Authenticity in new media

XVII.5 September + October 2010
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Fluidity in craft and authenticity

Sarah Kettley

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Increasingly, tangible interaction design is orienting itself toward craft as something distinct from design. There are efforts to translate, or reproduce, the materiality of spaces in other media; calls for a coherent approach to experience and evaluation; and NSF funding aimed at making the concepts and needs of HCI accessible to graphical and traditional crafts communities. In addition, researchers from Indiana University are teasing out a method for designing tangibles, starting with metaphors from nature. They speak of this as a designerly approach, emphasizing an "old" view of design—crafting artifacts through critical engagement with form and material, and foregrounding curiosity on the part of the designer [1]. Such intangible qualities as meaning, authenticity, commitment, engagement, and passion are becoming central to contemporary design, qualities that arguably not only characterize but also constitute craft, and which can be found discussed throughout craft literature.

With a background in Craft and working in HCI, interaction design, and tangibles, this presents an exciting opportunity. Craft is no longer being defined simplistically as handmade goods; nor are assumptions being made about the cultural status of the "C-word" in relation to Design or to Art (and to be fair, these can sometimes appear to be the only two issues exercising the craft community itself). Instead, people are putting out intelligent questions and propositions, and a hand is extending from HCI to Craft as a discipline with something important to contribute to emerging creative practices. Given this interest, I'd like to offer my thoughts on the subject and outline how craft itself is undergoing a significant shift from an activity defined by local praxis, to a form of knowledge and engagement with the world.

back to top  I Think I Know What Craft Is—Why Do You Have to Tell Me?

First of all, it is important to own up to what looks like a serious problem with craft: It doesn't seem able to define itself. You can pick up any piece of the literature and find a quote to this effect. It is possible to write almost any definitive statement about craft, and for the opposite position to simultaneously hold true:

"Craft can be a confusing word. When you use it there is a strong possibility that the other person is thinking about something quite different to you. One person imagines handmade one-off pieces while another thinks of stenciled furniture and stamps. And it doesn't get any easier when you get beyond the word craft to a specific discipline such as glass or textiles, as again everyone will imagine something different."
    —Grace Cochrane [2]

Like design, craft is a value-driven activity and has undergone large ideological shifts since the mid-19th century, but in contrast to design, craft has suffered from the serious lack of a coherent historiography. Since the flurry of political theorization with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, there has been very little critical discussion in the field. Craft quickly became a byword for the positive values seen to be challenged by industrialization, and as a bastion of the unspoken tacit knowledge being championed by Continental philosophy and pedagogy. As late as 1997, craft's "secret knowledge" was still being jealously guarded from rational analysis and critical discourse, and it wasn't until 2004 that a series of international conferences brought together makers and thinkers to seriously question craft myths [3].

The result of this situation has been an oversimplification of the domain's shift from pre-modernism to modernism, placing the traditional in opposition to the new. The consequent need to retell and constantly qualify this history detracts from the important threads that continue to characterize craft, and from the crucial part it may play in its contemporary fluid form.

back to top  Something Old...

In the traditional view of craft, the object is predominantly handmade, and those technologies in use have been an integral part of specific techniques for hundreds of years—witness the jeweler's saw frame and workbench, found in illustrations of 16th-century workshops and earlier. A romanticized vernacular vision, this version of craft is often portrayed as somehow closer to or representative of some utopian ideal. Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris and their followers explicitly combined lifestyle with aesthetic choices that championed the medieval as an ideal. The Arts and Crafts Movement had an unprecedented global impact in its own time, but it has also handed down a legacy that has proven difficult to escape. The complexity of the movement's history and personalities is often lost in a kind of shorthand for its most renowned tenets [4]: Craft sits in opposition to industrialization; craft centers on the experience of handmaking; all beauty derives from nature; and the worker must be free for the work to be good.

