Position Paper Critical Making[1]

Florian Cramer, Lucas Evers, Akiem Helmling, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Marie-José Sondeijker, Janneke Wesseling

with comments by Roland van Dierendonck, Shailoh Phillips, Ana María Gómez López, Shirley Niemans, Loes Bogers, mthom057, Yuri Westplat

1. Why “Critical Making[a]”?

As a result of globalization, social and technological developments, we increasingly witness practices that cross the disciplinary boundaries of art, design, engineering and technological making[b][c] and (artistic) social intervention. Sometimes these practices unfold within established contexts of art spaces, design culture, technology labs and activist projects. [Explain the urgency of contemporary socio-/technological/cultural/political developments that makes artists/activists redefine their practice/leave the confines of their traditional disciplines.] Increasingly, however, they leave their respective boundaries[d][e]; for example, when contemporary art spaces are used for political assemblies[f][g][2] and Internet anonymization services,[3] when social design and community art becomes neighborhood activism[h][i],[4] when a media design grows into a technological development project for empowering contemporary artists[j][k].[5] Often, the positioning of these projects as "art", "design", "technology", "activism" is merely tactical (or even opportunistic), tailored to the now-existing institutions and discourses[l][m] [n]which are still acting within the categories of the Western 19th and 20th century arts.

'Critical Making[o][p]' has the potential[q][r] of giving these practices a common name. [s]Originally coined in the context of design culture and do-it-yourself technology,[6] it gathers (a) practices that are defined by a common characteristic of criticality[t][u][v][w] rather than a common disciplinary and institutional context[7] and (b) work approaches and attitudes of thinking-through-practice.[8] 

Through the latter, Critical Making does not only cut through the disciplinary divides of art, design, activism and technology.[9] In Critical Making, there is no longer a divide between critical theory and artistic practice, but the practice itself is critical and philosophical.[x][y] In this regard, Critical Making corresponds with contemporary philosophies that question the divide between idea and matter[z][aa].[10] But where this thinking still manifests itself in the classical format of written theory, Critical Making negates the dichotomy between making and thinking[ab][ac].

2. Where does Critical Making take place?

To date, Critical Making - as coined by Matt Ratto and Garnet Hertz - refers to design practices that critically engage with technology.[ad][ae] Open Source cultural production therefore is a general characteristic of Critical Making. This may entail alternative forms of authorship and copyright, as well as a reconfiguration of traditional linear design workflows of conceptualization, construction and distribution. [af][ag]Distribution, in this context, includes multiplication and archiving. In networked Critical Making processes, all these efforts can take place simultaneously and anywhere[ah][ai].

Critical Making in this sense is not confined [aj][ak][al]to particular sites. While Critical Making, in Ratto’s and Hertz’ original perspective, had the Maker[am][an] movement and its Maker spaces (i.e. FabLabs, hacklabs[ao][ap] and other public workshop facilities for distributed, personal digital fabrication) as its points of departure, their concept has become highly inclusive and therefore emancipated itself from this specific context[aq][ar].

In our project, we experimentally take the concept of Critical Making outside the Maker movement and Maker spaces into the larger, general field of contemporary art and design practices. The question is: Can Critical Making reinvigorate the concept of criticality[as][at] in art and design theory and practice, in a technologically informed cultural field? Can existing art and design practices conversely radicalize the criticality of Critical Making? And how can this be made constructive?[au][av][aw][ax]

 3. Why an arts perspective on Critical Making?

The notion of Critical Making is not specific to art and design, but potentially encompasses any practice that combines making with criticality. This inclusivity - which many art and design movements fought for in the previous century[ay][az] - is without doubt an asset of Critical Making. Still, we think that a more specific arts perspective might not constrain, but will enrich the Critical Making discourse with two specific qualities: artistic research and criticality of discourse.

The liaison between thinking and making characterizes Critical Making as well as artistic research as it was established as a new academic discipline at the end of the 20th century. Artistic research typically involves practices in which textual and artistic approaches are closely interrelated. In artistic research, the researcher produces writing that critically reflects on the making, while conversely the practice informs and feeds into the writing.[ba][bb] How artistic research may expand the vocabulary of Critical Making will be subject of further investigation.

Traditionally, contemporary art has had an edge over design in regards to the rigor of its critical discourse. Drawing on critical theory, conceptual art and institutional critique have radically addressed issues of gender, class, ethnicity and even questioned art as such, in its aesthetics, ethics, economics and politics. There needs to be research on the extent to which this radicality can inform expanded notions of Critical Making.

