Download Third Stage Report

1. Project Title:


Ideological Constructs – Past Visions/Future Possibilities: Evaluating the Endangered Subjects in the Context of Emerging Global Sustainability and Environmental Agendas


2. Research Aims:


The principal aims of this research are two-fold:


- To understand the ways in which the Applied Arts, as Endangered Subjects, are being affected by, and/or are responding to, concerns represented by the emerging sustainability and environmental movements.


-  To explore whether the agendas developing around sustainability and environmental issues offer opportunities for the applied arts to (re)formulate new practices, identities, positions and markets, in ways that might reconnect them to contemporary social, cultural and economic imperatives, i.e. recover an ideological purpose.


3. Research Imperatives:


3i. Hypothesis:

-     That emerging environmental and sustainability socio-cultural and economic forces might lead to (and might already be supporting) the development of new socio-ideological rationales that can help redefine and reconstitute the applied arts as less marginal, more centrally productive forces in society.


3ii. Key Question:

-     Do emerging environmental and sustainability issues provide ground for a public re-engagement with applied arts practice?


3iii. Key Objective:

-     To arrive at a clearer understanding of the performance of the applied arts in relation to these pivotal, and developing, societal and cultural-ideological agendas.


3iv. Secondary Objectives:

-     To ascertain the potential for reframing aspects of applied arts educational practice.


4. Introduction:

This document represents the end-of-Stage 3 formal report to the project steering committee for this NALN funded project. As such it constitutes the second of three project report papers as outlined in the original research proposal, (the first project report paper appeared after Stage 1, and the 3rd and the last will appear at the end of the project, after the February 2010 completion of Stage 4).


The purpose of this Stage 3 reporting paper is to account for the work and progress made since the Stage 1 report. It therefore reports on the journey through both the 2nd and 3rd stages of the research project covering the period from January ‘09 to end of May 09 when the workshop took place, but extended to September ’09 to incorporate inputs into the ‘Making Futures’ international research conference. It additionally incorporates a brief update on the ‘Making Futures’ conference.


As stated in the original project proposal, Stages 2 and 3 cover the following tasks and outputs:


Stage 2 Tasks:

Stage 2 encompasses work that is effectively ongoing for the life of the project and which centres on the development of the project research network, to be established as a prime legacy of the project, specifically:

a.    To create database of key agents, stakeholder groups including possible network participants.

b.    To develop and publish project website a principle means of information and communication binding participants and supporting ongoing dialogue by publishing and reporting back upon all significant Stage 1, 3 and 4 interchanges and findings.

c.     To publicise project through newsletters and initial invites / calls to participate in the project network.

d.    To issue a specific call for proposals to participate in the Research Workshop.

e.    To continue to publish and inform on emerging themes through commentaries and exchanges concerning selected ‘key note’ essays.


Stage 2 Outputs:

a.   Database of key agents, stakeholder groups and network participants.

b.   Project website.

c.    Publication of initial invites / calls to participate.

d.   Publication of call to participate in the Research Workshop.


Stage 3 Tasks:

Stage 3 encompasses the development and the delivery of the Research Workshop, specifically:

a.  To bring together principal agents identified through the network (Stages 1 and 2), to discuss the research thematic and to develop and exchange ideas, views and case study examples.


Stage 3 Outputs:

a.     All invited keynote and positioning presentations published as summaries and panel discussions reported and published on the project website.


‘Making Futures’ international research conference:

The Stage 3 Research Workshop was staged at the end of May and rapidly followed by final intensive preparations for the ‘Making Futures’ international research conference in September that I, as the NALN funded researcher, contributed to, and which is viewed by the Principal Investigators as an important event in the development of this NALN funded project. This report therefore incorporates a short report section on this conference initiative and my role within it.

