The Maintainers, Washington DC, Oct 6-9

field trips, research in process

By Ali Crosby

The Maintainers is a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. This October I attended the third of their series of conferences. I gave a paper about Frontyard as a collective maintenance project in a city with smart city agendas on the horizon. On the panel was Pamela Robinson, Kevin Rogan, and Carole Voulgaris.

First a few notes on the event itself, which was structured around four tracks (information, transport, software and a general track), and also included an unconference track and workshops such as the mending as protest. While there were lots of scholars there (from STS, history, engineering, information and computer sciences) it was not only an academic conference. Rather, people were talking through practice, about projects they maintain in government institutions, not-for-profits, companies and universities. The goals to bring practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, and activists together was clear.

 

Collaborative notes were set up on day 1 for each track. These are available here: General Track: http://bit.ly/miii-notes-general… Information Track: http://bit.ly/miii-notes-info Software Track: http://bit.ly/miii-notes-software… Transportation Track: http://bit.ly/miii-notes-transportation2

In terms of highlights relevant to our work on repair in Australia, the concept of stewardship and care was strong throughout the conference. This included recurring questions about responsibility and exploitation as well as an acknowledgement that maintenance covers a diverse range of practices , both preventative and reactive, which often are driven by a moral imperative. In a neoliberal context, volunteering to look after infrastructure, for example, lets corporations and governments off the hook.

The perceived tension between innovation and maintenance came up often, as participants were there to improve things, and also to look after what we’ve got. This is relevant to software (do you work on an imperfect open source project or start something different?), transport (are current public transport networks the best way to ensure mobility for all sectors of societies? I think of the variety of systems in Jakarta and the lack of real commitment to any of them), and information (archiving protocols need to be decolonised, and records need to be tended, which the work of Kirsten Thorpe has helped me understand).

And the other ‘take-away’ (that’s what they say here) is that maintenance and repair may be a global movement, we may share tools and approaches, but local applications vary. Global systems are the most difficult to maintain, so why would we do that to ourselves? The Maintainers, like no other collective project I have come across, is committed to the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. But this world is from a US perspective, which has its limitations, most noticeable as an outsider (e.g. Mel Gregg gave a great keynote, referring several times to the ‘strange’ sales culture that drives social relations and therefore work practices in California) . In the UK, activists (such as the wonderful Laura James) have worked on their own version of The Maintainers to create The Festival of Maintenance. I wrap up by asking, what are we going to do in Australia?

Object expressions panel: insights and reflection

Object expressions panel, research in process

By Tom Lee

The five expert panelists were seated on stools at one end of the room. At the other end, a projector screen to show images relevant to their talks. The audience faced each other in two wings in black plastic chairs.

The panelists bought objects to show the audience while they spoke and these were displayed in waiting on smaller stools at their feet: a miniature nawi, an oyster shell, a tool case, three knitted cushions, a wooden stool and a toaster. The panelists also discussed motor bikes, boomerangs, t-shirts, a bodged-together animation production studios and mobile phones. Members of the audience interjected with talk of broken fences, children’s rubbish sculptures, punctured nylon trainers, landscape and supermarket fruit displays. States of consciousness were discussed, the qualities and implications of cultures of abundance, and what kind of role materiality played when giving form to objects.

A group of fifty or so humans together in a room, assembled to talk about repair and design in relation to different objects and certain categories of expression. To what, exactly, had we gathered to bear witness? Had we come to encounter the truth, like those expert witnesses assembled to view scientific experiments in the early days of The Royal Society? Had we come out of interest or curiosity—those less profound though perhaps no less influential feelings that have been central to the development and dissemination of knowledge? Would consensus, dissensus or revelation determine the insights that emerged from the collective? Would the gathering produce newness, certainty, or ambiguity? Would transformation or conservation set the agenda? Were people expecting to fall in love with objects, like the fawning crowds at product launches of new Apple products? Or was the spectacle contingent on the panelists, who were widely known as charismatic and knowledgable figures in the diverse yet connected vocations they had been nominated to represent? What role would the space play, the free food, and the conventions and expectations associated with gathering for such purposes in the context of a university? What conclusions might a future historian draw upon encountering evidence to which these strange proceedings attest?

In my introductory comments on the night I alluded to what Michael S. Carolan has called “tactile spaces” in which “individuals can experience for themselves the phenomena around which knowledge claims are being made” (2006). While spaces of deliberation involve the articulation and defence of values and knowledges, tactile spaces involve the experiencing of those values and knowledges as tangible phenomena.

