Thursday, April 20, 2017

Arudino Challenge, Part 2: Switches, Buttons, Blinking LEDs

An Arduino Uno blinking happily after uploading a sketch

With a little extra time added to my Arduino Challenge, and a pile of electronics to play with, I decided to start the process of unpacking and setting up my maker environment.

Working In Public

When I start learning a new programming language like Python, "setting up your environment" refers to the process of downloading and installing any necessary tools, deciding on a text editor, setting up the console (ideally with pretty color-coded syntax), and doing whatever else is necessary to turn ideas into interpretable scripts or compilable code. I am certainly familiar with the idea of a workbench, whether in the context of a makerspace or the bedroom/basement archetypes -- but what about the in-between type of environment afforded by a mix of Arduino code typed into a laptop, an Uno attached via USB, and working with parts that can be rearranged on a breadboard and not necessarily soldered?

The idea of setting up a workbench in my apartment was very intimidating -- would my cat knock everything over?? How do I control fire risks? For my more limited tasks today, I decided, instead, to set up in the corner of a quieter neighborhood coffeeshop. I really enjoyed unpacking and fiddling with components I ordered via Adafruit Industries, and also being able to work with an Arduino with litle more than a laptop and a few components. This kind of lightweight environment feels very portable and low-key, and in that sense would definitely be a helpful affordance for community-based Arduino/making education.

There's also something fascinating about the performative element of tinkering with electronics in public. When I lived in Minneapolis, I was a regular at Hard Times Cafe, a punk diner in the diverse Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that supported a ragtag clientele of crusty kids, chess players and board gamers, and shy undergraduate students reading books. I remember one gray-haired fella who would come in with a portable lamp and a magnifier and whittle wood carvings -- he would sit there right at the table whittling away for hours. I remember feeling a mix of appreciation for his presence in the community - there's something really nice about coexisting in an environment where folks are making art - and also a mixed reaction to his making-to-be-seen, perhaps for some unknown goal of affirmation or experiencing himself as An Artist. While that sounds cynical to write out, I'm genuinely curious about the benefits to self-esteem or identity development that maker development might provide. I wonder how kids would experience fiddling around with an Arduino in a community space - a makerspace for sure, but even a more public environment like a school cafeteria or more visible public library space - and how those benefits in the context of classmates would differ from a kid toiling away in their bedroom as a private hobby, perhaps only shared with Internet friends.

(I definitely felt a positive sense of "this is neat, I like sitting here fiddling with this microcontroller that is making lights blink!" while also feeling slightly silly about the publicness of it, too.)

Tactile Interaction

Ideally, here's the part of the project where I would start to scaffold my tasks -- I would figure out how to connect the Arduino to a breadboard, then start connecting inputs and outputs to the breadboard and read a bunch of forum posts to determine how to make the Arduino interface with the hardware correctly, then try to write a brief sketch to trigger vibration via a press of the (really neat!) metal ball button, then write the palindrome pattern game script, and finally, at the very least ensure the game is functional with all components attached via the breadboard. I can see it all unfolding in front of me, and would love to get lost in these tasks.

Instead, I'm again running up against a time limit. So I'm simply left to fiddle with the components and notice their tactile qualities. The metal ball buttons are indeed fantastic -- they make a loud and satisfying click, but also seem strong and resilient. Excellent for the task at hand. Meanwhile, the vibration motor and shield are a little more esoteric for visual or tactile inspection - they really require writing some sketches with the Uno hooked up to my laptop & attached to a breadboard.

The final photo is of a radial ball bearing, which is actually not necessary for the particular haptic feedback game. However, these types of bearing are commonly used in spinning fiddle projects like this radial fidget spinner! I was curious what this type of bearing would feel like, and I found the motion immediately mesmerizing -- most tutorial ask the maker to take apart the bearing to clean and lubricate it, and I can definitely see how the current amount of resistance is a little annoying and worth remedying. I now see the type of motion and interaction afforded by a radial spinner could be really relaxing to use in a project, and am definitely thinking about exploring the 3-D printed fidget route in the future.


