Text by James Wallbank
Pictures by Michael Tesh
Design by Scott Hawkins
Access Space, 2008
Access Space is an open access media lab based in Sheffield. Access Space encourages people to learn how to use hardware re-used from local companies and Free Software from the GNU project and others. This saves money and builds skills. Those skills can then be shared to build a self-reliant and sustainable community around the lab.
Since being founded in the year 2000 Access Space has thrived where many community and government schemes have failed. This has drawn attention from groups eager to understand and reproduce its success. This has led to the Arts-Council-funded study "Grow Your Own Media Lab", of which the final report is the graphic novel of the same name "Grow Your Own Media Lab (The Graphic Novel)" or GYOML for short.
GYOML is a 114-page A5 perfect-bound book. The cover is a vivid black and yellow composition. Part Principia Discordia, part Emigre, it will look equally at home in gallery bookshops and alternative press outlets. Curious browsers will be hard pressed to resist taking a look. Inside, the book is black & white throughout with an introductory text followed by alternating pages of titles and comic-book illustrations of case studies.
Most books that use a Creative Commons licence either don't specify the licence or use one of the more restrictive licences. You'd be surprised how many cheerleaders for Free Software and Free Culture have restrictive licences on their books. Kudos to Access Space for getting the licence right (the copyleft "Attribution-ShareAlike" licence) and making sure that it's explained clearly in the book's front matter. This ensures that GYOML continues the Access Space ethos of sharing cultural and technological wealth in a principled and practical way.
The comic-book illustrations by Michael Tesh are in fanzine style, a characterful and evocative aesthetic for a small press publication. I found myself smiling at the clear inner thoughts of some of the people Tesh depicts, and if you meet one of Access Space's personnel after seeing his depictions of them you'll feel you already know them. What makes Tesh's art the perfect illustration for the case studies is that he is an Access Space regular.
Rather than providing an instruction manual for using software, which the book's introduction rightly points out would quickly become outdated, GYOML presents a series of case studies of users of the lab and the situations that they encounter. The case studies include a shy teenager, a nervous work placement, a mature student and a refugee dissident, all people learning from and contributing to different aspects of the running of Access Space. This illustrates the value of Access Space's approach and explain how, and more importantly why, to recreate it.
Despite not being a software manual there is a surprising wealth of technical and administrative information delivered surprisingly painlessly mixed in with the case studies. Such as how and why to use computers that businesses will pay you to take away from them, how and why to use Free Software, and how and why to make a server to keep users' work safe if one of those reclaimed computers breaks down. The names of Free Software operating system and art software is mentioned, as is how to learn more about them, so it is easy to find out more. And I didn't know how to crimp an RJ-45 ethernet cable before reading GYOML. Now I do.
For all the talk of "grass roots activism" and "alternative governance" on mailing lists, in universities, and at conferences there is often a disconnect between the rhetoric of technological radicalism and actually doing anything in society. We can learn a lot from Access Space's determination to get their hands dirty and to use technology as a means to the end of empowering people. A few years ago I helped out at Remix Reading's open access lab, which was inspired to adopt Access Space's way of working, so I can say from personal experience that running a lab is a rewarding experience.
GYOML is an effective and persuasive exposition of the virtues of Access Space's way of doing things. It is inspirational, unpretentious and informative. We need more like Access Space, and GYOML shows us how to do it. Let a thousand media labs bloom.
Grow Your Own Media Lab (The Graphic Novel)
Text by James Wallbank