Hacking the Physical World

The following is a conversation that took place in The Project Room in August, 2011 between Dale Dougherty, Jess Van Nostrand, Sarah Novotny, and Mandy Greer

How Maker Faire is Like The Project Room

Jess: I’m excited to talk with you because I think we have some things in common. To start, I’m guessing that Maker Faire is like The Project Room in the way it supports taking your ideas out of your head and your own little workspace and getting them out there; in fact, I don’t claim to know the answers to The Big Question I’m asking, or even know what’s going to happen here exactly.

Dale: Yes—I think what excites me most about Maker Faire is this kind of fleshing things out into the community that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. And each of those people becomes a resource to other people—not just the attendees but also the artist themselves, the “makers.” Someone may find that someone does something that they’re interested in, and it could be a guy they know who might live nearby who they didn’t even know does something like that. It doesn’t really have a home in the community, it doesn’t really fit into the art world, it doesn’t belong in science centers; it can, but you have to think about it that way.  So [Maker Faire] is a good home for a lot of that. The makers are sort of renegade, on the outer fringe.

Sarah: There’s often a tension between the terms “artist” generically and “fine artist,” and I think that these people bring their own artistry to what they’re doing. There is this co-opting of the word “artist” to mean something else.

Mandy: I think about the difference in making for the pure pleasure of making art, whereas “art” becomes so connected to commerce.

How Dale’s Job is Like and Not Like Jess’ Job, or Is Dale a Curator?

Dale: You [Jess] said you wanted to pose a question and you’re not really sure of the answer. The art world tends to work from having the answers, you know?

Jess: OK, just to play the other side of the curator thing: curators, historically speaking, have an idea that we’re standing up for. Traditionally, that’s the thesis statement, and that’s the “answer.” So, you have something you really want to say, and you’re saying it through art. You’re using art as your evidence to prove your thesis. I really respect that format, so I don’t want to give up on that entirely because I still have something that I’m saying through this. So The Project Room not a complete open/unguided platform.

Dale: Couldn’t you say that the evidence speaks for itself?

Jess: That doesn’t totally work, because—to use art as an example—art can be looked at from so many different ways, so when you present it, you get so many different readings, it would be like having too much different evidence. So you say, “I’m looking at it from this perspective in order to ask you to think about something.”

Dale: But there are those who say you should trust the experience rather than the words around the experience. So, if you go to a Maker Faire, there is a kind of philosophy around making, but you tend not to put it out there. We trust that by making, you being to realize these things, connect with some of these ideas and shared values within a community of people, but not because we’re proselytizing ideas—because we’re encouraging them to participate. And when you go to Maker Faire, by talking and seeing people do lots of stuff, you create that narrative about what’s happening there.

Jess: But it still gets put together [by someone] with an idea.

Dale: It does. I wouldn’t disagree with what you are saying because making is an idea and that sort of draws in certain people, so I think you could put it in your category. I think the difference is that, when I find myself talking to art people, they are much more controlling and hung up on what fits their definition—maybe it’s the execution level. Science museums are a better example. For example, how do they know that freaky thing over in the corner isn’t science?

But I think that one of the things I’m learning is that I’m not there to make people do anything; they’re already doing it. I’m just there to showcase it and provide a venue for it. I certainly have a certain vision to all of this but I try not to box people into it.

Dale:  Sometimes people come to me and say “we’re putting out a challenge to get makers to make X and Y,” and I sort of bristle with that. Or, “we can have a theme of this and get makers to do it.” Some editors give out blue ribbons and I shake my head at it. Some people say “what does it mean that I got a blue ribbon?” and I’ll say, “it means that you got a blue ribbon.”[laughter]

There is a lot of cool stuff going on out there. If you just open the process and to go out and look for it, it becomes not so much about looking for art as it is about being inclusive. It’s just like community development, yet there are many things that are challenge-based. The real beauty we have is in collaboration. We don’t want barriers to collaboration.

Maker Faire: an Updated County Fair With Robots

One group I love is Theatre Bizarre in Detroit. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s grown up on the edge of Detroit across from the State Fair grounds, which are now closed, and they took over some abandoned homes and began putting on what started as a Halloween theme park. It started involving a lot more people, and its evolved into this fascinating world of performers. It’s in that same spirit, getting a group of people together to start building up this world.

Sarah: It’s about fantasy meeting reality.

Dale: Yeah, exactly. And again, you could just look at it as entertaining, and if you know these people, you would think of what they’re doing as counter cultural, but they are really just good people that are trying to create stuff. And you’re mixing that with tech culture, so people who are sometimes thought of as fringe, personality-wise, are doing something very much mainstream [in their day job] in terms of “hey, we could go to a technical conference and be big celebrities there.” This provides a different kind of community for them. If we made Maker Faire a technical conference, it would look a lot different. I kind of saw an opportunity for something more family oriented, more like a fair. We can do lots with them in that environment.

