Back to Nowhere

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'Back to Nowhere' Buckinghamshire University, UK Consuming Craft Conference (2000)

Synopsis

This paper looks to the future predicted by William Morris in News From Nowhere, in which the 21st century heralds with a revival of medieval craftsmanship. It nominates the Open Source movement (Linux operating system) as an emerging custodian of the reforming spirit that once animated the Arts & Crafts movement. It then considers the implications of this for traditional crafts, looking particularly at the collaborative work by contemporary Australian practitioners—Sharon Boggon, Susan Cohn and Barbara Heath.

Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship—but not before… Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. (Morris, W., 1984 (1890): 288)

Craft and the Open Source movement

Under many freeways you will often find a quaint ecosystem.  On the  road above, the world races ahead towards personal goals and flight into virtual worlds. And in the creek below, a flock of ducks paddles together in innocent pleasure of its natural world. That freeway netherworld seems to be about as close we get to the kind of 21st century that William Morris envisaged for us, in his utopian News From Nowhere.

The Creek, which we crossed at once, had been rescued from its culvert, and as we went over its pretty bridge we saw its waters, yet swollen by the tide, covered with gay boats of different sizes. (Morris, W., 1984 (1890): 34)

Little did Morris anticipate the acceleration of life as the digital revolution transforms physical structures into buzzing networks. Who has the time to watch the creek flow?

But where is the mistake? Was Morris wrong in re-hashing his own nostalgic vision into the future? Or are we wrong in manically denying our material destiny? At the risk of being Quixotic, I’d like to follow this meandering creek and find out where the arts and crafts movement might lead us into the 21st century. Our quest is to discover something native to our own time that embodies the craft spirit; and then to find our way back to the practice of contemporary craft.

There’s been a lot of water under that bridge. The value of the handmade had critical importance at a time when the industrial revolution was replacing traditional skills with machines. Now that the information revolution is replacing hardware with software, the value of manual skill is not so much at stake—ironically, it is our industrial heritage which becomes the object of nostalgic desire, that’s another story. How can we abstract the values of the Arts & Craft movement beyond the celebration of handiwork?

The Fault Line

Let’s return to the seminal text of the movement, Ruskin’s ‘Art of the Gothic’, from Stones of Venice, published in 1853. As is the way of grand critics, Ruskin’s essay dissects Western civilisation into progressive and regressive tendencies. Ruskin privileges the ‘uncouth animation’ of the north against the ‘love of decorative accumulation’ in the south.

Such an opposition transcends the crafts—we can discern this fault line through most English-speaking cultures. In Melbourne, for instance, we can see the opposition between north and south in the conflict between Anglo and Gallic influences. To the north we find composer Percy Grainger celebrating Nordic themes, and craft writer Peter Timms championing the Anglo-Saxon language. To the south is the Parisian aestheticism of surrealist painter Sydney Nolan and high-conceptualism of the journal Art & Text, founded by Paul Taylor. 

These oppositions have their Ur-myth in the Norman invasion, when a continental force overran the Anglo-Saxon society. According to this story, a hierarchical Latinate culture was superimposed on an egalitarian German base.

 

NORTH

SOUTH

Labour

Cleverness

Raw

Artificial

Plain

Exotic

Anglo-Saxon

Norman

Protestant

Catholic

 

A number of dualities spring from this tectonic collision. The enjoyment of manual labour is opposed to the love of conceptual shortcuts. The experience of raw nature contrasts with the pleasures of artificiality. Active participation in the world is set against passive contemplation. More literally, Ralph Waldo Emerson contrasts the plain Anglo collar with the French ruffle. These oppositions constellate, more or less, around the Reformation, when a Puritan culture arises to counter the indulgences of a priestly hierarchy.

The Anglo-Norman division today

While this level of abstraction transcends the practical difference between machine and handmade, it retains vestiges of racism. It takes us back to the pre-Euro days of Anglo-French rivalry, in which to be ‘continental’ was to be exotic and suspicious. This should not mean we dispose of this opposition—as a more abstract difference, it is useful in sweeping aside complacent elites. Today we might find a more civil version of this opposition in the contrast between provincial and global.

