Tag Archives: Craft Australia

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What do we make of Australia?

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At the same time that the long-awaited NAVA National Craft Initiative report was released, the US Whitehouse hosted its first Maker Faire. It makes an interesting comparison.

With the de-funding of Craft Australia, the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council directed the money saved to NAVA, who were charged with writing a report on the craft sector and organising a conference. The report is finally out now and looks an impressive document. It’s especially good at covering the broad spectrum of craft and design organisations. As to be expected, it argues that craft practice is diversifying and needs greater promotion. Hopefully, the document will be useful in arguing the case for continuing support for craft practice, but it should be especially useful as a springboard for discussion in the conference planned for 2015.

It’s worth at the same time listening to Barack Obama’s speech to inaugural the first Maker Faire to be hosted by the Whitehouse. With a great comedic sense of timing – ‘I’m just saying…’ — Obama lists the numerous innovations on display that demonstrate US entrepreneurship. What’s especially impressive is the easeful way he invokes the many individuals involved, as though they are all his buddies. It’s a far cry from the anonymous acronyms and corporations that normally represent technological development. The personalised account matches this form of economic development with a democratic ideology. We are all familiar with this narrative of opportunity and dream – Obama plays it to perfection.

The coincidence of these national celebrations of craft leads us to question what the metanarrative of craft in Australia is, or more broadly what kind of story is leading our creative energy. There’s little in the report about the place of craft in society, and in particular the tension with an extractivist economy that locates value below ground rather than what we can make above it. What does Australia have that matches the English sense of tradition, Italian luxury, Germany technique, Scandinavian simplicity, Indian workmanship, Chinese industry or Latin American folk culture?

While DIY has become official ideology in the USA, it is possible for Australia to make a virtue of its capacity to work in partnership with its neighbours. Australia has the capital that enables it to take risks, offering spaces for innovation. Our neighbours like India and Indonesia have great craft capacity that is currently under-valued. We have an ability to strike a deal between capital and labour that embodies mutual respect rather than race to the bottom. This could be what distinguishes Australia.

I’d argue for Australia’s virtue as a good friend in our region – dare I say a ‘mate’. It’s our capacity to work with others that distinguishes us from other more established cultures. For all the seeming contradictions in this picture, at least it would get the argument started. What do you make of Australia?

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The view on craft from the West–for Form’s sake

The Western Australian craft and design organisation Form has just released a publication New Narratives for Craft: Balancing Risk, Opportunity, Skill, Experimentation that seeks to chart a course for craft in the continent’s largest state. It’s a welcome addition to the nation’s discussion about the state of craft, reminding us how rare it is to find a platform for this kind of discussion after the loss of Craft Australia. It’s particularly pleasing to see it coming from Form, which was one of the organisations that emerged from the corporatisation of craft infrastructure at the end of the 20th century. This involved moving away from the membership model towards broader opportunities for growth. At the time, Form seemed to identify itself against craft, as a redundant subsidised model based on individual expression rather than market and audience needs. Since making the break with studio craft, under the inspiring leadership of Linda Dorrington, Form has realised some epic ventures, such as Canning Stock Route Project, that have re-defined the limits of possibility for an arts organisation. So it’s particularly significant that they now return to the craft conversation. We have a lot to learn from them.

New Narratives for Craft aims to articulate the role for craft in Western Australia. As such, it is quite a sobering tale. Elisha Buttler outlines the challenges of craft, including the need to connect elite practitioners with community and to combat the sense of isolation. Travis Kelleher’s reflection on craft education tells a depressing tale of closures in most of the craft courses in the state. The failure of the Western Australian government to take up the opportunity of the Midland Atelier is a real tragedy. The positive picture is provided by Paul McGillick’s profiles of Helen Britton and Penelope Forlano, which provides models of engagement developed by two leading individual practitioners. But in the end, it’s hard to deduce from the publication what a future path might be for craft in the west.

Much space is given to promoting Form’s achievements. Few would dispute these, but it does make the publication seem more of a marketing exercise than an industry analysis. The cost of corporatising craft in Australia has been a focus on internal marketing, which fails to speak for a broader community. The stellar rise of Critical Craft Forum in the US has shown how quickly a sector can embrace a forum that speaks with a broad voice.

