The politics of community collaboration through craft

Joan Key questions the apolitical nature of many visual art projects involving community collaboration through craft.

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

My writing on the subject of craft was really limited to a certain period, around 1994-2000 and reflected particular discourses of that period about craft in the art gallery, which was the subject of the ‘Craft’ exhibition shown at Richard Salmon Gallery and Kettles Yard. In current practice such issues are less contentious because strategies engaging craft are more dispersed into a wide range of cross-generic fine-art practices. Even so, some residual observations may be relevant.

The communal ethos of makers/making craft artefacts can suggest a social context of the works’ production as a subtext to the work of art. At the period in which the Craft essay was written, I was thinking along these lines in an unpublished seminar paper about the Hohenbuchler Sisters’ work, seen in London at the ICA and at Camden Arts Centre around 1996. The communal aspect of the Hohenbuchler’s ‘sisterhood’ and their collaborative work with institutions lent a positive and attractive aspect to their practice, in spite of a darker side to the sisters’ therapeutic narratives. More recent examples could be Anthony Gormley’s clay works, ‘Field’ or Ai Wei Wei’s porcelain Sunflower Seeds, shown to popular acclaim at Tate Modern Turbine Hall and recently the subject of a purchase for the collection. The idea of community draws in viewers of such projects, not only as viewers of the artists’ work but as interpreters of the social construction that produced the work. The imaginative elaboration of this wider nexus of productivity may even be encouraged in documentation within the exhibition, as with this year’s exhibition of Alighiero e Boetti’s embroideries, Mappa Mundi, at Tate Modern.

Such histories of working collaboration may never be perfect. This was clear in the exhibition, also this year, at the Courtauld Institute, of ‘Working Papers’ drawings by Donald Judd which formed part of the history of his interactions with the professional metal workers who fabricated his sculptures. Judd’s historic example demonstrates the importance of understand the specific relation of the individual artist to collective productive practices. Craft’s relation to art-work offers opportunities to consider such issues, including contracts and conditions of employment, as questions to be made transparent within Fine Art. But the more general concern about this strategic and at times didactic approach to presenting craft in the art gallery is that art galleries contain their own historic narratives, and craft’s positive ethos within these contexts may not leave sufficient space for the viewer to consider such issues but supply ideological and methodological suggestions with too immediately positive certainty: the therapeutic relation in the case of the Hohenbuchlers exhibition ‘We Knitted Braids for Her’; creating projects that enhance local communities in Gormley’s widely toured exhibition of clay figurines; or engaging with positive aspects of volunteering in Maria Nepomuceno’s work currently on view at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate,

Nepomuceno’s work is a case in point. Publicity about this exhibition suggests the beauty of the traditional Latin American craft techniques this artist employs: ‘woven forms made of rope and straw, along with beads and other objects, often in fiesta-bright hues, resonate on a fundamental level’. This presents a happy, mythic picture, both inclusive, ‘from the genetic to the cosmological’, and spiritualised, emphasising symbolic interest in spiral systems and natural rhythms. These works tend to support a primitivising Western anthropological account of the communities and work-histories of Latin America. Nepomuceno’s textile structures also resonate with forms and practices developed in historic feminist works relevant to celebration of the generosity of histories of women’s domestic textile labour reminiscent of the quilting groups of North American women in the nineteen-sixties, in the way a collective, the Maria Nepomuceno study group of volunteers and craftspeople, continues to extend textile productivity during the course of the exhibition, out of the museum and into the sea.

The gallery text invites the viewer to relax with Nepomuceno’s work ‘whether spreading across the floor, rising up or suspended like hammocks, the works’ relationship to the body is key’. The cultural relevance of craft and body may be strong but should be treated with caution. An apolitical benevolence in small scale art-world models of production may give permissions in wider but not unrelated contexts. The question ‘who is the artist or the maker’ can imply hierarchies, and opportunities for understanding the internal dynamics of craft and art collaborations be lost.

Joan Key’s article for 5.2 Readymade or Handmade is available for download.

Does the column have to be square?

‘Does the column have to be square?’ [1]
A Review by Nina Shen-Poblete on The Second International Conference on Flexible Formwork in Bath (27-29th June, 2012)

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Introduction & brief overview:

Flexible formwork is a relatively young technique of casting concrete. The earliest patents appeared at the very end of the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th century. With the exception of James Waller, who in the mid 1950s enjoyed commercial success with fabric formwork, most practices remained privately held techniques [2]. Amongst pioneers such as Miguel Fisac and Kenzo Unno, Mark West is considered one of the ‘father figures’ of the last resurgence of development in flexible formwork, which began in the mid 1980s. And since then, and perhaps as a consequence of, research interests sprouted spontaneously and globally, establishing organisations such as ISOFF, which stands for International Society of Fabric Forming.

