5 July 2018

The first half of this year has been going in two directions: completing the Domestic Science Class Aves commission at Liverpool Central library and proposing some sustained practice based PhD research extending my part of the Critical Kits project.

Some very generous friends and peers helped me pull this together. It extends CriticalKits as a methodology in the context of bio-technology and post-maker culture to improve scientific literacy, agency and resilience alongside participatory and socially engaged art practice. I’m delighted to discover that this proposal has been successfully accepted by Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts (LICA) and I’ve been awarded a Faculty or Arts and Social Sciences Research Scholarship (FASS) to support it. I’ll be working with Jen Southern and a supervisory team including Dr Rod Dillon at the Biomedical and Life Sciences at Lancaster University, working on aspects of communication, chemo-taxis and movement in biological systems and building on Rod’s ongoing work embedding artistic practices in research and teaching. I’ll also be working with a sub-set of the Wearable technology interest group at makerspace DoESLiverpool and more settings down the line.

Critical Kits for me last year consolidated years of work, practice based research and reflections across technical and maker culture, IoT, agency, education, technology and socially engaged artistic practice, organised with a long admired group of socially engaged artists at Re-Dock and bringing together a fascinating group of artist and maker peers with their own unique takes on kit forms. Our symposium and book made us realise reflecting on ‘kit-culture’ pulled together thinking and practice about the value of complex narratives, community, shared knowledge, art, science, technology and embodied learning. More than that it made us reflect on how we want to interact with the world and the politics in the decisions we make to do that, with what materials, with whom and how. This seems really useful to our practices as artists, makers, publishers, small scale manufacturers, educators and researchers.

Critical Kits, aside from its potential as a methodology; which is like a special case I’m taking from just some of the issues that the symposium raised; is also a space for reflection in maker culture and art that uses tech. Like any social phenomena reflection on what you’re doing can become rare when you are occupied surviving, building, maintaining and engaging. Reflecting is important here, not criticising;Critical Kits might imply adversarial critique, but like consensus that’s not the only way to think about things or make critical decisions. It’s about reflecting on how and you and others make things and not always proceeding ‘business as usual’ whether your business is cool maker tech, IoT products, writing about the north, education, art, microbiology or science and technology studies.

This made me think about what got me excited about using technology, hackspaces and makerspaces in the first place: forms of resilience. This resilience is often highly social and easy to miss when physical engineering impresses and performs so well, as I’ve written about before.

Dr Mark Wright back in December 2017 reflected on our past work together and pointed me in the direction of Paul Dourish’s studies around the social and contextual embodiment of technology so often in the shadow of the next big virtual tech thing, articulated in “Where the action is”. Dourish’s phenomenological perspective from inside computer science was an astute pointer from Mark and instrumental in beginning to really understand CriticalKits, my own work and what I loved in others leading to new possibilities of where this framework could be valuable beyond tech led participatory art and maker culture.

For a good few years Rod Dillon and I have been looking at ways of building on embedding artistic research and practice in the life sciences at Lancaster ever since his workshop Deadwood. We thought up ideas around modelling PacMan and other retro game classics with bacteria to public installations where audience behaviour is modified to represent quorum sensing or families learn biomedical history through painting with flourescing bacteria. Finding the best way to support these ideas has been difficult but lead us to realise the best way could be a formal research proposal and suddenly the concerns of Critical Kits and our concerns to be creative with technology began to intersect. Looking at Critical Kits and microbiology through my practice, maker culture, art and science collaborations with Rod and Domestic Science and then readings in science and technology studies began converging and accumulating.

It also made me begin to understand kit-cultures and put it in both historical and contemporary context. Neil Winterburn and I initially focussed on the idea that kit making had the potential to tell much more complex contextual stories about forms of artistic practice and making that use technology which a nicely made HD video may not be able to get across. This really sparked an awareness of how I want to work, why I work at certain scales and what it is I actually do and whether any of it could be of use to others and allowed me to start to see projects people are doing more clearly.

Commensalisms and other relationships

Bottom line; kits and how we make and use them could be more important than we first think. They might help how we talk teach and do science, technology and art sensibly without persistent mistakes or unrealistic claims for what we expect of them, especially with respect to art and science working alongside each other. Normally I would use the word collaboration here, but that gets used so much it’s almost lost its value. Maybe to borrow from ecology art and science could be thought of as having some sort of commensal relationship; something Rod started me thinking about year or so ago, a less well known version of mutualism like symbiosis, but with commensalism, one organism benefits from a relationship and one may not, but not be harmed in the process. Maybe the beneficiaries across art & science are not as clear as we think and critical kit approaches could help us see the bigger ‘holobiont’ to use another ecological idea, coined by Lynn Margulis in the 90s.

