There are two kinds of people in the world…

….the dreamers and the doers, the one and the many, the old and the new.

It is common in cosmologies to divide the world into two. Moiety is a key element in most traditional kinship systems, but it has also characterised the global awareness that emerged in the modern world.

When thinking about the relations between designers and artisans, it is clear they bring more than their own individual stories to the relationship. They are representatives of two different worlds. Typically, the designer is university educated, lives in a large wealthy city whose common language is European. The artisan, in many cases, is a traditionally-oriented person living in a rural village where the common language is Indigenous. Is there a short hand for describing these two worlds? And what kind of value systems do different binaries imply?

Some of the terminologies that have been used include:

Ontological: Civilisation / Barbarism

The term ‘civilisation’ came into common usage in the 18th century. Initially it referred to the rule of law. But later it came to be defined against its opposite, the state of absence of civilization, or ‘barbarity’. History was a struggle between the two, in which civilisation eventually demonstrated it superiority. As Charles Darwin put it, ‘At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world.’

Progress: Developed / developing

The process of development as a criterion for distinguishing between countries was championed by the United Nations. It was not a matter of one half of the world dominating the other, but of one lifting the other up to its standard. Kofi Anan described a developed country as ‘ one that allows all its citizens to enjoy a free and healthy life in a safe environment.’ Naturally, there has been some awkwardness in the assumption that the developed world was more advanced along the track of progress. This has been nuanced lately with terms such as More Economically Developed Country (MECD).

Cardinal: First / Third

In 1952, Alfred Sauvy applied the terminology used in pre-revolutionary France to describe the estates – First Estate (nobility), Second Estate (clergy) and Third Estate (everyone else). In a Cold War context, this signified the competition between the First (capitalist) and Second (communist) Worlds, over the uncommitted Third World. Sauvy wrote, ‘Like the third estate, the Third World is nothing, and wants to be something’. With the demise of the communist bloc, this has left a world divided between First and Third. The division is limited to the Cold War context, and carries with it an implicit hierarchy between first and subsequent.

Polar: North / South

The Cardinal World division has also been mapped spatially onto the globe, where it has been translated into West (First) joined with East (Second) as North against the South (Third). Phrases such as the ‘Global South’ and ‘South-South cooperation’ have become the most common markers of identification within this region, and were dominant during the Copenhagen Climate Summit Talks in 2009. There some minor problems. While it approximates roughly to the spatial distribution of wealth, it does get messy with countries like Australia, which are of the North but located in the South. And while hierarchy is not intrinsic to the poles, in everyday usage ‘south’ has come to mean failure, as in the ‘markets went south’ to describe the GFC.

Representation: Majority / Minority

In the early 1990s, the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam called for the phrase ‘Third World’ to be replaced by ‘majority world’. This is an attempt to reverse the focus on GDP, which elevates the importance of rich countries. It has been used to criticise the G8 group as representing only a minority of the world’s population. It is also implicit in the exhibition title Design for the other 90%.

Time: Old / New

The ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Christopher Columbus was heralded as a ‘new world’. From these Americas emerged enormous wealth, particularly mineral and agricultural . This notion of the ‘new world’ superseded the ‘old’. Settler historian James Belich writes about the dynamic relation between ‘oldland’ and ‘newland’, whereby the newland offered a fresh opportunity to make good in the world, while the oldland retained its authority as the source of cultural standards. In response to French and German opposition to the Iraq invasion, US vice-president Dick Chaney dismissed them as ‘Old Europe’. While this Old/New binary does seem to invert the colonial hierarchy, it does support neo-imperialist aspirations in countries like the USA.

