Trading Tales: Narrative Design in Craft

Stories are an important way in which we connect together, over time and space. I’m currently in Western India for events launching our Garland issue New Homes for Old Stories. Here, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have helped reproduce cultural values over millennia. The same could be said of other world religions, such as the Koran for Islam and the Bible for Christianity. Stories are also help bind smaller groupings, such as the stories passed down through families. And finally at an individual left, it can be said that a happy life involves having a consistent story that connects the successes and failures that constitute our personal narrative.

It is critical therefore to consider how stories are made and cared for. We tend to think of stories as being “told”, therefore consisting purely of language. Certainly there’s a “craft” in the telling of stories: bards, novelists and screenwriters have learnt how to sustain our attention over the course of a telling. But stories also have a material dimension. As with all things that are important to us, we find a way of experiencing the story through ritual, with the help of storied objects. In the modern era, this has been the role of the book. Beyond the mechanical operation of the books as a device for serving up words, this bundle of paper also offers itself as a home for the story itself. And in our modern era, we have build libraries as temples for the safeguarding and honouring of those stories. This is particularly where the book is a unique object, such as a illuminated manuscript. Other objects can also house stories, such as personal keepsakes that preserve precious memories—of travel to exotic lands or of dear departed ones.

So if objects are important to how we keep stories alive, then we need to think about how we treat them. There are two different tracks along which objects circulate.

The commodity track

In the market, an object operates as a commodity, which can circulate freely according to its exchange value. When we acquire such an object, we do so based on abstract considerations such as price. All things being equal, we are most likely to chose the cheaper object. In the consumerist era, an alternative value arose which we know today as “brand” identity. In this case, some products are valued because of the story behind them. Many chose to buy an iPhone even though it is more expensive than other equivalent smartphones because of the brand value of Apple. What is this value? Apple takes great pains to present itself as “designed in California”, building on the mythology of Silicon Valley, and particularly its prophet, Steve Jobs.

In the case of crafts, an equivalent is associated with the region commonly identified with high quality and authentic products, such as Varanasi saris or Kutch block-printing.

The key point about this commodity track is that objects circulate freely. They are available to whoever has the money sufficient to pay for them. And once they have that object, they are free to do with it whatever they will, even destroy it.

The gift track

By contrast, there is an alternative track which is made up of our ties with others. A key traditional means for objects to circulate is through the gift. As anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed, an object bestowed on another created a debt which served to bind that person to the giver. We are not free to do whatever we like with a gift. How we treat the gift will reflect on how we value the giver. Most gifts must be acknowledged, even over time as we report on the pleasure it gives us.

A key moment is the ritual of giving. Often this is extended by the use of wrapping, which creates the suspense and grants the giver time to provide a story about the object, particularly why they chose it for you. It’s the thought that counts. One of the reasons why handmade goods are very appropriate gifts is that they tell the story of the handmade, which itself is a testimony of care and this carries over to the expression of value in the relationship.

In formal terms, the commodity and gift tracks are dialectically opposed, like the spaces of profane and sacred that we seek to keep separate in order to maintain of social grouping.

The social market

But there are ways in which the market can taken on social values. We become friends with a shopkeeper over time and award him or her our trust, so we might buy from them even though it is more expensive. We all know that tourists are much more likely to buy a craft object if they visit the workshop and meet the maker personally. The craft market often provides a space for this, when we can buy directly from the maker and offer our appreciation.

More recently we’ve seen a particular kind of social market emerge with the development of ethical capitalism. Here we can buy a product for the sense of goodness. Critical here is the backstory of the NGO or needy cause that prompts our generosity. New versions of the sharing economy such as AirBNB work on an ambivalent combination of personal guest and customer.

And so we’ve seen ecommerce platforms emerge that not only sell us products, but also tell the story of their makers. Such platforms offer many benefits. They provide recognition for the artisan and offer a dignified stage on which their work can be presented. This personal perspective is likely to lead to higher prices and therefore greater returns to the craftsperson, reflecting the benefits in one-to-one encounters such as craft markets and workshop tours.

But there is a danger. Seen purely within the terms of a “brand identity”, such stories risk turning the craftsperson into commodity, him or herself. Here they must learn to conform to the stories which have higher value, in particular romantic stories of creative expression for its own sake, which deny the personal struggles many have to survive. We all do this, to an extent. But there is the risk of alienation from the originary context of the craft in the traditions and stories that will seem foreign to someone from another country.

One way of countering this is to make the platform two-way. So rather than our normal anonymous online experience, we can consider facility for the buyer and seller to interact. The buyer learns about the seller, as much as in reverse. This has potential to introduce the gift track that facilitates a relationship between the maker and the consumer. This is the move behind the innovation introduced by IOU Project, where users were encouraged to upload photos of themselves wearing their purchases, alongside images of those who made them. (The concept of Samaanata developed by the Sangam Project sought to establish a platform of mutual respect across the supply chain, including producer, developer and consumer).

A key element of narrative design in craft is the instruction for use. This is not just about the material care of the object, but also how to honour its making. This could be the kind of occasion to wear a garment, how to activate an amulet, or in the case of giftware, the kind of person to whom it might be given. One way of supporting this covenant is to provide a platform where consumers can share evidence of how they honoured the intentions.

E-commerce need not be just a pixelated version of the supermarket or shopping mall, inspiring our greed and lust for new things. It has potential to be a social space were we can encounter all the different capacities it takes to make a world. It can help tell stories of what binds us together, made present in the precious object we hold in our hands.

Craft in Australia: let’s not forget the real value of the handmade

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In his budget reply speech in May 2015, Bill Shorten claimed that “coding is the literacy of the 21st century.”

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In September, Melbourne will host the inaugural Radiant Pavilion, an international jewellery festival – along with the state organisation’s Craft Cubedand national conference, Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making – to be delivered by the National Gallery of Victoria.

This conference culminates the National Craft Initiative (NCI), managed by theNational Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA). A 2014 report by the NCI, Mapping the Australian Craft Sector, called for an urgent review of its sustainability.


In 2009 NAVA Director Tamara Winikoff described craft in the community in the following terms:

The extent of the Australian community’s engagement with craft and design (over 2 million participants) is a powerful affirmation of the deep seated satisfaction which people gain from the exercise of their imagination and skill. The ambition of the NCI is to stimulate engagement of the Australian craft and design sector with new ideas, ways of doing things, connections and opportunities.

University of South Australia’s Susan Luckman’s recent book, Craft and the Creative Economy (2015), reflects on the growing interest in the handmade, prompted by increasing awareness of exploitation in global industrial production:

Craft, as both objects and process, appeals in this moment of increasing environmental and labour awareness as an ethical alternative to mass-production; craft also speaks to deep human connections to, and interest in, making and the handmade as offering something seemingly authentic in a seemingly inauthentic world.

The internet – bringing with it businesses like, which has exceededUS$2 billion in transactions – promises to extend the intimacy of the local market to a global audience, offering a sense of connection that is lacking elsewhere.

But how does Australia feature in the global industry of craft? Surprisingly, Australia was once a world leader.


The Crafts Council of Australia emerged in 1964 as a response to an invitation from the World Crafts Council (WCC) to attend its inaugural event in New York. In 1973, the Crafts Board was established to represent the arts in the Australia Council alongside visual arts, dance and literature.

Then in 1980, Australian ceramist Marea Gazzard was the first elected president of the WCC. Political leaders of the time sought to identify with popular crafts, such as Democrats founder Don Dunstan opening the Adelaide’s JamFactoryCraft Centre in 1973 and Rupert Hamer launching Victoria’s Meat Market Crafts Centre in 1977.

However, Australian craft has since virtually disappeared from the national stage. Through the 1980s, the Crafts Board was incorporated into the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, and eventually merged into the Visual Arts Board in the 1990s, as it now remains.

