Every object makes a story: The McGuffin Contract

As the Dutch say, ‘You cannot shoe a running horse’. There are times when one must put a stop to things for a while and see what’s happening under the bonnet. They’ve been significant changes in the world since a time when craft was the defining cultural activity. Our Victorian forebears helped re-position craft in relation to the industrial revolution. In the 1970s, craft was aligned with the liberating forces of feminism and environmentalism. So today how might we re-contextualise craft for the era of Facebook?

While popular interest in craft subsided a little after its peak in the 1970s, professional studio based practice flourished. For the purposes of this chapter, I want to focus on a new platform for craft that grew significantly after the 1970s—the university. Despite recent pressures, this platform retains potential for craft development today.

Contemporary craft emerged in Australia largely in the 1970s out of a popular interest in ‘getting back to nature’. Once that heady idealism succumbed to the power politics of the 1980s, certain craft practices moved out of the mud brick cottages into the groves of academia. From the late 70s, universities played a critical role as homes for the reproduction of craft skill and thinking.

For the past twelve years, in response to increasing centralisation of tertiary education, university executives have found it increasingly hard to justify the contact hours necessary to transmit craft skills, particularly compared to areas conducive to online teaching, such as photography. Rather than simply close down departments, some have attempted to re-balance the books by a reduction in teaching hours and creation of pathways to research activities in postgraduate and beyond.

For some, contact hours are essential to the transmission of craft knowledge: such knowledge is acquired in the body through concrete experience rather than abstract text-based learning. Without disputing this, it is important to consider what can be gained by a better understanding of craft practice through research.

Craft as research

The challenge is to develop a research paradigm appropriate to craft while retaining critical understanding. As someone often called on to provide external assessment for craft post-graduate degrees, I am often faced by two common problems. It is a mistake to simply borrow a research method that has been developed for the visual arts without considering the special conditions of craft. An academic approach to craft that does not take into account its materiality provides a form of abstraction that is disconnected from its subject. This is evident in the emphasis on craft practice as the exploration of issues, without regard to the medium. We engage with an issue expressed through images differently to one revealed in objects.

Where methodology has been adapted to craft practice, it sometimes takes a diaristic form. In these cases, studio-based craft is represented as a personal journey. While one can’t deny its significance in the artistic process, personal experience does not conform to the basic principle of academic research as a contribution to the collective field. Often unanswered are key questions, such as how the craftsperson’s experience contributes to the broader understanding of the medium and is reflected in the paths of others.

Apart from the problems for individual craftspersons in adapting to university standards, there are also missed opportunities to build an academic culture of craft research. From 2007, the Journal of Modern Craft has been building up a substantial base of scholarship focusing on the dialectic between craft and modernity. Last year this was complemented by Craft Australia’s craft + design enquiry providing a thematic focus that is both international and of relevance to the Asia Pacific. The platform for craft research is growing substantially.

Establishing a base for craft research has two benefits. Firstly, in terms of the broader craft ecology, academic positions provide important opportunities for practitioners to sustain their practice and extend existing audiences. Secondly, research should be able to enable new paradigms in craft practice that connect it to our changing world.

It is to the latter benefit that this article attends. My intention in this paper is to focus on a relatively new paradigm that seems particularly appropriate to craft practice—Actor Network Theory. But given the existence of a burgeoning field of research in craft, let me first locate it in relation to existing thought.

The image

Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking through Craft provides a foundation for today’s craft research. Adamson attempts to critically examine the relation between craft and visual arts practice. He targets particularly that form of contemporary craft which aspires to the status of visual arts.

Adamson critiques the way visual arts defines itself against craft. He adopts a deconstructive method that understands such oppositions as mutually sustaining relationships: in setting itself up against craft, artists find themselves an agenda for contesting visual arts orthodoxy. He identifies five qualities that despite being disavowed have become intrinsic to the field. These include supplementarity, materiality, skill, the pastoral and the amateur.

