Curation at the Critical Making Lab

A critical foundation of Critical Making is, of course, the act of making, the creation of an object from spare parts or specially created components, and the exploration and critique of the process. So what happens when the maker is done making?

That’s where I come in. I’m the curator at the Critical Making Lab. When the researchers are done with an object, it’s my turn to play!

My duties involve cataloguing the objects, deciding which objects should be kept and which should be recycled, finding a place to store them and (the fun part!) organizing them into exhibitions. As a non-researcher, my background is a little different from most of the other lab residents – I’m actually a Museum Studies student, albeit one with a bit of an intellectual crush on emergent technologies.

Be still, my heart! Source.

There are a lot of challenges to being lab curator.

I’m the new girl and I just don’t have the context I need for many of my objects, especially since I don’t have a background in any sort of computer or electrical work. The big, fancy ones are pretty easy because I can Google them. It’s not hard to find information on things like the prosthetic sockets or blind tennis; they were pretty well-publicized projects. But I would frequently quickly catalogue an object which I thought was just a test print and move on. Then, days later, someone would walk by and casually mention that the object I had set aside was, in fact, part of some terribly significant and interesting project. I’m lucky in that everyone in the lab is quite friendly and willing to share their knowledge but it’s hard to get answers when you don’t even know what questions you need to ask.

Painting robot 4

Random junk or super cool robot components?

There’s also the fact that the Critical Making Lab is not a museum space. Displaying objects is a secondary concern. Every decision I make has to take functionality into account. Yes, I can mount part of my exhibition on that shelving unit there but it’s right next to the full-body scanner, so people might need that space. Yes, I can create a beautiful and elaborate slideshow with multiple components to show off every aspect of the lab but who’s got time to update something that involved once I’m gone?

But hey, even if the job has its challenges, I wouldn’t change it for the world. And if I occasionally end up shirtless in the lab on a weekend because I needed a black backdrop for photography and it was the only black cloth I had, well, it’s just another day in the life of a Critical Making Lab curator!

Christmas Trees and 3D printers

I’ve been playing with the new 3D printer – a Dimension 1200ES by Stratasys. Quality is very high, build area is significant, and quite easy to use. I’ve run off a few orange (that was the ABS color that was loaded) christmas trees, based on this model. Here’s a picture of the whole forest. nectarine_forest

Critical Making lab workstations

The lab is all set up and we started teaching the critical making course on Wednesday. I got a bunch of old computers from the faculty and by parting and piecing them together was able to build 3 workstations. I installed xubuntu on them (a version of Ubuntu Linux for older hardware), development software like java, arduino and processing, and was up and running. The lab looks very impressive now – an old card catalog serves as a parts organizer, retired desks from the library are our work tables, and it has become a very light and workable space. 15 students used it on Wednesday and although it was a little crowded, everyone was able to be productive.

For those that are interested, I tried 3 other Linux distributions before going with Xubuntu. I first installed Debian and added the pure.Dyne packages, but the system ran too slow. Changing the window manager (which was the biggest resource hog) would have probably broken somethings and I didn’t have time to go step-by-step through all the additional applications included in pure.Dyne. Plus, all I really needed to run was Firefox, the Arduino and Processing IDEs, and maybe Inkscape and GIMP. I next tried Puppy Linux which ran great but had some unfamiliar interface elements that I thought might confuse some of the students. Also, I got really tired of looking around for necessary packages (dotpup format?) and getting them installed. the Sun Java 1.5 JRE took me 1/2 hour just to find and involved a few extra steps to get working. I really wanted an install solution that would be easy to document(for future machines) and having a good package manager that used a common package format was key to that. Xubuntu provided pretty mich exactly what I needed. It runs very well on 256 MBs, installs and updates very quickly, and I was able to find readily-available packages for everything I need. I’ll revisit pure.Dyne when I get more powerful machines (or I have time to do some kernel rolling and other optimization) but for now I’m very satisfied.

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