Thursday, March 01, 2007

Craft Research (blog)

There is an interesting post by Mike Press over at Craft Research. (BTW - I am perfectly happy to sit in Mike's category of HybridMakers). When I set out on this whole PhD adventure I was going to avoid the distinction "craft" completely. This wasn't because of any kind of cultural snobbishness - just simply that there are other folks that know far more about that area than I ever will. However, I no longer think that making this kind of distinction is viable. When I started the current project in 2004 I was Hell-bent on updating the Piaget Group (or Klein Group) from Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ as a suitable model upon which to base a system of distinction, or at least to position objects in relation to each other across traditional art and design boundaries. The rationale for this study emerged from my own professional practice which has involved the use of various computer-mediated technologies within a range of contexts. These include: consumer product development, artist-architect collaborations, fine art practice and the curation of exhibitions featuring practitioners that make use of these technologies.

Professor Krauss took no time in pointing out my flawed logic in using this method:

"The key to the expanded field is to locate the binary that defines the object you want to expand... You need to clarify for the logic of the Klein group to make sense. You might refer to Jameson's Political Unconscious where it is important and explained in his Introduction."

The Piaget/Klein group must be founded on a binary opposition. This has pushed me towards an important realisation - it is precisely this sort of dichotomous thinking that my study seeks to eclipse. In proposing a hybrid art and design practice what I am making an argument for is a post-disciplinary or pluralist approach to object making. Or, put another way - Mike's 'HybridMaker'. Practitioners from the ‘making disciplines’ have throughout history moved back and forth across disciplines in the pursuit of problem solving (e.g. the Bauhaus artists such as Moholy-Nagy, and Russian Constructivists Rodchenko and Malevich that applied new technologies to create interdisciplinary works within a utopian agenda to integrate art and everyday life). However, it seems that at the current time (possibly through the application of computer-mediated technologies) the incidence of this border-crossing is on the increase. My study capitalises on an increase in the level of accessibility of these technologies.

These changes are themselves responses to greater changes taking place on a global scale. The transition to a global, information-based economy offers opportunities for art and design practitioners to develop new production paradigms, design vocabularies and methodologies. However, research and teaching in universities will also need to embrace this development to stay competitive. The Cox Review of Creativity in Business recommends that multidisciplinary postgraduate programmes in creativity, technology and business be created within certain universities as centres of excellence. However, since universities are structured around disciplines - there are obvious disadvantages for cross-disciplinary research and teaching (Russell, 2000). For these types of programmes to survive within the disciplinary structure of the university support for boundary-crossing research such as mine will have to increase. Internationally there are increasing numbers of these Interdisciplinary Design Masters’ courses (e.g. The new MFA Design curriculum at the California College of the Arts, The Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL), The Herron School of Art and Design of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Master of Design in Designed Objects - where I stole the name of this blog from).

In ‘The new production of knowledge’ (Gibbons, et al, 1994) the authors’ questioned the adequacy of traditional disciplinary structures within universities in the context of broader social, technological and economic contexts. Recent changes (Cox Review, etc.) indicate that this ‘new production of knowledge’ is now having an effect on art and design disciplines. These suggest that practitioners can increasingly be selective about the position they adopt in relation to the traditional distinctions of conventional art and design practices in favour of engaging with what might be viewed as an expanded cultural field. The result of this is the creation of new orders of critical, cultural and technological objects. My research begins to look at issues arising from this.

The argument developed in my study (my funding runs out 1st October, 2007) is that an increasing number of practitioners are able and willing to use computer-mediated technologies to negotiate working across disciplinary boundaries and thereby transcend traditional modes of practice. As use of these technologies have become more widespread, certain practitioners have shifted away from using them as productivity tools and used them for design experimentation (Callicott, 2001; Lynn & Rashid, 2003; Hensel, Menges & Weinstock, 2004). Use of technologies in these ways may involve the generative use of new production processes and the exploitation of the unique features of these technologies (Gershenfeld, 2005 and Hopkinson, et al, 2005); or may involve the end-user as a co-designer - resulting in ‘tailored’ objects (Devereux, 2002); or make use of software as an autonomous, generative tool increasing the opportunity for new modes of design practice (Atkinson, 2003). I have loads more examples.

By focusing on the use of these digital tools my research seeks to explore if this shift to design experimentation offers possibilities for a trend towards new forms of convergent practice and speculates on the potential implications of a hybrid 3D digital praxis which draws on the critical discourse of intersecting disciplinary domains.

The diagram at the top of this post might help here. This figure is called the Kani
zsa Square. Here is a description:

"...the Kanisza square, shows that the impression of a square in front of the four circles is one way the mind interprets the picture, which is really just four circles, each with a quadrant removed. The square is not strongly or irresistibly perceived, the mind only offering it as a probable explanation for the figure. You may notice that the mind may supply ghostly edges to the square to separate it from the background. This figure was used in recent research with infants (Science, around November 2000) to find out the age at which different elements are combined to form a recognizable object. The age was determined as about 7 months after birth, on the basis of brain activity recorded electrically. This demonstrates yet again that perception is learned, not innate."