Finally, the last national link to craft was lost with the 2011 decision to cut funding for Craft Australia.

Recent political leaders have failed to use Australian crafts to demonstrate their national pride, with the exception of John Madigan and Nick Xenophon’s failed attempt to furnish Parliament House with Australian-made crockery.

The now corporatised state-based crafts councils such as Craft Victoria and Adelaide’s dynamic JamFactory generate much local activity, but they are not supported by a national platform or funding.


Though Australian craft is rarely seen on our national stage, we have actually made many unique objects of enduring value. As a material art, craft expresses in a tangible appreciation of the land. Using Japanese techniques, Australian ceramicists give artistic expression to the rich soils, glazed with ash from our native timbers.

As shown in this year’s Venice Biennale, Aboriginal communities from central Australia use the unique plants of the desert to tell sacred stories in fibre sculptures. Wood craftspersons are learning how to adapt European techniques to the challenges of our indigenous timbers. Jewellers have taken the egalitarian approach to materials and learnt how to make exquisite works out of humble materials.

While other nations have attempted to re-focus on making things, the “lucky country” has come to depend more on what can be extracted from the land than is produced on it. The “clever country” imagined during the Hawke-Keating years made a virtue out of the loss of manufacturing, heralding a knowledge economy that focused on financial and education services.


In the US, President Obama personally hosted the annual Maker Faire last year, reviving some national pride in making things through local production, featuring neighbourhood labs that offer services such as 3D printing.

In the UK, craft contributes A$6.5 billion to the economy. The Crafts Councilactively presents craft in the public eye, including a recent manifesto – Our Future is in the Making – launched in the House of Commons to promote craft in education.

Across the sea, the Crafts Council of Ireland receives annually A$5.2 million in government funding to support craft initiatives such as Future Makers to nurture the next generation (a per capita equivalent in Australia would be A$26 million for a national craft organisation).

China, South Korea, Japan and India have also dedicated significant funding,international festivals, infrastructure and craftsman support services) to the development and sustainability of locally crafted goods, including Nahendra Modi’s personal commitment to support khadi (handloom) cotton production.

But with the end of the mining boom, we are looking at the impact that this loss of productive capacity has on our ability to sustain our future. What exactly will be the legacy of our good fortune apart from large holes in the ground?


This year – will it be a turning point, or could it be more of the same?

For the past two decades, the cult of the new prevented us from building on the unique traditions we have established. Arts talk today is infected with corporatephrases such as “disruptive technologies”, “breaking down barriers”, and “design thinking”.

The obsession to break with the past weakens the social and community values that underpin meaning.

Understanding where we have come from offers a trajectory that can guide us into the future. According to Marian Hosking, President of the newly revivedWorld Crafts Council – Australia:

Today’s craftsperson draws on both traditional craft practice and new technologies, with an understanding of historic and social precedence.

The end of the mining boom is a chance to review the implicit direction of Australia as a nation. What will happen as Asian countries inevitably raise their wages, develop first rate universities and create their own designs?

Crafts help us answer that question. Crafts demonstrate that we know our place in the world and are committed to make something from it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Call me Balanda

For reasons that will be clear later, I’d like to start tonight’s lecture by acknowledging the people who lived on this land before John Batman declared it a village—the Woiwurring and people of the Kulin nations.

Tonight, I want to talk with you about the role of art in reflecting where we live, with particular regard to the texture of our material environment. The lecture is constructed around three poignant scenes of craft culture. There will be one sidetrack. We will visit the work of five contemporary craft practitioners who grapple with the dilemma of what it means to be non-indigenous. At the very end, I will leave you with a word—a piece of Australasian vernacular—that seems to be perfectly embody our post-millennial condition

Let’s start tonight where we left off—the twentieth-century.

Scene#1 – Time to Say Goodbye

‘Good old Collingwood forever.’ There was a moment at the end of the twentieth-century century when only one of these was true: Collingwood. Many cities have strong traditions of inter-suburban rivalry. In Siena’s Palio the city’s districts compete in a bloodthirsty horse race which has continued annually from the middle ages to today. But in Melbourne, at the end of the twentieth-century, its colourful tradition of weekly winter contests in suburban ovals was coming to a symbolic end.

Collingwood’s President, Eddie Maguire, was leading his team into a new millennium by moving his club. In the future, home matches were moving from Victoria Park, where they had been for the past 107 years, to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the symbol of success. On 21 August 1999, in their last game for the season, they were ingloriously thrashed by the previous year’s wooden spooner, the Brisbane Bears.

Here is one of many pre-millennial scenes: the grass scattered with trash, bitter fans, and rising above them all, the glowing screen proudly bearing the message, ‘Fly Emirates’.

What we glimpse in such a scene is the transcendence of the new millennium from its ground in the local public domain. By the end of the twentieth-century, this ‘lift-off’ was visible throughout Melbourne, from the Suprematist architecture of Denton Corker Marshall to the four wheel drives that elevated their passengers above the earth.

Now we are three years into the ascension, and there are signs of a bumpy ride, if not a crash landing. The collapse of corporations such as Enron,, OneTel and HIH has demonstrated the unsustainability of the ‘sky is the limit’ management style. September 11 and enduring Middle Eastern conflict has confronted the West with the inexorable limits of globalisation.

It seems time to reacquaint ourselves with the ground on which we stand.

Home crafts

If we were to think of modern society as an electric circuit, craft is the extension that earths its energy into the material world.

Through local potteries, weaving workshops, jewellery guilds and furniture studios, makers have been able to give tangible form to their immediate world. Consider Dresden china, Gobelin tapestries, Shaker furniture, Indonesia Ikat or Danish silverware. These products embody their world in both the material substances from which they are constituted and the creative energy to which they bear testimony.

This locative function of craft is especially important in an industrial era, where the global circulation of goods threatens to create a placeless world. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote in 1972:

Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands by preserving differences, they preserve the fecundity of history.[1]

Regionalism was one of the main forces in the formation of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Figures like William Morris and John Ruskin both saw craft as embodying the home-grown Anglo-Saxon energies, in contrast to the foreign Latin hierarchy imposed by invading Normans.

In Australia today, vernacular craft is championed by South Australian writer Noris Ioannou. Ioannou is Australia’s sole remaining public craft critic, as well as social historian of the Barossa folk crafts. In recent years, Ioannou has pitched his argument against the homogenous culture of design. I quote from a talk he presented in 1998:

At the end of the twentieth century we might ask: are the crafts expressive of or connected to any true Australian cultural authenticity or social meaning, or are they just another appendage of twentieth-century global craft?[2]

At this point, I should acknowledge that there are varying degrees of vernacular, ranging from mugs decorated with gum nuts to the sophisticated pastiche architecture that was so popular in Melbourne during the early 90s. As will be evident later, what I am pointing towards here is a vernacular that concedes a relationship to place that is not indigenous. It is the tentative belonging felt by guests, rather than the proprietorial claim of hosts.

So given the quest for homecoming that has been set up by the ‘lift-off’, and the traditional role of craft in defining our unique place in the world, how has craft fared in this process?

Scene #1 – One dollar

You could say it has been a bumpy ride, at some risk of understatement.

To return to the end of the twentieth-century, the process of dislocation affected our local craft scene dramatically. The closure of the Metro Craft Centre in May 1999 effectively ended the Meat Market’s role as the state’s nursery of craft—the base for those whose responsibility it is to create our future heritage. Gone were the retail outlet, exhibition spaces, State Craft Collection and access studios. Craft was evicted. Despite all that Craft Victoria has done to recover to accommodate craft, through its CBD galleries, new retail outlet, Open Bench, the website and Skill Bank, we still lack access studios critical for emerging makers.

