Strange and Unstable Fabrication

Laura Devendorf. Strange and Unstable Fabrication. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: Kimiko Ryokai. University of California, Berkeley. 2016.


In the 1950’s a group of artists led by experimental composer John Cage actively engaged chance as a means to limit their control over the artworks they produced. These artists described a world filled with active and lively forces, from the sounds of rain to blemishes in paper, that could be harnessed in creative production to give rise to new aesthetics and cultivate new sensitivities to the everyday. This approach to making was not simply act of creative expression but active attempt at creative expansion—a way of submitting to a world of creative forces beyond the self for the sake of seeing, hearing, or feeling things anew. I use these practices as a lens to reflect on the way human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers think about and design for making, specifically as it relates to the present day “maker movement.” I focus on how the design of digital fabrication systems, like 3D printers, could make room for creative forces beyond the maker and why such modes of making are worth considering in HCI research. Since digital fabrication technologies have catalyzed the maker movement and are often described as key instruments for “democratizing” manufacturing, this project joins broader efforts to reflect on values in maker technology as a means of expanding the design space of digital fabrication in ways that could potentially increase the diversity of participants associated with the movement.

By weaving through post-anthropocentric theories of the new materialisms, design practice, art history, and HCI, I contribute a theory of making that accounts for the creative capacity of nonhumans as well as design tactics to make room for nonhuman forces in the design of digital fabrication systems. I argue that nonhumans exert material-semiotic forces upon makers that shape their perspectives on stuff and culture in tandem. I then suggest that tools that are both strange and unstable create a space for makers to perceive and work with these forces in ways that honor the unique life and agency of nonhuman matter. As a whole, this work adds dimensionality to HCI’s existing focus on making as a process of self-expression by suggesting new design territories in fabrication design, crossings between critical reflection and creative production. I close this work by speculating on how tools that trade control, mastery, and predictability for chance, compromise, labor, and risk could become valuable within a broader landscape of making.


Last updated:

January 3, 2017