One glaring absence from the publication is reference to the broader West Australian scene. As the dominant economic and cultural force in the state, it seems important to mention the impact of mining. The decline in craft resources that is charted by this publication should prompt some reflection on the costs of extractivism. The radical loss of manufacturing and the fear that Australia is no longer a country that ‘makes things’ does put craft at the centre of an important national debate.

Nevertheless, warm congratulations to Form for a welcome entry into the conversation. But now you’re here, we need your help in facing up to important questions of our time:

  • Can craft practitioners adopt emerging forms of social practice in order to recognise the value in community participation?
  • How can we focus national attention on the costs to our culture in too great a reliance on mining for future prosperity?
  • In what way can we use craft to strengthen our connections in the Asia Pacific region?

Time to get horizontal in Asia

 

Sandra Bowkett is an Australian potter who has been able to establish deep connections with Indian culture through respect for their craft traditions. You can read her story here and listen to the recent ABC Radio National program about her here.


Last night, I attended the launch of a paper by Carillo Ganter and Alison Carroll, Finding a Place on the Asian Stage. This was an Asialink event, designed to advocate for a great focus on the region. In a daring move, they invited the ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to official launch the paper.

After outlining his own history of involvement with Asia, Rudd made some forceful points about what Australia should do. He emphasised that Asia contained some of the oldest continuous civilisations in the world. For Rudd, it was critical that Australia show respect for these cultures. Rudd argued that this respect was manifest in the commitment to learn the languages of the region. He reflected sadly on the recent decline of Asian literacy in Australia. 

In terms of continuous civilisations, Australia certainly does have an indigenous culture, which it proudly presents on the world stage. But as a postcolonial nation, it tends to overlook its own cultural traditions. Art forms that are revered in Asia, such as calligraphy, ceramics and puppetry, tend to be dismissed in Australia as hobbies. Australia’s modernist outlook has professionalised the arts and privileges originality above mastery. While this has enriched its theatre stages and art galleries, it has led to the neglect of traditional arts. It seems important for dialogue in the region that Western countries like Australia more clearly identify their own traditions.

What’s to be done? There are three steps that I believe could made a difference:

  1. National representation for traditional arts such as crafts as points of contact for corresponding bodies in the Asian region
  2. Greater involvement in bodies such as UNESCO and the World Crafts Council which Asian nations look to as keepers of heritage
  3. Support for creative collaborations between contemporary and traditional art forms

Above all, it is important to avoid the arrogance that sees traditional arts as a sign of backwardness. Cultural practices such as fibre arts are celebrated in Australian indigenous culture. They should also be respected in the region.

This situation has bitten me recently with the visit to Australia of the largest ever craft delegation from China. This includes 28 leaders in the crafts, organised by the China Arts & Crafts Association, the official crafts body in China representing 3 million members. Having recently defunded Craft Australia, there was no equivalent national body to welcome this delegation. Many state organisations will open their doors to the delegation, but there is no Australian body through which to follow up the opportunities that are created.

In its heyday, Craft Australia was funded to both host and send delegations in the Asian region. If Australia is serious about engagement with Asia, then it needs to ensure that it covers all the cultural bases. There needs to a horizontal re-alignment across art forms. While this does offer the promise of deeper connection with Asia, it also has potential to enrich Australian culture too, re-connecting it with its own past.

What comes after Craft Australia?

The Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council recently announced its decision to de-fund Craft Australia. There are a few factors behind this. Some are quite fundamental. The very name ‘Craft Australia’ doesn’t reflect increasing interest in representing design. Others were circumstantial. It was seen to have a low public profile and depend exclusively on Federal funding.

The roots for this predicament lie partly in history. Craft Australia was actually disbanded about a decade ago when it was seen to clash with moves by organisations such as Object (previously Crafts Council of New South Wales) to represent the sector nationally (in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics). In 2003, Craft Australia was moved from Sydney to Canberra, and re-born as a lighter organisation that would focus on lobbying, research and promoting the sector.

