Failure 2.0: A Critical Making Journey

From an independent study with Professor Liz Losh, my fellow graduate student Lindsay Garcia (and you can check out her fantastic Cockroach Disco project) and I experimented with different technologies typically found within a Makerspace and readings in topics related to the overarching field of Feminist Science and Technology Studies.  These topics included cybernetics, new materialism, affect theory, and digital media.

We especially engaged with, and through attending the FemTechNet Conference—“Signal/Noise: Feminist Pedagogy, Technology, Transdisciplinarity,”  the idea of critical making, termed by Matt Ratto.  Critical making links “critical thinking” (an abstract and cognitive practice) with “making” (a tactile and hands-on practice), giving weight to our material experiences with technology and help connect it with a more community-oriented, social critique.  How does one inform the other?  How does an idea conceptualize and translate into a material reality?  How do things and ideas move from the material world to the digital world and vice versa?

With these questions in mind, I attempted to build a sweeping automaton that not only commented on the traditional ideals of domesticity, but also the “(hu)man as machine,” Cartesian mind-body dichotomy through clockwork machines.  Some of my previous works involved automata and how we situate technology into our everyday lives and within neoliberal context.  Moving forward, my original plan was to construct the automaton out of paper which was my clever way of tying in ideas of environmental awareness and sustainability.

20160516_180141I have made paper automatons in the past.  Ron was my first automaton and I made him fairly quickly over one Thanksgiving weekend with a pack of construction paper, scissor, ruler, and a whole lot of Elmer’s glue.  For this final project, however, I wanted to incorporate as much technology as I could, and as quickly as I could, into designing and producing something that was disposable and biodegradable.

The design started in Sketchup.  As with most design software, there is a learning curve, and you more or less pick and choose which program you want to focus learning.  From Sketchup, I exported my design into Pepakura Designer, a program that translate 3D designs into 2D paper models that can then be reconstructed back into a 3D model.  The first constraint of Pepakura, more popularly used to constructing costume pieces, is scaling.  Given the dimensions of my automaton, certain gears and cam components were rendered too small in Pepakura to be folded successfully meaning I had to reconfigure my design.  The second constraint, since I planned on using a Cricut to help cut the smaller components, was that Pepakura did not export its file into svg that was compatible with the Cricut design space.  To convert between two formats I used a third program, Inkscape, a graphic editing software.  It also had a learning curve, but it exported in svg.  Unfortunately, the graphics from Pepakura through Inkscape when exported as svg were not compatible with svg formats accepted by Cricut, which had its own library of images, most available for purchase.  Scaling also became a major issue throughout as each step of the process.  The Cricut cutting mat limited its cutting width to 12”.  Even when I finally got the scaling correct, what was unexpected was the amount of paper waste generated.

In the end, I did manage to get a complete cut out and scoring with Cricut, but the cardstock paper proved too weak.  Even with thicker poster board, however, the precision of Cricut becomes a problem.  It was too precise and segmented each line which made it harder to extract each piece.  Finally, I decided to just 3D print the automaton by its individual components.  The process was less strenuous, but there were still problems of orientations, filament extrusion, and layers not adhering together.

Though my critical making journey has yet to finish, here are my conclusions.  I had started with something simple, and I sought to make it more complicated.  We often come into a project with all sorts of presumptions and we presuppose that because technology is involved and that will work a certain way from our experience that, naturally, the process will be quicker and easier.  We forget that some of these technologies, applications, software, and platforms are built through constraints.  Moving from one application to another involves a layer of translation and each step of translation allows for failure.  This evokes a relational dynamic that Lauren Berlant termed “cruel optimism.”  Individuals remain attached to “compromised conditions of possibility” or “clusters of promises” embedded in desired object/ideas even when they inhibit the conditions fulfilling such promises (24).

Sometime when you move from one application to another, extra bits of information/data are generated.  There’s a more eloquent way to state it, but data on one platform might translate slightly different onto another platform.  And then you end up with something like this [insert picture of broken pieces].  When we jump from one program to another, we’re not acting as the translator.  We become the interpreter, which is slightly different, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.  Each role presupposes a certain level of knowledge and language needed to do the job properly.

Perhaps the solution is very simple for the formatting and scaling problems I have encountered.  I post the pdf of the paper cutouts and sketchup file of my design here if anyone would like to give it a try..  I wasn’t able to figure it out, but then again, part of the fun and challenge is that you’re only learning to use the technology as you’re using them.  There’s always a learning curve; it really does depend on how much time and patience you have to spend.

As testimony to the spirit of critical making where the process is as important as the end result we have to allow room for failure without needing to celebrate every failure because failing is frustrating — and using technology, when it comes down to it, is a long series of trial and error moments.  If I had started this automaton the same way I built Ron, I might be finished.  But at what point do you push the technology aside and go for the tried-and-true trinity of prototyping: paper, scissor, and glue?  Does it make a different in the tactile knowledge?  These are the questions I’m still trying to figure out and these are the questions that engaging in prototyping and critical making help to answer.  I had my calculations and my measurements.  In theory, the automaton should work.  But the only way to test theory is through practice.  [INSERT UPDATE and picture when automaton is assembled]  And while my biodegradable automaton did not come to fruition, the part of journey and process did allow me to convert scrapes into homemade recycled paper. 20160516_18005920160516_180106

 

The Cockroach Disco: re-joying the most-hated pest

by Lindsay Garcia, PhD Student in American Studies, The College of William and Mary

Feminist Pest Control, a faux feminist collective slash non-profit organization, is my first foray into the digital humanities. I came to William & Mary from a visual arts MFA program as a video and performance artist with the intent of utilizing creative practice-based projects as forms of scholarly research. Therefore, I naturally gravitated towards the digital humanities, following in the footsteps of other DH scholars, such as Garnet Hertz, who builds works that engage critically with the making process. Hertz even uses the cockroach as a technology in past projects, such as Cockroach Controlled Robot (2004-2006) and Posthuman System #1: Cockroach with Wireless Video (2003).

