Closing the circuit: Thinker-Maker residency at Substation 33

Pamela See

17 June 2021

The artwork produced for the Thinker-Maker residency included this beetle collecting e-waste 3d printed in both resin and recycled plastic.

Pamela See reports on her Thinker-Maker residency with Substation 33 where our recent technological past is repurposed for a better future.

In early 2021, I undertook my Thinker-Maker residency at Substation 33, in the City of Logan. Located between the Gold Coast and Brisbane, it is the fifth-largest local government by population in Queensland. It also ranks significantly lower in the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas than its neighbours. Substation 33 was established in 2013 as a social enterprise, designed to provide training and employment pathways through the recycling of e-waste. Water testing buoys, flood warning signs and 3d printers are amongst the electronic goods. During the 2019-2020 financial year, the not-for-profit organisation also gave purpose to over five hundred “local people experiencing complex barriers” to employment including 53 who were in the youth justice system, 331 who were working for the dole and a further 131 unspecified volunteers.

A Three Century Cycle of Cultural Imperialism to Social Enterprise

Regular readers may recognise the recurrence of social enterprise as a topic in “Garland Magazine”. In 2018, Ann Fuata wrote about the Maya Traditions Foundation in Guatemala. In 2017, Kabul and Samantha Tio also wrote about their social enterprise, the Schizofriends Art Movement, in Indonesia. In 2016, the editor of this publication, Kevin Murray, wrote about a number of indigenous art centres in North Queensland including Girringun Art Centre, Yalanji Arts and the Yarrabah Arts Centre. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the increase of applications of art and craft as social enterprise was related to the burgeoning of post-colonialism. Social enterprises are characterised by their pursuit of local community benefit. They are participatory in nature, often with democratic yet limited profit distribution. Arts and craft-based social enterprises also serve to develop the identities of the individual participants and proliferate the identity of their cultural groups.

It is the prioritising of autonomy that primarily sets social enterprises apart from their precursors, the missions. In the twenty-first century, the Yarrabah Arts Centre celebrates indigenous culture through a number of practices including basketry. At the turn of the twentieth-century, in The Church of England Mission, the residents also engaged in a version of the craft alongside carpentry. According to Reverend Ernest Richard Bulmer Gribble, who managed the mission between 1893-1909, instilling the notions of “a fixed home” and regular employment was fundamental to conversion.

The German Moravian Church played an integral role in modernising the textile industry in Ladakh. Although the missionaries had arrived in India a century earlier, during the last decade of the nineteenth-century European techniques and equipment were introduced. It commenced with the female converts learning to knit and read the German Bible. This would evolve into the importation of English Fly Shuttle Looms to weave blankets. During the mid-twentieth century, this mission also introduced carpet weaving on vertical looms. However, indigenous inhabitants of the region had their own textile traditions dating back to the twelfth century. They were both diverse and complex, with engendered use of techniques, materials and equipment. Up until the intervention of the missionaries, many of the people were nomadic and women were prohibited to use treadle looms. The legacy of this mission includes the cooperatives: the Women of Ladakh that was established in 1991 and the Looms of Ladakh that was established in 2016. Both social enterprises sustain employment for the Himalayan women and internationally export their handcrafts.

The Division and Revision Between Craft and Manufacturing from the Neolithic Era to Now

Substation 33 similarly exports manufactured items and was instigated by the Christian Brothers of the City of Logan organisation Youth and Family Services. PowerWells are amongst the products, which provide solar electricity to remote communities in Indonesia. The processes aided by the volunteers include the dismantling of e-waste, the testing of salvaged components and the 3d printing of parts. However, in this post-colonial era, Substation 33 and its affiliates are careful not to extend the product transfer into the promotion of overt European Christian values.

Manufacturing could be interpreted as the repetitive processing of materials into products through the use of labour. By this definition, it emerged during the Neolithic Era and encompasses the craft-based production of spearheads, ceramics and textiles. In accordance with the theories of Karl Marx, modern manufacturing is typically associated with the sixteenth-century division of labour. During the Industrial Revolution, mechanisation resulted in: (i) the separation of designing and making, (ii) the deskilling of labour, and (iii) the modulation of manufacturing processes. Scholar and independent curator, Associate Professor Anna Fariello, posited that this manufacturing is epitomised by the morphological separation between “hand” or “manu” and  “to make” or “factura”. The latter is the root word for “factory”. During the nineteenth-century, the social and cultural responses to these technological developments included the Luddite Rebellion in England and Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and North America.

