Craft and utopianism

“Many things would be easier if we could eat grass”, remarks Ernst Bloch rather unexpectedly in his monumental work The Principle of Hope. Indeed, this sounds very timely in the face of the hardships of current ‘economic slowdown’ and it doesn’t take too much to imagine that many would heartily agree. As poignant as Bloch’s momentary groan might sound though, it is as far from the central message of this magnum opus of utopian scholarship as it possibly can be.

The Principle of Hope is all but an account of the easy ways to get by. Quite on the contrary, it draws us into the labyrinth of imaginative curiosity, anticipation and the aspiration to cross over the limits of the up to now experience and explore what lies beyond. Utopia, in Bloch’s terms though, is not a country that no one has ever been to. Rather, it is the hopeful, if often intricate, journey from our deepest (day-) dreams toward their possible realization.

Is it possible then, that utopian thinking and craftwork might actually have a lot in common? Do craft and utopianism, perhaps, share the curiosity and also the courage to ‘begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing’ as Ruskin writes in Stones of Venice. Or could their willingness to take the risk of thinking and working at the limit of one’s own competencies be a connecting point too? The history of social and political debates in which craft played a catalyst role for re-imagining the status quo suggests that craft and utopian quest for a better future have often walked hand in hand.

Let’s think of the significance of craft in the history of intentional communities – Quakers, Shakers or Amish people – to name several obvious examples. Remember craft’s crucial role in utopian socialism and in the reform started by Ruskin, Morris and continued by the Arts and Crafts Movement later on. Moving on to the twentieth century, start with the emphasis put on craft in guild socialism, craft’s importance for the Indian Independence Movement and its role in the late twentieth century DIY culture. The most recent examples would surely include the craftivism movement, that has, quite fittingly in this context, been given a whole recent issue of Utopian Studies – the journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, and perhaps even steampunk phenomenon – the theme of the current JMC issue.

Surely, another analogy between craft and utopianism could be exemplified on the never ending tension between the ‘make do’ and ‘make better’ -the dilemma between the instantly practicable solutions versus the desire for the ideal, that has long been haunting not only social reformers and activists but generations of craft theorists and practitioners alike.

In short, neither utopian thinking nor craft necessarily offer the easy way scenarios. But, shall we agree that the common strength of both might lie in a determination that is well illustrated in the following extract of one of the stories from the 2008 anthology of steampunk literature (Brown, Molly: The Selene Gardening Society, in: Vandermeer, Jeff and Ann eds.: Steampunk, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008, cited in: Steampunk Magazine n7, 2011, p. 3)?

“Calm down, Maston,” said Mr. Barbicane. “I merely said it was impossible. I never said we wouldn’t find a way to do it.”

Traces of Steampunk in Melbourne

A substantial entry in Wikipedia, as well as an illustrated article in the May edition of Metalsmith (Society of North American Metalsmiths quarterly publication) reflects a Steampunk aesthetic that pervades all areas of the visual arts. A Wikipedia definition suggests Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy and anachronistic technology. Imagine Leonardo DaVinci meets Mad Max in the Thunderdome and their resulting artefacts. Video games, fashion and film such as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie have Steampunkinspired costumes and themes.

A History Apparatus - Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993)

A History Apparatus - Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993)

As someone who lives in Melbourne with an interest in sculpture, I’ve been quite curious about a work of public art in Russell Street. The sculpture A History Apparatus – Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993) was a collaborative effort of the artist, the Australian Metal Workers Union and Aerospace Technology of Australia. It’s an enduring local example of the Steampunk genre. The Australian Victorian Heritage Register contains history of the interesting choice of site. The Chris Reynolds sculpture is placed on top of a 1930’s public toilet, the first in Melbourne to reflect gender equality. Because of changing sensitivities on access to public toilets, the toilet was decommissioned and capped in January 1994.

There is a hint of Steampunk, perhaps cyberpunk, on a smaller scale in the work of Melbourne jewellery artist Dougal Haslem. Dougal creates jewellery and small objects that are full of whimsy, including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes with intricate moving mechanical parts. There are parts that are recognisable in his work and others that allude to something unworldly. They express an intriguing combination of imagination and mystery.

Dougal Haslem Pants and Drongo (2009) Sterling silver, Copper, Collection object. 75 x 70 x 30mm

Dougal Haslem Pants and Drongo (2009) Sterling silver, Copper, Collection object. 75 x 70 x 30mm

Metalsmiths, watchmakers and engineers too might have strong associations with Steampunk as common components appear to be analog watch or clock parts. The artists in this genre have freedom of expression in abundance, the only thing stopping them is the limit of their imagination.

As technology develops so fast and makes so many useful bits and pieces obsolete, it is sometimes hard to part with interesting facets of a possession, like watches, old computers or broken toys. In the workshop, or on the workbench, parts are saved to be used in another situation, perhaps reconstructed into a piece of art.

Personally, Steampunk connects me to memories of a childhood of racing cars. My father made me a billy-cart with a go-cart motor; mounted on the chassis were bells, levers and mechanical ornaments which made it quite an eccentric vehicle. Playing with Universal joints and gears developed my interest in engineering, metalsmithing and being creative. Each time we choose to recycle rather than discard, we are unleashing some potential Steampunk.

Steampunk – from ‘Satanic mills’ to 21st century DIY

Theme for 4.2

‘Steampunk’ reflects a retro-Victorian machine aesthetic. Currently in vogue, the contemporary phenomenon of ‘steampunk’ raises some curious questions.

This ‘back to the future’ nostalgia seems to contradict the modernist aesthetic normally projected onto technology. It also evokes the industrial revolution against which the Arts and Crafts movement reacted. But is it possible that the ‘mechanical age’ of the nineteenth-century have a craft value, at least from the perspective of the 21st century?

Furthermore, Is it the destiny of all technologies to become a potential inspiration for craft, once they are no longer useful? Guest bloggers are Mila Burcikova and Linda Hughes.

Flickr image from Urban Don, with Creative Commons license
‘Satanic mills’ reference is from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem .