XXIV.6 November + December 2017
Page: 78
Digital Citation

Glimmers and half-built projects

Samantha Shorey, Sarah Fox, Kristin Dew

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Failure has become something of a fixture in technological industries. In Silicon Valley, mantras like "fail fast" motivate a cycle of start-ups and fizzle-outs, encouraging innovators to move through ideas until they get to the good one. Through "failing forward" they can fail productively, using each idea as a stepping stone toward eventual individual success. With these fail-centered notions, an artifact is successful if it improves and advances a design toward a singular output or product. Underlying many of these design philosophies is a teleological belief in the linear progression toward better and more powerful solutions [1]. Failure serves a place in the steady evolution of iterative design-evaluation cycles, as a version to be moved through and left behind. Yet fail-centered design processes like these make us less likely to see the value of frictions and breakdowns and what they might say about the worlds within which we're operating and helping to construct.

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Rather than viewing failures merely as a precursor to success, how might we engage with "failed" or partial iterations as real glimpses of other futures? This type of radical reimagining begins with recognizing the ways in which alternatives are already being lived through the half-built, flawed, and abandoned projects around us—the attempts, however imperfect. They unseat the obviousness and the power of the current order, helping people to remember there are other ways of going about things [2]. While design spaces are typically fixated on creating (the new), considering half-built projects is a process of revealing (the existing). Half-built projects are small, incremental instantiations for something done otherwise. Engaging with the half-built, we argue, requires cultivating new ways of valuing design practices, beyond institutional measures of success like building sellable products.

In an exercise of engaging with the half-built, we offer the work of the Riot Alliance as one case among many possible with which to consider the generative capacities of partial technology making. The Riot Alliance is a series of workshops integrating basic circuit design within protest posters, buttons, and dissident messaging. By integrating the tools of technology with the intimate and handmade, we sought to imagine different circumstances for the professional and political contexts where technology is created. In recounting the project through multiple perspectives (of facilitator/designer and participant), we explore the ways in which value emerged through acts of community building, collective and personal meaning making, and imagining other worlds.

back to top  The Case of the Button-Making Workshop

The Riot Alliance workshops were held in spaces associated with high-tech production: hacklabs, the hallways of an engineering department, and in the middle of a campus makerspace. These are sites typically oriented toward producing electronic objects, where participants design artifacts and applications that are "technosolutions" to problems or needs [3]. Utilizing introductory "design thinking" models popularized by the Stanford, invention in these spaces often begins with defining challenges ("problem spaces") and then generating an idea to solve them ("ideation").

Alternately, our workshops used technology production as a mode of opening up and further questioning. Here, women gathered together to reimagine technological and political relationships through acts of entangling electronics with the tools of protest. We screen-printed electronic protest signs for the Women's March on Washington. We hand-made posters to spur an administrative response to neo-Nazi vandalism at our university. When we saw the capacity of these events for critical engagement, we organized a button-making workshop and community discussion to explore creativity as a tactic of feminist resistance. Basic circuits were built into painted messages or paper collages. Using copper tape and sticker LEDs, components were imperfectly integrated as expressive and symbolic. In one button, a light blinked behind a fabric liberty torch. In a poster, wire traced the shape of a coat hanger to the light up the words NEVER AGAIN. Projects like these overturned the aesthetics and goals of traditional technology making. The materials of circuitry were approached as not only functional but also expressive, arranged in shapes and deliberately exposed instead of concealed for simplicity.

ins02.gif Figure. The table during the button-making workshop, covered with vintage magazines, scraps of fabric, LED stickers and conductive tape.

back to top  Tools for Seeing Value in the Half-Built

In avoiding productivist notions of success that might place emphasis on problem solving through product generation, we seek to explore other measures or forms of valuation that might be possible. To do this, we draw on the work of feminist media studies scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer, whose study of contemporary American anarchist communities reveals how their political ideals are enacted through everyday practices of resistance [4]. On the surface, the lifestyle practices of anarchists appear to have failed. They don't achieve the anarchist's ultimate goal of dismantling oppressive governmental hierarchy. However—like our reconsideration of technology design—value isn't located simply in the ability to immediately resolve a problem. Rather, how might an act support the creation of community? What is the meaningfulness of that act among the community? How does it enact hopes for another world?