Films such as Full Monty, Brassed Off and the Castle feature similar plots: inhabitants of backwaters re-fashion their native talents in the fight against economic redundancy. The confrontation between the smartly dressed executive and the unkempt local provides an updated version of the Norman invader meeting the Saxon inhabitants. Crafts might be housed quite snugly here as the preservation of provincial identity against the exotic goods flooding in from the global market. The danger of this position, however, is that it dooms craft to the realm of cosy nostalgia—fixing it in time before the world logged on.

A more dynamic but less popular divide can be found in contemporary art galleries. The international Biennale circuit provides a stage for conceptual art, based on installation rather than objects. Conceptual art champions the irrelevance of materiality: art is a move in a game and anything else is fetish. For the movement’s early father, Marcel Duchamp, good art aspired to the status of literature: it puts painting ‘at the service of the mind’ (Duchamp, 1968 (1946): 395). In our time, the material dimension of contemporary art is invariably abject, using masses of flesh, fat, hair, shit… stuff.

We rarely see art that is practiced outside this circle. ‘Outdated’ fine art methods, like painting and darkroom photography, now have more in common with ceramics and weaving than art found in Venice, Whitney or Sydney. Such practices demand the kind of patient understanding of materials that is more often found on the bench than on the video screen. With this in mind, a review of craft boundaries is perhaps overdue. However, there are other challenging developments that go beyond local art politics.

World Wide Web

The advent of the World Wide Web promised a realm in which information would circulate freely, regardless of political or commercial interests. Its pioneer, Tim Berners-Lee, had originally named it Inquire, after a Victorian manual of practical knowledge (Berners-Lee, 1999). Today, the main threat to this vision is large corporations, such as Microsoft, bent on controlling the Internet for profit. Microsoft’s project is to encourage Internet visitors to think of themselves as consumers, who shop around for products rather than develop their own works. This ideology is coded into the Windows operating system, which automatically installs folders with titles such as ‘Favourites’ and ‘My Documents’ that encourage a consumerist mentality.

Many have been concerned about this trend. The 1998 antitrust court case against Microsoft determined that they had an unfair monopoly on the software industry. The control of a potentially global empire by a clandestine organisation in Redmond Seattle is a goad for many to create alternative communal ways of coming together. The scene is set for a conflict analogous to that between the earnest craft movement and the fine art academies.

Open source

The most significant challenge to Windows comes from a Norwegian computing student, Linus Tovalds. In 1991, Tovalds released an operating system based on the Unix model. Controlled by the GNU General Public License, any one software developer can incorporate Linux code into their work, as long as the source remains available for no cost. Thanks to the efforts of the programming community—‘geeks’ and ‘hackers’—the Linux operating system now boasts a reliability exceeding that of Microsoft Windows. With the Canadian company Corel’s release of a free consumer version of Linux, there is a growing hope that a public operating system will eventually replace the privately controlled Microsoft Windows on PC desktops.

The Open Source seems almost like a descendent of the Arts & Crafts movement. As its William Morris, Linus Tovalds supervises a global workshop in which programmers work together to develop a system that is accessible to all. John Ruskin’s ‘poet laureate’ role is left to science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, whose novels celebrate the artisanal lifestyle of computing programming. In his legendary essay, ‘In the beginning was the command line’, Stephenson argues for the ‘oral tradition’ of Linux, which he depicts as an ecosystem of code sustained by only the anarchic community of hackers. Evidence of this orality can be found in its Hebraic file structure:

The file systems of Unix machines all have the same general structure. On your flimsy operating systems, you can create directories (folders) and give them names like Frodo or My Stuff and put them pretty much anywhere you like. But under Unix the highest level--the root--of the filesystem is always designated with the single character "/" and it always contains the same set of top-level directories: /usr /etc /var /bin /proc /boot /home /root /sbin /dev /lib /tmp (Stephenson, 1999)

He calls these directory abbreviations ‘nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river.’ Capital letters are avoided in favour of the functional lower case. The empty consumerism of ‘My stuff’ is replaced by highly-evolved terms that condense the expertise of an entire community. Form flowers function.

