Hands on and hi tech: craft futures, the embodied world and virtualisation

Oliver Lowenstein, Fourth Door Review, http://www.fourthdoor.co.uk (draft 2008, all rights reserved)

A quarter of a century ago the word “craft” still evoked strong feelings for people of a deeply green mindset. In the early 80s, many of a deeper green persuasion saw the whole spectrum of making, respect for skill, and physical embodiment implicit in crafts practice as representing much that was identifiably authentic and ideal for a green future. In that time of upheaval, the computer, although beginning to make its presence felt in people's everyday lives, was still nearly invisible – not the ubiquitous technology it is today. The 90s were still several years away, and the cultural transformation brought about by computerisation was just beginning to gain momentum. It was still credibly possible for the youthful green political parties and theorists to project a vision of an alternative culture writ large over society as the ideal utopian future. Craft featured in this vision, with labour liberated from its factory shackles and with more agricultural and communal modes of work replacing mass production. Computers were acknowledged in the mix, but attention to any sense of technological transformation was remote and vague. There were fears regarding automation and surveillance, but the most pressing concerns for those of a green persuasion focused on nuclear and renewable technologies. In contrast, for those belonging to the traditional craft world, the burgeoning digital transformation was seen as perhaps the defining threat, ominous in that it would put an end to ways of doing and making that were already struggling for survival, pushing craft practice irrevocably into marginality and apparent social insignificance.To what extent has either the traditional dystopian vision of the pessimists, on the one hand, or the early dreams of the technologists, on the other, proven to be prescient? How credible are other interpretations of what has unfolded across the craft and computer spectrum? The ubiquity of computers today obscures just how recent the arrival of these universal machines has been. Even if during the preceding decades the world associated with craft – the world of making and physical, tacit presence – might well have appeared in the balance, there are reasons to argue that things have not turned out as anticipated by either side of the craft-computer divide. If there was such separation, to what extent have bridges been built in the intervening years?The evidence of history suggested that craft’s days were numbered. Already sidelined by the twentieth century’s technological and increasingly bureaucratised forms of social organisation, it faced ongoing erosion and possibly eventual extinction. Across the West, craft’s gradual fade had been precipitated by the ongoing process of industrialisation. A process that has replayed itself repeatedly as other parts of the world have striven to launch themselves on the path of development. The decline of craft has been happening in Britain, in Western Europe and in many other parts of the developed world since at least the beginning of the last century. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation had precipitated the rise of mass production, a principal casualty of which has been the many forms of individual making, the time- and labour-intensive work which again and again found it difficult, if not impossible, to compete effectively against the high turnover of the factories’ rationalised production lines.

It is a story told again and again throughout the Western world. Now, in the first and second decade of the twenty-first century, across the developing world also. Industrialisation takes root, agricultural and rural ways of life and economies begin to splinter, migration to cities and urbanisation increases, at the same time as crafts, and the skills entailed in the craft tradition, are for the most part discarded because they are no longer viable, disappearing into the vanished world of what was, but for most part no longer is. The rationale is the same: economic well-being that will ensure better lives. The collateral fallout, of which craft and skill are a part, is always justified for the sake of Modernity’s greater social good. With the overwhelming momentum of development proceeding from agricultural and rural to industrial and urban, the assumption is that we are on a one-way street; history rides an arrow of time. In the words of London’s Royal Society of Arts’ first environmental conference title in late 2006 – there’s No Way Back.

Even if the phrase “progress” is no longer quite so readily on people’s lips nowadays, the assumption remains that our common industrial future is the only way forward. While change of this order is openly acknowledged, such acknowledgement comes with a recognition of both the loss of many forms of individuality, and a sense of inevitability about this loss as an equally recognised part of the contemporary condition. By the second half of the twentieth century the wholesale disappearance of crafts and skills from much of European and North American culture – whether their roots were in a whole spectrum of pre-industrial activities or whether they originated on this side of the industrial threshold – was seen as irrelevant, identified as it was with a past that no longer applied. The future was hi-tech and Modern. Scant consideration seems to have been given to the consequences of such cultures of making – in existence for hundreds, often thousands of years – being comprehensively extinguished.

