Conversations in Critical Making
Humanities and Critical Approaches to Technology
GARNET HERTZ: How would you describe yourself and what you’re currently working on at the University of Victoria?
JENTERY SAYERS: My research interests basically hover around comparative media studies. I focus primarily on the Victorian and Edwardian periods, looking at the role old media, analog media, or dead media play in the production and distribution of culture, with specific interests in sound technologies (early magnetic recording, for example).
At the University of Victoria, I teach a series of undergraduate courses in digital studies that combine areas such as computer programming, tactile media, and gaming with critical media theory. My pedagogy mixes cultural criticism with applied approaches to technologies. I also teach undergraduate courses in 20th-century U.S. fiction. At the graduate level I teach a seminar with the theme of “Arguing with Computers,” which is about how to do literary and cultural studies with, through, and against computation, again from an applied perspective.
The lab I direct is called the Maker Lab, or just MLab. (We are becoming increasingly ambivalent about the term maker, but that’s another story.) The MLab has two locations on campus: a prototyping site and a fabrication site. The fabrication site is quite new. We opened it in February 2015. It’s located in the Visual Arts building. Across both sites we build “kits” for people to better understand obsolete or inaccessible technologies: devices no longer at hand or designs that were never manufactured in bulk. Those of us in the MLab including Nina Belojevic, Nicole Clouston, Katherine Goertz, Shaun Macpherson, and Danielle Morgan–prototype these technologies for assembly and circulation using physical computing and fabrication techniques, such as computer-aided milling, routing, and cutting.
GH: It’s a curious overlap you have between historical work that you’re doing in comparative media and English and then this stuff that you could term as maker culture. How do you see the interplay between the hands-on stuff and the written components in your work?
JS: I mix, invert, and overlap them as much as possible. Sometimes that is quite difficult, though. One of the things I routinely consider is what people such as Wendy Chun, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Tara McPherson have done with the relationship between conceptual treatments of media and their material particulars: how technologies were made compared with how people use and interpret them, or how (if at all) we can recover things like interface or memory over time. When prototyping things that were never manufactured or are no longer accessible, I am also able to ground my media theory a bit, even if the ground can be sketchy. Also, prototyping gives those of us in the Lab a better sense of how “this becomes that,” to borrow from Matthew Fuller’s Media Ecologies.
The archival work I do–looking at documentation, studying photographs, listening to audio, examining depictions of technologies in fiction–is also enriched by a material understanding of media composition, especially when technologists or engineers of the past pitched technologies that didn’t really work or were never manufactured as implied in the documentation. Put this way, the hands-on stuff offers as much skepticism as it does certainty. It’s not like prototyping yields more access to facts than writing.
Other items we consider in the MLab are laboratory notebooks and historical experiments, to see if they would have actually manifested in ways reported. There’s always some anachronism there, and there is always going to be some slippage in history. After all, you can’t inhabit the world like anyone did then. That’s impossible. But I still think, following Kari Kraus’s work, that some speculation or conjecture about historical experiences is meaningful for media history. So that’s generally how MLab research operates, pushing writing beyond process documentation, taking experimentation and speculation seriously, and seeing what sorts of arguments we can make by prototyping the past. In the last instance, I hope this approach renders persuasive media studies scholarship.
GH: Are the prototypes an endpoint of what you are doing, or do you then write about those artifacts? For example, do the artifacts exist as art or design objects? Do you exhibit the artifacts and see them as an endpoint in themselves? Or, do you typically write up a summary of you building it and working with it, with the writing informing the historical documents? How do you handle or navigate that?
JS: Even though artists work in the MLab, I certainly would not say anything we are making is art. I don’t have that much confidence in the aesthetic or that much hubris. After all, I’m in the humanities, and I’m not trained in art or its foundations. However, we are considering ways that we can exhibit our work in galleries or libraries, if possible. Collaborating with artists has been very informative in this regard. Still, I don’t treat any of the kits as art objects, and I think we’re in a liminal period right now with the kits, figuring out where they will go.
That said, one thing that interests me is being able to think about the circulation of things such as models, schematics, and even instructions via GitHub and other online mechanisms, to see if they are picked up, repurposed by others, and work their way back into scholarship and even collections. But this is only the second year of the kits project, so we’re not far enough along to anticipate any ripple effects. We’ll see. Right now the aims are modest, and I rely a lot on the members of the MLab team to shape its direction.
GH: Coming out of that, what was the decision to start up a lab called the “Maker Lab”? Did it just seem like a good strategy in terms of the positioning of the university or your department? That’s maybe a different topic, but I’m actually interested more in your take on the maker movement. By that I mean: Make magazine, Maker Faire, hackerspaces, 3D printing, Arduino, and that sort of thing. What do you make of the maker movement?
