Welcome to Fashioning Circuits, a public Humanities project.
Photo “electronic led light dress at the museum of science and industry in chicago” by Flickr user David Hilowitz
Fashioning Circuits was launched in September 2011 as part of a series of independent studies in the graduate program in Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (formerly Emerging Media and Communication, or EMAC) at the University of Texas, Dallas.
The project began as an investigation into wearable media and technology. Wearables, and the shifts that arise from joining computing to the body, remain an important part of the work in the project. But our scope has expanded as we have done the work of exploring these questions and tracing these entanglements over the years. Fashioning Circuits is now a place where we also engage with the rich histories and practices of computational craft, domestic technologies, soft activism, and so forth. These practices, often hyper-feminized and located within homes or community collectives, are an important and often unacknowledged pre-history of what is today referred to as “maker culture.” We both study and engage in these practices in our scholarship, creative practice, and community partnerships
We are inspired by the possibilities of:
Learning new techniques
Decolonizing and recovering histories
Working in collaboration in an inclusive space
Developing strategies of expression that engage with broader cultural contexts
In Fashioning Circuits “fashion” functions not just as a noun to describe cultural trends, but also as a verb, “to fashion,” to indicate the experiential and problem based learning strategies of the project as well as the potential for a diverse range of students to fashion new histories and to fashion themselves as members of the publics and counterpublics of the future.
If you are interested in these possibilities and the connection between media or technology and embroidery, sewing, knitting, crocheting, felting, haberdashery, quilting, scrapbooking, cooking, and other craft or domestic technologies, contact us. If you would like to work with us on planning a community event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org If you would like to volunteer your time at one of our community events, please join our Facebook planning group at http://facebook.com/groups/fashioningcircuits
Aside from the blog archive, the editorial team is also active on Twitter and Instagram. Follow our accounts @fashioncircuits (Twitter) and @fashioningcircuits (Instagram). And search both sites for the hashtag #fashioningcircuits to see all of the interesting resources we are finding and sharing.
This paper aims to describe and analyze the making of the project called “Our Technology is a Little Shy” in the practices of critical making. This project was completed as part of the course Critical Making in the program of Arts Technology and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas. The paper briefly explains: how did the critical aspect and the physical shaping of the project emerged, what are the various technologies and methods used, what were some of the major troubleshooting faced in the making, how does the final object addresses and reflects some of socio-cultural issues that were aimed in the beginning, and finally, how it can be positioned as a product of the critical making.
The making of this project has started with a moment of inspiration that made me imagine how we may perceive and feel responsible for digital technology. Winner in his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” talks about how technological artifacts may have various degrees of political qualities in their making which can either reflect a more flexible or intractable pattern of power and authority (38). A similar approach is how Latour in his actor network-theory chooses to give a sense of agency to the technological artifacts to understand the relations among various actants from the point of producing science-related knowledge. But in either case, the political – which leads to discrimination or inequity in the society – or the agential quality is examined through the practical implications and the use-case scenarios which is derived from the physical inscription of the said technology. Most of the time, technology only becomes visible and the center of attention when its functionality or accuracy is ethically or mechanically questionable to the human actants. In these discussions, there is always a level of deterministic or constructivist sense of understanding technology but not keeping an open understanding and appreciation of how the technology may choose to feel and act within the societal circumstances. Although this is not to claim that technologies are feeling entities that we should hold responsible for mistreating and not giving voice, but to suggest that, with a more humane sense of caring, we may get to see how our own politics and agencies of producing and using technologies have moral traces among all aspects of the network of relations that results in the given political assumption.
Coming down from the issues of care, agency, and politics of technological artifacts, I decided to build a project that not only humanizes a technology but also, give individuals a moral situation with a circumstance that further complicate and question their common behaviors of reaching for a technological artifact. The project is about a search for technology in this case, a mobile phone – within a pouch, we are partially aware and in control of. When the pouch is closed by the zipper, we hear a ringtone coming from inside the pouch (Fig.1.1). But when the zipper is opened, we do not see any technological artifact. The sound of ringtone also immediately vanishes instead, we feel a vibration – like a heartbeat – coming from the pouch. In this instance, there is nothing to be seen inside the pouch except for the lining fabric. When the zipper is closed, we continue hearing the ringtone coming from the pouch and the cycle continues. In this imaginary scenario, the mobile phone shows two very opposite characteristic one is purely functional the other is an emotional response. When they are combined, the mobile phone neither neglects the functionality nor exposes itself to the possible use. Since the initial problem arises from the mobile phone being hidden but not being broken, it eliminates any need for general maintenance or problem in manufacturing because the problem originates from the affectual relation between the user and the technology. In the act of opening the pouch, the mobile phone starts to show an indication of fear by the feeling of a heartbeat coming from inside like it is hiding from the individual that opens the pouch. At that moment, the technologies have no option but to desperately waits for that individual to close the zipper back.
The title “Our Technology is a Little Shy” sarcastically refers to the discourse that people tend to use when they feel embarrassed in a situation of disobedience of a (partly) conscious agent resisting to a request. In our case, the technology is humanized to the point that we are witnessing its fast beating heart when hiding, giving us a visual and tactile sense of its conscious existence. To further saturate this insecureness and resistance, the technology is to be fused with the fabric of the pouch in which it becomes almost impossible to separate the technology from its enclosing container without damaging either.