Sixty years on from the mid-twentieth century and the future looks quite a bit shakier. We no longer speak the mantra of “progress” with quite the same blithe confidence of yesteryear. In fact the industrial transformation underway across the planet is itself threatened. The realisation is dawning that industrial society is largely driven by fossil fuels, and produces vast quantities of waste without consideration for the consequences – and this of course is becoming an increasingly highly-profile issue. For governments, countries, and the general public, the consciousness of a world running out of oil, matched by the slow, inexorable rise of global warming, seems finally to be sinking in. How effective the primary political response – that of moving to low carbon economies – will turn out to be remains uncertain, and also dependent on the degree of danger that societies are headed into during this century. Despite the new-found rhetoric of urgency, for environmentalists committed to futures where the stakes are so high what movement there is seems terrifyingly slow, rather inadequate in view of the radical shift they claim is needed. Despite the urgency, official futures remain those of growth, growth and growth, attempting to accelerate toward the new objectives of zero- or negative-carbon post-industrial economies. Whatever we think the merits or otherwise of such trajectories, less industry, less urbanisation and less cultural acceleration never seem to be part of the mix. In the environmental field the future of rural cultures is given more time and more credence, although primarily in the context of the developing, rather than developed world. Craft, skill and the continuation of making cultures may find a foothold in such environmentally-hued futures, but the wider point of whether there is a critical need to hold a lifeline to such cultures, particularly if some of the more pessimistic eco-scenarios are realistic, seems always to be avoided.

Indeed, for some this partially-disappearing, partially-gone world of crafts and skills might be seen as only a part of a much wider cultural extinction “in the making.” The broader issues of how these skills inhabit people, and are held in the bodies of communities and of individuals, can be seen as but one element in a much larger assemblage of cultural extinction. The broader context can be expanded across a spectrum of cultural practices, whole ice shelves of cultural memory which seem, to use a timely metaphor, to be collapsing and crashing under the ocean’s surface waves, and disappearing at an extraordinary rate. Some random examples: ways of knowing through the body, the old ways of singing for instance, those learnt through the rhythms of the body or through particular, now vanished bodily ways of working. Or language; whole tranches of languages which are quickly disappearing with language-death taking grip and reducing the 3000 or so languages by 90 per cent to a mere 300. Or, in another cultural anti-room, the disappearance of some forms of reading and writing. The parallel that this raft of disappearances evokes to that of biological extinction surely cannot be completely ignored. Even if this is too extreme a slant on the level of change we are witnessing, at the very least such disappearances are provocative. Is it only happenstance that the sixth great extinction, presently underway across the planet’s natural world, is being shadowed by this potentially equally profound cultural extinction. While I have been outlining a story of loss, of disappearance, of homogenisation and of real and possible cultural extinction, this is of course only part of the story. There is the other side to the coin, the gifts that industrialisation has brought in its aftermath. Of these, health, wealth and lives lived in peace are but a short summary of its offerings. And it has brought a world into being which is dynamic, in constant change and flux, indeed one of an accelerating dynamism. But at its heart what the industrial world has brought is wave of after wave of technologies, and with each wave promises of better to come. Is it really surprising therefore that we look back on pre-industrial times as incomparably more impoverished – in the many senses of the word – compared to today’s world. This is particularly the case with recent revolutions: those of new media, of the World Wide Web, of the Internet. With the coming of the World Wide Web, the planet has been linked into one vast interconnected network, in principle enabling worldwide conversations between and within vastly different cultures. The pace at which the Web and other areas of new media operate has become almost normal to us. And these revolutions in new technologies are part of the most recent chapter in the quid pro quos of the planet’s transition from an old, disappearing world to a new, nascent, emergent world. For many involved in the new world the benefits are self-evident. To others it has been these very revolutions which have been so destructive. Complicating this simple dialectician’s logic and adding a new dimension in the mix is the green dimension, and a concern that what is being lost may be critical for our kind’s future adaptive needs. Depending on where you position yourself on the spectrum, the issues turn on whether such technologies can complement the cultures from the past and integrate with them, rather than enact their wholesale replacement. These issues will be the focus of the remaining parts of this article.