Although Substation 33 is not an identity-based social enterprise, it does foster a sense of purpose and autonomy amongst its volunteers. Some regulars arrive at the centre at 6:30am in the morning to convalesce whilst participating in a diversity of recycling and manufacturing activities.

Substation 33 defines itself as a “maker-orientated” social enterprise. During the twenty-first century, “makers” engage in the independent production of objects without specialist skills. In 2012, journalist Chris Andersen specified that the development of a range of desktop technologies catalysed a “New Industrial Revolution”. This equipment includes computer numerical control (CNC) machines, laser cutters and 3d printers. Also referred to as “additive manufacturing”, 3d printing has evolved into a method of direct manufacturing. The method can negate the requirement for complex sets of equipment and skills that are undertaken in different geographic locations.

The credibility of Anderson’s proposition is reliant on the technology enabling a reconvergence of the roles of designer and fabricator or, arguably, its historical equivalent of a craftsperson. The appropriateness of the latter term depends upon whether mechanical or digital methods of fabrication and craft are considered mutually exclusive. Andersen’s “desktop factories” do require a level of skill to facilitate. For example, the 3d printing of the battery housing for the PowerWells required the creation of files using computer-aided design (CAD), the calibration of the Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) printer and the removal of support material from the final print.

The Re-inventing of Identities

Although Substation 33 is not an identity-based social enterprise, it does foster a sense of purpose and autonomy amongst its volunteers. Some regulars arrive at the centre at 6:30am in the morning to convalesce whilst participating in a diversity of recycling and manufacturing activities. A majority of volunteers engage in dismantling, salvaging and testing. Some participate in digital fabrication processes, such as lasercutting and 3d printing. A selection of volunteers assists in creating circuit boards.

A small number of volunteers also assist in creating circuit boards for prototypes.

Dan, a young man in his mid-twenties, volunteers at the centre daily and his role primarily involves CAD and 3d printing. Aside from his training at Substation 33, he has not received instruction in using the technologies. He downloads and modifies open source files to create parts for the centre. In between his formal duties, Dan has been recreating paraphernalia from the science fiction franchise Predator. His process involves both modifying open source stereolithography (stl) or object (obj) files and meticulously replicating merchandise from promotional images using CAD. Over the past two years, he has been creating a full-size costume to match his own proportions. The undertaking demonstrates comprehensive skills in digital modelling and 3d printing.

The primary attribute of this fictional extra-terrestrial character he is drawn to is honour. This 3d printing of cosplay could be viewed as reflexive for the survivor of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum disorder. Using the medium as a process of reification is popular amongst science fiction aficionados. It enables them to transcend fiction through the creation of physical manifestations of objects that might otherwise only exist in virtual space.

Whilst waiting for the 3d printers to fabricate parts, Dan often models movie paraphernalia from promotional images.

The Resident Creatives

In addition to Dan, during 2021 there are two other creatives that work at Substation 33 including an illustrator named Kathleen and a visual artist named Beck. During my Thinker-Maker residency, I created an installation The End and The Beginning of All Things. It is composed of 3d prints modelled on e-waste collected from the centre. These parts were printed out using a fuse deposition modelling (FDM) printer, with recycled polylactic acid (PLA). They were juxtaposed with a resin printed beetle, which is depicted collecting the objects for repurposing. The vignette was designed to emphasise the environmental sustainability of the social enterprise. The beetle, which is also a symbol for eternity, is an autobiographical reference.

This exercise was extended to the volunteers that frequent Substation 33 including Matthew, who attends with a carer from an external service. In additive manufacturing, 3d printed objects are typically referred to as “parts”. Subsequently, I assisted the participants to create parts symbolic of what part, or role, they felt they contributed, or aspire to contribute, to the community. All participants were offered the options of: (a) drawings, (b) modelling using polymer clay or (3) modelling using CAD. Like many of the volunteers, Matthew did not wish to commit a lot of time to this creative exercise. They prefered to take the opportunity to contribute towards the social enterprise through dismantling donated electrical goods. Most have barriers to regular forms of employment. Subsequently, they thoroughly enjoy the identity of being a worker for the duration of their visits.

Reflective of this, Matthew drew a symbolic portrait of himself as a tree. Matthew used to be a gardener for a resort. He has always been a stalwart worker. This solid reliability is reflected in his tree, which has a very thick trunk and a full set of leaves.

