This is a post in relation to other posts that can be found here, here and here. It's time to set the record straight on the beginnings of VHS, what we were seeking to create with the space, and why many members left after people decided to install cameras.
In 2008, the Hackers on Planet Earth conference happened, and ooze and I were in New York City at the Hackerspaces Everywhere talk. Regardless of what you think of Emmanuel Goldstein and 2600, we decided that because it was going to be the last one that we'd show up. Then we decided to try and setup a hackspace. We then talked to skrrl and mwest, and we had our first planning meeting at Spartacus Books at 684 East Hastings Street. The purpose of this meeting was to figure out who to recruit. We reached out to the following:
- Free Geek Vancouver
- Spartacus Books
- Burning Van: Burning Man Community
- Critical Mass/Pedal
- Some Fetish thing?
- Some other random list
We set up the first meeting at the Hackery, and everyone who stayed for the second meeting and kept coming back and putting in money were the people who founded VHS. We started with 20 members, and we had talks every Tuesday and followed the Hackerspace Design patterns. Two of the people involved early on put in the affiliation rule because many of us were screwed around by people who had hidden agendas in other not-for-profit spaces, and were sick of people looking to IPO off other people's work. We weren't against business, but you had to be up front about starting a business and not take advantage of anyone. It's unfortunate that some people view that as a bad thing, and think that it's fine that people are paying for someone to get rich off their time, money and labour.
This also meant that we had to be very careful about who we partnered with and how they could take advantage of us. Very early on, there was this one group that was trying to co-opt anything that was in the DTES that could give them street cred to fund their arts space. Their business model was unsound, and it was clear that they were being outmanouvered by believing the City of Vancouver and their promises of free/cheap rent and support. Furthermore, they were being taken advantage of by other less savoury people, and we wanted nothing to do with them. There was also the cultural olympiad, which was handing out money left, right and center. It would have been very easy to drop our membership model and take the Olympic money and bootstrap right away. However, given that the money was temporary, and was taken by cutting social services, it seemed like a bad idea to even touch that money and it was easier to decide to stay away from it.
Then there's the Anti-Olympic groups. VHS was not Anti-Olympic, and VHS was not pro-Olympic. VHS was a hackspace that wanted to just exist and keep existing AFTER the Olympics. I was a member of ORN, and was under surveillance by the RCMP. We had other people with anti-olympic activities come into the space. We also had people who were doing cultural olympiad stuff come into the space. We also had a bunch of stuff that came from the Olympics that was thrown out land in the space as random electrical junk. We had people try to get us to "Hack the Olympics" numerous times, and I'm certain that we had undercover RCMP agents check out our space and see people solder and leave, beacuse they realized that weird hackers in general weren't a threat to the games (even though some of us in particular were Critical Threats to Olympic Infrastructure).
Overall, we did our best to avoid heat. We had a culture of "Don't get the space shut down", that meant that if you were doing anything that wasn't 100% legal, that you don't do it at the space, and if you did, that you don't document it. That is, that the Board of Directors doesn't find out about it and shit its pants about being sued. Having been on the board of directors for the first three years of the space, I can say that people were good about this rule. When people think of illegal stuff, they think of the big stuff like hacking the state. They don't think of parties that violate fire codes or liquor laws, or anything like that. The thing is that this sort of thing is how spaces in Vancouver like VHS got shut down before. The reality of VHS and the mythos of VHS are very different things, and it all has more to do with governance and business administration than it does to do with fighting the man, or being edgy.
When VHS left 45W and moved to the Bunker, I knew that it was going to have to go more mainstream and be more legitimate. However, the problem was that people were looking at the wrong things when it came to accomplishing that task. For example, you can't have a party at the space open to the general public, do certain things that would get the space shut down by the City and have cameras recording you do it. And you can't have random gaps in your camera footage when the VPD or Fire Chief come by and ask you WTF happened on the night of said event. By having cameras, you are excluding everyone who doesn't consent to their image being shown on your CCTV camera, because they view those terms unacceptable. These people could be co-founders of the space (and in fact one was, it wasn't me, but it was one of the first four), or they could be someone who actually needs to go to a Cryptoparty to learn how to protect themselves from state surveillance, or it could be someone who is fleeing an abusive relationship, and the person who is abusive wants access to the footage. You need solid policies regarding personal data like this, and you can't fuck around with cameras and hold events and have those cameras off at those events as a director of an organization. If you want to stand by privacy and security, they have to be on by default. It'd be pretty pathetic for a space to survive the Olympics but die from a SHHH night gone amok.
In June of 2014, I decided to not renew my membership because the space became an unnecssary risk, and people were saying that they'd rather have working tools than the people who created the space in the first place. In short, it became nothing more than the Laser Cutter club. I can solder and work on Arduino projects at home. I can still hang out with the friends I made at VHS elsewhere. It wasn't until I heard what happened with two different members of the hackspace stealing people's stuff and destroying projects that I determined that VHS was completely toxic and not worth going to. I've heard numerous people talk about how the space changed and how it sucked, but that was just culture, but the fact that the board set itself up to fail so completely by not permanatly banning members for destroying other members property was absolutely ridiculous. Based on that fact alone, I'll tell people to stay away from VHS and to join the many other makerspaces in Metro Vancouver. VHS did have a role in starting things like Mini Makerfaire Vancouver, and members from VHS moved on to create MakerLabs and other maker spaces throughout the region. I doubt that a lot of these spaces would have happened without Makerfaire and VHS, but the fact that VHS values equipment over people, and the fact that members can't even leave their projects in the space without someone coming by attacks the core of what VHS was supposed to be about.
I really don't think that VHS can recover from all the ill will that has been harboured by former and current members over the past two years. To have membership drop overnight by half is bad, and to continoulsy lose members because of infighting after the inital exodus really speaks to fundamental problems that exist in the organization. The only things that are known about the space now is that it's losing members, it's got people who are members or are associated with the space who have destroyed other members property, and it has cameras that can be turned on and off based on the whim of the people who have access to that box. Honestly, I would be amazed if you had anyone who wants to be on the Board of Directors at the next GM, because that sounds like a hell of a lot of stupid bullshit with no reward.