Rethinking "craft" in the age of digital reproduction

There are few darkrooms, and drawing by hand is increasingly rare. So do we still practice "craft" in this digital era?

Do we still need technical skill when we have Instagram filters?

How does the idea of "craft" change in an era of automation and technology? (Adam Killick)

For most of us, the word "craft" probably conjures up an image of a lone person working with manual tools. Maybe they're planing a piece of furniture. Or swishing trays of developer in a darkroom as an image emerges.

In this age of technology and machine automation, those images seem quaint; digital cameras have long ago shuttered most darkrooms. And furniture is often designed on a computer and cut by a machine.

So what does this say about craft? What does craft look like in 2019? Is there any skill left in an era where a tap on your screen makes your photograph look professional?

The answer, according to Brandon Clifford, is a definite 'yes.' It just means that we may have to rethink the idea of craft.

Clifford teaches architecture at MIT, and he's also the principal at the Matter Design studio. He says that craft is about how you approach the process of creating rather than the product.

Brandon Clifford (MIT)

"Really, it's agnostic to things that are made by hand or made by machines," he told Spark host Nora Young.

"I think it's pretty easy to think that you don't need skill to use a camera today or to draw on the computer," he said. But it's not that simple. "I think really the better way of thinking about this is that the barrier to entry is much, much shallower. And that means that we have many more people entering the field faster, and that could mean a number of positive things. But I can't imagine it being a negative thing, because that larger body will propel those with higher skill to challenge themselves further."

So, in photography, for example, someone who otherwise couldn't afford a lot of expensive camera equipment can now demonstrate that they have an eye for photography with their mobile phone.

"If you don't have the funds to purchase a six-thousand-dollar camera that doesn't mean that you aren't necessarily going to be a talented photographer in the long run," he said.

Just as it's challenging to draw a perfect circle by hand, it's also easy to create a poorly rendered circle on a computer, he said.

"I have not enjoyed the debate about whether we should be drawing by hand or drawing digitally because it poses it as a black or white issue—and I think that both of these methods have their own values and their own deficits."

Indeed, digital technologies have created opportunities for craft that haven't existed for hundreds of years, he said.

In Gothic architecture, there was someone called a Master Maker who oversaw the entire project, involved in the drawing, construction and realization of all the details in the building, Clifford explained.

"So the way that the building was conceived and drawn through had an immediate reciprocity with how that building was being made," he said.

That all changed with the process of industrialization, where architects made drawings that merely represented what they wanted to build. And then a contractor would take over, adapting the plans to the mass-produced materials that were available.

Now, with digital technology, an architect can send designs straight to a printer, and have them cut exactly as they were drawn, often using novel materials, he said.

"So the onus is back on us to be proper and to hone our craft about how we create our geometries, because there's no middleman. There's no way to tell a computer that, 'I'm sorry I drew a star, but I want a circle'."

"I think that we're actually returning to the foundations of architecture, which is where we're generating architectures that have a holistic understanding of how they're made, how they're produced and where the materials are coming from—and it's starting to open so many questions about what is the role of the architect today."

Technology has meant that there can now be "mass customization," meaning that the designs and spaces can easily be tailored to individual projects.

"In that industrial paradigm, where you're producing drawings, it would just be incredibly difficult to make a drawing that was unique for every single brick; the construction documents that would be larger than the building itself!"

The onus is back on us to be proper and to hone our craft about how we create our geometries, because there's no middleman. There's no way to tell a computer that, 'I'm sorry I drew a star, but I want a circle'.- Brandon Clifford

Despite all his optimism, Clifford warns against conflating "hand-made" with "craft."

"That could be, for instance, a ceramic vessel that was made by a machine and then pulled out of the mold. And someone might damage or deform that vessel to signal that it has been handmade; that somehow handmade things are sloppy and unique and one of the kind, but in fact that uniqueness comes about because of a lack of craft."


Craftivism: Craft as activism


In the U.K., Sarah Corbett has turned her craft into a form of political activism. She runs the Craftivist Collective, which helps people turn their craft skills into a form of "gentle protest." She's also the author of the book, How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest.

She started to see the potential for craftivism in her own activism while travelling on a train. "I was travelling around the country training people in how to be effective activists and I was completely exhausted. So I picked up a cross-stitch kit because I knew I couldn't paint on the train," she said.

Sarah Corbett (Jonathan Cherry)

"And I immediately noticed that separating the threads forced me to slow down, just threading my needle forced me to calm down. It made me very mindful of how shaky my hands were, how shallow my breath was, how exhausted I was as an activist in my personal life and professional life."

She sees a reciprocal relationship between craft and activism. "I think craft is a really good metaphor for activism in general, if you know what values do you thread through your activism. There are lots of great puns, you know 'stitch by stitch' and 'step by step'. And I think we need to see activism as a craft."

Use it as a way to think more critically while you're making, rather than make a hundred hats whilst you're watching TV- Sarah Corbett

"And for me the gentleness is the power—and not as something that's passive or weak but gentle as in loving and compassionate and carefully strategically done. It's still protest but it's lovingly done."

She says the deliberation that craft requires encourages her to be more mindful of the reasons she's doing it. "Use it as a way to think more critically while you're making, rather than make a hundred hats whilst you're watching TV."

It's also a very good way for people who are naturally introverted to be activists without having to go out and wave a placard. Corbett speaks about this in a TEDx talk called "Activism needs introverts."

"It's not easy. It does need craftsmanship and skill. And when something's hard, even threading your needle, you can see the pride on their faces. 'I did this, I thought I couldn't, but I challenged myself to be patient and I did it'."