Thursday, September 28, 2006

Positioning the arts at the heart of society

An interesting discussion has just got underway on the demos blog about arts and cultural policy, with references to cultural policy in the UK, Australia and France. Not explicitly about craft, but has implications for policy that could further and support it.

There is also reference to a recent demos book entitled "Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy" which is available as a free download from here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This looks like "craft research"

Indeed it does. The Craft Research blog has developed well over the months, and in the run up to the craft conference in July will provide a vital role in furthering discussion around its themes. As one of the contributors to that blog, I felt it appropriate to spin off my own research interests as Hand Made Theory, so that they don't dominate the discussions. I will continue to contribute to Craft Research when appropriate.

In the meantime I have placed here some of the postings I've made to Craft Research, so that thoughts, reflections and threads can be kept in one place.

Friday, September 22, 2006

In favour of craft based education

A recent piece by Matthew B Crawford, writing in The New Atlantis provides a spirited case for craft-based education. He argues for the importance of making in education and culture:

"Perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work."

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In Shop Class as Soulcraft he provides a well argued case for 'shop class' (to use a US term) citing Braverman (whose Labor and Monopoly Capital, pictured above, remains a critical text in this field) and Marx is an essay which makes key points about both the degradation of blue-collar and white-collar work. Many of the arguments reflect those coming from the 'new' craft activitists / DIYers, but rooted in an analysis of work in a more Marxist sense.

The politics of knitting

Anne Galloway, on her blog Purse Lip Square Jaw, has written a great piece on knitting and public politics. As she concludes in the post:

"...It is this making of culture that is so important and valuable when it comes to public politics. Knitting's strongest contribution, then, is a persistent demonstration of the ability to craft culture materially, socially and ideologically. The question that most interests me at the end of the day is what kinds of culture and politics are being crafted, and by whom?"

Problems with the F word

For many of us working in craft research, we have spent a not inconsiderable time anguishing over the use and validity of the C-word. Some prefer not to use "craft" at all, using handles such as "designer-maker" or "intelligent making" to describe their practices and research interests. Now, as debates on this blog have shown, we face new complications with the F-word.

"Fine" craft opens up a new contested territory of practice and understanding. As I've said previously, I think that it is a categorisation of creative practice that is useful to explore, but I would appreciate some clearer definition from somebody about what it is.

It seems to me that the idea of "fine craft" could be derived from one of two things. The first is "fine jewellery", a well used and understood term that broadly means:
Jewels with precious gem set (diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire in platinum or gold setting) differing from semi-precious jewels (such as amethyst, aquamarine, tourmaline in gold or silver setting) and costume jewellery (imitation stones in base metals, gold-plated settings). The difference is in the distribution and sales channels since fine jewellery is most exclusively sold through high-end independent sellers or exclusive jewellery chain stores.
In other words, the "fineness" refers to its economic value: craft for rich people. However, it is clearly the case that craft for rich people in the 21st century need not be defined simply in terms of the economic value of the materials from which it is made.

David Poston's treacle-tin armlet

David Poston's laser welded armlet made of treacle tins was one item in this year's Col lect exhibition. Germaine Greer referred to this piece in her review of Col lect in The Guardian, which stressed both the high cost of much work on show, and its lack of utility:
"There was only one basket maker, almost no cutlery, few textiles. Everything was meant to be displayed, not used. It is a feature of 21st-century life that craft is discontinuous with our lives; our dwellings have become showrooms for conspicuous consumer durables."
So, to take "fine craft" as a definition related to "fine jewellery", we are talking about symbols of conspicuous consumption - beautifully crafted, but exclusive and "discontinuous with our lives."

study for grey areasonly onesuspend

The second derivation could be "fine art", where we are stressing the conceptual content of the work. Caroline Broadhead, whose work is shown above, is prominent amongst those makers whose work bridges craft/fine art. The difficulties of bridging this divide, especially in terms of the institutional obstacles presented, are very well explored by Jorunn Veiteberg.

The semantics of the f-word itself aside, a further interpretation of "fine craft" could be that which is professionally-defined - in other words, craft produced by art school graduates. This professional segmentation of creative practice is also noticable in fine art, where the art establishment is rigorous in its policing. The reason that the UK's top selling and highest profile painter is in the permanent collection of only one public gallery in the country (in Kircaldy) is less to do with quality of his work, and more to do with the fact that he's a former mining engineer from Fife who is self-taught. As Sir Terence Conran says of Jack Vettriano:
'They turn their backs on him because his work has been reproduced on posters, which I think is incredibly elitist and snobbish. In Scotland the art establishment has sneered at him because he is self-taught."
So, which is it?

As we await responses, check out a recent article in The Guardian on the new political crafters. It quotes Betsy Greer, who says:
"Each time you participate in crafting you are making a difference, whether it's fighting against useless materialism or making items for charity ... it is possible to go beyond banners, email petitions and chants as ways of fighting for a cause you believe in. You could have a knit-in, papier-mache puppets or teach a crafty class for kids."
This, it seems to me, follows the long historical role of craft which is a way of thinking and acting upon the world as a means of self-development, critical reflection, education and making culture. And at times, to pay the bills, it's about making stuff for rich people.

