At the American Craft Council Conference Creating a New Craft Culture, keynote speaker Richard Sennett spoke briefly about the distressing doctrine of user friendly and intuitive products which, he believes, perpetuate laziness and the disinterested use of a “thing.” I began to wonder if “the hack” of material goods, or what I then understood to be “hacking,” was an individual’s direct reaction to this need for involvement in the goods we consume; goods which we supposedly desire to be unable to fix. I wondered if what I considered to be an act of making something had been co-opted by this new social condition and redefined simply as assemblages or detournements. Had the same social and technological forces that had combined to create a culture of hackers also influenced the characteristics of the so-called DIY craft movement? How were these makers and hackers functioning under an umbrella of political activism and craft?
To begin to construct a critical discussion of what is currently termed the Maker/Hacker movement, it is necessary to consider the creation of the Internet and open source technology to establish a starting point for the current social condition of connectivity. These ideas are significant to us today because the current trend of hacking consumer products, or being a maker/hacker, is directly linked to the creation of the Internet and the communities of software hackers who initially formulated the beliefs, politics, and ethics which developed as a result of its creation.
While “hacking” has always existed in some form, for our purposes, the clearest foundation of the Maker/Hacker movement is found in the tinkering of ham radio operators and the modding of cars in the 1920’s. In 1969, the earliest incarnation of the internet appeared. The 1970’s saw major universities utilizing email applications to connect individuals. This development later gave birth to a community of computer and software hackers who operated under the philosophy of hacker ethics; a ideology which included collaborative working methods, open exchange of information, and challenging bureaucracies who sought to limit this free exchange of information. In 1991, The World Wide Web first appeared, making our current social condition of connectivity a little less than 20 years old (Chandler). This period also produced the new media boom, or the creation of self-authoring software, which allowed individuals to edit their own photographs and videos, blog, and create web pages. These advances in technology resulted in a lasting cultural and structural impact. Society embraced the heightened sense of interactivity and self-authorship desktop computing allowed. By 1999, new media, the dot-com boom, open source technologies like the Linux operating system, and hacker ethics officially reached the mainstream.
Today’s privileged moment of interconnectivity and self-authorship has given rise to makers and hackers, both of which function within the ethos of post-production, and utilize the internet as the expression of supposedly subversive and avant gardist creative endeavors. Without this distinction, I would have to believe that I’ve been both DIY and a hacker all my life without knowing it; I’ve been subversively undermining capitalist society when I fix an appliance, sew clothing, knit a scarf, and wire up my rusted out muffler. I did all of these things, often in creative ways, but never thought to post them on online forums so an unlimited number of anonymous browsers could see that I had indeed done these things. Without a community, or network, the Maker/Hacker movement in its truest and most modern form could not exist. Online communities, such as Hack a Day and IKEAhack, enable individuals to operate dialogically by freely dispersing information to large groups of people quickly and easily. Hackers place their ideas into the public domain to collaboratively build an idea and democratize user innovation, helping to drive a user centered marketplace. DIY makers become “hobbypreneurs” who embrace notions of ethical consumerism and create niche markets and customized products (Intuit). Makers connect with customers both online and through events such as Maker Faire; networks become the most important source of meaning. Various forums, such as Etsy labs and craftzine.com, provide a place for free exchange of knowledge, ideas, and skillsets. This being the case, the internet serves to amplify our own social tendencies as humans; both hacking and DIY become a theater of production where an audience is both needed and required, where the individual work is not as important as the collective effort, and where the network, not the work, has aura.
Are the notions of a bottom up capitalism which promotes ethics over profits through hacking and making idealistic? Has the methodology of these movements become an aesthetic or a trend as it has been appropriated into the marketplace? Is the hacking of consumer goods and the DIY craft community acting critically, politically, or disingenuously?
These questions reflect a difficulty in ascertaining intent amid a flurry of websites, books, terms, films, articles, and lectures on this subject. It becomes challenging to tell practice from practicality; to tell social from cultural from economic. This fluidity promotes what Lane Relyea calls a “premature triumphalism.” This outcome plagues many social movements whose 1960’s style utopianesque rhetoric creates an artificially heightened sense of expectations. At the ACC conference, I repeatedly noted that the DIY discourse suddenly merged with Feminism, the Green movement, and the Bicycle movement without clearly articulating this tenuous relationship. Certain parties believe a revolution is coming; their social system has been identified as superior if only for the short term. A critical observer recognizes the “premature triumphalism” Relyea cites. Victory has been claimed too soon.
Post-production allows an escape from interpretations, as well as an escape from the critic, as artists opt for experimentation and construction over deconstruction. Along these lines, French philosopher Bruno Latour notes that the present day role of the critic is “…not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles…[the critic is] the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” ( Abstract Hacktivism 28). My experience at the American Craft Council Conference showed me that DIY embraces such a doctrine: democratic and judgment free. For the Maker/Hacker movement to put itself forward as a subculture, as culture jammers, as grassroots activists of the everyday, as purveyors of ethical consumption, as writers of craftifestos, as creators of craft mafias, as yarn bombers, as something inherently political, they show that within this craft conversation there is something lacking. It is the political undertones which both groups embrace that have earned them the labels of Hacktivism and Craftivism respectively. The addition of the “vism” denotes the political and points to the missing element: An important component to any successful political movement is debate and criticism.
