Craft Council UK – Make:Shift conference, Manchester, 10-11 Nov, 2016

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Craft Council UK’s biennial Make:Shift conference in Manchester, as part of my work with the Australian Design Centre.

The focus, as Creative Director Annie Warburton noted, was to “showcase an extraordinary array of disruptive innovation taking place throughout craft but also interrogating, to what end?”


The keynote addresses, panel discussions, presentations and conversations were focused around the impact of craft innovation in three spheres: social innovation, environmental sustainability and wellbeing. They joined makers and designers with scientists, technologists and academics because, as Warbuton noted in her opening address, “community, connection and collaboration is what brings breakthrough” and it is vital to locate craft practice within 21st century innovations. “Traditional skills are just a different kind of technology and as important as high-end technology. Makers have always worked with new materials, transforming production processes along the way.”

Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, gave the opening keynote address. It was a lively and fascinating discussion of materials in relation to the culture of making. He noted the creative tension and slight distrust between art and science, which he argued can be useful in helping to identify different views, outcomes and processes and cited his hilarious experience on the BBC4 show Chef v. Science as an example of this conflict. In the words of chef Marcus Wearing, “At the end of the day [making anything] is about love, care and understanding.” It’s not about scientifically recreating mashed potato just because you can.

Miodownik also unpacked some of our easy assumptions about new technology being better technology – citing the fact that despite its increasing prevalence, carbon is not a recyclable material and that solar cells, while allowing us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, have nevertheless been designed with little care – they are objects stuck on roofs and not integrated into our lives. Miodownik argued that animate materials are in fact the future and cited the example of self-healing concrete roads, which was a provocative and exciting thought. Miodownik concluded by saying that, “the act of making is about growing our humanity” and that social consciousness through making will enable us to solve some of the problems facing us today.

In the afternoon, there was an engaging discussion on the use of digital technologies in craft education with Drummond Masterton, Head of Sustainable Product Design at Falmouth University and jeweller Sarah O’Hana.

O’Hana works with titanium and steel and was invited to undertake a PhD at Manchester University as part of the engineering department, exploring the use of lasers and titanium.

The experience led to a new body of work that sought to explain new research to new audiences through wearable objects. O’Hana talked about the creative disruption her presence brought to the engineering department and cited a failed experiment that left the engineer despondent and O’Hana excited, because its effect on the titanium offered new aesthetic and creative possibilities.

Masterton talked about the importance of language, particularly in a learning environment, and its ability empower or inhibit. For instance, an engineer does things precisely, using materials in the ways they are intended, but if you call them a craftsperson they suddenly have permission to take more risks, experiment with technology and uncover news ways of using machines and applying knowledge. He noted than even when teaching students today about 3D printing and other available technologies, there remains a persistent desire to still learn and understand ‘traditional’ ways of making. He argued that when it comes to technology (as both a tool and an industry) there needs to be a model with the use of technology that enables risk-taking and that this isn’t currently the case. His point – “technology won’t solve problems, people will.”

In discussing the crisis in craft education in the UK (and arguably everywhere) O’Hana reitered Masterton’s point, and argued that while it was important to have specialisms, the craft education sector must invite other cultures, such as architecture and IT communication, into our own culture to help understand and communicate need and value. Craft, she said, is bad at articulating its value to other sectors.

Highlights of the second day include the conversation between Daniel Charny, founder of creative cultural consultancy From Now Own and curator of the 2011 V&A exhibition The Power of Making and Hannah Fox, Silk Mill Project Director at Derby Museums.

The conversation was centred around the research Charny had undertaken for his report on the cultural role of maker spaces, which set out to articulate the differences between engagement with or engagement through making and what these means in terms of local communities but also crafts-based skills development. Makerspaces were discussed in the context of other making spaces – residencies, project labs and museums, and while the conversation made no fast conclusions about the future of maker spaces, there was a general agreement that the popularity of makerspaces was a reflection on a perceived lack of other spaces in which to informally make and learn and that, in the context of the work undertaken at the Silk Mill in Derby, it is vital that museums expand their perspective around what they can be and what they do.