As a result, Craft Australia was left without an exhibition program which it could brand as a unique product. However, it sourced good writing and managed to produce much useful online information. Other organisations have cut back their publishing. Object magazine moved from a print to an iPad format (now including Android and online), but remains largely a promotional vehicle. Without argument, we lapse into just telling ourselves the things we like to hear. Craft Australia remained as a lone source of serious national dialogue around the business of craft and design. In the broader scheme of things, it invested more in content than marketing.

This incarnation of Craft Australia will be remembered for many achievements. The series of Selling Yarns conferences were quite seminal in developing a reconciliation dialogue around the flourishing scene of Indigenous crafts. The peer-reviewed Craft & Design Enquiry created a very important platform for academic research, which helps bolster the broader ecology for the field.

So what happens now? Will another organisation take up Craft & Design Enquiry? What will be Australia’s connection with the World Craft Council, a key cultural network in our region. Where has the money gone? Funding for Object has been increased, but what will they contribute to common story of Australian craft and design? There will be a fund set aside for strategic initiatives in craft, but which organisation will come forward to fill the gap in our national platform?

What happens to the archives? Where does the 40 year old story of Australian craft go?

In the broader context, the demise of Craft Australia reflects some disturbing trends. According to the creative industry model, the unit of value becomes the ‘job’ – the individual practitioner as a small business. In this scenario, culture is reflected back as a series of economic measures. Our cultural organisations work more within a corporate mentality, putting their brand value before higher ideals. There is no longer a common story that artists can contribute to. There is little motivation to create the astounding work of art that changes the way people might think or feel about the world. The market comes first. Creative industry provides a language for the arts that is readily understood by outside political interests, but we need to maintain an internal set of critical dialogues for acknowledging artistic value.

I hope I’m wrong. Craft as a practice does depend on collective institutions. From guilds to craft councils, they provide a memory that nurtures skills across generations. Without these, we no longer have craftspersons, only ‘makers’. We no longer have those who dedicate their lives to a specialist material, learning the intricate language of clay, glass or silver. We have makers who do show invention and spirit, but few aspire to reach beyond the local scene to tell a collective story.

Think about what’s happened on our political stage. Our last two Prime Ministers have eschewed any reference to Australian history in their speeches. The passionate contest over the Australian story that divided Howard and Keating has been replaced by calls for ‘working families’ and ‘stop the boats’. Without an ongoing narrative, public leaders end up consumed by personality politics, which rushes in to fill the vacuum.

This doesn’t mean that craft needs to be preserved in a fixed form. The loss of Craft Australia comes just as design is moving towards craft as a social value. As it always has, craft is presently re-configuring itself for changed times, responding to new developments such as ethical consumerism and social networks.

The people who made the decision to de-fund Craft Australia were no doubt seriously considering what’s best for the sector. But we do need to think carefully about where it might lead. We need to shift momentum away from atomised self-interest to our common story. No one is saying that it needs to be a single story, but it’s the argument about what this story is that keeps us in the game.

Disclaimer: I was on the interim board that re-constituted Craft Australia in 2003 and I am currently serving on the research committee that oversees Craft & Design Enquiry.

From a hard to a soft place – national identity in metal and fibre

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It’s always enlivening when Damian Skinner comes to town. We gave at talk together at RMIT in the unusual setting of Hoyts Cinema 7 in Melbourne Central. It was disconcerting to see the students and jewellers lying back in their comfy seats as though waiting for a blockbuster.

Damian began with his reading of the ‘Provincial Problem’ – how antipodean jewellers reconcile their desire for recognition in Europe with their artistic drive for independent identity. Damian tries to turn this around by deconstructing the relationship of original and copy, claiming that the original needs the copy to assert its originality. It would be interesting to have a European response to Damian’s argument, or is the absence of north-south dialogue about this part of the very issue?

I chose to use Damian’s visit to consider what Australian jewellery is not. You would think if Australia followed the New Zealand path of Bone, Stone and Shell that it would have made much more of its national stone – the opal. Damian and I spent the rest of the day testing this out with the multitude of opal stores around town. We eventually found an underground jewellery scene (featuring Marcus Davidson and Dan Scurry) that had an entire project taking an Opal-Scope to Lightning Ridge. There’s always an underground if you dig deep enough!

