Haidy Geismar, UCL
I’ve been working on a paper for a workshop on “Transforming data: drawing otherness into data debates” next week. I will be talking about one of my current research projects, Te Ara Wairua – Pathways of the Intangible. In collaboration with Kura Puke and Stuart Foster of Massey University and Te Matahiapo Research Organization in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been exploring how digital technologies can connect to a Maori Korowai (cloak) held currently in the UCL Ethnography Collections.
Patrick Laviolette (EHI, Tallinn University, hosts of EASA2014)
In terms of providing reflections on the material dimensions of place and landscape, here are some links to what I feel have been amongst the more provocative postings on the blog over the years. Many of the authors to the links below implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly ask: how do we depict our spatial experiences through the digital medium of blogging?
In Feb 2007, Graeme Were put up a piece simply entitled ‘Footpaths‘ by Kate Cameron-Daum. It is an eye-catching post which stirred my own curiosity on methods of walking, particularly in the countryside. Similarly, Peter Oakley’s observations at Tyntesfield house in ‘A Roof with a View‘, reflects upon the postmodern condition of a heritage site standing below some scaffolding.
With some contrast perhaps, Dimitris Dalakoglou’s research summary on roads in the border region of Albania and Greece talks of movement, fixity and transgressive ‘materiality’. In a stunning photo-montage, Tony Whincup’s Water on Water project equally raises politically charged issues over morality, national agendas and cross-cultural understandings.
David Sutton’s post Looking Good gives MW readers an informative review of Cristina Grasseni monograph Developing Skill, Developing Vision (Berghahn, 2009) — a book about the environment and so much more. Similarly, anthropologist and curator Claire Melhuish provides a review of the exhibition ‘Land Architecture People‘.
In keeping with the themes of design and urban space, Jo-Anne-Bichard & Gail Knight posted a ‘toiletscape’ piece that is both fun as well as seriously challenging at the same time. Aliine Lotman’s research synopsis on ‘Dumpster Diving‘, waste and disgust in Barcelona equally captures much of the essence to approaches grounded in material culture studies (i.e. those which are anthropologically informed whilst also being innovative, inter-disciplinary and ethnographically rich).
Similarly, an in-depth posting in our ‘Occasional Papers Series (no.3)’ by Sabrina Bradford & Abby Loebenberg recently sparked the possibility of rethinking the impacts of hurricane Katrina. Theirs is a multi-media reflection on ‘disaster landscapes’, a theme which resonates with my last two selections from MW blog postings.
Matt Voigts (picking up on a reoccurring public transport meme which Aaron has also identified as one of his favourites) sent a digest on memorialisation cycles. It is a telling personal account in the vein of ‘contemporary past archaeologies’. In seeing a ‘ghost-bike‘ relic, he reveals how things of mourning can create social affects upon both our historical imaginaries as well as the design possibilities for urban planning.
And at around the same time, Francisco Martinez & Larissa Vanamo offered us an astute interview from a few years back with the fascinating and controversial ‘doomsday prophet’ Pentti Linkola.
Christopher Pinney, UCL
[Please note: this post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]
I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons. The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.
So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.
We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes. Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.
Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.
In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.
A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.
Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.
As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).
Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too. Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.
Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out. Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom. After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.
Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.
We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance). But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.
Haidy Geismar, UCL
In this post, I link to the very best posts in our archive focused on making, doing and craft.
In Fixing, Things, Fixing Ourselves, Lydia Nicholas writes about Suguru, an open source material for extending the life of mass produced (or any other) artifacts.
In Plan B for a Nuclear Reactor, Paul Williams describes the transformation of a nuclear power plant into a heritage site.
Gabriella Coleman outlines her theory of hackers, liberalism, and pleasure, which became an important part of her book, Coding Freedom.
Ian Ewart was an Anthropologist Looks at Engineering.
Adam Drazin presents the Mechanical Postcard, an intervention into UCL Ethnography Collections by Mattijs Siljee, of Massey University, New Zealand.
And on the opposite side of making, unmaking, Helen Polson writes about how Death Bear Wants Your Unhappy Things.
Haidy Geismar, UCL
In this new series of summer posts, we, the editors look back at the past 8 or so years that Material world Blog has been going and curate a series of “best of” themed post. Here, I link to what I consider to be some of the very best postings about art on the site.
