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Critical Work shopping: The Contact Microphone

Ellen K. Foster
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Skill-sharing and Work shopping // Toward a Critical Practice

The content of this project is based on workshops and experimental skill-sharing that the author has participated in and helped to lead in the spring of 2014 with Lindsay Karty and in fall of 2015 with the help of the FemHack group and a makerspace in downtown Troy. Through these workshops, my colleagues and I hoped to develop a critical stance while learning by doing — to talk through themes of possible empowerment and issues of power associated with particular skills, technologies, and knowledges. The skill of soldering is the main focus of the workshops, both through critical discussion and through learning to solder via the project of making a contact microphone.

The video documentation included in this kit of various ephemera was pieced together from a longer edit of a contact microphone workshop run out of the Tech Valley Center of Gravity (TVCOG) in downtown Troy, NYon April 4th. This video is largely centered on the activities of the group that attended the workshop after a brief discussion and demonstration. The discussion started out with a PowerPoint presentation about contact microphones and their capabilities and particular mechanisms, but it also started with introductions, talking about safety needs in terms of soldering and having a general sharing of what we collectively knew about soldering. My colleague and I worked to create a congenial atmosphere, recognizing that some people within the group may have expertise in soldering, while others may have had none at all. No question was belittled and we also hoped to examine our own practices as the workshop progressed. We had both primarily used soldering in DIY artistic and sound endeavors, so for both of us soldering, especially in the context of contact microphones, was a quick, dirty and fun.

Making music. Still from Contact Microphone Workshop & Jam, April 5, 2014.

One of the more interesting things for the two of us as workshop organizers, was the realization that we both solder in two very different ways. It turns out that there is more than one way to solder a circuit. In Lindsay's instance she relies heavily on the use of flux. Personally, I have never used flux and always thought it was too fancy. Although, in a second iteration of this workshop, an attendee proclaimed that flux was a way to make a cleaner and precise soldering job, I had not heard of many music or electronics tinkering friends using it. For Lindsay, my co-collaborator, it was an easier way to solder, as it made the solder flow, and it made the connection happen quicker, easier. We split off, and so one group of participants learned to solder with flux, the others without. After a demonstration, Individuals were typically given one-on-one guidance for moments they were stuck. They also learned to help each other and get advice to ensure they were following instructions properly. Some moved faster than others, and the workshop was a bubbling congregation of making, tinkering, and sound experimentation.

Taking different soldering styles into account, in the second iteration of this workshop I talked about these differences, and also explored more in-depth each participant's preceding skills or experiences with soldering, if any. We discussed participants' reasons for attending and their curiosities. We also highlighted and talked about the different ways of making circuitry, from soft circuitry involving sewing and knitting to paper circuitry using conductive ink and copper tape. Our intention was to open up possibilities and make the connection that working with circuitry and electronics in the context of paper, fabric and other materials is just as valid as its PCB board, wired, and soldered counterparts. It takes different types of skill-sets, knowledges and practices to play with and work with technology — none any better than or more important than the other.

My own drive toward a recognition of situated and often marginalized knowledges in the realm of technological development is rooted in scholarly work that explores how particular epistemologies or skill-sets are often shunned as unimportant — sometimes in the realm of forgotten labors and histories. One dimension of these forgotten stories is demarcated by gender, which becomes increasingly clear when looking at feminist critiques of technology. Scholars who examine how boundaries between gender and technology are reified, transgressed and further complicated often examine feminist technologies, the co-construction of gender and technology, and the gendering of constructed public spaces (Layne 2010; Cockburn & Ormrod 1993; Rothschild 1999). These critiques demonstrate that while present, women and minorities have typically played a devalued or subordinate role in technological design, as in the development of telephone systems for public use (Glucksman 1990) and the forgotten work of the "computing girls" who conducted physical computing in the development of ENIAC (Light 2003). While women's skills were important in transforming these technologies, their stories often remain untold or unknown. Keeping such inclusions/exclusions in mind when considering demarcations of 'knowledge' or 'the right way' to interact with technology has interesting implications for skill-sharing, workshopping or even considering how to complete the circuit.