During the creditors meeting on 21 May, a host of tenants, employees and guild representatives turned up to stake their claim. The locks had been changed on the building and many were anxious simply to retrieve their goods and equipment. No one from the state government of the time dared to appear and explain the situation. Much of the meeting was taken up with reading out the list of creditors who has signed up with the appointed liquidators. Most of their claims were the base minimum—$1. All the symbolic significance of a common institution for the crafts to flourish was converted to a flat nominal sum, as though the victim of hyper-inflation.

The various ‘lift-off’ reforms, such as the disappearance of tram conductors, the privatisation of public utilities, new opportunities for gambling away your life’s savings, have substantially reduced what it means today to say you are Victorian. The default option for most people today is the shop around the corner selling cheap imported designer goods. We need to provide a choice that allows people to decorate their lives in a way that contributes to the sustainability of their own world.

White culture of no-place

We are heading into difficult terrain. One path ahead leads to the no-where of an internationalised lifestyle. Along this path, the non-indigenous peoples of the world are consigned to a Hilton-like limbo of standardised fixtures, their senses dulled by the techno-banging beat that dominates pubs and cafes, their experience cocooned in entertainment capsules, more concerned about Madonna’s navel than the native forest being wood-chipped in their own state.

No, let’s not go there. I don’t mean the global no-where. I mean beyond that—to the enclaves of high culture and the self-satisfied mindset of anti-popularism. Rather than succumb to this kind of elitism, we need consider our own part in the process. We should be aware that this ‘lift-off’ is not simply the result of a global empire attempting to colonise our hearts and minds. If we look closely, we can find reasons for such a move that correspond with the noblest of motives.

Let’s try again.

At the same time that settlers have divested themselves of place, the spiritual custodianship of the land has been returned to indigenous Australians. It is these people that are first acknowledged before speaking in public, whose smoking ceremonies sacralise our lands and whose dances provide the official ceremony of our grand occasions.

While Western culture was ascending into the new millennium, it bequeathed its title deeds to the indigenous people. In the wake of ‘lift-off’ was a symbolic restoration of native ownership. As the Meat Market was closing, the Melbourne Museum was opening its key new wing, Bunjilaka, a centre for local indigenous culture. As Victoria Park was closing, the city acquired its first substantial park for more than a century, Birrarung Marr, named after the local aboriginal words for ‘place of mists by the side of the river’. Local councils around the state were developing indigenous features. Non-indigenous were acknowledging the violence of colonial invasion and the displacement of the natural owners of the land.

But again there are problems.

There is an implicit convenience at work in this direction of reconciliation. Devolving a spiritual claim to the land allows settlers to embrace global culture all the more freely. There is less contrary pull to speak for one’s region. Like the Goethe’s Faust, we have sold our soul in order to gain the power of flight—to move around the world and always be at home. The settlers embrace the practical business of getting things done—building infrastructure, administering projects, managing budgets and formulating policy. To the first peoples is the burden of expression—the pleasure of the brushstroke, the hurt of discrimination, the pride of achievement and the hope of renewal.

The Australian theorist McKenzie Wark, now living in New York, advocates ‘We no longer have roots, we have aerials’. We could structure this into a more active sentence, such as: ‘We have passed on our roots so we can climb aerials.’

It’s at this point that it be useful to call on that kind of Protestant energy that helped develop the Gutenberg Bible and forge self-reliant crafts. Impatient with priests, the Protestants claimed an individual responsibility for their own salvation. Every culture seems to need these democratic movements at some stage in their historical cycle to counteract hierarchies that inevitably develop around specialisations. The process of reconciliation seems ripe for a personal journey of indigenousness. Rather than relying on a fixed division of labour, whereby sense of place is relegated to Aboriginal Australians, custodianship should be something we can all be part of. This beckons what Calvin called ‘the heart brought to light’.

We are clearly a long way off from this process. The difference between indigenous and non-indigenous is so stark for us in Australia, that it is very hard to think around this dichotomy without seeming either racist or new age. One advantage of craft theory is that it attends to the sub-theoretical layer of experience. Ideas can be explored through the phenomenological encounter with our material being. As a process of re-orientation, I’d like to draw on a parallel dichotomy in our contemporary experience as urban consumers—chewy versus crunchy.

Detour – Chewy versus crunchy

Consider the traditional culture of the Pitjantjatjara lands west of Uluru. Here, the craft ethic is an integral part of the traditional lifestyle. Around Ernabella, in northern South Australia, women have practiced spinning since before contact. The process involves rolling a wooden frame on their legs while pulling away the yarn. They call this action rungkani, which also applies to other actions involving the palm of the hand in a circular motion, such as grinding seed. Advocates of authentic craft such as Edmund Leach see a kind of rungkani as the epitome of the potter’s creative skill.

Rungkani’s dialectical opposite in Western culture can be found in the latest evolution of consumer aesthetic, the KFC chicken popcorn. These deep-fried chicken remnants are testament to the craving for crunchy that afflicts the non-indigenous consumer. The advertising image almost sends up its voracious orality, alluding to the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, designed by John Pasche. Like the Keith Richards guitar riffs, Chicken Popcorn is loud and aggressive. You can eat them while you are driving. They are the crispy crunchy fizzy world of Ciabata bread, mouse clicks, potato crisps, pizza crusts and Coca-Cola. Like the process of digitisation, one whole domestic fowl is reduced to many individual bites.

By contrast, the indigenous world is chewy. The old world of betel nuts, pumpkin seeds, bush tobacco, beef jerky and chewing gum where consumption occurs with ruminative repetition and slow accretion. This is horizontal molar grinding, rather than vertical molar clash.

Now going back into the more familiar realm of theory, we can readily cast this opposition in Freudian terms. As well we all know, Freud made the classic distinction in childhood development between oral and anal phases. The consumer ethic is transparently oral. It is about filling an emptiness. Within those terms, the indigenous ethic tends towards the anal. The creative process is about giving form through slow processes. It is to produce, rather than consume.

What this dichotomy demonstrates is the need to maintain contact with the modality currently inhabited by people like the hundred odd Pitjantjatjara still living in communities around central Australia. We need something to chew on, in both physical and metaphorical senses of the word.

Reverse colonialism

In order to develop dialogue with indigenous culture we need to push what has become known as the post-colonial project. While the process of post-colonialism was designed to relive the sins of the imperial powers, and celebrate the enduring quality of indigenous culture, there is the acknowledgment now of the dangers that can arise when colonial rule is suddenly withdrawn. The abrupt end of the Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 led to the tragedy of East Timor and enduring African civil wars. Leave it to the locals to clean up mess.

Rather than post-colonialism, what is called for today is a kind of reverse colonialism. Those who were once masters need to see themselves as guests, at least symbolically. Rather than conveniently disappearing into the neverland of global consumerism, we need to renegotiate our place.

So how do we continue? What can we take from indigenous Australian culture that is not simply appropriation?

In the case of our decorative arts, there was a time when Australian artists naively turned to Aboriginal culture to develop a sense of local identity. The printmaker Margaret Preston believed that drawing from indigenous craft helped counterbalance the dominance of overseas influences. In 1942, Art in Australia published her article ‘The indigenous art of Australia’, where she argued that authentic Australian art must draw from Aboriginal sources. Preston concluded the article:

Our saving grace is our distance from contaminating sources. We have teachers and wonderful prints to help us and the rest must come from ourselves, and the beginning should come from the home and domestic arts. This is the reason that I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things in life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed.[3]

In our time, the respect that accompanied an artist like Preston’s foray into Aboriginal design seems at best condescending. It would be a brave designer today how would try to establish a new language of the decorative arts by appropriating indigenous forms.

Respect in our time entails precisely the opposite regard for Aboriginal culture. Not using it is our standard of respect for indigenous rights. Suburban boys playing didgeridoo are seen as gauche leftovers of a naïve white Australia. In their place are lawyers specialising in copyright and art academics checking to see who really benefits from the success of Aboriginal art.

