Inclusivity in Ambiguity?


20 March 2017

“We are aware that Maker Assembly is operating at a time when the term ‘making’ is very contentious,” says Liz Corbin, co-founder of Maker Assembly and a doctoral researcher at University College London's Institute of Making. “Everyone is constantly trying to figure out what we mean by making.”

Maker Assembly, a talk and workshop programme designed to facilitate critical discussion about maker culture, refuses to define making. Instead, its organisers seek to develop understanding of the term with each iteration of the event, its speakers and attendees playing a crucial role in unravelling and expanding its complex discourse. “We are very obviously, purposefully, and unashamedly working with a undetermined definition of making,” says Corbin, speaking at Maker Assembly Edinburgh on 3 March. “It’s yet to be fully decided and I don’t think it will ever be fully decided. Making is a process, so the way that we understand it is also a process.”

Such a fluid and all-encompassing approach is encouraging, not least in the event's ambition, according to its programme, to “make this dialogue open and accessible to as diverse a group as possible.” But in order to curate Maker Assembly, and commission relevant speakers, surely the term ‘making’ requires a certain level of understanding? “For us, acts of making come in all shapes and sizes,” says Corbin. “Makers can be crafting, designing, engineering, repairing, breaking or fixing. They can be young and old, making as a hobby and as a profession, using digital and analogue tools, and engaging with both historical perspectives and visions of the future.”

Maker Assembly was founded in 2015 as a means to facilitate critical discussions about maker culture, specifically its meaning, politics, history and future. The event is based on the premise that although making is ever-evolving, collective contemplation and reflection is rare. Maker Assembly therefore seeks to provide a platform for such contemplation. The event intends not to be exclusively celebratory in its discussion of making, instead encouraging criticism of contemporary practices and providing a platform to discuss methods of improvement. This concept has, to date, manifested in a number of day-long events – each comprising a mixture of talks and workshops – held in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Belfast and, most recently, Edinburgh.

To some extent Maker Assembly embraces much of the conventions of a traditional symposium: the day made up of a series of individual presentations, keynote speeches and panel discussions, each followed by audience Q&As. It is certain lesser-expected details that create a point of difference. The event is framed as a discussion with the attendees encouraged to contribute to the conversation taking place before them, equal weighing placed on speakers and audience members. “Throughout the day people will be stood up here speaking but don’t let that fool you,” said Corbin in her introductory speech, “the speakers won’t be the only experts in the room. We don’t just want to hear from the speakers, we want to hear from you. Don’t even raise your hands, feel free to interrupt, we enjoy a more fluid and informal conversation. Everyone is on equal footing here.” In practice, in Edinburgh at least, this didn’t happen. The audience remained politely silent whilst each speaker presented, only sharing their views during allotted Q&A sessions –perhaps more the result of socially learnt behaviours rather than a reflection of Maker Assembly itself. The fact that it is encouraged is positive; when audience members did speak, their views were often provocative, and sparked further debate.

Another facet of Maker Assembly is its emphasis on building a community of makers. The event is presented as a means to, according to Corbin, meet other “likeminded and not so likeminded people.” Maker Assembly is not a networking event but a means to challenge assumptions of making through conversing with others. Initiating conversation with strangers, albeit with those who you share a common interest, is often uneasy, but feels somewhat more natural when faced with each other during the event’s workshop session, of which guests have a choice of four. The workshops in Edinburgh ranged from “questioning the hierarchies of material and cultural production,” led by artist Jasleen Kaur, to exploring “how a plastic bottle joint can be culturally flexible,” run by product designer Micaella Pedros. During this session, under the guidance of Silo Studio, I found myself building a giant structure from air-filled tubing, haphazardly taped together. Designated to a group randomly, I worked with an industrial designer from Shenzhen. Language proved an occasional barrier but the task before us rendered it a minor consideration. Had it not been for the workshop, it is unlikely that we would have spoken.