5. Stage 2, Ongoing Development of Research Network:

Stage 2 represents ongoing work for the life of the project. This report will therefore present a brief update of progress on Stage 2 tasks and outputs, before focusing in more detail upon the Stage 3 Research Workshop – namely, the grounds of its development, its outcomes, and influences on the final Stage 4 direction of the research.


Stage 2 Outputs:

a.   Database of key agents, stakeholder groups and network participants:

A significant element of the database will consist of concrete case studies from the contemporary applied arts that exhibit practices, identities, positions and markets that strongly relate them to the environmental and sustainability fields.

b.   Project website:

The project website has been established and can be found at:

Note that the website has been executed as a WordPress site that enables it not only to act as a repository of project information and reports, but to incorporate a blogging dimension that we decided could be important in developing and disseminating points of view as they developed, and in engaging network participants.

c.    Publication of initial invites / calls to participate in network:

d.   Publication of call to participate in the Research Workshop:

6. Stage 3, Workshop:

Stage 3 constituted the preparation for, and execution of, the Research Workshop held at Plymouth College of Art on Thursday 28th May 2009.


The purpose of the workshop was to provide an opportunity to discuss some of the case studies with the practitioners involved in greater depth, and to critically and comparatively evaluate these cases in the light of the contextual information generated through Stage’s 1 and 2 above, in order to help identify key issues, tendencies and trends, possibilities and opportunities.


Workshop Structure and Constraints:


The daylong workshop was not expected to cover all aspects of the intersection between the crafts and sustainability. Rather, as stated, the purpose was to examine a selected range of practitioner-based case studies and to explore the positions, markets, processes of making, and ideological motivations of a group of makers in relation to sustainability issues from their own standpoints. 


The workshop was therefore planned to consist of 6 to 8 invited participants (identified during the preparatory Stage 2 research) and each was asked to give an overview in the morning of their work, markets, and underlying ethos. The afternoon was programmed around a discussion and debate between all the participants, orientated around a working agenda (see below). All significant results were to be documented and published on the research project website.

The criteria for selecting the participants was based initially around:

-      Examples that exemplified some of the initiatives, theories, and philosophies outlined in the Stage 1 report.

-      Examples that provided for a range of opinions and types of practice, including the voices of theorists, curators and gallery owners.

-      Examples which, reflecting the draft agenda, touched upon the following issues:

1.    Development/community

2.    Slow craft

3.    The triple bottom line

4.    Peak oil

5.    Recycling (the 3 R’s)

6.    The local

7.    Spirituality/wellbeing

8.    Provenance

9.    Selling

10. Small batch production

A working agenda was drawn up for the afternoon discussion session that was based around the following closely overlapping areas:

i)     Sourcing and consumption of materials. Potentially, this was the most obvious place to start: craftspeople make stuff. In some ways that is the definition of crafts, and making stuff involves materials. Initiatives such as fair trade, recycled materials, second hand metals, safety and sustainable mining and quarrying, or even using (only) renewable materials, were starting issues for exploring the case studies.

ii) Location and identity. This issue centers on ideas of localised production and consumption, as opposed to trying to operate within global markets, or focusing on global trading practices. It might, for example, encompass various tourist or other local provenance issues. 

iii) The role of technology. The workshop discussion was designed to look at ideas of technology as benign or evil, as useful or alienating, and to assess its place in sustainable visions of craft practice. Technology can often be un-reflexively seen within the craft world as an enemy:  Sennett (for example) in The Craftsman identifies that CAD technologies are being used instead of, rather than as an extension of, experience with real materials. But while technologies can be alienating; they can also mean the difference between making a living and not being able to. 

iv) Scales and methods of production in relation to making. This issue typically revolves around the contentious binary that sees the handmade as being more spiritual or “pure”, and its opposite in industrial production as typically based upon an adulterated or soulless practice. Of course, this is not necessarily so: there are, for example, companies which, while employing industrial techniques and economies of scale, seek to encompass ethical approaches to their workforce, to their local communities, to ecological practices. However, in retrospect the workshop case studies emphasised, (perhaps over-emphasised), the one-off hand-made, thus displacing voices makers employing small batch production, or a design for multiples approach.

