During the pandemic I’ve been playing around with various bits of open source hardware and software – 3D printers, plotters, CNC machines, projects running on dev boards and microcontrollers and figuring out applications use in the kind of art we support. I’m increasingly feeling like the maker/hacker community sits closer to the kind of technology we want to be using at Theatre in the Mill (TiM). Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of conferences and summits have gone online and so I got the opportunity to attend the Open Source Hardware Association Summit 2021 last week. Next year, apocalypse permitting, it’ll be in NYC so it might not be as easy to attend (sad face). OSHWA’s stated aim is to “foster technological knowledge and encourage research that is accessible, collaborative and respects user freedom.”
As it got closer to the summit I wondered how relevant it was going to be to what we do at TiM. I thought the sessions regarding scientific research, certification, and hardware architecture might be both over my head and irrelevant. I had some guilt of feeling like maybe all I was going to take away was a great conference goodie bag. (I’m talking really, really good!).
I was both surprised and really energised by the summit. In the end it not only sparked some new thinking about our use of technology and innovation in art, but also connected a lot of existing threads together for me. It all felt relevant. For example, I think with hindsight it’s no surprise I started working with 3D printing technology this year as it’s a technology that has no gatekeepers. Innovation is a shared effort and is community led. The expertise isn’t in a silo. It’s democratised and distributed throughout a worldwide user group.
From the outset it became clear that all the sessions and associated chats sat at the intersections of art, science, creativity, innovation, social justice, activism and education. A good proportion of the speakers had a practice that connected all these things. Words that came up consistently throughout the day – and they are good words to hear – included:
support (as in nurture, not tech support)
It’s hard to synthesise a day of thinking into something without falling into the trap of paraphrasing every session, but I think there are a few things that stuck with me and are really relevant to what we do.
Julieta Arancio outlined the work of REGOSH which is a group that facilitates collaboration between scientists, artists, makers, activists and researchers across Latin American countries. She spoke about the challenge of supporting projects in communities with low local resources with the added challenges of low investment and few experts – which made me think that these also might be challenges for supporting technical creativity in Brexit Britain. She highlighted projects to design open source tools such as mini inc mills to level up making capability on a local level – it felt like a good example of whatever the opposite of gatekeeping is called.
Oluwatobi Oyinlola’s Solarpocha project, which is an IoT embedded solar powered workstation for students in areas where both power and internet access are limited, made me think about our plans to distribute tech throughout the neighbourhood of TiM – to make the campus and the local area a playful and creatively engaging space. Post pandemic, I’d like us to invest some time in making our neighbourhood more playful using our tech and creativity resources.
A lot of the speakers identified the biggest issue of the last year as the Covid19 pandemic and there were a range of inspirational responses to this with the open hardware tech community organising to fabricate PPE around the world. There were sessions on best practice and the importance of diversity in the design of technology. There was also a brilliant session on open hardware and sex. All of the sessions are still available to watch on the OSHWA youtube channel.
I think for me the highlight was the Q&A with LeeLee James, aka Twirling Tech Goddess. She is a black queer dancer and tech vlogger who “encourages radical diversity and inclusion by making the process of learning tech more fun, accessible, and relatable to people underrepresented in STEM.” The Q&A really connected the areas of social justice, education, empowerment, democratisation, accessibility to technical creativity. It felt like the themes raised were also so connected to our mission at TiM, sitting at the same intersection of art, ‘STEM’ and social justice. She described tech education as an elitist obstacle course for so many people, and it feels that’s both true in itself and true of artistic training as well. The Twirling Tech Goddess blogs feel like a great demonstration of how people can gain knowledge and experience outside of traditional institutions. LeeLee was also very keen to stress how important “rabbit-holing” was in her experience of learning and It felt that, relating that to how an organisation can support development in technical creativity, the key is providing an environment with resources, space (physically and conceptually) and support to play, experiment, fail, break, hack, rework and grow.
As I was still digesting some of the learning from the summit, we embarked on our first online digital residency at TiM called ‘On Endings’ focussed on exploring themes around loss and grief. One of the resident companies, Theatre with Legs, finished the week with a manifesto for them to work with going forward and it was a reminder that manifestos have importance and are a great tool for embedding shared values and sustaining positive changes. With that in mind I think it’d be great if over the next couple of months we, in collaboration with our supported artists, create a manifesto for supporting learning and development in technical creativity that centres on our role as an organisation that’s working at the intersection of art, social justice, technology, innovation, diversity, representation, and inclusion, and that sits within a traditional technical academic institution. In the words of the legendary and cult 1990’s band Sultans of Ping FC:
“I Like a manifesto. Put it to the test – Oh”
Open Source Hardware Association – https://www.oshwa.org/
ReGosh – https://regosh.libres.cc/en/home-en/
Oluwatobi Oyinlola – https://www.instagram.com/oyinlolaoluwatobi/
Twirling Tech Goddess – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC58LFxfWi4b2_AI2z9-Z0RQ
Theatre With Legs – https://www.theatrewithlegs.info/