The conference in Bath is the second organised event, engaging a confluence of just under a hundred delegates from various disciplines, ranging from architects, researchers, contractors, artists, engineers, to textile specialists. The three-day proceedings were hosted by the department of Architecture & Civil Engineering on the campus of Bath University, and an intensive series of theoretical presentations were sandwiched between practical workshops and social events. The academic papers were delivered in a tight succession but in a genuinely convivial atmosphere, and lively discussions often spilled out into the interval space. A great proportion of the participants were also presenters, and despite the fact that one could regularly rub shoulders with eminent professors and experts, I was taken by the lucidity and openness in their manners of speech, their indisputable intellect and sincerity when engaged in conversations.

To summarise such widely divergent interpretations and techniques of flexible formwork from the conference proves almost an impossible task – one that has to be attempted and contested, nevertheless. Speaking in a very broad sense, the speakers roughly divide into five difference categories.

The first group approaches fabric formwork through material theory and practice. They are theorists / practitioners who sought to find formal expression of concrete through a process – set up to make visible the dynamic interactions between the structural behaviours of fabric, and the chemical forces of concrete when setting – Mark West, Remo Pedreschi, Walter Jack Studios, Alan Chandler, Katie Lloyd Thomas and Anne-Mette Manelius. They share another common ground, that is of their preference to low tech, craft techniques in concrete casting, making the technology more widely available to low capital building cultures and a design methodology relying partly on intuition.

The second group of speakers focused on formwork’s flexibility in the process of form taking and de-forming, with this end they developed alternative materials other than fabrics. They are industrially orientated and market driven researchers who aim at finding the correct balance between the efficiency of formwork fabrication, re-usability and control. Their techniques are innovative, deploying technologies ranging from cad controlled tools to domestic utensils: point-controlled non-porous membrane; wax; pneumatic shell structures with segmented flat sheets; vaccumatics (a vaccumed sac filled with expanded clay); flexible grid shells; flexible rods and ice sheets, so on and so forth.

The work of Heinz Isler stands in a category of its own. Isler was a Swiss engineer who developed sophisticated shell structures and precise sets of construction procedures at the time when digital technologies were unavailable. He experimented with various techniques: mount dug from a ground, wet hessian draped over reinforced mesh, latex rubber, until finally settling on a way of using timber lathes supported by an elaborate structure of timber falsework. The lecture was delivered by Professor John Chilton, who is currently authoring a larger and more comprehensive book on Isler.

Amongst others there were also contractors who developed a specialism in using fabric formwork, and were able to deliver difficult project on tight budgets exploiting the economy of fabric formwork system and its adaptability in difficult site conditions.

The last category comprises of experts who specialises in computer modelling and analytical programmes, and highly complex systems of calculation.

The ideas presented by the first group relate most closely to the set of arguments developed in my own dissertation on rigid formwork, thus I have expanded these lecture notes into an extended review.

Critical Review of Group 1

Conditions of Fabric Formwork

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West relates that learning how to use fabric formwork relies on building an intuition of what the fabric can and cannot do – the flexibility of the material and how it offers form [3]. ‘Buckling is a natural phenomenon associated with compression’ [4], and West experimented with the structural possibilities of the ‘pull buckle’ and the ‘push buckle’ [5]. Reflecting on the process, West attempted to distinguish the structural from the decorative, and this is never straightforward. In concrete casting the fabric performs two structural functions – first it rigidizes in tension providing supports to the wet concrete mix as it sets, and second it gives concrete a formal structure which can potentially optimise its strength. The example Mark gives is the creation of a scissor column by shifting the angle of one side of the formwork, constructed out of a piece of fabric hung between two flat sheets of timber. This results in a hydraulic torsion along the vertical axis of the column [6].

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

West hints at a kind of unknown intelligence, or a ‘wildness’ present in material nature – ‘in a material world, it does its own thing’ [7], which could be articulated through careful design. ‘ The push and pull between looseness & restraint, thus become an intellectual problem that challenges the designer’ [8]. The balancing between exerting control and letting go of it, takes place both in the planning and at the stage of execution. Professor Remo Pedreschi says that ‘ if the process of design requires a particular level of precision and repetition, it can be controlled relying on technologies such as laser cutting, in order to set parameters for the un-controllable aspects’[9]. More so than rigid formwork, the stage of fabric formwork design and manipulation extends beyond the drawing board to the site, where pre-anticipation gives way to a more intuitive, in-situ response. Unlike rigid formwork, where the design of the form and formwork making are often separated practices, the use of fabric formwork demands a greater understanding of the casting process from the designer. In many cases the designer is also the maker, who engages directly with the fabric, the restraining devices and concrete to complete the formal design. This open-ended process offers huge potentials in generating forms with geometrical complexity in their geometry previously unpredicted.

