The Collective Story

Unfold’s Stratigraphic Manufactury, part of Adhocracy. Photo by Benoit Palley

In order to celebrate the opening of Adhocracy at the New Museum, in New York, below is the essay Avinash Rajagopal and I wrote for the exhibition’s catalog, introducing the volume’s intentions and structure. The catalog is available at the New Museum store. Make sure to visit the show, which will be on through 7 July at Studio 231 at 231 Bowery.

The Collective Story
Avinash Rajagopal, Vera Sacchetti

At first glance, what does a film about superannuated gardeners in Barcelona have to do with 3-D printed ceramics from Antwerp, or an open-source tractor built on a farm in Missouri? The many manifestations of adhocracy—the conviction that societal change can come out of small interventions, little subversions, and closely-knit communities working without the aid of the powers-that-be—can be surprisingly, and affirmingly, diverse. If only all these local agents who create tirelessly within their own online and offline communities could speak to each other, then a powerful new mode of creativity could take over the world—or at least that is the dream.

When recently asked by Huffington Post about why he founded Maker Faire, the most popular gathering of makers in America, the publisher Dale Dougherty said in his characteristically casual way, “I was meeting lots of interesting makers though the magazine. I said bring them all together. It would be fun to meet them. They would like to meet each other.” It seems a reasonable assumption to make, but as any visitor to a Maker Faire knows, the robotics nerds all hang out together, very far away from the furniture-makers and sweater-knitters. Makers, hackers, crafters, fabbers—so many small communities thrive within the adhocratic movement that sometimes it is hard to see a movement at all, which is why so many books and exhibitions on the subject end up becoming loose compendia instead of strong interconnected stories about a design revolution.

Diversity is written into the DNA of adhocracy. If the various projects in this exhibition didn’t have very diverse objectives, from new modes of production to new urban identities and ways to re-build society, they wouldn’t be truly bottom-up or revolutionary. Bringing these endeavours onto a common platform has its own value, but when we give them context, enlarge their scope, and encourage people to see new connections between them—that is when the outlines of a much bigger idea begin to form.

Sometimes the larger story is inherent in the project. The Belgian studio Unfold’s Kiosk 2.0, which puts a 3-D printer on a street-side vendor’s cart, is not just about the portability of new modes of production, or about the birth of new service models. It is a piece of design fiction brought to life. Bruce Sterling’s 2008 science fiction story Kiosk, which is excerpted in this catalog, was the source of Unfold’s idea. Starting with the line, “The Fabrikator was ugly, noisy, a fire hazard,” Sterling imagines the proliferation of 3D printing technology, but also its ultimate perversion by big industry and the military. *

*Bruce Sterling, “Kiosk” in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2008

Sterling wasn’t far off the mark. The proliferation of hackerspaces and maker communities, like Maker Faire Africa or the Makerlab Istanbul, are extremely positive signs of a new order of design, and a truly equitable dissemination of technology. But in April 2012, the New York Times reported that the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created their own online portal for the crowdsourced manufacturing of military artifacts. Earlier in the year, DARPA had also given MAKE, the organizers of Maker Faire, an award to introduce maker technologies to high school kids. The ideological implications of these developments are being debated, but one thing is crystal clear—the third industrial revolution will bring its own big challenges.

In order to understand these challenges and find ways to meet them, we need multiple storytellers and many voices, celebratory or critical. Many of the projects in this exhibition have been commented upon, filmed, or written about in print magazines, blogs, and websites. Each of these perspectives provides another layer of meaning to the projects, helping us interpret them through both primary and secondary sources. Those sources are laid bare in this catalog, in the hope that a more complete picture can emerge from the thoughtful orchestration of storytellers.

For those interested in reading between the lines, there are also narratives that crisscross among the stories. Some, like participatory design or decentralized decision-making, are the raison d’être of the exhibition. Others are less obvious. Military technology, for instance, looms surprisingly large. It is hinted at in Bruce Sterling’s story; it is denuded of all pretense in James Bridle’s Drone Shadow project, where he traces the outlines of drones in public spaces; and it is ultimately subverted in Pedro Reyes’s Palas por Pistolas, where weapons were converted into musical instruments and then used to play the ultimate anti-war anthem—John Lennon’s Imagine.

Perhaps some insight can also be gleaned by the juxtaposing stories of war and peace. On the surface, Antonio Ottomanelli’s Mapping Identity project, where locals help build a complex, multifaceted map of war-torn Baghdad, has little to do with Crafting Neighborhoods, an initiative in Mumbai that examines on-the-ground strategies for low-cost construction. But they stand on strong common ground: One, the conviction that people hold deep insight into their own living conditions; two, the belief that the forces that shape a neighborhood, like maps, planning, zoning, or construction, should also come from within its people, not just from the outside. Reading those two projects together might generate some provocations: How to examine the role of local contractors in rebuilding Baghdad? What does a map of Mumbai’s Shivaji Nagar that is not mandated by some bureaucrat in a municipal office look like?

*Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2009

All it takes a shift in our frame of reference, and endeavors that seemingly have nothing in common start speaking to each other. A classic example of this is Richard Sennet’s book The Craftsman. Invoking the Greek god of craftsmanship, Sennet writes, “To understand the living presence of Hephaestus, I ask the reader to make a large mental jump. People who participate in ‘open source’ computer software, particularly in the Linux operating system, are craftsmen who embody some of the elements first celebrated in the hymn to Hephaestus.” * His masterful argument, moving so easily between the digital and physical realms, will hopefully set the tone for many “large mental jumps,” guided in this catalog by other equally inspiring voices—Saskia Sassen, Jamer Hunt, and Yona Friedman, to name a few.

If one had to pick the most basic theme, the largest common ground, the highest provocation for the adhocracy movement, this exhibition, and this catalog, it would be Community. The ultimate mental jump that has made all these rich endeavors possible is the replacement of the anonymous, individual user and the monolithic target market with a group of living, breathing, intelligent people who have relationships with each other. It has taken a long time for designers, architects, planners, and makers to make that leap, but the wonderful results of having made it are plain to see.

This loosely structured catalog asks for another mental jump. Every project in it is concerned with some sort of community—online, offline, urban, local, global—but what if we were to see the advocates of adhocracy as a community in themselves? Adjacencies, connections, context, local insight—all the things that are essential to urban communities then become vital to the global group of makers, who are linked by events like this exhibition, and by other online and offline platforms. If we assume conversations between the projects, they begin to form a giant rhizomatic network of adhocracy, with all the diverse nodes—whether in Brooklyn, Accra, or Istanbul—linked to each other by shared ideas or antagonistic concerns. We recognize this network, and present here a tiny subset of the adhocratic community. It has only just begun, may it continue to grow.