At first glance craft and computers appear contra-indicated. As do both the deep past and the merely pre-industrial. Many in the myriad new media constellations might well be baffled by the idea that craft and cultures of making could have anything to do with new media, with computers or with electronic evolution. Certainly the overwhelming majority working within the mainframe of new media have never shown enduring interest in the crafts, in the question of skill and in the old ways. And many of them might well agree with one of their own, techno-visionary Roy Ascott and his admittedly off-the-cuff remark that, as far he was concerned, “farmers could go to the wall.” For many involved in new media the future of craft – be it agricultural, say dry-stone walling, or any other part of the lattice of this disappearing world – is completely off the radar, irrelevant to the various digital futures that they have been pursuing.

But it clearly doesn’t take much imagination to see the connection. New media in its myriad guises is a significant, if not a key component of a suite of technologies representing the latest wave in the technologisation of the planet. Indeed this has been the pliant cry of those who experience this disappearance most readily as a threat. As we have seen, for those of a traditionally-oriented mindset in the crafts sphere the arrival of computers was radically unsettling, both symbolically and physically; yet another and arguably defining element undermining what remained of the arts and crafts orientation.  Through the 70s and 80s the emergence of computers, and especially the concomitant narrative of automation, appeared to threaten the extinction of craft practice as traditionally understood. Here was a machine which had the potential to advance a world where the traditional forms of crafts and skill would be finally and completely abandoned to the past. Automation was the most immediate threat – the individuality of making becoming yet more outdated and irrelevant.

Statements made by some representatives of the craft persuasion conveyed a sense of dark times, and were reflected in a discourse of mutual misunderstanding. If there was something unappealingly arrogant about the claims to universality of the new media mavens, there was also something defensive and uncomprehending about the craft community’s attacks on new media as a world they neither knew nor understood. In the craft world this conventional perspective became more ardently self-justified as the computer’s presence began to make an impact across society as a whole.

Accelerating non-stop, it could feel – especially to those who lived lives which never took them away from a computer-mediated reality – as if digitisation were in overdrive. Computers, the Internet, email and the associated software, were new and bright and ever so shiny, breaking as a wave on a generation. And at the far end of the horizon was the realisable digital dream of Virtual Reality, or VR. If futures have a habit of not turning out quite, or much like, their fervent advocates suggest they will, at the time VR was part of digitisation's manifest destiny. What VR and to a lesser extent the cyberspaces beyond the consul screen heralded were universes of a new disembodied virtual experience.

Looking at the last twenty years through the lens of the present day, VR was one node in a dream that any number of techno-pundits bought into. Other nodes might reference Artificial Life, “the end of distance,” Post-Biology and, in time, Web 2.0. And much of the unbridled buzz of optimism came from the USA. Be it in the silicon parks of the East and West Coast, MIT or EPCOT, or by the emergent theoreticians, techno-celebrities and techno-heads, the computer dream was continually and unremittingly talked up. From Jaron Lanier or Kevin Kelly to the AI and Artificial Life crowd centred around Marvin Minsky or hypertextual Ted Nelson, and all the while zealously hyped by Wired magazine and chronicled by William Gibson through his neuromantic second world other, the digital transformation was coming to change world.

For those of the more pessimistic or conservative craft disposition, the new world computerisation was bringing into being was only a threat. Automation was becoming a reality. Besides this concern, the real world of the physical, the tacit and the tactile, the embodied forms of becoming at the heart of the experience of making, seemed to be growing dim. Through the 1980s and into the 90s computerisation moved steadily from the edges towards the mainstream of Western cultures. Central to this was the virtual quality of cyberspace. The impact of virtualisation grew ever greater while the engagement with craft in each new generational wave seemed to diminish, some said, in proportion to the increasing presence and uptake of computers. But then, at some point in the midst of all this, something happened that was neither expected by the pessimists nor, because it was happening on such a small scale, registered by the hi-tech mavens. Aspects of computing – programming for designers, engineers and architects – began to be taken up by the world of makers. CAD-CAM software, as well as other programs, elements and ideas. The emergence of this new grouping – a third space, apparently not anticipated by the craft pessimists, and ignored by the techno-visionaries – gave rise to a new dynamic in the craft-technology polarity.