In his post Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway Christopher Pinney presents a series of his own technicolour photographs, inspired by Ed Rucha’s 1963 series.
Jonathan Patkowski and Nicole Reiner unpack Alfred Barr’s infamous artist network diagram and unpack the neoliberal logics of the avant-garde as presented in the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction“.
Ryan Schram describes the tensions and identity around the speaker of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea trying to destroy the carvings evoking customary art and identity, made upon independence to decorate the new Parliament House.
In Museums Get the Best Gifts, Marcus Moore describes several gifts from Marcel Duchamp to collections in New Zealand.
Ross Hemera reviews Damien Skinner’s The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century.
Dan Perkel writes about The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on DeviantART
Fernando Dominguez Rubio looks at the conservation of modern art as a Material Ecology of Culture
A team of scholars from Leiden University examine Photographic Traditions in South African Popular Modernities
Jennifer Deger presents her collaborative exhibition about a Yolngu Christmas: Lights, Tinsel, Presence.
William Viney writes about the work of Mark Dion
Edmund Clark presents his work on secret detentions in the UK: Control Order House
Finally, in our most popular post ever, April Strickland discusses the case of Maori tattooing, appropriation, and Mike Tyson.(in the case of the film Hangover Part Two)
In March, Gabriella Coleman gave a talk at the UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology drawing on her research with the activist (non)collective Anonymous. Her talk, entitled Anonymous and the Craftiness of Craft and the Trickiness of Trickery, linked Anonymous activists to the anthropological archetype of the trickster, and developed the trope of craft – as an engaged, wholly material practice – as a way to enact trickery.
The talk can be watched by clicking on the following link, or the one above (I’m trying to figure out how to embed it into wordpress)
Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.
Dr.Kala ShreenFounder & Director,Cultural Dynamics & Emotions Network (CDEN), School of History and Anthropology,Queen’s University Belfast, U.K. www.qub.ac.uk/cden Chairperson,Center for Creativity, Heritage and Development, Chennai, INDIA, www.cchd.in
In 2012, a world crafts summit was convened by World Crafts Council in the metropolitan city of Chennai, South India. World Crafts Council is a non-profit organization, affiliated to UNESCO, that works “to strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life” as recounted in their web portal. In a press meet during the summit, the President of the World Crafts Council said, “One of the objectives of this summit is to reinforce the importance of crafts in our society and culture… Why should crafts take a back seat to other forms of art such as paintings, sculptures, music, dance and films? Crafts are also works of art in their own way…Therefore, I also feel that craftspeople should be given the same kind of respect and social status that fine artists are given.”
This summit, among other events and activities, comprised craft expositions organized at various renowned art galleries in the Chennai city. The organizing team of the summit said that they wanted to create an interface between art and craft and had labelled this initiative as the “interdisciplinary art-craft exhibitions series”. A range of crafts including textiles, puppets, baskets, furniture and home accessories moved into the art space in local art galleries that predominantly hosted art exhibitions comprising sculptures and paintings in the past. The ensuing circulation and consumption of crafts shall be the focus of my following discussion with specific reference to two examples.
An exhibition, held in a renowned art gallery in central Chennai, showcased several works of furniture wherein various art elements were appropriated into their production. For example, folk art themes were incorporated into home accessories such as wall lights (fig:1). A set of chairs possessed hand painted back rests. In another instance, the religious themes of the Tanjore style of painting was utilized on the facade of a wooden wall cabinet (fig:2). The furniture drew varied comments from the spectators. For example, the wall cabinet in the photograph received mixed reactions from different people, both positive and negative.
A fifty-one year old art collector, said,
“I do not like the way the image of Krishna has been cut up here. The Tanjore style of painting which predominantly carries Krishna themes is one of my favourite art choices. I have many Tanjore paintings in my house. I admire its beauty in its entirety…The beauty of the face, the expressions on the face… To see this kind of torn up Tanjore painting is a bit disconcerting for me… I certainly would not like to have this in my house…”
A teenager, fifteen years of age, in response to my question, commented,
“I think it looks weird. It is like taking a picture and tearing it up into many pieces and then trying to tape it back to together. How can that look nice. I like seeing a whole picture.”
