Draft of paper given at TDHI Digital Humanities Week 2019 at Duke University. This is a work in progress; attribute appropriately.
Title: A Repo of one’s own: crafting repositories as sites of publication
Author: Helen J Burgess
Affiliation: NC State University
This paper started with the question: “can one publish a thing?” Which is something I’ve been thinking about for a good long while as both a publisher and as a writer and producer of transmedia objects. By transmedia, I’m specifically talking about projects with a physical component: for example Arduino based computing, critical making projects, electronic installation artworks, classroom based activity kits and the like. I’m going to posit as a starting point that yes, in fact one can “publish a thing,” and that the process of publishing a thing says a lot about the relative thinness of our current understanding of publishing in a digital era. As a rhetorician, my own orientation tends naturally toward process, and it’s in this sense that I’ve found practices borrowed from two very different spaces, software development, and textile handcrafting, to be compelling models for thinking about digital delivery. In particular, I’m interested in the potential of the repository, not just as a means of building and collaborating on a project, but also as a metaphor for understanding how we work with transmedia objects, and how we might consider publishing them.
Anyone who’s worked on a DH project has probably worked with this interface at some point (Github). The GIT system is a somewhat non-intuitive but definitely useful version control technology that facilitates collaboration on a project with multiple developers, as well as subsequent sharing and documentation of that project. The first time, though, that I really understood the possibilities of such a platform was looking at Jentery Sayers’ “kits for cultural history” series at UVic, which used Github as a means for sharing a downloadable, reproducible set of files that build an object: in this case, laser cutting and 3d printer files that can be used to assemble a box containing the ingredients to create a battery operated Victorian stickpin. This project is conceptualized in a couple of different ways: one, as a fluxkit, i.e. a piece of art containing instructions for assembly, often circulated in the mail and by other means. And second, as an exercise in critical making – the prototyping of objects as a way of thinking about ideas. But really what it is, is a site for the composition and publication of objects.
A second site of repository for me is a much more domestic one: the craft room or hobby space. Crafting is an interesting practice: often prescribed in the early stages by kits, patterns and the like, wherein one reproduces someone else’s design, over time the crafter branches out to create their own work. But even if stitching from a kit or knitting or crocheting from a pattern, there are many degrees of freedom, what we’d call “play,” in the implementation of those patterns. A useful term here might be topoi – Aristotle’s “spaces” or loci, from which common resources are taken for the production of argumentation. Similarly, there are topoi for producing crafted objects, whether digital or handmade: knitting patterns, code snippets, “forks” from other projects, etc. These commonplaces are taken, re-contextualized, and re-embodied to create a new transmedia object.
When I pass through my craft room, I see many repositories, organized either by project or by material. Here’s my “fiber box,” for example. Over time, as I’ve come to build physical computing projects with crafted elements, I’ve found myself building “repository boxes” for each project, containing all the items that were involved in its composition. Somehow, for me, the work does not feel “complete” until it’s been housed in a permanent container, both as an online repository and a physical one. In either case (the online version control system or the crafter’s room), the emphasis is not just on storage but on process: what Aristotle called dunamis: the potential for change in a thing, and the enactment of that change. I see both of physical and digital repositories as sites of potential publication: spaces where items for thinking can be recreated from common topoi.
So, here’s my model for thinking about repositories both as a metaphor and model for transmedia publishing: spaces that both disseminate commonplace topoi for recreation, and place varying emphases on process as a crucial and visible part of publishing.
First, the digital repository. Similar to Sayers’ work, this is a version controlled, collaborative repository for containing three subcategories of materials:
- Raw files that allow for the copying and dissemination of the object. This could include downloadable code for running physical computing components, 3d printer files, specialist software and other dependencies necessary to recreate the object. The “ingredients.”
- Instructions for reassembly: tutorials, equipment lists, walkthroughs, wiring charts. The “recipe.”
- Documentation of an “executed” object in one or more particular instantiations: photographs, sound/video recordings, etc. of the item, paying attention to possible different contexts: gallery space, performance, classroom assembly.
For example, this is the Github repo for Intimate Fields, a project I recently completed with colleague Maggie Simon that forks the laser cut schematic of Sayers’ original Victorian “box” and fills it with new items, exploring rings, embroidery and near field technologies.
Second, there’s the physical repository. AKA Github, but In My House. A container for the object itself in both executed and unexecuted form. Included items could include:
- A complete, assembled gallery/exhibition/performance copy of the work in question: the finished version of the object itself. (I prefer the term “archival copy” in the sense of something that a special collections archive might source)
- A container with all the physical items needed to assemble the object
- Items used during the display or performance of the object (e.g. display tags, exhibit posters, transcripts using during presentation or performance.
One might object that, unlike the digital repository, this is not a “publication” space for the simple reason that it’s not a copy. But as we all know, we live in a consumer culture where things are eminently “copyable” – just hit the one-click button. All the ingredients in my projects are easily sourced online, and in that sense, they are already “published” – just not yet assembled.
As an example, I’ve brought in the repository box for a project I started this semester on silkworms, so you can see what’s currently in it. The project was built with a paper in mind that I gave last Saturday at NC State. The repo box includes a first-round draft of a “finished product” as well as other crafted objects that were used in the presentation of that work. All these items are sourced from either online electronics distributors or fiber art suppliers. So even though the project is physically unique, it’s eminently repeatable. My next step will be to document that work and prepare instructions for repeating it, and place it in a Github repo.
Third, there’s the Ancillary writings repo. – what we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of as the exclusive site of publication. These are often the only pieces in a project that will “count” as publications for the purpose of tenure & promotion, unless one is in an art department, in which case they are ancillary to the physical instantiation. Items include:
- Published conference paper proceedings
- Gallery catalogs attesting to the ethos of the work in a public, juried exhibition or performance
- Written articles, which may contain a combination of description of the project, process narrative, or critical commentary, depending on the nature of the publication.
These three repositories – digital, physical, and written – are all potential sites of “publication,” whether that be formulated as a process of copying and disseminating, or exhibiting and presenting. But there’s also a fourth. Let’s consider what often gets overlooked in the process of producing and documenting a physical computing project: the repository of waste. The dimension of waste is compelling precisely because it is a testament to the cost of the potential for change. It’s what gets left behind, or discarded, or forgotten, in the process of enacting dunamis. It’s the oubliette of transmedia work. Here, for example, are three “waste items” from my silkworm project:
- Unused code. Some is commented out; some is left in as variables that are declared but never put to use. I guess we could call this “bitwaste.”
- Lilypad boards that turned out to be unsuitable for the project. They are being returned to Sparkfun Electronics for a refund. They will eventually be resold, but even their production in the first place is hugely wasteful of resources: notably water and energy in both the manufacturing and transportation sectors.
- Silk “throwsters waste” – a double waste in that it’s both a byproduct of the silk production process, and that it was an unused part of a box of materials I purchased. In this particular case, that double waste is also double recycling: first, throwsters waste is often used by fiber artists, crafters and hobbyists for various other purposes (which is why it was in the box in the first place); and second, that I repurposed it by using it as packaging to return the Lilypad boards in the mail.
Version controlled software repositories inevitably contain waste, in the form of commented deprecated code, outdated unit tests, and the like. In that sense, they are much more faithful documenters of process than finished written articles will ever be, and that is part of my reason for thinking that the repository model should shape how we think about what it means to publish. For as long as we insist on the “finished product” – be that a print article or an online video – as the only form of publishing, we’re failing to account for the dynamism of creative process, and hiding all the false starts, roads not taken, and other components that are integral to the enterprise of scholarly activity.