The first stage of making the project was the sketching of how the pouch should look from the outside visually and how the technology should be embedded and arranged inside functionally. At this stage, I also decided and purchased which technological and crafting materials I would need in order to make this project. For the technological side, I used: Arduino LilyPad, LilyPad buzzer, LilyPad vibe board, conductive thread, and e-textile battery. The reason I chose using LilyPad products is that they are highly compatible with the uses of fabric and the circuitry is as simple and robust as it gets considering other Arduino products. For the crafting materials, I used: fabrics for the outer layer, middle layer, interfacing, and lining, thread, and zipper. Before starting with the actual material, I made various test runs on scrap fabric to see what is the best way to saw and fold the fabric which would eventually become a pouch. The problem with making a pouch is that it needs to be closed off and durable all the way so that nothing will fall from the inside (Fig. 1.2). In this case, the electronic components once installed, cannot be replaced or fixed because all entries except for one small hole – will be closed off. Because the aim is that the people interacting with the pouch should not be able to locate or see the electronics otherwise it may lose its mystical feeling. The small hole mentioned is placed on the side of the pouch and the entry is closed with two small buttons that connect both ends. Only when the button is peeled, they can put no more than two fingers to reach the electronics. The reason for putting this hole is for replacing batteries when needed, otherwise, it would run out and does not work anymore.
The system is arranged so that the sensor (the slider of the zipper) acts as a switch between the two actuators (buzzer or the vibe board). The way that the sensor works is the part with most troubleshooting because, instead of using a technological component, the switch is triggered by the slider part of zipper connecting the two ends of conductive thread (one is connected to 5V the other one is to a digital port) (Fig. 1.3). So basically – because the slider is metal – when it reaches the end of the zipper, it conducts electricity across two ports which translates into the value going from 0 to 1. For the buzzer, first I identified 2 octaves of notes in the library, and then arranged the melody known as “Nokia Tune”. As for the vibe board, I set up a heart-beat like vibration sequence so that whoever holds the object may feel that rhythm by the pressure in their hand. When all components are in place I have tested both the voltage distribution over all conductive threads, check to see if the zipper works effectively, and make sure the code works as intended. I must admit that I had to redo the circuity for 3 times but eventually I managed to get a good result. Finally, I did all sewing over the pouch so that it would be closed off.
With all the parts added, this project was designed to complicate and morally question the mode of interaction which begins with an almost innocent act of opening a pouch. But this project gains its momentum especially from such already familiar patterns of trying to respond to a mobile phone when it starts ringing. These type of “patterns of activities and expectations that soon become ‘second nature’” (Winner, 11). It leads up to a life that is impossible to think without as they “shed their tool-like qualities…[and] become part of our very humanity” (Winner, 12). The way that this project takes on a pattern of technological activity that we associate a reflexive and physical response to and fold it into a loop that morally problematizes our position as a “possible user” stimulates debate may also be seen as “…a parallel design activity that questions and challenges industrial agendas” (Dune and Raby). In that sense, this project may be positioned as a critical design of a technological artifact that is and is not really there. It explores ethical and social issues through a hypothetical product with an imaginary use-case scenario that makes us think (Dune and Raby). But in the act of losing the object boundaries, there is also the further inquiry of how do we perceive the pouch in relation to the technological artifact. From the point of an individual who investigates the object, the pouch presents a material space that the technological artifact is intensively fused with. By the level of curiosity, the pouch may even be considered as the technology itself. To briefly analyze, in the act of searching for the mobile phone, the pouch becomes a closed system in which the individual starts to investigate its physical attributes and tries to find any gaps that might lead to where the technology resides. But the fact that the technology mentioned is not arranged in a single point but rather scattered all around, makes the pouch an inseparable part of that technology. The object is acting as a prototype in a sense that, it is ever-changing into different modalities by the various degrees of interaction and interpretation (Galey and Ruecker). As a prototype that urges critical thinking, the pouch eventually becomes “a process of critical inquiry itself, not just the embodiment of the results” (Galey and Ruecker, 406). By turning a simple gesture of opening a pouch into a productively contestable mode of interaction, the object gets to keep both a functional and emotional quality. In this two-folded complex nature, the technology also moves in between the different forms of care in a way it can only get a glimpse of “caring for” while the technology is being shy about it (Ratto). By producing temporary moments of affectual relation between an individual and a technological artifact, the definitions of agencial and political qualities may be at least broadened to a degree that, makes us see behind the patterns of activities and expectations of such behaviors.
Dunne, Anthony, and Raby, Fiona. “Towards a Critical Design“. Dunneandraby.Co.Uk, 2005, http://dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/42/0. Accessed 20 Apr 2019.
Galey, Alan, and Ruecker, Stan. “How a Prototype Argues.” Literary and Linguistic Computing, vol. 25, no. 4, Oxford University Press, Dec. 2010, pp. 405–24, doi:10.1093/llc/fqq021.
Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, Taylor & Francis Group, July 2011, pp. 252–60, doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819.
Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” The Whale and the Reactor : a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986. pp. 19-39.
Winner, Langdon. “Technologies as Forms of Life” The Whale and the Reactor : a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 3-18.
From my current vantage point, the end of the Fall 2018 semester at ATEC feels inexorably distant. This is the point at which I first encountered ATCM 6388: Critical Making as a course offering, the point at which I first began to contend with what it would mean to be a “maker.” at least, in the context of the course. And, to be clear, not just any maker, but a maker with a disability. After all, I use a wheelchair to get around, I have significant issues with fine and gross motor control. And, there is the ever-present specter of spasticity.
I would like to think that I went in with my eyes open. That through conversations with Dr. Knight and my own research, it became apparent that the amount of literature regarding people with disabilities, particularly individuals with my issues of poor motor control and significant spasticity and Critical Making was, to be frank, scarce. Dr. Knight and I explicitly talked about the fact that it could be a failure. So yes, that was a phantasm in the back of my mind from the beginning. But the anxiety of the situation was always inflected with giddiness.