This piece of furniture comprising fractured images of Krishna’s face thus provoked negative reactions to the designer’s aesthetic approach and was regarded by some as a distasteful appropriation of a religious image. The above comments of select viewers of this piece of furniture also served as a reminder to me of reactions to the controversial appropriation of Hindu religious images elsewhere in the world. While the appropriation of Krishna’s image did not generate extreme responses with regard to the cabinet, in the case of the Lisa Blue swimwear collection in Australia, the images of Goddess Lakshmi on the bikini and other swimsuits, angered many Hindus. In some cities in India protests were carried out and images of her collection were burned. Many Hindus clearly did not accept the design aesthetics of the swimwear line, regarding it as a malign appropriation of an image of religious significance to the Hindus. As a result, the collection comprising Goddess Lakshmi images were stopped from being retailed and the designer had to issue a public apology. Thus the transition of religious art to contemporary craft or fashion can also lead to debates about social norms.
At another gallery an exposition titled “Antique Chettinad Basketry” was held. Kottans are baskets made in the villages of Chettinad in Tamilnadu, India. These baskets, originally used by the Chettiar community for ritual and storage purposes, were appropriated by the exhibition curator into a visual display for public consumption. At this exhibition, the baskets were mounted on display pedestals and brightly illuminated; kottan weaves were glass framed and hung on the wall; the exhibits were neatly labelled with the kottan taxonomies and pertaining descriptions (fig:3). The visual display drew some interesting comments from visitors. One visitor said,
‘I have seen many art exhibitions where paintings and sculptures are displayed. This is the first time I am seeing crafts displayed like works of art.’
Another spectator said,
‘I never thought that baskets could qualify to be displayed in the likes of an art exhibition.’
Kottan baskets were thereby made to downplay their mundane utility and ritual context and were perceived as artistic objects as can be seen from the museum-like display and the above comments of the spectators.
The exhibition of the antique palmyra kottan baskets also brought to light the importance of the constructed settings in the visual display of these objects (fig:4). A set of small baskets were displayed on an antique chest of drawers alongside traditional Chettinad saris under old black and white photographs of Chettiars. A pair of large sized baskets was exhibited below an antique painting. This display scene also comprised an antique chair and a footstool on which were placed a vernacular newspaper and a pair of reading glasses. An adjoining area consisted of brightly coloured baskets in various sizes and filled with vegetable and fruits. A section of the adjoining wall comprised a panel explaining the history of the baskets and a photographic depiction of their usage in ceremonies during ancient times in an effort to tease out the baskets’ historical place and age-old use among the Chettiars.
Many of the objects such as baskets, photographs, furnitures and paintings looked old and were used to create the setting of the ancient Chettiar lifestyle. The visual evidence of aging seen in the objects and the props in the basket exhibition such as rusted lids on the beaded bottles, the chipped portions of the furniture, the termite eaten patches on the frames of the paintings, the black, white and faded colours of the photographs play a significant role in establishing the age and antiquity of the objects on display and projects a heritage value. It is therefore this ‘age’ factor that places the Chettinad baskets in a privileged contemporary position in the heritage practices of visual consumption.
Thus, I have tried to briefly capture the dynamics of craft production, consumption and circulation in contemporary Chennai during an international crafts event. Crafts are not static objects with a fixed status or value. Rather, as seen during the above two expositions, they traverse the shifting boundaries between crafts, art, religion and heritage in their movement across time and space.
Lydia Nicholas, UCL Digital Anthropology, @lydnicholas
In UCL’s digital anthropology department, students are never allowed to forget that digital practices are performed by physical bodies, and that informants are embodied and situated, carrying their own culture with them as they write code, comment anonymously, or direct avatars to move through virtual environments.
I was interested in the flow of habit and meaning in the opposite direction- how experiences in digital spaces -such as familiarity with the affordances of writing code- could feed into informants’ understanding of the non-digital. The political side of this process is explored in depth by Keltys and Coleman. Yet I wanted to investigate how experiences manipulating digital objects might affect one’s expectations of the affordances of the physical world on a more prosaic level. If users carry culture into digital spaces, surely they carry new or developed knowledge, assumptions, habitus back out. Anyone who has stood frustrated in a rearranged supermarket and felt an unfulfillable urge to press ‘search’ may understand.
Sugru is a self-setting silicon rubber coloured black, white, red yellow or blue sold in 5 gram packets for £12.99. Once a packet is opened the substance is flexible enough to mould for about 30 minutes before beginning to set into its final form which is waterproof, heatproof up to 180°C, strong, slightly flexible, and capable of sticking to almost any surface- plastic, metal, glass, ceramics, wood, etc.