In this paper, I’d like to build Adamson’s analysis of the material dimension. Adamson’s thinking about materiality in craft is not limited to physical substance. He looks instead to the dimension of objectness—the place of things in the world.

Objectness has a problematic place in visual arts. With irony, Adamson quotes the line from Ad Reinhardt –‘Sculpture is something that you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.’[1] An image is a mirror to the world. We see the world reflected in it, but it is not totally part of the world. While we do find images in craft practice, such as designs on ceramic pots, it consists predominantly in things that take a place in the world.

For Adamson, the optical ideal of visual arts entails a disavowal of materiality in. Yet far from banishing physical substance, this ideal provokes a framework for movements such as minimalism that contest the reduction of art to illustration.

No doubt, the visual is the dominant sense in the contemporary world. W.J.T. Mitchell has been one of the theorists advocating the extension of visual arts theory beyond art itself to the role of visuality in our culture – a visual studies. As he writes in What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, ‘image is everything’:

The claim that we live in a society of spectacle, surveillance, and simulacra is not merely an insight of advanced cultural criticism; a sports and advertising icon like Andre Agassi can say that ‘image is everything’ and be understood as speaking not only about images but for images, as someone who was himself seen as ‘nothing but an image’. (Mitchell, 2005, p.32)

Mitchell evokes here the ‘society of spectacle’, in which we engage with the world as a remote form of entertainment. Rather than be part of the world, we watch it on the stage or screen. As Guy Debord remarked apocalyptically, ‘[Spectacle] is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity’ (Debord, 1995, p. 17).[2] Of course, this does not mean that visual arts is a mere extension of society of spectacle. Yet while much contemporary art is directly opposed to the manufactured image, there are times when even the most critical resistance ends up creating an alternative form of spectacle. [3] As an object-based form of expression, craft has potential to connect participants together more directly rather than via a distant image. There are thus political as well as theoretical reasons for us to consider ways of understanding craft practice that go beyond the image.

The story

There are various distinctive ways of thinking about craft as an object-based medium. Craftsmanship reflects the investment of skill in the making process. Of enduring relevance here is David Pye’s ‘art of workmanship’,[4] which presented craft process not only as a reassuring tradition but also as an apt response to organic materials.

But this is only one side of the story. Readings of the object such as Pye’s attend exclusively to the manner of its production. But there is also a complimentary dimension revealed as the object makes its way into the world, once it leaves the maker’s hands. So what craft framework do we employ to understand the life of the object after the bench?

As Aristotle noted in Poetics, the foundational text in aesthetics, plot is the basic principle of art.[5] Narrative binds together events over time, conventionally with a beginning, middle and end. Narrative has a role in visual arts in providing the framing context in which we view the work. A particularly important context has been the romantic myth of the artist, him or herself. It may not be the most highly regarded reading of art, but a popular means of engaging with painting is certainly to invoke the biography of the artist. The work of key figures in modern art, like Vincent van Gough, can be read as a theatre for their tortured relationship to the world.

The biographical reading does happen in craft as well. The work of the late-jewellery artist Mari Funaki is usually framed as a modernist exploration of form. But when it was exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria, a story was invoked of a walk shared with her nephew when she discovered a beetle that inspired her to re-create its secret three-dimensional world. [6] The modernist and narrative context need not exclude each other, but the former links the work more to the field of specialist artistic endeavour, while the latter offers a connection to common experience.

Narrative isn’t limited to the interpretation of craft by users. There are certain artists for whom narrative is a key element of production itself. Robert Baines constructs narratives such as the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia as frameworks that charge his work with meaning. Providing the user with a story to accompany the craft work is one of the less acknowledged skills of the maker.

In all, I would argue that craft is better understood within the framework of narrative than image. While an image can show a story, the object has potential to be part of one. Narrative helps make sense of the crafted object as a material presence in our world rather than an abstract reflection.