I must admit, some part of me enjoys being contrarian. The thought of carving out a space for bodies like mine in the terrain of critical making was more than a little heady. From the start, I had an explicit intervention in mind. I would go in in knowing that all of my work in this course would be mediated by my embodied experience of physical disability. That embodied experience would allow me to take up a conversation that as I say, is under theorized in the canon of critical making. In short, I said yes. I would take the course, with all of its inherent anxieties. After all, they say if something terrifies you, you should do it.
I am no longer terrified. In fact, I am proud of the work that I have done in this course. I would like to think that through my particular subject position as a Person with a Disability (PWD) I have been able to create compelling work that challenges the assumptions society has about people with disabilities.
The work I’m referring to, of course, is the final project for this course. It is a looped processing sketch which places the archival voices of various kinds of disability activists and theorists in conversation with one another. Through editing various kinds of YouTube clips – a lecture by Susan Sontag, a TEDTalk by Paralympian and model Aimee Mullins, and a TEDTalk by disability activist Stella Young. I also included my own voice as a preamble to these women. in part because it was a way of explicitly situating myself within the arena of disability activism, in part because it makes the project feel more materially “mine,” and in part because I believe the polyvocality of numerous voices emphasizes an important point – that this conversation around disability and capacity, ableism and metaphor, monstrosity and care – is a living dialogue. In this sense, what we say matters.
I hope that I have been successful in creating a compelling work. Ultimately, by explicitly aligning this work with critical making, I hope to challenge some of the stereotypes and caricatures that cohere around disability and demonstrate the ways in which disabled bodies can operate within this arena we call critical making.
Before I continue, there is a brief but necessary side note. While my final project has always been about challenging conceptions of disability, emphasizing the evocative nature of the voice, and challenging those (temporarily) able-bodied individuals to reconsider their relationship to disability, my project was not always so deeply digital. As I was initially imagining this project, I wanted to use physical equipment, a tool from occupational therapy, and DIY gaming – the AbleNet Big Red switch.
I wanted to remix and recontextualize the cultural locations of disability. Even at this stage, I wanted to record audio. The Big Red Switch would transform and transmute this audio so that it would have a different evocative feeling for each participant.
I went so far as to buy all of my necessary supplies. In addition to the Big Red switch, I gathered SD cards, an AdaFruit waveshield, and an Arduino Uno. Everything I thought I would be for this project. Unfortunately, life got in the way. And despite the ambitious scope of this iteration of the project, I was continually confronted by the fact that I could do none of this physical labor myself. That is, the work of soldering, stripping wires, mounting on breadboards, and so on. Granted, for me, this was a continuing point of contestation throughout the class. Much of critical making relies on assumptions of physical capacity. Because of this assumption of the ability to sew, strip, or solder, much of the work of this class was collaborative.
Now, I understand and support the material and intellectual project of collaboration. My issue with collaboration in reference to disability is that “collaboration” often explicitly means “help.” we see this explicitly in Sara Hendren’s essay, All Technology Is Assistive: Six Design Rules on Disability, included in a collection on critical making – Making Things and Drawing Boundaries (MTDB), edited by Jentery Sayers. Granted, Hendren makes the titular argument; that “all technology is assistive technology” (140), on that same page Hendren doubles down on her logic, writing, “we are all getting help from the things we make” (author’s emphasis). Hendren’s point that design should be inclusive toward all bodies, and that design is as social as it is technological/medical are just and trenchant. My point is that there is a way to conceptualize “help” as an outgrowth of an unequal power dynamic, wherein normative bodies bequeath assistance to bodies which ordinarily lack.
To be sure, the space we created in Critical Making this semester was by no means prone to such troubling dynamics. However, if I wanted to make an intervention into ableist sociocultural paradigms, I felt a deep-seated desire to engage with my material object with as much agency as possible. This was my thought process as I moved from the wires and heat to code and software. Of course, even when we set aside a lofty aspiration to break ableism, my decision to dive into Processing had some practical reasoning behind it as well. As a PhD student, I was required to demonstrate proficiency with code. I knew I could do this with Processing.
As I turned my attention to this project in earnest however, Processing was not at the forefront of my mind. Rather, I was buoyed once again by an essay from MTDB – “Ethics in the Making.” In this essay, Erin R. Anderson and Trisha N. Campbell, borrowing from Jamie Bianco, take up the idea of creative critique, “which uses digital media and methods to not only break down, interpret, and reconstitute texts-as-data, but also invent new texts and new sensory experiences…” (Anderson and Campbell 331). Additionally, Anderson and Campbell make the argument that this digitally formed object produces its own ethics, and that the audience is afforded an opportunity to produce a different kind of ethical relation to the art object. Put differently, the process of creating the digital object produces a different set of relational possibilities in the audience.
This, in turn, was incredibly generative or my own work. My processing sketch base is borrowed, in part, from work done by Anton Pugh. The original intent of the sketch was to visualize audio from a song and create a virtual visual display.
As with my original iteration of this project, I wanted to recontextualize the purpose of data visualization. I wanted to embed the visualization to evocative audio in order to create a different relationship between the art object and the audience. Ideally, this new formulation allows for a more impactful experience. The combination of audio to visuals invites an affectual relationship.