Even though the end of this making project is anticlimactic in terms of the output, it did feel genuinely great to get the Uno up and running, upload a little code, and also to go through the planning and research phases. I can empathize with others who over-plan and stall out in implementation phases, but I can also see how, once you've build a little momentum by actually working with things in the real world, you start to get some endorphins firing and curiosity piqued. 

For me, getting that working environment up and running in a coffee shop felt very balanced and encouraging. The goals I've set out really are within the scope of possibility. It's up to me to keep building on them. To be continued (perhaps not on this blog, but continued nonetheless!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Arduino Challenge, Part 1: Haptic Feedback and OCD/Anxiety, or A Possibly-Okay Idea Never Realized

This is the first part of a two-part diary. The second entry is linked to at the end.

"Build yourself a buzzing bracelet for subtle haptic feedback as time passes! It's great for reminding yourself to get up and walk away from your desk for a few minutes each hour, or just as a way to have a new awareness of how the perception of passing time varies based on what you're doing."

I scrolled across the Buzzing Mindfulness Bracelet project on Adafruit earlier in the semester and felt a pang of identification with the concept. It wasn't because of the mindfulness aspect per se – I used to be part of a meditation group in college and have at different points of my life found a lot of value in mindfulness practices. But it actually zapped my attention to a slightly different region of my brain: the compulsive pattern-generator.

Ever since I was a little kid, I had the habit of creating little repetitive pattern games for myself. These ranged from blinking every time the car antenna lined up with a telephone pole to diving the same number by two again and again to repeating mental phrases to passersby in case any of them were capable of telepathy. As I got older, these repetitive patterns took on a new function in helping me get through stressful situations and grounding my brain by creating repetitive physical and geometric games - most often calculating fractions (car odometers and corners of rooms are ideal for this), doing miscellaneous math equations, etc. As you can probably guess, my brain has a lot of anxious energy that it doesn't know what to do with, and these games provide a reprieve that allows me to focus a more manageable portion of my attention on the situation at hand.

One especially faithful version of this, for me, is tapping patterns. I will create repetitive sequences to tap out with my hands, with the goal of creating "symmetrical" repeating patterns that, if written out, would look like a 
palindrome. So when I read about the mindfulness bracelet, this got me thinking: what if, instead of these games and patterns being something that I had to mentally track and calculate (and sometimes increasing the risk of disassociating from the situation/my body when used), they were instead being tracked and led to physical, ideally haptic feedback? This would allow me to explore greater degrees of  'gameplay' complexity (how long can I make the palindrome?) but also, more significantly, create a constant tether to the physical environment and my body, which I hypothesize would increase the efficacy of these games in keeping me focused through a stressful situation.

I decided that to accomplish this task, I'd need an Arduino, a motor with Arduino shield capable of giving good detailed haptic feedback, and some really nice buttons. I found all of these on Adafruit's site, and was especially intrigued by the Metal Ball Switches which seem to have an excellent tactile quality. I also had a rough idea of the type of pattern-recognition script I'd need to write to run on Arduino -- luckily, outside of figuring out how to interface with the input (switch) and output (haptic motor/shield) devices, the actual game logic to the "make a palindrome" game would be pretty straightforward! So with all of these ideas collected, I was ready to dive into making this project a reality.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much where the story ends. I received my equipment in the mail a week ago, expecting to dig into it over the last week, and the maKerZine project has proceeded to consume all my time. I'm still super intrigued by this project and hope to play around with it in the summer. But as of now, all I have to show for it is: a (very appealing!) unopened package from Adafruit Industries, this block of text, and my lingering questions about how to best grapple with my anxious brain in a way that leads to grounding and balance rather than dissociation. Who knows! For now, this is to be continued..