JS: So, my personal background: I was at Virginia Commonwealth University as an undergraduate. There and during high school I did a lot of work with DIY zines and punk music, playing in bands, booking shows, and running non-profit venues. That’s where my familiarity with DIY grew: people making their own tactile media, cutting their own records, booking their own shows, running their own tours, publishing their own writing and illustrations for their friends. Ultimately, it wasn’t about controlling the means of circulation. It was about creating with a particular audience in mind. That audience may not have been the target audience for major labels, popular presses, or what have you. Instead, people created the media they wanted to see in the world and started circulating it using the technologies at hand. Of course, this happened well before I went to university in the 1990s and 2000s, and it still happens today. For instance, my pedagogy at UVic is deeply influenced by Anna Anthropy’s “zinesters” approach to games. Among other things, Anthropy shows why we don’t need big studios or industry to make videogames
In terms of the MLab’s relation as well as my own relation to Make proper–to Make the brand or to Maker Faire–it’s distant. We read some of the Make publications; we’ll occasionally look at things they are publishing about physical computing and fabrication. But we’re not very interested in Make hobbyism, especially the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” individualist ethos that Make tends to spread. We’re more collectively oriented, and we are not really motivated to speak to the Make brand directly.
That said, there are many makerspaces and labs across the U.S. and Canada that influence us: Bethany Nowviskie’s work at UVa, the Critical Media Lab at Waterloo, Kim Knight’s work at UT-Dallas, Bill Turkel’s work at Western, Matt Ratto’s work at UToronto, your work at Emily Carr, and places like The Attic in Seattle and Double Union in San Francisco, which start with the claim that what you already know is enough to get started. Liz Henry’s “The Rise of Feminist Hackerspaces” is another interesting model. I think building on personal history and experience for academic research is very important.
This position is opposed to the now ubiquitous feeling that “I have to learn programming” or “I have to learn to code in order to do ‘proper’ digital research.” By asking people in the MLab about their backgrounds and previous work, I’ve learned things I would have likely never known: for instance, that Danielle is an impeccable illustrator, Shaun is a musician, Katherine does a lot of social justice work, and Nina is building interactives for local galleries. Calls for new researchers often mask or ignore personal histories that I think are incredibly relevant to what and how we research. So the MLab became a space based not on lack but on what people already know and how we can work together from there. That model and culture are what we draw from DIY, punk, zines, and materialist feminism.
GH: Right. So what’s the reaction to putting a laser cutter, a CNC milling machine, 3D printers, and physical computing stuff in an English Department?
JS: My sense is positive overall. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from various groups on campus: we recently worked with CFUV, UVic’s campus radio station, and the CFUV women’s collective on a physical computing and feminist practice workshop. We’ve also talked quite a bit across faculties: Computer Science, English, and more generally the Humanities. We go to interdisciplinary conferences, we present our research publicly, we publish together, and my department is always supportive. Of course, we’ve received infrastructural and other forms of support from the Humanities Faculty and the English Department, too. We’re fortunate.
The fabrication lab wouldn’t have been possible without support from Visual Arts. The Faculty of Fine Arts and specifically the Department of Visual Arts partnered with us to make that space happen, the space where the laser cutter and CNC machines are. Now I can’t really imagine–either in hindsight or in future terms–the MLab’s research working without contributions from Visual Arts researchers. We’ve had at least one MFA student on our research team each year.
Again, our experience has been positive, and I think the work remains communicable even if it is idiosyncratic or marginal to what a lot of humanities researchers do. Plus, the University of Victoria has such a strong background and presence in digital humanities, with the Humanities Computing and Media Centre, the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, and initiatives such as the Modernist Versions Project, the Map of Early Modern London, and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, for example. In my case, Ray Siemens (in English and Computer Science) paved the way for the Lab and the courses I teach, and humanities faculty have been very welcoming. It helps tremendously, too, to have spaces such as PACTAC and programs such as Cultural, Social, and Political Thought, which foster critical theories of media and technology.
GH: Right. That makes sense. So what do you make of the term “critical making”? I see you are familiar with the term. Do you have any thoughts on it or any relationship to other related terms, like “critical design,” “reflective design,” “speculative fiction,” or “values in design”? Do you frame your work within any of these terms, or do you find any of these things useful? Do you have some different terms that you use to construct and position your work?
JS: I first came across that term in Matt Ratto’s 2011 Information Societyarticle (2011), where he combines prototyping with theory, together with interests in testing and reiterating ideas as materials. I am quite keen on the term, and I like how Matt’s work isn’t reducible to its objects or output. It has shaped our thinking, but critical making is not a term we necessarily use in the Lab. Our approach to design, making, and material culture emerges somewhere through the articulation of comparative media studies with science and technology studies.
For example, I cannot imagine our research functioning without some attention to boundary objects, including Bowker and Star’s work in Sorting Things Out. That idea, how objects help us understand not only where boundaries are drawn and how differences happen but also how practices and values persist, is quite compelling to me. Ideology and sameness are generated, at least in part, through consistency in objects. So, Sorting Things Out, as well as Star’s earlier work on zoology and museum spaces, are together a starting point for the MLab. There’s also Wendy Chun’s work, especially her notion of governmental technologies in Programmed Visions, looking specifically at how technologies have an architecture. They can be studied not just as things that enable certain values; we can also consider how they’re built, and how that construction produces subjects. For Chun, computers interpellate and individuate while also affording a sense of agency and freedom. Suggestive work on technologies accounts for both of these things, blending Luddism with desire and even enthusiasm, if you will.
