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Fixing as Repair

‘We are doomed to repair.’ With these words the journal for architecture and urbanism ARCH+ introduces the project “The Great Repair” in its 250th issue. In two ARCH+ issues, an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and a connected education program, The Great Repair invites us to think about the importance of repair practices in light of escalating socio-ecological crises on a planetary scale as a counternarrative to growth-driven ideas about a green capitalist transformation. In a similar vein, literature in the social sciences, humanities, and Science and Technology Studies (STS) increasingly engages with the concept of repair as a vital and potentially transformative practice for fixing futures, shifting the focus from one-size-fits all solutions to the socio-material embeddedness of transformation processes in the everyday practices of repair and maintenance.

It was exactly this sense of ‘fixing’ as repair at the intersection of arts and academia a group of PhD students followed in a self-organized workshop on repair and maintenance as part of the conceptual work and discussions within the research training group (RTG) “Fixing Futures – Technologies of Anticipation in Contemporary Societies”. The workshop consisted of discussions of exemplary academic literature on the one hand, and a visit of the exhibition “The Great Repair” on the other, to bring academic and arts-based conceptions of repair and maintenance in conversation with each other. In what follows, we will share some of our first insights and discussions that were guided by the following questions: What conceptions of repair and maintenance in STS and beyond did we come across? How does the exhibition and its topics resonate with academic discourses? How does it open new perspectives and lines of thoughts? What stands in contrast to each other? The answers to these questions are not spelled out in the text but rather entwined in the different sections that shed light on different aspects of our discussions. 

Repairing as Future-Oriented Practice

In our attempt to understand repair as one dimension of fixing futures, the temporal orientation of repair was of specific interest in our discussions. Thinking with and through the etymology of the term might be useful in this regard. The word ‘repair’ derives from the Latin ‘reparare’, and is a combination of the prefix re-, which can be translated to ‘back’ or ‘again’, and parare, which can be translated to ‘make ready, prepare’. This origin of the term allows to think repair as a retrospective as well as repetitive preparation of something.

In everyday language, repair is commonly understood in the retrospective sense of ‘re- ‘, as a reaction to the breakdown of something, a function that once existed and is now in need of repair. Repair thus involves a temporal orientation towards a past condition or function that needs to be restored and therefore a commitment to continuity (Carr 2023). In line with this, the Great Repair urges us to “Work with the Existing” (Hertweck 2023a) against the cultures of over-consumption and wastage of profit-driven capitalism. 

However, repair does not have to mean exact reconstruction of a past condition or idealized original state. Rather, repair means to prepare something again and again in new forms under ever-changing circumstances and constant decay (Graham and Thrift 2007). It requires some degree of spontaneity as well as innovation in order to make things work under new outer conditions. In the repetitive sense of ‘re-‘, we can understand repair as part and parcel of how the world functions (Graham and Thrift 2007) through interventionist and cyclical repair practices that bridge between what was and what can be – “as an integral imperative of preparing the future” (Lipp et al. 2022: 49). Our encounters with academic literature and the exhibition highlighted that repair is therefore a vital source of (re)invention, improvement, creativity, and transformation (Graham and Thrift 2007; Isenhour and Reno 2019; Denis et al. 2015; Jackson 2014; Carr 2023). It is, in this sense, not only oriented towards the past, but it shapes and forms futures as well.  

Materiality and Metaphor

Against this background, repair is mobilized in both its very material meaning as well as a more metaphorical meaning in the exhibition and academic literature. For the exhibition, ‘The Great Repair’ as an oxymoron was chosen as its conceptual framing (Hertweck et al. 2023). In a basic material understanding, repair is the work needed when something is broken. As such, repair is usually not ‘great’, but rather a situated practice embedded in the everyday (Hertweck et al. 2022; Kuhnert 2023a; Isenhour and Reno 2019; Sormani et al. 2018). The starting point of the exhibition was thus to “Begin with the Everyday” (Kuhnert 2023a).