Link to part 2!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Maker Interview: Allison Osberg

Mentorship in Making, Giant Sweet Potatoes, and Impulsivity: A Conversation with Allison Osberg

Zoë Wilkinson Saldaña | SI 636: Makerspaces | Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Allison puts on a giant Eyeball costume/mask with “crazy-quilted” textures while Skyping

Impulsive Making

When I spent some time reflecting about the people in my life who make things, Allison Osberg immediately came to mind. Over the five years we’ve known each other, I’ve witnessed Allison create an incredible stream of costumes, giant paper mache heads, conceptual art installations, songs and poems, plays, performances, mobile hot tub community spaces, collections of photographs, collections of foraged morels, retrofitted living spaces… many things!

Though I had this impression of Allion’s prolific productivity, I had no idea how she related to processes of making that went into her art. What does it feel like to be immersed in the task of making something?

The word Allison came back to again and again in our conversation was impulsive:

Osberg: I’m a super impulsive maker. I tend to go with my gut feeling and then end up having to problem-solve from there. I don’t like to overthink the planning stages. I like to work with really cheap materials. I like to work on my own. And I really like to fail fast in the privacy of my own room or studio. Or readjust expectation -- I have no problem readjusting expectations [laughs]. And then going the route that the procedure has pushed me.

I spoke to Allison in late March 2017 over Skype. In the weeks before our interview, Allison had been making costumes and props for a play she also wrote, directed, and starred in. In this project, as in many others, Allison’s impulses drew her into entirely new methods and materials to implement a very specific goal – in this case, appearing on stage as a giant Sweet Potato:

Osberg: Making puppets for this play, I knew I wanted to have a giant Sweet Potato. And I thought, okay, well how are costumes made? What kinds of costumes are out there? There are the paper mache masks with draping fabric, there’s mascot suits that are super bulbous and cartoony. There are skin-tight costumes, and stuff that’s more naturalist.

But how can you be a potato? How you can be light, allow you to see?.. I went to Bedlam Theater to looked at their costumes, and was like, okay. They didn’t have any giant hot dogs I could crawl into….

I looked online too at cosplay costumes. There are a lot of DIY folks making their own costumes. One woman was using a similar process to how I’d made smaller, cheaper puppets, which is to gob up some tape, wrap it in tin foil and do paper mache over it. She took tha and then used that as a pattern, then used the overhead transparency to blow it up and make it giant! It’s so simple! It was like, aw yeah!! I’ve done this before, and I also haven’t done this, and this is awesome!

I dumpstered some foam and used some spray glue to glue it together. I want this not to be really neat or clean. I don’t want it to look like a commercial sweet potato costume [laughs]. So I decided to crazy-qulit it – it’s essentially literally taking any shape, any size scrap that you have, and sewing it together as you go. Which is very impulsive, and very much me.

Competitive Making and Makerspaces

Allison is in a constant state of quickly learning the skills needed to implement the ideas/experiences/feelings that she seeks to evoke in her art. But as much as she thrives while in this whatever-it-takes mode to bring projects “from conception to completion”, she also seeks out the guidance of others who are willing to teach her particular skills one-on-one. At first, Allison jokingly described her reluctance to reach out a character fault:

Osberg: I fake it till I make it. I have… a bit of a pride issue [laughs]. So I’ll ask about some things if I have some basis for knowledge. But if I have absolutely no knowledge, I’ll go into the corner, watch a YouTube video, and be like… okay, yeah, yeah. I’ll try it, and I’l probably fuck up a piece of wood, get seriously injured, and then! I’ll ask about the tablesaw.

But as Allison talks more about that process of seeking guidance, she described a more complex issue within working and making environments of devaluing and discouraging explicit instruction:

Osberg: When my supervisor was like, well, I’d really prefer if you were autonomous and did things yourself. It was really intimidating because I was like - when is appropriate to ask a question? Unfortunately, because I wasn’t taught the same things that my brothers were taught growing up in terms of fabricating, engineering, etc. - because that wasn’t passed down to me.

