Abstracting Craft



'Review of Abstracting Craft' Craft Victoria (1999)

Review of:
Malcolm McCullough Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1996

Abstracting Craft promises much-most of which it delivers. Its main promise is to accommodate the venerable concept of 'craft' to the new media of digital technology. With good management, such an act may reduce the manic pace of technological obsolescence and allow human creativity to catch up.

Not all will welcome this association. At the recent Chicago ISEA, Roy Ascott proclaimed the irrelevance of craft to electronic art. The bourgeois nostalgia of Morris and Ruskin has no place in the new universal media, so Ascott claimed. Likewise, Malcolm McCullough questions why anyone should bother with a seemingly nostalgic quest. He deftly sidesteps this sentimentality by using 'craft' as a verb rather than noun. Specifically, McCullough takes the word 'craft' to mean 'intelligent action in a specific setting'. Such action requires more than book learning; it draws on the embodied experience of the maker with a vocational medium. One way of bring this use of 'craft' into focus is to contrast it with the seductions of 'blockbuster' software, filled with promises to 'do the work for you'.

McCullough's challenge is to assess what has been won and lost because of the revolutionary change in working materials from physical substance to information networks. At first, the persistence of craft seems implausible. Craft requires touch-interplay between maker and material. By contrast, the remote operation of mouse and keyboard offers only impoverished control over one's medium.

McCullough here points to recent developments in CAD to show that continuous manipulation is now possible with computer bytes just as it was once with wet clay. The author's analysis of 'notational density' reveals itself here as a seminal move. McCullough tracks a transition, outlined by Nelson Goodman, from an autographic system to a allographic one. The autographic, such as painting, exists only in the original, whereas an allographic medium like music exists primarily in notational form. What CAD offers makers is the opportunity of turning their very concrete medium into a language that can be edited at leisure before submitting to print.

McCullough's argument is like a sucker on glass: its grip proves terrifically strong as long as the pressure maintains the same direction. Likewise, the reasoning in Abstracting Craft makes sense as long as our interest remains only with production. Once our concerns move over to audience reception-those who use and interpret these works-then the argument loses its hold.

Take his example of the teapot. As an allographic medium, the teapot can be reduced to 'a few dimensions such as bottom radius, overall height, shell curvature, handle size, handle orientation, and spout length'. While such an understanding might radically reduce the amount of information needed to describe the various species of teapot, it has little to say for the kind of qualities people look for in this intimate object. It is precisely the autographic qualities of a handmade teapot that offer the symbolic capital important for the use of a teapot as a receptacle-not only for tea, but also precious memories.

This asymmetry is reflected partly in the book itself. While it is beautifully constructed with a sturdy cover and generous margins, the illustrations are often tangential and the text contains a surprising number of typographical errors. This may seem nick picking, but you expect a book that embodies the values of craft to be flawlessly assembled.

At one point, McCullough bravely asks a question which goes to the heart of a technology that has traded materiality for efficiency: 'Must a true medium entail sufficient risk and irreversibility to demand the rigour and devotion that have always been necessary for great works?' Abstracting Craft does not answer this question, but it certainly leads us to the point where we have no choice but to seek answers.