In what follows, we use this framework as a mechanism to see the ways in which coming together around acts of collaborative making were meant not as a step toward a particular vision of the perfect button or poster (or the perfect feminist praxis), but instead as a means of sitting with the frictions that surround us while formulating multiple modes of creative resistance.

While design spaces are typically fixated on creating (the new), considering half-built projects is a process of revealing (the existing).

Community building. In each of the workshops, gathering to create objects for public protest became a pathway for conversation, commiseration, and mobilization. Women have long engaged in forms of making as part of political action. From suffragette banners [5] and embroidery samplers to quilting "frolics" [6], stitching has deep roots in kinship building and resistance. Rather than making a prototype that might demonstrate some potential economic value, attendees pursued making as a form of community construction.

The button-making workshop was hosted at the campus makerspace during a regularly occurring meetup called Crafting and Making. With help from the operations manager, we used the structural support of the meetup for space and materials—and expanded the thematic and social scope. The long plywood tables where Crafting and Making meets each week were uncharacteristically covered in vintage magazines, scraps of fabric and cloth, LED stickers, and conductive tapes. More than 20 people gathered around, sharing scissors and passing around old copies of Art in America. Positioned at the center of the makerspace, the group glowed with a liveliness not often seen around CAD software and breadboards.

ins03.gif Figure. The workshop underway, with several groups collaborating over materials on the table and others by the button-making machine.

Because of the lo-fi nature of the tools, the workshop was an accessible entry point for action in the makerspace. The operations manager would be there to oversee and answer any questions, and the button maker seemed fairly approachable compared with the other equipment. This meant that many of those in the workshop were participating in the space for the first time. The group included students, staff, faculty, and family, all with different relationships to design, craft, and technological development. In gathering together for the evening, we enacted a sort of alternative community at the makerspace.

Meaningfulness. Although workshops are a common occurrence at the makerspace, the skills being taught (3D printing, sewing) are rarely connected to the social significance or historical legacies of these practices. With the button-making workshop, we explicitly drew connections to legacies of feminist and activist making. For example, discussion of local movements like Riot Grrrl collectives and zine making, more broadly, allowed us to talk about the use and reuse of existing cultural images to form modes of critique.

In drawing connections to sites and movements beyond the makerspace, value was found outside the goals of skill acquisition that typically motivate workshops like Intro to Laser Cutting and Sewing 101. During the workshop, one of the mentors in the makerspace observed along the periphery. When she reflected on the workshop the next day, she said that she initially hadn't planned on joining at all. As a maker who is well versed in digital fabrication tools, she failed to see why she would want to join a workshop for a lo-fi tool like button making: "I don't need to learn how to make a button," she said. Yet, through our contextualizing the workshop within feminist histories, she was drawn to the goals of collaboration and resistance.

Positioned at the center of the makerspace, the group glowed with a liveliness not often seen around CAD software and breadboards.

Kristin, an author and attendee, found unexpected value in coming together around evocative materials and activism, putting materials and memories in conversation to see what emerges:

Amongst the salvage materials I found a how-to article on choosing the right cuts of meat. I suddenly was immersed in my earliest memories of injustices: the sickness in my stomach at the end of every summer knowing the livestock I'd loved and cared for the past year would soon be shipped to sla ughter. Scolded for not detaching myself from "just animals," the sickness grew into many of my convictions today. Bringing into correspondence these evocative materials and personal histories, I worked quietly through a wash of memories that illuminated surprising connections between my own past and the activist stances I've taken up through adulthood.