This expressive dimension of programming was given official recognition in 1999, when Linux was awarded the Ars Electronica Golden Nica as first prize for net art. The award sparked debate about whether an operating system can be considered a work of art. Comments recorded in the hacker’s site Slashdot generally argued that Linux was a matter of craft, not art: its aesthetic value is tempered by functionalism. An anonymous contributor compares professions:

I have worked both as a programmer and journalist, and both professions face this same issue. They'd love to be artists, and they consider themselves craftsmen aiming for much higher ideals than the average person could understand. But to truly become artists and turn their works into art, they would have to compromise the very basic principals of their chosen craft. A journalist who writes just based on the beauty of the words is no longer a journalist, nor would a programmer who just writes code for its own beauty really be a programmer any more (slashdot.org, 28/08/99)

It is this individual humility that that renders Linux eligible for craft membership. While Linux exists in the name of a single person, it is largely the result of an anonymous community of  ‘underbuilders’ (Shapin, 1984), pursuing the unglamorous quest of good code. While not restricted to anyone, the level of specialisation required to participate grants the Linux community a guild-like status.

 

LINUX

MICROSOFT

Luther

Pope

Reformation

Roman Catholic

King James Bible

Illuminated manuscripts

Popular

Priestly

 

This form of communality has political significance as counterpoint to the global consumer, who loosens local public bonds to greet international capital. The release of Linux has been compared the publication of the Gutenberg Bible:

… just as Luther sought to make the entire sacramental shebang—the wine, the bread and the translated Word—available to the hoi polloi, Linus seeks to revoke the developer’s proprietary access to the OS, insisting that the full operating system source code be delivered—without cost—to every ordinary Joe at the desktop (www.salonmagazine.com, 18/11/98).

According to the reformation analogy, Bill Gates is the pope of Microsoft—the Roman Catholic Church of computing—which seeks to maintain its institutionalised control over the lives of its constituency. This point has also been taken up by the China Youth Daily, which championed the open source movement as a force against US dominance. Linux is a beacon of participation in an age of mass consumerism.

The craft response

The open source movement thus provides a contemporary framework in which the socialist ideals that guided the first Arts & Crafts movement might be rediscovered. How might the connection between the two movements be expressed?

The Linux world already gives traditional crafts a strong representation. Linux.com offers ceramic mugs for sale. The promotional organisation Copyleft provides an entire catalogue of objects to display your allegiance to this Linux community. The ‘woven goods’ project employs a craft metaphor to encourage sharing within the Linux constituency. Indeed, there is a ready market here for craftspersons to provide not only useful objects but also the tradition of collaborative work. Conversely, there may be ways recognising Linux as a new entry to the crafts—its membership of the electronic arts has already been acknowledged.

While no doubt timely, these recognitions imply a fixed position for the crafts. The open source movement gains historical context from the crafts. But what can the crafts learn from Linux? Is there a way in which the information revolution that help the craft movement further evolve?

Of particular relevance is the inversion of value in an information economy—commonness replaces rarity as a source of market value. Whereas before the preciousness of an object depended on its limited ownership, today it is precisely the opposite—the value of a communication medium increases with its commonality (As commented by N. Katherine Hayles (1999), the transformation of material into information changes the economy of value). Access replaces possession as the individual mode of relating to information goods.

This value of common ownership is the ideal to which many in the original Arts & Crafts movement aspired. As John Ruskin intoned:

You may enjoy a thing legitimately because it is rare, and it cannot be seen often (as you do a fine aurora, or a sunset, or an unusually lovely flower); that is Nature’s way of stimulating your attention. But if you enjoy it because your neighbour cannot have it, —and, remember, all value attached to pearls more than glass beads, is merely and purely for that cause, —then you rejoice through the worst of idolatries, covetousness. (Ruskin, 1890: 23)

One role for today’s artisan is to celebrate that pleasure—to create sites in which the common participation can be formed into a creative work.

