“For me maker culture really is about the culture of critical making, breaking things open and looking at how they work as well as creating and re-purposing things and making them more useful in new and creative ways.”
Stephen Kovats is a Canadian cultural and media studies scholar with a background in architecture and urban studies. From 2007-2011 he was artistic director of transmediale. In 2012 he founded the transnational non-profit organisation r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation. UPTEC had the chance to meet Stephen and provide MAX project with his insights.
Can you introduce yourself? Have you been working as an independent and/or are you involved in cultural/maker organisations?
Stephen Kovats: My name is Stephen Kovats, I am a Canadian living in Berlin. My educational background is in architecture and urbanism, but I always had a strong interest in what we call media space in terms of how technology affects our built and social environment. That’s the scenario I have been working within for about the past 30 years.
Earlier in my work I was doing a lot of projects with architecture and design students in forms of exploring space and how to manipulate it. I spent most of the 90s in post-unification Eastern Germany. There I was interested in the whole process of transformation of Central and Eastern Europe and how technology affects our perception of culture and society. That’s kind of the framing that I have. Within that I have been particularly interested in working either as a practitioner, curator, programmer or project coordinator around hacktivist, hands-on, DIY community technology projects and scenarios that include peacebuilding and media literacy. These are my primary interests connecting me to a critical maker culture.
My work has always been non-commercial, and as such I’m not a fan of the commodification of things like maker culture. I am a proponent of open source and open technologies as well as open educational resources. I have directed some very large international festivals that look at these themes. I’ve also worked on urban planning projects in Africa where issues of space, culture, society and politics come together. About six years ago a small group of us ‘open tech’ types formed this small non-profit company here in Berlin – the r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation. The name of the company pretty well sums up what it is about. Our main focus therein is on post-conflict transformation. This includes countries and regions which are undergoing heavy duty transformation issues, trying to create stability and independence for its citizens. Our open culture/tech approach is very much orientated towards individuals and groups who are looking for ways on how to empower themselves or creating economic, political or cultural independence. We have been working in South Sudan and neighboring regions for a number of years already, and we now have programs also in Cameroon focused on the anglophone/francophone crisis in that country. Furthermore, we have a project in Ethiopia and collaborate with organizations on similar themes in other countries. The kinds of projects we develop tend to take two tracks – which sometimes intersect. One track is looking at media literacy skills in particular in fighting online incitement to violence. That’s a program track under the theme of #defyhatenow.
The second track is more hands-on open tech and access to information focused, in terms of supporting young innovators, and the development of community-based media and maker-oriented hubs. This includes, for example the #ASKnet (Access to Skills and Knowledge network) program running right now in South-Sudan and Uganda, with similar ideas being developed in Pakistan and elsewhere. Through #ASKnet maker type initiatives, programs and projects have been developed which are basically dealing with situations where you have little or no access to electricity, nor internet and a low infrastructure in general …. often combined with difficult political or administrative environments. Together with the community of young makers that we have been working with for some years now, such as Platform Africa, a South Sudanese refugee run #ASKnet member hub in Norther Uganda, we developed a system called #ASKotec (Access to Skills and Knowledge open tech emergency case). It is a portable kind of maker lab in itself, orientated to learning about topics like simple electronics, solar power, mechanical systems, repair-culture and basic IT, with many common resources we usually take for granted but are not necessarily easy to find and access in the field or in remote locations. Our target is how to maximize situations with extreme minimal resources.
How would you define “maker culture”?
Stephen Kovats: For me maker culture really is about the culture of critical making. It is also about fixing things, to be efficient with your resources, about circular economy, low waste, upcycling rather than just recycling, repair culture, hacktivism in it’s positive sense, breaking things open and looking at how they work as well as creating and re-purposing things and making them more useful in new and creative ways.
Have you participated in mobility programs in the past? What were your experiences?
Stephen Kovats: I’ve helped institute, co-develop and have participated in quite a number of mobility programs, in terms of mobility of people. #ASKotec is about the practical mobility of maker culture itself, but one of the things that we are interested in is having people and organizations interacting, cross-pollinating ideas. This leads us to trying to find the kinds of great scenarios in which we have young innovators, artists, journalists, techies, photographers hosted in other environments in order to create this sense of learning exchange and see that cross pollination of ideas and experience.
Way back in the early 90s I worked a lot with artists and media practitioners from Eastern and Central Europe while being based in Eastern Germany … a kind of ‘transit space’ between East and West at the time, where facilitating the exchange of cultural practitioners was important for the social unification of the continent. Together with an organisation called the Werkleitz Gesellschaft we initiated a program called EMARE (European Media Artists Residence Exchange program). It saw artists from one country being hosted in organizations of another country to produce new works of art, with a primary goal being to foster East/West exchange. The project is still running today … 25 years later, but with a broader pan-European scope, not necessarily strictly East/West.
