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!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Task 9: Making for Play, Childhood Utopias, Cookie Cats

For tiny cat-shaped cookie consumption

"Hey, 3-D printers are actually super fun!"

I shouldn't have been surprised by this thought, which I remember occurring after a long stretch of designing, printing, and whittling excess plastic away from my cookie-mold cat. 3-D printers are extremely popular, and kids seem to love them in spite of their poor maintenance track records. I think what I was responding to was more of this internal sense of immersion in the particular motions and tasks and sensations occurring. I loved the noises the 3-D printers made, and the overconfidence of the guiding algorithms that led to plastic dragged all over the place. I loved the playfulness of this machine extending its hand out to me in physical space and trying its best to make something coherent and whole, and failing in interesting ways. 

The machine mishaps also reminded me of the work of my favorite maker, Simone Giertz:

I love this idea of cloaking playfulness in seriousness, and finding ways to find that silly expressive spirit in all kinds of projects. In college, I remember reading a book by the composer/philosopher/rad human John Cage where he talked about play in Zen Buddhist inspired terms:
“What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life--not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” 
I really enjoy thinking about purposeful purposeless play. I also wonder if this idea of play might help provide an alternative path within making to the ideology that Rebecca Onion rightly notes in the photo of Obama gasping incredulously at a marshmallow cannon (I love her analysis of the machinery of war mixed together with the softness of a fluffy marshmallow, also :) ) Onion weaves a complex analysis of the way discourses of childhood, curiosity, nation-building, gender, and education (among others) converge in the way our culture upholds "young Americans" (young white boys) who enact a joyful commitment to science via youth "popular science" activities. I wonder whether John Cage was capable of pontificating in his way because of his considerable privilege within society, and how to reconcile productivity and play when resources are scarcer and inequalities are greater. This left me with a few tangles of questions:

  • To what extent can an individual parenting style and attitude towards a child's development exempt them from cultural pressures to develop a productive member of society? What happens when families don't have access to the same community and educational resources to work towards that goal?
  • How much of the political/economic rhetoric around STEM is compulsory? 
  • To what degree is making distinct from popular science? What are the important dividing lines?
  • What would making in the service of purposeful purposeless play look like for a kid? Is this goal incompatible with the goal of training towards productive workforce participation? What are the pointless spaces of childhood today, literal or metaphorical, and how can we nurture and protect them?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Podcast #3: Startling Encounters and the Unknown!

Hi! In this cast I talk about setting aside expectations for audiobooks and social writing, and how that relates to making startling, surprising experiences -- and some critique of can-do problem-solving rhetoric thrown in along the way :)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Podcast #2: The Catch-Up Cast

Hii! In attempt to get myself caught up on our classes over the past month, I've created a new podcast responding to the following blogs from our class (which I definitely refer to as "SI 647" in the first few seconds, whoops!):
It was fun to read some of your writing and think through the ideas you present :)