A direct instance of this is Exploding Cell, a work on the MOMA web site by Peter Halley (www.moma.org/onlineprojects/halley/). Visitors create works by manipulating a program that dissects shapes and decides on colours. The outcome is a work that is co-signed by the visitor and Peter Halley. While there is an element of karaoke about this interaction, there are many other collective sites that do not invoke the name of a famous artist. In the case of these ‘hive’ sites, the role of the artist is no longer to express something within, but rather to create a space that others fill—like a beekeeper making a hive to collect the honey.

These sites use the potential of the web to enable interactive works. Is there a way of applying this to the offline work of physical objects?  The network needn’t be digital: the pre-Internet collective effort of the Oxford English dictionary has been recently celebrated in Simon Winchester’s novel The Surgeon of Crawthorn. A pen and paper may be all that is needed—along with the collective will of the information revolution.

Contemporary practitioners are beginning to explore the creative potential of collective authorship. Let’s look at three Australian examples.

Barbara Heath

In the crafts, the commissioning process allows for collaboration between the maker and user. This is particularly evident in jewellery, where clients provide the sentimental value that is set by the craftsperson. Often the matter of backroom negotiations, such works are rarely exposed in exhibition. In the exhibition Precious Lives, the Queensland jeweller Barbara Heath presented her commissions as collaborations between client and maker.

One of the items, ‘Roman Nail Necklace’, emerged from a complex story of souvenir-hunting and family dynamics. Given a brute nail, the remnant of a Roman chariot, Heath decided to bind it in 18ct gold fine wire and string it with a knotted garnet bead on a gold necklace, with dark red silk tassels. This design was Heath’s response to the value of the object as a precious secret. The jeweller here is like a musician, that scores the client’s libretto. 

Susan Cohn

While also collaborating at the individual level, Susan Cohn explores broader collective exchanges. Her dental brace ornaments in Symmetry (Symmetry: Crafts Meet Kindred Trades and Professions, see www.kitezh.com/symmetry) emerged out of an exchange with orthodontists. She not only employed their tools and advice in developing a new range of teeth jewellery, she also commissioned braces for herself.

Susan Cohn is extending audience involvement. Her research work ‘Memory Perfume’ for the exhibition Goodbye Kind World (Goodbye Kind World: Souvenirs of the 20th Century, see www.kitezh.com/gkw)) gathers knowledge useful in the composition of a survival kit. Other objects in the survival kit include condom, jack, and pills. The purpose of the perfume is to evoke lost memories while plunging headlong into the future. The smells nominated by visitors to the exhibition include:


1.      Cigarette smoke

2.      The new LP vinyl record

3.      Diesel

4.      Photographic fixer

5.      Paper money

6.      Bad breath

7.      BO

8.      Asbestos

9.      Rotting fish

10.    Nothingness

11.    Snow Pollution

12.    Perfumes

13.    Mum's cooking

14.    Victory liniment that captured the 1973 Grand Final

15.    Smoke in hair

16.    Lead pencils

17.    Fresh cut grass

18.    Real gardenias

19.    Burnt rubber

20.    Car exhaust

21.    Peaches, brings back image of my grandmother's verandah in summer

22.    Amazon rainforest with frogs and toucans

23.    The skin of my child

24.    Moss and mint growing down the side of the house

25.    Burnt toast

26.    Blue swan ink

27.    Smell

28.    Pencil sharpenings

29.    Loose face powder

30.    Musk sticks

31.    Teen spirit

32.    4711 eau de toilette

33.    Coal fires

34.    My smell

35.    Typewriting machine

36.    Yeast in South Yarra from breweries

37.    Tea towels, underpants and handkerchiefs being boiled on the stove my mum


On the verge of leaving the 20th century, Cohn’s book attracted great attention. It was rarely unattended. All she used for this collaboration was a pad and pencil. It was enough for visitors to feel they were contributing to a shared database of collective memory.

