April 11, 2012 by Nicole Beneteau, contributing writer
If you’ve ever baked your own bread, knitted yourself some mittens, or planted a backyard carrot or two, you’re part of a growing cultural revolution known as do it yourself, or DIY. Urban farming, home-brewing, independent publishing… the culture of DIY has infiltrated the lives of people the world over and is only getting stronger.
Although this renaissance of the homemade is experiencing a recent surge in popularity, the idea of DIY isn’t new. Over 40 years ago, once the novelty of the industrial revolution wore off and dissatisfaction with the state of urban life began to set in, people started to seek alternatives to mass production and sought to separate themselves from previous generations with a lifestyle shift.
By the end of the 1960s, the movement toward self-empowerment and shared learning was in full swing with publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog, which provided readers with a resource for tools, services, and instructions on how to live self-sustainably.
Eventually, as is the case with all cultural trends, the impetus of the movement petered off with the onset of the 1980s, with many of those idealists settling into corporate jobs to pay the bills.
But, in the last decade or so, there has been a distinct resurgence of this type of idealism. The idea that we can take control of our lives by reducing our reliance on the corporate system is once again gaining popularity and manifesting itself in many different forms for many different reasons.
Gettin’ down and dirty
Here in Victoria, one of the most visible ways people are participating in the DIY movement is through urban gardening. Whether it’s a planter box of herbs on an apartment windowsill or a half-acre of backyard veggies, urban farming is becoming an accessible and desirable practice.
“A lot of people are realizing that we don’t really know what’s going into our food when it comes to imports from far away. Both buying from local farmers and growing our own food allows people to feel a bit of self-reliance,” says Jill Dalton from Life Cycles Project, a local organization that, among other programs, provides Victorians with the tools and know-how to grow their own food.
But food security and self-reliance aren’t the only motivating factors for urban farmers. Economics plays an increasingly significant role in the choice to grow one’s own food.
“The affordability of local and organic food is an issue, too,” says Dalton. “A lot of people who start gardening with us say ‘I wanted to buy everything organic and local and I realized that some things are really expensive, so those are the ones I want to grow in my garden.”
Though this trend toward do-it-yourself food production is on the upswing, the question remains about whether it will prove to be a passing fad. Gabe Epstein, local urban farmer and head of the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers neighbourhood group, says urban farming will continue to gain popularity.
“With more and more consciousness spreading through the community about the value of growing locally, the quality of the food you get, and the community you build around it, I think more and more people will get into farming,” says Epstein.
Even considering the peaks and valleys of the economy, Epstein says urban farming will hold its appeal. “This is not urban farming in the sense of making money. This is urban farming in terms of changing food systems, as well as getting your hands dirty.”
BYOB: brew your own booze
In addition to influencing urban food growers, the much-maligned state of the economy has had a partial hand in popularizing the DIY movement of home brewing. Instead of paying inflated liquor-store prices, many Victorians are taking their hooch into their own hands by home-brewing beers and wines.
Gavin Welch, proprietor of the local shop Hobby Beers and Wines, has been in the business for 25 years and has seen the ups and downs of Victoria’s beer-making culture.
“We’re going through a real increase in new people starting out,” he says. “If the economy goes down, disposable capital goes down and people will make more.”
But it’s not all about saving a buck. A general enthusiasm for natural living also plays a part in home-brewing’s popularity. “It’s west coast people,” says Welch. “People here like knowing what’s in their beer.”
This interest in a natural approach is certainly a driving factor for local beer-maker and DIY enthusiast Alex Slonimer. Environmental scientist by day, DIY-er by night, Slonimer admits that cost is a factor in his choice to make is own beer, but there are other benefits that entice him to brew.
“Mostly, it’s fun to be creative,” he says. “You get to make varieties of beer you can’t actually buy anywhere. You get to try things other people don’t because it doesn’t get put on the corporate scheme market.”
As someone who strives to include DIY into everyday life, from making his own leather goods to grinding his own flour, Slonimer says the recent resurgence in the DIY movement can be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with popular culture.
“I think that for the past 50 years, on a broad scale, we have just been so sucked into TV that things like hobbies fell by the wayside,” says Slonimer. “Now people are just like, ‘TV fuckin’ blows’ and there is more of a desire to fill their time with something constructive, to actually create things instead of having other people’s creativity forced upon you.”