Where had this come from? Inasmuch as the cultural history of computing is part of the canvas of a wider post-war cultural history, it is contemporary with much of the period’s social and cultural upheaval from the mid to late 50s through to the early 80s. Trends of embracing or rejecting computers were as much a part of the times as other cultural phenomena. One can note that many who saw this wave of technologisation fundamentally in terms of a threat were already adults by the 60s. Think that Jacques Ellul, the influential French sociologist who coined the term La Technique, roughly translated as “The Technical Society,” was writing in the 1950s and early 60s. Younger but still very much part of the pre-computing generation is the American Luddite Jerry Mander, who has written extensively on the ills of technology. If contemporaries of theirs became the techno-gurus, the Marvin Minskys, Vannevar Bushes or Hans Moravecs, the take-up by those who dived into the computer world’s dream came overwhelmingly from the generations that hit adulthood from the 80s onward – and to that extent they were the first post-computer generation.

In between, however, was a generation who had a foot, so to speak, in both realities. They knew the world before and had grown up prior to computers, but were also exposed and contributed to the rapid technological advances in computing during the three pre-millennial decades. Uniquely, by dint of timing, it was these in-betweeners who experienced life both before and after the digital threshold. Not only this, but some were also involved in another major cultural phenomenon of the time: what was called alternative culture. This ranged from consciousness exploration and the beginnings of the alternative energy movement through to exploring closer relations to the “more than human” natural world, and attempting to live in ways felt to be more authentic and closer to the land. A primary source for the subsequent rise of ecological thinking, politics and consciousness in the 80s and after, some from this 60s and 70s generation also rediscovered craft and the qualities associated with making and skill. In time a significant proportion came to centre their lives around different aspects of the craft world, re-enlivening a variety of craft traditions. If you are thinking hippies and communes, of flowers-in-your-hair and nature-love, you are not so far wrong – although many involved in craft were more grounded and focused than the wilder edges of their generation. Yet at the same time a major preoccupation of some within this cultural group (and others that overlapped) was a fascination with new technology, not least computerisation. There is the argument that the hippy generation brought on, at least in part, the revolution of personalised computing. And some maintain that by the mid-70s many who had started out their adult lives amidst the social upheavals of the times, whether hippies or not, were now part of the most technologically-informed generation since industrialisation began. Although not the archetypal representatives of their generation, there was a community that, while interested primarily in pre-modern craft practice, could also see value and find fulfilment at the edge of technological change represented by the computing revolution. This both/and approach to the craft/new media divide has informed and influenced individuals and group or corporate projects so that today, three decades on, there is an increasing if still relatively isolated range of developments which exemplify how new media can be integrated with craft futurism. Such a twenty-first century craft ethos turns on its head the view of craft being framed within a virtual, disembodied epistemology or apprehension of the human creature’s place in the world. These projects can be found in fields as diverse as wood-based carpentry for building and furniture; pottery and ceramics which incorporate new media as a key element in the making process; non-Western boat building; textiles; calligraphy; and an increasingly varied and thought-provoking range of other works.

Thinking in terms of recent generations that came of age before, during or after the arrival of the digital domain, and in view of the realignment of our apprehension of place and space that the electronic noosphere has left in its wake, I believe the presence of this middle-ground is invaluable. In the last two or three years there’s been a kind of felt apprehension that the first years of living and working with computers weren’t quite as wonderful as the proselytisers claimed they would be; that a part of the dream somehow missed the point. The other side of the twenty-first century catastrophes, years after Wired had proclaimed “the dream is over” – the shiny, bright future which the parallel suite of computer-related technologies heralded – seems a long way off. The promised future declared in new media’s manifesto, seen through the rear view mirror, can begin to feel a bit too much like overly shrill, wishful group-thinking.

