Before/after/beyond breakdown: exploring regimes of maintenance
Location 121
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Jerome Denis (Mines ParisTech) email
  • Fernando Domínguez Rubio (UC San Diego) email
  • David Pontille (MINES ParisTech - CNRS) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair J. Denis, F. Dominguez Rubio & D. Pontille
Discussant Maria Puig De La Bellacasa (University of Leicester), Steven J. Jackson (Cornell University)

Short Abstract

The aim of this panel is to explore the theme of "STS by other means" by focusing on different practices of maintenance and repair. In so doing, the panel aims to open a way to rethink how we investigate the material politics and vulnerability of different expert and mundane sociotechnical systems.

Long Abstract

Maintenance and repair constitute an ideal object to do STS by other means as practices that urge us to broaden the traditional focus on practices of production and innovation (Graham & Thrift 2007; Jackson 2014). The aim of this track is to explore the largely invisible and ungrateful work of maintenance and repair not only as a means of opening a new way of thinking the material politics and vulnerability of different sociotechnical systems but also as a way of forcing us to rethink how we study breakdowns in STS, moving beyond the usual opposition between broken and unbroken systems.

Several studies have already foregrounded the variety of the situations and domains in which maintenance and repair occur: architectural preservation (Edensor 2012); art conservation (Dominguez Rubio 2013); the mundane repair activities we carry out at home (Gregson, et al., 2009); the process of infrastructures maintenance (Graham 2010; Denis & Pontille 2014); the maintenance of ICT ecologies (Jackson, et al. 2011); or the "regular" repair operations performed by technicians (Orr 1996; Henke 2000). This panel will address such a diversity by asking: How do these practices shape different political, economical and technical issues? How can we specify the practical, material and technological configurations that organize different "maintenance regimes"?

We expect contributions from a wide range of scholars working at the intersection of arts, architecture, urban studies, media studies, organization studies, and STS. The panel will welcome innovative contributions such as movies, artistic performances or repair workshops, in addition to regular paper presentations.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Holding on and letting go - temporal regimes of infrastructure care work

Author: Marisa Cohn (IT University of Copenhagen / M-ITI)  email

Short Abstract

The time of long-term maintenance comes to stand for stasis. Systems that persist exceed the purity of design, associating repair with pathos. Yet the lived experience of infrastructure care work disrupts this opposition, revealing the mutually configured temporalities of design and repair.

Long Abstract

The troubling thing about legacy systems is that they are not only old and obsolescent but that they continue to evolve despite their age. A new bug can crop up in code that has been around for 40 years and an aging machine is made new through its material decay. Particularly within the current regime of fast, cheap, small, iterative technological development, the time of long-term maintenance comes to stand in for stasis and the enduring. Software systems which persist are seen to show signs of excess (non-purity) in relation to their originating authorial designs, and the very fact of these systems sticking around can deem them a source of pathos for the organizations and people that work with them. The people who hold on, rather than let go, of old systems, are often deemed perverse for the pleasures that they find in the work of maintenance and repair. This perversity in the pleasures of care work speaks to the strength of the dominant temporal regime of technological production. In this paper I argue that the marginalization of infrastructure maintenance work arises not only from its invisibility but through the gendering of material and temporal relations to infrastructure over time. Old systems reveal a materiality that is always in excess of the purity and immateriality of design, a materiality that becomes associated with pathos, mess, and complexity. Maintenance work reveals a temporal regime which does not oppose design, but rather exposes the mutually configured times of design and maintenance.

A Matter of Dust. From Infrastructures to "Infra-thin" in Museum Maintenance

Author: Tiziana Beltrame (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)  email

Short Abstract

The daily thick work of museum maintenance and repair tells us stories of blurred substances and unavoidable breakdowns. Following ambient dust allows us to see conservation spaces as places of flows, where heterogeneous entities cohabit in different scales.

Long Abstract

This paper aims to analyze the role of mundane operations and blurred substances in the daily functioning of an exhibition area. I will present data from a recent fieldwork at the musée du quai Branly in Paris.

Environments continually unfold (Ingold, 2007), and museums may be taken, in this paradigm, as "object-sustaining environments" (Dominguez Rubio, forthcoming). Within STS and sociomaterial approach, we must pay attention to the conservation spaces of collections as places of flows, where a multitude of entities cohabit in different scales, from infrastructure to "infra-thin" (Duchamp, 1930; Dagognet, 2009). The human daily works of glass and floor cleaning, sweeping, dust removing, light and hanging devices maintenance and repair, provide a set of joined actions within others entities engaged in the material life of the exhibited object. Ambient dust, for instance, which constitutes a nutrient substrate for insects, is understood here as a processing entity. It is also an entity which tires the fan out until it breaks it with an effect on the deregulation of the light system of a showcase.

Studying the breakdown allows us to go towards an ecological approach of the conservation practices, in which the daily thick work of maintenance could tell us stories of the role of neglected things and matter (Barad, 2003; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011). In a Tardian way to see museum environments and practices, it's not the museum which contains dust, but it's the dust which ties all the heterogeneous entities together.

