The more I think about being Slow, the more helpfully insidious an idea it becomes. It’s Insidious because it keeps suggesting innocent looking questions that turn out to have no easy answers. The beauty of thinking about Slow in relation to Craft is that it is asking me to look at every aspect of what I do, and why I do it, but in a very practical way. To look at making, and showing, and how and why the work is seen and used, and understood. So here are some thoughts and questions….
I have been distracted from this blog by making the work that is now on show at CAA until after Christmas. This project involved no fewer than four trips up the motorway from (fairly) rural Gloucestershire to the Big City. Carving, which is such a patient and low-tech activity, still needs marketing and motoring, and ‘sculpture-miles’ are no less real than ‘food-miles’. We are makers who show and sell internationally, which is just as well for our finances, as if we had to rely on local sales we would never have survived. Occasionally (as this month, when we finally get eight commissioned pieces shipped off to the States), we put large and heavy pieces of wood onto aeroplanes and fly them across the Atlantic. We have not flown ourselves this year, but the work has. How does this fit with our core values as makers and as people? Is this very Slow?
The Slow movement looks to the many kinds of value in small-scale production. Even if the Organic/Local/Provenanced sector is tiny compared to the mainstream of the supermarkets, the argument runs that it provides real jobs, forges real links within real communities, shows that an alternative is possible, and exerts pressure on the mainstream to move, however sluggishly, in the direction of quality. Our local (award winning) Farmers’ Market demonstrates all these things. Interestingly there ARE craft makers there, potters, bodgers and the like, but not Craft in our sense, we’re far too specialist. You can buy a high-end Slow cheesecake there, but would our work cut the mustard? I’d love to wheel our work down there and cut out the sculpture-miles, and in our mixed community there would be an audience for it, but experience suggests not a paying one.
But the principle of the Farmers’ Market is a good one, direct linking of maker and consumer, real interaction, community building, realistic prices for the producer without a ridiculous premium for the consumer. But this has been tried, and, after some years of reasonable success, largely failed. The ‘craft fair’ still staggers on, but even Origin, which many of us hoped might re-invigorate the legacy of the Chelsea Crafts Fair seems increasingly restricted both in its aspiration and range. And this is at the national level, let alone local. The other obvious answer is the Net, but although we use this more and more to communicate quickly and effectively with existing clients, it doesn’t bring the audience as a whole closer to the actual work, and even encourages the fiction that a JPEG will substitute for the real experience of the real object. It’s exactly this contact that is so hard to broaden out to a wider audience.
So is our work (and that of a lot of similar makers) too refined/obscure/simply too expensive to exist outside the shelter of a Gallery, preferably one in Central London? In culinary terms, is Contemporary Craft pointless over-refinement, pandering to those ever in search of the new, exciting and expensive, or does it embody real values of production and offer a quality experience as a meaningfully premium product? Either way we need to experience it, not just look at the glossy pictures in the recipe book.
With Slow food we do know what it is for: to feed us, nourish us both physiologically and psychologically, believing that the two are interdependent, feeding a whole person within a community. And this in contrast to the industrial vision of food, in which an abstract consumer has his or her pleasure buttons pushed by an arrangement of specifiable tastes and textures.
But with us it doesn’t seem quite so simple. With Craft, what and who is it actually for? Does our kind of Craft have any real values?
Perhaps the key to Slow is that it is a holistic idea, it implies a different approach, or set of approaches, to production, distribution and consumption. Or better put, a blurring of these separate realms, teasing them away from being seen in strictly economic terms. And that being a movement, it’s a set of possibilities and aspirations rather than a checklist or a certificate.
To get back to the motorway, the adjective Slow becomes negative when put together with the word ‘driver’. So negative! We know full well that the easiest way to reduce our own consumption of fossil fuel is to slow down our driving, but why is this so hard to do? The benefits of slowing down would be enormous, and not simply financial and ecological. There would be a massive gain in well-being from lowering our collective stress levels, and increasing our own and other people’s chances of staying alive. Driving more slowly might even allow a shift of consciousness that would involve seeing and treating other road users not as a series of obstacles to be negotiated, but as sentient beings with an equal right to life and use of the road.
So whose fault is it that we seem to have such a problem slowing down? Is it advertising, the time-pressures of employed and family life, or the carefully cultivated link within our imaginations between speed, sex, power, and ultimate freedom?
The motor car is a key icon of Modernity, and Speed is a key value of Modernity. The car is our most commonplace encounter with the fantasy of Speed. On the motorway cars are in their element, it’s where the fast car, the sports car, the luxury car come into their own. The motor industry, whether from the point of view of manufacture, marketing, or simply aspiration, is one of the most global, dominated by a handful of international corporations. Can we imagine Slow cars, vehicles whose aspiration is simply to do the job, to travel only as far as needful, and at a sane speed? That our fantasy vehicles might encourage social interaction rather than be socially and physically isolating, sealed metal boxes that leave us invulnerable behind privacy glass and bull bars? What are the qualities needed for a car to be, (and how and where designed and produced) in that fine craftsman Bryant Fedden’s description, a ‘wheelbarrow with a motor’?
Compared to the financial value of the motor market, and its role in the shaping of the physical, economic and mental landscape, the impact of Craft is minimal. What can Craft offer, beside some idea of a generalized ‘good example’? I think that if Craft can aspire to being Slow, embody Slow, demonstrate Slow, then it is already resisting the society of speed, and this may be a major part of its value. It resists by proposing an alternative.
I suggested in the last blog that Craft potentially ‘thickens’ our experience of life, of the material objects around us. Brings us back to the fact of their actually having been made, of having a real connection to specifiable human beings, having a real history; embodying experience. We could say that its job is to Slow life down to a pace where it is humanly and humanely livable, if only in this moment.
And the speed/Slow opposition occurs in every aspect of the Craft system. If Craft objects are simply traded within the same world as other objects those differences may well become obscured and undermined. Or they become fetishized as the ‘Hand Made’ or as demonstrations of ‘Skill’. In either case their charge is weakened or lost. They run the risk of becoming merely more stuff awaiting the shift of fashion, or simply boredom, to become part of landfill. But what makes good Craft really thicken life? Surely we could all point to work (maybe a lot) that however worthy in some ways, frankly just doesn’t get there. Being hand made, or green, or addressing issues just isn’t enough. In this world where there are simply too many things, a Craft object perhaps need to justify itself more than a Slow carrot, whose point is to be eaten and recycled.
There has to be…what? Old fashioned words like honesty and integrity spring to mind, in the sense of embodying an approach to making, selling, looking and using. So I am looking for, in my terms, an honest way of making, that might encourage an open way of looking. One that will try to resist the tendency to treat the work on the one hand, simply as interior furnishing, and on the other as an object to be analysed and understood. Trying to remove a lot of drama and tension from the work, wanting to bring the audience’s attention back to the meeting of hand, eye, blade and material. Having written this I realize that we have to start by BEING Slow. Asking ourselves where speed gets us, and in what ways we are simply carried along by it. It’s only by living Slow that solutions will develop. Strangely, for us, this has resulted in making figures, people. Letting posture and gesture supply an open narrative and leaving the rest to the eye as it meets the work, here and now.
But of course, as this blog has tried to explore, the making is only the beginning…
Malcolm Martin, November 2008