In my view, fabric formwork forces us to conceive of concrete, its mould, and the set of techniques for using it as a system. Prior to establishing this system, the individual components such as the concrete and fabric have reached a level of sophistication in their individual domain: the late development of concrete has been a gradual refinement of the mix that ends in self-compacting concrete and spraycrete; and materials such as geotextiles, latex rubber, pvc, etc. have been widely used commercial products. However, these knowledges exist as separate entities ‘working without knowing each other’ [10]. As such the initial appropriation of materials and techniques in fabric forming can be described as the ‘abstract stage’ [11], using the theory of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, where the placing together of the separate parts is hesitant at the beginning and create the zones of imperfection that provide the conditions for innovation and technical evolution [12]. The controlling techniques are gradually refined and specialised materials are further developed to that effect. The process of individuation of both the techniques and the material weaves in many different types of knowledges, and such was demonstrated by Professor Pedreschi in one of his student’s attempt at casting a complete spiral staircase using fabric formwork. The design of the process is extremely complex, as each component of the staircase – the treads, the risers, the balustrades and structural supports requires a different fabric cutting and sewing technique, as well as a different pouring position. Nevertheless the process integrates craft skills and digital technology, and human beings remain the tool bearer.

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

A Disruptive Technology, A Subversive Practice

Fabric formwork as a technical innovation has many advantages over traditional construction methods. According to Pedreschi, these attributes include 1. a fabrication method that can exploit digital tools, and not always relying upon skilled labour such as carpentry to achieve precision and control; 2. the optimisation of formwork re-use which results in reduced material cost; 3. the flexibility of form. These qualities make fabric formwork a ‘disruptive technology’ [13] that does not always bode well in the construction market. A disruptive technology, describes Pedreschi, is often cheaper, smaller or more convenient than those established technologies that dominate the market.’ [14]

One of the main difficulties with fabric formwork, is the transfer of knowledge – what language would be most appropriate for its documentation and specification? Fabric formwork is a technique, a series of actions choreographed by intuition and craft knowledge, and as Pedreschi puts it, ‘it is a piece of sticky information that does not translate. How do you specify that to the contractor?’ Lloyd Thomas provided the example of annotated sketches in the casting of Wall One for the Chelsea Flower Show, produced by Pedreschi and Chandler with their students. Manelius rigorously categorised the experiments according to the typologies of the elements (beam / slab / wall / shell / column / arch / other) and then the different types of formwork principles including the framing (rigid back / frame) and the role of textiles (hung / embraced/ etc). Whilst the former uses a direct visual language communicable to both the architects and the makers, the latter begins to develop a system of codification. Both methods however, face difficulties in its acceptance when the technique is inserted into the rigid codes of existing building practices and conventions. Furthermore, most architectural practice and construction process cannot accommodate the open-endedness in practices such as fabric formwork, as it requires greater flexibility from the client, architect and contractor than conventional procurement routes. Experimentation and knowledge production in fabric formwork find fertile ground in an educational environment as a process lead approach to design and research, where the students become lead users and inventors of formwork practice.

Fabric formwork leaves on the concrete surface an extremely expressive language, which sometimes can become problematic in a public context. West uses the anecdote of the canopy he designed for the Women’s Hospital in Manitoba, where the form of the columns and the fabric’s ‘buckling’ effect accidentally generated an eroticism that was considered offensive and irrepressible by any subsequent remedial actions. At the end, parts of the columns had to be buried – edited out, which was in West’s opinion a more powerful political and aesthetic/poetic gesture.

Does the column have to be square?

Fabric formwork experiments are radical in ways in which they directly challenge and probe the accepted codes of practices and aesthetics. The effects of which allow fabric formwork to be deployed under specific context to push the boundaries of social etiquettes. The tensions they set up bring to light the fact that building forms and architectural language are constricted and codified by established procedures and knowledge, and raise questions that would otherwise be muted by rigid formwork.

Notes:

[1] Pedreschi, Remo. ‘Smart Processes, fabric formwork as a disruptive technology’, 2nd International Conference on Flexible Formwork, Bath, 27-29th June 2012.
[2] West, Mark. ‘How Flexible’, Ibid.
[3] – [8] Ibid.
[9] Pedreschi. Ibid.
[10] Simondon, Gilbert. ‘I: Abstract Technical Object and Concrete Technical Object,’ Chapter One, The Genesis of Technical Objects. On the [11] Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Paris 1958, trans. by Niniam Mellamphy (1980) p. 18
[11] Simondon, ‘II: Conditions of Technical Evolution’, Ibid. p.22
[12] Ibid.
[13] – [15] Pedreschi.