In late 2012 I did a small study exploring how the politics and affordances of digital culture influence physical making and mending through the use and marketing of Sugru. I interviewed and collected narrative accounts from 28 Sugru users, sampled by approaching those who tweeted or posted to Facebook publically about having bought or used Sugru, and recruiting through those respondents’ networks. I studied the company’s marketing materials and social media activity, and contacted the company to ask for interviews- due to time constraints they directed me to specific preferred interviews which were already available publicly online.
‘Hacking’ and ‘fixing’ objects with Sugru are practices by which consumers exercise creativity and skill to exert power over products in resistance to a culture of mass-consumption. Consumers used conceptual models drawn from digital material culture and hacker culture, particularly Free/ Open Source Software (F/OSS) movements (Coleman 2012), to re-imagine technologies which had been black boxed (Bijker 1987) as open and amenable to adaptation. Whilst it is true more generally that ‘moments of socio-technical closure… are illusionary’ and that objects are always part of a continual narrative of ‘consumption, practice, and meaning’ (Shove et al. 2007) in these practices of ‘fixing’ as described by my informants, consumers were particularly conscious of this process of changing and developing the narratives of their objects by opening them- unscrewing boxes, escaping legal restrictions, and the extending the object’s functionality beyond that endowed by the original producer. Through this form of ‘craft consumption’ (Campbell 2005) consumers were able to extend the work of ‘translating products from alienable condition’ (Miller 1987) beyond the stylistic to the functional, fitting products’ material properties to the precise needs of their particular situation, thereby performing power and avoiding waste. These processes were framed as part of political projects, and ‘fixes’ were shared with others both to demonstrate the fixer’s skill and ethics, but also in the hope of gaining adherents to these projects.
Definitions of ‘hacking’ and ‘fixing’ were contested and ambiguity caused confusion amongst users with different backgrounds who came together to discuss their work. Sugru confronted this problem in its FAQ section:
Why do you talk about ‘hacking’? That word means something different to me…
There are many definitions of the word hack; for us a hack is a clever solution to an everyday problem. We feel that it captures a strong can-do attitude that we hope inspires people to take control of their stuff. (Sugru n.d.a)
The use of ‘hack’ to mean ‘to cope with’ or a person who can and will do ‘any kind of work’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2012) predates computers, but the pride many informants took in saying “I’m a hacker” made it clear that they did not conceive of ‘hacking’ as substandard workarounds. Rather, ‘hackers’ enjoyed demonstrating power over objects through exercising creativity and skill in a manner which echoed the affective experience of software development described by Coleman as “the joy that follows from the self-directed realization of skills, goals, and talents.” ‘Hacks’ were an exercise in ‘control’ because products were seen to be influenced by the intentions of their mass-producer in ways which restricted their fit into the consumer’s life. F/OSS hacker culture is scornful of legal restrictions on software and explicitly connects the right to modify with the right to free speech (Coleman 2012). This leads to the extension of the understanding of ‘brokenness’ to include objects that are capable of performing the functionality intended by their producer but are not open to adaptation to the consumer’s individual needs. This allowed the gradual (and by no means total) replacement of ‘hack’ with ‘fix’. Drawing from F/OSS culture means that this model has inherited the movement’s political concerns with resisting the wider cultural system which enables and implements restrictions and creates products which are wastefully inefficient fits to consumer needs. It is no coincidence that Sugru’s original slogan ‘hack things better’ was replaced in June 2012 with ‘the future needs fixing’ (Sugru n.d.b)
Whilst other similar products such as Arduino and Makerbot use similar vocabularies and political messages, and are also often used to alter or improve the functionality of objects owned by the user- automating the watering of plants, replacing plastic components of broken printers, etc- they both require the use of code or digital design tools. Sugru stood out for this study as a purely physical product which demonstrated the translation between digital and physical affordances and cultural practices. The superficial similarities in material affordances between Sugru and established products aimed at craft and DIY practitioners such as epoxy resin and superglue serve as evidence that the consumptive practices associated with Sugru are not technologically determined. Campbell’s ‘craft consumer’ who creates assemblages of ‘mass-produced retail commodities’ in order to fulfil a ‘bourgeois desire for self-expression’(2005) provided a useful reference point for placing ‘fixing’ in the context of available models of consumption. In this model consumption was work, as described by Miller (1987), but Campbell’s craft consumer took this work beyond ‘merely exercise[ing] control’ over objects, and brought ‘skill, knowledge, judgement, love and passion’ to the process of translation. I built on Shove et al.’s (2007) elaboration of the particular aspect of this model which views consumers as ‘knowledgeable actors whose consumption is in some sense an expression of their capabilities and project-orientated ambitions.’ Like the DIY projects which are the focus of Shove et al.’s study, ‘fixing’ usually involved one or more mass-produced objects, and results emerged from a ‘dynamic relation between product and practise’, but the changes the original objects underwent in the course of projects were often not so radical as to result in the ‘new ‘ensemble-style products’. ‘Fixed’ products usually performed the same or similar function as they did when purchased, but the relation between user and product was changed.