The discipline of design at the very least ought to put itself in the position of having to convince the broader community it has a key role to play creating forms of experience that will help with the cultural change less tangible forms of deliberation have struggled to catalyse. It was through such a lens that I hoping to interpret the panel and I hoped the audience would share in this perspective.

Three related concerns emerged in my mind while the panelists told stories about their chosen objects and the discussion started to unfold: 1) Would it be possible to converge on a higher-level set of insights in an event with such a wide-ranging brief? 2) What was revealed in the absences, in the objects and people that weren’t in the room? 3) How had my requests of the panelists shaped the content of the discussion?

My key insights from the events emerged in concert with these and they are listed below:

1. Object as transformation and story

Most of the stories told by the panelists were stories of transformation. Objects weren’t typically discussed as stable, unchanging entities that endured through time. Whether it was a dress, a motorbike or a midden, the panelists gave meaning to the things they discussed through narratives of transformation, even to the extent that it became hard to know what to call some of the objects—a midden is simultaneously a shell, a place, a practice and the source of a useful composite material; a dress can be patterned fabric that takes drastically different forms over a century which is then encountered again as pieces of cloth. One interesting exception was an old toaster, which a panelist described as representing the end of an evolutionary line; a now seemingly esoteric artefact, fossilised in time, and interesting due its mildly freakish form.

It’s hard to say what conclusions can be drawn from this, aside from: meaning attaches to objects that persist through time, persistence if often contingent on change, and change and storytelling go together.

2. Ceremonies of repair

Related to the above, the panelists and the audience returned regularly to role that ceremony played or ought to play in our interactions with objects, particularly with regard to repair. One of the panelists talked about “building preciousness into objects” and another discussed a family ritual of taking broken or damaged items into the garage where they were stored until the right moment arose to repair them. We often don’t have the time to repair things immediately. The time to repair and the places where things wait for repair is in this sense outside the flow of practices that make up everyday life. Not having adequate ceremonies associated with repair is perhaps what often leads people to feel they don’t have enough time (or indeed space) to repair broken things. Repair cafes, maker spaces and mens sheds are one way to offer places of ceremony where repair can be practiced, but there’s lots more scope for innovative thinking in this area. Bunnings take note: maybe weekend ‘repair show and tells’ will be the next sausage sizzles!

3. Elephants in and out of the room

The panelists were all experts who had specific practical and theoretical acquaintance with design. This clearly shaped the way they inhabited the world, particularly with regard to objects. I couldn’t help but wonder how different the stories might have been if the panel hadn’t been curated from a community of practice where design is the orienting concern. One of the distinctive and remarkable aspects of the event was the sense of a group of people whose ability to be articulate depended on objects and for whom objects really mattered. Nonetheless, my sense is that the apparent specialness of the select group is better conceived as exemplary, rather than exceptional in this regard. Which is to say, in general, people care deeply and have much to say about objects, even though this might not be as explicit or sophisticated as in the case of designers or design academics chosen to speak on a panel where they’ve been asked to prepare stories about objects. 

4. The smartphone exception

I asked a question during a break in proceedings about the kinds of objects that weren’t being discussed. I had in mind the inconspicuous everyday interactions we have with anonymous, mass produced objects. Surely most of our lives are made up of interactions with such objects, rather than special objects about which it is easy to tell stories? In response to my question, one panelist mentioned the smartphone. He noted that the smartphone was involved in so many moments in his life, from the important to the mundane. But people tend not to think of their phones as special, as they might a special item of clothing, piece of furniture or accessory. Is this because phones are a relatively recent species in the long history of objects evolving alongside humans? We haven’t yet learnt how to love them? Is it because like televisions and computers, smartphones are less valuable as things in themselves than as interfaces for media content? Plenty of people get excited about the latest Iphone and not only due to its functionality. But it’s harder to imagine repairing and caring for a phone for long enough (how long do you need?) for it to become precious. It seems like a chicken and egg situation: time equals preciousness and preciousness equals time. To some extent this seems to be changing. People are apparently keeping their phones for longer. Perhaps the days of planned obsolesce will end up being a blip in the long history of personal computing? Perhaps the latest device will continue to become less important than the latest software? Who knows. Apple are still making a killing from the hardware but targeted forays into other business interests–TV streaming services, for example–maybe hint at some anticipated wobbles in the future. 

