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AbSoLuTeLy FaB-LaB-uLoUs!

If you’ve soldered, hacked, tinkered or tailored something you might be familiar with the world of maker faires, tech demos and FabLabs. People swarm tables full of buzzing, beeping, whirring machines that have been crafted and created by scientists, technologists and engineers showcasing their accomplishments and each challenging the way in which makers are now making or manufacturing the machine behind the matter.

But, is this an unhealthy and indulgent consumption of technology or the ridiculously impressive application of human conquering machine?

This past few months have been a fascinating journey. My Techno-hope to Techno-fear blog entry was perhaps the closest I came to thinking I could tackle my fear of tinkering with the science behind a machine. Since then I have grown more inquisitive of this growing community of ‘makers’ - those curious of the systems behind these black boxes and fearless in the face of digital fabrication.

I began with looking for a better understanding of electronic maker culture and who better to kick-start my interest than Cefn Hoile. Electronics genius and founder of Shrimping.It I met Cefn through HighWire and he was kind enough to spare me some time and tell me a little more of the magic and minds behind Shrimping.It technology. To form a better understanding of the the people behind these quirky inventions I wanted to hear stories of those who are interested in arduino activity and what are they doing with access to this technology?

The Curiosity Bureau was kindly invited by STEMNet to partner with Shrimping.It and deliver an electronics demo and imagination workshop for up to 200 students. The students were 11-14yrs old and invited across Greater Manchester to attend and get excited by its first of its kind iTECH Design Your Future event in March earlier this year. Hosted at the Museum of Science and Industry (MoSI) it soon became apparent to me that these events are highly interactive and fast paced environments aimed at exciting and inspiring students to enter into careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. However, what I couldn’t pin point at the time was a question that seems to be reoccurring as I navigate this area… where is the curiosity, imagination and creative confidence at these tech events? And, is the culture that is being encouraged a culture that will take participants minds past the magic of the machine and into the inquiry of the context for which the machine is being made?

Alastair Fuad-Luke talks of ‘a personalised digi-make’ economy where increased citizen designer control is present and it is ‘one of unique personalization’. This is true of the digi-maker, who I also suggest merges the maker craft of using the act of physically building with electronic parts with the understanding of the digital bits. A digi-maker will take the tools available in their physical environment, perhaps access further tools via websites, and by ordering the parts and connecting people to the parts, they take the build process one step further, they not only make but invent too. Fuad-Luke also looks to projects that measure social capital, and I will not go into detail yet about this here. However, perhaps this is an approach that can be applied to the design of the tech faire?

On a hunt to find examples of digi-makers I met with a wonderfully welcoming and creative woman – Clare Bowman. Trained in reflexology Clare lives on a barge in Lancashire and she makes and invents with Shrimping.It electronics and digital fabrication. Her curiosity in making and inventing with meaning and for purpose is inspiring, and I wanted to know more about why I found her so inspiring. Clare kindly agreed to allow myself and photographer, Drew Forsyth to spend a day with her to document through photography her life and her curiosity with electronics. The photography was then going to travel to Denmark and be exhibited at the FabLearn Europe conference to see how a digital fabrication audience would respond to the values elicited through the photography. More importantly, it was creating an opportunity to open up discussion of having a photographic story of a self-motivated digi-maker present in a space dedicated to tech demos.

To capture and document a day in-the-life of Clare as a Digi-Maker I invited photographer Drew Forsyth to work with me. Based in Manchester, Drew’s passion lies in photographing theatre and dance and it was his curiosity and openness to the project that would lead him into the unknown - an adventure to Denmark and to an academic setting such as FabLearn Europe.