I should reassure you that I didn’t just talk about the absence in Australian jewellery, but also spoke of jewellery with a social conscience as something marking our scene as distinct in the mid-1980s, and the issue of how national identity aligns with Melbourne’s Euro-centrism. But that’s to come in the book.

From a hard to a soft place, I spent the rest of the week in the Selling Yarns conference. This began with a burst of enthusiasm from Alison Page, who promoted the idea of a National Indigenous Design School. Her provocation provided the basis for many conversations to follow, as papers looked at community development and codes of practice. The participants included a strong mix of makers and shakers from all parts of Indigenous Australia. The mood on day one was extremely buoyant and affirming. On day two, that had turned towards potential threats, particularly from shady operators bringing in overseas fakes.

In a way, the conference seemed to offer two paths. One was to commercialise Indigenous craft and design so that it can compete directly with mainstream businesses. The other was to open up communities to cultural tourism – with much consultation.

Selling Yarns 2 managed to meet a great demand for discussion and support of Indigenous craft and design ventures. There was already talk of Selling Yarns 3. Why not? In a way, it seems to fill a space for fibre and textile arts which has lacked the regular conferences of ceramicists, glass artists and jewellers. Though a future challenge is to find a way of broadening the focus to include other media and opportunities for Indigenous men.

Reflecting back on the initial dialogue, it seems that in Australia the non-Indigenous response to Indigenous identity is largely bureaucratic, rather than creative. Perhaps we can think again about the staid image of bureaucracy and see it instead as an adventure in national identity.

From a hard to a soft place – national identity in metal and fibre

It’s always enlivening when Damian Skinner comes to town. We gave at talk together at RMIT in the unusual setting of Hoyts Cinema 7 in Melbourne Central. It was disconcerting to see the students and jewellers lying back in their comfy seats as though waiting for a blockbuster.

Damian began with his reading of the ‘Provincial Problem’ – how antipodean jewellers reconcile their desire for recognition in Europe with their artistic drive for independent identity. Damian tries to turn this around by deconstructing the relationship of original and copy, claiming that the original needs the copy to assert its originality. It would be interesting to have a European response to Damian’s argument, or is the absence of north-south dialogue about this part of the very issue?

I chose to use Damian’s visit to consider what Australian jewellery is not. You would think if Australia followed the New Zealand path of Bone, Stone and Shell that it would have made much more of its national stone – the opal. Damian and I spent the rest of the day testing this out with the multitude of opal stores around town. We eventually found an underground jewellery scene (featuring Marcus Davidson and Dan Scurry) that had an entire project taking an Opal-Scope to Lightning Ridge. There’s always an underground if you dig deep enough!

I should reassure you that I didn’t just talk about the absence in Australian jewellery, but also spoke of jewellery with a social conscience as something marking our scene as distinct in the mid-1980s, and the issue of how national identity aligns with Melbourne’s Euro-centrism. But that’s to come in the book.

From a hard to a soft place, I spent the rest of the week in the Selling Yarns conference. This began with a burst of enthusiasm from Alison Page, who promoted the idea of a National Indigenous Design School. Her provocation provided the basis for many conversations to follow, as papers looked at community development and codes of practice. The participants included a strong mix of makers and shakers from all parts of Indigenous Australia. The mood on day one was extremely buoyant and affirming. On day two, that had turned towards potential threats, particularly from shady operators bringing in overseas fakes.

In a way, the conference seemed to offer two paths. One was to commercialise Indigenous craft and design so that it can compete directly with mainstream businesses. The other was to open up communities to cultural tourism – with much consultation.

Selling Yarns 2 managed to meet a great demand for discussion and support of Indigenous craft and design ventures. There was already talk of Selling Yarns 3. Why not? In a way, it seems to fill a space for fibre and textile arts which has lacked the regular conferences of ceramicists, glass artists and jewellers. Though a future challenge is to find a way of broadening the focus to include other media and opportunities for Indigenous men.

Reflecting back on the initial dialogue, it seems that in Australia the non-Indigenous response to Indigenous identity is largely bureaucratic, rather than creative. Perhaps we can think again about the staid image of bureaucracy and see it instead as an adventure in national identity.