PhD life at 30: A year of making + thinking.
“The way we imagine space has effects… what might it mean to reorientate this imagination, to question that habit of thinking of space as a surface? If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations?”
— Doreen Massey, For Space
Last winter, I wrote this Medium post 6 months into the first year of my PhD at the University of Sussex, describing the experience of taking a crazy leap of faith, moving from Vancouver to London and leaving a full-time job in tech to do so. I shared it with a few friends, family and colleagues, thinking “I’ll be lucky if my mom reads this one. Remember that scene from Jurassic Park???” But to my surprise, it got an immediate and overwhelming response from big-hearted interweb denizens far and near.
Kind strangers from across the world shared wise words from their own PhD experiences. Old friends got in touch and told me they were considering leaving long-term jobs to start PhDs of their own. Fellow doctoral students left notes of solidarity, sharing joys and challenges of their journeys.
The richness of these interactions taught me something important. Despite living, in the words of David Turnbull and Wade Chambers, in an age of “increasingly fragmented and sequestered pools of knowing and unknowing”, many of us still share a thirst for learning. And when we share the labours of these quests publicly and cooperatively, viewing knowledge itself as a commons (this 2007 book by Hess and Ostrom and this now-famous piece by Benkler are examples), the rewards can be great.
A whirlwind year later, I now find myself past my first doctoral upgrade and its accompanying reviews, as a somewhat official-feeling PhD candidate, sitting at my usual hotdesk in Dalston (where I am usually found when not in Oxford because of this handsome troublemaker or in Brighton because of these cool cats) with a terrier in my lap, reflecting on what the hell happened in between all the theories, new places visited, late nights spent writing and over-excited conversations. The biggest questions I’ve been asking myself lately regard the ever-elusive Shrödinger’s Cat of Time Itself. Where does it come from anyway? How can it appear alive, and yet also dead? Most importantly, how does it slip through our fingers so quickly?
The answers are illuminating, and reveal volumes about the feverish pace of academia (and the inherent inclinations of those drawn to this kind of life!). Next week, I fly from Warsaw to Singapore to present a paper at SHOT with the ever-radiant Sally-Jane Norman which explores lesser-known instances of community-led digital making that reverse existing power structures through participation. We will also be convening a small group of multi-facted makers and thinkers for this design-archaeology workshop (password “designwithus”) at Singapore’s own ArtScience Museum.
On differing yet related paths of academic inspiration, I’ll be submitting a paper theorizing different genealogies of maker movements to the journal Digital Culture and Society with my wonderful co-supervisor Tim Jordan, and presenting its progress on this amazing panel on digital fabrication at 4S/EASST Barcelona convened by proper rabble-rousers Adrian Smith and maxigas. Meanwhile, the new Tate Modern building and its corresponding hands-on spaces open for the first time to publics this weekend, where I’m finalizing the very first interviews and scenarios of my fieldwork with the help of another of my wonderful co-supervisors Rebecca Sinker and Taylor Digital Studio’s visionary manager (and artist!) Luca Damiani.
In times like these, rife with frenetic activity and new possibilities, it’s all too easy to become preoccupied with the present while forgetting to also reflect on our pasts and futures. But there’s something deeply integral to our senses of humanity that comes from the compression of a year’s worth of thoughts, ideas and actions into a few words. It often tells us the things we don’t tell ourselves. So here’s my small attempt. In the tradition of my last piece, I hope it provides some of you with the updates you’ve asked for, some of you with little bits of unexpected insight, and some of you with opportunities for suggestion (and constructive criticism!). I welcome it all.
Before getting into the research itself, I should probably start this chapter of the story by explaining how I got here in the first place. A few years ago while still with Mozilla, I was finishing my last curatorial and creative collaborations with the Tate’s Digital Studio team when I found a body of data released by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Trust for London and the New Media Consortium which suggested that while visits to London’s cultural institutions have increased by two percent in the past few years, there remained a strong causal correlation between sustained participation in “high” culture and socioeconomic status.
This means that, despite curatorial efforts and hopes, residents of wealthy neighbourhoods in London still remain more likely to visit institutions than those in poorer neighbourhoods. This story mirrors others across the country; as ever-larger cuts are imposed on local councils, museums are forced to reduce hours and services — especially in less-affluent northern regions. As a result, institutions increasingly find themselves competing not only as cultural custodians but also as innovators, facilitating experiences for new communities in commodified, austerity-driven battlegrounds for public attention (see Falk and Dierking’s 2000 book as an example of this).
In a tactic new to the UK, some institutions (from the Tate to Somerset House to the British Council’s Maker Library Network) are tackling these complexities by building their own shared machine shops for participants to create with cultural collections in new, hands-on ways. These “spaces within spaces” as I call them are variably dubbed ‘makerspaces’, ‘fab labs’, ‘learning hubs’ and ‘digital studios’ and are inspired by community hackspaces, artist-run media labs and hands-on digital learning methodologies like those of Seymour Papert.
