The Hand and the Glove... ramblings about making.

Assemble Conference- some thoughts

The Crafts Council organised a conference timed with the launch of new reports on the vision for the future of Craft in the UK.
I was one of the panellists invited to make a short presentation and discuss our place as makers in terms of the portfolio lives that many of us lead.

The choice of the 22nd June for the Assemble conference was completely appropriate as I’m sure everyone remembers, it was the day of the ‘Axe and Tax’ emergency budget.
The audience in the lovely, converted St.Lukes church was made up of a good number from craft and art organisations who would have been wondering what effect the chancellor was having on their immediate futures at that precise moment. I suspect the feelings amongst the makers amongst the audience were a little more ambivalent. For one thing, the conference acknowledged that Craft is definitely out there in the zeitgeist, making is happening all over, from informal groups of pals creating their Christmas gifts for each other, to Louis Vuitton bringing makers of the bespoke into their flagship stores.
The design world now acknowledges craft and some would say, feeds off the hard won skills of makers. You don’t have to travel far down the high street to find industrial ceramics imitating hand thrown pots. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Isn’t it all part of an educational process, awakening the buyer to Craft?
Where does this interest come from? Is it a reaction to the period of austerity that we are apparently entering, or a reaction to the ‘hands-off’ digital world that most people’s lives revolve around?
Making stuff, growing stuff, getting your hands dirty isn’t just about economics or fashion; it’s an outlet for an innate force that we all possess. It gives us ‘agency’ as Matthew Crawford articulated in his ‘provocation’. It gives a real shape to our lives; it connects us, both to natural laws and to each other in very real ways. Why are there long waiting lists for allotments? It’s not just about fresh food; it’s about sharing, about human interaction and according to Martin Raymond of The Future Laboratory, it’s about anarconomy.
For CJ O’Neill and Andy Cathery the effects of ‘agency’ were extremely tangible, giving focus and a sense of ownership to young people in Stoke-on-Trent and a future to a group of disaffected youths in Cornwall. Fantastic work, making a real difference to peoples lives, but for the ‘moneymen’ listening to George Osborne, how do you put a value on self-esteem? Maybe we need adopt the GNH (Gross National Happiness scale) instead of GDP?
We were all in agreement that Craft Matters and Craft has Value, but how do we get that across to an audience ranging from policy makers to the public. The public is largely behind us, as vast amounts of statistics from Gerri Morris prove, but the craft items that the public buy is mostly made by practitioners who were trained when Colleges still had workshops and taught material and process knowledge. That still happens in a precious few institutions, but the policy makers have to be made to understand that it is a serious mistake to erode what little there is left any further.
‘Thinking through Making’ is not an empty mantra, it is a fundamental part of the creative process that has brought about robotic arms for the Space Station from a maker of automata, as just one example of the way in which this approach encourages transferable and lateral thinking. If the economy of the UK is to have a significant income from intellectual property, then those closed workshops need to be reopened.
Whilst I’m on my soapbox here’s a few more ideas- There should be a return to subsidised apprenticeships, as away of ensuring the handing on of skills. Independent businesses should pay less business rates than the ubiquitous big names that have helped to make our town centres so anonymous. These suggestions are part of a way to ensure a future where consumers can connect with their locality, where young people can remain or return to the community in which they grew up. This may sound all rosy and middle-class, but aren’t these ways to create a C2C sustainable society?
So how can we make this happen?
As Mike Press, the chair of Assemble so passionately said: ‘”We can seize or squander this moment”, and advocated that we all get out there and tell our stories. But to whom, and what stories?
Craft, as Assemble clearly demonstrated is far more than the making of exquisite, hand made objects, consumed by a certain section of society. At it’s most inclusive it is “the desire to do something well for it’s own sake” as Richard Sennett defines it; it’s also an approach, a way of thinking.
So the stories that need to be told must demonstrate how Craft shapes our daily lives, how Craft gives meaning to our lives, how we are all dependent on Craft, how Craft is fundamental to the sciences as much as to the arts, and how Craft is instrumental to most parts of the economy.