With my reformulation, the audio takes on additional importance. And the visuals work to support the intervention of the audio. Arguably, the original does the reverse. However, even if we set aside my attempts to excavate a sensuous relationship between the art object and audience, I also experienced a deeply impactful and sensuous relationship to the audio as editor. Campbell speaks to this reality as well. Her work profiled in MTDB is based in audio. She echoes my ideal audience reception as she describes her own work. This work requires her to immerses herself in interviews with convicted murderers, two layer the original audio against her own performative re-voicing of that audio, and in so doing, she develops affective relationships with these digital personae. Campbell writes:
The process began slowly through a careful act of listening. as I sat for hours hearing James’s voice … I listened as his voice broke; I listened as he sighed; and I listened, still, as he sat in moments of silence. … [T]his process was an immersion in and among James’s obstinacies and rhythms … [This work] is a radical attempt to imagine how we respond to the experience of another by trying to feel with them. (Anderson and Campbell 333-34, author’s emphasis)
Much like Campbell, I spent hours listening to the same audio repeatedly, experimenting with different audio edits, and digital cuts, deliberately tempering these voices against one another. Then, listening to the audio on loop as I perfected the visual aesthetics of the piece. Once again experimenting with juxtapositions; this time, juxtapositions of color and point depth. Certainly, it is not a perfect raft of experience from what Campbell describes to what I accomplished. For all that I embedded my voice into this work, I was not interested in re-voicing this dialog. This is because once again, I am deeply committed to an agential stance. Ideally, the audio is experienced as an evocation. It is an insistent reminder that we are shaped by culture, and by the language we use.
I wanted to create visuals from the audio that were themselves reminiscent of audio. So, I deliberately evoked a braille aesthetic. It is red against a black background and attempts to focus the viewer’s attention. Braille is itself simultaneously a technology of disability, and a marker of disability. In this sense, in addition to the audio, I am interested in what Tobin Siebers calls a “disability aesthetic” and the “ideology of ability.”
First, a disability aesthetic, “names a critical concept that seeks to emphasize the presence of disability in the tradition of aesthetic representation … theorizing disability as a unique resource discovered by modern art and then embraced by it as one of its defining concepts” (“Introducing Disability Aesthetics,” 2). If we can understand that but I have created with this final project is at least in some sense, a work of art, disability can, quoting Siebers, become a “unique resource.” Building on this, disability aesthetics becomes a resource to critique and undercut Siebers’s “ideology of ability.” Siebers writes:
the ideology of ability is at its simplest the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most radical, it defines the baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons. (“Introduction,” 8).
This is why my project engages the language of monstrosity and pity and pain. Disability as a condition can othering, my project attempts to make that othering audible.
Adelman, David. “Crippling Criticality.” Video. Https://vimeo.com/333891479. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Anderson, Erin R., and Trisha N. Campbell. “Ethics in the Making.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, University Of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 331-342.
Debates in the Digital Humanities. Hendren, Sara. “All Technology Is Assistive: Six Design Rules on Disability.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 139-148. Debates in the Digital Humanities.
Siebers, Tobin. “Introducing Disability Aesthetics.” Disability Aesthetics, University Of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 1-20. Corporealities: Discourses of Disability, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. —.
“Introduction.” Disability Theory, University Of Michigan Press, 2008, pp. 1-33. Corporealities: Discourses of Disability, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder.
A phrase that I’ve only recently encountered yet hear quite often around Fashioning Circuits is that sometimes we must fall back into the theory. I’m still new to the practices of critical making, so the phrase has mostly struck me as a backup plan. If one’s project doesn’t work as intended, find a way to make it work. Find some theory that says that failure is okay and that we learn more from mistakes than perfection. The idea that one should retroactively apply theory struck me as one of necessity rather than ingenuity. As I worked on my own project, I quickly found that phrase to have a new and much more expansive meaning.
My “Holding Hands” project was, in my opinion, simple in scope: a pair of gloves sewn together with conductive thread that would allow two people to communicate with one another through button presses that trigger different vibrations. My inspiration for this project was the promotion and entanglement of intimacy in analog games like Consentacle and digital titles like Realistic Kissing Simulator. Thinking about how these works and others illustrate the many ways people communicate with one another led to a reflection on how I communicate with my partner and the weird language we’ve made in the years we’ve known each other—inside jokes, vocalizations, clothing choices, minute movements, body posture, and smaller details that I’ve yet to put into words.
As I worked to create the Holding Hands, the project evolved. It went through quite a few iterations in my mind before ever being set to paper. The most ambitious of these was to have the hands operate apart from one another, communicating through radio frequencies or Bluetooth. But the complexity and cost of this version provoked a more sensible mutation. Joined together, the gloves would only require one power source. Three buttons per glove allowed for a range of vibrations (high, medium, and low), and the vibrations would fluctuate between these ranges when multiple buttons were pressed. I specifically avoided assigning meaning to the buttons beyond this, as I wanted people to navigate the creation of a shared language of intimacy.
After obtaining my materials, I set to work. Having practiced using conductive thread in Dr. Kim Knight’s Critical Making course, I felt confident in my capacity to sew the circuits into a pair of woolen gloves. This confidence was quickly dashed when my test code revealed how poorly my circuit was constructed. I allowed slack in the conductive thread so that the gloves could be worn comfortably, but this slack made contact with other parts of the circuit, causing the motors to run without prompting, running the battery down, or preventing the buttons from working at all. Any attempts to repair the circuit caused the gloves to unravel, and I had used fabric glue to attach my electronic pieces, which would either tear apart the gloves with their removal or leave large, unsightly spots all over the gloves. Deeming the first prototype a failure, I began again from scratch.
The second set of gloves were less fashionable than the first, but the material was easier to work with and half the cost. The gloves were also, as I soon found out, a bit flammable. Some strands of the conductive thread wrapped up with the gloves and formed a small circuit, emitting a noticeable plume of smoke. I disconnected the power and reworked the circuit, only to find a bright-orange glow coming from the same spot: roughly where the coin cell battery attached to the Arduino Lilypad. Frustrated, I decided it would be safer to instead route power through the USB connection. While this tactic worked, the wiring had been constructed around the coin battery and its holder, and my attempts to redo the circuit once again fell into the same issues as the first.
I purchased a third pair of gloves, plotted out the course of the circuit without the battery, and did my best to use the least amount of thread possible while still allowing the gloves to work. At this point, I was less concerned with the concepts I had started with and intensely focused on making something workable. Instead of three buttons per hand, I trimmed it to two each to ensure my power supply could run everything and to conserve thread, which was swiftly becoming a precious resource. Thankfully, this third attempt turned out alright, as all buttons worked as intended and the motors vibrated at similar speeds on high and low settings. The button placement could have been better, but at that point, I was happy to just have something to present.
