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Makers Talk Tech, Ecology and Art at Generator


Published June 25, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Conversations about solving climate change and ecological destruction are batted around frequently in Vermont, but rarely do they involve the word "play." Yet when three dozen "makers" — individuals who use new technology to create innovative artistic or practical projects — gathered at an "Eco Logic All" forum last week at Burlington's Generator, creative play and outside-the-box thinking were at the heart of the matter.

Makers, according to Ken Howell, a professor affiliated with the Champlain College Emergent Media Center's MFA program and a member of Vermont Makers, "take play very seriously, and [believe that it's] a valuable tool for innovating systems, designs, objects and conceptions of the world." And while Howell jokes that makers do use emerging technologies such as 3-D printers to create toys, or replicas of toys, the need for creative solutions to thorny societal and ecological problems casts these creative types, and their cutting-edge technologies, in a more serious light.

"I think the solutions we find for the problems we're going to face are really unknowable from here, but these technologies play a big part in what we can work with," says Howell, whose talk at Eco Logic emphasized maker culture's experimental, DIY ethos as an antidote to runaway consumerism.

Christy Mitchell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christy Mitchell

The Eco Logic forum doubled as one of Vermont Makers' periodic (though irregular) meet ups and as Generator's first "social hour" — though attendees milled around for at least three times that long. Christy Mitchell, Generator's executive director, plans to hold regular social hours on the third Thursday of every month, each featuring a cash bar and a food truck. (Eco Logic attendees feasted on lobster rolls from Wooden Spoon Bistro's truck; July's social hour will feature Dolce VT.)

Organized by Rebecca Schwarz, a local artist, educator and member of Vermont Makers, last week's event featured talks on economics, art and maker culture by Champlain College professor Valerie Esposito, Schwarz and Howell. The trio collectively posited that innovations in those areas — through imparting "eco-logic" in each field — were necessary in order to avoid ecological devastation.

"The urgency of this time right now — with climate change and globalization and wanting to have some ability to affect things in a positive way — is part of why I'm interested in making things," says Schwarz, who for more than a year had been dreaming up a Vermont Makers' meet up with an ecological theme.

Esposito kicked off the evening with a discussion of "ecological economics," an emerging field that aims to shift the economic paradigm away from the classic model, which measures success based on profit margins and human-accrued labor alone. Ecological economics, by contrast, considers the interdependence of human systems with the natural ecosystem and its resources.

Schwarz presented a slideshow of art from around the world that tapped into an understanding of human participation in complex and interdependent systems. These ranged from the participatory performance tactics of Brazilian Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed to Schwarz's own biomorphic plastic sculptures, made from her accumulated recyclables.

Howell's discussion on maker culture and technology's potential to create on-demand, local economies — and to find creative solutions to mass-market dependency — completed the evening.

In a rural state that still can't guarantee great cellphone service and high-speed internet in all its pockets, finding cutting-edge machines such as a laser cutter, a 3-D printer, and workstations for 3-D modeling and app development at Generator may seem incongruous at first. But Howell points out that maker culture and Vermont culture are compatible. "The core of this is something that's very Vermont, which is self-reliance and inventiveness, and making do with what you have, as opposed to what you can go and purchase," he says.

Burlington is quickly becoming a maker's town. Just three years ago, when a cluster of individuals dubbed themselves the Vermont Makers and began meeting to discuss emerging technologies and their own creative work, few others knew what the word "makers" meant. Now the Queen City is home to not one but two maker spaces: Both Generator and Champlain College's MakerLab opened their doors earlier this year.

Mitchell, who also owns S.P.A.C.E. and Backspace galleries on Pine Street, suggests the technologies in the lab tap artistic creativity, too. "I'm coming from the arts side, and to come in here and have all of these tools — I can then go to artists every day and say, 'Why don't you come over here and play?'" she says. Weekly jewelry-making classes that employ the laser printer are under way, and members can come in and use the technology for projects on their own time. Starting in July, Generator will offer a monthly residency for makers with a specific project to pursue.

Mitchell says that the public social hours will evolve based on need; the format will shift according to the event, though incoming and outgoing residents will always give presentations on their work. The idea is to draw in curious members of the public, and to further Generator's role as an incubator for innovative ideas and conversations in the community.

"It will also be an opportunity for people working at different times of the day to get together and meet each other," Mitchell adds, "and for them to network and show off what they're making to the public."
The original print version of this article was headlined "At the Generator's First Social Hour, Makers Talk Tech, Ecology and Art"

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