From Tabu to Blockchain: The Renewed Role of Currency in Contemporary Jewellery

Bridget Kennedy, A year of time, 2017, installation

The Israelites left Egypt for the “promised land”. After travelling for 44 days, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where their god was finally revealed in a burning bush. Their leader Moses duly ascended the mountain in order to receive divine guidance for the rest of their journey. For forty days, they had no sign of Moses. Anxious for divine presence, the Israelites confronted Moses’ brother, Aaron, demanding that he make them a god to worship. Previously they had received divine instruction while escaping Egypt to plunder the Egyptians of their elaborate jewellery. Aaron said, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” Out of the rings taken from their fingers, noses and ears, he fashioned a calf using a cheret, or graving tool, overlaying the gold around a wooden sculpture. An altar was built, sacrifices made and a Festival of the Lord held in front of the Golden Calf, a diminutive version of the sacred bull god of Baal.

When Moses did finally come down from the mountain, he was furious at this challenge to his authority. He called the men of his Levite tribe to “slay every man his brother and every man his companion and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27). He also revealed the divine rules written on the stone tablets, including the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. The peoples of the book heeded this message and placed the meaning of the word before the aura of hewn objects.

Money or your word

This binary between sacred word and profane money echoes through the rest of the Bible. The book of Titus evokes the image of money as dirt, which sullies the motives of preachers, “Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

Filthy lucre continues to haunt Western civilisation:

  • Jesus Christ casting out the moneylenders from the temple
  • The thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas to betray his leader, Jesus Christ
  • The pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
  • Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Tale
  • Exxon Mobil putting profits before environmental risks
  • The Panama Papers scandal of dirty money laundered in tax-free havens

And most recently, it turns out that Facebook, the global playground of family snaps and endearing emojis, has been selling off our private moments to scheming political manipulators.

This epic struggle with the demon Mammon is especially felt in the arts, whose value is underpinned by factors outside the economic. As Robert Frost said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money”.

But paradoxically, art needs money if it is to exist in a capitalist economy. As Glenn Adamson and Juliet Wilson (2016) put it neatly: “On the one hand, nothing damages an artist’s reputation more than the perception that they are making work primarily to sell. On the other, artistic reputations are made by and in the market. The artists who succeed financially are those who manage to have it both ways.” We struggle to make money the servant of love, but know in the wider neoliberal world this won’t always be the case.

Hermann Jünger

In the field of art jewellery, we have our own Exodus story of liberation from the rule of money. When Damian Skinner and I faced the challenge of writing a history of Australasian jewellery, it was the critique of preciousness that offered a mission sufficiently broad to encompass both the high modernist work of early masters and the low trash that we revere down here at the bottom of the world.

As Skinner states crisply, this critique involves “the struggle to liberate jewelry from restrictive notions of value, so that it becomes available for artistic expression and experimentation, a deeper engagement with society, and a new awareness of the body and the wearer”

This story begins with traditional jewellery, which is cast as mere portable wealth, a wearable savings account, whose value is reduced to the price that can be obtained for its material elements, particularly precious metal and rare stones. A scandalous version of this is the engagement ring as commodified by De Beers, in which the size of the diamond is seen as directly related to the amount of love. This art aids the victory of Mammon over love. In this way, the task of design in jewellery is to highlight the material worth: to make gold gleam and gems sparkle. As Peter Dormer (Dormer and Turner 1994) wrote, “In most commercial jewellery the design matters only as a vehicle for gemstones and precious materials.”

Then came along our own Moses. We know the story as well as a Jewish family around the Passover table. Hermann Jünger subverted the economic imperative by putting the medium of gold to aesthetic uses. This was soon followed by the introduction of non-precious materials, such as aluminium and Perspex, whose worth was more directly related to non-material values, such as skill, creativity and especially originality. The struggle against money has been the source of much invention since then. Our version of Malevich’s seminal Black Square, Otto Künzli’s famous “Gold makes blind”, contradicts the economic imperative by concealing value from sight (a gold ball is concealed under a layer of rubber). Then the Dutch took this into the conceptual realm. Amen.

Language of Things

The critique of preciousness is the conventional point of entry for a general audience. As the label in Language of Things says: “The ‘critique of preciousness’ is a foundational theory in contemporary jewellery that leads makers to democratise adornment through the use of accessible materials, so that it can be a form of self-expression for anybody, not just the elite or wealthy.”

This is particularly evident in the number of works in this exhibition that use money itself as a material. Christel van der Laan has created a necklace from price tags, while Lauren Tickle’s neckpiece is literally made out of money, $US 63 to be precise. In her Art Jewelry Forum interview, Tickle claims that “My work erases the functional value of currency in order to express the creation of value.” Akiko Kurihara’s 1000gs reduces the work to the weight of its precious metal, but through a circuitous route by making 1000 letter g’s, each one weighing gram.

