31 May 2006

Inclusive definitions

Leslie Madsen-Brooks says: "I understand that within any study, the researchers need to define their area of study. Otherwise, the project's scope can become too large to address in a single article or book. That said, an attempt to define "fine craft" seems especially risky and high-stakes."

She rightly indicates temporal and cultural shifts in our definitions of "fine craft" and "art" and the dangers of embracing "a hierarchy of craft". I think that we are all highly cautious of definitions that smack of hierarchy - rather we must acknowledge and map diverse practices. A key objective in what we are discussing and researching must be to enhance the value and status of craft which, in a phrase I've used elsewhere, is usually considered "domestic, working class or just plain thick". Thus it simply doesn't appear on the radar of most cultural commentary, apart from those of us working at its outer edges.

What has been interesting over the last week or so is that discourses around craft in the United States have collided with those that we are engaged in over here in the UK and Europe. Our colleagues in the US are concerned with the shifting boundaries between art and craft, framed by feminist interpretations of creative practices (to overly simplify their positions). The issue debated is that of the status of the crafted object as a reflection of the culture that gives rise to it. This clearly is a question that is of key concern to those discussing the crafts in the US.

Its not so much that our concerns (this side of the pond) are hugely different - it's just that we are driven by a different set of issues which arise from the politics of academic inquiry in the UK. These issues focus very much on the status and standing of craft, but in a somewhat different respect.

It's evident that our blog is being read by quite a few colleagues in the US (and elsewhere outside the UK), so for their benefit let me try to summarise some of the key drivers. For over a decade in the UK we have benefited from new sources of funding for research in art and design in our Universities. This has provided opportunities for practice-based PhDs in craft that have demonstrated the value of craft thinking as a unique source of knowledge (in the fairly tight academic sense). This does not appear to be happening in the same way in the US. I've provided a summary of some of this on my own blog. The motivation of many of us trying to further such work is not to define a "new hierarchy" of craft, but to demonstrate how a system and process of thinking that integrates hand and brain has equal value to that of so-called intellectually-based knowledge. To my mind, it's craft knowledge that we must champion and the inherent value of which we must assert and argue for. But while we are fortunate in being able to do such research, there are others in the design research community who are seeking to undermine the validity of such approaches to research.

A project such as this (Craft: Past Present and Future at the University of Dundee) is a unique opportunity to take the debate forward and to weave together radical perspectives of craft and craft knowledge. We should try to move towards a perspective of craft that acknowledges the rich diversity of craft practices, while identifying the relationships between (for example) craft activism/DIY culture, craft as an expression of disenfrachised cultures, craft-centred research and "fine craft".

"Fine Craft" as a category to define those practices that extend innovation and practice in craft in a western-industrial professional context is a valid subject of inquiry and investigation. But let us not for a moment entertain the idea that it represents some sort of pinnacle of the craft hierarchy. For those seeking to assert the value of craft in relation to fine art (and Jorunn Veiteberg in her excellent book is doing precisely this), "fine craft" is an extremely useful definition.

As academics we define, we pick apart, we focus on specifics (if we didn't then we wouldn't get the research funding). But at the same time we must keep our eye on the politics of those practices we seek to explore and understand. Let us keep this debate going, explore differences of emphasis and perspective, but commit ourselves to seeking a synthesis that will raise the profile and status of craft in the 21st century.

29 May 2006

Why define??

Leslie Madsen-Brooks in California wonders why we should be defining Fine craft and creating a hierachy. I don't believe we are creating a hirearchy, but clarifying what is already out there, and answering questions. This comment on her blog is common among craftspeople.

Oooo Girl!!
Comment by debra roby posted Sun, 2006/05/28 - 7:09pm
You and I are gonna have to sit and have a long talk sometime! You are writing about things close to my heart.

I've been trying to write about a valid definition of craft and crafts. It's as hard as trying to catch mercury.

Leslie continues with this comment. "Part of the problem with defining an object as "fine craft" or "art" is that the object may be defined as merely everyday handiwork in one decade may be praised as art or fine craft in the next."

I agree with her. However, this does not make them Fine Craft, but examples of fine handiwork - often traditional craft. The process or skill is traditional, the object is traditional, the materials are traditional, the craftsperson may have outstanding skill in excecuting this craft, but it hasn't moved on. It is not 'new' in the process of thought, in the experimentation in materials or techniques or in the production of something unique.

Leslie wrote " ... that poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice."