The workshops are part of Maker Assembly’s wider ambition to be inclusive and diverse in both its approach and the audience it speaks to. “The most important thing, and almost the pillar of our definition of making, is that it’s inclusive,” says Corbin. “We always try and celebrate the diversity that is found within making.” Maker Assembly achieves this in myriad ways. The event was founded, and is now run, by five individuals with varying backgrounds in making. Corbin comes from an academic background specialising in the emergence of open workshops in the UK; Irini Papadimitriou is a curator, working professionally for both Watermans Art Centre and the Victoria and Albert Museum; while Marc Barto is an organiser of multiple London-based technology and makers communities.

The commissioning of speakers is therefore the result of a plurality of voices, each, presumedly, with varying interpretations of making and maker culture. At Maker Assembly Edinburgh, for example, speakers included Jo Ashbridge, founder of humanitarian and disaster response architecture charity Azuko; Hannah Fox, who as project director is responsible for the community-led redevelopment of the Silk Mill in Derby to the Museum of Making; and Janet Gunter, founder of the Restart project, an initiative that aims to reduce electronic waste. While a diverse selection, all speakers were similar in their view of making as a means to achieve social good.

Maker Assembly is kept purposely small, typically with no more than 60 attendees, in order to create an intimate environment that encourages discussion. Maker Assembly Edinburgh was an exception, attracting just over 100. The increase in numbers was a result of the event’s support by the British Council, which brought an international audience. Maker Assembly also strives to be free of charge and, having secured a years funding from the Comino Foundation, this has been partially achieved. At most, a day-long programme of talks and workshops, as well as lunch and beverages throughout the day, will cost you £10. According to Papadimitriou, this model is designed to avoid discrimination or exclusion as a result of personal financial constraints.

The aforementioned are undoubtably encouraging, though there is some room for improvement. It seems a missed opportunity that the majority of the speakers are not based locally: given the broadness of the remit, it seems unlikely that Edinburgh could not yield worthy speakers. Furthermore, in its overwhelming effort to be inclusive and to not reduce ‘making’ to a single definition it could be accused of missing the point. Does Maker Assembly exclude those who don’t actively consider themselves a maker, or those won't to participate in discussion due to a lack of understanding of the term? “There is one territory where the term making does create a barrier,” said Daniel Charny, curator and design educator, in his keynote speech at Maker Assembly Edinburgh. “That’s in places where people don’t know that they are interested in making yet. Calling it a ‘maker thing’ and putting a label on it creates another barrier.”

This concern is echoed throughout the day. One audience member makes the point that “we attach this word maker to things that people are already doing,” while another highlights how the term making can create division rather than bring people together. “There is this tension between the people that are inside this world of making and the people that are outside,” says the audience member. “There are two things in this [maker] world that people outside of it don’t do. They are not self-consciously trying to do good, regardless of whether they are or not, and they don’t use words like ‘maker’ and ‘network', as well as a whole bunch of other words that we have invented to describe a load of things that have always existed.”

To Maker Assembly’s credit, it accepts this criticism. Although striving to be diverse, the event's organisers are aware that it needs to reach a wider audience in order to bring a more varied discussion that reflects the views of all makers, regardless of if they adopt that terminology or not. “There are a lot of inspiring stories rooted in making that we would be amiss not to explore and be excited about it,” say Corbin. “That said, we would also fail if we didn’t realise that there are potential pitfalls. Even with these opportunities, we still face an equal amount of chances to continuously promote the sense of inequality and privileging that for many reasons were all here in the first place.

“That is the job of Maker Assembly. We see Maker Assembly as a safe place that travels around and enables people to have these conversations. To question what, why and how we are making things. And to really consider, through what we are doing, who is actually benefiting from making, who is the maker community celebrating, and who still is remaining effectively invisible or marginalised? It’s looking at how we address that.”

Kudos to Maker Assembly for not resting on its laurels.