Thus far, we have considered narratives of production. But the concern here is on the other side of the story. Reflecting the development of reception theory in literary studies, I’d like to focus the rest of this paper in the way a crafted object can be understood according to its history of use.

The MacGuffin

In narrative theory, there has been some intriguing recent work on the way events are tied together into a story by use of a linking device. This is often through the use of a witness, such as a character who may be incidental to the action, yet whose point of view provides the critical connection between the events of the story. There have been various terms for such a linking device. Wayne Booth (1987, p. 102) uses the term ‘ficelle’ (the French word for ‘string’) for the way a narrator will use an object to weave together events within a complex story. Slavoj Zizek (1991, p.18)[7] uses a parallel psychoanalytic term ‘quilting point’ to describe more broadly the operations of the object to bind values together. His reading of Hitchcock films points to the critical role of the object as an agent in narrative. But it is Hitchcock’s own term for this which helps us here take a fresh view of the narrative significance of the object.

Hitchcock uses the term ‘MacGuffin’ to refer to a technique in his story telling whose purpose is to lure viewers into the drama through a seeming incidental story, often involving an object such as a necklace. Hollywood director George Lucas identified the ‘MacGuffin’ as the driving element in all narrative.[8] It is the elusive object that galvanises action, from the Holy Grail to the evil Ring.

In Hitchcock’s film, Strangers on a Train, the MacGuffin is a cigarette lighter that has the power to incriminate one of the characters. This lighter plays no real role in the action, other than as the object around which tension builds. The climax of the film heightens around a race by two characters to arrive at the scene of incrimination. One is playing in a tennis tournament, eager to finish the game. The other has dropped the incriminating cigarette lighter down a drain. The latter’s desperate attempts to recover the lighter heighten the tension, intercut with scenes of the hard fought tennis match. The object itself plays no practical role in the drama, other than as a witness to particular events. Yet its status as a singular object means that it provides a site of contest between two forces.

In the MacGuffin theory of craft, the object doesn’t just symbolise a narrative, it creates it. But beyond Hitchcock’s canny ‘trick of the trade’, how might be understand the way objects make stories.

Actor Network Theory

While Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic theory of the MacGuffin comes with a set of compelling examples in his films, the broader theoretical framework must lie elsewhere. Fortunately, there has arisen in recent years a paradigm focusing on the construction of linkages that provides a broader context for the object as MacGuffin. Actor Network Theory (ANT) has emerged principally through the work of French sociologist Bruno Latour (2005).[9] Latour attempts to understand society not as the expression of deeper forces, such as class or gender, but as a network of networks, actively constructed by its members. It’s a theory well suited to the age of Facebook and Twitter, where change appears to emerge from the many below rather than the few above. But it also goes beyond the anthropocentric information age and extends agency to include not only humans but also their things. So the production of scientific knowledge, for instance, is not just about the ingenuity of researchers, it is also about the role of devices such as counters that ‘voice’ information. What interests ANT is not the agents themselves, but the way they are linked together: ‘If a dancer stops dancing, the dance is finished.’ ANT is a world of mediators—a world of McGuffins.

So how do we connect this theory of connections back to craft practice?

Everyday jewellery

As others such as the Adelaide jeweller Don Ellis (2004) have noted, ANT is particularly suited to understanding the place of craft in the world. Jewellery, for example, is a business of producing objects that bind social relations. The wedding ring is the typical instance of an object whose worth far exceeds its design and material value. The ring bears witness to a marriage, from the unique day of the wedding ceremony to the countless routine acts of sliding the ring on and off the finger the each day of a marriage. The quotidian duty of the ring calls the husband and wife into a caring relation to the other.