God bless the printing press
The desire to provide an outlet for this kind of creativity is what spurred Hal Niedzviecki to start Broken Pencil, the Toronto-based magazine of ‘zine culture and the independent arts. Niedzviecki admits that the idea to start his own magazine was, at first, born of a selfish desire to get exposure for his self-described “pretty weird short-stories.” But he soon realized that there were more writers like him seeking an outlet in a world of corporate publishing obstacles.
“I started to think we needed a publication that would promote the general weirdness available,” says Niedzviecki. Over 17 years later, Broken Pencil is thriving in both print and online forms, devoted exclusively to underground culture and providing a guide for fledgling writers, bookmakers and ‘zinesters.
Running a magazine in an age where the fear of career death is regularly hurled into the hearts of anyone in proximity to the print industry, Niedzviecki has heard his fair share of soothsaying about the great internet takeover.
“What everybody said, specifically about publications, was that the internet would sort of kill the desire to make things, to make the actual paper publications,” says Niedzviecki. “That actually didn’t turn out to be true. What we’ve seen, in the last five years or so, is a resurgence of people really wanting to make physical objects as the ephemeral, ethereal world of the internet becomes less satisfying.”
And it’s not just the print world. Niedzviecki sees an increasing need for the production of tangible objects across many creative sectors. “We are seeing a lot more people interested in crafts and from there, people making all kinds of things,” he says. “I know people are making their own board games and putting them up online so you can print them out. You see open-sourced plans for making your own farm equipment and things like that, without having to go to a corporate source.”
Here exists an interesting dichotomy. The recent flock towards DIY culture is a direct result of the information made available online, yet, at the same time, is in response to the impersonal, intangible world the internet has created. Niedzviecki points out that there’s a constant struggle between what the online community provides and the atmosphere of corporate dominance.
“The possibilities are there and I think we are going to continue to see a lot of really interesting innovations and projects,” he says. “At the same time, we consequently see the lockdown of culture, things that sort of stifle innovations, whether they be copyright laws or various cases of internet throttling.”
Hands on public property
For this reason, Derek Jacoby believes that the reclamation of technology is the key to the future of a thriving society. Jacoby, having worked as a Microsoft engineer, brought his passion for technology sharing back to the island in 2010 and started Victoria Maker Space.
This space provides otherwise hard-to-come-by tools and guidance for people to pursue unique DIY projects. Become a member and you can have access to the Maker Space’s 3D printer, laser cutter, woodworking tools, and even a blacksmithing forge. Jacoby points out that while DIY is nothing new, this latest push toward self-made goods is an important one.
“If you look back 100 years, everything was DIY,” he says. “The last few generations have been a historical aberration where people weren’t making things themselves. We’re kind of hitting the other side of that cycle now where people are realizing they can get more control over their lives, can do more things for themselves when they have control over their own technologies.”
This shift is something that’s not only beneficial to the individuals who participate, but is an integral part of our growth as a culture.
“It’s something we really need as a culture is to make sure that the base level of competence in technology remains very, very high,” says Jacoby. “Pushing technology out to the grassroots and to the people who are most directly using it is a really important trend.”
Despite the perceived importance, some students feel that taking the DIY route is just not worth the time commitment.
“Things like gardening and brewing, they are things that you do when you don’t have other things going on, when you don’t have a job and school and volunteering,” says Camosun university transfer student Matthew Abney. “It’d be cool to be able to say you did this yourself, of course, but it’s kind of a trade-off at the same time.”
Others, like Kirsten Hundza, like the money-saving factor and the feeling of accomplishment DIY projects provide. “It just feels better to do something on your own and it’s cheaper,” says Hundza. “I’ve painted my room, I’ve painted a dresser. I’ve made a headboard and some side tables and a chessboard. I always tell people, ‘I made this; I did this.’”
Even for icons like Niedzviecki, finding the time for projects is a challenge. But the Broken Pencil founder still makes room for a little leisure in his schedule.
“I am an avid urban gardener,” he says. “I was making my own wine for a bit. I’m a do-it-yourself cook, making things like smoked salt or these big briskets that take 14 hours to make. I love to do all that stuff.”
For those who choose the handmade way, there’s a consensus that a life of DIY is one worth living. “There are so many things that I’d like to be doing,” says Niedzviecki. “I could go online right now and learn how to make my own sarsaparilla and I would love to spend half the day doing that. I kind of wish I didn’t have to make money so I could devote myself to these pursuits.”
Don’t we all, Hal. Don’t we all.