We are left with no other choice but to be non-indigenous. But what does that mean?

Our southern cousins across the Tasman have struck a tentative arrangement whereby the New Zealanders from the north acquire a special Maori word for non-indigenous. Since the first years of colonisation, settlers have been known as Pakeha, thought to mean ‘those who come in tall white ships’.

Pakeha Glass

With the extensive New Zealand migration to Australia, we need to consider the Pakeha experience as part of our own picture. As seems often the case, the Kiwi expatriate provides Australian culture with a softness and nostalgia that is otherwise missing in the blokey mainstream. This is the case in film, comedy, jewellery and music.

It is very interesting to see the Pakeha consciousness surface in new media—in this case, glass. Wendy Fairclough moved to Australia in 1978. Despite the length of time here, she maintains a close identification with her New Zealand homeland through her work, particularly around the place of her birth, Wanganui.

Fairclough’s glass work is ornamented with New Zealand landscapes. Her installation ‘Journey #2’ is made from handblown glass, engraving and enamel paint. She uses the forms of everyday domestic objects, rendered in frosted glass, which grants them a sense of fragility and distance about them. The long grey cloud evokes a far land. The combination of form and decoration produces an effect of insatiable longing. There is something about glass that puts us at a distance from our desires, like the landscapes we see through the thick transparent skin of Maureen Williams’ vases.

Remembering Taranaki is produced in a similar way, though the work here features the Ponga, the ubiquitous New Zealand silver fern found in its many damp gullies. The same fern can be found in What seekest though in the unknown land, which uses gold leaf. The combination of glass objects in each installation has the effect of a virulent growth, reflecting the obsession of nostalgic memory for the dark cool spaces of New Zealand while sitting in a hot studio in the bright brown Adelaide hills.

The challenge of Pakeha identity is to locate an equivalent term in Australia. Of course, there are difficulties. The distance between the indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia is far greater than in New Zealand. There is no one Aboriginal language that might offer a term like Pakeha.

The most common term for non-indigenous person in Australia today is Balanda—a word taken from the Macassan fisherman who visited the shores well before Captain Cook. Balanda is a version of ‘Hollander’, but is used frequently in the land of Yothu Yindi and Maningrida baskets.

But in the national context, Balanda is quite different to Pakeha. It is the word of one group of Top End Aboriginal languages. Other indigenous languages have different terms. One can’t speak for all. There are Kardiya in the Kimberleys, Migloo among the Murris in Queensland, for the Noongar it is Watjala, the non-indigenous people among us here are Gubba, and there are the Numminer across the Bass Strait. One means of dealing with this diversity is to adopt a federation of non-indigenous terms. Who knows, perhaps in a twenty-second century census of Australia we will have to nominate such categories for ourselves.

Watjala Fibre

In Australian culture, we are only seeing tentative steps towards embracing non-indigenous identity. One example comes from the Watjala people, Nalda Searles. Nalda has grown up in Kalgoorlie under the broad open skies of Western Australia, where civilisation thins out and individuals fall back much more on their own imagination to colour their world. Inspired by her surroundings, Nalda helped establish the legendary textile camps at Edith Cowan University. Since 1987, artists and students have been venturing into the wilderness to make out of what nature brings to hand, such as puff ball dyes, grass for stitching, seeds for ornamenting. Members of this push include the late Elsje King, John Parkes, Holly Story and Kate Campbell-Pope.

In 1992, Searles was involved in a project with the Wongutha community living on the fringes of Kalgoorlie. The project was titled Warta Kutju, one tree. Many of the Wongutha had come in from the Western Desert where they had succumbed to a cycle of poverty and alcohol. Searles took the people back out to the desert and worked with them on different creative projects. Through their networks, she established contact with Aboriginal communities throughout the state, from Narrogin in the south to Blackstone in the east.

One of her collaborative projects was with the painter Mary McLean, which involved a picture book of words from her language, Ngaanyatjarra. As you can see, Searles is not trying to capture some connection with pre-contact world of dreaming. She engages with the immediate materials of life in Aboriginal communities, especially blankets and clothes.

As well as these collaborations, Searles’ own work reflects on the place of white people in this land. Her signature piece is White Boy Blazer, a school uniform on which have been sewn the brachia of Xanthorrhea, known colloquially as Black Boy. Each of these brachia has been painted white, showing the uneasy tension between settlement and the wild bush beyond.

In Aboriginal communities of the Western Desert, Searles is known as Kabbarli, the word for grandmother that was used to describe Daisy Bates. Recently, she has been engaging in a significant body of work dealing with the complex biography of this woman who lived alone in a tent on the Nullarbor Plain. This work consists of a pair of white gloves sewn together and ornamented with initi seeds, reflecting the strangeness of Daisy Bates Edwardian attire while living in the desert. The people from the Musgrave Ranges, who used to come down to visit her camp, often wore initi seeds in their hair. Today you will find these seeds used as decoration on the rim of baskets.

I think what is significant about Nalda’s work is the way her art exposes European culture to the rough edge of the bush. It is a grafted culture, never completely merging with the land. She gives a flavour to the non-indigenous.

Victorian Wood

In Victoria, the natural genus loci is wood. We have seen recently great interest amongst our furniture makers in the way local timbers can be used as a language for craft. Damien Wright has made a particular feature of gidgee in his tables. Part of this process is getting to know the timber, its strengths and limits. In this process, the maker embodies the physical stratum of our place. Such direct knowledge is one advantage that maker has over the mere designer, who does not have to engage with materials.

The aptronymically named Andrew Wood is a maker who explores the symbolic potential of this language. In Wood’s debut exhibition, Reading the Country, he presented a series of furniture pieces that reflected the relationship between trees and water. For instance, the Billabong piece included a slumped glass insert that could contain a small body of water.

Wood followed this path to uncertain territory. In an attitude similar to Margaret Preston’s, last year he produced a series of works based on the Aboriginal coolamon. They were beautiful works, but they prompted that uneasy feeling we have these days when seeing indigenous forms used by a non-indigenous maker, no matter how well-intentioned.

Recently, Wood has developed a series of work that is less beholden to the problems of authenticity. His commission for an apartment in Albert Park continues his use of inlaid water bowls, though in this case they are designed to reflect the bayside landscape. Wood is exploring how a rural medium like wood might fit in an urban context.

City Rings

The vernacular in metal has taken many forms. During the 1970s, there was a strong push with artists like Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers to incorporate the local architectural fabric in their work. They followed a Scandinavian model of jewellery practice that saw creative labour embedded in the environment.

In Melbourne today we see a very different kind of vernacular. Melbourne is privileged in the availability of relatively cheap studio space in the middle of the city. The Flinders Quarter has locations like the Nicholas Building and Carlow House that contain warrens of workshops, studios and trade outlets. These collectives place jewellery in the centre of Melbourne life.

However, rather than simply reflect the city around them, Melbourne’s jewellers are making active interventions in urban life. Roseanne Bartley has established a practice in public jewellery, where the wearing of labels such as ‘unAustralian’ has extended the stage of jewellery from the body to the public at large.

Another Melbourne jeweller who has extended jewellery’s horizons is Caz Guiney. Guiney has attempted during the course of her career to stretch the boundaries of jewellery practice, in particular rings. She has made rings out of ephemeral materials like ice and sugar.

Her City Rings project approaches the city as a whole with a jeweller’s perspective. City Rings entails the fabrication of rings that can be attached to elements of the city. There are twelve locations around the city that Guiney has chosen as sites for her rings.

Jump Ring is attached to a flag pole on the top of a city building. The ring floats around with the breeze over the city. Gold Nut is screwed into the rear of a city billboard. Tucked behind a large advertisement, Guiney’s jewellery is lost in a maze of nuts and bolts.