As a femme person in this world, it’s difficult to be self-taught.... In fabrication spaces, and makerspaces especially, it tends to be masculine-centric and competitive, a one-upmanship sort of atmosphere. Sometimes I stick with what I know, and other times I collaborate with others who are allies and know what they’re doing, and then other times I throw myself to the wolves and get eaten alive.

In particular, Allison expressed ambivalence about the lack of support in makerspaces. While she will occasionally visit one to access particular tools and equipment, and respects the earnestness of efforts to help others on projects, she described makerspaces as being populated by “rugged individuals”, predominantly men, who fail to treat her as an equal:

Osberg: I have spent relatively little time in makerspaces. I got some help in one in New York City when I was working with [a stage company] to do LED Raspberry Pi stuff with lighting math, and was kind of turned off by that space, even though they were super helpful.

Wilkinson Saldaña: Why were you turned off?

Osberg: The condescension. The, I don’t know, lack of humility [laughs]. I really respected what they were working on, their expertise, and that they were willing to work for very little money. It was essentially out of the kindness out of their heart, that they took half a day to be like “this is what you need to do for this one job. Which is really admirable and cool. But. I was the only woman there...

Here in Minneapolis, I’ve done some laser cutting with my friend [Q]. She told me a story that they were trying to operate a saw, and [the makerspace regular] really fucked up while they were doing a demonstration. They weren't using goggles. They weren’t even trying to be safe.

[Makerspace regulars are] learning on the fly, making mistakes. You probably didn’t even go to school for this. It’s very DIY, open source, free flow of information and technique… but only to a certain extent. I still think there’s this romanticization of the rugged individual that can do it all themselves. In a cocky sort of way, it must have been satisfying for Q to see him mess up and be like “you should have worn glasses.”

The Importance of Guidance, Inclusion, and Accessibility

Allison’s experiences draw attention to a tension between DIY as an approach to making that can be shared equitably and collaboratively with others on one hand, and DIY as a performance of rugged individualism at the expense of inclusion and collaboration on the other. Makerspaces might offer certain resources that are helpful for solving specific implementation challenges for her work, but they do not provide Allison a deeper sense of community, support, or identity.

I wonder whether this is common attitude for artists who may only feel compelled to venture into makerspaces for pragmatic reasons. I suspect makerspaces could do much more to meet the needs of those community members, and other diverse visitors who do not match the maker archetype of white cis straight men. How might makerspaces imagine themselves as a commons that welcomes in all who seek resources that the space can provide, and continuously seeks ways to better understand the folks who walk through their doors and meet them where they are?

Allison’s reflections make me think immediately of makerspaces in public libraries, such as our Secret Lab here in Ann Arbor. Allison noted that an entirely different, yet compatible framework also exists in the form of “Art Hives”:

Osberg: I was involved in Art Hives. Up in Canada, there’s a fad to create Art Hives in the area. It sprang forth because Concordia University in Montreal has an Art Therapy department that’s world-renowned. They started something called an Art Hive, essentially a public open studio to come create whatever you want. Except it doesn’t have a 3-D printer, it doesn’t have a laser cutter, it doesn’t have welding… it has maybe a modest tool library, and then it has a shit-ton of materials that get donated. You can come, and you can make whatever you want. They are amazing, and there’s one in every neighborhood of Montreal. There’s several in Toronto. They’re popping up in all the large cities.

They’ve had symposiums with makerspaces and found that Art Hives are majority women and fab labs, makerspaces are majority men. Or femme, masculine people. I was at a symposium, and they were trying to figure out the future of Art Hives. What is the future of fab labs? And we just need to create a fablab/Art Hive where it’s all happening in the same space. Makers, with a capital M, will see what’s going on with what used to be an Art Hive and be like, oh yeah, I could totally use a knitting machine to do what I want to do! I could totally use fiber instead of electronics! And people in the Art Hives would be like, holy shit! Maybe this person can help me weave with this wire and I can light up this dress. So they’re trying to find more ways to have cross over.