Authenticity had a distinctly socialist political flavor as well as an ideological approach to form. The roots of Arts and Crafts lay in a concern for a respectful relationship between design, society, and nature, which appeared to be in danger as the Industrial Revolution progressed. Manufacturing conditions, formal attributes, and the way designs could inform engaged ownership were all important in the creation of goodness and beauty, which were in fact synonymous to the movement's leaders [4]. Integrity, holism, and authenticity were expressed in a number of ways through form: Materials were respected for their own characteristics, to be understood through hands-on engagement; the function of things was not to be disguised; and any ornament should arise from structural elements rather than through arbitrary application. Beauty could be present only in an object made by a contented worker, or could emerge from use over time. In this way, we might say communities of practice and social conditions were important to Arts and Crafts not only in the manufacture of goods, but also in the manner of their consumption.

However, there have been problems with the "revolution in manufacture" proposed by Arts and Crafts. Despite its best intentions, it has been criticized for fetishizing unthinking labor, and over time its signifier, the mark of the maker, has been seriously challenged by the ability of the machine to mimic craft's randomness. What was once a reliable expression of a particular culturally charged process is no longer connected with it in any way.

back to top  Something New...

The beliefs of the Arts and Crafts movement continued to play out through other movements such as the Jugendstil and the Bauhaus, as the economic and political forces of the 20th century began contributing to the industrialized manufacturing landscape. That is, until New Craft, as distinct from the traditional model, emerged as a paradigmatic shift in Western culture in the 1960s. "Studio craft" assiduously maintained that craft was "an artistic practice equal to all others" [5], and argued for "parity between pots and paintings" [6]. This status was, and continues to be, engineered through a number of key strategies, including framing mechanisms such as critical discourse and display cultures, a rejection of functionality and the domestic, or a rejection of material itself. Expressions of individuality took the place of craft's traditional user-centeredness and work was produced in studios by individuals, who made the explicit decision to be in control of both the conception and realization of their work (thereby implying new modernist models of authority and ownership). This individualism was also extended to the experience and consumption of craft objects, as they became exhibited in rarefied gallery environments, surrounded by white space, and bought as the ultimate statement of individual connoisseurship and identity. Craft emulated fine art's claims to authenticity through its use of these strategies and valorized the ideals of the Enlightenment: the purity of the conceptual untainted by worldly bodies or material, and the artlessness of spontaneous expression [7].

It has taken some time for craft to reflect more deeply upon its own rather messier and contingent forms of authenticity. Rather than merely defining itself in relation to art, contemporary writing in the field is attempting to learn from both the traditional and the modernist views, and reflects in many ways shifts in how philosophy itself is developing a new and fluid form of authenticity.

back to top  Fluidity

The problem now is that neither of these dominant oppositional accounts of craft is able to tell the full story anymore. The more we attempt to define craft through these polarized frames, the more it slips away from us. To help, we can think of craft as something that is fluid: as a process, as an object, and as a cultural frame.

Craft has never been simply functional, even at its most traditional, nor will it ever be entirely autonomous, even at its most modern. While it is an object-focused discipline, the craft object is never an end in itself—craft objects are also means to ends. And even at their most rarefied, they retain vestiges of functionality, domesticity, and flow. They remain craft as long as there is that embodiment of humanity resulting from process, or evident in references to potential or historical functionality. Similarly, the functional craft object is never entirely transparent, nor does it intend to be. It is always available for contemplation. The crafted bowl is as available to the mantelpiece as to the kitchen cupboard, as appropriate in the gallery as in the ethnographic museum. In use it passes through moments of presence and disappearance, and also, importantly, has the ability to create an experiential space that blends these in a special kind of awareness. To take an example, Chris Knight's silver shot glasses fulfill the functional requirements for drinking tequila—their scale and form is right according to our experience—but the act of holding these spiky tumblers draws immediate attention to the danger inherent in the activity for which they are designed.