v) Individual developmental aspects of the Applied Arts, as indicated in the Stage 1 report. This would not necessarily focus on educational initiatives, although schemes such as (for example) Saturday Arts Clubs are one way in which the developmental importance of the crafts are embodied in individuals; which links to:

vi) Social values and social developmental aspects of the Applied Arts and ideological standpoints of practitioners in relation to the natural world. This issue centers on ideas of organization or collaboration, such as workers’ collectives, but might also encompass those who see crafts as a form of ‘social sculpture’ and those who see the practice of craft as a form of protest, political statement, or other critical response to society.

Finally, although it might have been helpful to have participants who did not specifically define themselves in the terms of environmental and sustainability debates, in practice it proved difficult enough to get even self-employed craftspeople (i.e., unsupported by educational or other institutions) who are passionate about the issues to give their time and attention to participate in the workshop. As hard as I tried to find dissenting voices, in the end those who already have an interest in the intersection between crafts and sustainability were those who committed to attend. 


Also asked, but for various reasons unable to attend, were batch producers, theorists, and those whom Kathryn Hearne called “the gatekeepers”; that is, those in control of the presentation, marketing, promotion and selling of a sector of contemporary crafts production to the public. Nonetheless, although unable to come, many expressed an interest in being otherwise involved, possibly through interviews at a later date. For example, Jeffrey Jones, editor of Interpreting Ceramics and Dr Imogene Racz, author of Contemporary Crafts, Erica Steer of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and Richard Eaton of Denby.  Interviews with these people, as well as with several practitioners with sometimes contradictory or differing viewpoints (for example, Hugh Dunsford Wood and Vincent Large), are therefore planned and will be published on the website.


The workshop Event:


The workshop participants on the day represented a good coverage of the issues I had initially identified. The participants ranged from those who defined themselves as ‘craftspeople’ and had done so for most of their lives, to those with an ‘outsider’s’ view and a questioning or curious attitude to the notion of craft. This combination of ‘inside/outside’ was fruitful: - 

Jane Hope, a jewelrysmith, looked at the sourcing of raw materials in the context of fair-trade and ethical mining practices. .

Clare Moloney, project manager of “River and Cloth”, a community project centring on the River Mardle in South London and its historical association with the textile industry there (including William Morris’s workshop), addressed developmental issues and community, and had an angle on the local. The River and Cloth project is working with 10 schools, training teachers, and 18 community groups, including a city farm which is being used to grow vegetable dyes which would have been used historically.  This is a local arts project that is being used to promote awareness of craft sustainability through education.  It is an 18-month project that trains people to use and cascade their skills in order to leave a legacy.

Abigail Thomas, a book artist who works with attention to the ideal of the handmade, was concerned with ‘slow craft’ ideals and with aspects of what might be termed spiritual dimension of practice and its manifestation as a political concern. Part of her work is concerned with processes – using oil-based inks that can be washed out with soap and water, recycling and using recycled materials.

Jonathan Garrett, a potter with a studio that sells direct to the public, is concerned with using local clay and natural processes, and with the idea of craft as a political act or statement. 

Clara Vuletich, a research assistant at Chelsea College of Art on the TED project, and a textile and wallpaper designer, and a contributor to the ‘Making A Slow Revolution’ blog. 

Richenda Macgregor, Natalie Elder and Nick Kary were members of ‘Sustainable Makers’, the craft “arm” of the Totnes Transition Town grass roots initiative which is based around the idea of preparing for, and transitioning to, post-peak oil and a sustainable future economy and way of life. Sustainable Makers started in Totnes in 2007; Richenda is a ceramicist who has recently returned to studio work after a hiatus spent deeply questioning her practice in relation to its sustainability. Natalie works with recycled glass, and Nick is a furniture maker concerned with sourcing local materials and working conditions.  

