An Interview with Garnet Hertz of the Studio for Critical Making
Interview by Lori Emerson
Lori Emerson: Let’s start with the basics: what is your lab called and where is it?
Garnet Hertz: My lab is called The Studio for Critical Making, and it is located at Emily Carr University, which is a public post-secondary university dedicated to art and design in Vancouver, Canada. The institution was founded in 1925, and it has approximately 2,000 full-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Compared to other similar institutions it is quite multidisciplinary in its programs, has a very strong assortment of shops and production facilities, and most class sizes are under 18 students. Having previously worked at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and at UC Irvine, I see Emily Carr as clearly dedicated to accessibility and relative affordability, with undergraduate tuition and fees currently about $5,400 CAD per year—or about one quarter of the cost of the University of California and a tenth of the cost of ArtCenter.
The school transitioned from an art college to a university in 2008, and I see the lab’s role and my research there as directly working to answer the question of what it means to do studio-based research in art and design. I started working at Emily Carr in 2014 as “Canada Research Chair in Design and Media Art”—the Canada Research Chair program is a federally funded initiative to promote research at Canadian universities. In practical terms, I spend 80% of my time working on research initiatives and 20% of my time teaching and working with graduate students in the school’s Masters of Fine Art and Masters of Design programs.
Emerson: What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?
Hertz: As “The Studio for Critical Making,” the space is most interested in work that blends hands-on studio production with academic scholarship. More specifically, my overarching objective in the lab is to provide evidence that the critically engaged methodology of the arts and humanities is valuable in the process of technological design.
Part of this work focuses on illuminating how standard methods of technological design—whether in consumer culture or in traditional fields of science and engineering—often produce systems that lack cultural richness, emotion, and human-oriented values. By overemphasizing principles like efficiency, productivity and a faith in technology, design often contributes to a consumer-oriented culture that overworks, overproduces, and overconsumes. The larger goal of the lab is to tactically intervene and disrupt traditional models of technological development by giving designers and the public an opportunity to break out of this cycle, step back, and reflectively reconsider a broader spectrum of human experience. If technology is to improve society, it must be designed for the complexities of what it means to be human—and industrial and commercial modes of design frequently miss the mark.
I generally approach these questions through a process of building “things to think with”: experimental technological prototypes that are manufactured through the mindset of humanities-oriented cultural analysis. These devices—which usually are functional prototypes that are exhibited in public art galleries, documented online, and published as case studies in academic papers—expose the hidden assumptions and values embedded in technological systems. The purpose of these objects is to enable individuals to reflect on the personal and social impact of new technologies, and to provide a provocative or speculative visions of our technological future. In this sense, my studio work generally follows in the path of critical design (Dunne & Raby) and in experimental work by media artists that that tries to poetically grapple with the impacts of technology in daily life. The lab’s bias is that new technologies consistently overpromise freedom and underdeliver social benefits, and that prodding more critical reflection on the unforeseen consequences of technology serves a useful role in society.
Emerson: Can you elaborate on how you’ve been aligning yourself with the term “critical making”?
Hertz: I often use the term “critical making,” originally coined by Matt Ratto, to describe my interdisciplinary design approach, which draws on concepts and methods that are currently deployed among design theory, art, computer science, and the humanities. To me, this interdisciplinarity is fundamental to the development of thought-provoking and critically engaged technologies—or perhaps I simply do not feel at home in any single academic discipline. Thus, a second objective of the lab is to construct a solid methodology for critically engaged technology design, one that offers practical instruction in how humanities-based inquiry can constructively inform technological design. This is currently a work in progress, and I am involved in curricular development, teaching and hosting workshops in my lab.
Emerson: And how does critical making intersect with the notion of “research creation” that’s particular to Canada and it’s federal funding model?
Hertz: The intersection of the humanities, arts and technology has a significant impact on the emerging field of what is termed in Canada as “research creation”: “An approach to research that combines creative and academic research practices, and supports the development of knowledge and innovation through artistic expression, scholarly investigation, and experimentation” (SSHRC). Related to this, an area that I’ve been working on over the past seven years is in alternate modes of academic publishing and new modes of knowledge dissemination. In particular, I’ve been creating low-budget DIY “zine” magazines to address academic topics of technology in contemporary culture. To date, I’ve made experimental publications to address the topics of maker culture (“Critical Making,” 2012) and technological design as a form of political protest (“Disobedient Electronics: Protest,” 2017). As a part of this, the third objective of the lab is to build convincing case studies of alternate modes of knowledge dissemination. Foundational to this work is the idea that artistic studio methods can play a vital role in making academic arguments more legible to the public in our “post-truth” era.