These follow Jünger’s innovation of painterly gold by rendering art victorious over its enemy by attacking its material base. Its need for a presence in our world is a source of its vulnerability. Matthew McIntyre-Wilson takes advantage of this by physically altering coinage as a post-colonial gesture.

Even in the corporate jungle, hard currency can become a weapon. In 2013, Samsung was ordered by the court to pay Apple $1 billion in damages, which they delivered in truckloads of 5 cent coins.

The material dimension of value isn’t always a source of critique. It can be used poignantly. Ted Noten’s ‘5kg silver suitcase’ was inspired by the tale of a Jewish refugee who kept gold in his shoes for security after the trauma of the Second World War.

Art jewellery about money

The other side of this particular coin is the decision by the Danish government to confiscate jewellery brought by refugees. The government deemed that this ornament be considered to be part of a refugee’s personal wealth, which should be used to cover their health expenses while in the country. The subsequent exemptions for “meaningful” objects such as wedding and engagement rings, has stirred Susan Cohn to develop a performance that will occur soon in Copenhagen, questioning the rigid separation of sentiment from capital. As she says,

“This reducing of the value of jewellery to an asset is contemptuous and ignorant of the crucial role jewellery plays in people’s lives – especially people fleeing from war and trauma.”

But as we know, the value of money is not merely related to the goods it might purchase, but also for the aura it lends to its possessor, evident in a magical title such as “billionaire”. In this way, wealth by itself can become a thing of beauty beyond its currency value.

In 2014, Australian artist Denis Beaubois received a $20,000 grant to make an artwork, out of $20,000. The artwork, titled Currency, included two stacks of 100 uncirculated $100 dollar banknotes. It was sold at auction by Deutscher and Hackett and fetched a price of $21,350. For a while, you can find an app on the Apple Store called I am Rich, which sold for $999 and did… precisely nothing.

There was a particularly interesting reflection on this conspicuous consumption of money at Schmuck in 2011. Stefan Heuser’s The Difference Between Us featured a series of cast sterling rings identical to each other, with the exception of being numbered from 1 to 100. The purchase price corresponded to their number. As expected, most of the rings were sold in a linear sequence, from cheapest to most expensive. But some buyers jumped the sequence. One went straight to the top and bought #100, for his grandmother on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

We can celebrate Heuser’s work as a victory over the economic, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the money value of jewellery.

The social turn

In Australia, Bridget Kennedy has been especially engaged in the struggle against Mammon. She balances the demands of “making a living” through retail sales with non-commercial activism such as repair cafes. Her artwork often rubs against the economic grain by confronting audiences with their own greed. In “Just help yourself why don’tcha” (2013), visitors were invited to take from a selection of 10,000 rings for a suggested $5 cost. In Choice Mate (2015-17) visitors signed up to a “mining agreement” that they would send an image and story of what they did with the object. These were stories were compiled into books sold on Blurb.

Last year, Bridget Kennedy spent the year making baskets and logged the amount of time involved. This resulted in the exhibition A Year of Time 1:30 where each basket had a disk on which was stamped the labour time, first in discrete minutes it took to make the work and second in total life time that elapsed, a multiple of thirty. The expectation was that purchasers would pay an amount equivalent to the cost of their own time.

Though a practising jeweller, Kennedy chose the medium of basketry given her experience living part of the time in a Philippines village. The materials of basketry are also usually very cheap, highlighting the value of time above materials. Kennedy gathered fabric from friends and even included shopping bags. She will be repeating the exhibition at the end of this year with the abundance of goods and services that were offered in return for the baskets.

Feminist economics

There is sometimes a feminist element in this critique, given the dependence of capitalism on unpaid female work in the home. This is strikingly presented by Lisa Gralnik’s ‘Golden Standard’, which renders the otherwise invisible domestic labour as gold in a sink.

This has been a particular focus here in Wellington, where collectives such as See Here and Occupation Artist have enabled a jewellery scene that is relatively independent of the market. One of these members, Sarah Read, has established a creative practice that has reduced the value of jewellery from its material base to the labour it entails. Offering herself as labour for the residents recovering from the earthquake in Christchurch, she freed up forms of usefulness from their material circuits. That said, these projects always had a material residue, such as the labour tokens that appeared at the National Gallery.


Meanwhile, in the outside world, the nature of money as currency has also been undergoing radical changes.