"Can you give its soul back?" Mobile Phone Repair Practices

Author: Nicolas Nova (HEAD – Genève)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reports the results of a field study about mobile phone repair practices conducted in three Western countries. It describes the mundane type of maintenance and fixing tactics deployed by users, as well as the operations routinely undertaken by mobile phone repair shops.

Long Abstract

This paper reports the results of a field research project about mobile phone repair practices conducted in three Western countries (France, Switzerland, USA). Combining approaches proposed by other researchers, the study included interviews with mobile phone users and owners of repair shops, supplemented by participant observations and "mystery shoppers" visit (i.e. damage a smartphone, ask a shop to repair it and document the way it is done) in the form of visual research. This material helps bringing into light the often ignore and invisible repairing procedures. On the one hand, it describes the mundane type of maintenance/fixing tactics deployed by users and its materiality: the way phone terminals are protected and cleaned, software operations (overclocking, SIM card flashing), the use of additional material (duct-tape, SUGRU paste), etc. On the other hand, it presents the problems brought to mobile phone repair shops, as well as the processes routinely they undertake for their customers. The description of such practices contributes to the field of repair ethnography by discussing the importance of what we called "naive fixing" (i.e. repairing acts users put in place with a limited knowledge of the phone behavior) and the role of on-line material and documents (repair guides issues by professionals or by independent shops). This research also shows that phone manufacturers, users, shop practices should not be opposed and often form a complex and intricate network that merge mundane activities, detailed procedures and expertise.

"Objections": dissolving bonds in objectual ecologies

Authors: Blanca Callén  email
Laurence Rassel  email
Soledad Gutiérrez Rodríguez  email
Linda Valdes (Fundació Antoni Tàpies)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the conditions and reasons that weaken and break the linkages that bond us with our everyday objects. Inspired by archaeological method, we compile and analyse interviews and objects thrown away by their owners in order to comprehend the moments before and around breakdown.

Long Abstract

Our vulnerable bodies and finite lives are sustained by ambivalent relations of inter-dependency (Tronto, 1993; López-Gil, 2013) with the environment and other equally fragile bodies and 'stuff' around us. Everyday objects belong to those silent material presences that sustain our existence. And vice-versa: we, all together, compose our particular local cultures and ecologies. Considering such symmetrical material ethics (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2010), this paper asks about the multiple moments, conditions, circumstances and reasons that weaken and break the linkages that bond us with our everyday objects.

Through a qualitative research inspired by archaeological methods where human discourses are decentred, we combine the compilation and material examination of objects that were asked to be discarded or thrown away, the photographical register of their local sites, together with the individual interviews to their owners. As a result, we have compiled more than twenty interviews and objects of different types and categories, from rural and urban contexts and from 7 to 86 years' old owners. By a deep material examination and content analysis of these materials we will explain which are the main reasons and conditions for disregard, detachment and finally disposal of our daily objects. Also, by a comparison with those other stuff that owners would never throw away, we hope to comprehend more deeply some of the moments before and around breakdown. This analytical exercise can help us recognise the functions and roles that disposal, disregard or detachment can play in the (un)sustainability of our hybrid everyday ecologies.

Infrastructures of preservation: continuity and maintenance for Media Arts

Authors: Vanina Yael Hofman (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)  email
Daniel Lopez Gomez (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)  email
Pau Alsina (Open University of Catalonia)  email

Short Abstract

Media arts points to a bundle of diverse projects that share the challenge of their preservation. This paper explores different relational infrastructures of maintenance and repairing -both inside museums and artists studios- that lay the base of media arts (im)permanence.

Long Abstract

Like maintenance and repair work, looking at preservation processes enable us to reconsider the usually taken-for-granted attributes of artworks' materials. Artworks need to undergo constant adjustments to maintain their existential continuity, which entails the visibilization and invisibilization of the involved caretaking work, as well as certain infrastructures (Star, 1999).

Collecting and storing media art poses a particular hurdle in the field of traditional artwork preservation, for which preservation means prolonging the immutability of the appearance of the artwork. Media art preservation prompts a "preservation-through-change" approach (Ippolito, 2006) that includes methods such as migration, emulation and re-mediation. Depending on the setting, these interventions may tend to render visible as new layers in the trajectory of artworks, in the case of some collections they might be concealed in favor of the artist's voice, whose account and creative process have been thoroughly registered and foregrounded to preserve the uniqueness of the idea and the artistic object (Dominguez-Rubio, 2014).

In this paper, we seek to explore the infrastructures of preservation in media art both when they are collected in Museums but also when artists keep them to be sold, re installed or transform them into new pieces in the future. By comparing these infrastructures of preservation we aim to empirically describe the multiple ways in which the continuity of the artwork is performed while put to the test the materialistic approach of STS to maintenance and repair work (Henke, 2000; Graham and Thrift, 2007; Denis and Pontille, 2013), in which objects are deemed as the stable grounds of social order.

