With certain currents in the contemporary art world pulling out of the gallery and museum box and into the spaces of everyday life, social relationships have come into focus as the site of many artistic projects. Increasingly, self-organized creative types pick up with simple materials, a group of friends, and an idea to enact change in their various communities by participating in and with them. Between Chicago (Bad at Sports’ hometown) and New York City (my hometown) there are two similar projects – with varying regard to an art world dialog – that center on a waste-not-want-not brand of idealism. Encouraging inventive approaches to everyday repair problems, Community Glue Workshop (Chicago, IL) and Fixers Collective (Brooklyn, NY) have each been building community by tinkering with and fixing things. All kinds of things. I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with Ally Brisbin and Carla Bruni of Community Glue Workshop, and Vincent Lai of Fixers Collective to discuss their respective work.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
Juliana Driever: Can you describe, generally, what you do and how you each got started?
Ally Brisbin: I think it was probably in May or June of 2012, when Carla posted a link to a New York Times article about the repair café movement in the Netherlands on Facebook, wanting to start something similar. I saw it and responded immediately. I own a coffee shop, called Kitchen Sink – which is how I know Carla, she comes into the shop. It seemed like Community Glue Workshop would be a natural thing that we could start, so we began reaching out to folks in our network who could help us. We found a designer, found people who could donate their time and tinkering abilities, made a WordPress site and a Facebook page and launched it within two months. It took off and got a great response right away. We have a crew of about six fixers who have been with us since the beginning. We have been doing one fix per month at my cafe in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. But next month, in April, we’ll be doing our first fix at a new location, StoryStudio Chicago, so we can reach a new audience and hopefully get new faces in the door.
Community Glue Workshop organizers Ally Brisbin (left) and Carla Bruni (right) at a repair clinic on November 18, 2012 at Brisbin’s coffee shop Kitchen Sink.
Vincent Lai: Fixers Collective started in the 2008-09 season when Proteus Gowanus, the gallery in Brooklyn that hosts us, organized its annual thematic exhibition schedule around the idea of “mend.” I started up with Fixers Collective in 2010, after a friend of mine who was interested in fixing umbrella fabric told me about it. I came on board because I wanted to fix. Period. I do it for the sake of being very hand-sy, working with my hands, and to repair things that probably would go in a landfill, or would be shredded. There’s a lot of value that can be re-captured with a little tinkering. I’ve been active with the Facebook page, outreach to the community, we’ve been at the Maker Faire the past few years in New York, and there are a lot of other things that are developing on the horizon, too.
JD: Was Fixers Collective something that came together because of the show at Proteus Gowanus? Or was it something that was starting up already?
VL: During that season, there were workshops, and people would come and sit around and fix things. And actually, part of the exhibit was not only the things they were fixing, but also the tools used. At the end of the night, when you put your things down, a large Plexiglas shield would be placed over the table, so the next day you saw the work in progress.
Carla Bruni: So, it’s like a performance.
VL: Yes, exactly. It’s part performance. So, after the season ended, People still wanted to fix, and we’ve been getting together on a regular basis since then.
JD: So, would you say that you started fixing things from an art context?
VL: Yes, we did start from an art/gallery context, and we would still like to keep the art context as much as possible. I think without it, we would just become just a repair shop. We try to discourage that concept, where people may come in and ask, “Can I just drop this off?” We tell people that they really need to be there to participate in a performance.
CB: We don’t come from a performance perspective – it’s more of an environmental perspective – and the community focus is just as important. Just to do repair is not enough. We do get people like that, but most of the time we get a lot of people coming back to participate again – because we figure things out together. For us, it’s not really an art angle, it’s a community angle. But we are also intuitively aware that to do it just as a straight-on repair shop would not be as rich of an experience.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: What’s a popular fix?
CB: Good Lord, are there a lot of lamps! People bring in three at a time. It’s outrageous.
VL: I know that we can count on having at least one lamp for each session, unless it’s specifically geared to something else. Other things we get on a regular basis are small kitchen appliances. We do see toasters, blenders, food processors, coffee grinders and a lot of issues with motors or switches.
