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 Since then, Australia has become a more multicultural society and this British fault line has been superseded by other differences, particularly the Muslim-Christian divide.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.