“Fab Labs”, D.I.Y. and Shifting Paradigms: Practical applications of Critical Making and its prospects for Sustainability.

Photo credit Marius Masalar.

(This is part 2 of the 3 part blog post series on Critical Making that myself and my group created. Click here to see part 1. Click here to see part 3.)

The term Critical Making is an exciting yet elusive one to pin down. Since first being coined by Mark Ratto in 2008 it has been discussed in various contexts from academia to art to physical sciences and has seen an array of methods attached (see a previous article from my college Zihe), though the question has remained the same “if we can critically think, why can’t we also critically make?” (Hertz, 2020). However, despite the lofty ambitions of advocates of this concept that it should revolutionise the ways humans interact with the world around us, the term can still seem at times vague, if we have even ever heard it before in the first place. For many, it may seem to be intriguing for sure, but little more a concept, a pretty set of ideals to be played within artistic and academic workshops which remain blissfully unattached and unburdened by the material difficulties of real-life production, real-life problem-solving, aka. ‘real making’. However, while such scepticism may be understandable, it does not mean that it is entirely warranted. There are numerous examples of this kind of interdisciplinary, hands-on, critical, inclusive and holistic making paradigms emerging in projects across the world, regardless if they are calling critical making or not. I would argue that there are examples of this ‘maker turn’ emerging close to home, such as the Eindhoven-born Precious Plastic initiative; which aims to turn thrown out plastic trash into beautiful and useful everyday items and has now spread all over the world. To a different extent, Maastricht University’s own Premium Projects can be seen as a form of this maker turn emerging not just within but also between universities and institutions, as governmental, cultural and business-oriented organisations excitedly engage with ambitious, multi-disciplinary teams of Master’s students to use creative and out-of-the-box methods to them help answer questions, generate ideas and design toolkits and hopefully tackle some of the most complex, ‘wicked’ problems that they face.

But what do the advocates of critical making have to say about this turn towards a more creative, making-turn in organisations and societies? Our group took some initiative to talk to an expert. During a live Zoom lecture that we attended during the Making Matters Symposium, we wrote a question to the lecturer at the time Garnet Hertz, one of the leading names in the critical making movement. Hertz was talking about his new booklet Critical Making + D.I.Y. and how the practices of what we often think of as more ‘artisanal’ crafts can be impactful beyond just the sphere of making for the self. We, therefore, chose to ask him if he saw Critical Making/D.I.Y principles being adopted in more ‘mainstream’ fields of production and manufacturing, to which he gave a short but insightful reply:

Garnet Hertz answering our question at the Making Matters Symposium (edited for continuity)

Hertz’s comments here reflect what he claims in his aforementioned booklet, where he states that; “Scarcity and need can be an opportunity for creativity. D.I.Y. practice disrupts boundaries but also creates new structures and fields of expertise. The “disruptive” and “countercultural” eventually becomes co-opted and absorbed by the mainstream to varying degrees (…) a “D.I.Y.” perspective contains valuable amateur practices that can help us navigate contemporary political and corporate dilemmas.” (2020, p. 17-18).

Hertz perspective on the prospects of DIY and Critical Making seems to be that it holds a great deal of promise, but how can this be seen being played out in practice? Especially if we speak of using ‘scarce’ materials and creative solutions to deal with to contemporary problems, it seems that sustainability would be an ideal location for such praxis to begin. It is through this avenue of investigation that Kohtala (2017) looks at a ‘Fab Lab’ (fabrication laboratory) – which they call a place where; “citizens can access digital fabrication equipment to design and make their own objects.” (p.375). For their research, they visited a Fab Lab located inside an undisclosed university in northern Europe as it was under construction and beginning operations starting in early 2012. Kohtala outlines the ideology presented by the coordinators and leaders of the Fab Lab and critiques how well these sentiments match up with material actions.

The ideological basis touted by this organisation is oriented towards post-capitalism, post-consumerism, decentralisation, inclusivity, open design, and of course critical reflection on societal impacts (Kohtala, 2017). Kohtala states the coordinators encouraged a type of personal fabrication which they called “Digital Craft” (2017, p. 380), which would allow users to make, document and share work with others, who in line with the open source paradigm they were creating, could adopt and adapt these designs for their own purposes. This was meant to create a more communal, less hierarchical, more meaningful and more sustainable form of fabrication than often seen in industrial mass-production. For Kohtala, this has the potential to be impactful for the sustainability movement, and indeed, this an area which many Fab Labs and other alternative fabrication spaces highlight, with the organisers in this case study making big claims about the utility of their making practices for helping to manifest a sustainable society. Kohtala outlines how coordinators made special efforts to encourage their students to use fewer materials and think outside-the-box to design things that could be easily compacted, disassembled and “weaned from the current industrial system” (2017, p. 381). This for Kohtala was one of the ways that the Fab Lab’s ideological sentiments were enacted in real life.

Kohlata highlights that another way in which the Lab attempted to bring some materiality to its lofty ideals was thorough a project called Waste-lab. They explain that this project, the coordinators invited in two experimental artist-hacker groups to collaborate in co-designing the space to be as effective as possible for all kinds of making, drawing on their experience with “artistic, ethical and practical perspectives on e-waste, repair, obsolescence and over-consumption.” (2017, p.381). In the end however, no collaborative projects were produced due the fundamental differences in these different groups’ work methods. On one side Kohtala writes, the artists and hackers invited in were used to slow production of things based on the recycled/second-hand/used materials at hand. In one way, they could be seen as practitioners of Hertz’s (2020) conceptualisation of ‘D.I.Y.’ production – making things which are “generally built using everyday and available materials and are not-for-profit (…) [making] driven by an immediate functional need: to fix something or create an object that addresses what is missing from popular culture.” (p. 22). The students and even coordinators in the Fab Lab of Kohtala’s study on the other hand were used to quickly fabricating, printing, or ordering whatever they needed to complete a project (2017). These two perspectives, making from at-hand materials vs. making from a design, were quite in opposition with one another and unfortunately the participants were no able to collectively come up with a compromise, though it would have likely been to their mutual benefit (Kohtala, 2017).