5. Intergenerational repair

Parent-child relations were mentioned several times during the event. Specifically, the relations that obtain between parent and child through the medium of an object: a gift from a now deceased parent that was being repaired (the woven cushion covers), an object rescued from soon-to-be-rubbish that symbolised a connection with a parent (the maternity t-shirt rescued from the ragbag), or establishing rituals of repair with children by dedicating specific times and places for the practice to take place (taking items to the garage for repair). I like the idea of framing repair as way to mend and maintain connections through friends and family. This would hardly be a novel idea in cultures other than the twentieth century Anglo traditions—to use a broad brush stoke—were agency and autonomy between generations is often prioritised at the expense of spatial and emotional intimacy (sometimes for good reason!). Framing the repair of an object as an indirect though intimate way to materialise a connection between generations is a narrative that might have some broader appeal.

6. Avoiding the issue

While issues to do with the environment, sustainability and consumerism loomed in the the background for much of the discussion, it was nonetheless striking how the tone of the event was set by placing an emphasis on positive values concerning connections to objects. This might be something worthwhile to consider if this project seeks at some stage to offer strategic insights for mainstreaming the right to repair movement in Australia. This was further confirmed during Jesse Adams Steins “Can we talk about a right to repair in Australia?” panel, during which John Gertsakis and Guido Verbist both echoed the importance of paying attention to the cultural distinctiveness of Australia and what is likely to motivate middle Australia.

7. Aspirational repair

Although he didn’t come on the night, one friend replied in an email about the event that he had been thinking about the category of ‘aspirational repair’ which described his relations with “items that you hold onto in the hope that sometime you’ll get around to fixing them, but usually don’t”. Understanding repair in the context of what people aspire to do but don’t because they don’t have the time, space, tools or skill seems like an interesting way to make sense of contemporary issues associated with the practice. Finding ways to help people realise such aspirations seems like a good place to be doing some problem solving.

Works cited

Carolan, Michael S. 2006. “Ecological representation in deliberation: the contribution of tactile spaces,” Environmental Politics, 15:03, 345-361.

Does Australia need the ‘right to repair’?

repairability, research in process

Jesse Adams Stein gives us some background on the Right to Repair movement – in the lead up to the panel discussion ‘Can we talk about a ‘Right to Repair in Australia?’ on 2 October (full details below).

The ‘right to repair’ has been a topical issue in international media and to some extent locally. But why does repair matter? Is it just because we like to tinker with our things?

E-Waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Australians are the fourth highest generators of e-waste per capita globally, generating an average of 23.6 kg per inhabitant, per annum. In 2016 the world generated over 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste, only 20% of which made it into appropriate e-waste channels. E-waste is a particularly virulent problem, both because of the significant environmental costs of electronics manufacture, and because of the toxic materials that can quickly end up in the waste stream after the object is swiftly discarded. We also now know that repair is a climate issue. A recent report from the European Environmental Bureau calculated that extending the lifetime of all smartphones in the EU by 3 years would save around 4.3 metric tonnes of potential carbon emissions.

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What is the Right to Repair?

While the Right to Repair can now be understood as a general liberal concept – the idea that people should be able to fix the objects they own – it is also a specific political and legislative movement that emerged from the United States. That movement is specifically concerned with the reparability of particular technologies, most particularly smartphones, laptops, tablets, cars and agricultural equipment.

In the contemporary context, an increasing number of technologies and objects are run by computers using proprietary software. This includes a vast range of technologies, including most obviously IT devices, but also coffee machines, high-end toasters, tractors, fitness trackers, and motorised blinds (and so on). This software tends to be covered by copyright protections (TPMs – Technological Protection Measures), which protects the original object manufacturer (OEM) from having their device – and its internal functions – copied by another manufacturer. Having software embedded into our everyday appliances makes them harder to repair – it is no longer as simple as using a screw driver, taking off a back panel and having a look around.

The existence of TPMs also means that if an owner of an appliance, vehicle or smart device attempts to open or modify the object, for the purposes of repair or maintenance, they will be in breach of copyright and thus void their warranty (or worse). With this in mind, manufacturers now regularly glue-seal devices shut, designing the product in such a way that prevents independent repair attempts. In this way, a great deal of hardware and software design has become actively anti-repair.

