For the first time Collect was staged at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery, off the King’s Road, in a beautiful open and airy space, away from the usual places where crafts are encountered, exhibited, sold and sometimes bought. This Collect was hailed as being exhibited in a place of ‘fine’ (or other) art, therefore rated equally etc. etc. etc., a marketing ploy that played on all the usual insecurities. I will leave the more journalistic evaluation and celebration to others and focus on the dynamics that involve the crafts as a practice of meaning.
In my view, we need to be aware of the significance of the craft object as a commodity and at the same time explore the it as a dialogical device of differentiation and of meaning. In accordance with other theoretical thought systems, significantly semiology, we might regard the object as a sign, a sign by which human beings, individually or in groups, communicate or attempt to communicate. This applies to a lot of cultural manifestations like clothes, advertisement, food, music etc., and of course crafts are no exception. The object functions as a sign regardless of the maker’s intention, and it does so whether it has been mass-produced, is a one-off piece or a conceptual work. The reading of the object as a sign becomes especially interesting in cases where the maker is aware of the linguistic sign function of the object and integrates this awareness into his/her own artistic practice. These makers often develop work methodologies, which on a conscious level attempt to take control over the sign function of the object and intentionally play with the possible readings of the work.
The crafts practitioners I focus on engage in the development of creative working methodologies that enable the re-construction of signs and their creative and social function. Autobiographical and historical narratives need to be integrated into a process of making and desires need to be managed. This does not lead to the representation of the surrounding world ‘as it is’; it is primarily an artificial field of signs, which can be manipulated—a cultural artefact. It leads to an approach to artistic production as a tactical game of significations.
The structures and dynamics of culture production involve the crafts in a ‘double take on a double take’. Craft’s initial resistance to mass-culture makes it all the more attractive as a commodity. A market situation is generated where crafts has to simulate itself to be economically successful. Every maker knows how hard it is to sell objects that remain outside the standard territory of commodity signification, and so to achieve artistic autonomy.
Contemporary crafts practice occupies a curious place. On the one hand, we find mass or batch production, which simulates the machine-produced, repressing one-off creation in favour of simulating variation. This side of crafts is often considered successful practice because it works economically. On the other hand, we find crafts practice, which denies machine culture and nostalgically celebrates the hand-made, despite it being often economically unviable.
Crafts like every other art form needs curators, gallerists or project developers, who are creative themselves beyond the economic viability of their businesses and who are empathetic to the artist’s project and development, who are interested in cultural dissemination, view making as a relevant reflective language, or simply are easily bored by too much sameness. Only in such working relationships can makers resist becoming the makers of their own brand and can afford to remain creatively inquisitive and evolving. The other option would be to evade the gallery system altogether and to engage with other more guerrilla tactics to get one’s work seen and appreciated.
In polite Collect, Hans Stofer’s Off my Trolley stood out with an imagined soundtrack of The Clash. His piece of resistance was ‘in your face’, using punk and scatter-art strategies, a piece of work where nothing more needed to be said – the piece was the message…
…only in the context of Collect, it was one of the pieces that offered a resolute, if deeply nostalgic, counter-position and resistance to the sameness of contemporary crafts commodity.
On the other side of the scale, Collect 2009 seemed to have lost the domestic, functional and delightfully usable, being replaced with ever more ‘modern’ table-sculpture. No question, some of these are simply impressive in application of skills, exploration of materials and scale. But objects of a more humble nature and objects that emerge from crafts practices that resist commodification seem to be difficult to bring to this audience. Given that the galleries that show at Collect are selected (apart from the fact that they need to be in a position to be able to afford participation) for the creative output of the artists they represent, the question arises if we are encountering another circle of homogenisation in the appreciation of objects – a collectively shared belief, a taste, of what constitutes ‘good’ crafts. Like all culturally established hierarchies this is difficult to resist, fundamentally non-contemporary and counter to maker’s passionate investment in artistic experimentation.
I am particularly mindful about the impact this might have in the creative practice of emerging makers who are only in the process of finding out what it is they are doing. The most frightening result I could think of would be the simulation of accepted appearance at the price of a self-reflective and critical practice, as difficult as this might be to bring to the attention of an appreciating audience.
On my way back from Collect, walking through London’s nightly streets, I saw these richly decorative historical crafts objects reflected in the window of one of London’s most cutting-edge gallery and found this image more eloquent than any of my words could possibly be…