Guiney is unconcerned about the long-term fate of these precious objects. What is critical to her is the translation of the city into a jeweller’s concerns. This means searching the city for the negative spaces on which jewellery might be threaded. City Rings is a conceptual work that is about changing the way we look at the city, of recovering it from the Adshel signage that plasters its tram stops and the techno pulse throbbing from its cafes, so that it becomes again a place of human habitation.

Trash Ceramics

The modern tradition of ceramics is closely linked to the environment. The Japanese values that so informed Australian pottery in the 1960s identified beauty with the effects of nature. As Soetsu Yanagi said, ‘the world is natural’.[4] Within this philosophy a generation of Australian artists like Les Blakeborough, Col Levy, Jeff Mincham and Milton Moon adopted the Japanese methodology to harness the beauty of the world in their work through use of local clays, timbers and glazes.

By contrast, today’s younger generation of ceramists appear to be philistines. Ceramists you see today at Haecceity Gallery like David Ray, Vipoo Sviralasa, Irianna Kanellopoulou, Zoë Churchill and Sharon Muir stray far from nature and draw instead on the trashy world of popular culture. But in doing this, they are actually following the mission of craft to reflect its world. As Ruskin advised, ‘reject nothing.’

The work of Nicole Lister shows how this method can provide a dynamic basis for artistic evolution. Her earlier work, ‘Stack Up’ and ‘Production Line’, played with a kind of surreal Warhol effect of multiples. The work based on paper cups had an obvious illusionistic effect of making enduring what seemed ephemeral. Her more recent work explores this play with ephemerality in a more experimental fashion. Works like ‘Wrapping Cloth’ convey a stronger sense of the materiality of her subject. Rather than cast her forms, Lister delicately paints her subjects with a Limoges porcelain slip. The bisque firing burns away the cardboard and then the work is fired again at a higher temperature. Lister renders her subject in unique forms, not multiples. She then assembles them into quilt-like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork.

Ceramists like Lister give form to what otherwise is a largely transient stream of the material world. Ephemeral packaging becomes a work of art in itself. This creative alchemy subtly subverts the denial of materiality that lies at the basis of a hyper-consumer culture.

Scene #3 – The world gets flatter

Before we end, I’d like to return to the role of craft in the indigenous relationship to the land. In looking at the contribution of Aboriginal art to Australian culture, particular emphasis is usually given to Papunya, where art coordinator Geoffrey Barden introduced acrylic paints in the early 1970s. But there have been many other creative interventions, especially in the crafts—they continue to this day. One of the most well-known is the Hermannsburg Pottery, where ceramics were introduced by the Lutheran missionaries in the 1960s. The pottery produced engaging round pots detailed with imagery from the surrounding McDonald Ranges. But such developments often have to contend with the predominance of painting, both in terms of comparative prices and the priorities of major institutions.

I came across a salutary example of this is recently. When the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy, visited the pottery, he saw a large painting they had made collectively for the Yeperenye Festival. Kennedy promptly reached for his cheque book and proclaimed the work worthy of the national collection. Faced with this signal, the potters today are now learning painting skills—reluctantly for both the artists and the art coordinator Naomi Sharp, herself a ceramist.

In the current arrangement, such a move would seem a natural progress towards self-management. However, if we look at what we do in craft as maintaining a responsible relationship to our environment, then we might feel more comfortable about extending support for these potters in maintaining their own unique language in the face of an ever-flattening two-dimensional world. By reminding Canberra of craft’s value, we might indirectly be influencing its sustainability in remote Australia. Our business is their business.

The final word

So we return to where we began, at the end of Collingwood’s last game. Quite a strange development occurred after humiliation on the ground had ended. As hundreds poured on to the ground to enjoy a final kick to kick on their sacred grass, young children began spontaneously to souvenir their own piece of the turf. Regardless of the ‘lift-off’ of the new millennium, these boys wanted their piece of the earth on which their heroes engaged in battles of strength, skill and honour. Accompanying the dizzy expectations of the new millennium was a strange impulse to make contact with the ground of the one about to pass by.

So we come to the final word. In the late 1990s, there was a kind of Mexican wave of ‘lift-off’s in sport and entertainment. One particularly pervasive gesture occurred in the ‘Oh What Feeling’ advertisements for Toyota cars. These ecstatic displays of consumer joy were enacted in a wide variety of subjects and settings.

At our troubled side of the millennium, though, this phrase has been replaced by a word that is grounded in the Australian vernacular. In ads inspired by New Zealand’s John Clark, a leaping dog is unsuccessfully launches itself onto a speeding Ute. Lying forlorn on the mud, it utters a word that says it all for the renewed reality of earth and gravity in the new millennium: ‘Bugger!’

This was originally delivered as the Craft Victoria Annual Lecture 2012

[1] Octavio Paz In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World Toronto: World Crafts Council, 1974, p. 23

[2] Noris Ioannou ‘Crafts and nationhood: Multiculturalism, creativity and Titanic’ Byline: Craft & Text CraftSouth 1998, p.17

[3] Margaret Preston ‘The indigenous art of Australia’ Art in Australia 1925, pp. 3-11

[4] Soetsu Yanagi The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty (trans. Bernard Leach) Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989 (orig. 1931), p. 101

Ten Years Before and After

Lecture to the Chicago Institute of Art 3 October 2007 as part of a series associated with the Object of Labor publication

An evaluation of the role played by collectives in recent craft

It’s a great pleasure to be back in Chicago. I was shocked to realise that it has been ten years since I was here last, and delivered the paper that eventually became the chapter in the publication Object of Labor. So my presentation this evening provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the issues of that paper, and consider what has developed in the subsequent ten years.

But to develop the ideas, I want to jump ahead another ten years’ time.

500 years ago

In almost exactly ten years’ time we will be commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, nailed to a church door in Saxony. The impact of Luther’s hammer still reverberates. In 1960s Australia, when I was growing up, we took it for granted that the world was inexorably divided into two worlds, the Catholic and Protestant, the Micks and the Proddies. Each side would taunt the other with the same phrase ‘Catholic [or Protestant] dogs stink like frogs jumping off hollow logs.’ Since then, Australia has become a more multicultural society and this British fault line has been superseded by other differences, particularly the Muslim-Christian divide.

While the Reformation may seem a period of purely historical interest now, the broader issues that it concerns are as relevant as ever. For me, the critical question is not whether one religion is better than the other, but how they can coexist. In particular, how can we see Protestantism in dialogue with Catholicism, rather than its replacement? This is essentially a question of specialisation. Catholicism was criticised for investing ultimate spiritual authority in specially trained priests. Lay followers had simply to take the priests on their obscure Latin word. So Protestantism argued that faith was an individual responsibility, independent of the institution of the church. The broad question concerns the endeavour of human society—how do we balance the specialisation of knowledge in individuals against the common interests of the people?

This question goes beyond religion. It is critical in democracy, where the specialised task of government operates in a tenuous relationship with the broader appeal of politics. In this hemisphere, I am particularly interested in how it casts the difference between the north and the south as reflected in the dialogue between modernist and baroque, literacy and idolatry. And, more relevant to today’s discussion, the question of specialisation is now of critical relevance to the crafts, where the democratic energies driving the art world challenge the treasury of techniques that is our craft heritage.

Ten years ago

Ten years ago, I groped towards this by examining the question of collective creativity as expressed in the metaphor of the hive. Here, by targeting artists as priests who mystify and disenfranchise their audience, we can pose the question of collective creativity. We all know the romantic inheritance of western art. Henry James could claim that ‘the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.’

In my original argument, I posed the question of collective creativity. How can a work of art be created outside of the guiding impulse of individual expression? What kind of art emerges from a group of individuals operating freely, without any purposeful direction?