In addition to the speakers, the audience included the Principal Investigators, Malcolm Ferris and Tim Bolton, and Paul Harper of Alias Arts and a member of the Project Steering Committee. I now summarise some of the most important points to come out of each of the AM presentations, and out the PM discussion.


The AM Presentations:

Jane Hope’s research on artisan miners in Bolivia fore grounded the fact that when processes that are ecologically damaging are used in crafts they are very visible indeed. There are questions to be asked concerning the amount of ecological damage caused by mining when it is to be used for jewellery, a decorative item, compared with, say, agriculture, which is arguably more necessary. I think this foregrounds and sharpens the arguments around agriculture rather than excusing agricultural practices as they stand; but the fair-trade initiative is common to them both. Jane highlighted the need to work with mining companies rather than not engaging in dialogue. She pointed out that there are responsible mining companies whose goals are to improve the health and education of local communities and to eradicate child labour. The main problem Jane identified is the lack of transparency in the supply chain and the need to educate the customer, which is seen as a marketing problem (or opportunity).

Clare Moloney stated that there was an observable desire of the public to contribute to making a better society by using and making sustainable artefacts and processes.  (She also stated that the current economic climate had engendered a revival of interest in the art of “making do”.)  The project she presented was concerned with education: to build market awareness; to build producer awareness; to build supplier awareness.  The children and adults involved in the project would, it was hoped, become consumers with greater awareness also.

Abigail Thomas’s touched on the issue of the craft (and art) world being comprised of small separate communities; an issue of communication and perhaps of joining voices and forces. According to Abigail, the fact is that advanced industrial societies are inherently dirty, exploitative and anti-natural; but they can be substantially improved if we decide to prioritise sustainable systems and then organise socially and politically around these systems. How might craft contribute to this?

Jonathan Garrett was interested in the shift he has observed of people seeming to want to get back to nature. As he says on his website, “some of us never left”. Jonathan talked about his introduction to and early experiences with craft, that in his view makers are their history.  (This is was important point in the wider themes of the day, since many of the practices we looked at were concerned, centrally or peripherally, with self-empowerment and education.) He became interested in gardening at the start of the British gardening boom, and he uses local clay and local and passing tourist trade.  He started as a craftsman in the 1970s, when crafts-based livelihoods were seen as serious political acts – a way into alternative lifestyles. He thought that politically and culturally, the crafts seem to have lost their way, and that sustainability might be the way for people to reconnect in an important way to crafts. If urban vegetable markets can take off, why not urban crafts? However, he thought that there was a serious lack of leadership in the field, and an urgent need for wider media and communications coverage. Jonathan also mentioned craft education as an essential enabling language for children.

Through her work with the TED project, Clara Vuletich identified 5 major issues in sustainability:  ethical sourcing and fair trade; production pollution; transportation and supply chains; the rise of over-consumption; and consumer use.  The project addresses these issues creatively by, for example, up-cycling (recycling and adding more value); buying into a long-term relationship with an object (almost like a lease on a garment which is periodically re-worked); recycling and more benign production processes; forming collectives to show work as an alternative to expensive galleries or boutiques. As a designer concerned with strategies and social innovations, Clara mentioned many of the important theorists whose work was central to her research in terms of sustainable design. These included Enzio Manzini on systems thinking and William McDonough’s ‘Cradle to Cradle’.  She stated that craftspeople need to be educated to see how their product operates in a whole system and how their products can be agents of social change. Social change and marketing strategies are very closely linked. She sees the establishment of creative communities, “multi-local” societies (for example, joined by interests and not necessarily only geography) as essential.