Skill sharing. Still from Contact Microphone Workshop & Jam, April 5, 2014.

Feminist hacking or feminist tinkering practices had not been discussed in our first workshop — which focused on artistic uses of soldering in creating sound devices and thinking differently about sound, embodiment and reverberations. While a more engaged and critical workshopping strategy was not yet in place, the playfulness of open-ended sound explorations spoke to future iterations of boundary transgressions. The participants' visceral interactions and excitements regarding sound technology and contact microphones touches upon yet another dimension to the technological dynamics at play. By picking up on physical vibrations, contact microphones amplify resonant frequencies and the reverberation or movement of objects. This revealing of inner sound gives participants the capacity to restructure and rethink what any object can be and/or do. Everything becomes an instrument. A discarded desktop computer case becomes a drum, or sends out a particularly clear tone when suspended. A piece of paper is instantly cacophonous. Contact microphones invite users to expand their imaginations and their typical movements or interactions with everyday objects — and ask them to rethink waste and possibly discarded materials.

In my technical practices, time and time again I come back to sound as a very real way to understand the power of different object interactions, mechanisms, and properties. The satisfaction of creating an object that makes sound, and then attaching it to various other materials in order to transform that sound, never goes away. Every time I have led a workshop about building contact microphones, no matter the age or demographics of the group, I observe that participants are entranced by the sounds that come out of their sonified objects attached or put in contact with the contact microphone. The contact microphone attunes the participant to listen to objects and contemplate how solid mass might make a particular sound. The permeeable and squishy boundaries that contact microphones help us to explore in these hands-on workshops give further space for rethinking and restructuring what might be possible in terms of knowing, skills, discussions, technology and mindful/playful pedagogy.

Gender dynamics and co-constructions came to the forefront of this work while attending the FemHack Fest in Montreal this past November. Here, the focus of the workshop was on roundtable discussion, sharing of stories and relating the participants' experiences in regards to technology, hacking culture, soldering, and gender dynamics. As we talked critically about soldering as a gendered practice and hackerspaces as gendered spaces, I decided it would be interesting to incorporate discussions about feminist hacking practices more explicitly into the contact microphone or soldering workshops I might further explore at the TVCOG and beyond. This decision came out of the realization that soldering is often perceived by in Western cultures as a masculine act, yet by some male engineers (as related by a female engineering professor) it is often considered lowly, menial work for women as the non-experts in an assembly line. This is the same argument originally posed against women engaged in technical skills or knowledge production within the history of computing, telephone development and astronomical spectrographic analysis. There was no history to tell, because that labor, those actions did not matter — they were not designated as intellectually 'rigorous,' even though they often were.

In the next iteration of skill-sharing Instead of lecturing and telling everyone *what* feminist hacking practices were, I wanted to find out what they thought and what soldering might mean to them as a gendered (or not gendered) act. Since the first discussion about soldering as a gendered practice took place at the FemHack Fest with the support of a feminist hacker collective, the environment was very conducive to critical discussions regarding hackerspaces, soldering, tinkering, education, gender, inclusion, exclusion, accessibility and so on. When I brought insights from the FemHack Fest discussion and critical aspects of a material practice to another iteration of the workshop back to the TVCOG in Troy later in the Fall of 2015, interesting discussions and responses came out of the inquiry — which I mainly left for a questionnaire at the end of the hands-on workshop. With limited time I wanted to focus on skill-sharing, which in itself is an interesting and telling choice on my part. I gave precedence to the material praxis, so we did not have time for a full discussion. Yet, I made an effort to keep discussions of some criticality going during the fabrication part of the workshop. We talked about the possibilities of soldering in terms of fixing objects, with a general lament towards planned obsolescence. I did not fully broach gender, and keeping discussions or questions regarding gender dynamics in soldering and technical skill for the end did not fully engage the group as I had intended. Playfulness and openness to new concepts or thoughts was present, but in order to fully enact critical engagements with the material, I saw that practicing reflexivity in the midst of doing would be the next step to work towards in these workshop sessions.