It’s in this context that a middle-ground, framed by a relation to craft and skill – which acknowledges and accepts embodiment, while not rejecting computerisation – lights a path ahead, which accepts the past as much as the future. This may not be a complete answer to the demands of the techno-sceptics, providing as it does scant space for the many crafts – from willow basket making to book-binding – which are not amenable to the integration of new media. But it does however provide a connection of sorts with the kind of in-the-body making which virtualisation seems to undermine. Such middle-ground territory is also rooted in both/and logic rather than an either/or dialectic. Imagine if you will two tribes that historically don’t have much time for each other, both uncovering a common ground they find exciting and inspirational. There was a time when this seemed all but impossible, but with successive developments in the use of craft and computing in tandem, a shared language for both parties is beginning to find a voice. The possibility of marrying craft with computerisation, past with present with future, the tacit with the virtual, contains the seeds of a new way of apprehending our relationship to all of these fields, inclusive as much as it is combinatory.

Some years ago I was part of a group of architecture writers invited to Finland to see some examples of the country’s most recent timber architecture. As it happened, the trip also included visits to a number of factories involved in turning low grade “waste” wood into much higher quality “manipulated” and engineered timber. The best known of these woods are called glue-laminated timbers, or Glulam, advances in glue chemistry having been the key to this form of mass production. While this story does not relate directly to computerisation and new media, it is instructive in the wider context of this of this article, as it concerns the incremental replacement of skill and individual crafts with layers of automation.

The last of the factory visits was to UPM’s Lahti factory, which as it happened was taking place during the first day of a major timber engineer’s conference in the same Finnish city. The next day an Australian architect, Richard Le Plaistre, was to be awarded a major timber architecture prize at the conference. I didn’t realise until after the tour of the factory – which was hi-tech, automated, and seemingly stretched for miles – that a tall, somewhat craggy-looking man who was accompanying the tour was in fact Le Plaistre. It only became evident once we were seated in a media suite where our hosts, after some words about their new product range, asked for suggestions on how these might be developed. After a few muttered comments from the journos, Le Plaistre, began to speak. At first he praised “the wonder of Glulam” for its strength and capacity to be moulded into almost any curving shape. But then he continued by pointing out how little interaction the workforce had with the material, and that the skills traditionally associated with woodworking were completely redundant in an age of hi-tech wood production. He finally asked why wood production factories couldn’t be more holistic and provide their workers with greater involvement and fulfilment. The UPM people looked on, momentarily stunned into silence at such a blunt “off message” from their very special guest. I know not what the other journalists made of this, but personally that Le Plaistre-UPM moment etched itself into my mind for years to come.

Why? Because it was but one vivid micro-example of how the world of making is yet again being transformed; where a suite of technological changes has produced synergies which are remaking contemporary industrial-sector products in a sphere which has been so closely identified with older, individual and preindustrial ways of working. Carpentry, the traditional craft of the master-builder, is but one example of these changes which have introduced a whole new dimension to craft’s possible futures. In contemporary timber architecture, the computer has enabled us to envisage ways in which hitherto impossible buildings can be built. As with other fields of expertise previously belonging to the province of crafts – ceramics and pottery; furniture making; textiles and clothing – the computer has acted in concert with other developments. In the timberbuild case, this can be seen in the emergence of engineered and manipulated timber, the focus of UPM’s automated factory and of LePlaistre’s questions. These changes beg many questions, but also suggest answers that are not immediately straightforward or obvious but seem to originate in the domain of paradox. They are questions and answers that I have been exploring for the last ten years through the journal I run, Fourth Door Review, and which have taken me to a variety of makers who are also working with contemporary electronic technology.The most marked use of computers in the making world has perhaps been in their capacity to simulate, construct, design, engineer or apply a particular mathematics within virtual space. In the present-day context this has become a normal, unremarked aspect of professional life across many working landscapes. In this, the digital domain has been remaking and redefining as many disciplines as you might put a name to. This surge of digitalisation appears less dramatic when seen in the context of iconic expressions of industrial society. We don’t blink an eye – at least in the developed world – at the influx of such technologies as flatscreen TVs, iPods, or podcasts. These are evolutions of technologies which are firmly embedded in the Industrial paradigm, none more so than television. Where the field is identified with the preindustrial, where individual skill is involved, and where much lower tech and traditional creative expression begin to morph towards variants of techno-dependency, our attention is piqued that much more. The  contrast is more marked.