AB: We get clothes a lot, too. We have a little rotating stable of seamstresses, so we always have one sewing machine. One time I had the shirt I was wearing repaired, my friend had the skirt she was wearing repaired, all during the the event …So you just go and hide in the bathroom while they’re stitching up the holes, and then throw it back on. We get a lot of broken ceramics, too. I think because our name is Community Glue…
CB: Right, because some people think the fixes would be limited to that. At least one fix every workshop requires gluing things, and it’s usually me who ends up gluing things back together. Oh, and bikes, too. We have a guy who comes in and repairs bikes, and more so when the weather gets warmer. It’s huge because it’s so expensive.
VL: We don’t get a lot of bike repairs because there’s an organization in NYC that has done a lot with reuse and repair called Recycle-A-Bicycle. They do a lot of community outreach, so we may see a bike repair once a quarter.
Community Glue Workshop fixer Paul Bassett (left) helps Jorge Sanchez get a floor lamp back into working order at a repair clinic.
JD: There is an aspect of folk pedagogy in what you each do – where learning is happening in more social, participatory and informal ways. I think of a gathering like quilting circles, where community knowledge was passed down through talking and interacting and the simple fact of being there and being hands-on. Have you observed this? What are the effects of this more personal exchange of knowledge?
CB: I think it’s been a really important part of what we’re doing. One thing that’s especially great is when kids come in and they’re blown away when they understand that you can “look under the hood,” so-to-speak, and actually see how things connect. I used to do this when I was a kid, but you don’t really see that anymore. In general, the issue of why we don’t use our hands is a big part of why, philosophically, this project is so interesting to us.
VL: I find myself using the phrase, “Project-Based Learning Initiative” partly because I heard that phrase used by Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. I was attending the Games for Change conference, and he made a wonderful case for project-based learning for an educational model in schools. He listed a bunch of roles that teachers play right now – being an entertainer, a clerk, a disciplinarian. But, you can remove all of those roles if you’re engaged in a project-based learning model. So, I think it’s important to have people come over and hang around and idle. The more people around you, the more valuable the experience. Of particular interest are the slice-of-life observations that are made when all sorts of people come in with their stories. We’ll hear stories about manual fixes and what people would call “ghetto fixes,” and I think so much of this wouldn’t be possible if you were just doing it by yourself in your garage.
CB: You do get to hear a lot about the things other people are working on. There was a guy at the last workshop who works with a group that takes stuff out of alleys and makes franken-machines. It’s a bit different from our mission, but it’s obviously related, and we get to know a lot of people like that who are super handy and help out.
JD: Do you also think about how your work might take on outcomes that are less practical, perhaps in the way it might address larger social issues? What are the large-scale implications in working toward these smaller-scale “fixes?”
AB: For me, it’s to draw attention to the fact that our culture is so obsessed with the disposable. We’re so far removed from nature and even from trades. Everybody’s job is digital – and it’s not real, it’s not tangible – so even objects become these things that you can just delete. But, you can’t really. It goes somewhere. Someone made it, and probably in a sweatshop. So, I think about how we need to stop feeding the beast, and reduce what we’re using.
CB: I come from a historic preservation background, where we re-use entire buildings. In terms of green building rating systems, you’re rewarded for replacing everything, not for keeping things and repairing them. Even in system that was designed to make us more environmentally friendly, it’s a totally throw-away culture, it’s all about consumption still…which is of course why were in this problem in the first place. I was feeling frustrated by this for years, so that’s a large part of the thrust for me. But, it also it makes me sad that kids, and people in general, don’t know how to fix anything anymore. We’re losing a lot of our ability to solve problems creatively. Plus, it’s fun! People don’t come here to be on an assembly line, they come for the challenge of problem solving.
VL: What I think about the most is computer electronic recycling. I was a first-hand witness to all of the stuff that got turned in for recycling – or the phrase that I would rather use: “wrapping and shredding.” People mistake certain recycling for reuse, and they think that when they turn it in for recycling, it’s going to get reused. However, a lot of what gets turned in gets wrapped up, and sent to a shredder and chopped up for scrap metal. I’ve seen MacBooks that didn’t need to go to recycling, they just needed to a $20 replacement chip. So, in this town, the throw-away culture is strongly evident with computers and electronics, and the people who recycle it don’t reuse enough. Recycling is a first line of defense instead of last resort. So, that’s where I want the fixers to intercede, to bring one more line of defense before the recyclable shredding happens. Also, there’s another term that iFixit is throwing around: “product as appliance.” It explains the idea that when something is broken, we can just get a new one. Apple will treat a broken iPad or iPhone in the same way another company will approach a broken blender or toaster: by throwing it away and replacing it. So, that’s what we try to fight, too.