Alison Croggon on the arts funding crisis and the importance of criticism

In April this year I started working part-time at the Australian Design Centre, in the wonderfully nebulous, newly formed position of Creative Strategy Manager. ADC has been around for more than fifty years now – it began it’s life as the NSW Craft Council back in the 1960s and over the decades has made some extraordinary contributions to the craft and design landscape of Australia. The opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s development at a moment of re-visioning and to bring my ideas and experiences and passions for making and education and partnerships was too good to be true. And then three weeks later we were one of the 100-plus arts organisations to lose our four-year core funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.

It was like being sucker-punched.

Yes, I despaired for the organisation – but mostly, that instinctive, from-the-gut howl of despair that engulfed me was the feeling, yet again, that the arts don’t matter. And that by extension, the things I stand for, the way I see the world and the way I understand the arts to be a vehicle for critical discussion, enlightenment, learning and community also didn’t matter. As Alison Croggon writes so deftly and angrily and articulately for The Monthly, “Part of the exhaustion of being an arts worker in Australia is that our very existence is continually in public question.” She articulates the fibres of every thought and emotion from the last six months of soul crushing keeping on carrying on with extraordinary eloquence. I can’t recommend her article enough and implore you to read it in full here.

Because she says it so much better than I ever could, I have re-posted sections of it below. Because now more than ever we need to be championing every dissenting, elegant, intelligent, critical voice we can. Thank you Alison.

Culture Crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia.” Alison Croggon, The Monthly, October 2016.

“The despair that characterises so much present discussion about our cultural future is about much more than money. What has been clear for years is that in general public discourse – as opposed to the preferences of actual Australians – culture is a trivial consideration. Part of the exhaustion of being an arts worker in Australia is that our very existence is continually in public question. Again and again, we have to assert presence and value. It is impossible to simply assume that culture is a common good: it must be constantly argued.

Outside the specialist world of arts discussion, Australia has two modes of talking about culture and art: the mockery from right-wing columnists who regularly attack artists (as well as other knowledge workers, such as scientists and university researchers), and the bathetic motherhood statements about art’s intrinsic worth that roll readily from the mouths of politicians. Art is considered a leisure activity, a luxury for an elite, an entertainment in the most reductive senses of the word, a value-free product.

Advocates even point out the economic benefits of a healthy culture, to combat the erroneous but widespread perception that it contributes nothing to the economic bottom line. (For the record, culture is a bigger industry than agriculture, and employs many more people than the mining sector.) But the danger is that these secondary issues become the primary justifications, erasing the reasons why culture actually matters.

Again and again, public discourse about art has taken the road of least resistance, preferring to shore up the status quo rather than to question, to expand, to educate, to inquire, to imagine better.

Criticism is a crucial part of making a culture. Critical discussion in all its manifestations – from the casual tweet to the considered academic essay – is the hinge that links an artwork to a public. Critique is what connects one work to another, and to the contexts – the histories and social meanings – that inform it. Argument is how we hammer out the value of a thing, creating over time a complex weave of consensus and disagreement. A healthy critical culture welcomes the new and strange, inviting those who might feel hesitant to step confidently into the rewards of not knowing.

Do we have this kind of public discussion in Australia? We do, but it scarcely exists inside our major media institutions. It’s fostered in small companies, on blogs, in forums and discussions that exist on the margins of mainstream discourse. Over the decades, our mainstream critical culture has failed to convince us – the public, our governments, even artists themselves – of the value of culture in our daily lives. It has failed to articulate why Australian art might matter as a public good, to individuals and to a broader society. And now, as Australian culture faces its biggest crisis, that failure is tragically manifest.

Under the newly constricted funding, small organisations and individuals – the sources of our most robust critique – are those who are most at risk. With a few noble exceptions, it’s always been those with the least institutional heft who have been the most outspoken. Indeed, small organisations and artists, rather than our well-resourced institutions, have driven almost all of the political heavy lifting in the turmoil of the past year. Just as the larger companies rely on the poorly funded independent sector to take the creative risks that generate new ideas and new talents, so the smaller organisations and individuals are those expected to stick out their necks to defend the whole.

It was grassroots-driven activism that had sparked a Senate inquiry, which attracted 2719 submissions from every section of the arts community, held hearings in every state and territory, and put the arts firmly, and for the first time, on the agenda in the 2016 election.