Contemporary timber construction is a case in point. New ways of building hitherto impossible wood-based structures have been facilitated by computer modelling, and software programs have been electronic midwives to the otherwise unlikely fusion of engineering and carpentry. The result is timber buildings and structures which would have been incredibly difficult to create before the advent of computers. For instance, the gridshell roof structures of both the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex and those of the more recent Savill Gardens visitor centre, in Windsor. Each demonstrate to good effect how computer modelling is influencing a tradition which has neither abandoned craft nor avoided computers. Gridshells belong to a category of structures known as shell-structures. They are perhaps the most remarkable of shell constructions, and are extremely difficult to engineer. Consisting of thousands of crisscrossing laths, working out the load bearing capacities of these shells is an extremely involved and complicated mathematical and physical challenge. In its modern Western version, the gridshell structure was first envisaged by the German engineer-architect Frei Otto. Otto’s original and iconic gridshell building – the Mannheim Multihall, built in 1975 – resulted in literally thousands of lath breakages before the building was successfully completed. Although considered a remarkable structural achievement, the Mannheim gridshell was generally thought to be a one-off, as there was just too much difficult and time-consuming physics involved to make it possible to repeat. As computer programming and software spread in the 90s, however, so the capacity to model and “form-find” a gridshell space became realisable through computers.

In the late 90s a team began developing the first gridshell for over twenty-five years. Consisting of the engineering company Buro Happold (whose founder, Ted Happold, had worked on the Mannheim gridshell), Edward Cullinan Architects, and Green Oak Carpentry Company, the three partners tackled the question of how a new gridshell could be built. This endeavour was for the Weald & Downland Museum, an open-air museum in southern England specialising in the repair and presentation of old, “traditional,” and pre-modern buildings. While Buro Happold worked out the maths and physics so that the lattice-like shell would remain standing, it was the carpenters who arrived at the connections solution so that the diamond-like lattice could be joined together. Once on site it was the carpenters, again, who moved the completed grid into position, realigning it until it could be dropped from the surrounding scaffolding into its final standing position. Once in place the gridshell could remain as an extremely strong structure, able to withstand very heavy loads. When launched in 2001 this timber building sent shockwaves through the architectural community, partially because such a building had been achieved, and partly due to its elegance. It also triggered a surge of interest in the gridshell form amongst the timber architect and engineering community. In 2005 the Savill Gardens gridshell, approximately the same size as Mannheim and twice that of Weald & Downland, opened to equal applause. There have been other, smaller versions, some built, some not, but all showing the power of this elegant structural concept, as well as pointing to what some described as a millennial medievalism.

If gridshells are otherwise impossible structures, the advent of computer-aided design and manufacture (CAD-CAM) has also brought those who are nowadays styled designer-makers close to producing equally impossible craft objects. The British furniture maker Fred Baier founded his reputation on the implementation of a similar combination of techniques and materials used in gridshell construction: wood and computers. For the last thirty years Baier has been creating striking space-age tables, chairs and bed furniture which would otherwise be extremely difficult to design and construct. In another area of the maker-designer world, ceramics has likewise been touched by the fusion of craft and computing. Although lower profile than a furniture maker such as Baier, ceramicists like Justin Marshall and Katie Bunnell and the Falmouth College of Art, Autonomatic cluster of researchers in Cornwall are again applying the computer’s modelling capabilities in their ceramic practice.

Further afield, in Washington State on the West Coast, in fact, the remarkable work of George Dyson embodies much of this both/and apprehension and approach to crafts and technology. The son of the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson, George has centred his life around building versions of the baidarka boat – the kayak skin boat of the Aleutian Island in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Alaska. Dyson first started building baidarkas in the 70s after spending some years working boats and living in a self-built tree house out on the Canadian west coast, where the islands of the Inside Passage begin. Dyson was astonished by the sophistication of the Aleutian island baidarkas, and he began studying them intensively before constructing his own first attempt at a baidarka using aluminium and fibreglass frames and a dust cloth for the boat’s skins. What so impressed him was how the Aleutians had used “nature as the strategy for design”; original baidarkas were made from seal and whale bone and seal skin. They were completely fit for purpose, suited for navigating the narrow, shallow Inside Passage channels in ways that were impossible for the craft of the Europeans when they arrived to explore and colonise. Who had the design advantage was clear. Dyson continued, and spent the next years building a series of iterations of his twenty-first century ancient-future baidarkas as well as kayaking up and down the west coast for many months at a time.