Admittedly, the coding element of the project, the part that I dreaded most, turned out to be significantly easier compared to composing the gloves themselves. It was, after all, making two buttons operate a motor and mirroring the code for the opposite glove. Even varying the speed of the motor’s vibration wasn’t that hard after learning what specific phrases to type. Do I understand coding better as a result? I’m not sure that I do; since most of my time was spent reworking the gloves over and over, I didn’t have the time to experiment and blunder around the code as much. I now know some basics of coding, but the code felt like such a minor part of the experience for me.
By the time I finished the gloves, the result looked noticeably different from the original concepts I had intended. Where the first two had been closely sewn together to avoid ripping the circuit apart, the only thing holding the third pair together was the conductive thread. These threads could easily touch one another and make the motors shake unwarranted. Where I had planned on a set of three buttons nestled at each partner’s fingertips that would operate the motor in different ways depending on the combinations of buttons pressed, two buttons that only ran the motor at a high or low frequency rested in not-as-easy-to-reach locations. Instead of glamorous gloves that could blend the thread into the background with soft grey wool, a pair of drab brown gloves with severed fingers remains linked to a computer.
To my anxious mind, the gloves are a shoddily constructed mess that barely functions and could explode into flame at any moment. This fear of my own work no doubt rests on my inexperience with physical media and with the processes of critical making. My experiences with knowledge making can be summarized as this form here: the essay. What matters is not the hours spent revising, deleting, amending, and pausing to think of what to write next. An essay does not exist until it is completed. Until then, it’s merely a draft, a could-be paper that amounts to a gust of wind. Although I did not actively think of this analogy during the creation of the Holding Hands, I felt its effects. I could catalog and record every moment of my struggling, but hours of footage mean nothing if the item that comes out of it does not work.
This is not a problem isolated within my head but a worldwide phenomenon. Scientists are pushed toward showing that their experiments will change the way we live and think about what it means to live, not the hundreds of thousands of experiments that prove what we already know or the numerous experiments that failed to produce anything of similar value (Head et al 1). Some have even started “p-hacking” by selectively reporting the results of experiments or ending experiments early if they show positive results (Head et al 1). The rigor of the process and anything productive that might come from a failed experiment or insignificant result means little to an academic community that prioritizes positive results that can be published (with the inherent drive to sell additional copies of said publication).
I have been wrapped up in this same line of thinking. Failure had to be avoided at all costs since only success mattered. I avoided exploring the many ways I could fail to complete the project or the myriad half-successes because I was obsessed with “completing” the project. But success isn’t the only way to learn. Judith Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure that “Under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2-3). Similarly, Matt Ratto’s famous article “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life” explores the ways that his RCA/Imperial workshop failed but recounted and reflected upon its failure rather than not including it (254-255). He later relates this time that was “wasted” (i.e. not successful) was, in fact, part of the process, “[Caring]—not just in terms of feeling but also in terms of applied, responsible work—is what makes objects…come to have meaning…” (Ratto 258). Without the hours of frustration, the fretting over whether to snip the fingers off the gloves, and the act of starting again and again, the Holding Hands would just be a mass of cloth and wires. But because I have failed and have “wasted” time on these fingerless mittens with electricity coursing through them, I know that I have learned something, at least.
What I needed to understand and what I’m still grasping at is the idea that we must fall back into the theory sometimes; we must reflect upon the work we’ve done to uncover what we have learned. Looking back, the Holding Hands do convey physically some of the metaphorical connections of intimacy. Communication can still occur between partners, albeit in a fashion akin to Morse Code. But reflecting on the project’s failures, a larger narrative of the perils of intimacy forms. Intimacy is messy, full of miscommunication, short circuits, flare-ups, and disconnections. The forced closeness accentuates our physicality, and the contorting of one’s hand to find the buttons and achieve a comfortable position requires cooperation and understanding. People often find that the ways they connected with others in the past don’t work with their current partner(s). Stroking the back of another’s hand, for a personal example, can be sent as a reassuring gesture but provoke uneasy sensations in the recipient. A lot of affective labor goes into learning not just what to say in a relationship but how to convey those messages in a way that minimizes misreadings. It’s not a perfect system but one that is always in progress.
The same goes for critical work. While an essay or evocative object can appear as if by magic in a journal or an art gallery, so much work went into those works that may never be seen by others. Or, perhaps the creator(s) show the wiring and the personal touches, noting where they left rough edges or embodied their frustrations with the piece. It is the trial and error that imbues the collaborative effort of building a language of intimacy—or any other project—with meaning. To “fall back into the theory” isn’t to mask our mistakes under the auspices of the theoretical but to acknowledge that every part of our work builds upon itself.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
Head, Megan L., Luke Holman, Rob Lanfear, Andrew T. Khan, and Michael D. Jennons. “The Extent and Consequences of P-Hacking in Science.” PLOS Biology, vol. 13, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1-15.
Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society, vol. 27, 2011, pp. 252-260.
In the Spring semester of 2019, my Critical Making course with Dr. Kim Knight drove me to tackle the project I’d avoided for years: a full-size quilt. Marriam Webster defines a quilt as: “a bed coverlet of two layers of cloth filled with padding (such as down or batting) held in place by ties or stitched designs.” A brief definition for an impossibly lengthy process. Dubbed 10,003 Stitches, this quilt pushed me in ways I had never experienced and opened my eyes to a new world of making.