Nina Shen-Poblete studied at the Glasgow School of Art and furthered her architectural education at the University of Westminster, where she was awarded a first class masters degree in 2012. Her dissertation aims to establish a cultural history of concrete formwork, and parallel to becoming an architect she is also pursuing a career in researching, writing & teaching.

Snow Furniture by Ethan W. Lasser

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Spring has finally come to the upper Midwest, and with its arrival Hongtao Zhou’s installation Snow Furniture is an increasingly distant memory (fig. 1). Over three intensive days in late January, Zhou, a woodworker and sculptor based in Madison, Wisconsin, used snow, ice and sticks to create a set of chairs outside the East Galleria of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Part performance piece and part political statement, the installation was one of the more unusual and provocative works in an exhibition of “green furniture” Zhou and I curated at the MAM.

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As performance piece, Snow Furniture featured Zhou and a team of local school children (fig. 2). Bundled in down parkas to withstand twenty-degree temperature, these energetic assistants helped create the slushy material used to build the chairs. Zhou equipped them with an aluminium bucket, and sent them to fetch water from the shore of Lake Michigan, a few steps away from the museum. Snow was mixed in with this water, and then applied to an armature of sticks (fig 3). Within minutes, this mixture froze and the chairs took shape to the delight of the children and the audience of adults watching from inside the museum.

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This might seem like an innocuous playground exercise or a variation on a snow sculpture competition, but the political stakes of the installation became evident a few days later, after an unusual early-February thaw. As temperatures rocketed into the high-40s, the chairs started to melt, morph and lose their rigidity (fig 4). They took on a biomorphic, surrealist air. “Dancing furniture” is the way Zhou described the installation when he returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the warmer air. He argued that the change in the shape of chairs called attention to the entropic effects of global warming. For Zhou, the work specifically indexed one of they key manifestations of climate change: increased temperature variation and the shift from steady seasonal patterns to rapid freezes and thaws.

As the winter went on and temperatures continued to vary, the chairs continued to dance. To return to the installation each morning was to see a fresh and reinvented work. One morning in late-February after a snowfall, the chairs looked like fluffy, upholstered divans. After a cold snap in March, they were icy and skeletal (fig 5). These variations tracked something more than the effects of climate change. The constant evolution of Snow Furniture showcased the artistry and animism of nature, the obsessive inventiveness of her masterful hand. Like the artist David Nash, who builds wooden sculptures out of unseasoned wood that changes shape as the material dries and shrinks, the aesthetic power of Snow Furniture hinged on nature’s power and unpredictability, on changing temperatures, wind speeds, and uncertain patterns of rain and snow. What was truly green about the installation was the way it called attention to this power—to nature as agent and artist.

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Snow Furniture might seem like a good project for the Artic or some desolate tundra, rather than a factory town like Milwaukee. But the installation was closely connected to its site. Standing in front of the dancing chairs and looking south, one could see the crisp white atrium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and beyond it, the Milwaukee skyline (fig 6). A pair of belching smokestacks, vestiges of a once thriving industrial economy were particularly prominent. It was hard not to read the installation against these towers, and to juxtapose the pure, productive power of nature with the impure, productive power of the machine. “Nature,” Zhou explained, “was the perfect, carbon-neutral artist.”

Zhou, who is fond of such sagely pronouncements, is a fascinating character with an unusual background for an artist. Born in China, he came to the US in his mid-twenties to do a PhD in furniture engineering at Purdue. In his coursework and dissertation, he focused on the “lifecycle” of furniture. His challenge was to design a chair that would last for a definitive period. The goal was five years. Zhou mastered this challenge but wasn’t fulfilled by it. After he finished his degree, he moved from the factory to the studio to take up an MFA in woodworking under Tom Loeser at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His focus has been on sustainability and environmentally-friendly furniture.

Snow Furniture reflects Zhou’s unusual training. Like any good engineer, he harnessed a force larger than himself to craft the chairs. And like his work at Purdue, he created a set of chairs that only existed for a fixed amount of time.

But while Zhou’s earlier designs failed and then endured as a series of parts, the dancing chairs evaporated into thin air, leaving no residue.

Gone without a trace and largely crafted by the power of nature, Snow Furniture invites us to reflect on the way we value art, and the premium we place on durability, artisanal skill, and the marks of the artist’s hand. Though his installation no longer presides in front of the museum, Zhou’s other-directed, ephemeral aesthetic raises questions for every artist to think through.

Ethan W. Lasser is curator of the Chipstone Foundation

See also the website for Hong Tao.