I loved the Art Hive. It was such a welcoming, accessible space - not just for people who consider themselves artists, but community members, Fancophone, Anglophone. And there were masculine and femme and all sorts of folks who came in. But yeah, they are majority women-run.

For Allison, moving the emphasis on male leaders and participants within making and art spaces allows for greater inclusion across various axes of identity (the Francophone/Anglophone distinction being a much more significant cultural divide in cities like Montreal). Art Hives appear to offer a different values orientation and community framework from makerspaces (or the overlapping concept of ‘fablabs’) while still providing the essentials of tools/resources in a common space, albeit with a divide in the quality of resources -- no 3-D printer! As opposed to many makerspaces, Art Hives appear to be tethered to academic/university spaces – institutional/educational/civic connections are yet another thread running underneath makerspaces, many of which are freestanding spaces that exist independent of institutions like libraries or universities.

I asked Allison how she hoped makerspaces might change to better reflect her needs and experiences. In her answer, Allison again made the connection to more explicit guidance and mentorship, something frequently lacking in makerspace resources/programming/offerings:

Osberg: I would love to be an apprentice for somebody who wants to be my advocate. That’s really what I would love. I would also love to see Makers… having more horizontal decision making, instilling confidence and empowering anyone who walks through the door to try something that they haven’t tried before. Not to scare them - but to do things safely nonetheless.

Discussion: Seeking Frameworks of Making in Community

Thinking about makerspaces solely through the parameters of the capital-M Making community, or even the framework of STEM education, can prevent us from noticing the many ways in which communities of artists, performers, fabricators, activists, and many others have built community spaces to share resources and knowhow in the service of common goals. Allison provides a striking example of how people may utilize the same physical practice - a laser cutter, a gluing technique - for wildly different ends, and yet still strive for a common belonging and respect within our shared spaces.

While many community members may have different ambitions than conceptual artists, neither should we assume that they are intrinsically driven to master specific techniques simply for the sake of those techniques. Instead, makerspaces would do well to facilitate robust exploration of what folks would like to bring into existence, especially through programming and mentorship that centers diverse community members. I am excited to learn more about how this more welcoming, community-driven vision of making in the commons might look on the ground - I know public libraries are already figuring a lot on this front, and perhaps Art Hives might provide additional ideas in the United States. Many possibilities!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Workshop #1: Maker 101 with George Sprague

One thing I've learned about myself through this class is that my first instinct, in any situation is to seek out abstract, big-picture ways to frame things. I find comfort and familiarity in working on the level of ideas, and then filtering my experiences and problem-solving processes through those ideas. For me, hands-on experience often comes at the very end, if it happens at all.

When George began has presentation in Maker 101, I found myself looking for George's big picture take on making -- his understanding of making as an approach, the goals and concepts behind his projects, etc. Instead, George dove almost immediately into the fine-grained details of his tools. He shared his preferred types of tape (never Scotch), the dangerous of epoxy in confined spaces (as Kayla noted to me, George remained conspicuously silent about his experience with toxic chemical in his dorm room!), the gradual transformations of softball helmet and cardboard into warrior helmet.

I found myself leaning in to hear those concepts and framework, which surely would show up on the next slide, or the next slide... but instead, I had the opportunity to enjoy George become visibly delighted by the nuances of these tools and processes. Gradually, I realized that George was answering those big ideas about significance and goals and ideas in his passionate commitment to details and processes -- he wasn't just sharing examples of making or an introduction to making, but a direct line into the joy of the process for him.

I frame my post this way because I am coming to really appreciate the ways in which making, as a process and approach, creates meaning and purpose through that earnest commitment to the materials and tools and physical interactions themselves. There are lots of relevant ideas here from mindfulness -- be in the moment, make space for what arises - and it makes me think of the poetry of Rumi too, welcoming in whatever experiences and feelings arise and treating them kindly, as guests. I love that George gave his talk, which in another universe could very well be happening in the isles of a local hardware store, and yet through it expressed so much about his curiosity and kindness, his generosity of spirit.

