Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.

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Warp Factors: Craft At High Speed

Originally published in the exhibition catalogue for Give It Time, curated by Stephen Knott for Punkt Ø – Galleri F 15 near Oslo.

 It’s already one sentence into this essay. Are you bored yet?

We live in impatient times, politically, psychologically, and physically. We crave immediate gratification. It’s understandable – why would anyone wait, when they can get what they want  right away? – but also one of our gravest social problems. On-demand services have made us far more demanding. Short-term thinking has led to long-term environmental damage. Compressed public discourse – the sound bite, the tweet – has wrought untold distortion. Meanwhile, the digital devices that bear all these instant pleasures have burrowed deeply into our personal lives. Which of us, come bedtime, has not found ourselves basking in the glow of a screen, rather than the presence of our lover?  

It would be pleasant to report that craft stands inherently in opposition to all this. That is certainly how it is often portrayed. Artisanal practice is indeed intrinsic to the “slow movement” that has gained traction in food, fashion and other arenas. Rather than simple escapism (stop the world, I want to get off), making by hand offers a way to engage productively and thoughtfully. Craftspeople often describe feelings of getting lost in their own work, of rhythm and flow, which are deeply satisfying. And of course, craft tradition is often understood as rooted in place, and in the past. In all these ways, it provides a safe anchor in a world whose currents are getting far too swift for comfort.

The only problem is that craft, too, can be sped up. Contemporary culture is rife with images of making at high speed. The most obvious example is the online “how to” video. Editing tools that were once the province of professional cinematographers have now become widely available. Most such techniques involve temporal compression of one sort or another, so as to capture and hold the attention of distracted viewers, or to fit into the time limits of social media platforms. 

 A screen shot from Silo Studio’s video  Newton’s Bucket.

A screen shot from Silo Studio’s video Newton’s Bucket.

Newton’s Bucket,” a video by the London-based practice Silo Studio that is included in the present exhibition, is a virtual compendium of the tricks that make up this new trade. It shows a process that would be fascinating at any speed. Inspired by an experiment of Issac Newton, in which he showed how setting a half-filled water bucket into circular motion produced a parabolic curve in the water’s surface, Silo Studio employ a turntable to distribute colored resins on the interior of a hemisphere, resulting in a marbleized bowl. The video showing the process is wildly entertaining. Rapid editing cuts leap from moment to moment, like a highlight reel. The image is often sped up, as if the viewer were holding down a fast forward button. Split screen allows for different vantage points to be played simultaneously, effectively multiplying speed. In the video’s most compelling effect, the camera is mounted on the turntable itself, so that the bowl and its contents seem to stay still, while the whole room rotates. Watching these sequences is like sitting on a merry-go-round, and imparts a similarly dizzying sense of acceleration.

“Newton’s Bucket” is craft for the 21st century: clever, quick, meant primarily for online distribution. After sitting through all sixty seconds of it, the viewer feels, rightly or not, as if they have learned a huge amount about an unconventional process. Certainly they will have a new appreciation for the resulting objects, which seem to capture dynamism itself in their multicolored swirls. But there is an issue here: the usual priority of process and product have been subtly reversed. Through their expert art direction, Silo Studio encourages us to value the bowls in a new way, but only at the price of making the objects secondary to their own documentation. Tangible making has been rendered into a pretext, a performance, for the sake of intangible effect.

In a global attention economy, of course, this makes complete sense. It is much easier – and, though the income streams are indirect to the point of being enigmatic, probably more financially profitable in the long run – to reach hundreds of thousands online than hundreds in a local craft shop. David Harvey saw this coming back in the 1980s when he wrote about “time space compression,” by which he meant an acceleration that collapsed the existing economic order. So too did Jean Baudrillard, when he famously wrote, “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory.” Baudrillard meant for that to sound ominous, and we might wonder whether a video like “Newton’s Bucket,” for all its ingenuity and charm, isn’t part of something unsettling. At a time when even old MTV videos seem ponderous, is it really a good idea for craft to try to keep up?

If you’re of a mind to feel anxious about such developments, you can find plenty to worry you out there on the internet. Plug “stop motion craft” into Vimeo or Youtube, and you’ll be treated to an unending pageant of accelerated making: herky-jerky, rapid-fire footage in which makers are seen working at many times actual speed. This is a strange return to the rhythms of early celluloid movies, which were made on hand cranked cameras. When projected, they typically ran much faster than real life. Interestingly, as film makers back then explored the possibilities of the new medium, there was also a vogue for stop motion animation. A film like The Misterious Matchbox, by the pioneering German filmmaker Guido Seeber, could easily pass for a contemporary offering on Vimeo. It shows wooden matches continually rearranged on a tabletop by unseen hands, making a star, a house, a Cupid’ heart, and a team of gymnasts. In the finale, the matches pile up into a three-dimensional windmill, which is then set alight.

