Embedded Resistance

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

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…

hans-stofer-1-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-1-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-5-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-5-gallery-so-collect-09


hans-stofer-2-gallery-so-collect-09

hans-stofer-2-gallery-so-collect-09

…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.

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

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…

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night

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About Jivan Astfalck

I was born and grew up in Berlin, quite some time ago… luckily in the western part of that divided city. After finishing school, much to the despair of my parents, I was not interested in anything. Fate rescued me with an apprenticeship to become a goldsmith. Many, many years of hard work later, having moved to the UK, I did my MA in the History and Theory of Modern Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design and practice-based PhD in Fine Art at The University of the Arts London. I combine my studio practice, which I exhibit internationally, with teaching as the MA Course Director at the School of Jewellery and Senior Research Fellow at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, both Birmingham City University. This year I have been awarded a professorship by Birmingham City University; my chair is for Jewellery Art and Design. I am interested in using contemporary hermeneutic philosophy, literary theory and other appropriate thought models as tools to investigate narrative structures embedded in body related crafts object. In my view, the convergence of crafts, design and fine art practices is conductive to extending the theoretical vocabulary and map out new territories where crafts practices contribute to cultural production and dissemination.

3 thoughts on “Embedded Resistance

  1. Jivan, I get the sense that you are arguing for an alliance between crafts of nostalgia and experimentalism. Do you see that both acknowledge the cultural context for craft as a symbolic expression? And both are in opposition to a commodified image of craft that denies its means of production and oppositional meaning?

    If so, then there will eventually seem an opposition between the backward-looking nature of nostalgic craft and the aspiration to avant-garde that informs experimental practice. How do we resolve this?

  2. We don’t! We stay in the tension and play creatively with these niggling inconsistencies…

    Michel Serres argues that there should be no separate cultural formations between science and poetry, forward looking innovation and backward looking reflection, since myth is the origin of scientific advances. His writings negotiate the recognition that our complex culture demands new approaches, which not only bridge separate fields of study, but also bridge the semantic gaps and holes obvious within their own separate discourses.

    He writes ‘the baker involutes time, circumstance and fluctuations in the circumvolutions of the dough. She stretches the dough and folds it back, either cuts it or doesn’t cut it to fold it back, but she does not write. History writes on the tablet; the historian thinks it blank because he sees it is grey – he knows nothing of the time of the dough and the fantastic, secret spells scrawled on it. His own very simple tracks, the little circling flights of human letters, point out the brief laws and the clear sequences of analysis and synthesis. Yes, one can say that, one could also say other things, and still other things. Nets with large loops can also catch fish. No writing will ever catch up the present, patent and latent, complexities, black and white like Vesta’s jars’.

    Emotional identification and intuitive making processes are to some extent indifferent to the barrier between reality and make-belief, analysis and synthesis. If we want to speak about the work as an aesthetic object, we have to shift to the level of knowledge that concerns contingent truths. Michel Serres’s reminds us that the value of active imagination lies in its broadening of our understanding beyond what we encounter in our own lives and studios.

  3. Interesting questions. Some of the qualities of craft you mention – as a commodity, as commercial activity – use, nostalgia, the hand made vs. the production made, also make it very interesting as a sphere for artistic practice, of course. I’m just reading an announcement for a symposium on architecture at Harvard’s GSD this week that somehow brings up some of the same questions for me – maybe I’m making a big leap here, but there’s something about nature and our relationship to it in practice that is worth thinking hard about.

    http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/events/pdf/return_of_nature_description.pdf

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