Collaboration. I've always found it a difficult concept. I once had a colleague laugh out loud at me when I told her that I believed in 'collaboration without compromise' (otherwise known as being controlling). We both found it funny, but I stick to the catchphrase, believing that somehow it is possible, and that one day I will know how to do it. And I know that collaboration is a sticky area for many other people in the co-working studio environment too. How do you work together on a commission, for example? How do you decide who takes the reins? Who gets the credit? How do you share a workshop and protect your intellectual property? I think the feeling of vulnerability that comes when you are in a creative process with nothing concrete to show for yourself, no way of knowing that what you are envisioning will work and won't fail dramatically, and nothing that is solidly yours, is something we are each wrestling with in our individual way.
I used to think that all I had to do (like a classic hermit artist) was to shut myself up somewhere and have good ideas. Other people were all a bit too complicated. I thought if I kept private, put my head down and wished hard enough, somehow the universe would move in to support me - and it has often seemed to do so. But lately, after struggling with some pretty intractable problems (finding the right space for our next location, for example), it became apparent to me that actually, I need help. And I need help from my peers.
So, a month ago I swallowed my pride and called in at Building BloQs, the great big makerspace for all disciplines (wood, metal, plastics and textiles etc) up in Enfield, which has just been given a ginormous building to expand into, and funding to the tune of a whopping £2.8 million. After growing more slowly than Turning Earth, causing me to fret about them quite a bit over the last couple of years (all the way up there near the Angel Road IKEA and worryingly much off the beaten track), suddenly it appeared that the folks up there knew something I didn't.
Building BloQs was founded at very much the same time as us, by a very old friend of mine, Arnaud Nichols, and several of his buddies. Arnaud is part of a small group of friends I had as a twenty odd year old who were all committed to a vision of radical change in society. We'd spent several summers together working in a nude sauna and cafe, 'Lost Horizon', that some of our friends set up, and which is still going strong in the Green Fields at Glastonbury Festival, among other places. Arnaud and I had also put on our own festival, one equinox, in a field in the Chilterns. We'd always shared a common vision, dreaming even then about creating an alternative economic system, which is something we are both now practically engaged in. It kind of feels as if we were born under the same star.
About three years ago, I'd just moved back from America, and Arnaud and I were both running fledgling makerspaces. His, a big empty space with very few people in it, and mine, only a Facebook following and an incomplete lease negotiation. I went to meet him one evening in his freezing cold and echoing warehouse and he made the first iteration of the logo for Turning Earth. His guys were struggling with a name for what they were doing, and he showed me the 3D model they'd made for the space, a bunch of wooden blocks, representing bloqs where people would build in different materials. "Easy", I said. "It's here already: Building Blocks." And so there you have it: Building BloQs. We are deeply in each other's debt.
Walking back into Building BloQs - now the largest and one of the best equipped maker spaces in London, with massive funding and huge support - I was reminded of that collaboration. And I realised that Arnaud's collaborative skills (he is one of a group of four equal co-founders, and has always worked with a large democratic team) have paid dividends. Doing things the collaborative way, through a series of committees, can be slow at first, but it builds a foundation of community and diverse skills that create both resilience in hard times and opportunities to create better times. And it shows. The place is beautiful now. And the new place they build will be more of the same - a great light space for creative innovation, filled with people who are passionate about their shared vision, emblematised in the building itself. Building BloQs. Like Turning Earth, it's not really a brand, it's a movement. And it's the same movement.
Al Parra, Arnaud's right hand man and another Building BloQs co-founder, sat down with me, and as is always the case with the BloQs team, very generously shared his insight into forging relationships with our local council, among other tips on networking. I shared some perspectives on marketing and how to build on social media, which we are doing very successfully at Turning Earth. We both left the meeting inspired about what to do next.
Which brings me to what this blog is really about. The thing that Al was most keen to introduce me to while he had me in the BloQs Cafe, (did I tell you they have a cafe there, where they serve delicious and affordable food?) was Open Workshops London (OWL), an initiative he has been part of since its inception, and which launched officially, along with a website (openworkshopnetwork.com) in April last year. Liz Corbin, one of its co-founders, happened to be sitting in the BloQs cafe, along with some guy from the local Chamber of Commerce and a bunch of other useful people I should really probably know. It turned out she had been sending me emails for a year, which I had not been receiving. She'd been running under the radar of Turning Earth, although we were very much on hers.
Liz and her team have created something amazing. They have created the first incarnation of an infrastructure that I believe will eventually join the forty odd maker-spaces in London together. Recognising that we are operating as part of an emergent movement, they have been holding monthly meet ups for the founders and managers of these makerspaces, so that we can get together and do more of what Arnaud and Al and I have naturally been doing since we started: supporting each other. The network has created strong supportive relationships between spaces that might previously have seen each other as competition. Through participation in the networking meetings, the managers at Building Bloqs and the nearby Blackhorse Workshops, for example, have seen that they serve a common purpose by meeting the needs of slightly different people. They now refer users to each other.
There are very obvious benefits that come from people working in the same field getting together, cooperating and sharing ideas. And it appears that this is what the makerspace movement does, in its essence. Yes, in a co-work studio it can feel risky, because all of your designs and visual ideas are exposed at a vulnerable stage to a wider community. It involves a lot of trust. But the benefits are immense: in a co-work ceramics studio you have access to cheaper rates, more glazes and clay bodies, and a lot of help and support from other makers. Your own ideas are stimulated. And what's more, you have the friendship of other people that you see every day who share the same interests, and concerns, and the same common problems. You very naturally move to support one another. For a sole-trader craftsman, which can often be a bit of a lonely deal, this kind of company is special. People vie to participate in symposiums for just these benefits.
What Open Workshops London (OWL) will do is going to deepen and add to this, in a way that I am only just beginning to wrap my head around. What Liz has started is to bring founders of the various co-work studios across London together to form a series of working groups that will create strategies for collaboration between the studios, and perhaps more importantly, to create a framework for collaboration between the makers that use the studios. One of the first ideas being explored is to design a common currency that we can use. This would eventually make it possible for a ceramicist at Turning Earth to make, for example, tiles, in exchange for credits at Building BloQs, which they can then use to pay a woodworker there to fabricate them a work table. The woodworker may then be able to use these credits at another open studio in London to buy - say - a piece of glass art to go in the back of a chair he's making. The possibilities are endless. And London is just the starting point. After OWL is established in London, the Open Workshop Network plans to grow to cover all the open-access workshops in the country.
For now, you can use the Open Workshops Network map to find open workshops that might help you when you are doing a mixed media project. We are also planning a meet up in the Autumn, which will allow users of makerspaces across the capital to come together and share their ideas and concerns.
And what will we get from this? A community of makers that reaches out far beyond the walls of Turning Earth, to all the other makerspaces in the city. One day perhaps a common currency. A collective voice that will enable us to get more powerful representation when negotiating contracts with our councils and other stakeholders. All the benefits of collectivisation and collaboration. For years I have found the concept of collaboration as challenging as I thought it could be rewarding. Now I can see that something important is developing in this sphere. The human species has been competing for resources for too long. The makerspace movement can start seeding social change by demonstrating the possibilities that emerge when we put our most courageous face forward, and look for our common interests. When we learn to trust the people who we might naturally see as competitors then something new can emerge, that can benefit us all.
Collaboration. It's the future. Watch this space:
Open Workshop Network