Event Summary: "In Repair: Towards a Post-Throwaway Society"
Post by Fabienne Rachmadiev | Photo's by Yegor Osipov-Gipsh
"What would society look like if we assigned a central role to repair? And what happens if we see repair as more than a quick fix? The symposium 'In Repair: Towards a Post-Throwaway Society' builds on recent studies of repair, which frame the concept in an emphatically broad context. Activities like mending, renovating, healing, rehabilitating, revitalizing, recovering, curing or hacking help us deal with problems in a social, sustainable, and resourceful way. During this evening we explore how repair thinking could set directions for a post-throwaway society. A society in which imperfection, broken systems, relations and objects are welcomed rather than shunned; a logic of breakdown bridges past, present and future; and even tax might shift from labour to natural resource use." - From the event’s description, 2017.
The 5th and 6th of October The Sublime Imperfections team joined powers with curator Joanna van der Zanden’s Repair Society, an initiative that questions and aims to counter the current consumerist and unsustainable society, for a symposium as well as a workshop at Amsterdam’s Spring House.
Central theme for these two days was the question of what society would look like if we would assign a central role to repair. Van der Zanden is initiator of The Repair Society. This collective strives for a truly sustainable society, in which objects are not discarded anymore, nor simply recycled, but instead given a new life and renewed use through repair, while embracing objects’ flaws and imperfections.
It is in this sense that the Sublime Imperfections project sought to engage academic thought on imperfection, uselessness and the role of these notions in a contemporary consumerist society, with everyday practices of repair that aim to alter the unsustainable modes of consumption.
The symposium, in a fully occupied room, was opened with a word of welcome by Sublime Imperfections project leader Prof. dr. Ellen Rutten, who also introduced the audience to Femke Groothuis’ Ex’Tax project, as Groothuis unfortunately could not make it herself.
Rutten noted that however promising a tool for social and environmental change repair may seem, and that the aim of the symposium would indeed be to consider repair as a productive notion, we should nevertheless not forget to take a critical stance as well, as the notion of repair is easily aestheticised and can be used as a token of a certain privileged lifestyle, as is witnessed, e.g., in the numerous ‘hipster’ stores and initiatives that propagate repair.
This was followed with a talk by Van der Zanden, who introduced the audience to the 2009 Repair Manifesto motto: to repair is better than to recycle. She shared considerations and insights such as how to counter the constant need for something new and the related notions of hacking, caring and mending, broadening repair to a concept with an altogether greater reach than one would think at first glance. Not only is repair the practical activity of restoring an object for further use instead of simply discarding the object, it also envisions a different stance towards the past, for caring for one’s environment, for mending ‘brokenness’, providing the whole with a vision of society based on care and consideration instead of acceleration and mindless hunger for the new and the improved.
Prof. Steven Jackson’s (coordinator of the NSF Repair, Maintenance, Sustainability research program at Cornell University) keynote lecture on the concept of ‘broken world thinking’, with which he proposes to shift or focus away from innovation and disruption to a ‘repair thinking’ in order to mend and restore infrastructures, shed light on how to effectively push for different forms of connections between humans and objects. After a short break the evening continued with a presentation by Sublime Imperfections research partner Yngvar Steinholt from Tromso University, on the many reparations his beloved old-timer underwent over the years, offering not only an entertaining story of a man and his car, but also reflections on the meaning of repair to the personal relation humans can have with objects, and also to what extent ‘sustainable’ new cars are in fact more sustainable than old-timers that keep on being repaired.
The evening was closed with remarks and questions by Sublime Imperfections PhD researcher Jakko Kemper followed by an insightful discussion with the audience and speakers. Issues such as the potential danger of regressive nostalgia in relation to repair thinking, but also resisting dystopian scenes of a globalised and depleted earth through the practice of repair were reflected upon by both academics and professionals from other fields.
On Friday the 6th a select group of people gathered for a hands-on ‘umbrella recovery’ workshop under the guidance of artist Julia Mandle, again at the Spring House. One of Mandle’s recent projects is to photograph abandoned and broken umbrellas, to collect them and subsequently repair or alter them. Before the group would start to ‘hack’ their own umbrellas, Mandle held an insightful presentation about her project and the time she spent learning to repair umbrellas in a small Parisian umbrella-reparation store.
Following the presentation, the participants could choose their own discarded umbrella from the ones Mandle had provided. Participants were asked to draw the umbrella and to write down thoughts regarding their object. Next, it was time for my own presentation on Walter Benjamin’s notion of redemptive repair and how to read his theory as a call for more activist approaches against capitalism’s empty time and consumerism.
During the lunch break, Mandle was interviewed by ASCA PhD researcher Nadia de Vries about her art-practice, that is defined mostly by a strong social engagement through projects that question our use of objects and modern technology. Afterwards, the group rounded up to present the results of the ‘hacked’ umbrellas to each other. The umbrellas were all in various degrees of decay and functionality and had now been made into ‘new’ objects.
Both the symposium and the workshop were well-attended and there seemed to be a good balance between theory and practice. That said, on a more critical note: it would have been good to also hear, for a more inclusive event, from e.g. a repair professional, be it a cobbler, a mechanic or a bike-repair specialist, or from activist’ or DIY collectives in the city that renew the use of abandoned spaces and often offer all kinds of repair practices to the surrounding community. In light of what was presented and discussed during the two ‘In Repair’ days, knowledge and experience of everyday repair practitioners would have been an invaluable component of both the symposium and workshop.
This might be something to keep in mind for future collaborations of this interdisciplinary nature. Another remark, looking back on the diverse talks and discussions, what seemed to be missing was a consideration of the difference between a materialist and a consumerist approach to objects and it would ground the notion of repair in a more broad theoretical and historical discourse in addition to the hands-on approach the notion was dealt with now.
The importance of thinking on repair practices in relation to notions of imperfection, however, was clearly manifested during the two discussion-laden days.
Both the symposium and workshop were made possible by the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (University of Amsterdam), Spring House and Repair Society.