These spaces may be lo-fi (like this Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection) or hi-fi (like Makerversity and its digital machines at Somerset House) when it comes to technologies, but all focus on hands-on making practices. They are often peer-to-peer in nature (see Benkler 2002), challenging traditional power structures and collections by offering participants free, open access to 1) a wide variety of hands-on tools for making, from 3D printers to sewing machines to painting materials; and 2) hands-on making opportunities such as workshops and hackjams. Working with the Tate’s ‘space within a space’, I could see immediate results of these efforts — new communities getting creative together with the museum while having hands-on experiences with arts and culture. But I wondered about scale. What were the long-term effects of these kinds of interventions?
This is where my doctoral research project with the Sussex Humanities Lab comes to life, in between institutions, communities, curators and hands-on critical making practices. For the next few years, I’ll be taking a deep look at whether these spaces for making actually are transformative for emergent communities — or whether they merely maintain existing status quos, where those already comfortable in the museum get more comfortable by making new things with it. The first year of a PhD in the UK is largely focused on theory-gathering and consolidating concepts for your doctoral project into something that starts to look vaguely like a proposal for fieldwork and ethics reviews — and now those of us in our second year will have the chance to put all those high-falutin’ critical thoughts to the test.
Starting in late summer after a few last theoretical jaunts (I’m currently wading through some brilliant yet exceedingly difficult neo-Marxist approaches to spatiality from Martina Löw, Henri Lefevbre and Foucault) I’ll be situating myself as Researcher-in-Residence at spaces for lo-fi and hi-fi digital making within the Tate and other cultural institutions. I’ll start this work with a small creative technology intervention — a digital community archive built with each site’s curators to explore whether participant realities have matched up with expectations. I’ll take a specific look at ways that users from emergent communities are engaging, and how this may relate to structural conditions of power, access and ownership.
These findings will allow me to zoom in properly on a few scenarios at each space that exemplify unique site-participant-object interactions. I’ll interview and make things with those who have been involved in these scenarios, and contextualize findings using theoretical frameworks from the material-semiotic and spatial critiques of a few key Greater Minds Than My Own, including Donna Haraway, Doreen Massey, Bruno Latour, John Law and Claire Bishop. My hope is that by engaging directly with sites through qualitative and design research methods that celebrate messy, hands-on criticality, I’ll be able to share insights on whether the institutional and community “meetings-up of histories” that occur around these spaces that matter just as much as their on-site machines, materials and workshops.
It is here — amidst users themselves, the things they make, and a desire to provoke change — that this project was born and now lives (or dies, depending on your mode of seeing!). Over the past nine months, it has grown from a seed of an idea in a dataset to a full-fledged doctoral research collaboration, benefitting massively from advice, guidance and inspiration from friends, family, supervisors and colleagues (who I won’t embarrass by thanking again, but who I hope still know who they are!). It has also benefitted greatly from a very public process of iteration and feedback. Many of the most important insights gathered so far have resulted from the wisdom of maker, design, curatorial, tech (and especially doctoral — greetings SHL!) communities around the world, from Singapore to the UK.
These hardy souls continue to challenge my ideas daily on Twitter and elsewhere. They set up meetings between me and other thinkers who they believe I may find inspiring. They ask difficult questions after my guest lectures like this one for the RCA’s excellent Design Products course and this one at Maker Assembly Belfast. They put up with my incessant queries late into the night regarding endless strange projects, resulting in outputs like that Guardian piece I wrote about sustainable makerspaces. They share memes just when I need them the most. This year wouldn’t have been possible without them. One of the biggest things I’m learning from this journey is that it really does take a village to accomplish anything in life — especially when trying to complete the first stage of a doctorate! In a world of common digital knowledges, nothing is ever done alone.
What’s ahead for the knowledge acquisition journey of a doctorate student in Year Two? I think we’re all still figuring that out, but it certainly focuses on fieldwork, which in my mind is starting to look a lot like a crazed yet excited carnival of corgis, each of them reading, writing and making things simultaneously for separate yet related projects, conferences, academic journals, spaces, communities and moments of teaching. To keep the carnival vibes strong, it might even include an exciting new teaching project that merges design thinking with code, food and consumption led by master galvanizer Rob Phillips at the RCA, and a historical makerspace mapping collaboration with my third wonderful supervisor Caroline Bassett.
Together, these corgi experiences will weave together an intricate (and, I hope, legible!) web of theory, practice and reflection that looks one day like a doctoral dissertation. I’m already excited for what’s ahead, and especially excited to see how the projects of my colleagues shape up. To name a few of the best, for those intrigued, here is (1) Lou’s work at the Tate on child-focused spaces for learning and play; (2) Justin’s work at SPRU on infrastructures and sociotechnical changes in India; (3) Wesley’s work on critical data aesthetics and practice (check out his piece “The Listener”).
But first, here’s one last carnival of corgis. Because, like knowledge commons and new collaborations, there can never be too many…