“Opening up through meeting and exchange is the essence of what we could call “makerism”
Thierry M’Baye, founder of the m.e.u.h/Lab (machines électroniques à usages humanistes), musician, artist and community facilitator for makers and social entrepreneurs in Roubaix, France and Belgium, met with Makery and gave his thoughts on maker culture and mobility.
Makery : Can you introduce yourself? Have you been working independently or are you involved in cultural/maker organizations?
Thierry M’Baye: I studied economics, management and social sciences in university. Soon I became interested in electronic music, punk and underground cultures, I organized independent parties, I hosted radio shows… That was my culture at the time. Do it yourself without being an expert. I worked for five years at Spiritek, an association founded by electronic music fans, on the model of TechnoPlus : preventing the use of synthetic drugs in a festival environment. I already had the idea of collaborating directly with the target audience, building something collectively, linked to popular education. Coming from academia, I took a few slaps that brought me back down to earth—I learned to approach the social aspect of a culture, not as a sub-culture, but as a rich culture that should be expressed by its own protagonists, by the ones who are making it.
As a musician myself, I have always been interested in the history of musical instruments. Making your own instruments when you can’t afford to buy them has always been a reality, for example in rock during the 1960s. In electronic music, I found this same DIY open source approach. I often refer to the monome, an open source grid controller (Monome is a project of music instruments making started in 2005 by Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, editor’s note). It was the field of music, and European FSE funding, that led me to create m.e.u.h/Lab ten years ago. I had already met Chtinux, an association of open software users. I was employed by Chtinux for two years through this FSE fund. It allowed us to research new ways of doing things, in both practice and policy. I was formed very young by the homemaking magazine Modes & Travaux, and building things at home, not only to save money, but in order to express creativity and ingenuity. I wanted to reassert the value of this unclassified, suppressed, misunderstood knowledge—and use it as a tool to mediate empowerment. When we talk about creative communities or creative industries, for me it’s like kidnapping this creative capacity that is present in everyone. The difference is in how we maintain, encourage and accompany it. This was the basis of this European project: a new way of creating.
Later I met Mains d’Œuvres (an arts organization in northern Paris, editor’s note), and interned for a few months at CRAS (Centre de Ressources Art Sensitif, editor’s note). They had developed an educational program with participatory and solidary approaches using open tools, and the desire to link it all to everyday life. The school had an excellent philosophy. I also met Ping in Nantes, in a workshop by Fing with Julien Bellanger and Fabien Echeyne, 2011.There were many different actors in what was yet to be called the maker movement: the Petits débrouillards, social centers, universities, open collectives and others. Everyone came together around building objects, the desire to come up with a different economic model, different utilities and final distributions.
Since 2010, I have been a maker. I created spaces without a place. I had a place in the shared offices of an art gallery in Roubaix. I wanted to make the link to citizens through popular education, introduce new practices, new perspectives on social and cultural actions, by reappropriating the tools for their production. I organized workshops for young people to project themselves in professions, to be passionate about what they’re doing, to have the tools to do it. I wanted to open up this world of possibilities beyond certain socio-professional categories, to integrate it into everyday life. I knew I had to step in, especially in schools. It all clicked when I read an article by Sabine Blanc in Owni, on « Hacking schools ». She described ways to enrich educational approaches with open source tools that emancipate students. I left my staff position at ChtiNux for a semi-independent status at coopérative Grands Ensemble, a social cooperative to develop entrepreneurship and employment. I offered workshops, consulting, school programs, etc.
I helped set up Lille Makers, along with many other spaces, alternative spaces, co-working spaces, etc. I’m involved with several collectives of people who are invested in the notion of commons, who are trying to raise awareness of these issues so that they become popular, debated, part of everyday life, and not a means of gentrification.
I evolved along with my actions—I organized workshops, but I also participated in them myself. Making music led me to coding, etc. I learned by doing. I am both the subject and the object of my own practice!
A few years ago I helped set up Parcelle Créative, an artistic and cultural fablab within La Condition Publique in Roubaix. Parcelle Créative is kind of a hack! It’s an institution inspired by the dynamics of (neo-)labs… I took their word for it. There was a whole community of actors on site, all very different, a dream community for an alternative space. The challenge was to create a space for exchange around developing concrete actions, activities, funding, to create a hybrid project in which we, advocates, could confront our ambitions with the realities of an institution, its legal and accounting operations, etc. There were associations and collectives that were more agile, with different timeframes and different energy. How could we create a popular digital tinkering space within a cultural institution? This space is located in a poor neighborhood of Roubaix, it’s perceived as a “bobo” [bourgeois-bohemian] space. I know this neighborhood well, I lived there, I saw it emerge. The relationship between the space and the neighborhood is a bit difficult… So this hackerspace, or fablab, that we wanted to create couldn’t be reserved for the infamous “creative community” of engineers, architects, etc., who don’t necessarily live in Roubaix. The challenge was to make it a space for mixing, for meeting, a link between the collectives. Meetings to organize actions at Condition Publique involving various actors—collectives, social centers, public education officials, etc.—occasionally swelled into touchy discussions between committed collectives and the institutions… Today, the fablab exists, it’s operational, it can be appropriated. But I’m not there anymore, I’ve moved on to nurturing all kinds of entrepreneurial projects.
How would you describe your activity as a “maker”? And how would you define “maker culture”?
