All Aboard for the Craft Diaspora



’All aboard for the diaspora’ Craft Victoria Spring 25/229: 16-19 (1995)

What Alvin Toffler calls the ’third wave’ carries all spheres of human activity into its digital swell and we find the crafts too going online. How do these earthy types behave themselves, in the unlikely company of nerds, cyberpunks and programmers that currently inhabit cyberspace?

With the patience of good craft, let’s take an allegorical detour away from computers and back to the railway station.

So what’s all the rush?

The Millennium Express

With the end of the millennium in our sights, there’s something about a railway station that captures the spirit of the time. Rhetoric such as the ’information superhighway’ suggests an imminent departure towards a future where individual activities are connected beyond our local worlds to happenings all around the globe. While this exciting future beckons, it’s unsurprising that we are neglecting the structures which have been erected over the centuries to guarantee the public good. Previously state-run public operations such as transport and libraries are now been sold off to the highest bidders as though they will no longer play a part in our sense of the public sphere.

It’s as though the train waiting at the station is no longer a means of transportit is in fact our future home. We will live on the train, online, connected to networks around the globe. At the moment, the station is crowded with all kinds of people scanning and digitalising their treasures in preparation for their nomadic futures. Already the carriages are filled with vanguards of a virtual future, pioneering ways in which we can work, play and travel without ever leaving the network. Where are the crafts in all this?

A little lost. After all, crafts represent the material practices that constructed the very train station from which this train will depart, never to return. To be play an active part in the twenty-first century convergence (the key word these days), everyone needs to learn new tricks. Some will no doubt decide to stay with what they know, give the train a miss, and continue stoically pursuing a practice which appears to have no social purpose any more. Others may catch the train thinking they had no choice. Of course, there is a choice and let’s take a preview of what it entails.

Seat Allocation

We already have a taste of the ’information superhighway’ in the Internet structure known as World Wide Web (WWW). WWW enables users to navigate the texts, images and sounds held on hundreds of thousands of computers networked around the globe. Sites on WWW include libraries, fan clubs, ethnic groups, museums, cafés and even cemeteries. Like any other space, it has its share of territorial disputes.

The issue for the crafts is the old division between professional and amateur practice. The major WWW directories list craft sites under either the ’decorative arts’ or ’recreation’. In the most popular WWW reference, Yahoo, craft sites find themselves listed in the company of jugglers, kites-flyers, lock pickers and mead brewers. In electronic discussion groups, there is currently some debate about the correct title for those working the crafts, with opinion split between the US term ’crafter’ and the more serious label of ’artisan’. Our more bureaucratically correct title of ’craftsperson’ is rarely used on WWW. Indeed, our recent hard work reconfiguring the crafts may well be irrelevant at a global level.

Hawkers allowed

WWW is most directly used as a promotional catalogue which makes images of one’s works available to anyone around the world. Stephen Goldate’s local Claynet site, for example, includes in its charter the aim: ’To forge and foster links and exchanges between Australian and other ceramic artists from all over the world’. A recent event towards this end is the Virtual Ceramics Exhibition organised by two art professors from Kentucky. Fifty ceramicists from a total of 189 entries were selected to have a slide of their work scanned and made available on the WWW site. As you might imagine, this selection favoured the pictorial appearance of the work rather than its physical presence. As one of the two judges, Janet Mansfield (editor of Ceramics: Art and Perception), states: ’It became important that the photograph was of the highest quality to do justice to both the work and the exhibition. It is possible that the exhibition will be seen in many countries and over a considerable length of time.’ This is a familiar trade offincrease your reach by reducing your scale (or as Marshall McLuhan said, ’the more there is, the less there is’).

But is the sacrifice worth it? According to the site administrator for Circle-in-a-Square Pottery, craftpersons are being increasingly drawn to the collective excitement of Internet. In reply to an email question about the difficulty of translating objects onto the small screen, Hilaire Karl Ridlon deferred the issue:

I do agree that the WWW (internet) SEEMS like a sterile environment. The introduction of all these new people in the last 16 months has really given it a texture now that allows something as basic to humans as a pot to find a place ’there’. This is the real driving force behind the internet now. No longer an academic tool limited to few environments, the net’s expansion reflects the nature of the people out there. We are they.

Internet provides small isolated groups, like fan clubs and ethnic minorities, with a dramatic increase of scale once they are connected up together. The excitement of this collective ’convergence’ is the compensation offered for this loss of sensual richness. We need to look closely at the this new online community to determine whether it is worth the sacrifice.

Strangers on a train

While on the surface WWW appears an anonymous realm of computer networks, it has actually become a surprisingly personal space. The most prominent craft site currently on WWW is the White House exhibition of American Arts & Crafts, introduced by a video of Hilary Clinton. Using an image map, it is possible to take a ’virtual tour’ through the White House collection, with each work represented by a short biography of the maker. The story of a craftperson’s life seems more important when their work is reduced to images. It’s less possible for the work to stand on its own without the encounter with its three-dimensional presence.

For this reason, the ’home pages’ of ceramicists on WWW contain not just images of objects, but of their makers as well, sometimes even including their children and pets. These sites are less virtual galleries and more online photograph albums, catering for the desire of Web visitors to burrow into the personal lives of others. These more intimate visits give the Web a democratic air, free from cultural authorities, such as curators and editors. It’s difficult, however, to uphold critical standards in someone’s living room.

