What would a Craft Biennial in Australia be like?
I opened up The Age newspaper today (yes, the dead tree version), to find a double spread promoting ‘Designed by Apple in California’.
It’s the picture of divine innocence. A young girl lying in bed bathed in light from a tablet she holds above her. The accompanying text reflects on the ‘experience of the product’ and the discipline exercised by ‘engineers, artists, craftsmen and inventors’ to ensure that Apple products enhance that experience.
The latest Apple advertising campaign involves a commitment to sign its products ‘Designed by Apple in California’.
There are two elements worth noting in this attribution.
First, it specifies California rather than USA. With the upcoming Steve Jobs biopics, this may be to draw on the romance of free-wheeling Silicon Valley as a cradle of digital invention. It potentially helps counter with any resentment at US monopolies on soft and hardware patents.
Second, it is more common to identify where a product is made, rather than designed. The question of where Apple products are made has been the source of some anxiety, as it has been revealed these treasured devices involve considerable exploitation of workers in Southern China.
It’s about design, not manufacture. Design takes on the responsibility of production by becoming a craft, a focused exercise towards the achievement of a singular goal.
Control is everything to Apple. Compared to other platforms, it strictly regulates access to its system by other hardware or software providers. Its power is to say ‘no’. While a quintessential feature of modernist design, this control can come at the expense of serendipity, when bold invention comes from trusting in chance.
Apple says no. One of the richest corporations in the world has no featured philanthropic program. Now it attempts to repress the nature of its outsourcing of manufacture. Can they really call themselves craftsmen?
I must say, I am a devoted follower of Hand/Eye. Their blog is an essential part of my reading diet, and I have just finished reading the Summer issue of the print magazine. The stories provide a powerful testament of the passions evoked by traditional craft practices. And the images offer an extraordinary feast of colour and texture. It is able to capture a broad range of craft development projects from across the world, even including countries from the minority world, like the USA.
It is sometimes uneasy reading. The situation with traditional craft is often quite fragile – see the article about what happened to embroidery during the Taliban regime, and how Kandahar Treasures is trying to restore it. Craft practice, like languages and biological species, seem under thread by a homogenising world. If nothing else, Hand/Eye demonstrates the richness that is being lost as we become more urbanised and digitised.
Generally, the magazine advocates for the preservation of craft tradition through product development – ‘design as a tool for development and income generation.’ This does leave many questions to be answered:
- What happens when it is the artisans themselves who want to abandon their craft?
- How does the commodification of craft for foreign markets affect the meaning of craft traditions?
- If external designers are involved in product development, what are the terms of their collaboration?
- How can traditional craft adapt to the changing patterns of consumption, particularly the move towards more virtual goods, such as apps and Facebook?
These are the kinds of questions that academics often like posing, as a critique of naive liberalism. I have great admiration for those who dedicate their lives to sustain and celebrate distinctive ways in which we make beauty from our world. But to extend the reach of this work, it seems important that we do find a safe place to ask the hard questions. The Sangam Project is one way of attempt to do this.
Mariam’s work for Welcome Signs is inspired by Native American body adornment. Mariam identifies across geography and culture with the artistic intentions of this work. While such ornament is not traditionally associated with welcome, the cultural exchange that it enacts, between the Middle East and north America, sets the scene for hospitality as a conduit for international cooperation.
Faythe Levine’s documentary about DIY, titled Handmade Nation, reflected the collective craft movement sweeping the USA. This movement includes a broad spectrum of makers who are setting up small businesses, attending craft markets and engaging in craft activist events. Textile arts figure greatly, as do women.
Journalist and ‘comix historian’ Patrick Rosenkranz has made a documentary that tells the other side of the story. Crafted Over Time features revivalists who are seeking to return to the roots of craft in the pre-technological age. These include ‘glassmaker, a stained glass designer, bookbinders, instrument makers, stonemasons, a cannon maker, and even flint knappers.’ These revivalists work mostly in isolation, with little economic engagement in the world, and they are mostly men.
Both worlds seem passionate about the making process. But each move in fundamentally different directions. One moves collectively into the world, mediated by all the new social networking technologies. The other wanders alone away from the madding crowd, isolated in their craft. Is one path more true to the spirit of craft?
While lone craftspersons can seem to be hiding from the world, in terms of continuing craft traditions and maintaining diversity of skills, they do seem to play an essential part in the world. But their potential still waits for someone to come along who can find a way of linking it with the world outside. Meanwhile, they keep the flame alight.