Jess: Is that sort of thing the seed that started everything?

Dale: Well, the initial seed was that these were interesting people, they enjoy each other, they enjoy talking to each other. And there’s art fairs, county fairs, world’s fair, Renaissance Faires—if you think of the word “fair” you can come up with just about anything. The agriculture/county fair is pretty dead—it’s a formula that’s just been repeated so much without any updates. We were trying to update what the county fair would be to reflect the kinds of things people were actually doing. We are not raising pigs for the most part, we are making toys and robots and things like that.

Mandy: People used to come from their farms to the county fair to see innovation.

Dale: Exactly. Similarly, we were thinking about showing things that don’t get seen very often. The idea with the farm was that it was a chance to bring your product to exhibit. I think it’s about seeing something people haven’t seen before, and the old traditional county fair now is just going through the motions.

On Process

Jess: You mentioned earlier that Maker Faire is more than exhibiting; it’s about improving your ideas because there’s all this interaction with other people. That’s important to what we’re doing here and why we’re operating transparently; there’s this idea that maybe improvement can happen if you open it up. So I feel very exposed as the founder because I’m making my process transparent at the start of a new arts space, and the idea of showing something unfinished is very uncomfortable to a lot of people, including me. As a curator, I’m expected to show a polished exhibition. So I’m curious as to how that plays into what you’re doing.

Dale: One of the things that we are trying to do more on the Make side is to show that process matters. I think even from an education point of view, it’s about teaching the process rather than the end product.

Think about something you make as a kid—or even as an adult—you make something and then get to play with it, and it sets you back to making. That’s a really good balance. So if it’s 90 percent build and 10 percent play that’s not a good thing, but if they are kind of even, or even a little bit more play, that’s a good thing. An example is when we have a group of kids making bristle boxes, which is a toothbrush with a silicone battery vibrator. They make one, they put it in a maze to see how it works, they try the others to see how they work, and then they make some changes…so they are kind of running back and forth. That iteration within an exhibition is fun to see.

Sarah: Because making can be play…

Jess: …And you see the thing better because you know all the parts of it. Sometimes when visiting a museum exhibition with a friend, I find myself reminding them that what they’re seeing was probably Plan B or C, and that you’re rarely seeing the artist’s first version.

Dale: That reminds me that the other thing that’s important to me is that we aren’t just bringing in the object; we are bringing in the people. We share a story about the object, but without formalizing that story too much. The questions to that story are, “how did you get the idea? Where did you get the materials?” Anybody can ask those questions from a non-expert level and engage with that person. Then that person lights up because they know all those answers and they care about them, and as a storytelling exercise, it’s really very effective. And the stories that you tell about what you make become very important.

It’s not [only] about executing something technically, but also being able to talk about it. I think where we struggle as humans is with blank slate ideas. If we ask, “do you know what you want to make?” you probably don’t. But if you walk though Maker Faire, you’re kind of lit up with ideas because you’re standing there looking at something and almost taking it apart in your mind.

I saw this little kid at Maker Faire once, and I went over and asked him what his favorite one was. He was like “the dunk tank thing with a basketball hoop.” He had gone behind it to see how it works, and I like that.

Jess: What is your background and how do you define your role in all this?

Dale: I was an English major. As a kid, I loved to learn but I didn’t really like school. Today we are a standards-based society with standards-based education. It’s so wrong. It’s this awful way of thinking, trying to elevate certain people to elite status and relegating everyone else to mediocrity. Yet, everybody can do stuff. They can all discover and think for themselves and do whatever it is, technology, art, whatever. It’s about being able to feel engaged.

So much of what kids need is connections to real community, real people, to be with stuff. School seems so artificial—it’s like an island you hope to get off of, like “how do I get out of here so I can get back to where everyone else is?”

All of this stuff existed before I started publishing, but I gave it a focus and the word “maker” emerged as something that we wanted to use because it could be a neutral term. You could be a crafter, a welder, but you would also be a maker, and I was really interested in how we could connect people across that.

Sarah: A conversation across disciplines.

Dale: And again that doesn’t happen in school. They force them to be the opposite.

Your Job vs. Your Making

Sarah: There are so many people who do their job and then do the fun stuff separately. And if you can find a way to meld those, then everyone’s happier.

Dale: There are people who purposefully don’t meld them. But many do—they want the thing they love to take over more of their life.

Jess: I’m experiencing that right now. I made the choice to do that, but it’s certainly not for everybody because it doesn’t ever turn off [points to brain] and my kids spend a ton of time here—it’s going to be part of their childhood. So Mike [Jess’ husband] and I had this understanding that we’re about to raise our kids with this thing because it’s so immersive. And we were like, “that’s ok, that’s good.”

Mandy: I think about my parents and how I didn’t know anything, growing up, about what they did.

Jess: Perhaps it’s feminist thing, but I like that my daughter understands how her mom is working and a mom. So rather than me telling her, “you can be anything you want,” she’s actually spending time here seeing that.