Quilting originated as a technique for furniture cushions and fancy clothing. The first recorded quilted bed blanket dates in early fourteenth century Sicily, with blocks depicting the Legend of Tristan and the inside padded with wool (Johnson). The early North American settlers brought their craft from Europe and while there are records and inventories that list quilts as possessions, no early colonial quilts survive (Johnson). This is mainly due to the origins of the quilts’ fabric coming from salvaged pieces and the need to get as much as possible out of the limited resources colonizers brought with them (Johnson). The importance of quilting ranged from the utility it brought the family as a source of warmth and comfort, to the emotional nourishment “quilting bee’s” gave the female crafters as a place of support and collaboration (Johnson).
My mother, grandmother (Grammy) and great-grandmother are quilters. Grammy is a part of her church’s quilt guild and they always have projects in the works. I saw Grammy and her quilt guild work on baby, graduation, wedding, and birthday quilts for each other’s loved ones in a fashion like the early quilting bee’s settler women participated in. Unbeknownst to the members, early and modern quilt guilds are feminist makerspaces where women can meet in safe, open contexts of shared values and goals. The chapter on feminist hackerspaces in Jentry Sayers’ Making Things and Drawing Boundaries details the characteristics of feminist makerspaces and the similarities are undeniable. The chapter’s contributors mark the importance of the work done in the spaces impacting the work outside of the space (Amu, et al.). The ladies of Grammy’s quilt guild not only support each other in mastering their craft, but also in their lives outside the guild in things as simple as sharing recipes to the grieving of a loved one. Their guild is a close knit and exclusive “secret society of practitioners” (Dick) and I have never truly been privy to one of their meetings.
I was drawn to the idea of a quilt, especially in the past couple years as I hoarded designer fabric and coed over finished projects I on social media, but I never committed to a pattern or color scheme. The soothing combinations of color and crisp lines concealed a staggering amount of labor and I was struck by the precision and permanence a quilt required to succeed. My current free-spirited, heavily improvised practice was not on board with all the painstaking care that goes into even the simplest of quilts. I knew a bad quilt could not be painted over and quilted mistakes are more obvious than those in a more traditional art media. The lazy perfectionist in me was terrified. But something about Dr. Knight’s Critical Making course demanded a quilt, and I knew I could put off the project no longer.
Before 10,003 Stitches, my experience with a sewing machine was limited to a sloppy table runner, an appliqué “cheater” quilt, and a light-up tote bag sewn a few weeks before I began the quilt itself. Armed with my mother’s sewing machine and facing a looming deadline, I set about my task. After countless hours leaning over a cutting mat or hunched at the sewing machine, I resolved to never make another quilt for as long as I live. I cursed my ambition and wondered how gracefully I could back out of the project and try something easier. It wasn’t until I laid out all my blocks and saw what my work could become that the lightbulb came on. All my hard work was coming to a satisfying end and I was giddy as I swapped blocks to get the perfect combinations. “I’m getting second-hand art high,” my roommate and best friend remarked as she watched me tiptoe around the colorful pieces on the living room floor.
Given the requirements of the course, my quilt could not be considered complete without first adding a technological component. “Critical Making” is a blanket term for many varied practices, but a common practice in critical making is reconciling a traditional craft with a modern context or technology. I chose to imbed vibrating motors in my quilt to increase the physical experience that comes with wrapping oneself up in a cozy blanket. The first motor buzzes in a sequence similar to a heartbeat because a quilt is a labor of love for the craft or the recipient of the quilt; the second motor makes 10 long buzzes for 10,000 stitches; the third makes 5 shorter buzzes to represent the stitches I had to rip and redo; the fourth makes 5 rapid buzzes to mirror the rushed anxiety I felt completing this project; and the fifth motor buzzes 3 short notes to represent the 3 stitches I received in the emergency room when I sliced my finger open with a brand new rotary cutter. The inclusion of the vibration motors lets the person using the quilt physically experience a part of the story of the quilt, as well as educating the user of how much the quilt cost in terms of hours and emotional stress. This allows me to imbed the theory and the story inside the quilt, instead of displaying it on the outside.
At some point in the process, I think as I was trying to reconcile my uneven novice blocks into something passable, I realized I was part of the problem: I completely underestimated the craft, what it took to make a quilt from start to finish, and the emotional and physical labor involved. I was a fool to think I knew anything about making a quilt simply because I knew quilters; you don’t know a thing about quilting until you plead with a machine to thread its bobbin after countless failed attempts or redo an unmatched seam for the third time, all while a dense rage bubbles in your chest. I am sure these are problems anyone that works with fabric or a sewing machine can attest to, but the sheer volume of cutting, matching, sewing, ironing, cutting, matching, sewing, ironing, cutting- to produce one block of sixty- was ridiculous. I misjudged the required materials and ran out of my fancy printed fabric while I was still 2 blocks short of each design. I ended up improvising some coordinating blocks out of solid colors and luckily, it turned out.
At this point, I had to realize I wasn’t taking my own work seriously. I had to shake the voice in my head telling me I would get back to my “real” art once I finished this little craft project. Like so many stuffy artists before me, I struggled with the delineation between “art” and “craft.” Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef is a beautiful book that captures the worldwide collaborative project made by hundreds of knitters and fiber artists. The chapter “Reverie as Resistance” by Leslie Dick investigates the historical dismissal of women’s handicraft. Knitting, crochet, embroidery, quilting, etc. are lengthy processes that are usually driven by instructions and repetitive motions. In an art world run primarily by cisgendered, white, affluent males, the craft of women doesn’t make it very far. The crafts are typically seen as a waste of time, or not theory-dense enough to warrant higher accolades. Dick argues that it is the time spent in the craft, for the sake of the craft, that makes the objects art. “Wasted” time enjoying the process of making a “more or less unnecessary item,” inherently adds value to the work. Buying a machine-made blanket or sweater is a far wiser use of time and money but hitting the “Place Order” button will never feel as good as making does.