 Most of today’s high-speed craft films lack Seeber’s sense of innocent wonder. The majority are straightforward how-to or promotional stuff: a week of papercutting compressed into one minute; lots of LEGO animations, plenty of stuff on brewing. Soundtracks seem important. Metal spinning gets a backing track of jazz with a heavy bassline. A how-to film about making leather belts is so filled with scrapes and snaps and tool taps that it would seem like a John Cage composition, were it not for the Country and Western track laid over the top. The contradictions can be head-spinning. A much-viewed film about the expert luthier Alex Bishop has him saying, “when I’m at the workbench, especially at night, it’s a kind of meditative process. I can get in a relaxed frame of mind and focus on that moment.” Not a single shot in the film lasts for more than four seconds.

 An animation by Guldies.

An animation by Guldies.

But there is cause for hope, too. Craft on fast-forward is not just a distortion of existing practices. It can also be an expansive realm of creativity in its own right. Witness a homemade Halloween cartoon, each frame of which is carved individually into a pumpkin. Or the stop motion animation master Alexander Unger, aka Guldies, whose Claymation and papercraft scenarios are made in his bedroom on his desk, but watched by millions. Or the Instagram phenomenon that is #slime, an ongoing global competition (purportedly originating in Thailiand) to make colorful abstractions out of various domestic staples like peanut butter, glue, and detergent. Depending on your perspective, you could see #slime as the ultimate proof of social media’s vacuity, or the ultimate in sensuous creativity, of as makers thrill to the feel, sound, scent, and polychromatic wonder of their own concoctions.   

 Screen shot of Jenny Nordberg,  3 to 5 Seconds .

Screen shot of Jenny Nordberg, 3 to 5 Seconds.

Wading a bit deeper into the shallows, we find Jenny Nordberg’s winning “3 to 5 Seconds” project, also included in the present exhibition. In this series of short films, the Swedish maker executes a designed object within the prescribed time limit: a candlestick, made from two lumps of differently colored plasticine; a cloth, folded and dipped into two tubs of dye, that reveals a lovely stripe pattern when unfolded; a hand-poured mirror. In a followup series, the comparatively slowpoke “3 to 5 minutes,” Nordberg throws together a board chair with adhesives. The premise feels like something from Conceptual Art, but the execution is more like reality TV: a design challenge which can only be met through old-fashioned knowhow.

The brilliance of Nordberg’s videos is not only in her MacGyver-esque ingenuity, but also her deadpan presentation, which comes across as a light mockery of the usual moustache-and-banjo stylings of the instructional idiom. She wears plain gray utility clothing, reminiscent of factory uniforms (or for that matter, the boilersuits of the Russian Constructivists). Nordberg affects the air of an obedient employee, standing unsmiling, rigidly at attention, except when she puts herself through the frantic paces of making. Her performance plays as a withering satire on the punishingly brief temporal constraints of online content.

 Jenny Nordberg, candlesticks made in 3 to 5 seconds.

Jenny Nordberg, candlesticks made in 3 to 5 seconds.

Nordberg has suggested that her quickly-made products embody “an aesthetics of the shortcut,” a phrase that sounds provocative – comparable to the notion of “sloppy craft,” perhaps. But as any maker knows, all true craft subscribes to some degree to an aesthetics of the shortcut. The dream of the artisan whiling away time in the workshop, indifferent to all questions of efficiency, is just that – a dream. A preindustrial silversmith or furniture maker or weaver may not have had a clock on the wall, but they worked against it nonetheless. Piecework was the norm. Most jobs involved high levels of repetition. Materials were often expensive in relation to labor, so there was little margin for error. Keeping body and soul together demanded a difficult combination of rapid execution and overall consistency, which could be achieved only through careful planning and deeply ingrained skill. In most cases, craftsmanship is not really “the desire to do a job well for its own sake,” as Richard Sennett has suggested. It is an expertly controlled balancing act between doing a job well, and getting it done.

