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Article categories: Issue 74
June 30th, 2010

In this interview with Douglas Repetto from dorkbot’s mothership New York City (NYC), we learn how they achieve sustainability through flexibility and compare this perspective to the newly formed Perth chapter who are taking a more commercial approach.

Dorkbot NYC _3D

Daniel Iglesia: live audio-video performance systems in 3D at a dorkbot NYC Meeting

Q: Please describe dorkbot-NYC’s mode of operating? What makes it successful?
dorkbot-NYC is very informal. It happens on the first Wednesday of the month from September to May. People contact me and volunteer to give presentations, or sometimes I reach out and ask someone if they’d like to participate. There’s no fixed format or requirements, it’s just sharing what you’re doing with a room full of people. I think that flexibility and inclusiveness are a bit part of what makes it successful. That said each dorkbot is different and the outcome is simply to have more meetings…

Q: What was the inspiration to begin ‘dorkbot’?
I moved to NYC and didn’t know anyone but knew that there were lots of interesting weirdos around doing strange things and I wanted to know them and see what they were doing and share what I was doing. So it was completely selfish and practical. I didn’t imagine it would go global.

Q: How many members do you have?
There’s no sense of being a member. It’s more like going to a public talk. Some people come to all of them and really get involved, while others come only once. Some have given multiple presentations over the years others present once and disappear.

In terms of global dorkbot, there are probably about 20 that are reasonably active at a given time. There are something like 60 on the website, but many of those are dormant or never really got going.

Q: What are the goals of dorkbot?
Simply to share interesting things that people are working on in whatever way makes sense in a given city/town. There’s no higher-level strategy or master plan. No rules, codes, etc. Informally of course, people have developed some idea of what dorkbot is. But that’s been organic.

Q: How sustainable is the group? What do you have in place to ensure sustainability?
We’ve been going 10 years now. Many dorkbots have blipped in and out of existence a few times as organisers get tired, bored, etc. But in bigger cities there is usually someone else with the energy to keep it going. If a dorkbot folds we don’t do anything to try to keep it going. It has to come from the local community. There are lots of places with other groups like dorkbot that fulfill similar roles, so I don’t see any need to try to force a dorkbot presence. The goal is just to get people sharing creative work, dorkbot or no dorkbot.

Q: What lessons have you learnt in regards to ensuring the sustainability of the group?
It takes a lot of energy to produce even one informal event a month especially on no budget (as most dorkbots do). So the best way to sustain is to share the load, not get too caught up in ownership, etc. As I mentioned above, there’s really no broader concern for sustainability at all. We quite consciously try to not sustain things that have outlived their usefulness or don’t have the needed support from a local community. There’s no sense of institutional self-preservation, that’s counter to what we’re trying to do.

Q: What is the best model for continuing the group’s work/practice?
Just to keep encouraging people to get involved, reinvent dorkbot, do things that are locally relevant. Keeping it inclusive, open to all and focusing on positive creativity rather than success or press or the like.

Q: Do you have Government or Industry funding?
Not globally or in NYC. Other groups have gotten various sorts of funding from town councils, state support, etc.

Q: Are there any gaps in this support?
It’s all gaps!

Q: How do you perceive the group to be an influencer of a broader sustainable world?
Our primary goal is to encourage everyday creativity and sharing of ideas and work. Hopefully that makes a positive contribution! Although dorkbot looks like an organisation from the outside, the reality is that there is very little in terms of structure, organisation, planning, rules and memberships etc. It’s really just people who decide that they like the name/ethos and they take it where they will…

Q: So dorkbot is all about creating a space where individuals can share their creativity with all things ‘plugged in’? As opposed to providing a space where the creation actually happens?
It depends on the city. Generally in the larger cities it’s mostly about people sharing their work. In some of the smaller cities it’s more about people getting together and working on things. Sometimes it’s a bunch of people doing their own projects, other times it’s projects that the group comes up with. It really depends on the local scene. In NYC there are lots of people already working on things together, so there’s more of a need to share projects. In smaller places people can feel more isolated, so it’s nice to be able to sit down with other people and actually do some work together.

Q: Would you say that dorkbots exist to encourage creativity for its own sake?
Yes, I think of dorkbot as mostly a service to creative people. It can be really difficult to find a friendly, informal place to share what you’re doing. Lots of people go to school for something creative and like the environment of sharing, brainstorming etc. But they find that when they leave and get a job, etc, that there’s really not much opportunity for sharing your work, especially if it’s creative work not related to your “real job.”

