Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing

FACT, Liverpool, 4 June – 31 August 2015. Travelling to Norwich Castle, Museum and Art Gallery, 3 October 2015 – 3 January 2016.

Reviewed by Heather Garner

Heather Garner holds a BA in Fine Art at Liverpool Hope University. She is currently Assistant Editor at The Double Negative magazine and a freelance writer with a particular interest in contemporary drawing practice and the historic interface between art, craft and science.

There are a lot of things in life that seem to effortlessly work together like the cogs of a well-oiled machine: Lennon and McCartney, for instance, or Jelly and Ice Cream. However, in the twenty-first century, craft and technology have never really found that same harmonious coexistence and, instead, seem to provoke an “either/or” response amongst the general populace.

Figure 1. DoES Liverpool, Desktop Prosthetics, 2015. Image by Frankie Flood

The current exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT – Build Your Own: Tool for Sharing – reconsiders our understanding of traditional craft techniques in an attempt to redress this contentious rift. Here, four newly commissioned artworks place craft back at the heart of our communities by encouraging others to share tools and skills, albeit through slightly unconventional means, and in doing so raises the question of whether craft and technology can ever truly converge.

Figure 2. Rachel Rayns with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Neurotic Machines, 2015.Image by Brian Slater.

The investigation into craft immediately begins upon entering the foyer of the gallery with Rachael Rayns’ Neurotic Machines (2015). Created in collaboration with Raspberry Pi (a charity that seeks to affordably share computer programming skills), we are presented with a robotic gardening system that remotely controls the temperature, humidity, feeding and light levels of plants that are sparsely displayed in the gallery space. Here, the hands-on craft of gardening is reduced to the mere pressing of buttons and sliding of colourfully (and humorously) labelled switches on a nearby control panel – temperature, for example, can be adjusted from the less than technical “hotter than the sun” to “oven chips” right down to “ice ice baby.” Such technical trickery leaves the green fingered among us thoroughly clean-handed.

Yet, if craft is to be understood as being a skilled process of making, in this piece, one can be forgiven for wondering: where lies the craft? Perhaps Neurotic Machines is Rayns’ attempt to shift the context of craft away from the physical act of gardening and instead move us towards the act of making tools and machinery that are capable of doing the dirty work for us.

Figure 3. Linda Brothwell, Acts of Care: The Lost Letters of Liverpool, 2015.Image by Brian Slater.

This focus upon tool making is echoed in artist Linda Brothwell’s series of ongoing artworks, Acts of Care, in which she learns and utilises traditional craft skills in order to repair public sites such as those in her 2015 piece, The Lost Letters of Liverpool. In this work, the missing letters of building signs across Liverpool are lovingly and thoughtfully replaced using Polish Wycinaki (paper-cut) designs using the English tradition of hand pressed brass scroll work. Photographs of these recreations are delicately pinned to the gallery walls with physical examples of the designs displayed opposite, a display that manages to demonstrate the functionality and beauty that can occur in the blending of two cultural craft traditions.

Figure 4. Will Shannon and Assemble, Homework, 2015. Image by Brian Slater.

Chiming from this restorative ethos, artist Will Shannon and Turner Prize-nominated collective Assemble have collaborated to transform an otherwise empty house into a series of workshop spaces with a concrete casting factory in the backyard, in order to create mantlepieces for terrace houses in Toxteth, Liverpool. With the ethos of sharing in mind, the collective hired apprentices ensuring that the skills they developed were passed on beyond the duration of the exhibition: an idea that has its roots firmly in the Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris’s creative workshops. In an almost shrine-like manner, the tools of industry that the collective have used – brooms, shovels, cement covered buckets and pliers – are composed and lit in the gallery space as if artefacts of a by-gone era; the display seems to elevate these humble instruments to items of totemic significance.

So far in the exhibition, the idea that tools are central to the purpose of craft has prevailed, yet the hand itself is perhaps the key component in the creation process. For this reason, entrepreneurial creative community, DoES Liverpool – consisting of Ross Dalziel, Patrick Fenner and Adrian McEwen – has ventured to use 3D printers for the efficient and potentially life changing creation of “Raptor Hand” designs (see Figure 1), to be used by those whose limb deficiencies have left them unable to perform routine tasks. Each component is imagined and carefully designed using a specialist computer programme – a feat of technical ability in itself – then once printed each component is assembled following a step by step process in a production line fashion thereby making it possible for others to use these hands functionally. Perhaps in the future these prosthetic hands will be sophisticated enough to execute those traditional craft skills with which we are so familiar.

So, in answer to the question – can craft and technology truly converge? – this exhibition responds with a resounding yes. After developing centuries of craft techniques from carpentry, stitching and pottery, it is always going to be difficult to re-evaluate our understanding of craft within the context of new technology. However, the aforementioned artworks are shining examples of some of the varying ways this convergence of technology and craft can occur and, in doing so, offers a tantalising glimpse of how craft can once again become central to our everyday lives.

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