Maker: a term in flux

Living Research delegates Gemma May Latham and Ingrid Murphy examine the terminology and definitions of ‘maker’ in the Xi’an and Chengdu contexts

Collection of ‘Maker’ signs seen in Chengdu and Xi’an | Photo Gemmay May Latham

As a group of British based researchers and makers exploring maker culture in Xi’an and Chengdu, one might expect to encounter some examples where the nuance of language may be lost in translation. However, when the ever inclusive and amorphous term ‘maker’ is at the core of your activity, this attempt to contextualise a practice/movement/identity becomes increasingly complex. The intricacy of providing a clear interpretation of the term ‘maker’ is not merely linguistic, nor is it just something we encountered once landed in China, we also had it firmly packed in our own luggage.

At our initial pre-trip briefing at the British Council offices in London, project leader Marc Barto opened by joking : “let’s not try to agree together on a definition of ‘making’, we would be here all day”, especially given the limited time we had and the diversity of experiences in the room. Looking at the eight assembled makers and academics, whose specialisms span, anthropology, architecture, geography, craft, hacking, engineering, art and design, this was a wise move. Instead Marc informed us that on this research trip we would be considering making in its inclusive sense.

Referring to a broad definition of maker borrowed from The Maker Assembly [http://makerassembly.org/], where ‘making’ refers to “people who craft, design, manufacture, tinker with, engineer, fabricate, and repair physical things. Art, craft, electronics, textiles, products, robots. Hi-tech and low-tech, amateur and professional, young and old, with digital tools or by hand”. This research project would recognise all forms of making, and two weeks and 38 ‘maker’ spaces later, it’s safe to say we encountered them all. What we also encountered when we spoke to our Chinese counterparts was both the similarities and differences in our sense and understanding of the term ‘maker’, born out of differing etymologies and cultural context.

Etymology

Frequently countries have no linguistic translation for the term ‘maker’, relying on the collective and generic identity the term implies:

“[T]his universality has been important also on two more reciprocally reinforcing directions: for building a big enough market (i.e. people who would buy maker-related products and services) and for building a social movement (i.e. people who would identify as part of the same social group and form a collective culture and action).” (Massimo et al, 2018)

But the etymology of the Chinese term ‘maker’ has taken a different route to its western counterpart, which is critical to understand if we are to engage in comparative practices, map networks and foster meaningful connections between Chinese and British makers and spaces.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

In a previous blog post from this project, Kat & Jon explored the effects that government policy has had on makerspaces in China. This informative piece cites an explosion in the number of makerspaces opening following strategic government support which emphasises that “the “mass” in mass maker space, in other words, stands for the goal of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset and mobilising many — if not masses of — people in China to start up their own businesses.” This approach to maker culture helps tackle the government fears of future unemployment, as making can also be morphed into other occupations beyond tech and creative industries and help shift responsibility for employment and work from the government to the individual.

A wall of Alumni from North West Polytechnic proudly displayed at their Innovation hub | Photo Jon Flint

This was evidenced by our experience in North West Polytechnic, where we met with engineering students who explicitly identified themselves as ‘makers’. It was unclear if this is a term they would ordinarily use to label their practice, or if it was a language they were using purely because they knew why we were visiting. Each student presented their work which was in equal part scientific research and business start up, clearly keen to join the wall of alumni who had succeeded through the Polytechnic’s renowned accelerator programme. These students were being educated not only to seek employment, but to make employment. When asked about their relationship to making, one student replied: “I see making as innovative projects to help society and companies and save resources.”

But it would be wrong to believe that ‘maker’ in china was a term coined by the government. In China, we were frequently told, the term had been invented not by the government, but by makers themselves, in an effort to distinguish their work from the more negative 黑客 or hacker. Made to be deliberately flexible, 创客 or chuangke brings together words used for 创意 (creativity), 创业 (business mindset or entrepreneurship) and 创新 (innovation) (Lindtner, 2015).