In the work I do with r0g_agency, we also have similar goals or targets, but with interests in seeing more South/South or Africa/Asia exchanges. Networks we are part of such as GIG (Global Innovation Gathering) help support such exchanges, while specific programmes, such as the SSMLab (South South Media Lab Collaboration) by our partner icebauhaus e.V. actively enable this key part of what we do as the exchange of ideas, experience and residency in a cross-cultural way.
Some of the key output of our projects, whether #defyhatenow, the Migrant Media Network or #ASKnet only exist in a hard copy world as we often are looking at online culture but in offline environments. Extracted from the SSMLab Collaboration we created the CAMP (Critical Artistic and Media Practice) Folio of 16 ‘anonymous’ practices. That means that we looked at 16 SSMLab participants and host organisations and focused on what drives them to do what they do and how do they describe their practice. It wasn’t a biography of 16 individuals but 16 critical and artistic methodologies which then lead to mobility and how mobility supports that kind of practice.
But there are important issues like the carbon footprint of such exchanges. We are very much against people flying intercontinentally to drop in for a 20min lecture somewhere. In that sense we are happy about Covid-19 forcing us to deal with this and learning how to to do things more effectively online.
“However, when we do these exchanges, and people are allowed to travel again, then we want to see people embedded in a cultural context for a longer period of time. So, when they come home they really bring something new into their community to share. I think that has great value.”
Which form(s) of exchange did you prefer when you participated in mobility programs in Europe or abroad: workshop, symposium, training, residency?
Stephen Kovats: Those that gave the space to share great ideas! (laughs) Allowing people to explore things they maybe wouldn’t explore in their home base and giving them the opportunity to look at things through different lenses. A lot of the scenarios we work with are peacebuilding scenarios. This type of work does help to foster peace and stability as well as economic self-sufficiency. It opens doors and allows processes to happen which may otherwise be closed. It is basically active networking of people and organizations beyond just the abstract email or a two-day conference.
What are mobility programs currently lacking to better develop maker culture and practices?
Stephen Kovats: I suppose there is never enough money to do it properly. It is often difficult to convince organizations or funders about this kind of thing. In other cases, programs might be very restrictive. For example, there are a lot of opportunities to fund post-graduate students to get a scholarship for studying. In Germany you have the DAAD program for example.
We work with a lot of young people who are brilliant but maybe do not even have a formal high school education. They are blocked out of any of these kinds of scholarship scenarios because they do not have the right paperwork on undergraduate degree. We think there is a place out in that funding world to look at these people as well. With the opportunity to study they may become the anchor of stability in their home communities. In our work we have those issues, especially in the cases of refugees and victims of dangerous migration and all that. The more we do to strengthen the position of individuals in their home communities, the better they can equip themselves with the knowledge tools to act locally, and the more we are able work against dangerous and irregular migration, as just one of many examples.
Do you see loopholes in mobility schemes regarding maker practices and culture?
Stephen Kovats: Sometimes it is hard to know about the individual maker/organization in different local contexts at the beginning. Sometimes expectations are extremely high and when those expectations are not met, there might be disappointment. However, that’s more of a rare phenomenon. The vast majority of mobility /networking schemes I have been involved with have been completely satisfactory in the end and I want to be able to do more! The limiting factors are time and money. It does take a lot of organization and research into things that are often logistically complex and bureaucratic (e.g., dealing with visas). Often funds become available to allow somebody to go somewhere, but the back-end work that we have to do to make this happen is often massive (laughs).
Enabling complicated mobility would help us. But we don’t take “no” as an answer! We have never, ever failed in enabling anybody going from A to B under any circumstances. It is almost always an extreme amount of work though, that doesn’t usually get paid.
What does mobility mean during these pandemic times? Should we continue to invest in this field? Given our travel restrictions, how can we continue to develop and strengthen our networks, if we can’t meet in person?
Stephen Kovats: Of course, we hope that this pandemic is an anomaly but in our work we actually often deal with such extreme situations … pandemic is also a form of conflict situation. This was the first time that something like this has touched us in Europe. In a certain sense it has a positive side, as it makes us as Europeans realize that we are just the same as anybody elsewhere on the planet. No one is, excuse me for using the word, “immune”, to these kinds of things happening. We have seen Ebola in Africa and other extremely horrendous things in other places – and have been lucky for the most part to have been spared. When this happens though, and our mobility is affected, it gives us the opportunity to test the knowledge sharing systems that we talk about and work on all the time when we are mobile. Being restricted in mobility we have to put all our theory into practice.
“This is the ultimate test for the kind of knowledge sharing and access to skills and information work that we do. This is the content of the work. Mobility is, let’s say, the vehicle of interaction for that.”
For now, we have suspended all intercontinental and inter-regional travel in our work. We are not exchanging people until it is safe enough to do so. Even if it is legally or technically possible for a person to move from one place to another right now, we refuse. We don’t want the virus to spread! We have to turn the situation inside out and have a look at the other extreme: How can we put what we’ve learned into different forms of mobility that allow us to stay home. Getting better at secure communications, sharing information and without allowing governments or agents of conflict to access your information come into focus, so learning about and practicing data privacy and personal digital security in conflict situations all take on new meaning.
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