Conversely, the Open Source and DIY practices of Critical Making can be constructively used to question under-reflected and under-criticized modes of production and distribution in contemporary art: authorship, intellectual property, ownership, privileges of participation. [bc][bd]

4. Where our project aims to make a difference

In our research project, we will address the following new questions[be][bf]:

Concluding questions to be addressed, partly taken from visitor feedback:

[1] http://pad.riseup.net/p/critical_making

[2] Jonas Staal, New World Summit (2012-2017), Occupy movement presence at Berlin Biennial 2014[bq]

[3] Trevor Paglen/Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube, 2014; !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Random Darknet Shopper (2014-2016)[br]

[4] Jeanne van Heeswijk, Freehouse (1998-2017); Black Quantum Futurism, Community Futures Lab (2015-2017)

[5] Danja Vasiliev/Gottfried Haider/WORM, Hotglue & Superglue (2009-2017)

[6] Matt Ratto, DIY Citizenship, MIT Press, 2014

[7] Garnet Hertz, Critical Making zines (2012)

[8] Matt Ratto in We Make Things, documentary by Ryan Varga, 2011 (9:30-10:53). In a paper, he defines Critical Making as ”a mode of materially productive engagement that is intended to bridge the gap between creative physical and conceptual exploration" (Ratto, Matt, Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, in: The Information Society, vol. 27, issue 5, 2011, 252).

[9] But also through the divide between practice as the "base" and theory as the "superstructure" that has shaped Western thinking and culture from Platonism to Marxism

[10] including pragmatism, actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology and New Materialism

[a]Anon: How do we position 'making'? What is motivating people to act critically?

Genealogy of Critical Making.

Moments of intersection between art and science, pre-net collectives, anonymous collectives.

[b]Roland van Dierendonck: No, SCIENCE. It's more about CONTEXTUALISING  that what is MADE in terms of criticality/within feasibility, the scientific knowledge.

[c]legitimate concern, but outside the scope of our particular project. This question is, with a focus on technology, addressed in the original Critical Making research of Matt Ratto and Garnet Hertz.

[d]Shailoh Phillips: What's the scope? What's the problem?

[e]Explain the urgency of contemporary socio-/technological/cultural/political developments that makes artists/activists redefine their practice/leave the confines of their traditional disciplines.

[f]Ana María Gómez López:

- Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, Forex, for different takes on activism

- Think Tania Bruguera, for ex. if you want other examples of working with immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere

- Again, for even earlier examples of artistic forms of activisim using technology and design, think of collective initiatives such as Peter Fend and others in Ocean Earth, or even Group Materialś actions around AIDS (including critiques of government funding and pharmaceutical industry.)

[g]Great examples, will be included in final version of the document. We will leave them out for now to keep the discource of the project more open for applicants to the researcher positions.

[h]Ana María Gómez López: Again, Group Material is an excellent example pre-Internet.

[i]Will be included in the final version.

[j]Roland van Dierendonck: You don't mention the Critical Engineering Manifesto.

[k]Will be included in the final version.

[l]Shirley Niemans: This is quite problematic even when "critical making: in some form is part of the curriculum of - let's say - a design school - hard to change the existing paradigm, and existing or 'selected'(?) boundaries between disciplines (design vs. art, applied vs. autonomous).

[m]It is true that these boundaries exist and will not go away in the four years of our research project. However, the task of this research project is to look forward and develop radical visions that others may implement in curricula and institutions.

[n]Shailoh Phillips: This is the context, the launch point.

[o]Loes Bogers: The interpretation of "critical" isn't specified, maybe clarify the tradition [of] Frankfurter Schule?

[p]Excellent remark. - We covered this in the original project description and may include this text here again. In the project description, we refer to Frankfurter Schule as well as to specific practices of critical art and design. The ambition of this research project is to treat both "criticality" and "making" as practices to be researched and potentially given new meanings.

[q]Shailoh Phillips: Why? What is the urgency?

[r]Will be answered above with the clarification of the social/political/technological developments that motivate Critical Making practices.

[s][Waag artist-in-residence]: If you are in the critical position you aim for.

[t]Ana María Gómez López: Against what? Take note of your own criticism towards creative industries.

[u]Indeed, this criticality chiefly marks an opposition towards creative industries and, by implication, neoliberalism at large. [We will add this in a later version of the paper.]

[v]Shailoh Phillips: Is criticality something that is conjunctive, connecting, umbrella? Also divisive!

[w]see remark above.

[x]mthom057: only?

[y]Not only, but this is an important observation to make.

[z]Shailoh Phillips: How does this relate to the rise of new materialism, imment philosophy (Barad, Deleuze, Haraway, Braidotti)?

[aa]Good point, these authors will be included as references.

[ab]Shailoh Phillips: Why was it installed in the first place? Why is it pervasive?

[ac]Complex question that concerns the whole history of Western thinking since Parmenidis (via Platon, the enlightenment etc.) Excellent question, we need to find a way of how to address it within the limited space of this paper.

[ad]Loes Bogers: For Ratto, it's also a lot about learning, as a pedagogy of sorts. Is that a concern in the project?

[ae]Excellent question - learning processes are intrinsic to Critical Making processes (as we are experiencing right now in the open process of writing this paper). But since the focus of our research process is not on pedagogy, we cannot predict yet to which degree these learning processes will remain implicit or become more explicit (in the sense of a comprehensive meta reflection of the learning processes encountered in this project).