Comming from a primative and very poor area in southern Africa, I watched an uneducated, non-intellectual young woman, push the boundries of her traditional craft of basketmaking into a new realm of thinking. She experimented with her materials and the 'function' of the basket, and produced a well crafted, unique, highly desirable basket,(see above) which changed the 'function'(making it one that traditionally held maize meal to one that can carry water as well, or be used as decoration)and the aesthetic of it. Although this woman is not an accademic, she is a thinker. She pushes boundries, experiments, responds to a different voice to that of her teachers, and could, in time, produce a piece of Fine Craft. It is not about the role of women, or the status of women. It applies to craftsmen too.

With so much confusion about craft I believe there needs to be a set of clear definitions. Do you have any good ones? What do you think defines Traditional Craft? What defines Popular Craft - hobby craft, pop craft, DIY craft etc all fits into this catagory ... or does it? Is there something that rises above what is out there and can be defined as Fine Craft? You tell me!

Fine Craft - let's have a debate!

Georgina's recent post has stimulated some spirited discussion on museumblogging authored by Leslie Madsen-Brooks in California.

I have reproduced most of the post below, but would recommend viewing the original from the link above. This is a welcome contribution to our discussion.

I've been following with some interest the relatively new blog craft research...
Throughout its three-month history, its contributors have been discussing definitions of craft. For example, Liz Donald writes,
I was interested to read that in Australia craft of exceptional quality of workmanship, uniquene and refined, and show a degree of problem solving, creative intellegence and innovation, is classed as 'Art Craft'. In the USA the same criteria is used to but called 'Fine Craft'. In the UK I have found no distinction in the crafts. Everything is lumped together. What do you think?

I've been thinking about definitions of craft quite a bit lately, which might seem a bit odd for an academic whose current project is on the history of science. My next project, however, will be focused on hobbies and crafts. And I do see some connections between women's place in the sciences and women's craft work.

A recent post written by the project's principal investigator, Georgina, both piqued my interest and raised my hackles. An excerpt:
Time to move on. The practice of crafts, and the arena in which crafts operate has changed, not is changing. We have to see a future, so, what aspect of craft practice? Can we move into a new paradigm? I suggest that we start to look at the intellectual basis, seeing the thinking process, not the happy clappy hands that everyone keeps referring to, (i.e. make it but don’t think about it, or the home therapy session), is not what is meant by a system of thought that moves through the processes and materials, using each and every aspect of making as additive to practice. Until this is accepted as the boundary for fine crafts you are lost in icing sugar! Sweet, synthetic and too much makes you sick!

She concludes with an invitation for engagement with this "intellectual basis," and says "I will respond with works that I can identify as fine crafts."

I understand that within any study, the researchers need to define their area of study. Otherwise, the project's scope can become too large to address in a single article or book. That said, an attempt to define "fine craft" seems especially risky and high-stakes.

photo by Michael and Felicity

Part of the problem with defining an object as "fine craft" or "art" is that the object may be defined as merely everyday handiwork in one decade may be praised as art or fine craft in the next. Take, for example, the the quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama. The quilts and the African-American women who created them were "discovered" by the U.S. art establishment earlier this decade and exhibited at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere. Since then, the quilts have been celebrated in a book and their designs licensed for use in rugs.

Another problem with Georgina's desire to focus on the intellectual effort of craft comes from the fact that poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice. Segments on NPR and PBS reveal that these women do think about their aesthetic choices and see their quilts as individual creative achievements. But outsiders have not always recognized their quilts as such.

It's easy, I think, to look at much of the production on Craftster, Etsy, and whip up as amateurish and, to borrow Georgina's phrase, "happy clappy." But it's not always clear what separates the most original and technically accomplished (again, both value judgments) work on these sites from "professional" work featured on, for example, design*sponge.

The craft-art boundary is increasingly blurred, and I think that's a good thing, especially for women. I worry that setting up a further hierarchy within craft--by distinguishing some craft as "fine" or "high"--could hurt the thousands upon thousands of women who hope to sell their work and become self-supporting, as then standard-issue craft becomes less valuable (culturally and monetarily) than fine craft.

A similar phenomenon has occurred again and again in the natural sciences in the U.S., where work undertaken by women becomes undervalued or made invisible. In the course of my dissertation work, I've learned that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women specimen collectors who sold or donated their collections to museums were not considered to be undertaking scientific work, even though they followed scientific guidelines for preserving their specimens and recording information about them. If they weren't undertaking original research, they weren't scientists. Similarly, women who sold seeds or ran nurseries were not recognized as scientists even if they hybridized new species. Women scientists who worked in museums were expected to undertake both outreach to amateurs and laypeople and to conduct original research on the collections, but only their research for a professional audience was considered real scientific work.