Essentially, most manufacturers would rather you replaced your broken device than repaired it; it means more turnover for them. If repair is to happen, some manufacturers – such as Apple and the agricultural equipment company John Deere – want to maintain a monopoly over that repair, and they have gone to great lengths to discourage independent professional repair and DIY repair. In the case of Apple, iPhone owners have at times been literally ‘punished’ for using independent repair services. When an independent repair is detected, software programs punitively kick in, voiding various aspects of the phone’s usability.

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US Movement for Legislative Reform

In 2012 the notion of the ‘right to repair’ emerged in Massachusetts in association with the auto-industry, which led to a US-wide agreement, whereby auto manufacturers have agreed to share information and manuals with independent repairers. But the broader repair rights issue was by no means resolved, as this agreement only applied to the auto-industry. Repair-unfriendly design and software is prevalent in a wide variety of electronic objects and machinery, making the issue complex to regulate.

Some of the most vocal early proponents of a Right to Repair emerged from an American agricultural context, where farmers sought the right to repair their agricultural equipment legally, without penalisation. Large vehicles and machinery such as harvesters and tractors are a significant investment by farmers, with the expectation that they will last a long time. There’s a longstanding practice of using used components (replacement parts) on agricultural equipment – repairing the machinery to keep it going for a generation or more. The existence of TPMs disrupts this long-standing tradition of DIY maintenance, resulting in machinery that is in otherwise good condition being rendered unusable (and effectively turning into waste), if the owner were to strictly follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

From 2016 John Deere have fought to retain their control over their TPMs in the face of a grassroots movement of farmers who wanted access to their tractors’ copyrighted software in order to facilitate repair and maintenance. This led to the term ‘tractor hacking’, referring to a practice whereby farmers were downloading Eastern European hacking software, in order to break into their tractor software and undertake diagnostics and ultimately repairs.

To date, 20 US states now have proposed ‘Right to Repair’ or ‘Fair Repair’ legislation, and have garnered a great deal of political support. The movement also faces strong opposition from manufacturing lobbyists, who emphasise safety and security issues associated with sharing software information. Companies such as Apple have made small concessions to independent repairers, but some argue that this is not far enough, and it is merely a co-opting of repair rhetoric.

The Right to Repair movement is a good example of the diversity of political and social contexts with interests in repair and maintenance. Repairers and repair advocates span across a broad political spectrum, and include manufacturing workers, farmers, artists, bicycle maintainers, computer programmers, urban professionals, rail heritage enthusiasts, museum workers, and teachers (among others).

Criticisms of the Right to Repair movement include that it is essentially a libertarian movement at heart, focused on an individual’s right to own private property. Some argue that a meaningful movement towards reducing waste needs to be more collective in spirit, resulting in social democratic regulation and incentives for repair, rather than focusing on an individual person’s right to consume in the way they choose.

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Repair and Design

Proposed Right to Repair legislation in the US does not generally impact directly on the design of objects, but it demands that repairers have access to enough information in order to conduct repair and maintenance without voiding warranties. This means that owners of large agricultural equipment can have their machinery fixed on site, or close by, rather than travelling long (and expensive) distances to the original manufacturer for repair.

Although proprietary software is a major consideration in this debate, the ‘right to repair’ issue is not solely about copyright. It also pertains to the hardware, or the physical casing, of the technological object in question. Many ‘smart’ devices are designed in such a way that their interior workings are hermetically sealed, unable to be opened without force or damage. This is a form of ‘defensive’ design, which makes the design closed and sealed, deliberately preventing tampering or access by an authorised repairer. Such objects often have no screws or opening panels; they do not enable replaceable parts or batteries. This is the ultimate form of planned obsolescence: where a manufacturer would rather their object break and unrepairable (in less than 2 years), rather than allow the object’s owner – or a third party – to fix the item.

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Repair Action in the EU

In the EU, the notion of the ‘right to repair’ is also used, with a slightly different set of values and articulated goals. The European Commission’s Eco Design Directive has focused not only on software access, but also on eco-design measures such as spare parts availability, ease of disassembly, product durability and longevity, recycling, and energy efficiency measures.

The Right to Repair movement is also active in Europe and the UK, through iFixit Europe, The Restart Project, ECOSEEB, and Runder Tisch Reparatur.

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What’s the status in Australia?

Environmental advocates have been calling for legislative reform to the Product Stewardship Act and a crowd-funding campaign has been launched (by The Bower) for the Right to Repair.