Borrowing from digital humanities research, we’ve also been inspired by Kari Kraus’s work on speculation, including her interests in long-term thinking, that “long now” imagination you see with Stewart Brand, Brian Eno, and others. In particular, the MLab frequently engages the relationships between objects, temporality, and memory, informed by how Kraus and others anchor their critical work in prototypes and design. For me, an important question is how to be honest about the speculative components of media history while also maintaining rigour about the material and cultural particulars. That is, I don’t think speculative design is reducible to whim.
Other influences include Bethany Nowviskie’s work at the Scholars’ Lab, Johanna Drucker’s speculative computing, and–more generally–methods where people insert themselves into the systems they’re studying, instead of detaching themselves from their objects of inquiry. Here, indie game design is a compelling model. Recently, the Scholars’ Lab started working with fabrication and physical computing techniques, too. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do there.
I’ve also been following conversations around design fiction, including Bruce Sterling’s take on it. At UVic in 2016 I’m teaching a graduate seminar in design fiction, twisting the concept a little bit to render it more historical. What’s the long history between writing and design? We’ll be looking at the production of literary, artistic, and political movements from the late 1800s forward, with an emphasis on how ideologies or “-isms” are linked to how works are designed for paper and other media. Some of those -isms include imagism, symbolism, futurism, Fluxus, and OuLiPo. How could these -isms be rethought today as design fictions? As experiments with form, arrangement, inscription, and narrative toward possible futures? Under what assumptions, and to what effects?
These are just a few touchpoints for the MLab, across comparative media studies and science and technology studies, and I realize that they may not always add up or comprise a “total” methodology. There are important differences between them.
GH: Right. I’m glad that you raise the idea of boundary objects because I think it’s important for people to understand. What do objects have that writing doesn’t? What do you, or the students that you work with, think that you gain out of getting dirt under your fingernails?
JS: Yes, that’s a tough one. I think our default position would be that objects are always congealed or frozen process (echoing Marx). In the MLab, we are not interested in creating things we ultimately fetishize. We’re also not interested in arguments that render objects withdrawn or unknowable. This kind of ontology doesn’t fascinate us. Perhaps making objects–and here I’m thinking of Tara McPherson’s work in Cinema Journal–prompts us to work with the media we study and use. This way, you have a better understanding of several things, including how media are situated but also change over time. In the case of the kits project, related questions are: what media worked then? What was possible, what was not, and through what value systems? How should we prototype the past using today’s technologies? These questions are inspired by McPherson’s call to think through, and not just about, new media.
Again, in the case of the kits, history implies well over 100 years. A lot of the research also engages the gendered social politics of the Victorian period: for whom were these objects made? How were they meant to be used? How is innovation, for example, gendered and manifested through events such as public exhibitions and fairs? But we resist overly conceptual treatments of objects, too, by better understanding how this became that, without assuming you can ever fully comprehend the composition of a given thing. In so doing, we’re not invested in the exact reproduction of history, or in re-enacting it. We’re well aware of the fact that history emerges from the present, after the fact, through whatever memories we have at our disposal.
For example, one of our kits is about early wearable technologies (1860s-1880s): jewelry pieces designed by Gustave Trouvé in France and animated using electromagnetism. Through that kit we have learned a lot about what I, at least, would have likely ignored while writing an essay about early wearables. For instance, clock-making and telegraph mechanisms (the telegraph sounder, in particular) were fundamental to early wearables design. Also, an emerging electromagnetic worldview (i.e., electromagnetism could account for practically every scientific or natural phenomenon) informed how the wearables articulated technological innovation with fashion and performance. We still don’t really know who wore these wearables or how popular they actually were. But we do know we cannot persuasively historicize them without attending to how bodies and technologies, or labour and media, are understood together. Early wearables design didn’t happen outside gender, class, power, or race relations, and their construction wasn’t effortless. And while a few scholars, including Carolyn Marvin and Susan Elizabeth Ryan, have written about them, they remain largely ignored by media studies, perhaps because we don’t have them ready to hand and there’s not much known about their composition, circulation, and use. In this sense, prototyping them helps us engage and even speculate about what’s escaped us: the ghosts and practices we know we’ll never fully recover but were important in Victorian cultures.
Perhaps unrelated, but the other thing I should mention about prototyping tactile media in the humanities is that–and I’m not necessarily sure this is a good thing–students are frequently compelled to get the thing to function “properly.” With essays, they may likely think, “Alright, I’ve done what I can, and I know this isn’t going to be published at the end of the semester. It’s good enough.” Meanwhile, there’s something about prototyping and design, including physical computing and programming, where they want everything to work before they submit it for assessment. Across writing and design, there are different impulses around what it means to complete something, or what it means for something to function. For me, melding the impulses together is an important pedagogical gesture.
Sayers is a member of both the editorial review board for Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and the steering committee for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) and received a PhD in English from the University of Washington (2011).
Interview April 16th 2015. Edited by Garnet Hertz and Jentery Sayers.