Bricolage

Last updated: Wednesday, 10 July 2024

Using whatever materials are ready to hand to solve a problem or create something new. A flexible, adaptive form of creativity?

  • using the resources at hand
  • (re)combination of resources for new purposes
  • making do; a bias towards action and active engagement with problems and opporunities

A ‘refusal to enact limitations’; disregarding accepted inputs, practices, and definitions and standards, in favour of ‘trying out solutions, observing, and dealing with the results’? (Baker and Nelson 2005) Getting away with things?

Maintaining a diverse resource ‘trove’; collections of tools, materials, other odds and ends (bruck?). Requires storage space?

Using amateur and self-taught skills?

Multiplex ties with others: Involving customers, suppliers, hangers-on? Part of a broader material ecology?1

The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for hte purpose of the project. His universe of instrumetns is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogenous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. — Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966)

A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal – which would allow the grain and the polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities will always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. — Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966)

Tim Grayson was a farmer whose land was crisscrossed by abandoned coal mines. He knew that the tunnels – a nuisance to farmers because of their tendency to collapse, causing mammoth sinkholes in fields – also contained large quantities of methane. Methane is another nuisance, a toxic greenhouse gas that poisons miners and persists in abandoned mines for generations. Grayson and a partner drilled a hole from Grayson’s property to an abandoned mine shaft, then acquired a used diesel generator from a local factory and crudely retrofitted it to burn methane. During the conversion process, Grayson was repeatedly blown off his feet when the odorless, colorless gas exploded. His bricolage produced electricity, most of which he sold to the local utility, using scavenged switchgear. Because Grayson’s generator also produced considerable waste heat, he built a greenhouse for hydroponic tomatoes, which he heated with water from the generator’s cooling system. He also used electricity generated during off-peak hours to power special lamps to speed plant growth. With the availability of a greenhouse full of trenches of nutrient-rich water, heated “for free,” Grayson realized he might be able to raise tilapia, a tropical delicacy increasingly popular in the U.S. He introduced the fish to the waters that bathed the tomato roots and used the fish waste as fertilizer. Finally, with abundant methane still at hand, Tim began selling excess methane to a natural gas company. — Ted Baker & Reed E. Nelson, “Creating Something from Nothing: Resource Construction through Entrepreneurial Bricolage” (2005)

  • [&] See also: jugaad? (even beyond improvisation, both are forms of constrained problem-solving)
  • [&] See also: combinatorics? (working creatively with finite sets; combining and recombining existing elements to create something new)
  • [&] See also: “coaxing” – ‘the ongoing attempts to get additional service out of worn, failing, or obsolete resources’ (Baker and Nelson 2005)
  • [?] If coherence isn’t a concern, how can we assess the outputs of bricolage?
  1. See, for example, Nicolas Nova and Anaïs Bloch’s work on mobile phone repair technicians. ⤴︎

Tags: improvisation, materiality

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