When we arrived at the location of the Akademie der Künste at the Hanseatenweg, our guide told us how the theme of repair was linked to the recent history of the building itself. The exhibition begins with the very concrete, material understanding of repair: years of restoration work and the never-ending fixing and cleaning of the building. The faces of the Akademie’s workers were not shown, but photographs of their hands are on display in the entrance hall along with the gloves and all the objects and products they use in the daily, Sisyphean process of keeping the building from falling apart.

What is ‘great’, then? What is the metaphor? To begin with, “[G]reat is the need for repair given the degree of destruction of the world” (Hertweck et al. 2022: 3). The Great Repair situates everyday practices of repair within larger geopolitical, socio-economic, and ecological contexts, resonating with an argument Denis et al. (2015, 7) make that social order “can be conceived […] as the concrete result of the everyday practices of material maintenance and repair” (Denis et al. 2015: 7). In this sense, the Great Repair is a call for systemic change by emphasizing the transformative potential of repair. In response to ‘The Great Transformation’, the name given by Polanyi (1944) to the rise of a ‘Market Society’ in the 19th and 20th century, ‘The Great Repair’ is a call for a ‘Repair Society’ (Hertweck et al. 2022). This repair society not only entails large-scale material practices of repair, but also a repair of ways of being in and with the world: repairing social relations and human-nature-relations. The Great repair is, thus, a call to “Practice Repair” (Hertweck 2023b) and “Repair the Practice” (Marić 2023). 

Just as the concrete, material, and everyday practices of repair oftentimes require a lot of knowledge and sophisticated skills, so does repair work on a planetary scale – the kind of knowledge and skills that have been repressed, marginalized, and lost through colonialism and capitalism (Tümerdem 2023b) and that you tend not to learn when you live in the ‘ready-to-hand’ world (Strebel et al. 2019). The exhibition thus emphasizes the need to reappropriate the means of repair, through the use of the slogan “Tools to the People” (Kuhnert 2023b). In addition, the Great Repair also entails to “Decolonize Knowledge Worlds” (Tümerdem 2023b).

However, neither the exhibition itself nor the academic literature suggest more specific insights into how to repair the world at large but stay on a rather abstract level. The translation between the everyday practices of repair at hand in the exhibition and large-scale transformations is left unclear. This leads to a major problem for the future that is not clearly addressed by the exhibition. Ecofeminists have put it into words: Who does and will do all of the dirty work? Who will do the work of the climate crisis? (Carr 2023; Barca 2023)

Repair and Care: (In)Visibilized Work

Linked to this question, another recurring theme in the literature on repair that was equally present in the exhibition is the linkage between concepts of repair and care. Authors such as Elizabeth Spelman (2002), Stefania Barca (2023), and Chantal Carr (2023) link both concepts by emphasizing „the continual and hopeful work of maintaining and repairing relationships in the face of deterioration, disappointment, and failure“ (Carr 2023: 226-227). However, conflating the material meaning of repair with the concept of care – by almost using the terms synonymously – in these texts and some parts of the exhibition sits rather uneasy with us. For one, it further complicates the already blurry definitions and meaning of both concepts, thereby risking subsuming one concept under the framework of the other. The conflation between the concepts is furthermore far from self-evident or non-disputable. Nevertheless, we still want to draw attention to two interesting connections between repair and care.

The first focuses on the material understanding of repair and the (in)visibilization of work. As already stated, the exhibition itself starts by trying to visualize and make visible some of the repair and maintenance work that “takes place behind closed doors” (Hertweck et al. 2022: 3). What we can see here is that most of the time, repair is not “glamorous”, and it is hardly “worthwhile” (Hertweck et al. 2022: 3). It can be boring, dirty, and even toxic. It is attributed with little value, especially in a capitalist economy based on over-consumption, growth, innovation, obsolescence, and waste, and is thus – like care work – oftentimes overlooked. Nevertheless, repair and maintenance are what keeps things running and are “the main means by which the constant decay of the world is held off” (Graham and Thrift 2007). Connecting repair to the concept of care, thus, situates repair into well-established contexts of feminist critique and scholarly perspectives on the invisibilized dependencies of the capitalist system of re/production (see for example Bhattacharya 2017; Fraser 2017; Ferguson 2020). 