Q: You have said that success is not a critical factor – are you not against groups seeking funding to ensure continuation?
It’s really up to each local group to figure out what works best for them. In NYC I’ve been fortunate enough to have people who want to help, so everything is just volunteers and donated space/equipment. In other cities if that’s not been possible, they’ve applied for grants and what not. So it’s really not about taking a position for/against funding, it’s more that funding is not a prerequisite – if it helps people share their work, then it’s great! Otherwise funding can end up being an albatross.

Q: Would you say the strength of the structure comes from the lack of structure itself?
It’s certainly what gives us the flexibility to be very inclusive. Low expectations, no pressure for “growth” or any sort of benchmarks for success other than people being interested and participating. Because we don’t have any high-level funding, we don’t really answer to anyone other than ourselves and the people who participate. We’ve been invited to apply for prizes and things a few times, but after global conversations have declined because it’s not clear what it would even mean for “dorkbot” as a whole to be awarded something, especially cash.

Q: Do you find that participants favor open source (as opposed to proprietary) modes of operating?
That’s probably a trend, although it’s by no means a rule. Just the fact that people volunteer to share their work usually means they’re willing to share it in a broader sense than just showing slides on a screen. But plenty of people have presented proprietary projects, software, commercial hardware platforms, etc. That’s not a problem at all. In some cities there’s more of an open source activism element, but that’s a local choice.

The startup – dorkbot Perth/WA

Australia’s newest Dorkbot chapter is taking a slightly different approach by seeking commercial support from local corporate and private industry. Julian Stadon is at the helm of the movement, and shares his perspective here with us:

Q: How long has Dorkbot Perth been operating?
We have only been around for six months or so, although it seems like years already! We have had about 30 or so meetings thus far, with five presentation meetings (three artists show work for 30 minutes to an hour at each of these, usually followed by a discussion on related concepts/specific topics). We have just began the workshop program with the first commencing this month.

Q: What is your meeting format?
The meetings have just been moved to a central city location to increase how many members (usually ten -40) attend the monthly presentations. We are also currently organising a grass roots festival in December in a VERY public format to give us as much exposure to local business as possible.

Q: How many members do you have?
We have canvassed quite well, having just over 170 members on our records. Our members do have quite transient involvement in our goings on with different people appearing at every meeting.

Q: What are the outcomes and goals of the group?
I think that flexibility in this terrain is essential, particularly in regards to the bigger picture of what Dorkbot is endeavoring to do for the Perth electronic media community. This goal is the main focus above any successes or profits for me.

Filling the hole that currently exists in WA media arts and electronic creative practice (with regards to beginners and grass roots projects through to privately funded high end research and practices) is why I started Perth Dorkbot and why I spend the limited free time I have building it.

I aim to establish Dorkbot Perth as an organisation that is very community orientated in its decisions, as I feel that doing this addresses the issue of longevity. The amount of interest shown has been encouraging in regards to this.

Q: What are your plans for commercial viability through private industry links?
We have established commercial viability intent where we plan to seek private industry funding rather than government initiatives. The goal is to address the ‘non artist’ label many of our members give themselves and also is in response to our lack of suitability for funding according to most arts funding guidelines.

We seem to be a suspect fit in a lot of categories for government funding and as such are endeavoring to establish partnerships from research organisations along with from the private sector in order to increase the opportunities made available through participation in Dorkbot presentations and planned festivals.

Q: Which industries are you planning to target? What is the benefit for them?
I am currently trying to get businesses involved that can benefit on a number of levels. Here are some examples the relationships and discussions we are encouraging;

1. Businesses that benefit directly from involvement and sponsorship such as electronics retail/wholesalers, such as electronic specific or electrical goods stores.
2. Businesses whose support is good for their profile but not necessarily directly related. These include food and beverage sponsorship, venues where meetings/screenings/workshops are held and organisations that are willing to affiliate themselves with us (be it arts organisations, institutions, research centre’s – anyone who is in a position to and are willing to collaborate on our programs).
3. Peer groups such as other collective organisations in Perth. The benefit here is the exposure they will get through our local, national and global network of information exchange and access to projects.

Q: Where to from here?
I now feel that we have community organisations on board that will assist in us gaining better exposure. Through this I think that what I have been articulating in my contact with the commercial sector will be validated/supported and this will provide the assurance they appear to need to be involved.

As this is a grass roots organisation we rely on small things to keep us a-float us such in-kind sponsorships, which are generally supplied on a pro rata basis.

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anagylphic audio-video projection from Nick Normal on Vimeo.

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