In recent times, with the work of artists such as Roseanne Bartley, contemporary jewellery has explored the paradigm of relational aesthetics. This field appears to complement well the emphasis on connectivity in ANT. Yet according to its founder, Nicholas Bourriard, ‘craftsmanship’ is the antithesis of the relational; it hierarchically elevates the expertise of the master above the participating group. What relational aesthetics lacks is provision for the agency of the object. It assumes that art merely enables an immanent sociality to emerge, independent of its medium. The constructivist perspective of ANT offers a more pragmatic understanding that deals in tangible links.

So how can contemporary jewellery engage with this? I argue that the path ahead lies through design. Let’s begin with the relation between traditional jewellery and natural selection. The charged role of objects has evolved along lines parallel to evolution. Through countless selections and mutations, the wedding ring found a niche in the social construction of family. That’s the story up to now, but in our own time we are increasingly less inclined to leave things up to nature. With innovations such as designer genes and carbon reduction technologies, the practice of design has emerged as an active quest to improve the world as we find it.

From an ANT perspective, we can see how some artists in our part of the world have approached this. The practice of Susan Cohn has exploited the capacity of objects to mediate human relationships. This is most famously evident in her rings whose surface degrades with time. Her aluminium mourning ring has a black surface which is gradually worn away after a year or so, during which the mourning process can be seen to have reached some kind of acceptance. Alternatively, her wedding rings that have alternate surfaces, such that with time the gold leaf exposes the aluminium body underneath. These rings build in a redundancy, necessitating a renewal after five years. While being a clever way of maintaining business with a couple, this also offers the marriage an important opportunity to regain its momentum through a public ritual.

One very interesting example is across the Tasman. Warwick Freeman is known as one of the world’s leading jewellery artists. Each work of his is not only conceptually elegant but also beautifully crafted at his bench. There is one exception to this. For the enterprise Chihapaura (Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Jewellery?), founded by Gijs Bakker and Liesbeth den Besten, Freeman designed a ring for production. Based on this pebble series, this ring is designed to enable those who find themselves travelling across many borders to retain a relation to their home. Expressing a particularly Pakeha settler value to the earth of Aotearoa, Freeman has designed an internal plug which can be inserted into the earth and extract a core sample of dirt, which can then be discretely secured enabling the wearer to move through various quarantine restrictions without detection.

While a clever idea, reflecting the love of the ‘internal secret’ in contemporary jewellery, Freeman’s ring enables us to cultivate a located identity. This is more than we might be capable of purely by force or argument. This ring then enables narrative potential. Like a wedding ring, it binds subsequently journeys back to a foundational moment.

A Charmed Life

There is much potential in thinking about the crafted object as a mediator between people. One of the critical problems with modernity has been the dissolution of social relations. The mobility and abstraction produced through modernity are associated with chronic depression and anomie—what the German sociologist Max Weber (1976) described as the ‘iron cage’ of modern rationality. As we know with the operations of missionaries in Indigenous Australia, the road to modernity is cleared by casting out the idols. ‘Power’ objects are banished and replaced with scientific devices. Prior to modernity, these were associated with the control of forces affecting people’s lives. Now they are seen as forms of primitive idolatry. An ANT perspective restores them to everyday life in their role as social mediators.

Traditionally, objects were used to protect the wearer against evil forces, and sometimes enable them to realise their hopes. They were used to foraging in the realm of religious belief, which has dried up recently—I don’t mean disappeared, but no longer so mediated by ritual and idols. This has left us with a relative dearth of objects that enable us to navigate the rites of passage that still beset our existence, with or without gods. Few of us would think of carrying a St Christopher’s Medal when embarking on an international flight. Yet this flight may entail absence from family and friends for a significant time. How do we sustain our ties back home while venturing forth to new experiences?

The Japanese practice a tradition that continues to sustain the ties that bind us together. Omamori are Japanese amulets that are dedicated to Shinto deities and Buddhist figures. Mamori means protection; Omamori means honourable protection. This charm usually consists of a small cloth bag inside of which is an object, sometimes a piece of paper with prayers written on it. Omamori are dedicated to different functions. Specific temples offer Omamori for particular needs, such as the Gakugyojoju, which assists with study.