Craft objects have always had the capacity to segue between transparency and reflection, that most pressing issue for tangible interaction design. They have always occupied, even constituted, a unique place between art and life, available for the aesthetic experience, yet part of the ongoing flow of pragmatic action. They are rhythmical in their cultural configuration as well as in their internal formal organization. They retain elements of the traditional model and of the modern, combining tacit and narrative experience in a smeared simultaneity. Contemporary craft as it is engaged with the world around it, social, formal and political, is thus dynamically configured as its traditional romantic self, in its modern guise as art, and as experimental intervention, in a situation where none of these takes precedence.

This model of craft is exciting because it echoes so clearly the terminology and characteristics of authenticity and authentic experience. Philosophy is arguing the case for hybridity in authenticity, just as we are encountering it in the cultural sphere, and it is in the process of constructing new understandings of the relationships between the sublime and the mundane [10]. Both craft and philosophy can be seen to find authenticity in a dismantling of old dichotomies—useful/aesthetic, reflective/transparent, flow/event [11]. Craft objects provide contexts for moving in and out of experience and for a heightened awareness of somatic experience, and their contemporary fluidity encourages openness to experience and engenders processes of meaning-making rather than presenting predetermined significations.

back to top  Crafting Tangible Interfaces

This contemporary form of craft offers a promising model for the development of tangible computational products that seek to be metaphorically meaningful as well as useful, and as one of the earliest interactive art forms, offers us a unique opportunity to shape our new technologies. It allows us to rethink the nature of material itself and to explore the values we wish to embed in our emerging communities of practice.

back to top  References

1. TEI Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interfaces. Media Lab, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 2010.

2. Cochrane, G. "What is Craft?" craftscotland.

3. Craft in the Twenty-First Century (2003), Edinburgh, UK; Challenging Craft (2004), Aberdeen, UK; New Craft. Future Voices (2007), Dundee, UK; NeoCraft: Modernity and the Crafts (2008), Canada; Crafticulation (2008); Helsinki, Finland.

4. Rosalind Blakesley provides an excellent overview: Blakesley, R. The Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Phaidon Press, 2006.

5. Mazanti, L. "Super Objects." Ph.D thesis, Denmark's Design School/the National Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Copenhagen, 2006.

6. Metcalf, B. "Contemporary Craft: A brief overview." In Exploring Contemporary Craft: History, Theory and Critical Writing, ed. J. Johnson, 13-23. Ontario: Coach House Press, 2002.

7. A clear example would be the Shaker style furniture of the American Arts and Crafts movement, which removed ornament and promoted an austere form of honest existence.

8. For example, in the action art approach taken by influential ceramicist Peter Voulkos.

9. Ionascu, A. "The Anatomy and Aesthetics of Use." In Future Voices: Celebrating Diversity. Exhibition Proceedings New Craft—Future Voices, eds. G. Folett, S. Moir and L. Valentine. Duncan of Jordnstone College of Art and Design. July 2007.

10. Guignon, C. On Being Authentic. London: Routledge, 2004.

11. Kettley, S. "Crafts Praxis as a Design Resource." In Crossing Design Boundaries, eds. P. Rodgers, L. Brodhurst, and D. Hepburn, London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

back to top  Author

Sarah Kettley is a maker and writer. She trained as a jeweler at Glasgow School of Art before becoming interested in wearable computing. She completed a Ph.D. in craft as a design methodology for wearables at Edinburgh Napier University's Center for Interaction Design in 2007 and is now a senior lecturer in the product-design subject area at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). Between May and July 2010, Kettley's digital jewelry was on display at the Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland, and Aeolia; a collaborative stretch sensing textiles project was exhibited at Create 2010, Edinburgh and at the Festival of Craft, Dundee. These projects have been generously supported by the Scottish Arts Council, the Arts & Humanities Research Council UK, The Drapers' Company, residencies at Edinburgh College of Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, an Alt-w award administered by New Media Scotland, and a research sabbatical at NTU. For more information please visit

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Aeolia: Stretch sensor garment, 2009. Sarah Kettley (project lead), embroidery by Tina Downes, and garment fitting by Karen Harrigan.

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