For all my moaning, the process of making this quilt was not all terrible. The satisfaction of seeing the pile of blocks grow was gratifying, even fun, as I found my rhythm and a process that worked. I believe I even experienced the “reverie” Leslie Dick mentions in her chapter in Crochet Coral Reef. Reverie is a daydream-like state of mind often experienced by people that perform a repetitive motion for extended periods of time. Practitioners of traditionally feminine handiwork experience it frequently as they work, and I know I slipped into that state of mind as I pieced my blocks together. The state of reverie is important to the creative process because it allows the brain to “idle” on an idea while still being active. The reverie allowed me to reflect on the quilt as an object and what it could mean to me, instead of being absorbed in my life outside of the quilt. I also considered my future projects, the corners I could not cut, and I gained a new appreciation for Grammy’s masterful works that took years to my short months.
I grew up looking at Grammy’s best quilts stored in a glass case, and today I see her knurled hands, so taken with arthritis after decades of hand stitching that I wonder about the fate of my own hands in the years to come… At this point I welcome the arthritis as an occupational hazard that comes with being a maker. The process was long and frustrating, but I am filled with pride when I see my quilt and it will become a cherished object in my home, as should any handmade item in any space.
Burek, Amu, et al. “Chapter 25.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries Experiments in the Digital Humanities, by Jentery Sayers, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, pp. 221–231.
Dick, Leslie. “Reverie as Resistance” Crochet Coral Reef: a Project, by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, Institute for Figuring, 2015, pp. 129–136.
Johnson, Julie. “HISTORY OF QUILTING.” Emporia State University, www.emporia.edu/cgps/tales/quilte~1.html.
The Fashioning Circuits lab team is still meeting virtually during our plague semester. We have decided to engage in one word weekly prompts inspired by Cecilia Vicuña’s Journal of Objects. Participants quick create an object from materials they source from their homes. Given the glitchy distancing, we are all experiencing some members of the group heard “communicate” some members heard “create” for the prompt.
This week we decided to step away from the webcams and microphones for ten minutes to form some version of visual output, the images posted here are the results from week 1.
Critical Making as an academic discourse, and the second maker project as an individual (and collaborative?) endeavor have both been empowering and emancipatory. I say this not only from a personal feeling of achievement, but also because I feel that now I am equipped with an analytic lens that enables me to see how both ‘critically making things’ and ‘making critical things’ work in tandem towards achieving a set of goals. On a personal level, the projects which I have completed as the requirements for this course have inspired me to reassess my position and rethink my identity as a scholar alone – I have now begun to reimagine my future endeavors as a scholar-maker. While the first maker project was guided and instructional, the second project challenged imaginative diversity, and demanded more individual imprint. It is here that the experiences were particularly productive because, Critical Making, then for me, became a way to reflect on the shifting of perspectives (Boggs et. al., 324). I was not only engaging in discussions and dialogues on critical issues that interest me, but was actively making an object that would invite critical engagement and demand attention from a wide variety of publics and counter-publics. The affordances of the latter, at least for me in this particular temporal conjuncture, outweigh the affordances of the former.
My previous training in Cultural Studies has generated a strong inclination towards the issues related to inequality, oppression, labor, hierarchy, and resistances of all kinds ands manners. Therefore, in conceptualizing the second maker project, I wanted to incorporate my learnings of circuitry and embroidery from the Critical Making class and make something that speaks to my intellectual identity and capacity. In doing so, I was hoping to mobilize specific facets of ‘critical making’ which would address certain social issues in ways normative dialogues and discourses could not. Even before I had begun to conceptualize my project, I knew that the the general objective of my maker project would be to make a maker-piece that contributes, even if it is a near insignificant contribution, towards eradicating social injustices. One of the key objectives was to address the issue of ‘transparency’ – that critical making practices question general and normative assumptions, thinking, understanding and perceiving, by making certain implicit politics more transparent (Kafai and Peppler, 179). Therefore, by invoking visual transparency, in the first iteration of the project, I strived to address the issue of historical amnesia and/or social amnesia as characteristically present within groups of people who identify themselves as forces of resistance to the existing socio-cultural and political status quo. Although conceptually, the project went through certain changes as it wrestled towards realizing what was idealized, and what was practically possible within the scope of the project, the final outcome, nonetheless took a step forward towards establishing potential far-reaching probabilities.
The conceptualization of the project was aided and influenced by the theories established by the scholars of ‘the Frankfurt School’, who identify the failure and/or nonappearance of revolutionary movements within the modern mass as a result of not being able to identify themselves as being oppressed and a collective forgetting of past events of oppression. Additionally, an initial and selective reading of James Clive’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, intensified the importance of being aware of past events as we move forward to the future. These ideas, in tandem with the affordances of critical making/crafting paved the way towards finalizing the model of my project. In this regard, Otto Von Busch’s notion regarding the oscillation of the potential for building resistance through craftwork provided helpful scaffolding. In his article ‘Crafting Resistance’, Von Busch establishes a connection between many historical instances of activist resistances and crafting practices. Referring to instances of activisms and resistances from the previous century, the author creates a bridge between the past and the most recent forms of activism modes and practices, all the while paying special attention towards the culture of these resistances and their relationship with DIY applications. The author argues that we should not evaluate the art and craft of today by its sheer aesthetic merits alone, but also should take into consideration what affordances these crafts have to offer in terms of shaping resistances (Von Busch, 77). Therefore, also in conceptualizing the project, I was thinking through the possibilities of creating an artwork that would encourage a form of long term and sustainable resistance practices.