[af]Ana María Gómez López: There are examples of artistic production that offer new modes of intellectual production/authorship where artworks are made accessible by being instruction-based, circulate freely, and demystify artistic production. - Look at N55, a Danish group that exclusively produces manuals. - Also, it is worth noting that there is a DIY history already in the arts pre-maker culture which is diverse, be it in 60s conceptual art, activist subcultural zine production, (based on older technologies of Xerox reproduction), or even blue-chip recognition inititatives such as Hans Ulrich Obrist's Do-It-Yourself Manual. (Applies also to page 1/bibliography in the beginning).

[ag]Excellent examples again that will be included in the footnotes and citation references of the final document. However, we do have discussions about the inclusion of Obrist as a Critical Maker (which for example concerns his method of text production where it is not clear to which degree a staff of editorial assistants is involved).

[ah]mthom057: What might a networked critical making process entail? i.e. in time, space, notions of community/public?

[ai]We will delete the sentence you refer to because it is too unspecific.

[aj]Shailoh Phillips: prescriptive? descriptive? Who needs a new concept?

[ak][needs longer thought process on our behalf.]

[al]There is a clear need for a new concept of criticality in contemporary art (if we just take the current Venice Biennial and Documenta as examples). The same is true for design and technology development.

[am]Shailoh Phillips: Overcoming schizophrenia: "makers" (Dutch, HBO) versus "thinkers" (university). Critical making as a way out of the pillarization of disciplines.

[an]Agreed. The position paper still needs to explicate the particular Dutch cultural context and connotation of making-vs-thinking.

[ao]Roland van Dierendonck: open bio labs

[ap](for us: included in the notion of the hacklabs)

[aq]Shailoh Phillips: By whom? How? Why?

[ar]Critical Making Zines by Garnet Hertz - will ad them as a footnote.

[as]Shailoh Phillips: What do you mean by criticality? [Irit] Rogoff?

[at]See the first question by Loes Bogers.

[au]mthom057: How does this differ from participatory art?

[av]Participatory art is neither critical by definition, nor in much of its practice.

[aw]Shirley Niemans: To what end?

[ax]"productive" has been replaced with "constructive" (following the suggestion of Shailoh Phillips)

[ay]Loes Bogers: Where are they in this paper? Should they be mentioned? (Situationism, Fluxus, [cyber]feminist art practices?) Which do you align with?

[az]Not included in this paper because it is meant to be a discussion paper, not a historically complete coverage of its subject. Related to the comments by Ana Maria.

[ba]Ana María Gómez López: This is the point where I would have the strongest criticism regarding the need to include more on art + science collaborative examples. Happy to share more if you find it relevant.

[bb]We refer to the specific concept of artistic research as an academic discipline (see the changed first sentence in the paragraph), not generally to research done by artists by themselves or in collaboration with scientists.

[bc]mthom057: Are there any thematic examples?

[bd]examples in footnotes (Situationist International, Telekommunisten, Assembly and others)

[be]Roland van Dierendonck: [Add bullet point] New history of art in context of 'Critical Making'.

[bf]not the scope of this position paper.

[bg]Roland van Dierendonck: then also about how art is presented, for example outside of institutions altogether, check Norman White.

[bh]Shirley Niemans: "HOW can [....]?" - It seems a bit rhetorical. What is the kind of answer we/you want? Still a confirmation.

[bi]Shirley Niemans: Idem - "HOW can [...]"?


[bk]Shailoh Phillips: Creative industries is a neoliberal notion: one virtue - it doesn't discriminate between disciplines. -> reclaiming CREATIVITY.


[bm]mthom057: What activates members of society to engage in critical making?

[bn]Question is beyond the scope of this position paper.

[bo]Yuri Westplat: What if the answer is YES?

(a) How do we take this further? Is it a METHOD we can LEARN and APPLY? And so change the industry?

(b) How do "we" break out of the "art bubble" movement? [and into] -> business -> government -> science

[bp]Indeed this is not the right question with which to conclude this paper.

[bq]Ana María Gómez López: My main comment is first to offer praise to you for citing artworks bibliographically. - I find this to be quite positive. However, this is also where I would encourage you to look at much earlier examples of critical making in the arts, which would give this new concept deeper roots. Think of examples such as E.A.T. developed with Bell Labs (interestingly a corporate-sponsored program that encouraged collaboration between artists, scientists, and technology experts with no interest to prototype a product for the market, but only for unique art projects and events).

I would also encourage other examples of artworks that make this bibliography more robust, which I have noted throughout this paper (in no particular order of importance and woefully incomplete).

In general, contextualizing these project in braoder art-historical contexts that be broader than the artas of making you cite explicitly (Net Art, Land Art, Environmental Art, Bio Art).

[br]Roland van Dierendonck: Also add Paolo Cirio's "Loophole 4 All" or Norman White.