Taking a broad view of this question, I invoked the art of insects. Spiderwebs, hives and ant mounds are produced unconsciously through a series of repetitive actions. In 19th century Christianity, this was taken as proof of divinity—a world whose beauty emerges spontaneously from the smallest of its creatures. But with industrialisation, as life became increasingly mechanised, the insect reversed its meaning and came to symbolise instead the demise of creativity. The final throes of this reaction can be seen last century in narratives such as Star Trek Next Generation, where individual Star Fleet officers are threatened with assimilation into the hive-like Borg colony.

But this individualism has gradually given way to an increasingly collective way of understanding the world. The paternal welfare state was transformed into a society of individual economic units existing in a free market. In science and technology, models became increasingly modular—the free exercise of parts exceeding their whole. Socially, phenomena emerged such as the Mexican wave, where a crowd flexes its collective muscle. The age of the individual seems to have given way to the era of the group —from I to we.

The challenge is understand how art can be produced collectively.

Artist as insect

Seen in these terms, I identified four models of artist as insect. The first was in the actual employment of insects to produce art, such as the French artist Hubert Duprat, who used the natural cocoon building capacity of Caddis larvae to create brooches of precious jewels. The second was artists who followed the insect method of using their own body substances to create works. Sue Saxon collected tears in lachrymatories to produce a tree of sorrow. The third model used the new medium of the Internet to create a matrix for collective action. So Persistent Data Confidante solicited confessions from visitors and then asked them to rate the disclosures of others—what emerges is an evolutionary sense of group curiosity. Finally, the last model was set aside for the romantic return, based on the re-emergence of individual consciousness. The example was Gwendolyn Zierdt’s Unabomber Manifesto, which used the binary machine logic of weaving to express a message of revolt against technology.

In retrospect, the romantic return may have been a little, well, romantic. If anything, the collective turn has accelerated in the 21st century. In Australia, the epic Australian Idol has now evolved into the Singing Office, where divas of the shower can compete on the main stage. What is called Web 2.0 has brought us new ways of inter-relating. The institutions of the media were devolved to a sea of blogs. Social networking sites such as Facebook offer a new frontier for information exchange.

And in the art world, what has been called relational aesthetics has continued to provide creative challenges as they exchange the isolation of the studio for the conviviality of the café. French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud heralded relational aesthetics as an art for the network age, where the masterly production of precious beauty for the appreciation of elites is replaced by the construction of new possibilities of community.

So, for example, Felix Gonzales Torres’ work for the Sydney Biennale consisted of a room filled with candies wrapped in gold cellophane, which visitors were free to take. The work was not in the installation itself but the situation in which it placed the visitor—do we follow our appetites and destroy the work or save it for others to enjoy? The visitor is no longer a passive recipient of the work’s aura, but an active participant in its operations. From this perspective, the seeming innocent scene of an artist at his easel is a spectacle of proto-fascism, forcing viewers to submit to a privileged view of creativity.

Collective art has continued to grow around the work. Last year in the Russian village of Arkhstoyaniye, artists attempted to return to the medieval model of the anonymous artist involved in the construction of churches and icons.

In the textile arts, popular hobbyist crafts have become an important arena for creative action. The renegade craft movement advocated DIY crafts as an antidote to global consumerism, particularly through socialised media such as blogs and podcasting.

Towards our part of the world, it is particularly New Zealand artists who seem to have embraced collective action. Anie O’Neill developed a methodology under the title Buddy System to teach visitors a simple crochet technique for making flower forms. These contribute to an installation which grows during the course of the exhibition, and is eventually distributed as gifts.

In Melbourne, what’s called the ‘knitting revolution’ has led to many artists using the accessibility of knitting to bring people together. For the past five years at Craft Victoria, we have staged the Melbourne Scarf Festival, which uses the democratic nature of scarf making to explore different themes of textiles and identity.

Recently this spread to Canberra with a very clever exhibition at Craft ACT which used the extensive network of online knitters to produce works for an exhibition Knit1 Blog1.

Craft 2.0

These developments suggest a movement we might call Craft 2.0, where work is produced not by the master craftsperson but by the audience themselves. Rather than be intimidated by the virtuosity of the skilled master, the visitor is allowed to partake of the creative process directly. It is for visitors now to enjoy the plasticity of clay, the hardness of metal, the silky surface of timber, the viscosity of glass and the pliability of fibre. It seems a natural extension of the democratic processes that are advancing our societies.

But we know that this comes at a cost. Clearly, there’s a limit to what a newcomer can achieve when they pick up a material for the first time. In developing a work for popular production, the artist must lower the standards of execution. The years required to understand the inner qualities of one’s material are no longer valued. The life-long investment in making has been rendered as worthless as shares in Enron. As the sub-prime market in craft booms, we await the cultural crash that will come when our skill bank is finally emptied.

This paragraph no doubt leads some to feel a sense of loss in this democratic revolution. Indeed, there are reasons to question the enduring worth of this movement. Without the structure that skill provides, will we be left simply with the momentary sense of transgression?

For critic Hal Foster, the problem with relational art is that it conforms to the destructive processes of global capital, which dissolves tradition and culture into an atomised group of individuals. In arguing that art needs to take a stand, he finds relational art too compliant with existing forms of consumerism. So how might we radicalise relational art without reverting back to privileged notions of the avant-garde?

While the past ten years have witnessed the development of new democratic energies, at the same time there has been a decline in the reproduction of individual skills. You know this particularly in the states, where so much manufacturing has moved on to China. So the small town of Kannapolis in North Carolina, once known as the ‘City of Looms’ is a virtual ghost-town today since the closure of the century-old Cannon Mills complex two years ago, no longer able to compete with the flood of cheap Chinese textiles.Rather than learning to make things ourselves, we have taken the ‘smart’ option of outsourcing those specialised tasks to a largely invisible working class in Asia.

What’s left to Western countries like Australia and the US are the information industries, such as design, entertainment and business. These enable much greater interconnectivity than the specialisations required in manufacturing. However, this is only possible in the context of a greater global specialisation whereby whole countries are dedicated to particular kinds of production.

It is in this context that I’d like to introduce a modified form of collective creativity—a form of world craft based on collaboration.

The craft of collaboration

Last year, Craft Victoria staged an event called Common Goods that marked the 100th anniversary of Gandhian non-violence, ironically founded in Johannesburg on September 11. Common Goods looked at the various concepts of hospitality found in different societies, particular the concept of Ubuntu—a person is a person through other persons—which was forged in the acts of forgiveness that occurred during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid. These concepts of humanism provide doors that connect cultures with each other. In the Indian case, Gandhi’s grandson Ramchandra nominated the concept of Sanmati, or reality mindedness, which assists tolerance between Muslims and Hindus.

To realise this concept, we brought out a couple of darners, or Rafoogars, from Najibabad in North India. While a lower caste activity, darning is an integral part of society. Pashmini shawls are revered as heirlooms. Worn everyday, these shawls have been passed down through generations. The techniques for carding and milling the wool have since been lost, so these shawls survive thanks only to the careful work of Rafoogars. Today, the amount of repair on these shawls is greater than the original fabric.

In Australia, we teamed these Rafoogars up with a textile artist Wendy Lugg, who has specialised in darning. It was very strange at first for these Rafoogars to be working with an artist. We set up a project involving the repair of a flag that had been damaged by a recent storm. The Eureka Flag is a revered symbol of Australia’s only republican battle, when gold miners rebelled against the heavy taxes they were force to pay. The Southern Cross design that was stitched into this flag has since become an important rallying symbol for worker’s rights and the fraught republican aspirations of this English colony. The original tattered flag is held in the gallery where the Rafoogars worked.

As soon as the local community learnt of their presence, they were besieged with interest. There were some who wanted to assist with the materials necessary to repair the flag. There were others who brought in precious family heirlooms that were in a state of disrepair. Consistent throughout was a sense of wonder at the nature of darning, a domestic art once so common and now so exotic. Darning seemed to provide audience with a way of connecting with a lost past.