Sugru was invented by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, who is co-founder and CEO of FormFormForm Ltd., the company which produces, packages, markets and sells Sugru. The material’s affordances were designed over a period of six years’ research and development by Ní Dhulchaointigh to balance ease and pleasure of use with the flexibility to be applicable to as wide a variety of fixing and hacking projects as possible.
I want to make it easy for anyone to adapt, modify, repair and improve their stuff to make it work better for them.” (Ní Dhulchaointigh 2011)
Informants unanimously agreed that Sugru was indeed easy to use. This was considered so obviously true that questions about difficulty sometimes elicited laughs.
I used my kindergarten experience with play-doh to great effect, no tutorials really except checking hardening times,
Sugru in its pre-cured state possesses affordances which feel as familiar, intuitive and safe as children’s toys. This inspired confident, creative practises of consumption such as improvisation and experimentation even in new users. In a model of distributed knowledge (Hutchins 1993) Sugru takes on the majority of the burden for knowing how to tackle the specific chemical and physical problems within users’ idea, for instance how to stick two surfaces together, support weight or absorb shock. Thus Sugru and user form a human-non-human hybrid (Latour 1993) that is immediately highly capable. Being easier to use did not lead consumers to do the same thing quicker but instead led Sugru consumers to engage in significantly different patterns of practice than do the consumers of DIY products investigated by Shove et al. (2007:63). Because the DIY products were expensive and inflexible, and skill in specific DIY activities increased through experience, the competencies gained and leftover resources of tools and materials from each project had a significant effect on the next project, propelling users along a ‘career trajectory.’ In contrast Sugru’s flexibility, low cost, and lack of skill barrier engendered openness and set a high value on creativity. Users narrated sequences of projects which wandered at the whim of inspiration:
“made feet for metal speaker stands to keep them off new wood floor, fixed a thermos, fixed a ginormous stand-up to use shoe-horn, made a grip modification for a SLR camera, made grip modification to spoon for a disabled person, made numerous hacks to exterior of my stucco walled house to make climbing vines from plants that wouldn’t normally do that.” John
Whilst the product opened these possibilities it did so in a dynamic relationship with consumers’ ability to conceive of the physical products they owned as open to fixing- both in terms of restoring original functionality and fitting products to their situational needs. This reframing of products and problems was influenced by digital start-ups and F/OSS culture and was actively promoted by FormFormForm Ltd.
The prominent position of the CEO in company messaging and the connection of use of the product with broader positive changes in users’ lives and an explicit political agenda which centres around using openness and creativity to improve efficiency is reminiscent of digital start-ups. FormFormForm’s headquarters and main factory is based in Hackney, a short walk from the glut of digital start-ups of Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’. When asked about the location, which is unusual for a factory, Ní Dhulchaointigh ‘insists that her company is not much different to the digital start-ups located down the road in the area nicknamed Silicon Roundabout.’(Moules 2011). These similarities are so core to FormFormForm that they alter the material itself. Sugru’s formulation is still continually updated in response to feedback from the community regarding desired qualities such as colour, stickiness and shelf-life. This flexible, iterative design enacted by ‘designers who are themselves immersed in an engaged community of users’ (Hill 2004:48) echoes practices recognised as typical of digital start-ups more than those of manufacturing. Showing users that their feedback contributes to the development of the product and the company is just one of the ways that Sugru Inc. creates a relationship with the consumers of their products which elevates them from purchasers into active participants in a larger project with a political dimension. Whilst FormFormForm is a mass-producer their quick responses to complaints or questions and the high value placed on user’s contributions of pictures and information showed them actively driving the development of a relationship based on the principles of ‘mutual aid, transparency, and complex codes of collaboration’ observed by Coleman (2012:4794) in F/OSS culture. Sugru’s official Twitter feed responds to most public mentions of using the product, in particular congratulating those who did not quickly receive responses from elsewhere.