In recent developments, the ACT Minister for Consumer Affairs Shane Rattenbury has taken the issue to Australian and NZ Ministers for Consumer Affairs at the Consumer Affairs Forum. Following this, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has written to the Treasurer, requesting that the ‘right to repair’ be added to the Productivity Commission’s forward agenda.

How a ‘right to repair’ might interact with our existing IP and consumer protection laws remains to be seen. Further, it is likely it won’t be called a ‘Right to Repair’. While there are some state exceptions, Australia as a nation does not have a Bill of Rights, so discussing ‘rights’ in this context is impractical.

Public Discussion

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Please join us for a panel discussion about repair policy and action in an Australia context. Panellists include Associate Professor Leanne Wiseman, Annette Mayne, Dr Guy Keulemans and John Gertsakis. Chair: Dr Jesse Adams Stein

When: Wednesday 2nd Oct 2019, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm 

Where: Design Innovation Research Centre
University of Technology Sydney, 622-632 Harris Street, Ultimo NSW 2007

Bookings: Free event, please book using this link

This event is part of the Repair.Design research project, UTS School of Design.

This panel was developed in collaboration with Guido Verbist, The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre

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Speaker Details

Annette Mayne has over 20 years’ experience in communications and community education, with a focus on waste avoidance. She has spent the last 15 years working with Councils, charities and social enterprises on the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle – but has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of repair options for consumers. Annette has turned her attention to hand-held technology, and recently launched The Reconnect Project, a social enterprise giving old phones and devices a new life through repair and reuse.

Leanne Wiseman is Associate Director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture, and an Associate Professor in Law at Griffith University, Brisbane Australia. Leanne is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research lies at the intersections of law, science and digital technologies. Her research has most recently focused on the legal issues arising from the adoption of digital technologies in agriculture, one of which is the inability of farmers to modify or repair their tractors due to the technological locks placed over their tractor’s software.

John Gertsakis is a sustainability practitioner with experience as an advocate, industry adviser and research academic. He is director and co-founder of the Ewaste Watch Institute, and he co-authored Australia’s first report on e-waste in 1995. He served as Executive Director of Product Stewardship Australia from 2006 to 2011. John is currently Director of Communications with Equilibrium consultants, and Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS. John has written and presented widely on sustainable product design, extended producer responsibility and the need for increased regulation to drive industry reform. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Design Institute of Australia.

Dr Guy Keulemans is a designer, artist and researcher at UNSW Art & Design. Guy creates critical objects and processes informed by history, philosophy, sustainability theory and experimental methods. His areas of interest include transformative repair and reuse, generative processes, and the environmental impacts of production and consumption.

Chair: Dr Jesse Adams Stein, event developed in collaboration with Guido Verbist, The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre

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Want to read more?

Leanne Wiseman, ‘Do Australian Farmers Need a Right to Repair?’

Nathan Proctor, ‘Corporations Are Co-Opting Right-to-Repair’,

Lee Vinsel, ‘Fighting for the right to repair our stuff’

Valerie Vande Panne, ‘The Case to Repair, and Not to Replace’

Jemima Burt, ‘Right to repair’ regulation necessary, say small businesses and environmentalists’

Annabelle Nilsson, ‘Reforming the Product Stewardship Act to enable a circular economy

Object Expressions Panel

Object expressions panel, research in process
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Tom Lee explains how the Repair and Object Expressions panel emerged as an idea:

Although I can’t remember where it originated, something smelt right about the idea to host a panel on the different ways we relate to objects after I had an interesting corridor conversation with a colleague about the taxidermy collected by her ex-husband, which decorated the walls of their small apartment in Potts Point. While many of the details of this conversation are now lost to me, I do remember a particular image that involved her daughter hanging her school bag on the horns of one of the animals, perhaps a deer of some sort, and the sadness and disappointment she experienced upon discovering that her father had sold the item, her favourite in the collection, without any prior announcement.

The conversation was provoked by a tweet of mine from some days earlier, which read: “If anyone is buying a birthday present for someone in the next couple of weeks I would love to have a chat with them for something I’m writing. PM if interested. I will buy coffee and treat/ or lunch.” My colleague had recently purchased a birthday present for her daughter, and when she mentioned this to me in passing, after having read the tweet, I began to explain the broader project of which the tweet was part, specifically the idea that there are different frames of reference or genres, which in part determine our feelings towards objects, and which objects themselves give us the ability to feel: it is far easier to feel like you have given a gift when you have a gift to give and our sense of giving is enriched by subtleties of the things we choose as the mediators of our gratitude and affection. One of the other so called genres I had in mind, as well as ‘gift’, was ‘collect’, and it had inspired a reflection on behalf of my colleague about her days living among the taxidermy specimens collected by her ex-husband.

