Student Blog Post: First year students are required to author a blog post in response to their Techno Lab 2 class. In Spring 2017, we were in Oakland, CA and Andrew Oesch submitted this post about The Caning Shop. For Fall 2017, first year students learned weaving in El Salvador. As they work on their blog posts, we have decided to share some examples of these student writings.


A Pre-Makerspace Makerspace: The Caning Shop

An eclectic store models an important ethos for creative commons in the commercial landscape.

Photo by Megan Driving Hawk

A Ukrainian egg-crafting lathe, danish seat cord, long handled gourd scrapers, split round reed, hooked spline chisels, a strap-on gord whistle for carrier pigeons… these are a scant few examples of the curious tools, materials, and artifacts on view at The Caning Shop . Located at 926 Gilman Street in Berkeley California, this specialty supplier offers classes, repairs chair seats, and sells an array of both materials and books for chair restoration, basketry, gourd work, egg painting, and a selection of other niche crafts. On the exterior wall of this nondescript cinder block building, a hand-painted sign points from the main street to the entrance at the rear corner. Upon entering one’s eyes are greeted with overwhelming stacks of books, chairs, and materials. The types of things piled everywhere evoke the delights so well articulated by Charles Eames, in his lecture “Goods . Raw materials abound, delightfully perfect in their unaltered states.

The shop lacks the boundaries one is accustomed to in a typical store. The shop opens into the work space with a library of books blending between the shopping and working areas, these hybrid zones flows into the office/hallway that leads to the bathroom, which doubles as a mini-museum. As a customer, one may feel slightly uncertain about whether one is is behind or in front of the counter… and perhaps one may wonder whether if this distinction even matters. The method of spatial organization is not the typical logic of commercial display, nor is it a strict taxonomy of functional categories. The shelves read as an evolutionary bricolage of stuff, stacks upon stacks fitted together over time. Everything is ordered in an improvised spatial efficiency, guided by the question: how much more can be fit into the limited amount of space which remains between the things which have already accumulated. The lines between resource library, museum, shop, and workshop are indistinguishable; this is emphasized by being welcomed into the store by Jim Widess, the owner, who promotes deeper exploration of the shop’s collection by actively pulling out more things to examine. And in the cramped space, he communicates no pressure to hurry up in making a purchase or a departure, his welcome communicates that revealing in wonder is encouraged.

In contrast to the ethereal ooze of digital techy-ness that dominates the urban centers of the San Francisco bay area, The Caning Shop is all tactile materiality. Tools are for human hands and materials are made to contact human bodies. This handcraft “materiality” may be out of step with the contemporary moment of augmented reality and digital communications technology, but the store is perhaps more akin to it’s surrounding economy and culture than is first apparent. It too is obsessed with technology, just not the digital kind. The kinship that The Caning Shop has with tech culture comes in another form as well. Visible in the shop’s bookshelves laden with how-to manuals and categorized components, is an ethos which evokes the Maker Movement.

Swept forward in the never ending American romance with technological wonder, the Maker Movement is a cultural phenomena which claims the word “maker” in a way that seemingly erases all previous precedents of making within social spaces. The movement claim is an optimistic proposal, in which the “Maker” is able to access technology which was previously prohibitively expensive, and in so accessing they can tinker and experiment with a community of like minded individuals. But, in this scope of “making” implied by makerspaces, you don’t go to hand knit a thing, you go there and find a machine or robot, which you program to knit a thing. The type of making which goes on in makerspaces is mostly tied into the digital realms of rapid-prototyping technology. One can read the intended optimism of this type of making in in Make Magazine. Also visible in the article defining the term makerspace, most notable in the photo of the group working around the table, is the sometimes limited actuality of who is a “maker” in makerspaces (there are organizations actively trying to expand this limited scope, like Hack the Hood).

While makerspaces imply a very limited scope of what “making” is (and who may or may not be a maker), there are elements in the underlying structure of these spaces which contribute to communities of practice which have a broader scope of making. Much of the maker movement aligns itself with constructivist pedagogy, grounding makerspaces in learning which is based on knowledge acquisition through experience, as opposed to the empty vessel models of education which deliver content in the expectation of performance and eventual mastery. Complementing the constructivist model of development are the notions of Tinkering and Hacking, which are fundamental elements in the ethos of makerspaces. These experimental mindsets are tied up in a foundational notion of collaborative authorship which differentiates digital media from other creative practices. This foundation can be found in the story of Linux and the GNU Free Software community. The Free Software Movement (in Richard Stallman’s words “…think of ‘free speech,’ not ‘free beer.’”) promotes a practice of open access to all written code, which in turn invites contributions of modifications and refinements back into a coding commons. Everyone can, and should, appropriate and utilize other people’s coding ideas; this approach to copying is about play, and contrasts more constraining notions of authorship which stress originality (a mythology embedded in many other creative practices.) The complex interior architecture of coding and computers necessitates building upon the ideas of others. Through copying, modifying, refining and sharing, a community of coders is able to use and test everyone’s ideas, thus making the ideas more robust. By no means is this idealistic notion the prevailing attitude within the tech industry, as attested to by a constant stream of IP lawsuits. But this notion of building upon the infrastructure created by others is a fundamental moral quandary within computing, and the spectre of problematic proprietary approaches is embedded in the origin story of GNU.

In the mythos of GNU, there is an important kernel about the joy and play that happens within community; it stresses the importance of how a group of individuals can dynamically contribute to a creative community of practice. If we look at The Caning Shop through this lens we see the shop embodies this value of human knowledge in a couple of key ways. Readily visible through the shop’s open architecture is the labor of repair, and hence we can immediately see human knowledge of craft in action. When walking in seated amongst the stacks of components and chairs is someone working, quite visible but not on display in some contrived performance. Unperturbed by people passing around them, the repairmen is open to answering questions about what they are doing. This public making enacts craft as practice which is porous and communal, not secretive and individualistic.

The second way in which accrued human knowledge circulates can be found in the shelves laden with books. Many of these books are authored by Jim Widess, the store’s owner, a human who is standing right there in the shop. He has interviewed and documented numerous practitioners; his curiosity and excitement for the material at the Caning Shop comes across as he curates the shop for visitors. He models that the shop is a space of discourse and inquiry, a place to talk about the material and making. The openness expressed by Jim as he shares his deeply researched material knowledge and intimate connections to makers is inclusionary and committed to the transmission of practices.

Photo by Rory Sparks

A final and serendipitous note about how creative practices are propagated through community is also present at The Caning Shop. Just on the other side of the wall from the gourds, split ash, and egg painting kistkas, is another space layered with creative community residue – 924 Gilman, an anchor punk space of the last 3 decades in Berkeley. An address search of 924 Gilman in google street view returns the same non-descript building exterior of The Caning Shop, and hanging above the 924 door is a sign directing you around the corner to the The Caning Shop’s entrance at 926… Gilman Street is anti-commercial to say the least. Only the stickers and graffiti layered upon the trashcans and windows begin to provide signifiers of what is inside. It is not the spaces practices of advertising which provides a final tangent worth naming, rather it is the way in which those who come to Gilman Street display the exuberance of the amature. The punk space’s ethos provides a tenuous connection between the optimism of makerspaces and Jim Widess’s open sharing with anyone who walks through the door. Gilman Street models not caring about doing things the right way, and perhaps actively attempting to approach craft incorrectly… and most importantly anyone can participate. This last sentence is perhaps an overstatement, since in many ways punk is formulaic and internally self replicating, but the intention of open possibility remains in its mythology. All three spaces attempt to display that the bar for entry is low and making is possible for everyone.