Richenda Macgregor highlighted the sets of relationship that the maker exists within: with suppliers, with the material, with the client(s) and the public, with him or herself. These relationships provide a sustaining energy and also help overcome the isolation and sense of powerlessness of the maker. She talked of the need for the master craftsperson to ‘deskill’ oneself: too much skill, she felt, can separate one from life – that people can be too in awe of crafts skills whereas everyone can participate in making. She pointed to a need for re-skilling and skills exchanges, for co-ops where people can share equipment and tools. Re-skilling is often framed as a need to reconnect to “nature”, but re-skilling can also be seen as a way of reconnecting to the synthetic sustainable world: it’s just as necessary for urban people to learn to adapt and change the material world in which they find themselves. Richenda spoke of the need to imagine, to dream the future: what do we want the world to be in 2030?

Natalie Elder showed boundless enthusiasm for the Sustainable Makers project, heartening and necessary, and highlighting effectively the need for supportive communities and encouragement. 

Nick Kary spoke of the need to develop a personal relationship with the word sustainability in order to be a functional part of the world.  He recounted an initial training that had been all about emasculating the wood with which he worked, and of a subsequent process of coming to more of a partnership with the materials. Once again, however, the need for a supportive community to enable the move towards sustainability was a cornerstone.

Each of the AM presentations was video captured for the project website.

The PM Discussion:

An initial concern had been that everybody would just agree with each other that we all needed to be more sustainable and that we would not benefit from a rigorous enough debate.  However, despite a general concern with ecological issues and ideas of sustainability, the participants also shared a questioning attitude that led to debates and exchanges that extended and clarified many of the positions proposed in Stage 1 of the project.

Discussion in the afternoon focused on ideas concerning the crafts and ideology. Tim Bolton wondered whether, instead of finding a ‘new’ ideology linked to sustainability as the way to make craft relevant again, whether the ‘ideology of craft’ was in fact the central problem: “craft” is automatically and un-reflexively seen as meaning “natural” and remains unquestioned but also undeveloped and largely irrelevant to a community further and further removed from nature. This ideological slant – and the one which says “craft” means making things by hand, (often out of matchsticks!) need to be challenged. 

The concern was also expressed that, alongside the positive attention given to craft lately since, (for example, in Sennett’s book ‘The Craftsman’), the wide-ranging definitions and redefinitions of “craft”, or even the non-definitions of craft, have caused problems as well as freedoms. Craft as a delimited set of material practices, as Malcolm Ferris has said, disappears the more you look at it, so that what you are left with is effectively whatever you say it is, and that therefore there is a need to examine the narratives that surround it, to evaluate these discourses and to critically examine their foundations.  This is the subject of Paul Harper’s research – the concurrence of the concerns shows the growing interest in the area.

It was agreed, however, that craftspeople, as well as the public, wanted to hear about sustainable engagement and that a web portal for engagement with ideas about sustainable craft would be very helpful. (It is possible that the project website and/or the ‘Making Futures’ conference website could be beginnings in this direction). Malcolm Ferris put forward the idea of a “Making Futures” website that certified ethically designed objects.

Other areas also highlighted for future investigation included craft into design for production, craft as leisure activity, and craft as entertainment.

Issues of class also arose and were debated. This area is one which will, subject to time, be further explored (and, I hope, further debated) on the forums on the research project website.

Relationships (with materials, with artefacts, with suppliers and buyers, and with each other) also emerged as a major feature of the discussion, as did the notion of developing a relationship with a local community. The importance of these relationships would seem to be central  - that the ‘ideology’ of connection, of systems, could be the most important facet in the effort to make the contemporary crafts both more ecologically sustainable, and perhaps therefore more economically sustainable by becoming ever more relevant to a wider public.

Concluding Workshop Remarks:

A lot of ground was covered at the Stage 3 Research Workshop, but in retrospect perhaps the single most important point to emerge was the need to make explicit, to understand, and to develop the empowering social-symbolic relationships that surround ‘craft’ as a construct forged iteratively (or interactively) between sets of practices, materials and communities or social groups.