Craft is fab

Neil Gershenfeld is the Director of MIT's Centre for Bits and Atoms, and author of Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop - from personal computers to personal fabrication which is a vital read for anyone interested in the future of craft. Recommended to me by John Marshall, the book not only helped me to make sense of his doctoral research (finally) but also raised some vitally important issues about craft practice, and the potential of digitally connected craft practice to quite literally reshape social and economic systems.

Fab Labs basically are places for making things. Typically they pull together a laser cutter, sign cutter, a milling machine and the kit for programming microprocessors. Together with the software and control systems, fab labs cost less than $25K. In the book Gershenfeld demonstrates their considerable potential as liberatory tools for students, for communities in India and Africa, for marginalised communities in the US. Together with pragmatic detail on how the kit and the labs work is a highly vibrant text on the primacy of craft and making for creative, intellectual and community development.

Crafters of the world unite.....

Karl Marx was perhaps the original prophet of the Pro-Am economy. In The German Ideology, written between 1845 and 1847, Marx maintained that labour – forced, unspontaneous and waged work – would be superseded by self-activity. He evoked a communist society in which: ‘. . . nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes . . . to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’ By the mid-1850s Marx had already modified this utopian vision and instead looked forward to a time when ‘material production leaves every person surplus time for other activities’.

The Pro-Am Revolution: how enthusiasts are changing our economy and society
is a book by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller published by Demos. Available as a download from here, the book describes the rise of "amateurs who work to professional standards", and who are transforming all fields from music through to software, business and astronomy: "The Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked, by new technology. The twentieth century was shaped by large hierarchical organisations with professionals at the top. Pro-Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive and low-cost." In the passage at the top of this post, the authors are making the point that technological and cultural changes are moving us very close to Marx's ideal of how a communist society would actually work. A more recent article in Fortune suggests the significance of the DIY economy. DIY is thus a mash-up of the post-industrial enterprise economy and good old unreconstructed communism.

Today I received an email from the ever-perceptive John Marshall who was trying to link together some of the issues I've been raising in this blog with issues that he too has been exploring. Links he provided led me, somewhat accidently, to the Leadbeater book and the Pro-Am thesis, which strikes me as one way of framing some of this stuff. To quote from John:

I was reading your posts at when I made a mental connection to something I was reading at Anne Galloway’s blog:

“In the past I would have considered these things amongst the ill effects of capitalism, but now I think it's a bit more complicated than that. After all, some of this labour is actually being done for free. Out of love even, like with Flickr or any number of mod communities. The DIY ethic, in fact, is based on the power of creative re-use and re-appropriation. But these terms are now being tossed around in software and hardware development like organisations and companies only care about democratic participation, and not profitability. Jean Burgess knows much more about mass amateurisation and vernacular creativity than I do…”

There are some interesting posts at Jean Burgess’s blog creativity/machine on vernacular creativity (see under categories in her sidebar). I think that is a great academic term to describe this type of activity.

I agree with John that Vernacular Creativity is a useful term to describe these emergent activities which focus around craft and making. The digital culture that manifests VC appears to be growing rapidly: there is HobbyPrincess and her Craft Manifesto, there's the Make blog, from which is arising Craft Magazine. Then we have Readymademag, and the making things blog. Taking an interesting and explicit political position is Craftism. I am trying to document as many of these as I come across on my page.

I have thrown all of this down, not to make a point, but rather to pose some questions:

What implications does all this have for "fine craft", and how does it change the culture of consuming such craft?

How should we regard the rise of vernacular creativity?

How should we curate and critically comment on the digitally connected vernacular crafts?

What are the political implications of this new culture?

DIY Craft

Right now we are witnessing a remarkable cultural phenomenon which is the spiralling interest and participation in DIY crafts. Just take a look at the links for craft, and you will see what I mean.

Here's one attempt to pin down what's driving it - from the HobbyPrincess blog.

On the Redefining Craft blog, Dennis Stevens poses an important question:

Where is the definition that addresses craft with respect to the flurry of creativity that we are currently seeing within the DIY community?

Certainly this is craft or crafting, just not craft as we commonly know it. It is slightly reminiscent of the 1970’s craft movement, but this a remix; it is witty and it is often nostalgically ironic and it offers biting sarcasm with regard to the presumed role of domestic creativity within our culture. However, a common definition remains elusive.
A number of bloggers are addressing this field and their taglines are descriptive of the common themes among DIY craft practitioners, i.e.:

Extreme Craft: Compendium of craft masquerading as art, art masquerading as craft, and craft extending its middle finger

Craftster: No tea cozys without irony

SuperNaturale: Celebrates ingenuity, creativity and the handmade

Craftivism: Documenting the crafty life, stitch by political stitch

WhipUp: Handcraft in hectic world

New definitions of craft

I've recently been reading research by Cathy Treadaway, whose doctoral research is investigating the impact of digital technology on creative textile practice. This page has links to her on-line publications and projects. In her discussion she raises Walter Benjamin's notion of aura, that describes the emotive aspect that appears to be absent from industrial product. She argues that aura comes from David Pye's idea of the workmanship of risk. Cathy's research shows that practitioners (design and craft), who are working in the main digitally, acknowledge the vital importance of hand making in the creative process. As she says (in a currently unpublished piece) "the emotional content of digitally produced artefacts therefore, resides in the perceived evidence of physical interaction of its author".

So, at the risk of summarising a very fullsome argument, craft in the early 21st century can be defined in terms of a process whereby designers provide emotive engagement for consumers through physical innteraction with materials and process. Craft may be a minor part of the development process (or not).