For MakersXchange (MAX), a study on the mobility of makers, Makery and UPTEC Porto are conducting a series of in-depth interviews to better understand the needs of makers for a future MAX pilot program. Encounter with Anja Groten, co-founder of Hackers & Designers in Amsterdam.
Anja Groten is an Amsterdam-based designer, educator and community organiser. In 2013 she co-founded the initiative Hackers & Designers, attempting to break down the barriers between the two fields by enforcing a common vocabulary through education, hacks and collaboration. Anja Groten met with UPTEC and provided MakersXchange project with her thoughts on maker culture and her initiatives.
Can you introduce yourself? Have you been working as an independent and/or are you involved in cultural/maker organisations?
Anja Groten: Hello! My name is Anja Groten. I’d say that I have a hybrid practice consisting of four main activities: design, education, community organization and research. Those four activities feed off each other in vivid way. My background is in graphic design. I design digital and physical media, publications, websites. I share a studio with my peers from the collective Hackers & Designers (H&D). Our studio is part of a creative studio community called the NDSM art city, located in a former old shipyard in the North of Amsterdam – a cultural place with a squatting history.
The collective H&D currently consists of eight core members – who are designers, artists, educators, writers and researchers. We are all working at the cross-section of design, art and technology. As a collective we are informally organised, which means our work is rather ad hoc and somewhat chaotic. H&D is for none of us our main activity. We are all a part of H&D next to our individual practices and other collaborations.
As many of us at H&D I am also an educator. Since last year I run a design master course at the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam (Master of the Rietveld Academie). I’m currently also conducting a PhD at Leiden University – at an artistic research program called PhD Arts. In my research project I draw from my experience of working with H&D.
Where do you situate your “maker” practice? And how do you define what is known as “maker culture”?
I’m aware of the makers movement. However, the notion of making or maker culture is something that I have not been super occupied with, I guess. But I definitely see the correlations with the practice of H&D, which started in 2013 as an initiative with the aim of bringing together makers from different disciplinary backgrounds. At times the notion of “making” is useful for us as an umbrella term that encompasses all kinds of different disciplines, experiences and practices.
I think that anyone involved with H&D has a different maker practice and different maker experiences. But maybe that’s actually what a maker’s culture is about. The occasion of making things together potentially encompasses all kinds of cross sections like new kinds of relations between disciplines, e.g., the exchange between a coder and a designer who work together on a project. I think for us as a collective the inspirational point of view within makers practices is the openness of trying to share as much different experiences, knowledges, tools and methods as we can and make those available. H&D furthermore commits to a hands-on approach to anything we organize.
We organize a lot of workshops and try to find a means to make this rather exclusive workshop experience (as we can only accommodate like 15-20 people per workshop) accessible to people who could not participate in the workshop. Documentation has therefore always been an important part of our practice. We document code but also methods an educational format to share with the wider community.
Have you participated in mobility programs in the past? Can you elaborate on your experience(s)?
With H&D we sometimes travel. There were times where we went on – what we called “H&D tournees”. We would be invited to give a workshop for instance somewhere in Toronto, and then we really expanded our trip from there. We tried to tap into all kinds of communities and get as much out of our trip as possible.
We went on workshop tours to Canada, the US and also to China. We also invite international makers to come to Amsterdam and join us in the summer for the annual H&D Summer Academy. In that case we’re more of the facilitator of mobility.
For both experiences I can say what’s most fruitful to me is just to be able to exchange on organizational level as to hear how other communities manage to organize and sustain themselves in different contexts.
Obviously when you visit communities abroad you get a different insight on what you do yourself as a collective, and also become more aware of your own privilege. There have been a lot of cutbacks of cultural funding in the Netherlands. However, in comparison to other contexts I think we have a quite luxurious situation here where – as a grassroots initiative – you can actually generate some funding for organizing the things you think are important and compensate the people you work with.
