29 November 2007

Neocraft Conference

This blog has been a little dormant since July when we held our conference in Dundee, so it is time to revive it with a post on the year's second major craft research conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Five of us from Dundee attended this excellent and well attended event that brought together an international audience and some fine speakers. The conference was initiated and directed by Sandra Alfoldy of NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) who must be congratulated on the energy and vision that brought Neocraft (and its accompanying book, podcasts and associated gallery exhibitions) into being.

Before highlighting some of the themes and issues arising from Neocraft, let me cut to the chase of the key point I wish to make: it is time for a change of gear in the craft research community to ensure its consolidation, and to encourage rigour and scholarship. Major international craft research conferences have been rare - until the last three years. Since 2004 we have had Challenging Craft, Radical Craft, New Craft Future Voices and now Neocraft. So we clearly have a head of steam building in terms of research activity in the field. It is time perhaps to pull these disparate initiatives and networks together around a more clearly defined craft research community. An international research society dedicated to furthering craft research should be our collective project. We have the Design Research Society, the European Academy of Design and others which have all contributed positively to creating a new research culture throughout design. Now it is time for craft. Craft can reach the parts that other design research communities cannot reach - it can connect with feminist discourses, ethnicity, community activism and other areas far more readily than our colleagues in mainstream design research appear able to do. That is a strength that revealed itself most strongly at Neocraft. So, who would like to run with this?

Before you all start drafting your replies which kindly volunteer yourselves to initiate a major international research network, let me set down some of my observations about Neocraft. I'm sure others will have different perspectives which I hope we can share here.

Is modernism relevant any longer?

Paul Greenhalgh kicked the conference off to a challenging start with a paper which had echoes of his contribution to the Dundee conference. In summary: too often we confuse craft with decorative art; the former is a response to modernity, and part of its discourse, while the latter is not. We need to define a new 'politics of making' that concerns itself with new modes of production, the environment, globalisation and ethnicity. Paul, along with the other three speakers in the opening panel, referenced craft in terms of the Arts and Craft movement, the Leach tradition, etc. As an Englishman this gives me a warm glow of pride, but it is short-lived. As the conference developed it was clear that many contributions (including my own) referred to forms of craft that have simply no connection with, or any rational reason to be framed by Morris, Leach and the rest of that well heeled, largely male English set. We have a dominant discourse (modernism) that has arisen from art and design history. But there are now other perspectives and disciplines that have sensible things to say about craft (including management, pedagogy, gender politics) which too often are left on the margins. Two days later, wrapping up the conference, Alan Elder of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation made the point that we need discourses from different perspectives which will help us to "embrace the messiness".

Technology is important - but should not be central

The value, nature and uniqueness of craft knowledge is highlighted particularly when we look at how it can engage with, redefine and discover cultural values in new technologies. Cathy Treadaway, Ulli Oberlack, Valerie Walker and Martin Woolner were among those contributors who provided evidence of this, and there is a potential here to connect craft with innovation theory. This is one of the new frontiers in terms of craft research and redefining the role of the maker in advanced industrial economies. A key contribution to the theme was provided by Grace Cochrane in her inspiring opening night keynote. Craft, she argued, has a shifting relationship with manufacture, and thus design and industry is equally part of the craft world as art is. Her examples showed how craft can not only exploit new opportunities in flexible manufacturing systems and processes, but also offer the potential to create sustainable livelihoods.

But those of us who are buoyed along by the excitement and potential of these technological challenges should balance our enthusiasms with an awareness and sensitivity of craft's other worlds: its centrality to aboriginal cultures, its role in urban political identities, its subversive potential and contribution to sustainability and development (eg: Suzette Wolfe-Wilson's contribution). Craft research is a broad church and we must make sure we keep it that way.

Connections and collaborations

The histories of craft that emphasise the contributions of notable individual makers downplay the importance of collaboration in craft - an unfortunate tendency that infuses too much of our craft education. But so many contributions demonstrated the social dynamics that lay at the heart of craft and which generate much of its knowledge base. In fact, it is difficult to remember a single contribution that didn't refer to collaboration in some way. A few highlights for me... Julliette MacDonald's paper showed how makers can successfully weave together tradition and innovation in collaborative contexts, Ezra Shales' is a gem of a contribution that identified the craft of the factory worker - a hugely under-researched field of inquiry, and Frances Stevenson's paper on sustainable livelihoods in craft. I'm sure there were other highlights - but with four parallel tracks then it was only possible to appreciate a small sample of the contributions. That's where the podcasts will be useful.

What is craft research?

Love Jonsson from Goteborg University was one of the speakers on the closing panel which addressed future directions in craft research. His contribution included a criticism of some UK doctoral practice-based research in craft, which he felt got little further than idle noodling in photoshop which demonstrated only that the makers did not really understand the tools they were using. This appeared to galvanise some spirited support from parts of the audience. I, of course, disagreed with every word he said (until he made some key points on the eclectic nature of research practices and the role of history) but his delivery and passion were just what the conference needed. And why do I disagree? Well, as I sit here surveying the spines of the various practice-based PhD in craft that I have either examined or supervised on my bookshelves I am at a loss to think of a single one that comes anywhere close to idle photoshop noodlings. So, name names Mr Jonsson - or I'll see you in court ;-)

Debate is good, and Love has raised an issue that we should respond to. However, my criticism is that a number of the contributions I heard contained no research whatsoever, and some of the discussions both within the sessions and outside them revealed a scant understanding of the nature of method or rigour. Merely describing practice has its place. But not here.

This brings me back to my opening point. Craft knowledge is a vital and unique resource, sadly undervalued in both academia and the wider world. If we wish to change this, then the bar needs to be set higher in terms of research quality, and sustainable communities of craft research established that provide the support and encouragement to propel more practitioners and researchers over that bar. A new learned society would help to achieve this.

In the meantime, Sandra Alfoldy and her team have provided us with a book and the podcasts of some stimulating presentations that advance craft research far closer towards achieving its potential as a valued area of academic inquiry.