Tag Archives: skill shortage

What do we make of Australia?



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?

Unmaking the Future–the aesthetics of post-industrial ceramics

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

Like Australia, Norway finds itself with a rare gift – a financial bounty stemming from non-renewable natural resources. The news analysis in Australia often invokes the Norwegian model as a responsible investment of this wealth for future needs. With the Making or Unmaking? conference, Norway was able to host an international conference on ceramics like few others today. The premise was the use of the readymade by ceramic artists – rather than make work themselves, these artists repurposed existing works. This was the culmination of a four-year research project ‘Creating Art Value: A Research Project on Trash and Readymades, Art and Ceramics’. It was programmed with the ambitious exhibition THING TANG TRASH – Upcycling in contemporary ceramics (curated by Heidi Bjørgan), as well as a large number of ceramic exhibitions especially presented by galleries around Bergen.

And the view looking out from the conference

And the view looking out from the conference

The project leader and Norwegian writer Jorunn Veiteberg assembled some of the finest European craft minds to consider this question. It began with the English visitors. Glenn Adamson opened the conference with a slice of Postmodernism exhibition that he recently curated for the V&A. He focused particularly on the eschewal of authenticity by movements such as Memphis, which positioned style far above substance. It offered an important historical reference point for contemporary questioning of original production. Carol McNicoll followed with an artist talk that personified the conference theme with a feisty opposition to fine art etiquette. Fellow ceramicist Clare Twomey then offered an elegiac account of enduring ceramic crafts, such as plate lining. The meat of her paper was the account of her present work. This had two components. The first were a series of 80 tall red vases produced in the Jingdezhen ceramic powerhouse – ’80 vases in 8 days, China brings us miracles.’ The second an attempt to reproduce one of these in England, involving scouring for a large-enough kiln. The installation showed the one plaintive vase set among the sea of cheap Chinese imports. For Twomey, what distinguished the English vase was that its decoration sat under the surface, compared to the Chinese vases whose designs were more imposed on the surface.  The installation seemed to demonstrate that despite miraculous productive capacity of Chinese industry, it was still no match for the subtle craftsmanship of English labour.

Tanya Harrod followed with a beautiful lecture on the theme of the rag-picker, covering many examples of art projects that extracted works of beauty from the slums. She spoke highly of the work by Brazilian artist Vik Munos, featured in the film Wasteland, who donated money from the sale of his works to the favela dwellers who made it possible. While critical of those who mindlessly use the poor of the world to make high-end design, Harrod praised those who embrace the act of making with all its responsibilities. Caroline Slottee and Paul Scott provided examples of work with readymade ceramics and Ezra Shales considered the role of museum as a contested site for these works.

On the second day, Monica Gaspar introduced the concept of the infra-ordinary as a space opened up by use of the readymade. She provided a feast of contemporary work associated with her recent exhibition ‘Re-defining the Applied’, which reflected a shift away from the object itself to the way in which we inhabit. A highlight was the film by Swede Olas Stephenson where a gang breaks into a house to create musical symphonies using objects from each room. Andrew Livingston followed with a bold attempt to place use of the readymade in the context of sustainability. It made perfect sense, but the ethical logic seems at odds with the aesthetic context of the conference. Barnaby Barford’s artist talk presented narrative as an alternative context of the readymade. His film for the exhibition brilliantly demonstrated the power of pathos in the leftover figurine.

The day ended with Jorunn Veiteberg herself who expounded the thesis behind the conference. She loyally used local artists to illustrate her thesis that the ceramic readymade is following Duchamp’s liberating gesture with ‘Fountain’ to liberate the art object from the ‘fetish’ of the handmade. Veiteberg argued that re-purposing existing ceramics opens up new possibilities of creative intervention.

The last day began with Michael Petry, author of The Art of Not Making. His ebullient talk covered many instances of artists using skills of craftspersons, praising those who acknowledged their contributions. As one of those grateful artists themselves, Petry spoke very much from the commissioner’s perspective, focusing more on the grand ambitions of the artists than any creative input from technicians. The Polish ceramist Marek Cecula followed with a wonderful account of his career in ceramics, parallel to his remarkable personal journey as a survivor of the holocaust who returned to make work about the value of human labour. Linda Sormin followed in the afternoon with a lively short account of her practice in making ceramic interventions in museum spaces around the world.

As the second last presentation, I attempted to introduce the relational dimension of the readymade. This regarded the commissioned object, rather than the found object. I focused particularly on the work of artists who have their work made in Asia. Rather than a post-industrial aesthetic, I considered a ‘para-industrial’ condition where work responds to the scene of making ‘elsewhere’.