Globalisation: Consumer / Producer

With globalisation, manufacturing in rich countries was outsourced to poor countries like China. As part of this deal, countries like the USA sought to stimulate their economy through consumption, moving jobs from factories to service industry. By contrast, China’s growth has been focused almost exclusively on manufacture, with relatively little internal consumption. There are elements of the master-slave relationship in this global division of ‘labour’, as rich countries divest their labour onto poorer economies. But as the power of the master is eventually undone by the realisation of dependence on the slave, so consumer countries become prey to conditions such as ‘skill shortage’, obesity and foreign debt. In the regional divisions of Fair Trade, while Australia is geographically part of the Asian region, it is placed alongside USA with whom it shares the role of consumer rather than producer of ethical goods.

Each of this binaries seems to privilege one half of the world over the other. Is the solution to develop a new set of terms, or simply establish a balance in the mix of hierarchies in use? The answer will help to build a level platform on which representatives of these two worlds can work together.

On the one hand principle, on the other hand consequence

gita[1] “Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction.”

In Bhagavad Gita, neither Krishna nor Arjuna believe that their war is just or reasonable. But while Arjuna desists meaningless slaughter, Krishna believes that one must uphold honour regardless of consequence. The two positions represent the alternative moralities. Krishna argues on the basis of principle, its deontology, while Arjuna speaks for the overall impact, its consequential outcome. In Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen identifies these as the alternative poles of justice in Indian thought – the absolute value of niti against the compassionate overview of nyaya.

The position of world craft invites a similar division. With urbanisation, many artisans have left their villages and are working in city factories. You’ll find dozens of services in India that will realise your designs–either hand or machine embroidered–by skilled artisans.

To the Krishnas, such as development reflects the death of craft. In its authentic guise, craft is tied to a traditional lifestyle, in rhythm with the seasonal and cultural calendar. Constrained by the mechanised time of an urban factory, craft is drained of its essential expression.

But to the Arjunas, such factories offer salvation for crafts otherwise facing extinction. Crafts today suffer twin hazards: local markets are replaced by globalised goods and children fail to be attracted to the isolation and drudgery of handmade processes. With the establishment of craft factories, the inevitable drift to cities can at least take craft with it.

So who is right? Though Krishna wins out in the end, what’s essential to Bhagavad Gita is the argument itself. Before jumping to conclusions, we need to understand better what is happening inside these factories. Are craft skills being handed down? Is there scope for expression? And on the other hand, rather than blindly following progress, we need to draw a line beyond which products can no longer claim to be hand-crafted.

The Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations is designed to cover situations where designers commission products from newly emerged craft factories. It promises to give consumers an opportunity to learn how the work is produced, and producers the scope to increase the value of their goods by extending creative possibilities for the makers.

Goodbye book, hello storied object

Hamish Hill Albert Park Log Book (50 130 80 Elm (cut down December 1994 slabbed January 1995)+ Memorabilia (collected over fifty years 1949-1999) Finish;  Feast Watson - Fine Buffing Oil) (photographed by Terence Bogue)

Hamish Hill Albert Park Log Book (50 130 80 Elm (cut down December 1994 slabbed January 1995)+ Memorabilia (collected over fifty years 1949-1999) Finish; Feast Watson - Fine Buffing Oil) (photographed by Terence Bogue)

On the one hand information, on the other hand a book

Technology continues to sustain the idea of progress. Almost every year brings a new device that promises to transform our world. Many proclaim 2010 as the year of the e-book. New competing platforms are emerging this year to provide us with a paperless reading experience. In many of them, such as the Amazon Kindle, the purchased texts are not even stored permanently in the device, but are instead stored in the ‘cloud’ accessible on many different platforms. On your computer, you can open a story you’ve just been reading in your Kindle and it ‘remembers’ the last page you read.

Naturally, there has been much debate about the merits of this new medium. A common concern regards the feel of the e-book – Could you imagine curling up in bed with it? But the e-book raises a more profound question about how we engage with ideas. Even when mass-produced, a printed book is still a material object, and thus subject to all life’s vicissitudes—being roughly handled, yellowing with age or being lent to a friend. Is the meaning of a text reduced when it no longer depends on its material embodiment?