Craft unplugged

So far, we’ve considered the Web as a new context for existing craft work. A more radical difference occurs at the level of craft practice itself. Already we find ’net artisans’ who have forsaken their benches to work exclusively on screen. This may at first seem like an implausible scenario, but the heady pace of virtualisation gives license to any endeavour which attempts to replace real life with its online equivalent. There are two examples of such work currently on the Web.

Christina Parkin’s virtual jewellery

Christina Parkin is a jeweller who designs objects not for human ornament, but for contemplation on screen. Her ’virtual jewellery’ are rather machine-like fixtures, made of pixels rather than metal. Can ornaments ’on screen’ still be considered works of jewellery? The base of a jeweller’s craft is an understanding of how to form materials into objects that grace the human body. Let’s examine Parkin’s alternative reasoning:

I spent my first year of graduate school at my bench using traditional processes and materials. I had a tortuous time figuring out what it was that I wanted to say with my work. To me, it had all been done. Everything I did looked like something I had seen before and nothing excited me. I began carving delrin, casting sterling and cold joining the two to create objects. These pieces needed extreme precision in order to assemble them properly. While I was fighting with process and materials, I was also beginning CAD (Computer Aided Design) classes simply out of curiosity. One day, something clicked. Why on earth was I feverishly trying to do something by hand that the computer could do easily and efficiently? That was the day I moved my bench to the computer lab.

Parkin celebrates the ease of a medium which transcends the limits of materials. She concedes, however, that these computer images may not be sufficient in themselves and positions them as a short-term solution. In the long run, manufacturing processes will be set up to translate these CAD forms into material objects. In my view, it’s unlikely that these moulded forms will displace the central drama of craft practice which the physical encounter of jeweller and recalcitrant metal. Craft wasn’t meant to be easy, was it?

Bechtold’s soft pots

A more radical challenge comes from the Dutch ceramicist, Jeroen Bechtold. He exploits the medium to suggest shapes that would be impossible to throw by hand. One of these ’soft pots’ is a Escher-like arrangement of clay circles. While Parkin still defers to the real object as the ultimate end of craft, Bechtold argues that this medium represents a fundamentally new avenue for expression. In interview by email, Bechtold writes: ’A thought process can result in many different ways, may it be in clay, paint or stone or whatever, it can also result in MegaBytes... Why not? An object is there to express a filosophy (sic), anger, love, etc.’ The dialogue of idea and matter which has given craft a distinctive language is thus abandoned by Bechtold in favour of a purer conceptualism.

Bechtold’s bold gamble is that virtual ceramics will retain a concern for the domestic sphere. It’s not the traditional home that these ’soft pots’ will decorate, but the new forms of life on Internet: ’Cyberspace will be HOME in a near future and I think it is good to explore and do designs (virtual craft) for that space so that we FEEL a bit at home there.’ In other words, it is no longer the craftperson’s specialisation in material which will distinguish them, but their subtle understanding of nesting practices by which even a computer screen begins to feel cosy. It seems to me, however, that if this new field of virtual ceramics does emerge, it will have do more than put pictures of pots on a screen. A hefty stretch of the imagination is required here.

Is this seat taken?

While our attention is focused on the fate of traditional crafts on Internet, we may well miss out on the emergence of a totally new and pervasive craft, now learnt by millions around the world. The design of Web pages themselves involves a collective effort of cooperation by many different organisations and individuals. WWW operates by browsers reading computer text files that are marked up with tags that, while invisible on the screen, carry certain instructions about background patterns, image loading, data input processing, text alignment and most recently animations. These files are governed by a code termed Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) which undergoes regular revision as browsers increase in their sophistication.

There currently exist many virtual organisations for people to share the experience designing Web pages. The most prominent of these has the august title of HTML Authors Guild. Their WWW site contains a referral service and email discussion list. You’ll find in their mission statement some familiar craft values:

To build awareness within and beyond the Internet community of web page authoring and related services as a skilled pursuit; to assist members in developing and enhancing their capabilities; to communicate to prospective users of web services what they should expect from a Guild member and demand from others offering these services; and to contribute to the development of the Web and Web technical standards and guidelines.

Like medieval guilds, this organisation aims to establish common standards for members. They even have a master-apprentice scheme, where more experienced Web authors can critique the WWW sites of novices. Unlike traditional guilds, however, expertise is determined by self-assessment: there are no initiations. In the true democratic spirit that has given Internet such a utopian start, anyone is free to join.

Mind the gap!

Is there a future for crafts in cyberspace? My own feeling--and I use that word unadvisedly--is that, as an attempt to transcend the material world, Internet is doomed to fail. But in the post-millennial depression that will follow, it will be an extremely interesting failure, for which the crafts are ideally positioned to reinvoke the lost language of matternot only of earth, fibre and metal, but of the ’too too solid flesh’ that constellates our irreversible arrival and departure from this world. The latest wave of the information revolution may well send the crafts into a diaspora, in exile from the workshop but sharing an increasingly popular nostalgia for the old days of manual labour. Next year, the work bench.