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Disobedient Electronics: Protest – the revolution will run on a microcontroller

A follow-up to the influential 2012 booklet series Critical Making, Disobedient Electronics: Protest is a new zine by Vancouver-based theorist and educator Garnet Hertz that uses dissent as a lens to survey electronics-based projects and practices. An editorial mandate forged the day the world woke up with a ‘Donald Trump, was elected?’ hangover, Hertz introduces the 60-page book as a demonstration of how electronics can be used to foreground pressing social issues including “the wage gap, homophobia, racism, surveillance and privacy, human rights, economic disparity, and climate change.” Drawing on material submitted to an open call, the zine collates two-page submissions from approximately two dozen designers from North America, Europe, and Asia.

↑ Sartorial protest (Jen Liu & Camille Baumann-Jaeger), kinetic firearm sculptures (Scott Kiddall), a clock that signals the gender pay gap (Jaime Carreiro of PARTY), and a morning-after pill drone delivery service (Women on Waves & collaborators) – Disobedient Electronics’s provocations come in all shapes and sizes

True to DIY- zine form, Disobedient Electronics is a pastiche of approaches and aesthetics – some document works that already exist, others sketch out ideas for projects – it’s fluid. Making a bellowing opening statement, the first featured project is Abortion Drones, an (ongoing) action by the Women on Waves reproductive rights activists that uses drones to deliver morning-after pills to women in countries where abortion is illegal. Elsewhere Pedro G.C. Olivera and Xuedi Chen share an emergency personal router and blackbox device from their Backslash line of activist accessories, Annina Rüst is sharp in framing her A Piece of the Pie Chart robotic pie(chart) assembly line (that demarcates the gender gap in technical fields), Julian Oliver’s Transparency Grenade is ready to be tossed into some shady board meeting; each of the participating artists and researchers communicates their project (and practice) quite differently, and the range of voices is both refreshing and illuminating.

Working through the zine with a fine-tooth comb reveals some curiosities. A few of the contributions by American artists are, well, decidedly American and focus on the ubiquity of firearms and military casualties. The latter cause is taken up in Improvised Empathic Device (I.E.D.) by Matt Kenyon and Doug Easterly, it’s a wearable that drew blood every time an American serviceman’s death in Iraq was announced; ‘support our troops’ and all, but the documentation reads as if the project is indifferent to the imperialism that led to those deaths in the first place. Digging around online I was quite relieved to find Keynon also conceived a companion piece to memorialize the hundred thousand plus civilian casualties, but it’s kind of hard to take I.E.D. seriously (outside America) in a social-justice-meets-electronics compendium without that information. There are other regional issues to speak of, Naomi Wu coyly made Blinkini to protest the complete lack of women makers at Shenzen Maker Faire 2016, but that appears to be the only project that speaks to/of Asia, really – which feels like a missed opportunity given the importance of that continent for global consumer electronics manufacturing.

↑ All hail RoboticGraffitiWriter: it took twenty years but the world finally caught up with the Institute for Applied Autonomy

Those asterisks aside, this collection of works is clearly trying to ‘put up a flag’ for others to organize around – it is presumably up to the reader to respond to issues close to their heart and resist through design; ideally this zine will inspire dozens of studios within media art and interaction design programs worldwide. Beyond promoting a more polemical approach to electronics the craft in Disobedient Electronics is commendable, many of these works are exhibition-worthy in their execution (projects like Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch’s Knitted Radio would be right at home here on CAN). This is noteworthy given the ‘look, I made a shoddy thing’ boosterism that is prominent in the maker community – Hertz continues to rally against, problematize, and provide alternatives to that populist mindset. Disobedient Electronics is fast, cheap, out of control, and ephemeral – just like the medium it focuses on. It’s also scarce, sadly only 300 copies were printed and they are all distributed, hopefully PDFs will become available in the future in order to grow the audience (and impact). Six years ago Paola Antonelli and the MoMA said “talk to me”, now Hertz and collaborators smartly respond “think before you speak, and make sure you have something to say when you do.”

Project Page | Garnet Hertz

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