Just before her death in 2004, the novelist Susan Sontag reflected on the place of stories in our time. Her core concern was the way modernity homogenises our world. The future of modernity , she writes, is that ‘there is only one culture, that what lies beyond borders everywhere is – or one day will be – just more of the same, with everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, whatever…’[i] For Sontag, the best way to give meaning to our world rested as always on the imagination of the novelist.

But now you can download that novelist’s response to modernity in your e-book, will it have the same personal connection?

As Sontag recognised, we float in a sea of stories. Daily news appears like endless waves in an ocean of tragedies and trivia. From big and small screens flow captivating dramas and amusing diversions. Pools of local gossip gather around cafés.

But do many of these claim us personally? As the infosphere expands, it seems that our own immediate world gets smaller and smaller, relatively speaking. Yet we need stories to enliven the sense of shared experience with family, friends, citizens. We need to swim.

It’s hard to imagine a life without the stories that accompany it. For François Lyotard,[ii] this begins with birth – ‘The human child is already positioned as the referent in the story recounted by those around him, in relation to which he will inevitably chart his course.’ As stories become more remote, how do we then make them real again?

Like lightning conductors, material objects play a critical role in earthing stories. Quests for the unique object, such as the Holy Grail, are predicated on a singular thing. Individual objects such as the Olympic Torch create stories in their wake as they touch various links in a human chain. And souvenirs brought back from a holiday provide props for travel stories.

The future of stories may well rest in things rather than physical books. As stories rise up into the clouds, we can develop new ways of bringing them down to earth. We are beginning to see products now being designed so they can generate stories. The most common of these is the doll, such as the beaded bride doll sold by Oxfam as the Little Traveller. Each doll comes with a passport and you are encouraged to send photos featuring the doll in exotic locations.

We may be looking at a future where there are two worlds of stories – the ‘cloud’ above of entertainment that we access through multiple interfaces and the storied objects below that claim us individually as custodians of a shared material world. Can we connect these two worlds? Can the cloud provide a way of constituting a community of things?

Craft naturally lends itself to creating storied objects. Made by hand, each object travels with the story of its origin. There is potential to develop the stories that will help these objects find a place in modern life. Finding ways of attaching stories to crafted objects as they travel along the supply chain is one of the great design challenges in our time.

Platforms like Facebook have been dizzyingly successful connecting us to a multitude of ‘friends’ around the world. But if we have a finite amount of care to go around, are we diluting our real friendships with infinite online connections? Will new storied objects develop as a hard currency to recover over-leveraged friendships?

Sure, every picture tells a story. But it takes a thing to make one.


[i] Susan Sontag At the Same Time Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

[ii] François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 15

And on the right, Cecil Balmond

The origins of the term ‘right hand man’ are disputed. The most literal reference is to ancient Greece military formations, where soldiers would hold their shields in their left hand, thus depending on the person of the right for full defence.

In the modern world, the phrase has come to indicate the person behind the scenes, who makes the grand achievements possible. This includes figures like the cinematographer who stays with a famous director throughout their career, transforming their imagination into visual reality.

Cecil BalmondOne of the most celebrated ‘right hand men’ in recent times is Cecil Balmond, the engineer for star architects like Rem Koolhas. Balmond gained his professional experience working in Arup, the engineering firm that had overseen the construction of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. This job revealed for Balmond that engineering was more than just calculation; it involved also geometry, science and even a little poetry.

About thirty years ago, he began working with Rem Koolhas at a critical time. Together they developed bold experiments with space, such as the ZKM Centre for Media and Technology in Kalrsruhe, Germany, which brought together traditional and electronic media in ‘multistory voids’. It was the unique system of trusses devised by Balmond which made this design possible.

In 2002, Balmond began working with the artist Anish Kapor in the Marsyas commission for the Tate Modern that seemed to defy gravity. It seems inevitable for a figure like Balmond that he comes closer and closer to the main stage. Recently he was commissioned to produce his own design for the $3.5 billion  Coimbra project, a bridge in Portugal.