In the meantime, the artists Wendy Lugg sourced and dyed various materials that the Rafoogars stitched together. Other local textile experts assisted with the sourcing of appropriate materials. Such was the demand that it seemed possible that they could have set up permanent residency in the gallery, repairing not only textiles but also memories.

The Rafoogars have since returned home to India, where their own craft is under threat with the inevitable flood of cheap textiles made in China. At the invitation of Intekhab, Wendy Lugg has recently visited the Rafoogers. As revealed by her blog, Wendy was careful to ensure that her visit was not commandeered by other interests. This new international contact is of considerable capital in his community. There continues to be potential that they might be able to sustain their revered craft through commissions from countries that have lost the art.

The worth of this kind of exercise is subject to question. The final products of these collaborations are not as important as the process of bringing cultures together. The skill of an artist like Wendy Lugg is as much in negotiating her role with the two darners as the actual work that she produced—which was itself extraordinary given there was only three weeks to create a new work.

Collaboration does represent an important frontier of craft production, as western artists and designers are increasingly commissioning work from traditional artisans. This genre of world craft certainly has its dangers, as it lends itself to a kind of exoticism that does not seriously value the contribution of makers. However, world craft does have the potential to sustain traditions and cultures. The challenge now is to strengthen this emergent genre with critical examination. To be sustained beyond fashion it needs to deal with the spectres of primitivism and missionary values. If it can proof itself to be a genuinely liberating practice, then world craft augers well for constructive dialogue between first and third worlds. This will not happen spontaneously. It requires much care and critical self-reflection.

Marcus Aurelius said ‘That which is not good for the hive, is not good for the bee.’ When it comes to the production of honey we might say, what is good for the beekeeper is good for the hive.

Craft Unbound introduction


(Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2005)

By Kevin Murray


There was once a familiar order to things. On one side was the supermarket and on the other was the art gallery. There was the world of common things to be used up and discarded, and the realm of precious objects to be appreciated into the future. The meaningless cycle of consumption was counterbalanced by the collection of treasured objects. But this cultural economy has become stagnant as art becomes increasingly insular and detached from everyday life. Consumption continues to accelerate while art risks being locked into the fashion cycle.

A generation of radical Australian makers is challenging this arrangement by bringing the profane world of consumption into the sacred halls of art. Theirs is not merely a conceptual exercise. There is no Duchamp-like cleverness about their use of found objects. These craftspersons express a renewal in the elemental energy of creation, reaching back to the mysteries of material transformation in alchemy. They are breaking through.

This is a distinctly Australian phenomenon, and we need to gather these makers together to appreciate their work, learn about its origins, and understand its meaning. What is the relationship between beauty and rarity that their work confronts? Let’s begin to examine this question with the broad brush.

The lay of the land

To make the common precious is to work against the grain. The identification of value and rarity is self-evident. It governs the way we see the world and how we transact with it. According to Gestalt psychology, we perceive the world by dividing it into figure and ground: the lone object stands out before the common background. By taking the common for granted, we can focus our attention on the singular.

In the English language rarity is almost always expressed using words that carry a positive connotation—words such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’, ‘rare’, ‘incomparable’ and ‘noble’. Whereas what is common is valued negatively, as in ‘ordinary’, ‘average’, ‘mundane’, ‘usual’, ‘pedestrian’ or ‘plebeian’. Accordingly, we will pay more for something that is exclusive, one-off or editioned than we would for goods that are mass-marketed.

This asymmetry is especially prevalent in the world of art. It seems obvious that the beautiful is necessarily exceptional. After all, art history is peopled by rare geniuses who produce rare masterpieces. Craft plays its own part in this story. In the decorative arts treasures such as the Fabergé Eggs are valued for their rarity as much as their craftsmanship. The value of an object is conditioned more by its supply than its simple use value.

But there are ways in which this natural order of things can be questioned. In a radical move the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that rarity is not the accident of beauty, but rather its cause.[i] We enjoy a masterpiece because it is rare. According to Bourdieu, art enforces a hierarchical society, in which value must be seen as limited to the few.

This view has its shortcomings. While providing a powerful critique of aestheticism, such arguments do not suggest ways of creating beauty that are alternative to the existing economy. To find these, we need to go beyond academic theory and explore the popular values that shadow elitism. The different manifestations of elitism provide us with alternative ways of understanding what Australian craftspersons are achieving today.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the gospels have often been used to support the Church’s responsibility to the broad mass of people—‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ In contrast to the hierarchy of the Vatican orders such as the Franciscans make humility a life-long vocation. And, most radically, during the Reformation anti-elitist movements celebrated daily labour and the common tongue. A similar tension is present in Islam, in the opposition between the priestly Shiite and popularist Sunni versions of the religion. Beyond religion, popularism was given its most powerful expression in the revolutionary movements that culminated in Marxism. Given the declining significance of theology and ideology in the third millennium, where might an aesthetics of commonness reside today?

In Western society, there is alongside the mainstream economy of beauty a black market of artistic production.[ii] The value of rarity is reversed when it is seen to be tightly controlled by a particular group. Thus there are negative terms associated with those who police rarity, such as ‘elites’, ‘priesthoods’, ‘snobs’ and ‘cabals’.

The craft movement

Throughout modernity, craft has provided an alternative set of values to the positivist dream of technological advancement. At its most basic, craft is the transformation of common materials into precious works. Potters dig up mud which they shape and bake in the fire to make vessels for eating and drinking. The history of modern craft is characterised by a search for these elemental roots.

It was during industrialisation in the nineteenth century that craft emerged as a foil to modern capitalism. Reflecting a Protestant spirit, the English Arts and Craft movement of this period championed labour and decried bourgeois decadence.

Rarity was a significant issue for the movement’s champion, John Ruskin. He admitted that certain kinds of rarity, such as a fine sunset, were legitimate as ‘Nature’s way of stimulating your attention’. However, if rarity became a matter of possession, then it was idolatry: there was no reason to value pearls above glass beads. So Ruskin wrote, ‘If only the English nation could be made to understand that the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’[iii] At the time, the craft spirit was identified as a northern phenomenon, with its origins reaching back to the historical struggle of egalitarian Anglo-Saxons against their Norman overlords.

In the twentieth century Western craft turned to the East. The English potter Edmund Leach introduced the values associated with Mingei, a Japanese movement of folk ceramics. These values emerged from a strain of Zen Buddhism that sought enlightenment in the here and now. A key text for Mingei practitioners was The Unknown Craftsman written by Soetsu Yanagi in 1931, which stated ‘Why should beauty emerge from the world of the ordinary? The answer is, ultimately, because the world is natural.’[iv] Yanagi’s values were epitomised in the Kizaemon tea bowl. This sixteenth-century bowl was celebrated as one of Japan’s most significant treasures. According to legend, the bowl was found in a Korean workshop, and produced by a regular worker in a moment of complete unselfconsciousness.

The roles were reversed in the late twentieth century. Crafts practitioners reacted against the earnestness associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with Japanese ceramics. Post-modern flamboyance and conceptualism, such as that inspired by the Italian designers Memphis, removed craft from its demotic base.

Meanwhile industrialisation entered the information era, which altered the basic economy of production. Today, the greater the number of people who possess a particular piece of software, the more valuable it is. As Pierre Lévy writes, ‘Everything that flows from top to bottom in theological discourse should be viewed, within the technosocial system, as flowing from bottom to top.’[v] What was vertical has become horizontal—networks replace silos. While technological change has proceeded largely independent of the arts, it does alter the mindset in which the arts are perceived. Craft is just beginning to enjoy this new ground.