Some of the volunteers at Substation 33 took a break from dismantling e-waste to participate in drawing, clay modelling or 3d modelling.

By contrast, Roy was one of the younger volunteers at Substation 33. The recent graduate of an Information Technology and Business degree at the Queensland University of Technology contributes technical and administrative skills to the social enterprise. Roy modelled his own sphere using Tinkercad, to represent his holistic approach to life.

In between, Zak is at Substation 33 as part of the Australian Government Work for The Dole initiative. The former butcher and concreter is recovering from a significant injury to his left hand. The car enthusiast is considering a new career direction, reflected in his representation of a sedan. In addition to drawing the design in pencil, he assisted in the 3d modelling process.

Concluding with a Display for World Environment Day 2021

The Thinker-Maker residency provided an opportunity to investigate the complex relationships between craft, manufacturing and social enterprise. Whilst Substation 33 is best known for its life-changing products exported to South-East Asia, this project focused on its lesser-known function of assisting local residents with barriers to employment to rebuild their livelihoods. The value of this service was evident in the enthusiasm of the volunteers from a diversity of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

Although the subsidiary of the Youth and Family Services, an organisation with a Christian background, avoids the explicit transference of aesthetics and values, their ethos of  “building independence and participation” is implicit through the support offered to volunteers, which ranges from the provision of food, safety and purpose. Embracing the identity of a worker is one of the most attractive elements for the volunteers, many of which experience barriers to formal employment. It was a great privilege to extend upon this process with some of the volunteers, through engaging them in a reflexive maker activity.

An array of the artworks produced by the volunteers and staff is displayed in the foyer of the Logan Central Library for World Environment Day 2021. These were accompanied by a showcase of products manufactured by the social enterprise.

The 3d prints produced during the Thinker-Maker residency are on display at Logan Central Library until 1 July 2021.

Further Reading

Ahmed, Monisha. 2018. “Women and Weaving in Ladakh: Missionary Interventions and the Making of a Craft Tradition.” Review of Development and Change 23 (2):19-38.

Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. 1st ed. New York: Crown Business.

Burkett, Ingrid, Joanne McNeill and Matthew Allen. 2020. Substation33 Impact Report 2020. Brisbane: The Yunus Centre, Griffith University.

Buszek, Maria Elena. 2011. Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eynaud, Philippe, Jean-Louis Laville, Luciane Lucas dos Santos, Swati Banerjee, Flor Avelino and Lars Hulgård (Eds.). 2019. Theory of Social Enterprise and Pluralism: Social Movements, Solidarity Economy, and the Global South. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

Fariello, Anna. 2011. “Making and Naming: The Lexicon of Studio Craft.” In Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, edited by Marina Elena Buszek, 23 – 42. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fuata, Ann. 2018. “A Semiotic Thread: Maya Traditions Foundation’s Textiles Tour in Guatemala.” Garland Magazine. 31 May, 2018. Accessed 18 March, 2021.

Hoskins, Stephen. 2018. 3D Printing for Artists, Designers and Makers. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Loomba, Ania. 2005. Colonialism/postcolonialism. Vol. 2nd ed. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge.

Loos, Noel A. 1975. “A Conflict of Faiths: Aboriginal Reaction to the First Missionaries in North Queensland.” Lectures on North Queensland History. Second series. Townsville: James Cook University.

Luckman, Susan, and Nicola Thomas. 2018. Craft Economies. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Marx, Karl, Samuel Moore, Edward Bibbins Aveling, Friedrich Engels, and Dona Torr. 1946. Capital [Vol. 1]: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. London: Allen and Unwin.

Murray, Kevin. 2016. “Fragile Threads: Baskets Reborn in North Queensland.” Garland Magazine. 21 September, 2016. Accessed 18 March, 2021.

Ruskin, John. 1859. The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art, and Its Application to Decoration and Manufacture, Delivered in 1858-9. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1996. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution : Lessons for the Computer Age. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Teo, Kabul and Samantha. 2017. “We Are All Leaves on a Tree: Ketemu.” Garland Magazine. 13 September, 2017. Accessed 18 March, 2021.

About Pamela See

Pamela See (Xue Mei-Ling) has a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from Griffith University and a Master of Business, majoring in public relations, from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). In addition to regularly contributing to Garland Magazine, she has also written articles for M/C Journal, Art Education Australia and 716 Craft Design. Her research interests include: craft, post-digitalism, Asian art, public art and participatory art.

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