So far, so unusual, but not a mention of new media. Midway through this water journey, in the 80s, however, Dyson was given an early computer and subsequently began designing with CAD-CAM. While this may or may not be reason for singling him out, what makes Dyson so intriguing is that he didn’t stop there; rather his interest deepened and eventually became a full-scale passion, leading him to write one of the early defining texts on the contemporary history of computing, Darwin Among the Machines, which was published in 1998. In this book Dyson appeared to suggest that silicon intelligence is alive; life’s second coming, as he describes it.  It’s a very different collective life form, but living and evolving rapidly nonetheless. This places Dyson in a completely different ballpark to pretty much anyone else I’ve come across in the craft-computer spectrum. Dyson suggests there isn’t any need to fear the emergence of silicon intelligence, believing that machines are not malevolent and are seeking to make our lives as comfortable as possible. Dyson sees and lives both sides of the divide, symbolising how a path committed to deep craft can be at ease with what he calls the digital wild. He exemplifies a both/and approach in contrast to the either/or culture of technological replacement.

We need not look solely to computer-mediated worlds to discover ways of bridging the gap between the modern and historic. The Technolace work of Finnish art maker Helena Hietanen demonstrates another way to draw the future and the past into one. Hietenen spent nearly ten years in the 90s making art pieces derived from the weave patterns of traditional Finnish folk lace-making, yet she used fibre-optic materials to do this, so that the finished pieces are in effect “light art.” Here the futurist materials in the form of fiber-optics have been fused with a tradition from the past, lace-making, a skill that has almost died out. While the exploration of light is central for Hietanen (which isn’t too surprising for someone from a Northern country such as Finland, where darkness for so much of the year is a seasonal fact of life), her use of lace-making – primarily a woman’s occupation – heightens the sense of masculinity associated with the fibre-optics technology she has chosen as her material medium.

One final example reverses the relationship of machine to skill that the previous cases highlight, and provides a counter and complementary example to them. In the eastern Swiss canton of Graubunden a small regional architectural scene has coalesced in the aftermath of the ground-breaking architectural work of Peter Zumthor. One of these is the Chur-based practice BearthDeplazes. One of their most recent buildings is a remarkable extension to a vineyard farm. In essence a simple design, which follows the outline and volumes of the original neighbouring farmhouse, the wine shed has been built from bricks placed one by one into such exacting positions that the resulting façade creates a very specific optical pattern, playing tricks on the human eye in the same ways that visual illusions do. What makes the brickwork so precise is that it has been done robotically. The undertaking has been developed as a research project in collaboration with Zurich’s Technical University’s Digital Fabrication department. This is, they say, digital materiality. What the eyes sees is just too exact for craftspeople to be able to carry off, the mathematics being so precise and at such a micro-level of detail that the facade’s realisation would never have been possible without the arrival of machines able to work at this level of micro-detailing. In one a sense a clever, rather Swiss joke on the limits of craftsmanship, the project also reminds us that computer-based technologies are proficient in forms of craft making that are impossible for human hand and human eye.

Here then are a brief set of examples of how craft and computers, or at least the world which computers have brought into being, are merging, and in so doing creating a new fusion which is enabling the divide between electronic technology (and particularly new media) and craft to be bridged. While these examples are hardly commonplace, and while they often require larger budgets or well-off benefactors, I can’t but help feel they do point to another future, one which does not so categorically turn its back on the past, and also accepts the electronic reality of the present and the future. Such fusions between craft and computers may or may not be what is sometimes called Mixed Reality; but in any case they assist in moving the debate beyond the divides of earlier times: craft after virtuality. To a certain extent this fusion is being assisted by significant moves in the digital research sector, away from a virtual interpretation of the future and towards one where the focus is on in-the-body connection with digitalized technologies. There is a degree of convergence with new materials research here. Haptics is the term often used. If new materials are the play-dough of the design world, widening the palette of choices, they do influence the landscape in terms of what constitutes ecological craft and making, and the nature of authentic materials. For the purposes of this essay, however, that for the moment is another story.

