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
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!