As an overarching theme to all of this, I am most interested in exploring nimble and non-expert forms of technological production. This includes do-it-yourself, hacker, and artistic approaches to building technologies.
Emerson: Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for seminars?
Hertz: I primarily run the lab as a studio for my own research projects, with space for graduate students that I am directly supervising or working with. Two other faculty with similar research interests at the university are formally affiliated with the space at the moment—Gillian Russell and Craig Badke. I have two paid graduate student researchers that are helping me out with projects and six Emily Carr graduate students that I am directly advising—and all of them have keys to the space. They generally have their own studio or office spaces, so the lab is typically used as an “extra” space for mocking up larger projects, using specialized equipment or researching ideas in the lab’s library. I have a table for people to drop in and “hotel” on laptops with a sink, fridge and hot water dispenser.
The faculty and students that I work with are typically polymaths that work between a number of different disciplines, normally with one foot in media art practice, science and technology studies, critical design, or experimental user experience/interface design.
I also give lab access to an assortment of other adjunct and full-time faculty on campus that generally need space: the university has a significant lack of faculty space compared to other institutions I’ve worked at, so I’ve given an additional 20 faculty at Emily Carr keycard access. These are infrequent users that just drop in once in a while, perhaps using the space for a meeting or to peck away on a laptop. This is more of an off-the-side-of-my-desk community service than a core research agenda, but I try to be flexible with the space to bend to the needs of the community. At least in theory it’s inspired by how some hackerspaces have been run: for example, Mitch Altman (co-founder of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge) used to randomly hand out physical keys to his hackerspace as an invitation to come and become involved. I’m not running the same type of operation, but there’s something to be learned from being open to randomness.
The lab hosts approximately one public seminar, workshop or event per month. This can range from guest lectures by visiting faculty or people at Emily Carr, technical workshops, or a meetup around a specific theme. I have organized events in the past (namely “Dorkbot SoCal” in Los Angeles for a decade, primarily at a gallery called Machine Project run by Mark Allen) and from that I learned that organizing events went best when I really didn’t worry about attendance numbers. In other words, I generally look at organizing events more like my social life—and the events have more of a nimble “potluck party” vibe than an orchestrated “TED Talk” or a conference/panel format. It is difficult for one person to plan, advertise, and host events every month without burning out, so instead of ramping up the administration of events by getting help, I generally prefer lightweight events I can organize and promote myself. I focus on making sure that three or four good people will be there—people that I would love to have over to my place for dinner to chat, for example—and focus on having a good kernel of high quality content.
Emerson: What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g., conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?
Hertz: Since the lab started approximately four years ago, research activities have focused around three broad themes:
- Media Art Practice: Building engaging technology projects that provide opportunities for the public to critically reflect on and explore society’s relationship to technology;
- Design Theory & Art History: Constructing a solid framework and methodology for critically engaged technology design—one that offers both a theoretical foundation and practical instruction in how humanities-based inquiry can constructively impact technological design; and
- Experimental Knowledge Mobilization: Using studio-based approaches to improve knowledge transfer across academic disciplines and to the public.
Collectively these three modes of working are embodied in “critical making”—combining critical art practice with academic research to build multidisciplinary projects that are delivered through creative modes of knowledge mobilization that have high impact. This research program was realized through the project initiatives discussed below—many of which simultaneously address multiple objectives.
Innovative approaches to knowledge mobilization will continue to be central to my research objectives in my second CRC term. I extensively engage with many different groups that use my research—including policy-makers, the press, the commercial sector, educators, makers, artists and multiple fields of academia—during all steps of my research projects. I invite them to participate in the development of my research programs, to submit their own work as contributions, and to redistribute or revise the research after it is released. Although I remain somewhat skeptical about social media platforms, I often use Facebook as an interactive sketchbook for research ideas and projects, and it is effective as a “public academic” platform for interdisciplinary topics. An example is my 2018 Maker’s Bill of Rights, which will be revised with the input of Facebook users and re-released in a 2019 edition.
For studio artworks, I generally post in-progress documentation of projects through detailed photographs, technical documentation and video. This generates traction with the press, academics and curators. The projects are then exhibited in high profile international art and design exhibitions, with documentation of their production and testing disseminated through academic publications and conferences, including the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Engagement with the public depends on the topic and scope of the project: for example, Vancouver Special 2020 will be developed in careful consultation with non-profit and governmental organizations involved in issues related to housing affordability and homelessness in Vancouver.