Rather than leave space for questions at the end of each paper, the conference was programmed with generous breaks where participants could discuss issues among themselves. While this was quite convivial, it was difficult to tell what the conference had achieved at the end. Making or Unmaking? provided a symbolic departure from the studio model of the ceramicist, whose work reflects the personal experience of clay. But it left hanging the question of where this is going. Is it opening ceramics up as an installation-based art form? Is it part of the elegiac moment in Europe as it sees its manufacturing capacities drift off to Asia? Does it reflect a sustainability ethic that eschews making anything new, in favour of re-purposing the old? These questions needed airing, either in response to papers or in panel discussions.

Most pressing is the gradual loss of a global dialogue around ceramics. Last month’s Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale in Korea did not have one entry from Britain, and there was little opportunity for dialogue between representatives of east and west. As globalisation continues to expand, it seems a mistake to turn inward. Modern ceramics has such a rich history of borrowing between cultures.

Norway has set the pace. We now need to pass the baton.

PS. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the excellent catalogue, then send an email to KHiB publications at resepsjonen@khib.no. Price: NOK 250,- (EUR 34) + handling expenses. More information here.

Crafted Over Time – the other side of DIY

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.

Seamstresses unbound

The recent UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Creative Industries celebrated the link between fashion and craft practice. A consistent theme was the dependence of fashion designers on good artisans. But here lies the problem.



On the opening day, the Artistic Director for Linvin, Alber Elbaz confessed that he was worried that his specialised workers were getting old and there was no one to replace them. His otherwise enchanting talk left this question dangling: ‘Who would want to be a seamstress these days?’ Good question.

So how can these positions attract a new generation? One possibility is to make them less anonymous. They could be featured in the company’s website and perhaps even mentioned on the label. It was suggested that this might be in the form of ‘the credits at the end of the film’. Maybe, but what about at the beginning of the film, where we would normally find the names of leading actors after the director?

An alternative strategy suggested by Francoise Riviere at the end of the forum was to offer scholarships for craft practice. Both would be nice.

Elbaz also emphasised the importance of stories in design. This loomed as one of the principal challenges for craft today – to find ways of conveying its meaning in an engaging manner. This would a useful workshop, don’t you think – the narrative basis for craft?

Paula Moreno speaking at UNESCO World Forum

Paula Moreno speaking at UNESCO World Forum

In the end, the forum participants seemed particularly inspired by the Colombian Minister of Culture, Paula Moreno. Moreno argued for recognition for the South, not as an exotic attraction, but as equal. Her call that ‘culture is a history of the future’ was quoted many times by the end of the forum.

So, the forum represented a unique platform for crafts on the world stage. The challenge now is to use this momentum to launch programs that can address issues like anonymity, narrative and sustainable links to industry. We certainly recognise that our future needs the history of craft. Good design must be well-made. We need to acknowledge those whose skills make things possible.

When there’s no one left to make things



Perucci factory closing down

For many years, I’d been intrigued by the factory located on my route to Brunswick Station. The claim to be ‘Actual Makers of Craftsman Tailored Shirts in the European Tradition’ seemed almost medieval in a contemporary retail culture of brands.

So I was quite sad to discover that it was closing down. Why? Today I went it to find out the reason this venerable business was coming to an end. Inside I was met by the ebullient owner, Bill Perucci. Bill was more than happy to take me through the epic story of Perucci Shirts to its current demise.

It appears that he acquired the shirt business from his Jewish father-in-law, an Epstein who escaped from Radom in Poland just before the Second World War. Epstein had been running a fruit business and was looking for something different. A friend approached him to be partner in his shirt business, offering to teach him all that he needed to know. After the partner’s marriage breakup, the wife’s new husband became the business partner.  Neither he nor Epstein knew anything about shirts. It was left up to one of the workers to teach them the business.

Bill Perucci

Bill Perucci

Bill Perucci with the first shirt made in the factory and the photo of his parents in law

Eventually they relocated the business from Lygon Street Carlton to its present Brunswick premises. Epstein eventually passed the business down to his educated son-in-law. They invented a new brand, Perucci – a mixture of letters of Epstein and his original name Russeck. Bill then changed his name to his brand as that would be easy for business.

And the business flourished, with the assistance of skilled labour coming from Italy, Greece and Vietnam.

So why are they closing? Is this part of the economic downturn? Do people no longer care for ‘craftsman’ made shirts?

Far from it. According to Bill, demand has never been stronger. The problem is that all their skilled staff have all eventually retired, leaving them without anyone who can make shirts. ‘We’ve been sacked by our workers!’ Bill exclaims.

Now that unemployment is rising, and globalisation is fraying at the edges, the closure of Perucci sends an important message. Perhaps it’s not only outside pressures that are affecting economies like Australia’s. There may well be inside forces eating away at our capacity as well.