While cognizant of activist minded work such at Cat Mazza’s Nike Petition Blanket, in considering the Craftifesto by Amy Carlton and Cinnamon Cooper, I am struck by the appearance of a remixing of feminist theory, the heavily female demographic of DIY, and the use of women’s handicrafts such as knitting and cross stitch. I submit that much of DIY and Craftivism are operating under the assumption that “the personal is political.” This phrase, which was taken from a collaborative essay by Carol Hanisch in 1969, is often misinterpreted to mean that every personal choice, action, and inaction is fundamentally political. Considering the embattled quote in context, I interpret the phrase to describe women’s acts of consciousness-raising as a method to understand and challenge various power relationships. It was through these realizations that women could begin to recognize the potential for change, gain voice, and enact their own liberation. The mid 90’s saw this phrase become a slogan as it was co-opted by conservatives to promote personal sources of social change which resembled (but did not challenge) ideological structures and social values already in place (Hill Collins 170). This change in the definition of the personal is political, marked a change from Hanisch’s Marxist ideals of group struggle to an acceptance of individuals working within capitalist structures to profit in the marketplace. This shift resembles the creation of bottom up capitalism, of ethical consumerism and the creation of elitist niche markets by “hobbypreneurs”, of hackers and makers collaborating with large corporations to produce trendy new goods. Opportunistic semantics hide an ahistorical consumption of goods, handmade or otherwise, which are not necessarily political, subversive, or avant garde. Shopping as activism functions as borderline slacktivism. Anything existing in the mainstream cannot be subversive. True avant gardism lasts only until recognized.
In a generation of people who have come to age within a social condition of self-authoring software, interconnectivity, immediacy, social networking, and gadgetry, and are now faced with increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized technologies presented to them in uncustomizable goods, I postulate that what maker/hackers are really doing is bringing the condition of the everyday into plain sight by transforming the previously disregarded. Their approach to online forums and collaborative working methodologies highlights a fundamental human need: our propensity to form communities. These are not necessarily critical spaces. Hacktivism, which supposedly creates a conscious awareness of commonplace consumer goods, works within the formulaic design trend of sampling. The “handmade” often becomes a gimmick in this realm. Instead of embracing the entire spectrum of Hacktivism, Craftivism, and DIY as automatically political or subversive, we need to reintroduce a discussion of process and practice with vocabulary that provides a framework for reflection and self-criticism. DIY is a lifestyle and a trend; it is part of consumer culture. If we accept without question that it is indeed political or hermetic, we are complicit in activism as novelty; we forgo revolution for modification.
According to Otto von Busch and Karl Palmas, authors of the recent book Abstract Hacktivism, in this moment of interconnectedness, we must go beyond Derrida, beyond binary oppositions, and beyond Baudrillard’s simulacra. I conclude that we must begin to think relationally instead of oppositionally. This is not a struggle of the old versus the new or the institution against the individual but a call for a critical discussion of craft, a dissection of semantics, and an attempt to intelligently quantify a moment socially, culturally, and artistically. We need more than a building up; we need criticality. We need to be able to deconstruct what is built, we need to act responsibly, and we need to be able to (and do) make value judgments about how we use information, what we make with it, and how what we make functions in the world.
BARB SMITH received her B.A. in Fine Arts and Art Education from Purdue University in 2003 and her M.A. in Photography and Related Media from Purdue University in 2005. After teaching jewelry, metals, and design at Purdue University for three years, she moved to New York to study under Jamie Bennett and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray at the State University of New York-New Paltz. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Metal in 2010.
Chandler, David L. Who ‘Created’ the Internet? It’s a Tangled Web. The Boston Globe. October 2000. http://www.seattlepi.com/business/nett20.shtml. Accessed 12/6/09.
Hill Collins, Patricia. From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism. Temple University Press, Feb. 2006.
Lane Relyea: Bricoluer as Entrepreneur. SMAC: scribemedia art culture, May 27, 2009. Accessed 12/15/09. http://www.smac.us/2009/05/27/lane-relyea/
Research Brief: Today’s Hobbyists are Tomorrow’s Hobbeypreneurs. Intuit Future of Small Business Report, Dec. 2009. Accessed 01/11/10. http://http-download.intuit.com/http.intuit/CMO/intuit/futureofsmallbusiness/ifosb_hobbyists_report.pdf
Von Busch, Otto and Karl Palmas. Abstract Hacktivism: The Making of a Hacker Culture. http://www.scribd.com/doc/21277/Otto-von-Busch-AbstractHacktivism. Accessed 12/6/09.