Questions about self-organisation: Dorkbot


Answers by Douglas Repetto


> What are the aims of the project you are involved in?

dorkbot has only a motto: "people doing strange things with electricity". Different groups have interpreted the motto in different ways. When I thought of the motto I purposely made it broad and inclusive so that it would interest many different kinds of people doing different kinds of things. Artists, inventors, scientists, engineers. The exciting thing to me is to learn about strange things that creative people are doing around the world, with no regard for genre, style, school of thought, area of expertise, etc.

> How is the project organised?


It is mostly dis-organized. We have a server at the Computer Music Center at Columbia University (where I work). That hosts many of the dorkbot websites (but not all). We also run many (but not all) of the mailing lists from the server. Other than that shared web-resource, each dorkbot is more or less completely autonomous. Very early on when there were just three or four dorkbots I decided that the best thing to do would be to give up any control I might have over the other organizations. At first I was worried about other people using the name in ways I didn't like, or organizing meetings in ways I didn't agree with, but I quickly realized that if I really wanted to be inclusive I would have to let go and let other people find their own way. We have a dorkbot-overlords mailing list, and we exchange occasional messages between the various people who run all the different dorkbots around the world. But even that is very low volume.

I think that the main thing that has given dorkbot an identity of sorts is the website and the motto. People see that it is not super self-serious, that it is informal and friendly. That it is about creativity. I think that is enough.

> How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have on your project?


There is no financial support at all for the global dorkbot organization. The use of the server is free to everyone. Otherwise there are no real resources.

Each local dorkbot has to find its own way. In New York we run dorkbot on zero dollars. For several years I held the meetings in a space in the building where I work, and now we have them at a gallery called Location One. Everyone involved donates their time.

Other dorkbots have raised money in different ways, some have received government grants, some have sponsors, some take donations at the door. One thing I've learned is that the financial relationship between organizers, participants, and audience can be very different in different places, particularly in different countries. So I have not tried to impose my own ideas about how things should be arranged financially on the other dorkbots.

> What do you feel you have achieved, and what are the problems you face?

We have had thousands of people give informal presentations of their work. I think that dorkbot has played some part in encouraging people to get creative with technology, to experiment, to embrace a DIY mode. Of course the main idea behind dorkbot -- sharing your work with your neighbors -- is not new at all. But contemporary culture can often put a lot of pressure on people to "succeed", to "be the best", and that often makes people _not_ want to share what they're doing, puts tremendous pressure on them, makes them think that the only reason to do something is to be a star. I'm very happy when someone presents something unfinished, something a little bit crazy, a little bit not-so-good. The most important thing is that people feel like they can participate in our material culture, that they are not simply consumers. So dorkbot has been a nice way to encourage people to participate, while removing some of the pressure to be a star.

Problems -- each dorkbot has its own difficulties, sometimes it's space, sometimes its money, sometimes it's finding presenters. I've been very lucky in New York, we have a nice space that is donated to us, there are always many people who want to show their work. In some other towns it's more difficult. There have been occasional problems with power-struggles between the people running a dorkbot, and sometimes they come to me to help solve the problem. That is very unpleasant, but I try to be an objective resource. In general, for an unstructured international organization with many people involved, we have had surprisingly few big problems. That is partly because we have been un-ambitious, which I think is often a good thing.

> Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?


There are many artist groups, collectives, etc. that I'm inspired by. Some have been wonderful, others have failed miserably. I think that a lot of it comes down to luck, particular combinations of personalities, rather than the specifics of how they were organized. I doubt that there are really optimal organizational strategies that will work everywhere.

One example that I find particularly inspiring:

frog peak music: this is a composers collective and independent publisher of experimental musical scores, recordings, and writing. They are committed to the idea of "availability over promotion", meaning their main concern is to help things exist, rather than making hits or selling lots of copies. Another idea of theirs is that the artists they work with decide what gets published and how. They accept artists, rather than particular works by artists.


> What are your hopes for the future?


I try to stay kind of neutral about the future of dorkbot. As organizations grow they often develop self-protection mechanisms, and sometimes maintaining the organization becomes more important than the actual activities of the organization. If dorkbot is no longer useful or interesting in a particular city, then we just let it die. Sometimes it comes back in another form, sometimes it doesn't. I don't try to revive meetings or put any pressure on people to continue meeting. I will keep doing dorkbot in New York as long as it's interesting and people keep volunteering to give presentations. But there are lots of other organizations doing similar things to dorkbot, so I'm sure that if we go away other things that are just as useful/interesting will take its place.

I'm constantly working to understand how something can seem to be both the most important thing in the world and also completely inconsequential. That's my primary organizational strategy!