Likewise, our major media outlets have for decades relegated the arts to a fenced-off playpen, a subset of the entertainment section. The Walkleys, the premier awards for Australian journalism, have never acknowledged cultural journalism or criticism as they do, for example, the equally specialist journalism of sports coverage. In the newsroom, the arts have always been poor cousins, begging for space. The ideas that drive our best artists, the passion that informs their work and their desire to speak about this world, almost never make it into print or pixels except as bowdlerisation. There isn’t the space.

…..And yet we need a strong critical culture now more than ever.

The critic is the person who makes a major part of the public argument for culture. It is a critic’s job to discover and to advocate for new and exciting work, to estimate its success or failure, to elaborate its genesis, to call to account, to argue for worth and unworth. Ideally, the critic exists as part of a web of diverse voices, where differences of response can be adumbrated and explored. This dynamic interweave of argument is how a culture is made: as Mexican critic and poet Octavio Paz said, criticism is what makes connections and histories, a culture. Without criticism, what you have is just a whole lot of art.”



Lottie Consalvo: mid-fall, Alaska Projects

My text to accompany Newcastle-based artist Lottie Consalvo’s recent exhibition mid-fall.

Alaska Projects, Sydney, 27 April – 15 May, 2016

Lottie Consalvo is contemplating time. Years, nano-seconds, moments of eternity, transition, points of no return – these moments of between and becoming are explored in her current series of abstract paintings.

Consalvo’s interdisciplinary practice includes performative and often quite specific autobiographical references and this collection of works represents not one, but a series of moments in time. They are observations of quietly transformative experiences – from her 12-month long durational performance, Compartmentalise in 2012, to her recent travels around Ireland absorbing its rough hewn beauty – all stone circles, limestone and rain – and its reverence for spirits and shrines.

Lottie Consalvo, mid-fall (study), 2016, edition of 1 and 2 AP, size varied, glicée print on cotton rag.

Lottie Consalvo, Hanging mountains, 2016, acrylic, charcoal and plaster on board

This travel and Consalvo’s latest series of paintings have actually occurred in the middle of her latest 12-month durational piece, Desires, wherein she has given herself permission to do those things that make her happiest. The works in mid-fall do not explore any particular desire. What they reflect is Consalvo’s ongoing fascination with states of mind, in particular memory and how certain psychological states reflect physically and within the physical world.

In mid-fall Consalvo considers time, momentum and the nature of transition; something she is necessarily experiencing as a consequence of her long-durational performance work. Here, the habits and rituals of her everyday life are incrementally transformed by the terms of the work and she looks back only in order to observe her progress; to locate those tipping points of no return (which she so deftly illustrates in mid-fall (study) and then again in mid-fall). There is nothing regretful or nostalgic in these considerations, simply a conscious fascination with process, memory, transformation, and the possibility for ritual within it.

Shrines have long been of interest to Consalvo; as places for solitude, faith and reflection and in these works she draws on experiences of reverie – standing in the rain at Powerscourt Waterfall in Wicklow, Ireland – to her own small moments of ceremony – collecting and grounding coal from her garden fire to embed in her painterly surfaces – to create a series of visual spaces that resonate with the quiet emotional energy of these experiences.

Lottie Consalvo,  Stones fall faster than water and I will always love you,  2016, acrylic, charcoal, beads and plaster on board.

Lottie Consalvo, Stones fall faster than water and I will always love you, 2016, acrylic, charcoal, beads and plaster on board.

Several works in the series, including Stones Fall Upon Tall Men, make direct reference to the visual forms of totems and shrines and in addition to the use of coal Consalvo has also used casting plaster. Drawn to its associative fragility and painterly qualities, she incorporates it both within the painted surface and sculpturally, to emulate the collections of stones. The contrast between these bright whites and the pure black only highlighted by the rest of Consalvo’s deliberately subdued palette of earthy, dark tones.

These recurring motifs – the stones, the totems, and these senses of falling or yielding towards new states of being – are necessarily abstract. Flying and Falling, one of the earlier works to be created in the series is unsurprisingly the most figurative and reflects another moment of transition within the series – away from the literal and didactic – towards something more instinctive and emotional.

By abstracting these notions of reflection, memory and momentum, Consalvo instead meditates on the power of certain places (be they literal, emotional or psychological) to bring about transition and change. So long as you have faith enough to let go.