All of this is possibly fitting in a changed world, after 9/11 and its consequences, the clash of civilisations and the wars-without-end scenarios, along with the continual rise of new millennial fears; a world running out of oil matched by the slow, inexorable rise of global warming. This side of the twenty-first century virtual reality of itself and by itself doesn’t exactly add up. If today the so-called wet, post-biological sciences and technologies are the ones that fuel current excitements – from the ongoing genetic revolution to nanotechnologies to synthetic biology – it seems there is less unambivalent fervour about the hi-tech future. This time round the knowledge that the original new media revolution of the 90s was, as with all revolutions, somewhat naïve in its assertions, underpins a certain reticence about the new claims of technological revolution. Once bitten, twice shy.  Virtualisation, the World Wide Web, not to mention the omni-dominant ubiquity of computers in the World Wide West hasn’t quite delivered in the ways the boosters once declared. As the 90s web-boomers grow up and take a look around some seem to be asking – well, what was that all about? A sense of re-evaluation hovers in the background of the ever-present subliminal noise, dissatisfaction and questioning of what exactly was achieved. There is also perhaps a dawning recognition that the world some of the sceptics were warning of may actually have arrived; in the UK there is a new debate regarding surveillance and security, as buggings and semi-ubiquitous CCTV become an apparently accepted part of daily life. It might seem we are not so much sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Rather we are already in it. The “white heat of technology,” the paperless office, and leisure society have all palpably failed to materialise. Instead there is an accelerated pace of living, a “hurried and worried” culture often determined by our constant access to communication, and lives without downtime, where resorting to alternatives such as slow food and downsizing are impossible dreams. Coming into being is some kind of continuum between the twin English literary dystopias that preceded the arrival of this world, Brave New World and Animal Farm, which seem only too relevant today, almost more so than they were on first publication.

Amidst this re-evaluation, what was previously ignored – the need to value doing in the world – brings a necessary, reality-bound cachet. Craft and skill dovetail in this world, for within each are embedded aspects of an embodied, tacit and physical path. Much of the craft realm may well be gone, and although the outline of this mixed future may not be persuasive to techno-sceptics, it provides a way of sorts to maintain craft into the medium term future. For many of those who came of age after the digital watershed, the idea of returning to pre-electronic times seems (almost) unthinkable. The fusion of computers with craft, although inferring a radically different future, provides a middle path of sorts, which offers the hope of fulfilling both sides of the story. And in the story of both/and there is also a model for a whole different way of learning; a way of learning which encourages and celebrates multiplicities rather than specialism, which nurtures the many-sided rather than the one-dimensional. If this is paradoxical, it is because this is also a form of learning which is about inhabiting rather than denying paradox. In part it is also fundamentally consonant with a vision of a green future, and living in rather than out of balance. Impossible dreaming? Well maybe. But perhaps this is as much a function of dreams as any – pulling us towards not a shiny but rather luminous green future.

Oliver Lowenstein runs Fourth Door Review (http://www.fourthdoor.co.uk), the green cultural review. Much of this essay has been derived from material and experiences stemming from various editions of the Review. The Weald and Downland Museum Gridshell, and Fred Baier’s conversation with Chris Rose on Impossible Furniture, are featured in issue 5, while an interview with Helena Hietanen on her Technolace can be found in issue 4; and an interview with Geoge Dyson about his Baidarka boats in issue 7. Issue 4 also features a review of two relevant books on this subject: Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft, and Frank Wilson’s The Hand. The review essay explores the neurophysiological and evolutionary functions of the upper limbs.

  • luminous/craft_after_virtuality.txt
  • Last modified: 2014-08-02 19:10
  • by nik