Making kits has been around since the enlightenment and the dawn of scaling production; they are at once highly present in culture and yet barely noticed in the mainstream or the highly unique interactive art market, despite the ‘kit’ approach, packaging up materials helpfully, is what makes most projects work at all. I’ve a feeling building on Critical kits, in the messy complexity of biological science and participatory art and making practice, I will find something useful about doing art and science or at least what is not useful.

My take on this research so far, is that some of the concerns shared in my work, Critical Kits and Domestic Science, needs some further background reading.

How we employ technology to navigate, think of and act in the world in a reasonable fair way that helps humans and non-humans is the concern. By reading I also do not just mean reading text or literature, but other places and practices and ways of thinking and doing. It’s not a retreat to academia in order to validate Critical kits but an advance to reveal something about their value through sustained research and close proximity between art and science. The first Critical Kits publication only began to consider wider literatures (again not books necessarily, damn our Gutenberg minds) that my research will feedback into the wider project.

What is a kit?

A kit represents some kind of convenient arrangement of materials that provide a useful outcome, usually with some kind of scaled distribution so there’s always a social aspect. A key part of a kit is to provide some sort of utility or intervention. By intervention I don’t mean the visual art ‘intervention’ in the non-art world, or interactive art or display, I mean doing something that causes a response, not representing or modelling something but something that causes an actual change that would not happen otherwise.

The builder of the kit is not necessarily the same as those using it, in fact this is a key part of kit culture the tension between kit design to fit peculiar contexts, community and specific problems and a general something that purports to fix almost anything for everyone no matter where they are. Of course there’s massive diversity and history to this that CriticalKit Trump’s turned into a card game. Large citizen science projects, tech education platforms like Arduino, flash cards for a one off workshop, methodological, policy implementation toolkits or Thomas Chippendale’s designs for early furniture an early example of kit design that had an impact on industrial scaling. Kits are conceived as embodied social objects.

I took exception to a comment on twitter a while back that kits used in tech education workshops are a great idea because they ‘save time’ in workshops; this could not be further from the truth. That well meaning comment unintentionally reveals what’s missing in understanding kits and by extension the whole maker meme and from there, other creative practice that uses technology in social settings: The care, thought, iterative failure, maintenance and communal resilience required for their success.

STEAMY Windows

My perspective for this research is that Kits take entities from the natural ‘hard’ sciences, and also from the arts and social sciences and put them out into the world to do something. Some implement infrastructure or distribute thinking tools, but across the board they intervene in things at scale even if in say art instructionals or speculative design they only make a spectacle of a potential of this scale. Many kits echo or refer to and more than likely depend on these large scale manufacturing practices.

Kits can ‘intervene’. But they also may not quite; Kits in STEM can be like little re-performances of experiments that have previously proved successful, or at least, predictable. Kits although built to share and benefit also commit to something; a theory, or a theoretical entity. A physics kit commits to electrons being real physical things, temperature IoT sensors commit to the social value of environmental data, a co-design social toolkit commit to social meanings that have been discovered and are shared. We don’t need to obsess over those commitments but they’re worth a passing thought when we make and share things.

Ian Hacking talks about how theoretical entities can change from being useful abstractions to actual things that we think exist in the context of all kinds of philosophy of science. He thinks the key to this is intervening. Electrons do not just represent electrical forces they are actual things because people can use them to do stuff, to intervene and measure other things.

Kits in STEM then and more recently STEAM are often simplifications of established experimental practice and although highly useful in embodied learning it’s worth considering remembering they are not necessarily the same as experiments themselves. Should they be? Dourish again helps us remember that when we talk about things exciting like Citizen Science, where kit culture is vital, are people being citizen scientists or just citizen sensors? What is this citizen anyway? How is our project making citizens? Do they corroborate the shared values, observations and falsifications that build up a successful scientific theory and ultimately theoretical entities that might start as useful ‘packaged up’ abstractions, but end up as real things we have to learn about at school and that keep supermarked doors opening and our LEDs blinking?

