Image by Ottica. Original photograph by Matt Ward.

Laura Potter

By Hand & Brain

Figure 1. You are not special (c) Laura Potter.

We have always been able to make wonderful things. Anyone can pick up a ball of wool and two needles and learn to knit. I don’t think we are in an especially remarkable situation today in terms of our access to ‘making’, it is just that the machinery has changed. It is true that technological progress has spawned novel spaces or avenues of production, but in reality it is the ability to share that has changed everything. The capacity to do something, and then parade it in front of large numbers of people, fosters the illusion that anyone can go beyond making as a localised activity and become manufacturers on a wider scale. Of course, some people can do this. However, just because you can produce something, which lots of people can view and ‘like’, doesn’t make you a manufacturer. It doesn’t mean you have a product or a desirable commodity; a new valuable thing that the rest of the world needs or wants.

Figure 2. Wax on / Wax off (c) Laura Potter.

More people can now turn out images, films, music and books than ever before, but in this sense ‘content generators’ is a better descriptor than ‘makers’. The word ‘maker’ is being used across all platforms and in all media as a blanket term for those who generate stuff regardless of skill, quality, scale or attention to detail. I would like to suggest that the word ‘making’ has connotations of humanity, care and consideration. It is a body-temperature word; it has a pulse. A great deal of contemporary cultural production and much that is delivered by the power of new technology, is detached and unsatisfying. It is not imbued with the warmth and compassion (perhaps through the perception of labour) that the word ‘making’ naturally implies.

Figure 3. Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in auto-hyphenated scrimshaw (c) Laura Potter.

For some people, making is not about romantic self- expression, nor is it really about creativity or innovation. It is a way to survive. Not a choice, a pastime, or a middle class political statement against corporations and global homogeneity: it is simply the means by which they provide for themselves and their families. There is a huge difference between making things to sell or swap out of a sense of public connectedness or for self-fulfilment, and producing things to make a living. It is hard work. The idea that there is redemptive, meditative or therapeutic power in making (or craftsmanship) is a luxurious notion that only we in the developed world could be discussing.

Figure 4. Hand fabricated wax slowtotypes (c) Laura Potter.

The proliferation of computer aided production technologies means that, perhaps, more people have access to making on a larger scale than in previous generations. Individuals can produce multiples of things more efficiently, and these things can be shared more readily with others. However, as more and more people gain access to the means of producing, marketing and selling their ‘goods’, socio-economic complexity is reduced to a single interface: all ‘things’ being consumed via a browser. Similar objects can be priced very differently, depending on how they are created, whether they are intended to enhance a discourse, or generate a profit, or simply produced to occupy spare (alternatively financed) time. Consumers need to understand an object’s context of production, its embedded skills and knowledge and the quality of its materials — its complexity — so that they can develop an understanding of how and why similar things may be differently valued. The digital playing field can make life appear more level than it really is, and I am not convinced that this contextual flattening at a reductive visual junction (screen) is entirely positive for those trying to earn a living through their making.

Figure 5. The wonderful world of knitting (c) Laura Potter.

I don’t think everyone should feel a moral obligation to knit their own jumpers, but everyone should at least try knitting once in their life as a way to understand the vocabulary of ‘knitted’ goods. I don’t think we should all be manufacturers, even if the technology exists for us to try, but in the same way that we are encouraged to know where food comes from, we should also understand where materials come from and how they transformed into stuff. When you encounter a jumper that is hand-knitted from 100% Alpaca, I think you should be capable of conjuring a mental picture of a Bolivian goat and be able to gauge the needle size. If we were all making-literate, we might understand how to value the time and knowledge embedded in the things we consume.

Figure 6. Novelty parodies of pre-existing artefacts (c) Laura Potter.

As someone who trained and currently still operates as a ‘craftsperson’, debates around manufacturing processes and technological de-skilling became very boring, very quickly. I studied at a well-known Art and Design institution, where the first students to have access to rapid prototyping facilities were within the School of Applied Arts and not on a course allied with architecture, design or engineering. The first time I used a computer to help me produce an object was in 1996, when I wanted to carve something in wax more precisely than my hand-skills would allow. This remains an important point for me in the debate surrounding making things by hand or with digital tools: in many cases digital making processes are used simply to perform tasks that lie outside the skill of the particular producer, and naturally this means that some ‘traditional’ skills die out. This is no different from any other period in history where a new tool has helped us make things faster, more precisely or efficiently. Eventually however, once we evolve beyond novelty parodies of pre- existing artefacts or high-speed mimicry of established techniques, new technologies will open up brand new ways for us to be skilful.

Figure 7. A chess piece and other printed casualties (c) Laura Potter.

Having to learn how to make something ‘the long way’ helps you to understand how to manipulate materials at a fundamental level. It means that you can become fluent. The ability to articulate your thoughts through and with matter, rather than just make it into a shape you have thought of, means that you are more likely to find innovative or creative ways to exploit both materials and machinery. This is true whether you are talking about traditional craft techniques or more contemporary (digital) ways of making: I don’t think you can avoid the notion that time and effort are the only way to get good at something. Using digital technology as a way to shortcut the temporal aspects of craftsmanship is effectively relegating these sources of immense creative potential to the category of ‘labour saving devices’. I am really looking forward to a time where we can fully appreciate the potential for modern digital craftsmanship, by which I mean the skilful manipulation of digital systems as ‘matter’, rather than as express facilitators of shiny objectness.

Figure 8. Pewter casting in the kitchen with accidental family portrait (c) Laura Potter.

A significant amount of time and money are spent exploring ways to increase our emotional ‘attachment’ to products, yet we become attached to what objects signify, or to whom they refer, not directly or materially to what they are. I’m not convinced there is any point trying to actively design attachment into things, because the conditions under which objects become personally significant are highly subjective: either contextually dependent or serendipitously evolved. The one sure-fire way to make an individual more emotionally attached to a thing is if they know the person who made it, or had a hand in its making, and if the trace of a hand remains palpable. Perhaps this is why there has been an increasing trend towards offering ‘audience participation’ in the production of consumer goods. This is achieved, for example, by offering superficial customisation options, being able to pick and choose components, or through an object that is completed by its eventual owner. On one hand, it is interesting to tap into the idea that the buyer has contributed towards the making of a thing. “I made this for you”, tends to bring about an instant and enduring affection for a thing. “I selected these particular options for you” might not necessarily engender the same degree of affection.

Figure 9. NEVER USE MACHINES WHEN ALONE (c) Laura Potter.

The role of attachment has an important part to play in the contemporary idea that we can all be ‘makers’. Perhaps if we look to produce more things ourselves, in groups or collectives rather than through vast corporate systems, we would enable more personal (emotional) connections between consumers, things, and the makers of things. We might be able to take back some of the control over what we consume, making choices that are socially and contextually relevant to a smaller, more focused group of individuals (a community). By making fewer things, for fewer people, we could make robust things that fulfil our needs, thus reducing the production of superfluous goods: the high-end luxuries and the low-end tat. Unfortunately this all sounds a bit like the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s, which was essentially a socialist movement based around a romantic idea of society and craftsmanship in the Middle Ages. Thankfully, unlike William Morris et al, we are not interested in truth, beauty or the aesthetic of handicraft. We are seeking ways to reconnect with, or become more attached to, our environment by examining our own potential to construct it with, and not against, the machines.

By Laura Potter.

This is part of By Hand & Brain, an essay by 7 people.
Next: Warren Ellis
Image by Ottica. Original photograph by Ellen J Rogers.