Our 21st century Moses is the fictional figure of Satoshi Nakamoto, who created the code that was registered as Bitcoin in 2008. Bitcoin uses a form of cryptography known as blockchain, which is a distributed ledger of financial transactions. Very simply, information about transfers is broadcast to nodes across a network, meaning that it cannot be altered in any single ledger.

Cryptocurrencies are part of our late 2010s zeitgeist. Names are emerging like Ethereum, KodakCoin, Venezuela’s Petroglyph, Namecoin, Peercoin, Potcoin for the cannabis industry, and Hullcoin for Hull.

Blockchain offers a glimpse of a post-capitalist future, where the corporations can be bypassed. Wessel and Coeckelbergh (2016) argue that blockchain has a liberatory potential. In normal finance, loans and payments bind social relations, often reinforcing class and hierarchies. Institutions like banks have subtle filters that restrict access to capital, particularly globally. Abstracting this system means the currency can circulate without reference to entrenched powers.

Blockchain continues the evolution of peer-to-peer networks from earlier versions such as Napster or bit-torrents. Like consumer platforms such as Uber and AirBNB, it promises to bypass the middlemen and allow an open connection between consumers and providers. While technology has enabled alternative currencies, some operate outside digital platforms. The Brixton Pound was established in 2008 as a purely local currency that could only be used within the municipality of Brixton.

Good Coin is a virtue currency, which puts the idea of karma into an app. It runs on the principle that “an evidence-based, motivating, and community-oriented rewards system spreads Good habits exponentially.” These currency apps work on a similar principle to the “loyalty” programs that reward our patronage, from Frequent Flyer Points to the card that is punched at our corner cafe for a free 50th latte.

Blockchain and jewellery

What does this have to do with jewellery? You might expect, given its prehistory as a currency, that these changes will begin to impact our medium. It certainly has in the jewellery industry. A London-based company called Everledger has placed more than 1.6 million diamonds on a blockchain, which records details such as colour, carat, and certificate number, which can be inscribed by laser on the crown or girdle of the stone.

And art jewellery, more specifically? To an extent, the blockchain resembles in abstract form the nature of any field of practice. The process of citing references, exhibitions and works presume a form of knowledge that is distributed across different magazines, journals, catalogues and online platforms. We expect that any new work or concept of worth invokes the chain of works that led to it in the field. But given the relatively subjective nature of this endeavour, this evaluation is more likely to be conducted in person-to-person events like this than become the business of an algorithm.

But for jewellery itself, I argue that blockchain helps us recover our roots. Here, I’d like to refer to the work of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, especially his book Debt: The First 5000 Years (Graeber 2011). Graeber confronts the growing power of debt in modern capitalism. While it was previously limited to capital for housing, the extended reach of debt through student loans has now grown to cast a significant shadow over the average life. The interweaving of financial debt into our lives makes it almost impossible to imagine a life outside the capitalist system. But this is financial debt, enforced by law. Graeber does not discount the usefulness of debt per se, which has been an enduring dimension of societies, binding its members in a web of mutual obligation. Echoing George Simmel, he writes, “social life is based on the principle of reciprocity”.

As an alternative and more constructive currency, Graeber gives the example from Fiji of the whale tooth, which is offered to the bride’s family. This tooth does not stand as a direct payment for the bride, but as an acknowledgement of debt, similar to a mortgage payment. What he calls “social currencies” are not designed for buying and selling per se, but for sustaining sets of obligations to each other.

Indeed, it is not in technology that we see the reintroduction of currency into the contemporary jewellery field, but in artists who draw on customary practice.

While not an “art jeweller” in the strict sense, Lisa Hilli has made body adornment a key area of her creative practice. The project to re-create the midi necklace draws on her background as a member of the Tolai community in Papua New Guinea. This group is known for the kinavai, an elaborate costume worn by men in dance for which they are paid tabu, a form of shell currency. Hilli came across an elaborate necklace made from this shell in a collection at the Melbourne Museum. For her Masters at RMIT, she attempted to reverse engineer the museum artefact to understand how it was constructed and put it back into circulation. This was a painstaking task that involved removing the humps of every tiny shell. That aspect of the task was within her own hands. But there was a less certain challenge: finding enough tabu to make this necklace.

Hilli had received some tabu at funeral ceremonies which she attended. She reports that, among the Tolai, shells strung on a cane known as loloi are dispersed at funerals. It was important for her that this midi have the currency which she acquired at these events. But on closer examination, she noted that the original midi contained shells that might have been too small to pass as currency. So she decided to intervene in this reproduction and incorporate larger shells. She supplemented her personal supply with shells purchased at a market stall in Honiara, Solomon Islands: “I was not only paying for the shells, I was paying for the time it took her to collect the hundreds of tiny shells off the beach or estuarine, punch a hole in each shell and thread it on string.”