What this encounter—and many others like it—confirmed was the intimate connection people have with certain objects in their lives, particularly when those objects are understood as part of ceremonial or ritualistic acts. It seems that access to those ever elusive notions we think of as properly human—such as ‘identity’, ‘subjectivity’, and indeed, ‘the human’ itself—are made tangible through acts or practices in which objects are central—practices like repairing, giving, collecting, disposing, refusing, designing, acquiring, destroying, hiding, and no doubt many more.

This is hardly an earth shattering insight and is well-known, of course, to anyone who has studied, read or practiced anthropological research. Nonetheless, there is a resilient tendency to ignore and degrade objects in many humanities disciplines and in popular discourse derived from them. While subjectivity is celebrated, to be made an object is degrading (this is perhaps a bipolar correction of the contrasting tendency in the sciences to emphasise the objective at the expense of the subjective). Furthermore, in cultures of abundance there is an uneasiness associated with the emotional investment in objects. Sentimentality and fetishisation are often spurned, and the widely used but poorly understood notion of consumerism often obscures whats really going on when people hand over money to get closer to things.

As a writer and thinker, I am never very good at tackling something head on, so when investigating the relationship between design and repair, it seemed appropriate to explore these two object-oriented practices through a set of other, different-though-related practices. I’d always found the commonly trotted out binaries of broken-versus-working—or, if you’re a Heideggerian, ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand—to offer disappointingly impoverished picture of the complex, experiential interweaving that goes on between human subjects and the things that compose our lives. A list of nine different categories seemed to go some way in accounting for the multifariousness of our object experiences (and are there any other kind of experiences?), though even the categories themselves are simply proxies to structure dialogue. My hope is we end up having all kinds of leakage and mixing in-between categories that is interesting more for its poetic dynamism than its semantics.

Since organising the panel, two encounters with different panel members have reassured me of the decision to host an event where people organise their thoughts and feelings by speaking with things and the practices they convoke. One panel member informed me, that after being invited to participate, she dreamt about a particular object. A notion which reminded me of Ian Hacking’s brilliant paper titled “Dreams in Place” (2001), which discusses the perhaps paradoxical centrality of dreams in the history of ideas associated with modern notions of objectivity—paradoxical because this tradition of thinking has worked so hard to distinguish between what is dreamt and what is real. Nonetheless, dreams persist within western knowledge systems as events which give access to the real, whether in Freudian psychoanalysis or investigations of REM sleep. I’d always been particularly fascinated by the reference Hacking makes to a certain Amazonian people who plan their dreams before they sleep in the hope they have a dream “that bodes well for some future concern”. I could already sense the significance, indeed the credibility and authority, that this particular panelist would bring to her story with the help of her dream.

The other panelist with whom I spoke had decided on her three objects, more or less. Immediately, as she began describing her first object, I realised it didn’t quite fit into any of the categories I’d nominated for the panel, but was too good an example, based on the spirit of the event, not to warrant inclusion. It was an object she’d rescued from a bag of rags, due to be thrown out, which evidenced a connection between her and her mother, as well as being thematically associated with her PhD thesis. Nine categories were now ten, with ‘rescue’ a late addition based on the sentiment that particular examples transcend the categories we have arranged for them.

 

Event details: Repair and Object Expressions

WHO: Alison PageAndrew Simpson (Vert Design)Catriona FiskSimon Von Wolkenstein, Chair: Dr Tom Lee.

WHERE: 
Design Innovation Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney, CB15.02.22, 622-632 Harris Street, Ultimo NSW 2007

WHEN: 26 September 2019, 5:30 – 7:30pm

BOOKING: Free event. Register here.

Sandwich presses & melted cheese

research in process

Microwaves, sandwich presses and kettles—along with the occasional fan and foot spa—are among the most commonly discarded electrical items that turn up in my random but regular observations of kerbside waste in Randwick, a suburb in Eastern Sydney. During a workshop with our Repair and Design research group, I had the occasion to choose one of these products—the sandwich press—and ponder why it existed and speculate about what might be done to reduce the number that are going to landfill.