Poor cousins in the arts

Modesty of means is not exclusive to the contemporary crafts movement. The ‘Poor Theatre’ of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski evolved in the 1960s as a rejection of theatrical excess, such as lush sets and lavish costumes. It used austerity to bring the focus back on the unadorned actor. This process was extended into cinema with Dogma 95, the Danish movement led by Lars von Trier, which precluded sound tracks and editing in order to bring acting to the fore. For von Trier and other like-minded directors, to work with whatever is at hand promises to be a more transparent means for creative expression.

In the late 1960s Grotowski’s Poor Theatre inspired an Italian art movement known as ‘Arte Povera’. Influenced by American minimalism, a group of sculptors reacted against what they saw as a commodification of art, and created works that materialised a raw creative energy. Their process involved both found materials and spaces outside galleries.

For its main spokesperson, Germano Celant, Arte Povera was a distinctly European movement which contrasted with the futuristic and industrialised scene in America. As Celant writes, European progress ‘is made up of elements astonishingly cobbled together, of deteriorated, ancient materials, excavated from the past and recycled according to intuitive, illogical visions.’[vi] Arte Povera embodied the primitivism of Poor Theatre while articulating a specific message about the heterogeneity of European history. And it embraced the enigmatic.

The antipodean future

At first, there seems no place for a country such as Australia in Celant’s scheme. On the one hand, our thin past does not reflect the rich palimpsest of European history. Australian history seems like a crust of colonialism built over a seemingly timeless continuity of Aboriginal occupation. And on the other hand, Australia is not gripped by the positivism of its American cousins. The cultural dynamic is more colonial in character. It is within the colonial story that we might find the ground for a distinctly Australian craft.

According to the colonial mindset, Europe is the rightful home of preciousness. In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd holds up the north as a model: ‘Yet in England, unlike America and Australia, there is always something of genuine beauty around the corner, a medieval church or a glimpse of field, hedge and honest stonework.’[vii] This Europe is studded with the precious jewels of its grand pasts.

Such ‘colonial cringe’ naturally evokes a republican response. There have been many strains of irreverent nationalism. In the 1990s the Sydney designers Mambo celebrated suburban values, typified in local wisdom such as ‘The grass is always greener around the tap.’[viii] Films such as Muriel’s Wedding associate suburbanism with a free spirit and the sense of community; they foster a boisterous pride in being ordinary.

Australian folk craft reflects this popularism. Bush furniture celebrated the make-do practices of farmers who were isolated by the great distances of the outback. A kerosene tin became a chest of drawers. Likewise, the isolation of Aboriginal communities has encouraged an ingenuity of means. The 2001 television series Bush Mechanics celebrated the almost magical ability of the Walpiri people to keep cars going without the backup of tools and supplies. Australian popular applied arts have been forged by isolation.

Australia shares this celebration of the common with other ex-colonies, particularly in the south. Consider the most influential poet in South America, Pablo Neruda. He was ideologically committed to ordinariness. His Elementary Odes are rhapsodic verses in praise of ordinary things. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Neruda claimed that ‘The best poet is he who prepares our daily bread.’[ix] The popularism of Liberation theology and leftist revolutions aims to continue the struggle first established against Spanish imperialism into the factories.

Parallel sentiments are being expressed across the Indian Ocean, where the African Renaissance upholds the value of collective tribalism against capitalist individualism. The post-apartheid generation of South African intellectuals is keen to turn the freedom struggle beyond the spectacle of mass riots to the matters of ordinary life. The author Njabulo Ndebele writes about the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ as the focus for political action: ‘If it is a new society we seek to bring about in South Africa then that newness will be based on a direct concern with the way people actually live.’[x] Cultural energy in the new South Africa stems from township life, particularly music and craft.

There are clear differences between a majority White country such as Australia, and the racial profiles of nations in Africa and South America. Craft in Australia is located in galleries, where it is partly removed from its value in the market. Yet despite differences in culture and economy, all southern nations share the condition of seeming to live in the ‘shadow’ of the north, where the common things of our world are outshone by the precious imports from afar.

Eventually corrupted by modernity, the modest spirit of craft in the West seeks renewal from outside. In the past Western makers looked to the Viking north and pre-modern East. Now it is from the south that emerges a fresh energy.

‘Poor craft’

The nineteen makers profiled in this book have chosen to work with materials which might otherwise be considered worthless. They have gathered remnants, packaging and rubbish that have no place in the economic system: they turn to whatever is at hand. This ‘poor craft’ is a particularly rich source of creative expression.

To speak of a ‘poor craft’ is to suggest a movement that is bound by common experience and ideas. But it would be premature to christen a new movement. As products of relatively modest backgrounds, the makers in this book share similar sensibilities, though their ideas about preciousness sometimes diverge.

These artists share a common story. They are like the last fruit of a native Australian tree that only grows in the wild. Their childhoods were spent in relatively free open spaces—if not gazing upon the open horizons of the bush then roaming the wilds of the outer suburbs. They grew up before television had absorbed recreational time, and so faced the rare challenge of learning how to create time themselves and to make virtue of necessity.

Relatively few of the makers moved in a straight line. While institutional training has been a critical part of their development as a craftsperson, most have gained ideas on their own. There are certainly common themes that emerge through the work of these artists; they share a spirit of invention and an interest in the alchemic transformation of materials, and many are engaged in a critique of consumerism. Together, they all seek forms of creative energy that are not bound by commodification. Better to have something roughly made from common materials than a slickly produced object that fits snugly into its niche market. While the artists gathered in this book share a use of common materials, their differences are also important. There are two opposed aims. One is the goal of overturning hierarchy, whereby common becomes precious—lead replaces gold. The other is the abolition of hierarchy itself, to make the precious common—gold is reduced to lead. The former tends to be more strategic in orientation, making a mountain out of a molehill. The latter is more modernist in approach. One overturns the pyramid; the other transforms it into a cube. There are reformists, and there are revolutionaries.

The differences between the artists in this book prompt much debate and questioning. I have grouped the artists according to their method of approaching the ordinary. Each chapter deals with a particular group of makers. Gatherers draw from the Australian land to produce work, while Fossickers discover materials in manufactured environments. Gleaners use what gets left behind, such as packaging, and Alchemists look to the physical transformation of materials. Dissectors expose beauty through the act of destruction, but Liberators take the precious out of the gallery and onto the street. While representing a fresh, critical edge in Australian culture, each maker also demonstrates a growing inventiveness in the field of craft.

Like their cousins in Poor Theatre, these makers of ‘poor craft’ seek modesty of means as a way of renewing creative expression. As in the reality television program Survivor, makers are thrown back on their own craft to make works of beauty from what is at hand. And, as in the Arte Povera movement, found materials offer resistance to the dominant economic system, and allow for the spontaneous expression of identity. Ironically, both Poor Theatre and Arte Povera were inward focused and relatively unpopular art movements. ‘Poor craft’ seems different. In its reference to everyday life it seems possible that ‘poor craft’ will enjoy a broad audience, untutored in art theory. This is a rare moment for the art of the ordinary.


[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1984 (orig. 1974)

[ii] While the celebration of the common occurs in many different cultures and histories, we need not assume that it is linked to a universal meaning. The championing of ordinary seems a reaction against authority that emerges within a specific context.

[iii] John Ruskin, Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, George Allen, London, 1890, p. 23.

[iv] Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, trans. Bernard Leach, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1989 (orig. 1931), p. 101.

[v] Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (orig. 1995), p. 100.

[vi] Germano Celant, Arte Povera: Art from Italy, 1967–2002, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2002, p. 23.

[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960, p. 16.

[viii] Mambo: Still Life with Franchise, Mambo Graphics, Sydney, 1998, p. 115.

[ix] Alan Feinstein, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury, New York, 2004, p. 379.

[x] Njabulo Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994, p. 57. The phrase was echoed in the opening of a speech made by Mbulelo Mzamane in 2004 at a gathering of artists and writers from the southern hemisphere (see