For the dissemination of written work, I use a number of different methods. My main channel to academia is through my relationship with MIT Press. For more experimental modes of knowledge dissemination, I follow up social media interest quickly by mailing individually handwritten notes, booklets, stickers, ideas, drafts and string-wrapped packages in the postal snail mail. I am most concerned with creating high quality personal connections to a few individuals than wide dispersion to a disconnected audience. I consider having 300 high quality connections for each project to be a success because it results in a highly engaged group of individuals from multiple disciplines who fan out my research further through social media, by citing me, inviting me to give talks across the globe, and inviting my work to exhibitions. I typically first release research-creation publishing projects exclusively in physical hardcopy to this select group, which creates excitement and interest in the research. This interest typically results in curators proposing exhibition venues for the physical bookworks. A short time later, the project is openly released online for free download through custom-built websites, my conceptlab.com domain, Facebook, Academia.edu and ResearchGate.
I see a crucial need for improving in-person social networking with other researchers in Vancouver. To this end, I started a “Critical Making Salon” in September 2018 as a bi-weekly social event to promote old-fashioned face-to-face networking between researchers working in fields related to critical making. This includes participants from SFU Interactive Arts and Technology, SFU Communication, various departments at ECU, UBC, New Forms Festival, artist-run centres, and the public. I plan on continuing this in my second term, and see it as a fun, tangible way to actively encourage the uncloistering of knowledge and improve peer review amongst high quality researchers in the region.
Emerson: Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?
Hertz: The lab has a dedicated space of approximately 80 square meters (850 square feet) in a new purpose-built building at Emily Carr University. The space somewhat resembles a nicely equipped warehouse bay, and the equipment inside is clustered around five different themes:
- Physical fabrication equipment, including traditional hand tools and power tools, plus CNC routing and 3D printing;
- Electromechanical and embedded computing prototyping equipment with parts and supplies organized in bins and a small electronics and soldering workbench;
- Documentation equipment, including professional camera gear with lights and backdrops;
- Bookmaking and print-oriented equipment and supplies; and
- A lecture and presentation area that has a library of books as a backdrop.
There is also a kitchen with a group work table for graduate students and researchers.
Training activities take place at The Studio for Critical Making, my 848 square foot CFI-funded research facility. Equipment includes 3D scanners, CNC mills, 3D printers, professional photo equipment, electronic prototyping equipment and an extensive library of specialized literature. The facility is an engaging and vibrant learning environment for research-creation that actively supports student success. I typically have weekly in-person research meetings with student researchers. Mentoring activities include collaborative literature and technology reviews, hands-on help developing design prototypes, and documenting and disseminating research findings.
Emerson: What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g., government grants, institutional grants, private donors)
Hertz: I generally avoid grants unless I absolutely need them—and because the bulk of my work focuses on do-it-yourself techniques, I generally do not need a lot of money to get things done in the studio.
I have a past life running a commercial design firm with a dozen employees, and at this point I have no interest in replicating a high-overhead initiative in need of constant management. I have little interest in building a giant research empire.
Emerson: What are your major theoretical touchstones?
Hertz: My research is informed by media art, design and computer science research that take cultural production and humanities-oriented inquiry seriously. The scholarly literature on this topic from the fields of design and computer science includes critical technical practice (Agre, 1997), values in design (Nissenbaum, 1998), critical design (Dunne, 1999), reflective design (Sengers et al., 2005) and research through design (Zimmerman et al. 2010). This body of scholarship argues that all built technological artefacts embody cultural values, and that technological development and hands-on making can be combined to build provocative objects that encourage a re-evaluation of technology in culture. Arts-oriented contexts include the terms of interrogative design (Wodiczko, 1999), critical engineering (Oliver et al., 2011), adversarial design (DiSalvo, 2012), tactical media (Garcia & Lovink, 1997) and works of contemporary media art—all of which take an attitude of humanities-based inquiry into the production of art objects and technologies.
As I pointed out above, the term “critical making” is a focal point in my current research and can be defined as “a mode of materially productive engagement that is intended to bridge the gap between creative physical and conceptual exploration” (Ratto, 2011). Critical making is an appeal to individuals that design and make technologies—including hackerspace Do-It-Yourself (DIY) “makers” and media arts practitioners—to engage in cultural critique for the development of provocative and thoughtful technologies.