@DM_Se7en</strong>: Fixed my stethoscope with @sugru #amazingstuff pic.twitter.com/dPJja2in
@WL_5ive Hey Dwayne, will check in with the team on this but I think that might be the first sugru-ed stethoscope we’ve seen! Awesome
@DM_Se7en</strong>: @sugru Awesome! Glad I could make history! (DM_Se7en, Sugru December 2012)</p>
Sugru did not retweet @DM_Se7en’s fix so this communication provided Sugru with no publicity or content. It served primarily to engage @WL_5ive, whose mention of Sugru had otherwise gone unheard. His response, which playfully accepts the call to conceive of his fix as part of Sugru’s narrative is typical of the exchanges I witnessed.
Many of my informants explicitly framed their fixes as a means of resistance to the culture of mass-consumption. Whilst the ‘yearning for singularization in complex societies’ (Kopytoff 1986) was a factor, a key difference was the desire to avoid consumption perceived as excessive. Campbell’s ‘craft consumers’ and Shove et al.’s DIY practitioners consume mass-produced products in their efforts to circumvent the homogenising effect of the mass-production system. Whilst it required the purchase of Sugru, fixing with Sugru was described as a way to avoid purchasing and wasting. Waste was referred to in visceral and emotive terms, and fixing as a potential path to escape or transcend it.
”It can make something last longer and avoid our disgusting human penchant for waste” Sam
“I do not believe in throwing things that are fixable away.” Sarah
“I … do not like frivolous consumption” Alex
The system of ‘belief’ which discourages ‘disgusting’ and ‘frivolous’ habits of waste is drawn from the maker movement which itself draws heavily from F/OSS culture. Ní Dhulchaointigh made this connection and its political connotations explicit by creating (through open debate in the company) ‘The Fixer’s Manifesto’ in two forms which demonstrate the combined heritage of ‘fixing’. The GitHub version of the ‘manifesto’ makes the connection between physical fixing and open source software explicit as it is not a collaborative writing platform but a leading free tool for collaborative software development. Its use is a core practise in both digital start-ups and F/OSS projects and requires knowledge of technical language. The poster version includes a pen and explicit call to edit the text, the description includes precise details about the materials, processes and brands of its component parts. This renders it open to comprehension and modification echoing in physical form the affordances of open source code. The text of the manifesto frames the act of fixing as the use of creative self-expression to resistance the wastefulness of mass-consumption.
“Everyday practical problem solving is the most beautiful form of creativity there is… Resist trends and needless upgrades. They fuel our throwaway culture.”
This creativity relies on the ability to conceive objects as open to fixing and individuals as having the right and the responsibility to fix.
“If it’s broken, fix it!… If it’s not broken, improve it… People are infinitely diverse. Products should be too.” (Fixers Manifesto n.d.)
Products are reframed as physically alterable, with ultimate responsibility for rendering them fit for individual needs delegated to the consumer rather being controlled by the producer. This effort to unpack black boxes owes much to the work of F/OSS culture, as in the note routinely included in OSS source code:
“This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.”
Warranties are a part of the process which black boxes technologies (Bijker & Pinch 1987). By requiring that their products be used only as specified in the warranty, or by making products which cannot be opened or modified without being damaged mass-producers retain power over objects after purchase, preventing consumers from altering products in order to fully ‘translate’ them to diverse contexts. The object retains properties and features which are not ‘fitting’ and so potentially wasteful. Resistance to this aspect of mass consumption is evident in the above note which explicitly moves the product of F/OSS developers labour outside of the mass-market, beyond the sanctions of warranties. Coleman (2012) remarks that the statement possesses “subtle irony” because “even if developers cannot legally guarantee the so-called FITNESS of software, they know that in many instances free software is often as useful as or in some cases superior to proprietary software.”