These relationships come together to create what seem, in effect, narratives of belonging made up of actual and imagined elements. Relationship and community were the two words that came up again and again, providing a common thread throughout the day. It was not necessarily the thread that had been expected; perhaps I had expected, for example, more emphasis upon physical, ecological options. But the participants all reiterated the fundamental importance of the relationships inherent in the crafts.

On reflection, this turn towards a social anthropological/material-cultural set of perspectives seems logical:  if the crafts are to enact more ethically and environmentally sustainable practices, it will likely be through re-orientating and developing the relationships that surround them upon such lines.  The question then becomes how best to facilitate and develop these relationships, and to elevate and make explicit the symbolic capital implicit in their ethical and ecological dimensions.

The workshop day was, I believe, successful in that not only did a clearer sense of issues and possible directions emerge for future research, but that the participants were interested and enthused and left with a new or renewed sense of themselves as part of a community which needs to interact with, and show itself as valuable to, the wider community. 

7. The ‘Making Futures’ International Research Conference:


As indicated in the original research proposal, I was involved in the preparation and execution of the ‘Making Futures’ international research conference run by the Principal Investigators of this NALN project, in association with members of the Applied Arts staff, on behalf of Plymouth College of Art. The conference is seen as an important source of material contributing to the NALN project work.


The conference itself was held on the 17th and 18th September at Mount Edgcumbe Country House, close to the city of Plymouth. In terms of preparation I sat on the internal Conference Steering Committee and contributed to the debates shaping the conference.

In my capacity as the NALN project researcher, I also submitted an abstract to the conference that was double-blind reviewed by the external review panel and selected for the conference. The paper was presented at the conference and used the Stages 1, 2, and 3 findings to discuss craft companies whose intention and practice is to run their business with attention to multiple “bottom lines”, (an idea which was touched on in the Research Workshop) meaning companies which pay as much attention to the social and ecological costs and profits of their business as they do to the economic ones.


The full paper will be published on the ‘Making Futures’ website as part of the post-conference open-access archive, ‘Making Futures Vol. 1. ISSN 2042-1664.’


I also chaired one of the conference sessions (The Friday socio-technological strand) and reported back to the full conference in the afternoon plenary session.  Interestingly, perhaps especially for a strand which ostensibly was dealing with technology, a real commonality was the importance and role of relationships within this strand.  I had good feedback on the day on my chairing and the fact that I was working in such a public platform gave a face to the research and will, I hope, encourage more people to view the research in its public phases.

8. Stage 4 ‘Conclusion to Continuation’ Plans:


The remaining months of this project will be concerned with digesting the significant amounts of material generated through the previous three project stages and elements of the ‘Making Futures’ conference. The task will be to order and reflect upon these materials and refine the findings for the following three outputs:


Final Project Report:

i.       A final summary of the main project findings.

ii.     I also hope to be able to develop a taxonomy of case studies for incorporation into the report. Hopefully, this will collate the ideas, philosophies and practices of a number of crafts practitioners and thinkers in a way that shows their intersections and differences.

iii.    The taxonomy of case studies will be overlain with a map of craft practices and intentions. Together they should, it is hoped, begin to address the narratives surrounding crafts and give us a clearer view of field and where we stand now, enabling us to track future changes in practices and ideas from a more informed point.

iv.   A short ‘impact assessment’ on Applied Arts course and curriculum development.


Project Website and Resource Database:

i.       In addition, the project website and resource database will continue to be populated, promoted, and will, we hope, begin to act as a hub for interested parties. The website forum is not very lively at the current moment but is awaiting the first in a series of guest blogs or provocations based around ideas and debates arising from the workshop day. Some of this will come via interviews reported on the website and comments on the forum pages.


Additional Research Workshop:

i.       Finally, subject to sufficient project funds remaining, it is possible that we may run an additional final project Research Workshop. A decision on this will be made within the next three weeks.