The second connection relates the material and embodied repair work to a broader metaphorical/symbolic meaning of repair by emphasizing an ethics of care inherent to repair (see Spelman 2002). Repair in this sense is positioned as a way of caring for the world, for nature and for people and of re-embedding the economy in society, and re-embedding society in its natural environment (Hertweck et al. 2022: 4). (Practices of) repair thereby go beyond the singular artefacts of the exhibition because they point towards the ecological and social consequences of consumption as well as to why and to whom things matter (Isenhour and Reno 2019).

Staying with the Trouble: Repair between Emancipation and Necessity

As we have shown so far, a lot of the literature on repair as well as the exhibition draw on a rather affirmative notion of repair by emphasizing its emancipatory and transformational potential. However, we also want to accentuate three tensions within the concept of repair that exclusively affirmative notions tend to neglect.

The first tension we want to highlight lies in the normativity and desirability of repair practices. This tension arises from questioning when repair can be non- or counterproductive in the sense of repairing the systems, artefacts, or other entities that uphold the status quo and/or affirm ways of life and re/production that perpetuate the exploitation of humans and more-than-human nature. If, for example, fossil infrastructure is repaired – instead of critiqued or replaced – repair practices might also hinder systemic transformations. Thus, repair is not necessarily an emancipatory practice. It is rather a highly normative question, which practices of repair are deemed desirable and which not. This question necessitates a power sensitive reflection on processes of framing something as worthy of and in need of repair. The authority and capacities necessary to qualify something as such are not distributed evenly. 

A second tension inherent to practices of repair inflicts the distinction between repair as choice and repair as necessity. This addresses the question of who can choose and afford not to repair – to let something be destroyed, simply bought anew, or can remove themselves, an object, or a relation(ship) from harm. What then, if there are no means to neither repair nor buy anew, but rather to stay with the damage? Framing repair as emancipatory or as acts of resistance to consumer culture per se (e.g. Isenhour and Reno 2019) obscures the instances where repair emerges out of bare necessity. Therefore, romanticizing repair practices runs the risk of not addressing the underlying inequalities from which they arise. 

A third tension emerges from notions of repairability and non-repairability. Through “Keeping the Scars Visible” (Tümerdem 2023a), as stressed by the exhibition, the visibly damaged oftentimes contrasts restoration fantasies and the assumption of reversibility. This notion reveals traces of repair, that do not fully undo the “material or immaterial wounds” of destruction (ibid.). It shows that, which cannot be repaired; thus, acknowledging the irreversibility of destruction and accepting loss. Focusing on repair as exclusively emancipatory runs the risk of ignoring the questions and debates posed by damages both already inflicted and constantly reproduced. We might need to think about not just the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, but the inevitability to do so (Tsing 2015).

While there are emancipatory potentials to practices of repair, it is important to understand these as enfolding within the tensions laid out above and engage with the conditions shaping them.

Concluding Thoughts

Critically engaging with academic literature as well as art-based conceptualizations about repair enabled us to approach the concept from different angles. While the texts we discussed largely aim to narrow down the problem within a specific frame, the art-based conceptualizations rather explore and exceed the boundaries of the concept. However, despite such a variation in their approach, we have found more similarities between academic and art-based endeavors. Although it seems to be an easy enough concept to define, the more we discussed the clearer it became that the boundaries of the concept of repair are fuzzier and more blurred. The academic literature we have read on repair, indeed, left us with open ends just as the exhibition did. While the artworks in the exhibition did not necessarily fit perfectly to one another or to one specific notion of repair, the academic studies also did not provide us a specific definition either. Rather, these two formats altogether provided insights into a variety of understandings and thereby added more complexity to the notion of repair.

Naomi Bi, Alina Gombert, Hansjörg Graul, Viona Hartmann, Beste Irem Köse, Justine Leret, Annabelle Müller, Nils Richterich, Tobias Wagner


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