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Interview: Curators of the A+D Gallery's "Pass It On" DIY Exhibit

By Matt Wood in Miscellaneous on Mar 9, 2007 4:00PM

chicagoist_200703_diy1.jpgWhile Chicagoist's experience with DIY is limited to half-heartedly assembling a desk from Sears, we are regular and enthusiastic supporters of the Chicago DIY scene — whether it's spending wads of cash on zines at Quimby's Bookstore or heading to the DIY Trunk Show to buy those screenprinted onesies with the smartass slogans for our pregnant friends.

Columbia College's A+D Gallery has developed its own salute to all things DIY with the exhibit "Pass It On: Connecting Contemporary Do-It-Yourself Culture," which runs until April 14. Many of the craft installations — a messenger bag made of old floppy disks, a paper record player, and a remote control car fashioned into a floor sweeper, to name just a few — are displayed with printed how-to instructions for visitors to take home and recreate the crafts themselves. It's an inspired tribute to off-the-wall creativity, like an issue of Ready Made magazine in 3-D.

In the front, a wall of mounted video iPods feature interviews with national and local DIYers, including Quimby's owners Lisa Mason and Logan Bay and indie craft collective DEPART-ment. The center of the gallery space features a timeline of DIY history — from artisan craftmaking to the punk scene to independent film — displayed by postcards that the public can add its own entries to, sort of a low-tech Wikipedia article.

Chicagoist spoke with the curators of "Pass It On," Anne Dorothee Boehme (Curator of Special Collections School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Lindsay Bosch (Independent Curator, Art Institute of Chicago), and Kevin Henry (Associate Professor of Design, Columbia College), a few days before the opening of the exhibit to talk about the 10-month process of developing the show and their plans to compile an interactive history of the DIY movement.

Chicagoist: How did the concept for an exhibit on DIY come about, particularly the "pass it on" element and the idea of including how-to instructions?

Anne Dorothee Boehme: For me personally it was just about being oversaturated with art shows that highlighted one individual artist's voice. We just wanted to use the space for something different, something that invigorates people, so they could come in and say "hey, I could do that" or "I know something I can share." It's not just centered around one person.

Lindsay Bosch: The concept of "passing it on" really evolved throughout conversations about what the show could be, and throughout interviews with all these professionals, people who were in journalism, zinemaking, crafts, people who are on the technology side of things, and other people who were in the activism realm. We were looking for some way to unite all of these ideas and tie them together, and that's where the "pass it on" idea came from, because [the participants] have all have this desire to not only do it themselves, but then to give of that work, but to show others not only the work itself, but how it's done.

Kevin Henry: We started this out very much as a DIY activity in itself; we didn't go in saying, "we know exactly what we want to do." We started off by saying "well, we don't really know what DIY entails." So [we decided that] by interviewing people, they were going to teach us what we need to know. But then central themes started to pop out, like using instruction sets to describe the DIY process. I think if you were to ask us when we sat down for that first meeting, if we knew how the show was going to look, who was going to be in it, I would say "absolutely not." It was a big learning experience for us. It's not really an art show, but an idea show, coming from the average everyday person and their desire to create things, share things.

chicagoist_200703_diy2.jpgC: There's a pretty big DIY scene in Chicago; did you tap into that to identify the people you use for the installations?

LB: The show was pretty much entirely curated, we didn't do a juried call for submissions.

KH: We set up a website, as a call for submissions. We were trying to do things as virally as possible, through handouts and sending out [e-mails], then we set up this website so that we could direct people to it.

LB: Yeah, we did get a few international people that kind of found us — it was actually kind of interesting working it into the show — we got a great handmade sewing machine, a girl who wanted to examine not just the process of making clothes, but the tools to make the clothing, and it came out wonderfully.

KH: We had another woman who documented the process of actually taking thread, dyeing it indigo, weaving it into cloth, cutting the cloth and turning it into work clothes and she documented the entire thing. Part of [her goal], of course, to say to people "hey, you're buying a pair of jeans for 20 bucks, but someone is making these jeans for .50 an hour."

C: I know that there's a big online element to this exhibit. What kind of role do you think technology and the internet play in developing DIY culture, especially with open-source software and blogging, with people really being able to share and to collaborate with each other?

LB: I was really interested in the idea of "why now?" Why does everything seem to be coalescing with technology and DIY culture right now? I looked at a few different instances of online collaboration, in which people are creating work, and they're putting up instructions. [But] the richness and the breadth of activity really comes from feedback, from people putting information out there and having other people say, "This is how you can do it better, this is how I improved it." So you not only get individual projects, but this chain reaction, where one project is continually altered by the community. I think that there's always been DIY; part of our whole show is this timeline, trying to trace back the history of DIY.

KH: Part of DIY is figuring it out how to do things yourself, but another part of it is having the tools to do it, so when you look at the kinds of things that people are putting up on Flickr, or, or sharing images saying "here's how we made this." It's just that now technology has really made it so much easier to share, and I think as humans, we really love to share. If there's one thing we really want people to get out of this show, it's the idea that sharing across all of these different disciplines, whether it's crafting, zinemaking, political activism, or whatever. It's still part of a human need to say "here, figure this out" or "do you want to make this better," as opposed to "hey, this idea is mine, and nobody else can have it."

C: Speaking of collaboration, how was the process of working on this project together, particularly with developing the timeline, compiling and documenting all of this information together from your different perspectives?

AB: [The project] was a real challenge for us, we come from totally different backgrounds. There was heated discussion about what is, or what isn't DIY. Trying to nail it down—

LB: Particularly in developing the timeline, it's so broad, we had to cast that net very wide. There was a challenge for all of us ... in terms of defining what would be included, what is and isn't DIY, asking a lot of difficult questions.

KH: We noticed that there were a lot of gaps in the timeline, a lot of pieces that are not showing up. We've got punk [represented] but not a lot of hip-hop. We don't have house music. There's a lot of [instances] where we've reached out to people [for contributions], and they don't really get what we're trying to document, they say "I just do this, it's not DIY." We've got some people, such as a citizen journalist saying, "this is how I do what I do, but I can't necessarily tell you how to do it." We have an independent filmmaker, who didn't tell us exactly how he [made his film], but he did tell us "here are the hurdles I had to get over, these are the mechanisms in place to help me do it." But there's a lot of groups that aren't really represented. That's why we hope that this starts a dialogue where people will come to the exhibit and say "hey, that's what I do, I do DIY," and contribute to the timeline.

chicagoist_200703_diy3.jpgC: It's funny that you mention house music, because so much of the early house scene in Chicago was very similar to punk, with people making posters for shows and music and clothes of the time. What they were doing was totally DIY, but no one defined it as that back then, and that scene hasn't really been documented much.

AB: We went to the Center for Black Music Research [at Columbia College] and talked to them, and we were surprised that we couldn't get our hands on much documented material, especially in Chicago.

KH: There's a scarcity of printed stuff on house music, it seems like nobody has it; what little we could find, the Center for Black Music has it. It's almost like whole swatches of culture were so underground, they don't ever really get documented.

AB: That's why with the timeline we're developing, we want to encourage people to add to it, on the website as well as the physical installation, people can add their suggestions.

KH: Because with this, too, we don't want to say "hey, we're the authors of this," we're saying we've cobbled a bunch of stuff together to start a dialogue. While we've gone in and done a bunch of historical research to kind of identify this really broad circle of DIY, we also want to say [to visitors], anybody who wants to go in and add something to the timeline or connect it to someone else, you're free to do it.

Interview by Keidra Chaney.