IT WAS LONDON CRAFT WEEK THIS MONTH (8~12.May) AND IT’S ENTIRELY UNDERSTANDABLE IF YOU WEREN’T AWARE OF THAT.
That sounds unkind, and I should applaud LCW that they are doing an expert job of promoting various forms of craft. However few attending craft week will admit that ‘craft’ remains wildly uncool. I’ve been unfortunate enough to be labelled a ‘craftsmen’ in the past and I can assure you it’s not an exciting, empowering or sexy feeling…. it’s more akin to that scenario at school when you learnt that someone you secretly love thinks you’re just ‘nice’…. it’s a terrible, terrible disappointment.
Perhaps that’s because crafts are always dying and that is depressing. These dying crafts may be just unfortunate casualties of a more efficient innovation, or might just be too stubborn to move with the times. Either way people can’t help themselves from drawing a connection between the blameless craftsman and the dying task that he/she are doing and consider him/her slightly foolish or anachronistic for carrying on with it. At best the craftsman comes off considered a romantic, but will never be lauded to the same popular extent as a silicone valley tech innovator or popular artist.
And to be honest, I rather agree with this opinion : Some crafts are just anachronistic and silly and it’s this very uncoolness and unsexiness that -in a perverse way- is what’s so lovely and attractive about the whole thing. But sadly these dying crafts seldom garner enough love to save them, as many have been steamrolled out of existence since humans first picked up tools.
It’s still sad to see them go. One example that really touched me was a interview with an elderly Italian cooking pot maker. He was a real master at what he did, one man in his workshop making the most beautiful copper cooking pots. The really moving thing was at the end of the interview he confessed that his greatest wish in life wasn’t for money or health : he wished for an apprentice- simply someone who would commit to spending enough time with him so he could pass his valuable information on. Despite his efforts to employ an assistant, he remained alone and remote at his work, unwanted by even the unemployed. What makes it especially sad is that- to him- it seemed no one was interested in the work he had chosen to spend his life doing. It’s a similar tale playing across rust belts and empty high streets in various pockets all over the globe. We’ve all seen down-at-heel former industrial heartlands rusting away in a soggy depression, where now many of those once shiny industrial jobs are long forgotten like a filthy penny.
Attempts to prevent change fail. Reactionaries like the luddites in the face of mechanised industry ended in failure and a humiliating choice between financial ruin or a submission to what was then a shiny new industrial craft job. As Tim Harford puts it “"economists -ever ever-ready to adopt a bit of jargon- even speak of the ‘Luddite fallacy that has beset industrial progression". And with the relatively recent interest in ‘authenticity’ in products brought in by apparently well-meaning hipsters, has resulted in many companies massively over-emphasising the ‘craft elements’ of their product or service to the point of outright lying to their customers.
A frustrating element is that it’s never truly surprising when a particular industry has started slipping into irrelevance. A wildly obvious example are all those skilled tasks currently related to manufacture of the internal combustion engine - some are going to decline and fizzle out for good and I just hope someone is recording them.
But the good news is there are new crafts being born all the time….and this is where I get to talk about robotics =)
Factories have had humans and robots sharing work since 1961, when general motors installed the first ‘UNIMATE’ - a one armed tank-like robot used for tasks like welding. But until recently they were separated from human workers- apparently partly to stop humans coming to any harm being near a large moving robot and partly to stop humans confusing the robots.
But all those diesel engine makers are now facing a more urgent choice : adapt or die. And many are adapting already by finally shifting manufacture to parts for the electric cars industry. A temptation however may be to disregard the car engine as an example of an industry that already relies heavily upon robots and automation- not craftsmen - but the truth is this isn’t a million miles from the roots of what craftsmanship is…
A trite example is to point out that if you’ve tried to operate or write programming for multi jointed/multi axis robotic arm you'll know that it’s really not immediately easy. It requires considerable care and practice. You also may know that not all coding is the same, even if outcomes produce the same result, some coders or technicians will be far more efficient and elegant than others.
An example from my experience is from when I started prototyping and making eyewear : I used a Laser cutting workshop in London that was run by a Chinese family. One of the family (Chris) managed operation of the laser cutters as an evening job while he was studying during the day. We were cutting spruce sheet for samples of sunglasses shapes, we got talking and it became apparent that he could tell which country the spruce sheet was grown just from the sound and smell of it burning under the laser (apparently Finnish spruce was nicest - in case you were wondering). This demonstrates a high level of understanding and skill that we don’t usually associate with someone who operates a machine by pushing buttons.
If this tale sounds far-fetched there are other cases, one example from former grand master chess champion Garry Kasparov gives in his book ‘How Life Imitates Chess’- When trying out chess computer games that were being developed in the 1990’s he could successfully identify the source nation in which that particular chess playing computer algorithm was developed. He did this because he recognised the strategic style of it chess played and which countries those players were usually taught - it was a dead giveaway of what he called “national imprint”.
Despite the fact Chris was operating a robot laser arm, or that the chess game coders were creating strategies for what seemed to them the most logical moves, in both cases there is a combination of multi-sensory information with personal expression or experience written in, and its all so apparent that it can be identified using normal human senses. And that is perhaps what ultimately the essence of any ‘craft’ achieves.
Many people will be still unwilling to admit 3D modellers, laser cutting technicians or animators should be welcomed into the great guild hall of ‘craftsmen’. Perhaps this is because we only see the utility derived from these tasks, and don’t understand their operative process. But if we bother to learn we’ll find out it can be as skilled and elegant as a Savile row tailor. We need to submit to the fact that these new skills are the crafts of our age, and also acknowledge they're being born at increasingly fast rate, because craft is utterly linked with human technological progress which continues to explode exponentially in ‘Moore’s law’ like fashion. Bare in mind that Sales of industrial robots are growing at around 13% a year...(at the time of writing) Which means the robot birth rate is almost doubling almost every 5 yrs, and along with it will be the craftsmen of the future that i speak of. It’s just difficult to fully appreciate all these crafts as they wizz by and do their bit before being replaced.
But since the development big data storage and ubiquitous camera phones and other cheap recording equipment we find ourselves blessed with a method to record these dying craft industries. It maybe a burden but it’s our duty to history to record them. But when we do so, I urge you not to label these recordings as depressing or nostalgic things, but as something we simply cherish and honour - and also please let the makers know it, because those seemingly silly out of date copper pot makers need to know - and even be praised - for having contributed an essential little gear that’s maybe now coming to a rest inside the marvellous machine that is humanity.
images from the laser cutting workshop. 2014.
(Shot on Olympus Pen-EE 35mm)
Thanks for reading! And if you have any further thoughts on this and to discuss more - or wish to challenge any of my opinions - I will be delighted to discuss more!
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