Critical Breaking and Repair Workshop

Our Critical Breaking and Repair workshop kicked off on April Fools’ Day in the Fat Cat Fab Lab, NYC. We invited a mix of designers, researchers, policy makers, artists and New York’s community repair activists. The broad aim of the day was to explore how repair might help us to build more creative, sustainable technologies, policies and communities.

Instead of a traditional academic format, our workshop reflected the explorative nature of repair practices, incorporating embodied work with materials, and collaborative engagements. The day was divided into three sessions. Repair as Topic, featured lightning presentations from invites speakers to surface key issues in this space. Repair as Method involved repairing and re-making broken things we’d brought along into “tools” for repair work. Repair as Public was a collaborative evening event of remaking and repair hosted in collaboration with the NYC Fixer’s Collective.


Repair as Topic


Gay Gordon-Byrne, The Repair Association

The day started off with a few reflections, as Steve, Daniela and I revealed our own histories and interests around repair. Next Gay-Gordon Byrne, Executive Director at The Repair Association gave a powerful talk about the barriers to repair put in place by manufacturers who restrict access to physical and digital systems. Gay and her organisation are advancing legislation that would enshrine the right to repair in law, forcing manufacturers to release documentation, tools and firmware to independent technicians and consumers.


Vincent Lai, NYC Fixers’ Collective

Up next was Vincent Lai from the NYC Fixers’ Collective, who described some of the motivations behind the public self-repair events organized by his group of volunteers. Fixers are interested in the challenges presented by breakdowns, building communities who have the handedness to work with objects, and saving useful items from landfill or recycling.


Taezoo Park

Then new media artist Taezoo Park talked about his series of kinetic installations called “Digital Being” that draw on and reanimate electronic waste, using the idea of an invisible creature born within the circuits of technological garbage.


Kat Jungnickel

Finally Kat Jungnickel talked to us about her Enquiry Machines project. She performs sociological enquiry through the making of machines that allow us to think in together through the material making of imaginative devices. This mode of engagement goes beyond traditional forms of academic talk and enables creative and provocative re-imaginings of problems, engagements and concerns.


Repair as Method

After all this inspiration, we were ready to get down to some repairing and re-making in small groups. We had each brought several broken objects with us, and we shared these stories with the group. The charge for repairing and remaking was to create a tool (machine, contraption, system…) from fixed or broken objects, which should 1) address a repair-related hope or concern shared by the group, 2) bring together objects from multiple members of the group, and 3) ‘work’ in a functional or aesthetic sense.


Group 1 discussing the broken objects they brought along


Kat wearing the Aesthetic Re-calibrator, the rest of the tools can be seen on the table


 A close-up of Rose’s Broken Exaggerator

Group 1 produced a toolkit of provocative objects that help us to see breakdown differently. Kat’s Aesthetic Re-calibrator was a playful device that encourages the wearer to see breakdowns differently, and in the process, to be seen differently themselves. Gay repaired a pair of glasses using the Transformative Closure, a visible repair that fixed the functional breakdown and added new aesthetic layers. Anne’s Alliance Solicitor was a human face that clipped onto a water-starved plant, repairing a broken down system of care. Finally, Rose’s Broken Exaggerator was a lens-based device used to magnify and appreciate the aesthetics of breakdown more fully. These devices manifested the range and scope of breakdown, from minor imperfections to major fractures, and what’s at stake in deciding how (or indeed whether) to attempt repairs.


Group 2 present their broken things


Peter, Paul and Kate work together to troubleshoot Kate’s Robot


Vincent shows the fault in the Keurig to Steve and Oliver

Amongst the members of Group 2, two broken items really stuck out: a toy robot that Kate had loved and owned since childhood, who had been broken for many years, and a Keurig single serve coffee machine rescued from Freecycle by Vincent. These made visible a range of affective and moral entanglements. On the one hand, Vincent wondered if it was a good thing to repair the Keurig, given that it would produce so much waste in its lifetime. On the other, Kate’s toy was something that had immense value and care invested in it, even when broken. These spoke to ideas around valuing and generational longevity of technologies. Part of the group set about repairing the robot, while others located a leak in the Keurig’s water system, that was held together by cable ties!


Leo and Oliver work with materials


The final sculpture

Another part 2 focussed on material explorations, bringing together a range of different media in a sculptural form. Oliver described painting with the vinyl record. Leo talked about how critical breaking could be seen as a transgressive act. This object prompted discussions about the temporal lifetime of art, and situations where the materiality of art is also something that has to be dealt with through archiving, saving, or simply wasting.


Group 3 opening out a broken umbrella


Machine parts represented New York buildings


Finalising Downstream

Group 3’s sculpture was called Downstream or “Barbara” (as it featured a cassette tape deck playing classics from Ms Streisand!). This was an intricate material site or micro-world built from the underside of an umbrella, with components of discarded electronics representing iconic buildings in New York. This piece engaged with the visibility of breakdowns, and the obscured human costs, particularly amongst marginalised groups, which was of particular interest to Amy. Complex networks of string represented the connectivity across this site, the ongoing forms of collapse that take place across the urban landscape. It was built in the round as per Sandra’s craft of theatre design, to ensure the hand of everyone was visible.


Repair as Public


The Fat Cat Fab Lab fills up with Fixers and members of the public 


A lovely old clock gets repaired

As the day drew to a close we shared dinner, and Fixers’ Collective volunteers and members of the public started arriving at Fab Lab with tools and broken things. Workshop participants joined in with repair groups, some supporting repair attempts and others learning about the pasts and intended futures of the objects being de-constructed and re-made. It was a treat to see this clock hanging up in the Fab Lab ticking away, reminding us about some of the themes that had come up in the day around living with objects across time, caring differently for our technological things, and in doing so crafting new publics or collectives.


David designs Robot’s new eyes


The new eyepiece gets printed


Repaired Robot in action! 

By the end of the night, Robot had also been fully repaired, including the restoration of the illuminated scene in his torso, and his ability to walk. David made new eyes for him using the 3D printer, inset with LEDs.

With thanks to all workshop participants. Photographs by Laewoo Kang, Minsu Park, Vincent Lai, Taezoo Park and Lara Houston.