The earliest manifestation of the broader Slow Movement was the Slow Food Movement, which began in Italy as a protest against the spreading dominance of the culture of fast food. The movement embodied anxieties about declining agricultural communities, globalisation, health scares and ecological costs associated with industrial agriculture as well as a more general sense of alienation from the source of one of our most basic needs.
This anxiety is one of the tropes of modern life. Carolyn Steel, in her new book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives explores the intimate link between the historical evolution of cities and the countryside that kept them supplied with food. She critiques the loss of these connections in the face of globalized distribution networks and marvels at ‘the sheer invisibility of the process’.
In the small town where I live we are fortunate in having an excellent farmer’s market that takes place every Saturday morning. At it’s heart the market maintains a workaday atmosphere. The stalls are run by the producers and the directness of the trade means that prices are relatively competitive. Some of the produce is organic, but much isn’t. The focus is on the seasonal and local, traceable, provenance. All of the produce comes from within a 30-mile radius of the town, in keeping with the slow food principal of bioregionalism.
Shopping in the market is a vital pleasure for me. I enjoy the crowds and the sense of a shared activity; the streets are colourful, animated, convivial. I meet friends and stop to drink coffee. Queuing is an essential part of the experience, which can seem frustrating, until you accept the necessary slowness of the process – not least because there may be only one person serving. The queues encourage conversation between strangers. You learn patience as you listen to the prevarications of other customers, and as you watch the limited pile of choice tomatoes or cuts of meat diminish… and then, when you reach the front of the queue, you hold everybody up by carefully selecting your purchase and idly passing the time of day with the stall-holder. Key to my pleasure is the unmediated simplicity of the transaction – somebody makes or grows something, brings it to market and sells it. The sellers have a sense of ownership and pride in their produce that I recognise and value. Buyer and seller make a connection. This connection is not unique, but is shared in turn by all of one’s fellow shoppers so that we are all linked by the experience. The sense of connectedness, with the process of production, with the producer, with the produce and then with a particular community centred around common needs, shared experience, feels like the rediscovery of something joyful in the everyday business of shopping for food. This sense is at odds with the functional, standardized and distancing culture of consumption that characterizes the supermarket visit.
This market, in this community, presents a model in which food is sustainably produced, locally sourced, fairly priced and traded, and thoughtfully bought, eaten and disposed of. But more than that, it presents a process, which, in contrast to the logistical systems described by Carolyn Steel is visible, audible, experienced through all the senses, and located in a matrix of human interaction.
It is perhaps ironic that it is precisely in this world of commercial exchange that we find such a fulfilling sense of collaboration and participation. There are obvious parallels with running a small-scale craft business, which works as a totality and as the focal point of a network of relationships.
One of the key characteristics of high volume industrial manufacture is uniformity and standardisation. We experience this as consumers of its products, and at the other end of the process raw materials are subject to systematic and wasteful selection for consistency. In my own practice, buying timber was a more involving process. I used a wonderful timber yard near Hay-on-Wye, a short distance away from the Forest of Dean where I lived and worked. It involved a journey along the Welsh Marches, up the Golden Valley. Although it wasn’t far away it was a winding road and there was no quick route. That part of Herefordshire is gentle, rolling, pastoral, but it changes dramatically where the Black Mountains rise up abruptly out of the landscape. As I got closer to Hay I would come around corners to find myself facing the long dark wall of the Black Hill. Even once the road became familiar I was never quite prepared for the suddenness and the drama of these views. The journey ended at Clifford, where I paid a 50p toll to cross the River Wye via a pretty stone bridge.
When I first started going there, the yard was relatively small, a variety of slightly ramshackle sheds, and was accessed by a rough track. As the business grew the track was improved and the sheds were expanded and reorganised. But it retained a human scale and an idiosyncratic order that was in some way a reflection of the owner, Willie Bullough. On first meeting, Willie seemed knowledgeable and intelligent but diffident, but over time he revealed his warmth, his curiosity and his passion for wood. It was part of my practice to select the timber for specific jobs and I came to really enjoy this process: climbing amongst the dusty stacks; the sharp, acid smell of the tannins in the oak; the shafts of light filtering through the plank walls of the shed; the slight sense of fear that, whatever the rough surface revealed, you wouldn’t really know what you had bought until you got it home and planed it up; or the fear that you might under, or over, estimate. I wanted the right wood, but with the minimum waste. I would tell Willie what I was after and he would identify particular stacks, and leave me to it. There was no getting over the fact that you would have to lift each piece off the pile, measure it and assess it’s suitability, sideline anything that might be promising and restack everything else. It was a slow process, difficult, physically demanding, but absorbing. Once I was finished Willie would measure and price the wood before helping me to load it onto the pick up.
The journey, my conversations with Willie, the sense of purpose, of personal meaning invested in the activity, the overall richness of the experience was facilitated by a mode of working that has become privileged. Similarly to shopping in the market, the getting of materials that I have described here was not merely a means to an end. It was part of a whole practice, continuous with other aspects of my life.
I have already written about the way that craft is experienced as a mode of being, intimately connected to a network of relationships rather than just a set of media specific practices or a genre of objects. I would like to end by relating these reflections to one of the responses on the blog. One of the correspondents has suggested that some of the debate should be “more rooted in the actual objects produced so we retain some critical sense of not just process but result and achievement of result? That is of great interest to wider debates within the arts.”
I am grateful to Sandra Wilson, part of my own craft-world, for bringing my attention to this quote from Carla Needleman’s book The Work of Craft:
“A craft is not its objects; a craft is how I am when I am making them (and eventually, one would dearly hope, how I am the rest of the time, as a result of what has been transformed in me through craftsmanship). The objects of the craft are by-products, very essential by-products, of the way I work.” (Needleman, 1979, p.123)
Not only is this a lovely, optimistic idea but it connects in interesting ways to a consistent thread of discourse in the arts that runs through the lectures of William Morris, John Dewey’s Art as Experience and finds it’s latest manifestation in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. Bourriaud described relational art as taking “as its starting point human relations and their social context, as opposed to autonomous and exclusive art” (Bourriaud 1998 p117). I think that one of the exciting things about your project is precisely that it shifts the critical sense away from the autonomous art object and onto the continuity of experience in which art becomes “prefigured in the very processes of living” (Dewey, 1934, p.24).