Omamori have proven quite adaptable to the modern world. One of the recent contributions to a Luck Bank[10] featured a Japanese woman living in Singapore. Every year, the mother sends a fresh Omamori for protection to her children, including her daughter overseas. All that it takes to express such a primary bond is a simple paper envelope that fits neatly into her wallet. While the power of the Omamori rests in the content of the envelope, for it to be effective the wearer must never open it. At the end of each year, the daughter returns her Omamori to her mother, who then burns it ritually. A new one is then sent to the daughter at the beginning of every year.

This family tradition seems a particularly effective way of maintaining a family tie. It offers an annual cycle that renews the filial links. But once in possession, the object also plays a subtle role in defining the relationship. In a way that is inexplicable to western consciousness, the recipient needs to resist the temptation to open the envelope and look at its content. Like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the relationship is defined by an interdiction. This object just calls its human host into a moral obligation to its origin.

Could contemporary jewellers in countries like Australia re-design traditional charms for today’s lifestyle?[11]

Welcome Signs

The second potential path concerns the rituals of hospitality. In village communities, particularly those in eastern countries, there are often elaborate ceremonies to welcome guests. Many Islamic countries even go far as to say that the ‘guest is god’. In the Asia Pacific region, the floral garland is commonly used to dignify the visitor. In the Pacific, the lei and salusalu are constructed from natural flowers and fibres to adorn those returning home from across the waters, sometimes extended to foreigners and tourists. In Thailand, the phuang malai, woven from jasmine petals, finds a multitude of applications—welcome to guests, adorn photos of departed, or prevent accidents in cars. They are also ubiquitous in India and Indonesia. Made from fresh flowers, these garlands indicate that the adornment is fresh to this occasion, not something pulled out whenever like a plastic Christmas tree. Their colourful appearance also visually marks the guest as a special presence.

The rituals of hospitality fit uneasily into a modern and particularly Western lifestyle. First, increasing urbanisation has decreased accessibility to fresh organic materials. Second, the increasing numbers of strangers in urban life makes it more difficult to apply the unquestioning hospitality normally offered to strangers.

How might contemporary craftspersons fashion welcome adornments that symbolise the belief in hospitality from the dissipated communities of our time?[12]

Questions

Through the ANT framework, it is possible to explore pathways that connect the object back to pre-modern uses in daily ritual. Designer-makers have the capacity to test out the capacities of the object to affect its wearer’s life.

But this approach does leave us with some uneasy questions in relation to craft. Where does this leave craftsmanship? The appreciation of skill and innovation invested in the production of object is usually something best appreciated internally within the craft community, whether a guild or fellow makers. ANT offers a purely external understanding of the value of the craft object. The McGuffin need not be handmade—all it need be is a unique object.

But this does not necessarily exclude craftsmanship. If factors like exquisite detail and traditional lineage lead to the rarity of the object, then craftsmanship can facilitate its value as a linking device. The handmade has more narrative potential than an industrially made product found on any supermarket shelf.

In return, though, ANT does seek to develop otherwise dormant design skills in the craftsperson. Such objects need to afford the kinds of use it may undergo as a ritual object. These factors include an aesthetic appeal, temporality (whether enduring or ephemeral) and spatial adaptation (to fit on the body or other surface). As we see in the case of contemporary jewellers today, there are some exciting design challenges in store for the McGuffin makers of the future.

Conclusion

What I’d like to offer from this argument is an alternative mode of relation for contemporary craft. This is a place for the unique handmade object whose value rests not in its worth to the individual collector, but as a token by which certain enduring social relations are enabled. Such a role does not support craftsmanship in itself, but it does buy space and time for the investment of craft skill in an object. This MacGuffin contract extends craftsmanship into the realm of social design.

References

Booth, W 1961,The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Debord, G. 1995, The Society of the Spectacle (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) New York: Zone, (orig. 1967).