In short, narrow definitions of science have kept women from being recognized for work that is indeed scientific and that, if presented in another light, might have brought them some prestige. Instead of being dismissed as a "seedswoman" or "nurserywoman," for example, a woman who hybridized plants would earn more acclaim if we called her a "biotech pioneer."

And that's why I'm hesitant to embrace a hierarchy of craft. Such a schema makes craft less democratic; it closes off possibilities, economic and social and cultural, for women.

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

28 May 2006

Fine Craft?

In the link that Mike posted some time back, there is an item of basket making made by Brian Jewett (see below). In this 'traditional craft', I see someone who has taken basket making a step further, and has experimented with materials in order to produce something new. Although it is beautifully crafted, and aesthetically pleasing, it is the beginning of interrogating materials, but not interrogating the process. Fine craft it is neither art masquerading as craft nor vice versa. Other people have experimented with traditional skills but have pushed the boundries of their skills, techniques and materials and produced items no-one has made before.
The picture I have added is a small fragment of Coptic Cloth about 182x55cm in size. the weave is exquisitly fine, beautifully executed, using new techniques in order to weave the stylized faces and demonstrating considerable thought - intellectual process. I consider this a piece of Fine Craft.

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

That's the Ticket!
Brian Jewett's background is in manufacturing. He left the world of widgets and wonder to start his own small business, thenstarted sniffing around some community learning courses in welding, which led to classes at the Otis School of Design. At Otis, he discovered....Basket Weaving! Rather than getting right with nature and making some really sweet birchbark berry baskets, Jewett turned to what he knows best...industrial materials. His baskets take largely traditional forms, but utilize material like rubber tubing and cable ties to achieve some seriously stunning modern effects. People in the basket making community have largely embraced him--it's been my experience that many people in traditional crafts don't think of themselves as artists or creative people, but craftspeople are anything but playa haters--they love to see people push the envelope. He's studied with some of the masters of the form, and continues to develop baskets, vases, and beautiful bowls made out of tickets!
Liz Donald,
PhD Student Researcher,
Past Present and Future Craft Practices

25 May 2006

Get a New Life

Time to move on. The practice of crafts, and the arena in which crafts operate has changed, not is changing. We have to see a future, so, what aspect of craft practice? Can we move into a new paradigm? I suggest that we start to look at the intellectual basis, seeing the thinking process, not the happy clappy hands that everyone keeps referring to, (i.e. make it but don’t think about it, or the home therapy session), is not what is meant by a system of thought that moves through the processes and materials, using each and every aspect of making as additive to practice. Until this is accepted as the boundary for fine crafts you are lost in icing sugar! Sweet, synthetic and too much makes you sick!

So moving on the definition as one of a process of thought, using the intellect and materials, what do you see when you evidence such practice? Please put in works that exemplify such thought, let the dog see the rabbit, and then we can talk about real things, not theories grounded in ether, but work!

So, send me some and I will respond with works that I can identify as fine crafts.

Principal Investigator
Past, Present & Future Craft Practice

15 May 2006

...to boldly go...

Dennis wrote, "The important question here is where do the cognitive and affective domains come into play, if all at?They certainly are applicable in art making but what about design? In any case, am thinking about it..."The implication could therefore be that there is no real cognitive domain in Craft, but there is in Design. I agree that in certain aspects of 'craft' where the 'crafter' follows a pattern, uses a kit, or pre-designed materials, there is little cognitive domain. Even in Traditional Crafts, the crafter can become highly skilled and even manipulate traditional 'patterns' to make it more contemporary. However this does not bring the Traditional craft into the cognitive domain. There is a place where a skill is learned, and mastered. Then the crafter moves into a new realm of experimentation, learning, re-experimentation and making; and then moving from the knowledge acquired from the previous 'making' pushes him/herself again into new learning, new development and new knowledge. Every time the crafter makes, there is an intellectual process building on the new knowledge acquired. This is a new domain which I call 'Fine Craft' It is not design, although design serves it (not the other way around)and it is not 'art' although art principles can be applied to it. It is a meeting place between the "Intuative and Rational (composing) and the Interprative and Analytical(musician)where all is called into play" [Dr.Paul Renan.] In this place the 'composer'is creating a platform for the 'musician' (in both cases the fine craftsperson) to boldly go where no man has gone before!