This semester, an independent study with Professor Liz Losh allowed me the freedom to tinker with digital tools available at the Physics Maker Space and to use prototyping techniques to invent fantastical technologies.  Throughout the independent study, fellow graduate student Khanh Vo and I read important texts loosely based in Feminist Science and Technology Studies such as Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, which explores the overarching technologies associated with digital media; The Affect Theory Reader, which examines the role of affect in contemporary culture; and New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, which re-told theories of materiality from a more vitalist point of view. These texts, and others, provided me a theoretical framework for asking questions about technologies and objects, such as The Cockroach Disco, which I made as my final project. Deploying what Stephen Ramsay calls “the move from reading to making,” I pondered the questions: how do technologies produce materiality and affect? How can these formations be utilized to harness human ideological changes, specifically about animals that are considered pests?

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From there, The Cockroach Disco emerged. As evidenced in the Feminist Pest Control Promotional Video (2016) above, which elaborates on the (fem)manifesto, Feminist Pest Control is actively pro-pest. That’s not to say that all humans should be forced to live with unwanted animals, but instead, that human supremacy with regards to animal hierarchies needs to be examined, subverted, and defamiliarized. The Cockroach Disco endeavors to consider the standpoints of cockroaches and create a joyful experience for them based on their morphology, instead of feeding them with poisons or squashing them with a book. This device also facilitates the improvement of human-pest relationships by providing a platform for which walls separate the bug from the human, creating a “safe” environment for both species to get to know each other better and to develop positive affects and reactions between the two species.

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The Cockroach Disco looks like a typical aquarium-style pet habitat—albeit with a few off-the-beaten-path flourishes. This habitat has been specially crafted to recognize the biological functioning of the cockroach as best understood by human sciences. I acknowledge that humans cannot fully understand the cockroach because we are not actually cockroaches. The design does, however, give weight to each of the five senses as felt by the cockroaches themselves (discovered only through inhumane animal tests), possibly tapping into cockroach affect—if there is such a thing. While not all 4,600 species of cockroaches are built exactly the same, the disco utilizes the American Cockroach as its model (as these are the bugs I have in my house); however, this device functions for other species as well.

  • sight: Cockroaches prefer dark spaces, which is one reason why they come out at night. The walls of the disco are lined with two-way mirror film, and the light bulb inside emits a red light—a light frequency invisible to the cockroach eye.  This allows the cockroaches to believe that they are in a dark space, while the human also can watch and fall in love with the bugs as they would with other caged pets, such as guinea pigs.

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  • sound: Cockroaches do not have ears. Instead, they sense sounds through their cerci, the pseudo-antennae on their behind, that sense the vibrations and currents moving through the air. Because their response to sensing sounds often involves skittering away out of survival instinct, the plexiglass encased portion of The Cockroach Disco is airtight, allowing the cockroaches to not worry about their human (or nonhuman) predators.

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  • touch: Cockroaches are thigmotropic, meaning they love to feel sandwiched between two surfaces, which is why they often hide in the crevices of appliances and other various spaces in the house. Therefore, different substructures have been built using foam core and scraps from around the house that simulate this feeling.

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  • taste: Cockroaches will eat just about anything, but they are especially interested in sweet tastes, like chocolate and peanut butter. Sprinkled around The Cockroach Disco are various fragments of human life—food, paper, fabric—all tasty to cockroaches. Additionally, a little swimming pool/drinking hole rests in the middle of the space for drinking and to help the bugs cool down from the hot summer days in Virginia as cockroaches tend to dry out easily in dry, hot climates (which, thus, kills them).

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  • smell: Just as with taste, cockroaches are drawn to the sweet smells of food and trash which keep their antennae aflutter. Cockroaches do not have noses, but their antennae act as their smelling devices and keep them attuned to what kind of foods are nearby. Additionally, Feminist Pest Control developed a pheromone spray that will entice cockroaches to mate. More cockroaches means more joy and more opportunities for humans to heal from past pest traumas.

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The disco creates a feminist DIY aesthetic, especially the use of pink duct tape, which is the binding agent for the walls of the device. This use of simple materials—those ordered off the internet or available at a local hardware store—also alludes to the field of citizen science, where amateur scientists create scientific knowledges outside of the often-impenetrable walls of the academy. Anyone could make their own version of The Cockroach Disco, and if any readers would like to take a stab at improving upon the design, go for it! Collective knowledge aids in healing oppressions felt by human and nonhuman pests.

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The Cockroach Disco attracts cockroaches by connecting to the wall via a PVC pipe fitting. Especially in swampy Virginia, even if one does not see cockroaches, they are likely hiding in the walls of the home. For proper installation, a hole must be drilled into the drywall and the PVC pipe glued to the wall surrounding it. Placing sweet-smelling garbage within the disco walls attracts the animals, and the re-joying of the cockroach can begin. While this is a fantastical device, meaning it is meant to inspire change in human mindsets about the much-hated cockroach, it could actually function for someone who has cockroaches in their house, for someone who wants to learn how to remove the fear, shame, and anger associated with the bugs.

The Cockroach Disco will be on display at the Equality Lab in Morton Hall at The College of William and Mary in the fall of 2016. For more information on Feminist Pest Control, please visit the website at www.lindsaygarcia.com/feminist-pest-control or email Lindsay Garcia at ldgarcia@email.wm.edu.

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