Balmond’s own work has been mildly criticised for its lack of cohesion. Whether or not his work stands up to his illustrious partners, Balmond’s career does raise the question about the position of the ‘right hand man’. Are they always necessarily masters-in-waiting, still proving their capacity before taking on the main role? Is it inevitable that someone like George Harrison of the Beatles would be waiting for his moment to have a solo album?

Is there another way of seeing this? If kudos was more equally spread across the business of concept creation and its realisation, the position of ‘right hand man’ need not be so provisional. Balmond himself harkens back to the era of Gothic architecture, where buildings were much more in the hands of the masons, before the emergence of the celebrity architect in the modern era. But we still don’t seem to have the language for recognising that capacity, even it is critical to the way the more glamorous role of ‘creator’ functions.

What are the other ‘right hand men and women’ whose achievements lurk in the shadows? Is there any way of recognising their contribution without seeming to resent the success of others?

On the one hand Spring, and on the other, Autumn

twohands

Today in the South our calendars tell us that this is the beginning of spring. But as trees come into blossom here, the leaves will begin to wither and die in the North.

In his novel Rasselas, Samuel Johnson attempted to discover the secret of happiness. After many adventures, he concluded that any happiness is always accompanied by a loss, ‘That nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left’. You can choose to have either worldly fame or a bountiful garden. It seems that full happiness can only be experienced collectively.

Two hands is a symbol of a world made from the separation of two halves – North and South, thinking and doing.

Aristotle saw the world as made by two kinds of persons: the user who determines the form and the producer who realises it. In much of everyday life, these two sides work together: we want a cup of tea and we find the materials and equipment to make one. As human society evolves, these two sides are drawn apart. In the West, there is a hierarchy that places the thinker above the doer, the architect above the builder. Globalisation has put increasing distance between the consuming ‘first world’ and the producing ‘third world’.

It seems this arrangement is reaching its limits. Environmentally and financially, the world is out of kilter. In the West there are movements such as the Slow Movement and DIY that seek to re-incorporate making into daily life. And in the emerging economies, there is a call for increasing consumption and agency. The Kyoto Protocol has set up a framework where the future of the planet depends on a consensus between these two worlds.

On the ground, there is increasing activity in a kind of product development that involves designers working with artisans. For artisans, this collaboration offers the opportunity to find new markets that can replace the local sales lost through cheap imports. For designers, there is the potential to add an ethical value to their products. In a small but tangible way, craft-design collaborations provide models of north-south partnerships.

Such collaborations face challenges. Some in the crafts believe it is essential to maintain a link with tradition – craft is a way of keeping our authentic cultural identity. They think design ties craft to a short-term fashion cycle, as the whims of a distant market dictate what an artisan can do. And some in design world see the making as unimportant: as long as it is good quality and cheap, designs can be produced by anyone anywhere. Good design transcends its materials.

Of course, collaboration is not for everyone. There are circumstances were ancient crafts need to be preserved for the sake of our cultural diversity. And others where design operates at a purely speculative level in order to forge new ideas.

But in our world today, it is essential that we construct a bridge to encourage traffic between the two. The water below is turbulent. A legacy of colonialism, dictatorships and exploitation make it difficult to bridge the two worlds. Dialogue does not imply the denial of difference. But a common interest in the success of a product can help develop trust. What’s needed is a leap of faith.

Craft Unbound is a place for reviewing attempts to bridge these worlds. One bridging project is the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations. It begins by gathering information from both sides – a frank and open review of the experiences of designers, artisans, community leaders, activists, historians, anthropologists, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Having surveyed the different perspectives, we can then bring together relevant organisations to construct a set of guidelines that best aligns the different interests.

To begin, we need to acknowledge that there a two sides to this story – the craft skills developed over millennia and the design concepts that give these skills a meaningful role to play.

Good craft is well-designed and good design is well-crafted.