The contact microphone itself inhabits an interesting place in experimental and DIY music culture. It is a cheap, quick, and easy way to pick up an objects resonant frequency and make just about anything into an instrument. The fascination, excitement, and curiosity of "what sound will this make?" adds to the narrative of personal creativity and style that comes into play with different soldering techniques. The contact microphone also brings into question: what is trash and what is useable? Pushing against planned obsolescence norms in a throw-away culture, the contact microphone gives voice to various objects, enacting a move towards creative reuse and creative combinations.

Soldering practices often get gendered as a masculine activity employed in tinkering, fixing and productive play. My first encounter with soldering as a skill came via a college band in which I played violin through a pick-up [or contact] microphone. Discussions about soldering to fix gear, the best types of amps, which pedals did what and myriad other obscure gearhead knowledge flew over my head at a startling rate. All I knew was that the reverberations of my violin were even louder now, and that was great. It was liberating. I was interested in the technical, but did not know where to begin — and soldering had never even presented itself to me as something I would possibly need or want to engage in. This soon changed with my interest and exploration of interactive technology and micro-controller projects via the Arduino. The Arduino kit came with a shield which I could get pre-fabricated for more money, or assemble myself. I decided it was about time I delved into soldering since I had an interest in electronics and fabrication. But what really helped and pushed me was having a friend with similar interests who already had basic skills with soldering, and with whom I could have a soldering party. It did not take having an expert, but more having someone to help encourage, piece together the mechanisms and encourage. I was instantly fascinated and garnered much satisfaction from a skill that felt like a craft. Soldering also turned out to be much less daunting when I engaged and just tried it out. But getting to that step always has its barriers. I opened with this story at the FemHack Fest, as others then shared their encounters and experiences with soldering. At moments the discussion would side-track to discussions about gender and educational practices in hackerspaces writ large, but it always fed back to the practice and valuing/devaluing of soldering. It is often seen as the base skill to acquire within hardware hacking or making practices.

Beginning soldering. Still from Contact Microphone Workshop & Jam, April 5, 2014.

One participant in the discussion related her past as an engineering student at Columbia. She was quite proud with her soldering techniques and felt that she had mastered the skill with finesse — it was exciting as a woman in a male-dominated field to have engaged and mastered such a gendered skill. Yet her male colleagues belittled her mastery, exclaiming that soldering is what women with small hands do in factories — that it was merely a routine and unskilled task. These comments highlight the common and systemic attitude towards women's role within technological development, and the subsequent marginanlizaton of particular knowledges as they shift and transform along gender lines. When the mechanic or technician or electrician solders, it is a refined and important skill. Possibly a craft. But when the action is gendered as feminine or brought into the context of material mass production, it is a menial, routine task. The comments also speak to ways in which engineering education focuses on precision, best materials available, and planning at the highest level — leaving the minutiae of building to technical laborers. A malleable and hands-on activity, soldering fits into the realm of tinkering and practices of bricolage, towards the practices of hacking and "making do" with what is at hand. In the realm of engineering, tinkering or hacking as it were has been classically belittled and often marginalized. Yet, in the current cultural milieu and fascination with hacking and making cultures, the margins are beginning to look more like the center.

In the realm of hacking and making, soldering is a point of contention within gendered technological practices — as previously stated, there is more than one way to solder a circuit. It can be quite a messy endeavor. In the realm of technology and gender, boundaries are made permeable, complex and messy, as cultural values and views transform over time. Yet time and time again marginalized groups, in particular women and minorities, are put in a position to lose in the story of technological development and use. Along this vein, these workshops aim to rethink and complicate the simple act of a soldering to reconfigure and further complicate dualities and attitudes toward material technical practice.


Cockburn, Cynthia and Susan Ormrod. Gender and Technology in the Making. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1993.

Glucksman, Miriam. Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-war Britain. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Layne, Linda ed. Feminist Technology. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Light, Jennifer, "Programming." In N. Lerman, R. Oldenziel and A. Mohun (Eds.), Gender and Technology: A Reader (pp. 295-328). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Originally appeared as "When Computers were Women" in Technology and Culture (1999).

Rothschild, Joan ed. Design and Feminism: Re-Visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

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