think I’d like to see more work on the craft of the workshop itself, what happens in the planning and the organising, what gets left out of papers when people talk about making experiences.
This relates, to a certain extent, with some of the work that took place as part of our Socially Engaged Arts in HCI workshop, in what often is focused on is the things that are made, events, interventions and not how art works come to be made in the world and how these projects possibly exist once finished.