Kohtala finds that while the Fab Lab’s ideological paradigm was one of breaking the wastefulness making often plaguing other manufacturing spaces, situations like that detailed above showed how it often fell short in this regard. In attempting to realise it’s ideologies and make things based on personal or local community needs, the makers in this facility nonetheless often failed to consider the impacts of their design choices. Rather than building based on the limitations of what was locally available (either in Europe or in their own facility) materials were often ordered out of convenience from the US or China. Further, waste was a consistent issue throughout the years Kohlata spent there, with coordinators not being able to prioritise coming up with solutions for this for quite some time. This difficulty ironically reflects one of the main features of critical making which the Fab Lab wished to promote; not only to ask what one is making, but also why they are making.

Despite these criticisms however, Kohtala is not only negative about the work at the Fab Lab. They also note that the very culture was set up to critically look at this how and why things are being created, and what the social impacts will be, these labs did notice these shortcomings. Indeed, the fact they effectively made efforts to overcome them, though a little later in the process, is reflective of one of the core tenets of critical making. Mark Ratto (2011) maintains that there are three stages of critical making which are intrinsically and cyclically linked; reviewing relevant literature and methods, prototyping and exploring fabrication, and then reflecting with the various stakeholders on what has been made, reconfiguring, redesigning, and improving as necessary (p.253). This cycle is part of the magic of critical making for Ratto, one of the reasons it is most effective, as the thinking and enacting are directly linked, leading to new kinds of insights, various explorations of possibilities, and fluid, engaged learning and extending of knowledge (2011).

For Kohtala, this tension between future intentions and current, potentially flawed routines were part in parcel with what the Fab Labs were at their essence (2017). One may even argue that such spaces for creative exploration of new possibilities would by their nature not ‘get it right’ from the beginning. In fact, perhaps making mistakes and learning from them can be one of their greatest contributions. Indeed, Kohtala calls the Fab Lab a physical and conceptual space, a counter context, where potentially revolutionary paradigm shifts in manufacturing may begin as it teaches new generations to think/make in completely different ways (2017). When their studied Fab Lab attended FABx, a conference for Fab Labs, they were inspired by other labs pioneering in self-sufficiency or bio-based fabrication to change their methods and improve their own work. For Kohtala, this network of alternative fabrication spaces has great potential for positively impacting sustainability and working towards a better world, with ideas that could impact other areas of manufacturing to change their ways of operating and adopt a more critical, holistic and responsible approach. However, for Kohlata this potential can only be reached with commitment from these Labs to practising the sustainability and societal responsibility that their ideologies espouse. The author concludes that it is a necessity for Fab Labs to better identify and reflect on what their goals are, how they will achieve them in detail and if their current methods match their ideals, what their impact should be, and who and what should (and should not) be included in that process (Kohlata, 2017).

This case study, therefore, outlines how the example of the Fab Lab reflects some of the challenges, practices, potential pitfalls and also strengths of attempting to apply critical making practices to fabrication on an ambitious scale, especially in terms of sustainability and waste-reduction. Though illustrative, it is clear that more work is still needed for such projects to maintain their integrity to their ideologies and to really take off more broadly outside of the more fringe spheres of scholarly, hacker or artistic expressions. After all, if the goal of groups like those represented in the Fab Labs is to change the face of fabrication and manufacturing in a way which is post-consumerist and offers alternatives to wasteful contemporary practices, it will need to make itself accessible, inviting and of course known to everyone in the local community, not just a small collection of artists, designers and scientists. To me, it seems that a good place to start would be engaging citizens in everyday activities which reconnects them to their consumptive patterns, gives them tools reflection on them and encourages them to make in ways that they produce positive impacts themselves. In this way, it seems that the aforementioned Precious Plastic initiative has made significant strides in the right direction.

In our work group’s own exploration of this challenge, we examine the local issue of green waste in Maastricht and the difficulty that the local municipality experienced in successfully launching and distributing new, improved green waste bins to every household last year. We looked at what had happened, including from our personal experiences and reflected on the relevant literature, then conducted one exercise and one workshop focusing on how to make locals more engaged with and excited about understanding and being aware of their green waste. If you would like to learn more about our own experience with applying critical making to a sustainability context, this article by my college Frederique covers the exercise we undertook.

Can’t get enough of this topic? Then click on the Soundcloud widget below to listen to our podcast episode, where Frederique and I further discuss and reflect on our critical making exercise and our journey exploring problems with this approach.

References:

Hertz, G. (2020). Two Terms: Critical Making + D.I.Y. Garnet Hertz – http://conceptlab.com. Retrieved from: http://conceptlab.com/2terms/pdf/hertz-2terms-202011181901.pdf

Kohtala, C. (2017). Making “Making” Critical: How Sustainability is Constituted in Fab Lab Ideology. The Design Journal20(3), 375–394. https://doi.org/10.1080/14606925.2016.1261504

Ratto, M.  (2011) Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, The Information Society, 27(4), 252-260. DOI:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.