A Broader Definition

But what of the traditional makers we visited during the trip where production of craft objects was the focus? It became clear to us that a broad definition of ‘making’ was not to be understood by all the people we would meet and that not all of them would identify with the term ‘maker’. Here, the terms ‘craft’ and ‘maker’ were far more socially defined and separated. The traditional makers that we met did not relate to the term ‘maker’ at all. In fact, if we referred to them as ‘makers’, or asked if they considered themselves part of maker culture, we were met with confused expressions. In our discussions, the traditional makers were much more comfortable with terms like ‘handicraft’ and more specifically defined themselves under the government banner of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’.

Gemma wearing her assigned ‘Maker’ label at Liverpool Makefest 2018 | Photo Gemmay May Latham

In the UK, many creatives struggle to label themselves within a single category, with many combining labels: artist/maker, design/maker etc. Both of us authors come from diverse camps of makers. Gemma has always struggled with the label of ‘maker’ due to its deeply rooted craft connotations and would not call herself a maker in a room full of craftspeople at, say a Crafts Council conference. Despite this, she finds herself often literally labelled as such, through being given a ‘maker’ badge to wear at maker fairs and maker festivals, where she is much more comfortable with the term.

This term of ‘maker’ has a capital ‘M’ and has been adopted from the Maker movement from the US and specifically from Maker Faire. This branded version of the term implies a relationship with science and engineering rather than a relationship with material, materiality being associated with those who most readily identify with the small ‘m’ of maker. Ingrid is a traditionally trained ceramicist whose maker identity is firmly linked to material knowledge and craft processes. With an interest in the burgeoning Maker movement, in 2012 she developed and has since led, the BA Maker programme at Cardiff School of Art & Design. The Artist, Designer: Maker course is a post-disciplinary making course, which takes a non-hierarchical approach to physical and digital making. The curriculum spans physical computing to bronze casting and everything in between and hopes to bridge the gap between big ‘M’ and little ‘m’ makers.

In China we felt that this gap was growing, partly due to the fact that the term maker has also undergone a significant change in definition in recent years. Speaking to Hongmei Liao at Makerfun in Chengdu, a space which incubates start-ups as well as educational programmes, Hongmei Liao informed us that before 2015 the definition of ‘maker’ was very similar to that in the UK with an emphasis on DIY and making for a sense of fulfilment. After the government initiatives of 2015 that advocated makerspaces as hubs for entrepreneurship and innovation, the term ‘maker’ changed.

She told us that government support can make things become real, but it also comes with missions to finish. When asked if these initiatives have removed the spirit of experimentation evident in maker communities pre 2015 she replied: “Yes, completely changed their mentality. People equate makers to entrepreneur and start-ups.” At Makerfun they continue to foster creativity and open thinking by “organising competitions, workshops space to have fun. If people want to incubate we will help, if they don’t want this we will let them be.”

Common Differences

Sophie, Jon and Kat pleased to be greeted as Makers outside Xi’an Maker Wonderland | Photo Gemma Latham

So how do we reconcile these expanding differences in our use of terminology in order to speak to the same points? While we still have a broad understanding of the term ‘maker’ in the UK, those boundaries still divide, no matter how blurred they are. People transition slightly more easily perhaps, but it is unlikely that you will find a traditional ‘maker’ such as someone making highly crafted ceramics at a Maker Faire.

There are, however, makers that explore and play with these boundaries and perhaps it is these borders where we must place our focus to find the commonality between our own disparate practices and the diversity we encountered on the trip. For what was common in all our encounters with makers, whether it was in hi-tech environments or craft workshops, in our discussions with the Director of the Centre for Design Innovation at Chaung Hong Electronics, or with Mai at the family run Bamboo Factory, all were keen to bring ‘makers’ into their working environments. For everyone we met, makers were synonymous with creativity; people capable of forging new directions, pushing boundaries and building a better future for themselves, their business, their society. And while we might struggle to find the more nuanced language to describe it in terms of these qualities, this is a tribe that we are happy to be part of.

The Living Research programme is a partnership between the British Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

In China, the British Council has partnered with MakerNet to co-develop the project in Chengdu and Xi’an.

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