08 March 2007

Crafts Organic Approach

Continuing the debate about craft and the digital - I came across this interesting book by Robert Frenay - Pulse: How Nature is inspiring the Technology of the 21st Century. What caught my eye was his suggestion that the new technology (and biology) will be "consciously crafted by humans" by bringing organic principles to all of human design. I quote "The machine age is about to meet a superior challenge. This doesn't mean the end of technology. There will be more of it now more than ever. But our best innovations will no longer be like those that sparked the industrial revolution. In the future they will increasingly be like living things. Not life in the traditional sense, but a biology that has been consciously crafted by humans - a new biology".

Included in this new technology are approaches such as haptics. One of the best examples of this being driven by craft is the Tacitus Project that explores the relationship of the applied arts to science and technology. Funded by the Arts & Humantities Research Council it has developed some Haptic Interfaces. "Haptics is the study of human touch and interaction with the external environment via touch. Haptic interfaces are a class of human computer interaction (HCI) devices that predominantly appeal to this particular sensory modality. Touch is unique as a human sense in that it can be used to gather information regarding the external environment and also to interact with it. " Anne Marie Shilitto is a jeweller and research fellow at Edinburgh College of Art and manager of the Tactitus project. This is another good example I feel of how craft is transforming the digital. For me crafts unique contribution to the digital is its organic approach.

I have argued that the philosophical origins of craft are founded on the organic principles of the German Romantics and Goethe in particular. See conference abstract on the New Craft: Future Voices Conference website. The full paper will be discussed at the conference itself in July 2007. Similarly Frenays book also discusses nature - "not as a place we visit or a focus of concern but as a system, a philosophy, a guide for our thinking and solutions in an increasingly complex world."

As an organic approach - craft is naturally slow, because it is grounded in relationship and connections and gradual improvements. Adopting an organic approach to the digital and technology also raises the importance of pattern, something that the crafts is particularly expert in. See for example the work of Frances Stevenson who works in printed textiles. Frances also attended the Radical Craft Conference in Pasadena last year - See last years blog. I will quote from that blog here to underline the point that craft is at the heart of the debates about making processes that are akin to living organisms.

"Our world was the subject of Constance Adams presentation,(she works for NASA) and I think her presentation was about as radical as you get. She presented 'Crafting the Mothership, space architecture'. She explained that Earth is ONE complex organism and in order for earth to survive the organism must propagate. If earth is the mothership then spacecrafts should be sent out to propagate other environments.This talk was great as it involved radical ideas in terms of how space exploration has forced 'makers' to rethink how they get something to work. She highlighted structures like soil, crystals and grains. Growing and living structures that are necessary for life. Structures that demonstrate the movement of life. What was really interesting is that she highlighted the need for natural methods and materials being used in order to sustain life, and how future visions look back to traditional roots. " This quote also connects with Jane Harris's discussion of the term craft in Mikes last post (see below) where she acknowledges that the term craft is being used in a process led way, such as 'crafting nano materials', to associate something that's so far ahead of us with something that's very past in order to realise it in the present.

This vision of organic craft would also include my own work (in partnership with Fraser Bruce at Dundee University) and colleagues in Edinburgh University and Professor Fraser Stoddart and his research group at UCLA looking at crafted approahces to Nano-technology.

What is also interesting about this is the link back to Bruce Sterling and his shaper/mechanistic short story series. These stories were concerned with a human genetic future and the ultimate commodification of humanity. The organics of craft and the organic principles of the 'new biology' shifts us away from the either or choice of the mechanists or the shapers but enables us to consider a future in which mechanistic technologies are incorporated within an organic approach.

So the 'new biology' as Frenay points out "... doesnt reject the machine age. It builds on it and incorporates that by stirring its classic logic into the larger complexities and dynamics of living systems." By acknowledging crafts organic principles we have much to contribute to this emerging future. It would be good to hear views on this and suggestions of other relevant organic craft examples.

06 March 2007

Slow design

Here at Craft Research we are pleased to share our thoughts and observations with a generally small but committed readership. And they are not all lonely weavers from Fife. Some live as far afield as Edinburgh. In fact, we have readers and comment contributors from throughout the world, and generally get around 30 hits per day. At one stage last week we were getting 30 hits every hour - and from places we don't normally get hits, like Harvard, Price Waterhouse and Microsoft. Weird, eh? The reason for this is that Bruce Sterling had quoted and linked us on his blog. He had referred to the admittedly rather provisional typology of digital craft practice I had put forward in the previous post, concluding his comment with: "Oh really? Do say more!".

I started to draft something in response, then read an article that fluently expressed what I was trying to say. The article is in Crafts, which is published by the UK Crafts Council. I've subscribed to this for a decade and a half, and in the last few years seriously wondered why. In the days when Peter Dormer strode its pages with his impassioned writing, Crafts raised debate and helped to gain a contemporary relevance for the crafts. But since his sad death, the publication appeared to slip ever closer to coffee table anonymity. Now, with a new editor, refreshed look and some sparkier writing it has a welcome reinvigorated spring in its step. From being the Daily Telegraph of the applied arts, it's now more like the Sniffin' Glue of the connected crafts. With Caroline Roux at the helm, Crafts is on a far more interesting path.

In the latest issue Jane Harris and Timorous Beasties are in dialogue with Nick Barley, recently appointed as Director of The Lighthouse, Scotland's Centre of Design. The entire article is worth reading, but alas it is not online, so below I have included some excerpts that hopefully address Bruce Sterling's request for more on the relationship between crafts and the digital. JH is Jane Harris. PS is Paul Simmons. AM is Alistair Macaulay.

PS - It's interesting that even the name of the magazine we're going to be in - the dreaded 'craft' word - got such a bad rap in the 90s. But being at art school helped us learn about material, about process, about how to actually make something because after all, we've got to learn about that in order to design for it.
JH - It's a term I fought against during that time - ironically, there's now a new use for it, particularly in the context of emerging media. They're using it in a process led way, such as 'crafting nano materials', to associate something that's so far ahead of us with something that's very past in order to realise it in the present.
PS - Tom Dixon's a craft person, so is Marc Newson, Ron Arad; all these people started making things for themselves and having that knowledge of the materials.
AM - And that's what sets them apart, because they're totally involved.

There then follows a fascinating discussion which ends up focussing on why time and development and reflection are central to the craft process, and how this results in unique outcomes. Finally Jane says:

JH- I went to a wonderful presentation the other day by Gossypium who have spent the last 15 to 20 years working with cotton farmers in India, really going back to source. They have a shop where they sell basic clothing and it just walks off the shelves but everything's shipped in from India, and people can wait six months for a babygrow. It's an incredible concept: it's like slow food.

Slow design: that is craft's contribution to digital culture.