But wait, if you can bear it: there’s more. So far, I have been considering high-speed craft within the ellipsis of time-based media. But there is another way to compress process: it’s called an object. Every artifact, whether produced by hand or machine, is an accumulation of actions, which leave innumerable indexical traces. These are ‘present’ in the object, in all senses of that word. David Harvey was not thinking in these terms when he coined the phrase ‘time space compression,’ but it actually fits pretty well. The silver teapot that sits in a maker’s hand in some sense contains the many procedures, the spatial dynamics of the workshop, the experiential milieu through which it was fabricated. In this sense, every artifact is a ‘motion capture,’ faster by far than fast forward.

The problem is that this property of artifacts – the way that they synchronically embody the diachronic – is so fundamental to our existence that we rarely pause to notice it. Might it be possible to use the tools of the attention economy against themselves, making videos that truly do open up the accumulative, experiential aspects of making, rather than effacing them in layers of well-intentioned art direction? Might we embrace the internet as a way to propagate material intelligence, instead of selling it short? 

Ladies and gents, I give you Ayumi Horie, a potter based in Maine who is doing just that. She is a proficient social media user; at time of writing, her personal Instagram account has over 31,000 followers, and her curated feed of others’ work, @potsinaction, has 108,000. Horie is highly adept at working within Instagram’s one-minute time limit, sometimes using techniques borrowed from music video or advertising to great effect. She says that “this is really our best hope as a field to reel in a younger audience of makers and consumers,” but it can be misleading: “Once people really try their hand at it, they realize that there’s a steep learning curve and that the videos make it seem way easier than it is. They finally begin to understand the old story about Hamada. When asked how long it takes to make a teabowl, he answered, 15 seconds and 60 years.”

It’s in Horie’s slightly longer videos that you get the full dimension of her approach. She has been posting on Youtube since 2009, when there were very few pottery videos online (hard to imagine, but true). Rather than making a how-to, she instead created “a window to the studio,” with a score by collaborators Lullatone. These days, Horie does show how to make pots, and even how to pack them for shipping. But she also to conveys a personal philosophy. In one recent video, Horie focuses on a new set of ramen bowls made using a hydraulic press, a departure for her into mechanization. “Making is a part of life,” she comments, “and anyone who loves working with their hands will want to use them in as many ways as possible.” But new questions have arisen for her in the context of serial production. What’s the difference between a flaw and a variation? Will the use of a machine inevitably rob her work of its warmth? Or can it contribute “its own unique kind of warmth? Having captured our attention with the usual bag of editing tricks, she then asks us to pause and think about what she is doing. She communicates the nuanced difficulties of contemporary craft work, not just its immediate pleasures. 

 Screen shot of Ayumi Horie’s video “White Pots.”

Screen shot of Ayumi Horie’s video “White Pots.”

One of Horie’s most popular Youtube videos, “White Pots” (watched over 45,000 times), is particularly effective in illuminating her commitment to craft. When she talks about repetition and focus, the camera work slows down instead of speeding up: two very similar shots of trimming a bowl are edited together, the second so close-up that the peel blurs slightly as it spins toward the lens. You feel your nose is in the clay. When she says, in voiceover, “I think the importance of touch gets lost sometimes, in the visual world, because it’s all about the visuals now,” it doesn’t feel like a contradiction.

It struck me, after spending time on Horie’s Youtube channel, that she is doing for the 21st century what craft writers like M. C. Richards and Soetsu Yanagi did for the 20th. Her combination of practical advice and accessible philosophy is delivered using a wholly new technology, but it is in many ways quite close to books like Centering and The Unknown Craftsman. Nor is Horie alone. The collective Assemble has leveraged their surprise Turner Prize win to start a business producing ceramics, which they call Splatware (it’s produced using a ram press, which is quite videogenic). Their fund-raising feature on Kickstarter has plenty of stop motion and quick cutting, but it is also genuinely explanatory, not only of the unusual Splatware process but also the thinking behind it, and the creative ecosystem that animates all of Assemble’s work.

  Splatware  by Assemble.

Splatware by Assemble.

Craftspeople have never retreated from the tools of the moment, though some idealistic accounts may suggest otherwise. Victorian cabinetmakers embraced replicating lathes. Early 20th-century stone carvers were thrilled to have pneumatic hammers. Some of today’s best makers are embracing 3D printing. Why should online tools be any different? The cause of craft will not be served by sounding a general retreat from the internet. Silo Studio, Jenny Nordberg, Ayumi Horie, Assemble – each in their own way – are showing how the craft community can engage instead, surfing the choppy waves of our era with style and substance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: craft only exists in motion. It turns out that’s true at any speed. 

WritingMarci LeBrun