Dolar, M 1992, ‘Hitchcock’s objects’ in Zizek, S. (ed.), Everything You Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, London: Verso.

Ellis, D 2004, The Hidden Hand and the Fluid Object: Craft in Three Sites of Representation, unpublished PhD thesis, University of South Australia.

Latour, B 2005, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McIntyre, A. 1984, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 2005, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Murray, K. 1992a, ’Till death us do part: A structurationist approach to jewellery’ in Ioannou, N. (ed.) Fremantle Arts Centre Press, online at http://www.kevinmurray.com.au/texts/tildeath.html.

Murray, K. 1992b, ‘There is craft in Pierre’s laboratory’, Craft Victoria July/August, 22 (215): 4-6, online at http://www.kevinmurray.com.au/texts/craftplab.htm.

Needleman, C. 1993, The Work of Craft, New York: Kodasha.

Pye, D. 1995, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Bethel Court, UK: Cambrium Press.

Weber, M. 1976, The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, London: Allen & Unwin.

Zizek, S. 1991, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, London: Verso.

Biography

Dr Kevin Murray, Adjunct Professor RMIT University, born 1958, Perth, Western Australia

Research interest: social object, jewellery, intellectual property, ceramics, ethical design, social theory, narrative psychology

Publications/exhibitions:

Murray, K 2005, Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious, Sydney: Thames & Hudson.

Signs of Change: Jewellery Designed for a Better World Form, Perth, 2009

Common Goods: Cultures Meet through Craft Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, 2006

Joyaviva: Live Jewellery Links People across the Pacific, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne 2012

Abstract

Narrative is central to art. While visual art is largely concerned with the representation of narrative, jewellery has the capacity to play an active role in generating stories. This paper develops a context for understanding the narrative power of the jewellery object that draws from Hitchcock’s concept of the MacGuffin and Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Several examples are given of specific social objects, such the charm and welcome garland.


[1] Glenn Adamson ‘Things that Go Bump’ American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/things-go-bump (accessed 30 September 2012)

[2] There is a way of arguing that the detachment from the world encouraged by spectacle is one of the resistances to action on climate change. As success of the film Avatar shows, the wondrous images on 3D plasma screens insulate us from the cold reality of peak energy reserves.

[3] See http://www.nomadicmilk.net/full/ for an example of how an attempt to counter commodification results in an alternative form of spectacle.

[4] ‘Every material–clay, yarn, metal, glass, and wood too–has a tolerance, is workable only up to a certain point and beyond that point will break down essentially. The craftsman’s job is to investigate that tolerance, to stretch the limits of the material, come as close as he can to the edge of ruin and stop there. Then the finished piece will ‘sing’ like a taut wire.’ David Pye (1995, p. 63). See also Carla Needleman (1993, p.91).

[5] See Alistair McIntyre (1984) for an extended account of man as a ‘story telling animal’.

[6] ‘The Art Gallery of Western Australia pauses to remember Mari Funaki, one of Australia’s most significant jewellers and artists’ Art Gallery of Western Australia http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/about_us/Mari-Funaki.asp accessed 3 January 2012

[7] Also see Dolar (1992) and Murray (1992a)

[8] ‘MacGuffin’ Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin#cite_ref-Lucas_7-0 accessed 3 January 2012

[9]. For a previous discussion, see Murray (1992b)

[10] ‘Omamori’ Luck Bank http://luckbank.craftunbound.net/page/2 accessed 3 January 2012

[11] The exhibition Southern Charms has been developed to explore this potential, drawing on jewellers from across the Pacific, from Australasia to Latin America.

[12] Welcome Signs: Contemporary Interpretations of the Garland has been developed to explore how these ornamental traditions might be adapted to modern circumstances. It includes work by a new generation of jewellers from the Asia Pacific, such as Fryza from Indonesia who has constructed a neckpiece for the network age.

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