In 2008 we took part in a small self-organized exchange responding to an open call from the cultural participation fund in the Netherlands. It was about stimulating German-Dutch exchange. We found a small organization – in size and mindset akin to H&D. We organized a workshop and public program together. The participants would travel to Cologne and Amsterdam, which was a fantastic experience because we could work closely together with a comparable – yet also very different organization. Organizing this together, and also seeing the quirks of collaborative practice from different angles was quite insightful to us.
The most interesting aspect of mobility for me is when we actually get to self-organize the mobility aspect over the exchange.
What were your favorite contexts when you participated in mobility schemes in Europe or Internationally? Workshops? Symposia? Training? Residencies?
To me these kinds of pre-determined programs are quite challenging actually. I find it very problematic for instance to be invited into a context unfamiliar to me to do some kind of intervention. Whereas self-organized programs where you are going to get to know the work communities and organizations do, – when the exchange is more mutualistic – are the more interesting trajectories in my experience.
What have you been missing to better develop your creative practice? Do you see loopholes in mobility programs regarding maker practices and culture?
What has been challenging for us at H&D is to remain small as an organization and experimental. What makes it so valuable to be part of this organization is that everyone involved in it can do things they usually can’t do on their own – within the context of their everyday professional practices. H&D is a space where you get to do new things or things that might not lead to something that is immediately profitable or useful. You are not pressured to present yourself in the best light because you can hide for a moment in the collective. For me that’s the value of being part of this collective and I am grateful we are able to his work for quite a long time already.
You get a lot of sympathies once you first start up as an experimental grassroot organization. But if you just want to stay small and just keep doing messy and at hoc things it becomes difficult at some point to sustain that experimental space. With more recognition and visibility people expect a certain amount of professionality.
All of the sudden they want you to come up with business plans and it’s really hard to resist that because you are put into this kind of timeline where a lot of things are expected from you. Something we are trying to remind ourselves of frequently is: What it is that we really want to do? For instance, we are not necessarily interested in commissioned work with H&D as we don’t want to be pressure to build technology, that just works.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain the aim – or aimlessness of our collective without feeling bad about it. We are more interested in learning together – by making things but also by breaking things.
Where your international activities you were already involved into ever funded by mobility schemes or was it self-organized?
Most of it was self-organized. We receive funding from the creative industry funds for our activity programs. There have been years where traveling was more important for our activities. We have also applied for travel grants.
Usually, we prepare a plan that relates to specific communities. Travelling might become part of that. This year of course everything was quite different. We had planned an open call to bring makers to Amsterdam during the summer for the H&D Summer Academy 2020. However, due to the pandemic we had to start thinking about mobility in a different way. We came up with different formats and a newtool ecology that would allow us to connect to people and stimulate exchange. Thereby a lot of our funding went into developing this tool ecology. We built our streaming platform, learned about distributed radio broadcasting across continents and time zones, and built a file sharing platform that runs on peer-to-peer technology and allowed participants to connect and exchange synchronously as well as asynchronously. We were also happy we could host many more participants during this year’s edition of the H&D Summer Academy. Due to the hybrid format, we could host 75 instead of the usual 25 participants. Regarding the funding there has been room to adapt to the new situation, which is great.
What have you been missing to better develop your creative practice? Do you see loopholes in mobility programs regarding maker practices and culture?
For me what is often missing is an acknowledgment of general maintenance work, which applies to collectives but also to individuals. When I see open calls, they often assume that there is already a functioning practice, project or something that you could already bring into a project.
Whereas the work it takes to develop meaningful projects and collaborations is often not really considered in the way these programs are set up. There is a lot of work that is not not commonly understood as creative that we need to do in order to be really ‘creative’ and that kind of work is usually not funded.
Some open calls and programs seem rather programmatic. I would wish for more space for earlier connections or developing more – and longer-term collaborations, rather than imposing subjects onto participants that might be trending, and seems at that moment important or urgent. I know it’s not that black and white and a lot of thought is going into the development of these programs. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like the organizing work itself is put aside and not really considered as part of the creative process.