This resistance to boundaries in favour of openness is clear in the phrase “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it”, the motto of Make magazine “a central organ of the maker movement”(‘More than just digital quilting’ 2011). The motto was first published in 2006 as subheading to their “Owner’s Manifesto” which details practical ways in which mass-produced products should be made easier to open and to understand.
“Cases shall be easy to open.”
“Circuit boards shall be commented.” (Mister Jalopy, 2006)\
Informants who had a background in software development made a direct connection between their own affective experience of software development and their expectations of physical products in their possession and their ability to understand and affect the properties of those products, thereby furthering the process of translation from ‘alienable condition’ to a meaningful fit.
“I try to fix and make as much as possible… I think this is driven, in part, from my job as a Software Developer which has taught me that most things in life can be made by yourself given the right knowledge and drive. I find that it gives my life a little more meaning knowing that I’ve made/fixed something which I rely on.”
Those who didn’t have direct experience of software development still used its language to frame their practices. Physically adapting products extended the scope of consumers’ work of appropriation, the depth of meaning they ascribed to objects, and the power they believed they had over those objects, which they related to a wider system of power inherent in a culture of mass production. Speaking of products which were had long been owned and incorporated into their ‘stylistic array’ informants reported that after fixing them they felt “more attached” and that such consumptive work “feels like you take ownership of your stuff.” The pride many took in money they had saved by employing their own creativity and skill in fixes was another aspect of this resistance of waste. Whilst feeling ‘proud’ of their work was one motivation for consumers to describe fixes to friends, individual use cases could be seen as ‘a bit trivial’. More often they reported an interest in discussing their interest in fixing and the associated culture and practices.
“I’m proud of it so I do mention it to people, mostly to spread awareness of Sugru and even more so of cost cutting via make-do-and-mend mentality.” Laura
Ironically, affective experiences of digital material culture and the consumptive practices that emerged from those practices have led a growing number of consumers to become newly interested and active in exploring the materiality of the physical products that they consume, and the power they can exert over the material features and functionality of their property.
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The University of Queensland Director Diana Young writes…
Since 2009 the Anthropology Museum has again had a rolling exhibition program both to enable more of its significant 26,000 item collection to be seen, to present academic research in ways that engages with a wide audience whilst challenging and expanding ideas about what an ‘anthropological’ collection can be in the 21st century.
Eshewing long text panels the installation of all exhibtions must in some way convey ideas and context. In Gapuwiyak Calling the curators wanted a rainforest in which to hang the tiny projections of films made on mobile phones and the Museum team worked to make that forest from plinths together with the paper, mini projectors and repro retro phone handsets sourced by Miyarrka Media.
My aim also has been to include collection things in each exhibition and initially Gapuwiyak Calling seemed to be a show composed entirely of intangible media. But a sculpture of a spirit figure arrived with Miyarrka media and was armed with spear, spear thrower and yidaki from the collection. He resides in the gallery video projection of the forest in where he dwells.
In this double bill in one gallery space written on the body, curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young, is an exhibition that is seemingly the inverse of Gapuwiyak Calling – crammed full of stuff. Both these exhibitions question received ideas about Museum processes by making them more visible to the visitor through different Indigenous interventions.
In written on the body playfulness and visual poetry is evident in the tableau of written on museum collection things that have been arranged with used kitchenware, mirrors and anthropometric measuring devices. These have been deployed both to reassure through their worn ordinariness and to emphasise the violence in the gesture of writing on someone else’s property.
As Watson writes in her catalogue essay;
‘To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descendants of the places from which these museum – held objects came, the act of writing onto the objects can be seen as an act of vandalism, a sacrilege, an infliction of control by another, dominating culture.’
This sentiment is played out in the film Watson made in the Anthropology Museum collection store in which descendants of the people to whom the things once belonged touch and talk to them. In Watson’s words these ‘… are an extension of their family’s embrace, carrying messages from home’. The used kitchenware conveys similar sentiment.
Jennifer Deger, anthropologist and co-curator of Gapuwiyak Calling describes the exhibition as “…an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum”.
The performativity of Gapuwiyak Calling contrasts with the meditative stillness of written on the body. But in this exhibition too is an intention by the curators to activate things through a richochet of relationships that destabilises the layers of information and misinformation on the museum labels ( mostly dating from the early period of the collecting of 1940s to 1960) and provide a rich visual experience for visitors.
The exhibition catalogue can be download here