“The Curiosity is There:” Interview with Vincent Lai from the Fixers Collective

“The Curiosity is There:” Interview with Vincent Lai from the Fixers Collective

This post is one of a set sponsored by Tinkernation. We had complete editorial control over the content and decided to interview Vincent Lai from the Fixers Collective, a group of tinkerers, menders, makers, and a social experiment in fixing things! Fixers Collective is based in Brooklyn, NY. Continue reading the entire interview to learn more about the group’s members, their skill sets, outreach with the community, and evolving identity both in Brooklyn and in the fixing community at large.

MAKE: First tell us about the Fixers Collective – give us a snapshot of your group.
Fixers Collective: The Fixers Collective is a social experiment in improvisational fixing and mending.

The goal of the Fixers Collective is to increase material literacy in our community by fostering an ethic of creative caring toward the objects in our lives. The Fixers Collective seeks to displace cultural patterns that alienate us from our things, by collectively learning the skills and patience necessary to care for them. Intentionally aligning itself with forces generated in reaction to the current economic crisis, the Fixers Collective promotes a counter-ethos that values functionality, simplicity, and ingenuity and that respects age, persistence, and adequacy. The Collective also encourages participants to take liberties with designated forms and purposes, resulting in mended objects that may exist both as art and within a more limited, utilitarian context.

I’ve also described ourselves as a “project-based-learning initiative”.
MAKE: When was Fixers Collective founded? And what was the inspiration to form the group?
FC: It was formed as part of the Mend theme at Proteus Gowanus in 2008/9, during which mending and fixing were explored from various perspectives and disciplines. At a time when ‘fixing things,’ from the mundane to the profound, seems increasingly out of our reach, The Fixers Collective continues fixing and mending the third Thursday of every month at Proteus Gowanus.

MAKE: Fixers Collective is listed as a “Project-in-Residence” at Proteus Gowanus. Do you have your own space within their space to leave things? And how does that work when you require tools for fixing, do you borrow theirs?
FC: Our space at the Proteus Gowanus gallery comes in two-parts – we have shelving where we house our tools and a limited supply of material. When we have fixing sessions, we’ll use a work table top on top of the conference table in the gallery space. In terms of ownership, we’d like to think the tools belong to us Fixers. Some of those tools were very graciously donated by iFixit. We Fixers also bring in our own tools as we see fit. My personal set of tools would handle precision fine-scale work and would also handle basic electrical and electronic work.

MAKE: How many members are in the Fixers Collective? And how is the group organized? Do members pay dues, or is it completely volunteer?
FC: We have about a dozen organizers and Master Fixers who help with running the collective. Our efforts are completely volunteer.

PammyFive and John Murphy from FC NYC open an antique fan to examine what needs fixing.

MAKE: Do FC members have specialties, or is everyone a general tinkerer?
FC: We’re all Master Fixers and tinkerers, too. Many of us have specialties and talents in specific areas and we want to learn from everyone else.
MAKE: What are some of the member specialties? For instance do you have someone who is good with engines and mechanics? Electrical? Electronic? Software?
FC: We have people who specialize in fabric, wood, metal, electrical products, electronic and computer products, vintage electronics, and power tools. Interesting that you mention software. We don’t get many requests to fix software, and we’re fine with that, because software repair can be a black-box process that doesn’t reveal much. As a result, we tell people we’ll come in after someone like Geek Squad’s all done with your item.
PammyFive’s broken fan, Fixed!
MAKE: List some of the objects Fixers Collective have repaired or restored to working order.
FC: Recently, we were able to fix two lamps, an electronic drum machine, a micro-speaker set, a reciprocating power saw, and we still marvel at the hand-cranked paper shredder we made a while back.
MAKE: What’s one of the craziest objects someone brought in for fixing?
FC: We’re anxiously awaiting someone to bring in a boiler (via forklift). It’s used to make pickles. It just needs a spot weld, but we consider this item highly unusual. We’ve also examined Robo-Fan (a table fan resembling a robot), and a vacuum-tube radio. We weren’t able to do much with that radio without a schematic, though.
MAKE: And what’s one of the most difficult objects someone brought in for repair, or an object which simply wasn’t repaired?
FC: We always have items that we weren’t able to fix up every week. Instead of failures, we like to think of them as works-in-progress or inconclusive. Sometimes we get enough information to give someone enough confidence to go forward in another direction.

