How do we characterise craftmakers in the 21st century? Are the varied activities of making taking on a profound shift in response to globalisation, technological change and new cultures of making and consumption? Is making being transformed by an emergent “new industrial revolution”? These were some of the questions addressed by the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift event, held on 20/21 November in London and billed to “explore how advances in materials, processes and technologies are driving innovation in craft practice.”
As chair of three of the sessions, I found the conference inspiring, challenging and dazzling in the sheer diversity of practices and perspectives that were represented. Running alongside the event was the national Make:Shift:Do programme of open workshops, exhibitions and talks that dovetailed the London conference and places the discussions in a national context of making. In Dundee, Louise Valentine and Jo Bletcher put together an ambitious programme of practical workshops, a salon discussion event, and an exciting new exhibition of work from designers, makers and up-and-coming undergraduate students. For us, embedding Make:Shift within our teaching programme and culture was an opportunity we could not miss!
In the conference summing up I presented some initial ideas and reflections, which this post expands on. They are not offered as a definitive view, but as perhaps a starting point, and I would value comments on them. This is not intended as a summary of the conference, as that can be better gained from the conference website with the videos of the various sessions.
Empathy for process and people
Right at the start, Martina Margetts raised the critical question of how we define makers and making. The presentations and discussions of the event provided evidence that definitions are fluid and increasingly diverse. Early on in the conference, one participant described craft as “empathy for materials and process”. This certainly seemed to be reflected in a range of the practices presented and discussed. through an ‘empathetic engagement’ makers had discovered new values and explored the creative affordances of seaweed, loofas, industrial estates and advanced robotics. But empathy for the physical, technical aspect of craft is clearly an incomplete perspective. Empathy for people is critical. As one contributor said “technology is just a tool, that’s all – above all, it’s about exploring context”. The human context is the driving force, to produce work that has cultural relevance and resonance. This human context does not just concern the use and consumption of crafted objects and systems, but far more significantly its production – and perhaps this is where empathy is most necessary.
Collaborating through a trustful language of touch
From the opening keynote to the closing speech and through just about every presentation in between, Make:Shift highlighted a new spirit of collaborative working, and a passion for defining new languages to underpin and enable these collaborations. Roger Kneebone introduced the idea of reciprocal illumination as a way of understanding how we advance craft knowledge. The old teacher > student model of learning has been supplanted by the maker <> maker model of advancing mutually supportive practices. This has echoes of Richard Sennett’s notion of the social expert, and suggests a welcome advance from the conventional notions of how craft should be taught. It made me question how we could better and more explicitly embed reciprocal illumination in our craft courses. Collaboration requires communication, and Roger Kneebone also raised questions about how we develop languages of touch, and of how we value the eloquent voice of silence.
On the final morning of the conference, I asked participants on twitter what their key takeaway had been so far. Tony Quinn replied: “The link between language, skill, collaboration and trust to develop and sustain one’s practice and one’s community of practice”.
Twenty years ago, Crafts Council and other events presented craft as a very much more individualised and solitary practice. I will speculate on some of the factors that have shifted us more towards collaboration a little later.
The maker as DJ
Colleagues at the event from Benchmark tweeted that today’s maker has become a DJ. As co-inventor of the Rip + Mix ‘designer as DJ’ method of innovation in service design, this struck a chord. In many cases we could see where makers were mixing age-old craft knowledge with new knowledge and finding new contexts and applications for their outcomes. We could see evidence of this with Michael Eden’s ‘digital ceramics’, with the electro embroidery of Sarah Taylor and Sara Robertson and in the new hybrid lab described by Raymond Oliver. DJs are above all expert curators and – in a whole variety of ways – create wholly new experiences and sounds out of what they find. Lauren Bowker mixes insights and innovations from science to crafted wearable objects, Roger Kneebone finds harmonising elements from highly disparate craft sources, and Fi Scott discovers hidden values and processes in gaskets and sailmaking.
If we seriously view the modern maker as curator of technologies, materials, tools and practices, as much as an originator, then this places further demands on them as social experts and collaborators.
Farmers and cowboys/girls
Roger Kneebone raised the issue early on about the difference between scored and improvised performance. For a musician this places very different demands on them – as it does the craft maker. This caused me to think about different modes of craft practice, and to connect with an idea expressed recently by Brian Eno. In his view there are two types of creative practitioner: farmers and cowboys. The former has a patient and intimate relationship with the tools and materials of their practice, and has a wealth of learned knowledge and experience to draw upon. The latter works largely in new territories with far less knowledge and experience, and improvises with what is available to them: “I often think that art is divided into the musical Oklahoma: the farmer and the cowboy. So the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.”
In my view, craft – or indeed any creative practice – requires both cowboys and farmers. A constant search for new territories could pull destructively at the bonds of community and sense of common purpose that reciprocal illumination demands, while the focused cultivation of one creative territory would seem to negate any sense of progress. What becomes interesting is listening to the experience of those makers who have no problem in shifting from one role to another, and back again. Michael Eden, for example, appears very much at ease at being both farmer and cowboy.
Makers as facilitators
The new collaborative culture of craft reflects significant new developments in creative practice over the past decade. The emergence of design jams, maker spaces, the open source movement, DIY culture, a new connectedness enabled by social media has led to new ways of learning and sharing, new forms of collaborative creativity, new forms of practice that not just blur, but render obsolete the old professional/amateur distinctions. Makers are as much concerned with facilitating and supporting the creativity of others, as they are with developing their own. Indeed many define their creative output in terms of facilitation. Increasingly, makers are crafting new opportunities for the creative empowerment and expression of others. The maker spaces and other projects hosting Make:Shift:Do events are evidence of this – as indeed is the Global Sustainability Jam that opened worldwide on the final day of Make:Shift.
A new industrial revolution?
At least a couple of the speakers took issue with some of the more fashionable ideas being expressed currently. Raymond Oliver claimed “I do not believe in wearable technology”. Others rejected 3D printing as overhyped. And while Chris Anderson’s book Makers was cited by two speakers, there was some questioning whether his notion of a new industrial revolution was valid. Revolutions are not made by technology or tools – revolutions are made by people and their aspirations for change and new values.
Ours is not a time of revolution – industrial or otherwise. But is is perhaps a time of an accelerating shift in craft’s relevance and role, and an associated shift in the role of the maker. We are on a new frontier, and therefore we need cowgirls and boys, who can explore and define new creative territories. The qualities they need above all else are empathy, a confidence in collaboration, a curatorial spirit and a willingness to constantly shift from the new frontier to the farm and back again. And perhaps above all, the frontier spirit demands a fair bit of courage.