When, at the very end of his talk, George revealed that he and his partner wear their Proton Packs over Ghostbusters costumes to delight children at local hospitals, I was simultaneously overjoyed at the sweetness of that (I mean that is SO kind) and also could totally understand how this might into his earnest commitment to doing and making and putting things out into the world. I really admire his approach, and the talk genuinely inspired me to set aside my analytical mind and jump into making-doing-creating-first approaches a little more often. :)

Monday, March 27, 2017

#11: Interviews as Making, Disruptive Masculinity, Feminist Maker Spaces

Interview and Collaborative Making

Kayla and I spent our activity and studio time conducting the first three interviews of our MaKerZine project! I wasn’t able to participate in the fashion design activities (I’m super impressed by what was made in such short time!), but I instead had the privilege of listening to my peers’ stories and capturing their lovely and complex reflections on making, hobbies, gender, projects, risks, and life.

While listening to the stories in the AADL Secret Lab, I found myself especially aware of the material, physical reality of sharing and capturing stories - the colors and the reverberations in the room, the physicality of sharing work-in-progress plastic and wool. Interviews are an opportunity to pluck stories and ideas and perspectives out of a personal, internal space and make them into a performed, recordable, digital, tangible artifact. I hadn’t really thought of an interview in these terms before, and it was lovely to contextualize the moment within the many forms of making we undertake in our class.

On The Reading

Throughout Innocent Experiments, Onion shows men passing along science (through sci-fi, chemistry kits, model rockets…) to teach boys to circumvent authority and social limitations, which are wound up in the perceived women gatekeepers of the mother, the teacher, and the librarian (!) In the later chapters, Onion further links this type of education to libertarian values of science as limitless doing. In this process, I believe the book does a phenomenal job exposing the many interlinked values we content with today across our society, whether it’s the disruption-focused entrepreneurial tech culture which remains hostile to women or the wave of Trumpism in our country that values masculine-coded doing (and unapologetic destruction of institutions) over inclusion and empathy.

I sincerely hope that making communities can transcend this project of encouraging disruptive/rogue masculinity and instead find ways to center the contributions and experiences of women. But I wonder, do women face the same glass ceiling of self-actualization that Proddy faced in Prodkayne of Mars when they are not fully supported in STEM studies in their postsecondary studies or drop out of hostile environments in the workforce? If the issue is a cultural discourse of participatory science that is gendered from the beginning, how do we create and foster an entirely different feminist construction of participatory science?

When I lived in Seattle, I briefly participated in a feminist and women-centric making space that took a lovely approach to this. A February 2015 article in Yes Magazine summarizes some of the challenges that feminist maker spaces attempt to tackle, which sound quite familiar at this point:

Taking things apart and putting them back together, after all, is a core activity of the maker movement, which commentators have hailed as everything from the face of America’s new industrial revolution to a force unleashing a new era of small businesses.
That’s great, but where do we start? How are people like me, who’ve never been particularly techie, supposed to join in? And what if the “hackerspaces”—the central institutions of the maker movement, where makers gather to build, collaborate, and learn—tend to be dominated by white guys whose first reaction to someone new is, “Here, I’ll do it for you”?

After spending a good amount of time considering the weaknesses in the Make community (as advanced by Make Inc), it’s helpful to encounter some examples of communities that seek their founding principles not in a libertarian idea of freedom, but a feminist concept of intersectional inclusion, equity, and justice. I’m definitely curious to learn more about what would make spaces like Seattle Attic grow and the role of feminism within making more broadly.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Blog #10: Reflections on gender, sewing with grandma, and giving up/rediscovering STEM!

For me, a lot of physical making practices are inextricably mixed up with self-monitoring. Since I was a little kid, I've always been terrible at drawing straight lines, or gluing the pieces together so that there's not a little wedge of light showing through, or cutting things cleanly. The expectation of precision in any kind of crafting or physical creation immediately fills me with dread.

