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The Arts

Generation Skill

The third-annual DIY Fest continues spreading an alternative economic strategy

Michael Northrup
Jenny Sage shows you how to make stuff out of squirrels at DIY Fest.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 5/6/2009

The DIY Fest

11 a.m., May 9, 2640 Space

Visit for details.

As an admonition, "do it yourself" doesn't raise much of a ruckus, unless the words are spoken in anger after a poorly planned project goes awry. But as a movement, DIY culture has a deep history, connecting everything from Ralph Waldo Emerson's celebration of American independence in the 1840s to the gutter punks of the 1980s.

"I like learning and doing whatever I can," says Tess Oby, one of three organizers of this year's DIY Fest, held at the 2640 Space May 9. This year's fest features 15 presenters, up from 11 last year, with talks on everything from non-mainstream menstrual health to home repair to environmentally friendly screen-printing.

"It's all borne out of poverty, getting by on what you can make, borrow or steal," says Nick Biddle at a Charles Village coffee shop. Biddle, also a festival co-organizer, plans to lead a workshop on computer security.

In recent decades, the DIY approach has been most closely associated with communities and individuals that consciously choose to spend as little as possible on goods and services. Flaunting the capitalist system, people made rags out of newspapers and old clothes, flocked to gardens instead of Whole Foods, and learned how to do yoga instead of relying on instructors.

More recently, DIY has developed in unexpected ways. Big-box hardware stores have made home improvement a weekend activity for the upwardly mobile, and craft web site Etsy has made selling or purchasing handmade objects as easy as buying things on Amazon. Now that the recession has hit, DIYers have found that people are once again as interested in saving money as expressing individuality.

"It combines different fields--political activism, healthy foods, being self-sufficient," co-organizer Aliza Sollins says. "It gives you so much freedom."

While many of the workshop-style presentations cover topics expected at such a festival, others are more adventurous. Peter Blasser, sound artist and president of electronic instrument design firm Ciat-Lonbarde, will be presenting on paper circuits, which uses drawings of circuit boards instead of actual circuit boards as the base for producing electronic instruments. Jenny Sage, who has participated in previous DIY Fests, has the most provocative topic of the day: small mammal skinning.

Sage says that her interest in DIY culture stretches back to her childhood. "I was pretty crafty as a kid, and my mom encouraged me to pursue my creative endeavor," she says by telephone. "As I've gotten older and more aware of some things, I've gotten more into reusing material, or extending the life of something and making it a little personalized."

Sage says that for her it was always a political thing, as she became involved in punk culture and started to think about over-consumption. More recently, she says she has moved from patching her clothes and adapting them for new uses to making things out of neglected materials, like animal skins.

"I've been getting into working with more natural fibers, wool, but also animal skins," she says. "It's always finding usefulness in a life that might be disregarded. I find these animals that are dead but not rotted, but still in worthwhile condition to make into something."

Finding squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, cats and foxes on the side of the road--what she calls the "byproduct of the car culture that is around us"--Sage uses them to make clothing. "If I see an animal, I'll check it out, see what condition it's in, do a smell test, see if there's any bugs around it," she says. "I'll do that and take it home and put him or her in my freezer until I can go forward."

At her workshop, Sage, whose most recent find was a fox that she turned into a hat, says she plans to use two squirrels to demonstrate how to skin animals so they can be tanned. "My idea is we're going to talk a little bit, and then we're going to get into skinning two squirrels," she says. "I think animals are beautiful."

While some DIYers are pushing the boundaries of what materials can be used and reused, many others take a much more pragmatic view of the limits of doing things on one's own. Biddle says that in his workshop on computer security, he is not expecting that people give up commercial operating systems for open-source systems. He sees this DIY thinking as a return to an age when many household items could be easily repaired. "I don't think it's that radical a concept," he says. "It's only been in our life time that you can no longer work on your own car."

At the same time, Biddle admits to not being able to do everything himself. In his day job as a system administrator at a Baltimore concrete company, Biddle says he has been able to absorb many technical skills that he is able to apply at home. But he is aware of his limits as well. "I'm not particularly agile when it comes to home repair," Biddle said. "In other areas the curve is less steep."

If the DIY Fest organizers don't expect attendees to leave ready to switch to a non-monetary economy, they do hope that people will be able to pick up a few skills they might not otherwise be in a position to acquire. "We learn skills so we can remember to do them if we need to in the future," Sollins says.

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