The term “maker” is important to this research because it stands at the intersection of traditional media arts practice, product design, craft, and computer science research. I see it as an interesting model on which to base interdisciplinary research. The contemporary use of the term originated from Dale Dougherty in 2005 at the founding of Make Magazine, and has since been used to describe grassroots-oriented electronic hobby projects and initiatives that blend clever physical construction, craft, microcontrollers, robotics, and open source ideals based on the free sharing of information. As community-organised hackerspace studios, open source 3D printers and DIY-style physical computing platforms (Arduino, Raspberry Pi) have become more widespread, the concept of making has also grown considerably. Critically engaged maker practice has recently emerged as a theme in several academic conferences (4S 2013, HASTAC 2014, MLA 2014, SIG CHI 2013, SIG DIS 2014, RTD 2017, SLSA 2018), and in addition to Ratto’s Critical Making Lab at the University of Toronto, the Rhode Island School of Design deployed the term critical making in 2012 as a central visioning concept for their curriculum (Maeda, 2013).
Emerson: What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?
Hertz: The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016 was surrounded by controversy and polarization, accompanied by an international rise in grass roots protest and social media-driven advocacy. I responded to these global shifts by constructing a call for submissions for a book to highlight the history and current practices of artists, designers and activists that build electronic devices for the purposes of political protest. The works, drawn from 10 countries, all disobey conventions and pointedly highlight injustices, discrimination, or abuses of power. Topics include the wage gap between women and men, the objectification of women’s bodies, gender stereotypes, wearable electronics as a form of protest, robotic forms of protest, counter-government-surveillance and privacy tools, and devices designed to improve an understanding of climate change. The book was published as a handmade limited edition of 300 copies (given away for free), and a downloadable PDF. As a testament to the international impact of this project, Parsons Paris offered a graduate MFA course titled “Disobedient Electronics” taught by Benjamin Gaulon in Spring 2018. The handmade book was also exhibited as an art object in London (V&A), Paris (Nuit Noire), Bucharest (Liminal Festival), Brussels (iMAL), Rotterdam (Future Flux), and Vancouver (Vancouver Public Library). More documentation: http://www.disobedientelectronics.com.
The past five years of my research can be summarized with six key findings:
- Building electronic objects can be an effective form of social argument or political protest;
- DIY, maker culture and local artisanal productions can have strong nationalist and protectionist components to them;
- Critical and Speculative Design (Dunne & Raby, 2013) are worthwhile approaches within industrial design, but perhaps not adversarial enough to reply to contemporary populist movements;
- If we are living in a post-truth time, we should focus on trying to make progressive arguments and facts more legible and engaging to a wide and diverse audience;
- The fad of the maker movement is over. Arduinos and 3D printers are fascinating things, but the larger issues of what it means to be a human or a society need to be directly confronted; and
- The physical publication of books—especially as carefully handcrafted objects—is still an engaging and effective form of knowledge dissemination in our “post-internet” era.
Emerson: Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3–5 years?
Hertz: My key research initiative toward the objective of design theory & art history has been the research and writing of the book Beyond Making: Do-It-Yourself Practices in Electronic Art, under contract with MIT Press (Doug Sery, editor.) This is expected to be the first book-length academic monograph on DIY electronics in art, and the first to critically reflect on the growing field of the “maker movement” in reference to art. It posits that the history and practice of media art is vitally important in producing culturally relevant work. This project starts by acknowledging that the field of electronic art is widely underhistoricized and undertheorized, and works to correct this by providing a thematic and critical overview of the discipline. The book also documents and writes about female artists that creatively use electronics, representing a significant correction to a historical gender bias in the field of art and technology. The research focuses on projects that circulate in the sphere of art and have electronics as the primary medium. It provides in-depth case studies of works by the following artists: Doug Back, The Barbie Liberation Organization, Diana Burgoyne, Maywa Denki, Reed Ghazala, Darsha Hewitt, Shih Chieh Huang, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, Natalie Jeremijenko, Laura Kikauka, Dmitry Morozov, Nam June Paik, Nancy Paterson, Survival Research Laboratories, Thomas Thwaites and Norm White. Research included in-depth interviews, physical recreation of historical projects, and visits to the archives at the National Gallery of Canada and the Daniel Langlois Foundation Collection at the The Cinémathèque québécoise in Montréal.