Repairing Optimism in the Face of Routine "Failure"

Author: Christo Sims (University of California, San Diego )  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how optimistic feelings and idealistic yearnings are maintained and repaired in well-intended sociotechnical interventions that routinely “fail.” The paper also examines the material-political orders that these morally-sanctioned repair practices help sustain and advance.

Long Abstract

Recent STS-inspired scholarship on maintenance and repair has helpfully drawn attention to the ongoing, and often overlooked and undervalued, work that keeps established sociotechnical systems intact and operating (cf. Star 1999; Graham and Thrift 2007; Jackson 2014; Domínguez-Rubio 2015). This paper explores how the endurance and extension of sociotechnical assemblages depends not only on maintaining and restoring environments, infrastructures, and artifacts, but often also on repairing optimistic feelings about, and idealistic yearnings for, unrealized techno-social transformations. Such repair practices are especially prevalent and important, the paper argues, in cases where expert technocultures attempt to remedy social, political, and ecological problems that are far beyond their reach. In such cases, breakdowns, dysfunctions, and "failures" are experienced as normal, rather than exceptional, and yet, curiously, routine setbacks do not so much erode confidence in the possibility of technoscientific solutions as help fix and extend technoscience into evermore facets of everyday life. By drawing on historical and ethnographic studies of international development interventions (e.g. Ferguson 1994; Li 2007), as well as techno-educational reforms (e.g. Tyack and Cuban 1995; Buckingham 2007; Sims forthcoming), the paper draws attention to how the ongoing repair of optimism for techno-social transformations helps overcome moments of disillusionment and, in so doing, contributes to the establishment, maintenance, and extension of what Mitchell (2002) has referred to as "techno-politics." To help make sense of these dynamics, the paper draws attention to the ritualized celebration of what I call "sanctioned counter-practices" in the ongoing rejuvenation of hope for techno-social breakthroughs.

Exploring the routine grounds of artworks' maintenance : an ethnomethodological perspective

Author: Yaël Kreplak (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on the analysis of data collected through a videoethnography in a contemporary art museum, I wish to offer an ethnomethodological perspective on the study of maintenance routines, which should open on a discussion of EM and STS’ distinctive inputs about art as a collective action.

Long Abstract

Drawing on data collected through a videoethnography in a contemporary art museum, I wish to give an insight into the "shop work" of art professionals (curators, conservators, members of the technical staff...) involved in the daily business of artworks' maintenance. With an ethnomethodological approach and inspired by previous works in the field on maintenance and repair (e.g. Sormani, Strebel & Bovet 2015), I shall try to 'respecify' (Button 1991; Garfinkel 1991; Lynch 1993) artworks' maintenance as a members' phenomenon, as a local organizational achievement, accountable in a variety of practices (from the most 'visible' operations - such as a restoration in case of a breakdown - to the most 'discrete' ones - such as reporting corrections in the artwork's documentation).

In doing so, first, I wish to challenge a range of pervasive dualisms in the approaches to the art : between production and reception, artwork and documentation, artistic and technical matters. The study of maintenance routines, as demonstrated notably by Dominguez Rubio (2013, 2014), offers indeed a promising way to rethink artworks as collective and temporal entities - or as praxeological accomplishments. Second, I hope to contribute to an ongoing debate between ethnomethodology and STS approaches, related mostly to concurrent conceptions of "non human agency" (e.g. Quéré 1989 ; Mondada, Akrich, Hennion & Rabeharisoa 2007), by reexamining some of its features in the light of a study of art-as-a-practical-action.

How contemporary legal and policy regimes contour infrastructures of repair

Author: Lara Houston  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the legal and policy conditions that shape and constrain contemporary repair infrastructures in the computing and wider ICT industries, particularly the legal mechanisms that frustrate repair, as well as the fixes that have been proposed or implemented to enhance it.

Long Abstract

When objects or systems break down, repair practices are mobilized to re-articulate and restore both material fractures and the socio-material relations that sustain a 'working' performance. Repair work requires assemblages of knowledge about objects, forms of expertise, physical parts and patches of code; arrangements that we describe as 'infrastructures of repair'. This paper explores the legal and policy conditions that shape and constrain contemporary repair infrastructures in the computing and wider ICT industries, particularly the legal mechanisms that frustrate repair, as well as the fixes that have been proposed or implemented to enhance it.

Our case centers on the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act; a piece of legislation that prohibits the circumvention of Technology Protection Measures designed into technologies to protect copyrighted works. Every three years the Register of Copyrights considers exemptions to the Act. One proposed exemption in the 2015 round focuses on the diagnosis, repair or modification of vehicle software. We review the arguments put forward by proponents and opponents of the exemption, exploring how questions around standards, emissions and security are juxtaposed against questions of the agency afforded to consumers and independent repairers. This case surfaces two recent 'right to repair' movements in the USA (around cars and digital consumer technologies), that seek to make knowledge about technologies, tools for intervening into embedded systems available and spare parts available to consumers and independent repairers; arguing for an expanded understanding of ownership that includes unboxing, exploring, repairing and modifying the technological things with which we live.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.