MAKE: What do you then do with objects which are un-repairable?
FC: We think of a “difficult fix” as a fix that leads us down that proverbial wild goose chase but yields no significant results. Often, we fixers make the choice to go down that path for different motivations.

When we think we’ve exhausted the fixing option, we can look into other paths. For some items, we dismantle the item manually and use its component parts for other items. We also look into re-purposing or upcylcing the item. It’s a path we don’t take often partly because people have high hopes for a successful fix, and also because that path can be very broad in scope (and maybe even scale).
MAKE: I consider New Yorkers inherently creative when it comes to salvaging, re-using, re-purposing materials and objects. Do you consider FC at all reflective of some NY “attitude” towards stuff, or is fixing a more-global phenomenon?
FC: I think the Fixers Collective takes a universal snapshot of a global fixing landscape. Another fixers collective or repair cafe would probably see the same slice of items and repair skill sets come together. When we see people come together over an object and collaborate to get it fixed, we can say this playing out anywhere all over the world. The curiosity is there. The drive is there. The talent is there. We want to think the same value system inspires events like Maker Faire as it does a fixing session.
MAKE: Your ‘fixing sessions’ are the third Thursday of every month – and these are free for the public to attend. How else do you outreach or get the word out about your group?
FC: We like engaging people and groups on our Facebook page. We post our pictures there, too. Part of our outreach takes place as we reach out to other like-minded people and groups on Facebook, too. We have people who’ll talk about the Fixers at Brooklyn Flea, and all of us will talk about Fixers when we’re not fixing. We had a lot of fun talking about the Fixers at the Young Education Professionals event the other day, because we repositioned ourselves as a “project-based-learning initiative” and people understood us right away. We’re still looking into other avenues, and we’re very excited about some of the partnerships we’re developing as we move forward.
MAKE: Do most people who come to the fixing sessions live nearby? What’s the farthest someone has travelled to fix something?
FC: Most of the people who visit live within the five boroughs. One of our Fixers lives in New Jersey. Another spends the summer upstate. Yet another lives in Pennsylvania. We’ve fielded calls from people living in Westchester and Westport, CT. They’re welcome just as much as the person who lives down Union Street.

MAKE: In an era when it’s usually cheaper to buy a new thing than to repair or fix that thing, what are some incentives for would-be fixers? Feel free to delve into the philosophy of fixing here!
FC: I remember reading a tweet about the Fixers. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the idea of getting attached to the objects in [her] life. We would say we have yet to meet anyone who wondered whether they would laugh or cry when they emptied their wallets buying new things over and over again. Fixing enhances your material literacy and competency – you’ll find out how stuff works. Feedback can be unambiguous and appeal to the senses. The lamp lights up. The heating elements on the toaster warm up. The printer whirs about as it completes its self-test. The iMac chimes. Fixing gives people a chance to save money. Even if people wind up buying something new after trying to fix the old item, there’s a rich educational path that led up to that point. Reflexively going out to buy something is quick, convenient, void, and detached by comparison.

4 thoughts on ““The Curiosity is There:” Interview with Vincent Lai from the Fixers Collective

  1. The Beautiful Choreography of Dancing Drone Lamps | MAKE says:

    […] his lamp for testing, and goes to turn on his latest project. It’s unclear if this is a fixer lamp or not, but when the circuit blows all of that is quickly forgotten and replaced by the need for […]

  2. 춤추는 드론 램프들의 아름다운 군무 | Make: Korea says:

    […] 정성스럽게 닦은 뒤 방금 완성한 프로젝트의 전원을 켭니다. 램프가 픽서 램프(fixer lamp)인지 아닌지는 잘 모르겠지만 회로가 나가면 그게 다 무슨 의미가 […]

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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