CB: Even when something is being recycled as we are told it is going to be, is very energy intensive. Additionally, with downcycling, it’s really grating to me when someone wants to take an item – say a really nice guitar – that is a bit warped and make it into a flowerpot. Anything can be a flowerpot! You’re taking a $500 guitar that needs a little TLC and a small part and downcylcing it. That drives me nuts — taking these really complex appliances that can last so much longer and essentially turning them into a concrete bowl. Give it another life! Instead of just downcycling everything that way, get as much as you can out of objects that are superior products or built for certain functions, that took a lot of energy to create. It’s hard to describe our mission to people because they think we’re tying to repurpose things since that’s what’s so hip now. I do that stuff too, but I’m also very mindful of that fact that this whole piece is missing: don’t repair things as they were. I think there needs to be that faction, too.
It was a full house at Kitchen Sink, host to Community Glue Workshop repair clinic, on November 18, 2012.
JD: When as a culture, we’re so taken with the disposable and the new, I’d imagine that you might have bumped up against the perception that your projects hold a kind of old-school, greatest generation mentality. Do you see the idea of re-use strike a chord again in recent years, during our economic downturn?
AB: I hope so, and it might be that I’m surrounded by more progressive folks, but I’m praying for a return to our roots. I like what’s happening with the recent return to community gardening projects, and how people want to produce their own food with a real interest and concern over where it comes from. It’s becoming hip to shun processed, terrible, chemical-laden food, and I think it goes hand-in-hand, with the idea that increasingly people want to get into their possessions and know how they work. I think that an interest in food can turn into a privileged passion, but the repair movement is certainly not a privileged endeavor. It’s extremely accessible and it makes sense for those who can’t afford to buy organic, or shop at Whole Foods. But, I think we’ve got a ways to go before we affect Middle America.
CB: I think people also miss working on things. Someone will pay a silly amount of money to go to a workshop, and put a couple of screws in a couple pieces of wood to make a bench, just because they want so badly to know they made a bench. So, they’ll pay $50 for someone to hand them a piece of wood and give them permission to make something. It’s great that this is happening, but I feel like it’s a sign of how removed people are from real things and how desperate we are to feel like we can make something again and be involved with our environment.
VL: The Mend exhibit, and in turn Fixers Collective, happened in part because of the financial collapse, so I would speculate that a lot of people came in on the defensive to just say, “Oh my God, I need this thing fixed.” So, then we just guided their hands through the process as they fixed it up. But, I’m hoping that these same people would come back later and want to sit down and fix things and be with others. We see that greatest generation mentality come in, and we have a fun time putting that up against a MacBook or an iPod that need fixing.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: How have you observed gender roles coming into play in these gatherings? Are the women doing sewing, and the men doing electrical work?
CB: It does kind of break out that way.
AB: We mostly have men as volunteers, the only women who volunteer are doing sewing, and it just so happens that the men do everything else.
VL: If you look at recent Facebook pictures of our one of our patching sessions, you’ll see one of our Master Fixers, Tony, working the sewing machine to seam back up his jeans. Some of us make a really active effort to jump and cross those gender role gaps. It’s there, but we do also see instances where you would expect it, but then expectations are thwarted. There was a news article that surfaced recently about a bridge in Brooklyn that is going to be reconstructed, and the Department of Transportation is actively seeking women to work on the reconstruction. The organization working on this project is called Nontraditional Employment for Women, and we had one of their members to come in and fix our power saw. It’s there, we’re aware of it, and because we’re aware of it we make an effort to go outside of those expectations.
AB: What are we going to call a guy who brings in his sewing machine one day? A “seamster?” A tailor? I tried to call them “sew-ers” one time in a Facebook update, and someone wrote in, “Hey, it looks like you wrote ‘sewers.’”