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.
I 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.