When asked what being curious means to him, Drew said it is “Trying new things, and not being afraid to give them a go. Freeing yourself from social stigma is a big part of my curiosity, and having the courage of your convictions to ask why, or how, or why not? Or say 'let's see what happens when I do X'.” This project required a different kind of approach to a commercial shoot - there was no shot list or client to please. Drew says; “When I shoot commercial work I usually have a stronger sense of what the final image will look like… This was different in the sense that I saw the photographs then and there, rather than thinking of something in advance… in this project I was much more passive… I let it happen in front of me”

“In my portraits I tried to see Clare. I tried to make it as honest as possible, using her feedback, and trying to make sure that there wasn't anything that she wouldn't normally do.” Drew Forsyth

It is with this intent that I found the collaboration with Drew rich in creativity, openness and possibility. It was no mean feat, it also brought with it risk too. There were no clear answers or shared objectives that we could return to. We could not predict how this project would inspire response, if at all and there was no controlling or trying to control a person’s response either. All would be revealed at the conference itself… and so off we traveled.

Aarhus is an interesting city, it certainly gleams the Scandinavian reputation of clean and organized, and I would certainly agree with its slogan... ‘The City of Smiles’.

It was the first time that FabLearn would come across from the USA and see a European-specific version of the conference. Aarhus University made for a fantastic host and Rachel Charlotte Smith and her team set the tone perfectly greeting us with a warm welcome and delicious food to keep our energy levels up. The schedule was ambitious and jam packed with talks and demos and workshops, but there was room to speak with people from all aspects of digital fabrication, participatory design and education.

We set up a Shrimping.It demo area and proudly - albeit nervously - exhibited the ‘Portrait of a Digi-Maker’. Whilst there were glimpses of imagery and video from presenters showcasing their Fab Lab workshops, documentary photography didn’t appear elsewhere in the conference.

Drew observed that “Accessibility is important with the project, the Digi-maker is showing how accessible the tech is, and in turn, so are the images.” I would pause here and question if we enter into precarious territory when we as the documenters suggest what tech should or should not be? Should we be shooting portraits with implicit messages such as 'accessibility to tech' in mind? If the portraits become a communication campaign for digital fabrication in education this is when I sense we must take a moment to stop and reflect and open up dialogue with one another.

Could this be good reason to look at a series of portraits and the design of the educational toolkit that runs alongside the photography? For example, we could look to critical reasoning and critical thinking skills, media literacy and photo elicitation methods and values and frames theory for much needed deeper, critical reflection.

Keynote speaker Paulo Blikstein shared his concern of what he called 'The three cultures that are present across the digital fabrication maker movement' those of - The Maker Faire (flashy and product over process), Museum (fast-rapid experiences and sensory overload) and Hacker Events (sink or swim, self-directed and competitive). Hearing this confirmed my concerns and I was happy to then have the opportunity to discuss the documentary photography project with people in between the presentations and build on these observations at tech faires. There were a variety of responses but the most prevalent were those who said it was ‘refreshing’ and ‘helpful to have this story of someone who makes in and for their environment, and to be present in a conference setting such as this is great!’. A lecturer was also keen to discuss how the photography and how Schwartz’s values sheet that I had brought with the photographs could become a tool in schools to develop critical thinking skills around the lives of those who make with digital fabrication. Perhaps this is where stories become helpful and important in developing a culture of digi-makers?

When I asked Drew ‘what next?’ he responded with; “For me, the next stage is traveling Europe, and ultimately world over, spending two days with each subject who is a Digi-Maker. The first day would be spending time with them, getting to know them, the second would be shooting them doing their natural day, and interacting with the tech. From that, those portraits would accompany interviews and articles about those people, in order to then form an exhibition and book, detailing the lives of these Digi-Makers.”

And so it would appear there is an interest in telling stories of the lives of people who make and craft with digital fabrication. Perhaps it is building on the portfolio of Neil Gershenfeld’s book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop in 2007? Perhaps we should be continuing to document those who make with meaning and for purpose? Better still, should we not be asking ourselves, what happens when we open up and discuss what we perhaps see beyond the photographs and further still beyond the portraits of a digi-maker?

Curious about the maker movement and what it means to you?

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