The text is organized in six main sections:
- Foundational terms within a historical and theoretical context, including “electronic art,” “DIY” and “maker”;
- DIY practice in constrained conditions;
- Work motivated by the desire to open up inaccessible or “blackboxed” technologies;
- Technologies that question the role of technology in culture;
- Projects that are politically tactical and counter-institutional; and
- Conclusions that bring together implications for non-commercial design and media art practices under the banner of “critical making”.
The book strives to extract a wider understanding of DIY practices with an emphasis on speaking to a community of scholars that study cultural movements, technological innovation, design methodologies, and the impacts of technology on culture. The manuscript draft is currently at 114,440 words (349 pages) across 22 chapters and represents a major milestone in the discipline of media art internationally. The target date of delivery of a full draft to press is early 2019, with print publication scheduled for the fall of 2019. ECU graduate student Matt Harkness was employed as a research assistant on this project.
The proposed research program is a matured continuation of my current research activities. During my first CRC term I focused heavily on laying the historical and scholarly research groundwork for regarding research-creation modes of production deployed by artists (MIT Press book). I envision the next five years being more focused on producing studio projects and providing actionable items for scholars and practitioners. Under the Media Arts Practice objective, I will continue to design and create high quality studio projects that respond to current issues, a continuation of my ongoing commitment over the past 25 years of using creative artistic practice to address social factors and generate dialogue. The other two areas—Critical Making Curricular Development and Experimental Knowledge Mobilization—will primarily flow out of my Beyond Making book, which is currently nearing the final stages of manuscript preparation. Representing the culmination of several years work during my first CRC term, this book outlines a cross-sectional history of media arts as it relates to maker culture. Building on this work, I am planning a number of new instructional/curricular projects and research-creation dissemination projects to communicate this knowledge to broader audiences, making key information accessible beyond traditional academic forums. Together this program of research represents an ambitious and exciting evolution of my work, mobilizing my historical and theoretical research contributions into cross-disciplinary platforms to help others build more reflectively designed objects and technologies.
During 2020–21, I will edit a collaborative book project on critical, hands-on pedagogy that fleshes out practical content for “critical making”. Taking the nondisciplinary framework of making as a starting point, I will integrate a collection of project prompts and activities from various academic disciplines to encourage a reflective use of technology and exploration of its role in culture and society. This will draw material from disciplines including media & communication studies, critical design, media art, human-computer interaction (HCI), and science and technology studies (STS). The goal is to translate theory from critical social science disciplines into hands-on assignments, exercises and activities that can be deployed in various environments, including academic makerspaces, community workshops, or undergraduate or graduate-level courses and workshops.
The book will include approximately 100 one-page curricular prompts from academics that outline an exercise or hands-on activity to encourage reflective consideration of technology and design in culture. Although some of the activities will only require pen and paper, the book will also leverage tools and equipment commonly found in community hackerspaces and makerspaces, such as 3D printers, electronic prototyping tools, and physical construction. This project directly responds to the question of “What do I do in a makerspace?” by providing practical guides for using tools like 3D printers in interesting and engaging ways. As many institutions have rushed to embrace additive manufacturing, the question of what content to produce has recently become a more pressing issue. This project will address the gap of high-quality content and curriculum in makerspaces by offering activities provided by world-class researchers.
This project has already generated significant interest among key individuals who would like to contribute content to the project. This includes faculty from Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Illinois Institute of Tech, Queensland U of Tech, U Michigan, U Washington, U Colorado, Aarhus U, RISD, USC, UCSD, CalArts, OSU, U of T and ECU. Additional contributors will be solicited through a formal call for submissions. The text would function as a “recipe book” or “print swap” in which instructors share exercises or activities that they use in their own classes, thus creating a valuable resource for faculty, educators, makerspace operators, and self-directed individuals.
The target audience for this work are artist-run centres, library makerspaces, tool libraries, independent hackerspace cooperatives, and student-oriented university innovation labs. Currently there are approximately 75 such makerspaces in Canadian universities, along with an additional 45 independent public makerspaces and roughly 120 artist-run centres that focus on technology access of various forms across Canada. The international audience for this work is also substantial, with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating that there are a total of 1393 active hackerspaces internationally as of 2017. Many of these nondisciplinary and cooperative spaces have 3D printers, electronic prototyping equipment, and fabrication tools for use by their local community. One of my goals is to reach these communities directly to actively promote and carve out more of a media-arts-oriented stream of work.
Emerson: Thank you so much, Garnet, for taking the time to expand on your work in and around The Studio for Critical Making!