Melted Cheese

Sandwich presses exist in kitchens largely for the purpose of melting cheese between bread. They are one in a host of single-purpose electronics that clutter the cupboards and bench tops of kitchens in wealthy western democracies. Breville are the design icons of this product typology, their 1974 Snack’n’Sandwich Toaster became synonymous with the toasted sandwich. According to the Australian Food History Timeline, it was “snapped up by 10 per cent of Australian households in its first year on the market”. (In a classic story of getting the timing right [or wrong], apparently Thomas Edison invented a sandwich press in the 1920s, but it was discontinued in 1930.)

If we want to reduce the number of sandwich presses going to landfill, then it is essential to understand the sensory experience of melted cheese.

Notions such as the ‘fetish’ are often lazily and unhelpfully used to understand human investment in sensory and hedonic experiences. British literary scholar Steven Connor offers a welcome alternative with his concept of ‘senstance’, which I’ve written about in a number of academic articles that examine the relationship between food and the senses. According to Connor, a senstance is “a sensation made substantial, a substance so closely twinned with a sensation as to have become cosubstantial with it”. Like sexual perversions or fetishes—think latex, leather, honey, etc. and their relationship with the sensory medium of skin—senstances are intensely specific. Connor uses the example of ‘sliminess’ or visqueux, a repulsive senstance made famous by Jean Paul Sartre, who suggested embodied, human experience was to some extent exemplified by recoiling from sliminess or stickiness. Connor also lists “the brittle, the tenuous, the cool, the granular, the smooth, the matted” as ready-to-hand examples of senstances, a list to which I would like to presently add ‘the melty’.

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Cooking allows us to experience substances as material transformations. Through the application of heat, hard cheese becomes soft, hot and melty. Spreading pre-melted cheese on bread wouldn’t be the same—though I suspect, based on the continuing nostalgic appeal of Cotties Ice Magic, if there was a way for spreadable melty cheese to immediately become hot on application, then it might be a winner.

Making a sandwich in a sandwich press is among the most rudimentary ways to enjoy the sensory delight that comes from quasi-choate substances such as melted cheese. Fluffy bread becomes crisp and crusty, hard cheese becomes hot and gooey. We perhaps taste the difference all the more readily when we are the agents helping trigger the material transformations through cooking. 

Designing out the sandwich press

In our workshop, I started speculating about an alternative future where there were no sandwich presses going to landfill. One of the ways to reach such a future might be through designing sandwich presses that are easier to repair. Most sandwich presses don’t give the impression they can be opened up and pulled apart. The impression they give is of a complete, inviolable object, not a composite of modular parts that can be replaced or repaired. Perhaps if the screws were larger, or if the inside was visible, then people would be more likely to see if a part can be replaced, rather than throwing out the whole sandwich press? Maybe if repair shops were easier to access people would be more inclined to get their broken sandwich presses repaired rather than throwing them out?

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Photograph by Jessica Lea Dunn

These are all valid speculative propositions that warrant further exploration. However, I decided to focus on what it would take to prevent people thinking they needed to buy a sandwich press in the first place. My idea: a cooking show (which might include a youtube channel, a blog and a cookbook) and line of cooking products that encourage adaptive kitchen practices—in particular, I was thinking of a sandwich weight, similar to a fish weight, made from a sculpted limestone rock, although people could just use a stone mortar (I’m not sure how serious I am with sandwich weight idea, but it might be a good media piece).

A cursory internet search unearthed plenty of toasted sandwich connoisseurship. Many of the recipes suggest using a frying pan. The key disadvantage of the frying pan: unlike the sandwich press, there isn’t simultaneous heat from the top and the bottom (but just flip the sandwich over you lazy bugger). If you got a few celebrity chefs with decent profiles spruikng the advantages of the frying pan method and the sandwich weight product, then surely that would go some way to reducing the amount of resources that are wasted for the purpose of eating melted cheese?

(Hypothetical next steps: 1. an experiment with a cohort of sandwich press users to explore what happens when they change toastie making practices and adopt the frying pan method; 2. An analysis of operational energy to see whether the frying pan method actually saves energy in comparison to the sandwich press)

 

Our shared resources

research in process

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While a lot of our research and background reading is on-screen, our group maintains a shared resources shelf, for books, articles and reports, when we happen to have them in print. While the materials pictured here are not a comprehensive picture of all our reading material (it’s just what happens to be on the shelf today), we thought it might be fun to give a little insight into the background research practice that goes on here.