Kits, if they manage to intervene and affect things in the world then maybe they make things more ‘real’. So they back up a theory or a story or an artistic vision. Artistic & making practice I’m interested in, explores what’s a valuable approach to the world; not necessarily in the art world only, then strategically finds ways to share the approach and intervene successfully at appropriate scales.

This is handy conjecture; I happen to be thinking about kits and modular abstractions at the same time as reading Hacking’s summaries of the philosophy of science, but there is a sort of real-ness of a kit compared to say, a spectacle. Before I get carried away it’s worth noting that he handily points out that just because a theoretical entity like an electron exists it doesn’t mean all theory about electrons are correct. Just because you’ve made a kit to talk to fascists and someone uses it, this doesn’t mean your theory that everyone is a fascist is correct.

Chas or Dave: Artist and Maker Barricades

I think we may have started with unfair assumptions about both artists and makers differences through how they used kits which we tried to play with in the CriticalKit Trump’s kit scoring system. So here are some assumptions that I’ll be picking at.

Artists are trained to criticise the internal logic of their work and the subjects they approach and are good at making leaps across disciplines, fanciful morally ambiguous fictions or direct connection to emotional realities. But their kits are often unfinished, less concerned with physical engineering, often overly concerned with the metaphysical and the social engineering and with a built in meta-flippancy or political conceit. Often the engineering elements of the artist kit are secondary or lazily and hastily employed compared to the conceptual ideas, their claims for radicalism or the story they want to tell. But they can be highly resilient to forms of institutional power and mobilise new forms of agency and knowledge; whether they ultimately mean anything beyond the art world is up for debate, but probably why they use the kit form, to help get to the (non-art) world.

Makers make uncritically. They focus on the joy and self evident benefit of access to knowledge and generally make things to extreme levels of completeness and documentation. They may not question why something should be made, which gives them freedom theory obsessed artists can get bogged down in. However they also do this social critical meta stuff; hackaday regulars harshly self critique but often their engineering competence obscures it; that is, obscured from non-makers. They may be uncomfortable criticising why they made something but often because they see little value of that sort of critique and this is arguably a reductionist-style failing of the tech world. Ironically their day jobs often are the backbone of our society’s infrastructure and if anyone could really change the way the world does business it’s them.

Critical kits wants to get beyond these assumptions. Exploit and encourage learning across them and just make kits that make important things at many scales from many disciplines happen.

So What’s My Beef with Kits?

I love kits! But my research wonders whether kits applied to everything in the same way may not be ideal and that another approach critical kits may be more valuable:

***Kits are convenient and attractive packages for doing and knowing; they are mobile, reproducible and capable of distributing power, knowledge and agency. Artists and scientists alike use them. But this convenience hides a problem: by abstracting or simplifying complicated components or concepts into kits for mobility and ease of use they remove opportunities for deeper nuanced experiences of understanding and learning. When used to fix a puncture or implement a feature in software this can be easily overlooked, but when used to understand difficult concepts or contexts in art and science, or address concerns around transformational technology like the recent engineering of complex biomedical living systems they become potentially a major problem. Kits and by extension, other modular ‘solutions’ to knowing & doing, can make us feel like we are in control, literate and resilient when we are not.

Critical kits, however, maintain well-crafted convenience but explore more open spaces for discovery, learning and doing. They are embodied, nuanced experiences that challenge understanding and support the intimate ‘construction’ of what we know. When Makers make from their social plateaus of competence, what is obscured is that making is dependent on maintenance, the ongoing communal construction, a dark mattering of knowledge.***

As I write I notice one of the stars of this year’s Ars Electronica, the establishment of tech - art and usually the home of inventor-genius media-tech spectacle is Giulia Tomasello’s Future Flora project; a classic (crtitical) kit in bio-science exploring agency and literacy. This reveals that a Critical Kits approach is in the air, so all the more important to do this period of sustained research and add to the projects future. Like when considering Maintenance, another reflection I’m having with the Festival of Maintenance, once we have our kit and maintenance glasses on, you see them everywhere in everything we make and do.

Thanks to everyone who took part in Critical kits at the well missed Small Cinema, had long discussions with me around the lasercutter in DoES, Octopus Collective’s Piel View House and golf course, FACT and many maker events helped me set up this research and especially the support of Rod Dillon and Jen Southern not to mention road trips with Domestic Science and great reading tips from Mark Wright and Ben Dalton. Look out for smaller Critical Kit Crits, themed remixes of Critical Kit Trumps and future publications & symposia over the next few years.