There’s a lot more to Hilli’s story than we can cover here, but what we can take away is how she has engaged with the circuits of exchange along which shells still travel across the Pacific. Though it was out of her hands, the customary work required to gather the materials should be seen as part of its value.

A less traditional project, but one that translates similar customary values is the Power Pendant initiated by a number of Moana artists, including Mary Talia Pau. These pendants were made in a traditional style from fabrics that were important to the wearer. The key to their value, though, is the contract that the six sisters undertake to wear their pendant when notified by one of their number that support is needed.

Beyond the relational

The reintroduction of currency into jewellery promises to advance our field. For the past two decades, we have been passing through a relational phase. This has re-connected the art form with its social function, where it finds its pre-capitalist roots. But the relational is vulnerable to critique. In its crude form, it is based on a premise that form can emerge from mere assembly: meaning will emanate from the simple gathering of people together, such as at a free meal in a gallery. This is the kind of vague relational aesthetics that has been satirised in the Scandinavian film The Square, where the creation of a space for reciprocity only leads to violence and chaos.

The evolution of the relational involves the development of social structures that can regulate that space. These require agreed rules, evident in craft projects, games, codes or currencies. Materially, a currency offers a way of bringing people together in a meaningful and sustained web of mutual obligations.

One very basic form of currency is the heirloom. This object is given with the understanding that it is to be passed on to a new host given the right conditions. The trajectory of this object could be seen as a kind of analogue blockchain, whose memory is encoded in the family history. Culturally, of course, this kind of principle operates in the case of taonga, whose value accrues with its successive owners.

So where do we place this in the history of art jewellery? There are calls from figures such as Lizbeth den Besten for an “expanded jewellery”. The Art Jewelry Forum publication in Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, edited by Damian Skinner, proposed a model that expanded the meaning of jewellery beyond the focus on the private world of the bench to include other spaces where it subsequently dwells, such as the magazine’s page, the collector’s drawer, the wearer’s body, the fashions of the street and the things of the world.

Alongside this horizontal spatial expansion of the jewellery field is a temporal dimension revealed in the expanding scene of global art jewellery. Jewellery artists now working in alternative cultural contexts, such as Moana, Persia or Buddhist Asia, often draw value not only from their individual skills and creativity, but also from the past, especially the traditions that they translate into body ornament for life in modern cities.

Can we begin to see value not in who made it, but also who wore it? But let’s tread carefully here. We might not like where this leads.

The National Gallery of Australia recently opened an exhibition of jewellery by Cartier. The primary focus was on the clientele, which “included royalty, aristocrats, socialites, and stars of the stage, cinema and music.” Jewellery with this kind of history seems the antithesis of the art jewellery movement. Indeed, the show has been critiqued on the basis that jewels are not art. Not only has the National Gallery of Australia betrayed its mission as a cultural institution, it has also given the medium of art jewellery a bad name by pandering to celebrity worship.

Not all bearers are of equal worth. We don’t like to be judgemental, but I have to say that bestowing a midi necklace on a tribal leader as a form of cultural renewal is a lot more interesting than gasping at the baubles on a celebrity whose worth is manufactured by media corporations. We should acknowledge the ethical value of the circuits that are opened up by contemporary jewellery.

This is not a mere political issue. There is creativity in the construction of value and innovation in the development of alternative platforms. Vicki Mason’s Broaching Change project pioneered the blog as a kind of blockchain to record recipients of her brooches. But she had to make objects of great beauty to begin with in order to provide the value that would circulate. Now we see Instagram becoming an important ledger of use, such as Mia Straka’s Valere Talisman project.

This means having alternative ways of looking at a jewellery object besides something original and unprecedented. It means considering not only who made it, but also who got wear it. It means appreciating the traces of its use. In this way, as the Tongans say, Ka wa mamua, the past is in front of us.

Further reading

Adamson, Glenn, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. 2016. Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. 1 edition. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

Dormer, Peter, and Ralph Turner. 1994. The New Jewelry: Trends+ Traditions. Thames and Hudson.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Reijers, Wessel, and Mark Coeckelbergh. 2016. “The Blockchain as a Narrative Technology: Investigating the Social Ontology and Normative Configurations of Cryptocurrencies.” Philosophy & Technology 31 (1): 103–30.

What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

The key element that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

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]


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.


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.


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

Murray, K. 1992b, ‘There is craft in Pierre’s laboratory’, Craft Victoria July/August, 22 (215): 4-6, online at

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.


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


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


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 (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 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 accessed 3 January 2012

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

[8] ‘MacGuffin’ Wikipedia accessed 3 January 2012

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

[10] ‘Omamori’ Luck Bank 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.