This illustrates how I am currently thinking about hybrid practice. The traditional art and design disciplines provide the 'ghostly edges' to the perceived field (square) of my area of enquiry. However, this area is dependent on these traditional disciplines (it supplements but doesn't supersede them) - if you were to take one away you would no longer see the square. A bit trite maybe, but it beats the Hell out of talking about the "interpenetration of disciplinary epistemologies."
In addition, Bruce B. Janz says this about transdisciplinarity:

"... a redefinition of Aristotelean logic to include a “law of included middle”, instead of a law of excluded middle, and a recognition of complexity as a fundamental feature of knowledge.”

This appeals to my pluralist, fuzzy inclinations.

Some thoughts:

The notion of a ‘hybrid’ art and design practice makes use of a biological metaphor. Let me extend this metaphor as a thought experiment. Genetics is the science of genes, heredity, and the variation of organisms (practitioners). Genes (skills and processes) are passed on from parent to child and are believed by many to be an important part of what decides the appearance and behaviour of offspring (objects). Reproduction and mutation create variation in the gene pool of a species (discipline). This variation over generations results in adaptation and evolutionary change. Adaptations enable living organisms to cope with environmental stresses and pressures. So is hybrid practice an adaptation to the stresses and pressures of the 21st Century?

If we apply this biological metaphor to art and design practice it raises a number of questions. What forms of hybrid practice exist? How do skills, processes, qualities and concerns from ‘parent’ disciplines contribute to the appearance and behaviour of objects produced by a practitioner working in a hybrid mode? What might the benefit or detriment of this be to the practitioner and the parental disciplines?

Interesting Design Neologisms


michael said...

Hi John, i would like to add some points that will not really be helpful to your investigation ... but that came to my mind while i read your post.
Somewhere in Dunne’s "Hertzian Tales" appears the term "post-optimal" in relation to products, which i interpret as products that have become less advanced, less usable, and that are now cluttered with new and unnecessary features to keep consumers interested. My favourite example is our toaster that makes a deafaning beeping-sound 10 seconds before the toast jumps. Its unecessary, annoying and ridiculous. Post-optimal. Now my(?) idea is that because our product culture has somehow reached its pinnacle (not looking at electronic gadgets here) ... and to make a long story short, suddenly places designers in the position of artists, in that they begin in this post-optimal culture to question our relationship to stuff, to artefacts. And designers are ideally suited as they have the experience, skill and knowledge of material culture and peoples interaction with them. So now we have these provocative objects that question the relationship between us and the world, which has formerly been the domain of the Arts. Interesting development.
Dichotomy: Over the past couple of weeks i have read Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” (highly recommended) from my point of view you get a very interesting insight into the foundations of our Sciences ... when they were still described as natural philosophies. The “researchers” then were conducting experiments while at the same time working as architects, developing systems to sort books or to design methods to pump water from flooded mine shafts. Their curiosity and skills were manifold and encompassed many disciplines before these really became Disciplines.
Buckminster Fuller writes about this in “operating manual for spaceship earth” (at least in the German version) that (political) states originate in piracy, that they were founded by The Great Pirates. These had an interest in keeping people ignorant, in that no-one should have a complete overview of the system, the world and how it worked. Of course they themselves did. They had travelled the world, knew the “secrets” and traded with distant places. (All wonderfully depicted in Stephenson’s book) Thus they supported the creation of disciplines at Universities for their subjects, so the brightest people would specialise in one field only and would excel only in that, not questioning the status quo.
My third thought regards the “openness” of the tools we use. In the manufacture culture things were built to last. In our consumerist culture things are built to not last, so we may replace them with the latest model. This relates again to the “post-optimal” product and the OSX “migration assistant” comes to mind, as a proof of it. Older generations of artefacts could be tinkered with, taken apart and understood. Today our products have labels on them warning to open them and to be opened by “qualified personnel” only. The very same goes for the software applications we use. We can’t open them up any more to understand them. On the other hand a specific tool affords (in Gibbson’s sense) really only what it was made for. A wooden chair can afford many things besides sitting on it. You can stand on it, turn it into toothpicks, and burn it in a cold Winter. The more specific an artefact is, the less it seems to afford. I guess not understanding the tools we use, and not being able to “look under the hood” degrades us to mere “users” and “consumers” and doesn’t leave us in the designerly important position to fathom the stuff we are using. This strongly encourages the point that as a designer its not only interesting in having basic skills in programming, but also in electronics and other manual techniques.

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I am exploring a hybrid form of art and design practice through the use of computer-based design and fabrication tools. I am interested in experimental objects and spaces that are dynamic and responsive and seek to challenge perceptions, expectations and established behavior.

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