I remembered this feeling of dread when I felt it, again, walking up to the sewing machine in class last week and realizing there was no way I could make the ends match up correctly. I made sure to finish my little hand warmer pouch as quickly as possible, with as little time examining the badly-matching ends as I could manage.

But even as the tasks of sewing felt stressful and already doomed, I found myself noticing the physicality of the sewing machine: how the accelerating speed of the needle created vibrations I could feel through the foot pedal, the whirring of the machine. These sensations connected me to something more than my individual performance or precision --

I remembered when I was about 5 or 6, when our family still lived in the outskirts of Chicago. My grandma used to let me play with her sewing machine - the foot pedal was usually not working, and I would just sew little scraps of flannel and cotton fabrics together in nonsense patterns. The sewing machine had its own little desk with a chair, next to another desk where my grandma would write letters. I associate a lot of things with that apartment - running around with my cousins, watching tennis with my grandpa in lay-z-boy chairs, dropping water balloons from their tiny deck to the parking lot and irritating the geese that roamed the lawns. But the sewing machine was apart from that flow of loud, action-adventure cousin time. It belonged to this warm, relaxed world in which my grandmother spent her time, and which felt in some ways mysterious - what was she writing, and to whom?! - but always effortless, and not based on doing or sewing or saying the right thing the right way.

As we read about cultural discourses of making across generations in the United States, and as we have these new encounters (or re-encounters) with making practices in class, I've been thinking a lot about gender, making, and self-expression in my childhood. That quiet, uncompetitive space of making I shared with my grandmother was gradually replaced by a wide variety of after school science programs, computer camps, and Cub Scout retreats. As part of an upper-middle class white latina family, I had access to these kinds of activities, as well as gifts of woodworking sets (never figured out how to use that), pocket knives engraved with my old name (never really wanted to use that), and model rockets (definitely used and loved those!) But perhaps the biggest gift at that time for me was autonomy - because I was doing well in school and showed an interest in computers, I was given lots of time alone making animations on the family computer or writing poems for girls up in my room. After reading the third chapter of Innocent Experiments, I can better understand why my father might have felt positively about my eccentricity and self-directed science-ish time, growing up in postwar South Texas as a science geek/hothead jock hybrid.

At the same time, all of these subtle and indirect encouragements came with unspoken gendered expectations. I felt I had to love math in the way the boys around me loved math (competing at Mathlete competitions or stoically toiling away), or become a science-y person the way that young men went to college to study physics. It's impossible to separate out the feelings I had about numbers or experiments or STEM careers with the more profound sense of dread I felt imagining myself growing old as a man (I literally could never visualize it). This sense of a dead end was a big reason why I completely stopped trying in all of my math and science classes in high school, decided to be a writer/musician, and went to a liberal arts school where a single course on Dinosaurs (yay!) satisfied my science requirement for a bachelor's degree.

But looking back, alongside the dysphoria and doom-inciting expectations, there was always that warm, quiet, expressive possibility to making technical and physical things. I found it with my grandma sewing, and I found it again writing dumb games for myself and maintaining extensive LiveJournals and, much later, making radio documentaries with diverse community members. For me, it wasn't really a question of certain activities being feminine-coded, so much as having the space to breathe and relax into myself and step outside of the expectations projected upon me, and then to make something, if only for a moment.

A few years ago, shortly after coming out as transgender, I was riding a ferry out of Seattle with my friend Sophie (a lovely and talented web comic artist) and told her about a comic I had found on tumblr about a trans woman who realized a lot of her gender feels while learning to sew with her grandmother. This wasn't my story exactly (I left a lot out), but so much of the warmth and ease expressed in the comic rang true for me. In one of the more ridiculous coincidences of my life, Sophie had actually drawn the comic many years before we met and published it anonymously! It fits in well with what I've written here, so if you're curious, she redrew and republished the comic shortly after our conversation.