What would be to you a dream mobility scheme for makers? Would you give priority to travel support, social encounters, technical access or networks building?
I’d wish for more emancipation on an organizational level and more agency towards the people that take part. It should be possible to question, change or shape the whole program. I guess with H&D we are trying to do that by opening up the organization and accommodating as many voices as possible, through for instance the distribution of efforts and the resources necessary for organizing activities amongst the community. I guess it’s worthwhile considering how to decentralize the organization as much as possible and support communities to do what they feel they need to do in their own terms – rather than making people travel around all the time.
I would suggest more openness for different needs. In the last years the set-up of our own programs has been quite intensive. Oftentimes our activities were physically intensive. We realized that we cannot just assume that people have the ability to join such intensive programs. A program that relies on travelling can be exhausting for someone with a chronic illness for instance. There might be different circumstances that don’t allow for people to join – for instance being a single parent without stable income it might be quite hard to commit to a full-day workshop. I would like programs to be bendable and flexible – shaping around the needs of the participants and also encourage more and different people to join, who are usually not able to do so. I think as a small organization people seem to find us and make suggestions on the level of organization. I feel the bigger a project becomes the more difficult it gets to make adjustments based on individual needs, so I think that’s something to take into consideration when organizing these programs.
You already mentioned that you were part of a project which you adapted due to the Covid-19 situation. What is mobility in times of world pandemics? Should we still invest in that? And, considering our travel restrictions, how can we continue to grow and reinforce networks, if we cannot meet one another? And why is that important (or not)?
I think it was a crucial moment for us. Travelling to Amsterdam was suddenly in jeopardy due to the pandemic. It has always been always important to us to facilitate in-person workshop programs, and it took us a while to warm up to the idea of translating our workshop programs into online formats. We were very disappointed we couldn’t continue planning for being together in the same space.
Some of what we do was quite difficult to do online, especially workshops about physical computing, hardware hacking. Also accommodating different skill levels in a remote setup is incredibly challenging. Where you sense quite fast in a physical space who might be lost, online environments don’t allow for subtle gestures and quick check ins.
Nevertheless, we understood that now more than ever we need to exchange, connect and make sure people have something to do and know there’s a community out there. I think it was definitely challenging and much harder also to make personal connections but on the other hand we could accommodate way more people all of a sudden. We could more easily think about parallel workshops, which usually due to lack of space (which is expensive in Amsterdam) is always more challenging to do. These were definitely the positive sides of the online workshop programs we organized. However, I think if we had the choice, we would always choose for in-person workshops again!
It was interesting to do, and we learned a lot, e.g., we learnt to challenge the tools we use to connect online – in fun and experimental ways, training ourselves to be patient and to practice that patience collectively.
We try to avoid proprietary tools like Zoom or Teams. What worked really well was having combined tools – for instance having a collaborative notepad in combination with a video call in addition to well documented and prepared workshop scripts. We are now thinking about other forms to publish these workshop scripts. They are an amazing educational resource.
How does the whole situation affect the local context of Hackers & Designers?
At the moment we organize workshops online. We mostly work with hybrid formats. We have not found the perfect solution yet. Most of the stuff that we do is hard to do online. It is way more work to prepare. We always try to accommodate all kinds of skill levels within H&D. When we are usually in the space together it is easier to improvise, and to quickly look over someone’s shoulder or team up people base on skill levels. Sharing space together participants are able to learn from each other much more. Online it is really hard to anticipate these different levels of knowledge. We also did this ad hoc thing, sending packages out to people (wristband hacking).
We enjoyed the idea of making these packages and sending them out to people and do the unboxing at home together. We planned with a lot of optimism. In the end some packages didn’t arrive on time because the postal infrastructure is totally overloaded. At the end one of the workshop leaders ended up having covid-19. So in the end we had to postpone the workshop. We try to stay excited and optimistic but there are a lot of backlashes at the moment and we have to make sure to take care of ourselves and not overwork by planning for 3 scenarios all the time.
Learn more about Hackers&Designers.