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Hacking the museum? Collections makerspaces and power geometries at cultural institutions in London
What happens when makers, or people who use tools to hack, remix and create things, interact on virtual or 'placeless' rather than physical or 'locally situated' spaces? What happens when they encounter other digital actors – the kind who want to control them? This article is about 數據線 Shùjùxiàn, or 'drinking from the data line', a creative experiment with digital makers in China that was inspired by Furtherfield's DIWO (Do It With Others) call in 2006 for decentralized endeavours that would disrupt hierarchies through networked collaborations. By engaging in 'placeless making', projects like Shùjùxiàn attempt to playfully subvert censorship algorithms through co-creation.
In China, a series of strategic policy shifts around makerspaces is setting the scene for widespread social change — but who are these changes really affecting? From inventing the abacus to working with the world’s first hot air balloons (Dinke 2005), China has always experimented with new technologies — but as we learned from the many creatives, makers and innovators we spoke to as delegates of the British Council Living Research project which explored local maker and craft ecosystems in Chengdu and Xi’an this spring, China is experiencing an especially transformative moment in its history — and making is its focus.
Makerspaces are subjects in a plurality of institutional advances and developments, catching the imaginations of a wide variety of organisations and other actors drawn to a buzz of enticing possibilities. Depending upon the nature of the encounter, makerspaces are becoming cradles for entrepreneurship, innovators in education, nodes in open hardware networks, studios for digital artistry, ciphers for social change, prototyping shops for manufacturers, remanufacturing hubs in circular economies, twenty-first century libraries, emblematic anticipations of commons-based, peer-produced post capitalism, workshops for hacking technology and its politics, laboratories for smart urbanism, galleries for hands-on explorations in material culture... not forgetting, of course, spaces for simply having fun. What kinds of hybrid arrangements emerge through these encounters, and what becomes of the occupied factories for peer production theory? How are institutions reshaping aspirations for autonomous, even democratic, fabrication and experimentation – aspirations that were – and are – important parts of makerspace narratives? And what do these encounters mean for institutions, whether in education, culture, business, development or some other sphere; how are they too evolving through their exposure to grassroots and community making practices?
This paper examines the recent phenomenon of ‘collections makerspaces’, which are defined for the first time as dedicated public sites in cultural institutions with suites of creative tools aimed at inspiring new engagements with a collection through hands-on making and learning practices. Working from the notion of space as a form of power geometry (Massey 1993), its component parts woven together through an ever-evolving constellation of the overlapping histories, imaginaries and cosmopolitics of myriad actors, the paper begins with a genealogy of shared machine shops in the U.K. as viewed through four cumulative waves of innovation, with collections makerspaces located in a fourth wave that is defined by institutional affiliations. The circumstances of collections makerspace sites situated at three museums in London (Tate, the British Museum and the Wellcome Collection) are then explored through an examination of ethnographic observations of practices that are either canonical or distinctive, and the corresponding geometries of power they reveal. In conclusion, it is argued that the collections makerspace is emerging as a key site of critical institutional inquiry which carries the potential to reframe museum hegemonies through peer production practices.
This paper is rooted in an experimental inquiry of issue-oriented temporary techno-social gatherings or TTGs, which are typically referred to as hackathons, workshops or pop-ups and employ rapid design and development practices to tackle technical challenges while engaging with social issues. Based on a collaboration between three digital practitioners (a producer, a researcher and a designer), qualitative and creative data was gathered across five different kinds of TTG events in London and in Tartu which were held in partnership with large institutions, including Art:Work at Tate Exchange within Tate Modern, the Mozilla Festival at Ravensbourne College and the 2017 Association of Internet Researchers conference hosted in Tartu. By analysing data using an open and discursive approach manifested in both text and visual formats, we reflect on the dynamic and generative characteristics of TTG gatherings while also arriving at our own conclusions as situated researchers and practitioners who are ourselves engaged in increasingly messy webs where new worlds of theory and practice are built.