I share these still-forming (sorry!) personal reflections because I believe our personal histories of making are rich places where discourses and histories and inequalities and possibilities in making converge. Hopefully they spark some rambly reflections in you, too! ^_^

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of “The Next Black” - Mending, Disrupting, and Marketing the Future of Fashion

"Shouldn't there be something more progressive than design and style changes? Shouldn't there be innovation that alters the entire concept of clothing?"

These words narrate the early minutes of “The Next Black,” a short film directed by House of Radon (a Sweden-based advertising agency) for household appliance manufacturer AEG. The questions frame a 45-minute documentary that attempts to distill a common purpose from design studios, consultancies, inventors, and DIY repair experts pursuing innovations in fashion, in one manner or another.

The “should” statements also evoke the ambivalence of the film - for what purpose should fashion change? What problems can best be solved by design? How do advances in one realm of fashion production or aesthetics or repairability influence the broader ethical concerns of consuming responsibly?

“The Next Black” centers upon a series of case studies of the future of fashion. These case studies begin in the realm of delightful and strange design – from developing wearables to monitor peak athletic performance and creating ethereal bubble-couture-art for Lady Gaga, to growing bio-fabrics in little containers. Midway through, the film pivots to focusing on the climate impact of recent “fast fashion trend” which has encouraged wastefulness, overconsumption, and environmental damage. The film profiles interventions such as water-free fabric dyeing techniques, promotional campaigns to encourage re-use and mending, and organizations that empower individuals to understand how to care for items increasingly seen as disposable and unfixable (this rings especially relevant in 2017 as IFixIt and other organizations advocate for right to repair legislation especially in the electronics sector).

While each case study is beautifully rendered with soft-focus camera work and wonderful transitions between segments, the film is less successful at demonstrating connections between the various segments and their broader significance. How might wearables help increase the lifespan of clothes, for example? Could bio-fabrics be used by individuals to chemically design (and perhaps then 3-D print) their own clothes?

The film also fails to show any diversity in the individuals and communities involved in producing this fashion innovation – every interviewee is white, and the only people of color shown are factory workers and street merchants. And rather than show a more diverse or intricate portrait of the issues being raised, the film instead has a tendency to ignore analysis in favor of lingering on textures and colors, which are admittedly quite beautiful (the juxtaposition of cell-like shapes and an interview about water supply pollution and sumi-e paintings of interviewees in the outro both come to mind).

It is through this uncomplicated reliance on design and aesthetics for their own sake that “The Next Black” betrays its origin as an agency-produced piece of media created to serve a marketing function. House of Radon explains their ambition behind the film in a case study published on their website:

Washing machines aren’t the most glamorous subject. So when appliance manufacturer AEG asked us for a concept and campaign platform that would spark interest in the low engagement segment, we thought long and hard about it. After a lot of exploring we asked ourselves a simple question: what’s the most important element of laundry? The clothes, of course.”

“The Next Black” succeeds in raising questions of value to its viewers, but fails to challenge the breathless rhetoric of innovation and inventing the future using technology, or to make a persuasive argument for the everyday impacts of the small design studios it portrays. Just as those “shouldn'ts” hover unanswered in the opening minutes of the film, so too does the film fail to contextualize the statement “one day we will wear the surface of the computer on our bodies,” or explore the limits of advertising campaigns to advance reuse and repair efforts. There are a lot of ideas floated beautifully across the screen here, but the implications are better explored elsewhere.


I'm definitely interested in the idea of learning the skills necessary to repair & maintain clothes over time, and how these practices take root in a commitment to both environmental sustainability and mindful care for everyday items. I'm curious to learn more about the role of digital hardware in aiding slow fashion -- what about wearables that monitor the status of clothes, or 3-D printing your own ultra-reinforced fabrics, or using homemade sensors to map your body and actually create clothes form-fitted to you from scratch? I also really enjoyed Brittany McCrigler of IFixIt's reflections on teaching people repair techniques. Her work at IFixIt seems to combine threads of community-based education, technical writing, and DIY/maker ethos in this really wonderful way, and it definitely makes me curious about maker-adjacent or maker-overlapping fields for a future career. It's all rad stuff!