Thierry M’Baye: For me, it’s about countercultures. Countercultures can be deployed in various ways. It’s related to popular culture, to DIY culture, to hacking culture: taking an object and reappropriating or multiplying its functions, expanding its uses… One week after Microsoft’s Kinect was released, there was a thread on digital art forums with the subject “Let the hack begin”. The idea was to disassociate this infrared sensor from the X-Box and use it elsewhere for other things. There is also the philosophy of the hacker ethic. The first book that I received from the members of Chtinux was Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. This was significant, it referred to certain countercultural philosophies. How we give ourselves permission to imagine… That’s what I commonly call “maker”. It also involves new media technologies, such as 3D printing, open hardware. Passions were revealed when technologies became accessible, such as with Arduino. For me, Arduino can touch all the sectors… This desire to open up the uses of an object to its end-users is like a kitchen recipe. This doesn’t cancel out restaurants or bakeries. But you can also bake cakes yourself, and take pleasure in doing so without any pressure of being economically viable. Its value lies in its social link, its social utility.
Have you participated in mobility programs in the past? What were your experiences?
Thierry M’Baye: In northern France, Flanders, Lille and across the border, there are many exchanges in this field between France and Belgium. I did an Erasmus exchange as a student. I moved around in Europe, Liège and Maastricht. As an artist, I went to London, Germany, Netherlands, Italy… At Spiritek, I worked in Belgian night clubs and techno raves. We worked with associations from Brussels and Mons for an Interreg program. Naturally, I met Belgian artists and makers.
Which form(s) of exchange did you prefer when you participated in mobility programs in Europe or abroad: workshop, symposium, training, residency?
Thierry M’Baye: All of the above. I did them all. I remember a festival in the Netherlands in 2012, on open source hardware, with workshops, talks, parties, people coming from very different worlds and countries. I met Ronen Kadushin, an Israeli designer who had done his thesis on open source hardware. He gave several workshops on design and open source. He made open source furniture, using tools in fablabs. Whether it’s through lectures or practical exchanges, I believe that this is the only way we can enrich ourselves. Otherwise we remain in a sterile bubble. Opening up through meeting and exchange is the essence of what we could call “makerism”.
What are mobility programs currently lacking to better develop maker culture and practices?
Thierry M’Baye: There is a lack of consideration for the connectors, people who link things together. At the beginning, I thought of my activity as “I do everything—workshops, talks, projects—with the aim of social innovation, technological innovation and popular education”. Then I decided to simplify, so I defined myself as an artist who connects practices and communities, who ensures that knowledge circulates and produces services or objects. I defined this “job” of connector, who makes the link with socio-cultural and economic actions, who goes back and forth between actors and institutions, or between collectives. I was personally in that situation. All this work involving meetings and travel (mobility), was pretty much self-financed from my own income. Then when you come back, you need to share your experience. The time that this takes is not or hardly taken into account. I see this as a real weakness.
There are also silos, with artists on one side and makers on the other. Generations, esthetics, ethics and sometimes resentment become obstacles to openness and sharing. I’m always thinking about the social mixing aspect, in the sociological sense, the profiles and backgrounds of people who have access to these spaces. I believe that it’s important. We saw the maker movement get involved in fighting the Covid crisis on a large scale and on a voluntary basis. At that time we saw true circulation and cooperation, born out of limitation and necessity. Must we wait for these external and extreme limitations and necessities before there can be dialogues and co-productions? Mobility must also take place on an intellectual level.
What would be your dream mobility program for makers? Would you prioritize travel, meetings, access to technology or network-building?
Thierry M’Baye: We need to think about deployment with the actors, rather than offering readymade solutions.
“We need to co-build an “Erasmus for makers” that extends beyond those who have degrees, financial security, the audacity or just the courage to get moving by themselves, as well as those who have cold feet or lack confidence.“
We need to support a form of equity. We mustn’t think of it as yet another centralized institution or administrative mammoth, this discourages potential actors. We could think about “territories” and “inter-territories”, for example with local “parliaments”. I’ve noticed that there is often a problem of equity in European projects.
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? Why it is important (or not)?
Thierry M’Baye: I have been impacted by this Covid period. It has been a long philosophical, ethical, internal debate. I work in the maker movement, I have access to 3D printers, am I going to spend X hours, X money making face shields? As an artist, I asked myself other questions: What do I do during this time, when I have the possibility of expressing my art remotely? I made music. I didn’t print objects. For me, something was broken: the sense of touch. In terms of mobility, if we move it’s to meet other human beings, to touch other materials, other beings, other sensibilities. So physically, it traumatized me as a musician. The notion of the engaged body, the musician’s body, even if I use electronic instruments, is a fundamental notion. As is the question of human-machine interface, how we interact with objects. No-contact is very troubling to me. It is so important to be able to touch objects in my practice as a maker. And in my artistic practice, it is twice as important, because I’m working on how to invest a kind of sensuality in objects that can be cold, how we can lend them some life, from an animistic perspective. So the pandemic put a cage over all these questions of touch and relationship to others. It had an enormous impact on maker spaces, which are social spaces, which emerged precisely out of a need to get offline, out of the fourms, into real life. What’s happening is unspeakably violent; our relationship with mobility is extremely disrupted by this violence. I don’t know how we can avoid or adapt to the effects of this non-mobility in the long run. I don’t have a solution, I’m searching. I’m hindered and touched.
The fablab at La Condition Publique, Roubaix, France.