12 May 2006

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.

09 May 2006

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 www.craftresearch.blogspot.com 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 del.icio.us 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?

08 May 2006

Migratory practices: call for abstracts

Call for abstracts

Migratory Practices: exchanges between anthropology, art, craft and design

5th – 6th September 2006, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, United Kingdom

Symposium outline and aims
This symposium aims to bring together artists, makers and academics engaged in ethnographic study and cultural investigation. Over the course of two days we will explore the relationships between anthropology, art, craft and design practices. Presentations are invited on topics related to the areas outlined below. Contributions in the form of academic papers, artists’ talks or other formats (please specify) are welcomed.

Extending the debate
A dialogue between contemporary art and anthropology has emerged over the last ten years. Has craft and design practice been equally involved in this and if so, has it had to transform to embrace social agendas and action in the field? Are there differences in the ways that art, craft and design have drawn on and been drawn to anthropology, and vice versa? What can we learn from asymmetries of involvement between the different practices?

Making and ethnography
Cross cultural study has been a consistent feature of many makers’ practice since at least the late nineteenth century, but this activity has had little critical acknowledgement. When makers study culture can their research be thought of as a kind of ethnography and on what basis can this be decided? For example, can a ceramic piece convey ethnographic knowledge in itself, rather than as a means to the production of more conventional forms of knowledge, such as text?

The use of the term ‘field work’ has become a phrase applied to contemporary artistic practice. This seems to align it to traditions of empirical research and taxonomy in the sciences. Is this term adequate to indicate what artists - and anthropologists - are doing ‘in the field’? How do the processes of representation, presentation and analysis of field notes differ between contemporary artistic practice and contemporary anthropological approaches to fieldwork?

The ethics of anthropological and artistic production
Anthropological practice has been concerned with evolving a methodology that is ethical. This may appear to differ from some artistic practice in which methods are used to expose issues through mechanisms that in themselves appear unscrupulous. Does this also apply contemporary craft and design practices? Does an apparent difference between anthropology and artistic/craft practice create a polarisation that frustrates any hope of inter-disciplinarity?

Details of abstracts and deadline
Presentation slots will be 45 minutes followed by a discussion. Abstracts should not exceed 400 words (you may include appropriate images in addition to text)

The abstract should include the following information:
- title of paper
- presentation format
- conference topic to which it relates
- author’s name and affiliation
- contact information (address and e-mail)
- short CV (not exceeding 125 words)

Symposium conveners: Dr. Jane Webb and Dr. Amanda Ravetz
Please send the abstract (in an MS word file format) by e-mail to j.webb@mmu.ac.uk
by May 31st 2006.
Further information can be obtained from j.webb@ mmu.ac.uk

Craft think tank

Think Tank is a newly formed group of European art historians, theorists and writers engaged in a discussion on the theory and practice of applied arts. Members include Edmund de Waal, Tanya Harrod and Jorunn Veiteberg (see previous post). They do not appear to have a web presence, but were behind this exhibition. As the exhibition text explains:
Each Think Tank member has chosen two works by two different artists. In individual ways these works reflect the positions and directions of applied arts in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. The selection brings together the works of well-known makers and young, recent graduates to create an exhibition which gives a qualified and intellectually stimulating report from the forefront of European applied arts.

Think Tank has produced two publication, copies of which have been obtained and will be lodged with the University of Dundee library. For further information on obtaining their publications, Think Tank are emailable: thinktank@gmunden.at

New book on craft

Craft in Transition is an excellent new book on craft theory by Jorunn Veiteberg of Bergen National Academy of the Arts, Norway. Recently translated and published in English, this highly readable volume is an extremely important contribution to its field. Presented in three parts, the first essay explores the shifting boundaries of craft practice, the challenges of definition, and its relationship to contemporary fine art. The second part examines "the problem of beauty" and is in itself a vital contribution. The third part explores the craft / fine art relationship through an exhibition curated by the author in Bergen. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Gray's School of Art Challenging Craft Conference. In summary, highly readable and engaging, full of fresh insights. My personal favourite is this:
It is not what beauty is that is the issue, rather what it does. Beauty is about the rhetorical tools that craft utilises in order to arouse visual joy and desirte, heal spiritual wounds and worn out bodies, and about the aspect that makes a piece irresistable (even though we may not have liked it initially). In brief, beauty is about craft's affective side.