Sharon Boggon

Compared to the paper notebook, the web site promises opportunities for collaboration beyond many limits of space and time. In the case of textiles, the shared lineage of computation through the Jacquard loom and mathematics of weaving provide a point of common reference with digital arts. Canberra artist Sharon Boggon has attempted to take the shared feminine culture of the sewing circle into the small screen with Shareware Project (www.anu.edu.au/ITA/CSA/textiles/sharonb). With contributions from fellow embroiderers, Boggon has put together an online dictionary of stitches. Anyone making use of this resource is invited to exchange it for a precious piece of fabric. Shareware Project then incorporates the material and story into a database of personal memories housed in fibre.

Each of these craftspersons reflect creative practices that evolve with increasing demands for audience interactivity. They graciously shed the precious mantle of isolated artist to channel the creative urges of their clients and fellows. How far can they go?

For each of these artists, collaboration between maker and provider is clearly demarcated. The client provides material for the craftsperson to process. While the quantity of contribution can be quite large, there is relatively little interaction beyond it initial delivery. How might this progress further?

Could a craftsperson follow the example of Peter Halley, and provide a web site for visitors to throw their own pots, or weave their own tapestries? When the medium is computing itself, as in the case of Linux, this would seem appropriate use of resources. And it is technically possible to link a web site up to a Photopolymerisation process or computerised loom. However, the virtual nature of this production denies the rich physical engagement of making. Bodily participation has been intrinsic to the arts & crafts movement—does this still hold?

Doubts

While virtuality is a practical obstacle in ‘open source’ craft, there are other more philosophical problems. The aim of collective practice is to open up the creative process to input from users. While this audience collaboration may produce meaningful objects, we do run the risk of pandering to an inappropriate ideology. We should give voice to the doubts that emanate from the dissenting tradition of crafts.

From the historical perspective, user participation seems contrary to the spirit of the crafts. As a set of skills incubated in medieval guilds, craftsmanship has survived in isolation from the outside world. Secrecy helped the development of regional styles and incubated regional diversity. A craftsman’s life was measured by passage through various tests of his understanding of the medium. The involvement of non-experts comes only at the cost of craftsmanship. What purpose is it to give away this expertise to a person with little knowledge and experience? Just because society is a democracy doesn’t mean that anyone can lead the government.

Those within the crafts might generously celebrate this popular franchise of mastery, rather than bemoan the loss of exclusive rights. Such a situation offers the possibility of a higher order of skill—not individual production, but the development of structures in which others might become productive.

To an extent, this caveat applies to Linux itself. The open source community is very much restricted to those with the talent and inclination to learn programming code. Relative to the number of total users happily switching on their Bondi Blue IMACs or Pentiums, this is a very small elite. While the spirit of open source is bountiful, its flesh is slim. This caveat suggests that the craft movement is inherently contradictory: the aspiration of open fellowship is countered by the fundamentalist commitment to skill-building.

Somewhere in Nowhere

While the open source movement contains some of the values close to the origins of the corresponding Arts & Crafts movement, there are limits to how fulsomely it can be embraced. There is cause for the expression of solidarity and some consideration of user participation in the production of objects. However, the intimate knowledge of materials provides a barrier for full engagement with the process.

Looking back to the Nowhere that William Morris projected into our own time, we might say that in the open source movement there is the potential for the kind of genuine fellowship which he saw at the heart of the Arts & Crafts movement. How today we might respond to this kindred development is an open question. Certainly there is the opportunity for moral support. But can the crafts themselves become ‘open source’?  Will consuming craft be equivalent to producing craft? It is difficult to tell, but finding an answer is an adventure pertinent to our time.

 

References

Berners-Lee, T. (1999) Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, San Francisco: Harper.

Dormer, P. (1994) The Art of the Maker, London: Thames & Hudson.

Duchamp, M. (1968) 'Painting… at the service of the mind', in Herschel B. Chipp (ed.) Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book of Artists and Critics Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hayles, N. (1999) 'The condition of virtuality', in Peter Lunenfeld (ed.) The Digital Dialectic, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

McCullough, M. (1996) Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Morris, W. (1984) News from Nowhere, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ruskin, J. (1890) Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, London: George Allen.

Shapin, S. (1984) 'Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle's literary technology' Social Studies of Science, 14, 481-520

Stephenson, N. (1999) In the Beginning was the Command Line