Unhanded – building a conversation about making in the 21st century.

Below is some of the critical thoughts Artengine has engaged with as we developed the framework for our upcoming symposium – Unhanded: making under the influence of digitalism. This ideas where a result of our research and a number of key conversation with researchers and practitioners in Ottawa (and one from Toronto). The time they spent with us discussing the ideas for our symposium helped shape and inspire our direction, and we are terribly grateful for their time. Thanks to Federica Goffi; James Hayes; Steve Fai; Greg J. Smith; Adrian Göllner and Barry Ace.

How do we talk about making physical things in the digital age? What frames of reference do we use to understand the change around us? Through which lenses do we look through to understand the creative landscape we are in?

If we look back to the transformative days of the industrial revolution, we may focus on the impact of mechanization and the momentous shift from making to manufacturing. This focus creates a certain kind of gravity that draws the conversation into European, and perhaps even more specifically French and English history. Perhaps it is of no small significance that the English language has most deeply cemented a division between art and craft that gathered such force amidst the radical change of 18th century England. The linguistic divide is certainly felt far beyond the borders of the English language. It is reflected in the institutional structures for both the production and presentation of culture. Consider for instance that funding agencies at national and regional levels across Canada divide visual art, sculpture and other forms of material ‘art’ from a separate notion of craft. One of the most prestigious cultural awards in the country, The Governor General Award for Visual and Media Arts, is another example of an institutional space preserving this divide where a separately named award is designated for craft work. I am not suggesting it is designated as lesser, but only that it is clear that this work is apart.

However one might perceive this divide in the English and French language, and many of the respective of institutional structures of the country, it is not quite so clearly marked in other European languages; German, Italian and Spanish, for instance, still allow for the same word to be used for both “art” and “craft”. The difference is even more pronounced as you move around the world where a range of cultures do not accept either of the European concepts of art or craft. This includes, of course, many Indigenous languages and cultures grounded here in the territory of Canada. From a 2011 Canada Council document, titled Understanding Aboriginal Arts Today, I offer this quote from Gitsxan elder, artist, carver, activist and educator, Doreen Jensen:

I do not distinguish between culture and environment, art and craft. Nor can I believe in categorizing work by living artists as either ‘traditional’ (valid anthropological artifact) or ‘contemporary’ (valid fine art object). Such distinctions are at best irrelevant; at worst, they are racist. (pg 17)

There is no doubt that the European history of art and craft is an important one, and the quote above also challenges not only the distinction between art and craft but also ideas of time that divide up cultural production. The point of the sharp words of Doreen Jensen is to demonstrate the importance of not mistaking the European story for the global condition. There are so many more characters in the story of making today that need to be considered. Art and craft (and design and making too) can still play a part, but a new story is needed for the 21st century, and we are hoping we can begin to contribute to that narrative with this initiative.

Of course one of the boldest set of characters in the new story we are discussing is the variety of new technologies enabling faster and cheaper making, in everything from biochemistry to furniture. However, this is an increasingly familiar and popular narrative encouraging overstated proclamations of a third industrial revolution. Desktop manufacturing and rapid prototyping are a cultural and creative force that cannot be denied, but perhaps they too encourage a kind of gravity that traps thinking into a fairly narrow orbit. One in which the noisy exclamations about speed and efficiency make it difficult to voice ideas about what is truly new, and perhaps more importantly what is valuable and meaningful in what is new.

We have suggested Unhanded as the title of our symposium as a kind of provocation to frame the discussion. The role of the hand is undeniable in the process of making, but with so many different ways to design, build, modified and manipulate materials and objects of all kinds we wonder what we might be holding onto too tightly in the discussion. What might we need to let go of to rethink the complicated act of making things? What needs to be taken up and what needs to be left behind? We are not exactly sure, but we are certain that it will make for an invigorating conversation to consider these questions.

For more information and ideas have a look at our #unhanded. It is a compilation of links and ideas we have published on Twitter in our research and wandering leading up to the symposium.

Follow us online @artengine and stay in touch.

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