As mentioned above, the final project (Image 1) went through substantial and productive changes, at least two, to be exact. Although corporeally, the design aspect went through minor changes, on a more semiotic level, the changes were affectually substantial. The final project was designed as a piece of decorative artwork, primarily a private and domestic composition, which will not only embellish the indoors, but also function as a relentless visual reminder of the resistances against oppression, for the members of that household. The artwork was initially conceptualized as portraying the promises of political freedom, solidarity, justice and equal opportunity, emancipatory promises on which national constitutions are built. As political and economic segregation and oppression continues, the artwork wished to serve as a reminder of the founding principles of a nation-state which emphasizes on more inclusive propositions. At a later stage, this conceptualization shifted from its political basis, and took on the essential leitmotif of gender and racial bias. In this probing towards the concentration of a more conscientious domain, the artwork now had found a clearer and more specific design trajectory. The final iteration of the project then, was a result of critical thinking, scholarly research, and informed making, emphasizing on design principles prior to the materialization of the project. Therefore, it became a critical piece bolstered by unique conceptual understandings and reinforced by constructive material perfection (Ratto, 252).
The completed project was titled ‘A Luta Continua’, borrowed from a famous Portuguese phrase (meaning ‘The Struggle Continues’), used as a rallying cry during the ‘FRELIMO movement’ that culminated into the independence war of Mozambique. This phrase, first used by FRELIMO leader Samora Machel, while inspiring his people against colonial oppression of Portugal, strongly captures the essence of resistance, struggle, and sacrifice. The project fabric piece envisaged to stimulate similar sentiments, and it wished to do so by accommodating two separate sections of constituents, one on top of the other. The top part was a visualization of a phrase from a speech by Jose Marie Borja Viceral, professionally known as Vice Genda (Beautiful Vice), an influential television host and comedian from the Philippines. He is best known for his stance against gender oppression and is also the first openly gay endorser for Globe Telecom. In a moving speech at “Keri Beks: The First Gay Congress” held in Manila, the capital of Philippines, Vice Genda proclaimed and reiterated that the LGBTQ community have an identity and a voice of their own. This particular phrase – “We have a voice. You and I have a voice. And to hear it is their only choice”, went on to become a lauded and popular identity-defining moment for the LGBTQ community in Philippines. I envisioned to reveal this phrase, through visual and material representation as for me, this call for gender inclusivity needed to appeal to not only the sense of sound, but also the senses of sight and touch. As mentioned above the idea was to create an artwork that would keep reminding everyone who encountered it, about its core standpoint, making possible a more enduring and lasting environment of resistance. The visualization was done through running the specific audio portions through Adobe After Effects and rendering a visual expression of the phrases. That visual design was then imprinted on a piece of fabric using tracing materials, and later the design was completed by sewing an uninterrupted thread along the traced design. The bottom component of the artwork was intended to evoke a sense of journey towards freedom, and hence, was designed in the shape of a loading bar. It was done be positioning LED lights one after the other, which would be controlled by a Lilypad Arduino. Due to certain design choices, the Arduino was positioned visibly below the LED loading bar, as it would kindle impressions of transparency – an important presentiment for an artwork that argues for freedom speech and choice. Making visible all the interconnected networks of the project, and their functions, also provided an opportunity to comprehend ways, how disruptive alternate cultural practices play a part in replacing dominant modes of cultural practice (Orton-Johnson, 141). The visible lighting-up of the LED bars in a particular coded manner, that resembled progress, destiny and freedom, and the Lilypad Arduino, that then could be interpreted as the mainframe that powers the wheel and makes these emancipatory futures possible, strongly appeal to its onlooker arousing specific emotions. The speech visualization and the loading bar mechanism both take turns in becoming the dominant piece of the entire artwork based on the viewer, yet, one without the other, is equally incomplete and futile.
I believe, this maker-project has a purpose. It might be sitting alone in the living room of a house where the ménage goes through different forms of oppression every day, giving them hope – that a revolution is coming and exploitation will end. The project may be one of hundreds more, that is a part of an integrated network which, collectively opposes the advances of oppression in general, and individually serves as a reminder – that they are not alone, and that revolution and resistance must go on, until proper policies are mobilized to ensure the safeguard of vulnerable communities, from gender, racial, and economic biases and abuses. It is imperative to note that this Critical Making project has also been envisioned as a DIY project, as a reminding note to oneself. As more and more people (oppressed and privileged alike) engage in making these kinds of tokens, that not only become mnemonic for their identities, their moments of inspirations, their beliefs and values, but also serve as an emblem of hope and gesture towards a collective possibility of social change, it is imperative that from these makerspaces, a more socioeconomically inclusive community may rise. Through these maker practices then, we can perhaps achieve what Red Chidgey calls “new border spaces for critique” (Chidgey 106), and from these makerspaces, the possibilities of ushering actual positive social change, seem promising.
Boggs, Jeremy, Jennifer Reed, and J. K. Purdom Lindblad. “Making It Matter”. In Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in The Digital Humanities, Jentery Sayers, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2018, pp. 321-330.
Busch, Otto Von. “Crafting Resistance”. Craftivism: The Art of Craft and Activism, Betsy Greer, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2014, pp. 77-81.
Chidgey, Red. “Developing Communities of Resistance? Maker Pedagogies, Do-It-Yourself- Feminism, and DIY Citizenship.” DIY Citizenship, 2014, pp. 101-113., doi:10.7551/mitpress/9568.003.0009.
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Kafai, Yasmin B., and Kylie A. Peppler. “Transparency Reconsidered: Creative, Critical, and Connected Making with E-textiles.” DIY Citizenship, 2014, pp. 179-188., doi:10.7551/mitpress/9568.003.0016.
Orton-Jonson, Kate. “DIY Citizenship, Critical Making, and Community.” DIY Citizenship, 2014, pp. 141-155., doi:10.7551/mitpress/9568.003.0013.
Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology And Social Life”. The Information Society, vol 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252-260. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819.