Dale: I’m interested in the idea of the journeyman. The apprenticeship was a model about a master dominating you and then exploiting your work. But a journeyman went to a lot of different places and worked with of a lot of different people who had different styles, the idea being that a particular region had its own style of doing things. So being exposed to other things was a way to develop what you prefer.

In the old model of working, you would stay with one company helping with small parts of the larger product, and it might be 20 or 30 years before you felt like you had made a significant contribution to the company. But with Silicon Valley and new companies, there’s the possibility of making a significant contribution right away. It’s almost like it’s the lack of baggage that succeeds there.

On the Unraveling of Institutions and the Building of Communities

Dale: I think we’re in this era of unraveling institutions. I don’t have much patience for them or faith in them.

One of the problems with institutions is that they’re not on the ground. And there are people who are on the ground doing really incredible, interesting things. Take urban agriculture: it was seen as, “well, that doesn’t make sense, they’ll never supply enough food to make an economic impact.” Well, there was this guy in Detroit who said, “I woke up one day—I’d lost my job—and I looked out at this empty lot across from me, and I thought, ‘you know, I’m gonna go clean that up.’ And once I cleaned it up, I realized that if I put a garden there, people wouldn’t throw trash.” And it was the first step towards starting a community garden.

It became a community building exercise, and then they got a community center, a bike shop where kids could get bikes and helmets, and there were no institutions behind it. That’s the kind of stuff you want to see. But if you start with the ideas at the top and then try to make a community happen, it just won’t work. And with the crochet parties here, it’s the same thing, where people come with their own thing to do or make or share.

Jess: And it’s the idea sharing that’s never a bad thing. And that’s what I get excited, about because it allows for people to make their ideas stronger.

Dale: And what happens to that lonely kid in high school who has ideas that no one else is interested in? Well, that kid is not alone, because he’s connected to so many groups beyond his own school now. And, believe it or not, tech people actually like to share tools and ideas.

Mandy: I’ve been doing crochet parties for a while now as part of my installations. It started out of necessity, because I needed help, and then I started doing them in public, where I talked twenty or thirty different times about what I’m doing [as people arrived]. And people always have had strong connections to make each time I would explain it, like “oh! That reminds me of a story, or things I’ve read, etc.”

Dale: Actually it makes me think, when you say that, that we are thinking about ways that more people can participate in the process. I work with a lot of teachers, and I think that basically the best way to teach teachers about making is to just consider them makers. Not using a lot of words about it but just letting them teach. So, we set up a table and have them sit down with everyone and talk to each other, sometimes about the work and sometimes about something else. It’s a very non-threatening conversation that almost anyone can enter. There’s a large project with kids in Berkeley right now where they’re trying to get kids to cook, and it’s the same kind of thing, seeing kids talk while they are baking and cooking. It’s comfortable, and the school context doesn’t provide that.

Mandy: There is something too about making that provides a place for something quiet to happen.

Dale: And I think being able to create that space for yourself is important, whether it’s alone or with a group. Particularly for kids, but even as adults as you get so distracted because there are so many things going on, it’s that feeling that you get when you are really immersed in something in that moment.

Hacking the Physical World

Jess: So, how do these experiences relate to Make Magazine?

Dale: Seeing people do things is like hacking the physical word rather then hacking software. I always wanted to do a magazine, and this is very visually oriented content, rather than something that is just totally text. In terms of a magazine, there are a lot of DIY magazines for cooking, gardening, woodworking. But you read these magazines because you do it, you practice it; you don’t generally buy a food magazine unless you cook. But, I thought: you know, there is a generation of people that are really enthusiasts of technology, but all the content in those publications is about what to buy, not about what to do with it. I wanted to shift it from what to buy to what to do. So a lot of stuff [in the magazine] tends to be project oriented. I looked at the Popular Mechanics magazines of the 40’s and 50’s, and I saw a voice there that was hacker oriented as in, “hey, you don’t think you can build a garage in a weekend? Well, I just went out and did it and here’s how!”

It was an invitation to see stuff. And I wanted to create that invitation and I wanted to create those details. I wanted not just, “look at something cool,” I wanted “here is how you do it.” It’s somewhere that you can share your work and people can follow it. Even just mentally, because when you start to do your own projects—even if it’s not exactly what’s in the magazine—it’s a piece of this, it’s a piece of that, so you learned the technique, you picked up an idea. I think what was kind of missing was the practice of making and how to build that up over time by doing things, failing, and trying it again. What I’d like to see is something a little more educational. This is how we learn, by trying to do things, not by reading out of a book.

Jess: Have you ever done anything with failed attempts?

Dale: We do, it’s always a theme that’s out there. Science often doesn’t talk about the failures, but I think that is an important side of it. You could research something your entire life, but if you don’t participate in it, you’ll never get there. Nothing’s perfect, nothing’s complete, but to engage is important.