Imagining other worlds. What might it look like if technology could be made through different means, by different people, and accomplish different ends? Rather than just critiquing makerspace communities, the button-making workshop temporarily explored alternative possibilities. Fabric- and craft-based forms of making were the foundation for our technological practice, serving symbolic and practical purposes. For example, when Amy (not her real name), a medical student and community organizer, described the button she had made, she reflected on the conflicted stance of her activism. She had been finding it difficult to remain tender to those around her while feeling angry about the contemporary political climate. To Amy and others in the group, softness in material became a way to explore the potential for softness in aspects of her political life. The button Amy built used the familiar feminist symbol of a closed fist, with each of the fingers replaced by a different pattern of floral fabric.

ins04.gif Figure. A group of attendees gathered around the button-making machine.

The fabric swatches the participants used in their button imagery also served a technical role. To assemble the buttons, we used a heavy cast-iron button machine that pressed plastic film across aluminum pin backs. Conductive copper tape connected the LED stickers to the battery anchored on the pin back. Knowing only the basics of electrical engineering, we had designed the half-built system with the help of a student working for a start-up who frequented the makerspace.

The batteries that powered the LED stickers needed to be insulated from the conductive backing with small pockets. First constructing them of masking tape and then clumsily stitching them by hand, we had only four battery pockets for our 20 participants. When one of the makerspace's master costumers saw us frantically trying to stitch the pockets, she leapt into action. Though she hadn't previously been part of the button-making activities, she organized two workshop participants to jointly produce the pockets on the sewing machine. By using fabric, we were able to engage new skillsets in creating technical objects—skillsets beyond our own abilities, with strategies beyond our imagining.

For Kristin, this imperfect design helped to rehearse other readings of failure in technical practice: as an opportunity for vulnerability and shared experience.

I fiddled with the LED sticker and tape, placing the sticker so the cow's right eye was glowing. I struggled to make a solid connection that wouldn't ground on the back of the button, the foil tape crumpling and tearing easily before I could connect it. Susan had gotten hers working, showing me how. My frustration and clumsiness as a novice with the conductive materials became a site for further connection and collaboration.

Given the circuit-design challenges of the metal button-backs, the Riot Alliance workshop could have served as an event to hack an industrial button press. Throughout our few hours together, we indeed created many processes for accomplishing light-up capabilities for traditional buttons. Yet the button-making workshop wasn't organized to produce a better button through collaborative idea generation. As organizers, we didn't record the circuit diagrams. We didn't produce a step-by-step tutorial, to instruct future button-making pursuits. By certain design standards, then, the button workshop failed. However, the Riot Alliance brought together a group of makers who, rather than waiting for a better world, started here and started now.

back to top  References

1. Bell, G. and Dourish, P. Yesterday's tomorrows: Notes on ubiquitous computing's dominant vision. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11, 2 (2007), 133—143.

2. Gibson-Graham, J.K. The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006;

3. Lindtner, S., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Reconstituting the Utopian vision of making: HCI after technosolutionism. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2016, 1390–1402.

4. Portwood-Stacer, L. Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. Bloomsbury, London, 2013.

5. Wheeler, E. The political stitch: Voicing resistance in suffrage textile. Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings 758. Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2012.

6. Cash, F.B. Kinship and quilting: An examination of an African-American tradition. The Journal of Negro History 80, 1 (1995), 30–41. DOI:10.2307/2717705

back to top  Authors

Samantha Shorey is a Ph.D. candidate in communication at the University of Washington. Her ethnographic research focuses on the women technology designers, artists, and students who are part of the maker movement.

Sarah Fox is a Ph.D. candidate in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. She conducts research at the intersection of design intervention and inquiry, and examines how feminist ideas move through technology cultures.

Kristin Dew is a Ph.D. candidate in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. Her research explores digital craft through the practices of tiny-home and traditional woodworking communities.

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