I am currently showing two cabinets, At Cliffe I & II as part of a group show at Oriel Myrddin Gallery. The project has been curated and organised by haptic/tacit , a group of three makers and a writer who each time they exhibit together each invite a guest who they feel is something of a fellow traveller to take part. I am especially pleased to have contributed a short essay for the catalogue for this show that suggest we should look at the localness and smallness of language to see how if contribute to craft practice. I have copied in the essay after the images.
David Gates. Listening to the Particular
The way that people make things, from pots to buildings, is rarely universal. Indeed, craft making and architecture are often discussed by way of localised variations and knowledge systems. The work and the work’s context are mutually shaping.
As someone who designs and makes things, I have long been curious about the connections and discontinuities between the material world of the studio or workshop, and language. However, the case for tacit knowledge has a strong association with writing on the making-arts and practical skills. I find the blanket application of silence and languagelessness troubling. Firstly, makers and craftspeople, like all other people, are social beings working amongst, and interacting with, others. Secondly, decoupling the doing of making from language means that it is difficult to evaluate and theorise the processes and outcomes of art making. Thirdly, the case for tacit knowledge has been used – in crafts literature at least – to exoticise, casting as special and esoteric a maker’s communion with their material. And fourthly, it becomes too easy to extend the argument to suggest that a maker’s epistemological standpoint is wholly grounded in practical skills.
That said, I know that deeply embedded practical skills are vital to the making-arts, and I also know that it can be quite difficult to describe how something is made. So how can we go about reconciling making with language? The key is to pay attention to local use, to particular situations, and to the unnoticed. A consideration of how cultural and social contexts shape pots and buildings should direct us toward a better understanding of language as an aspect of the making-arts.
Reflecting on the commentary in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia (1751–77), sociologist Richard Sennett is clear that the problem lies with the poverty of language, and it is understood that there are numerous concepts we don’t have adequate words for. Using the banal example of reaching for a cup of coffee, linguist Stephen Levinson argues that it is very difficult to describe any spatio-temporally organised action. Clearly, explaining making is not very different to, say, riding a bike, or putting on a sock. Choreographers Helka Kaski and Siobhan Davies make such difficulties explicit in their work entitled Manual (2014), in which a dancer lies prone on the floor ready to hear unrehearsed instructions on how to stand up spoken by a second, unknown person.
Returning to my own experience of the workshop provides, I believe, a clue. I used to work with a man called Jeff (he won’t mind me using his real name). We worked together making quite large, high quality bespoke furniture for the corporate and financial sector – reception desks, boardroom tables, that sort of thing. When we were assembling all the components – large tabletops, leg frames, and pedestal bases – we would try getting things to fit using a range of mallets and hammers. We had a lexicon of words made up on the hoof, usually humorous but perfectly understandable, as we spoke across the growing assembly. “Nodger”, “twonk”, “larrup”, and “worry” amongst others all meant something quite precise to us, but quite meaningless to others.
And this is the crux of the matter; local use and relevance; in other words – context. Language (like craft-making or architecture) is neither totalising nor universal. It does specific things in specific places. If we take a social-constructionist approach to this, we understand that the meaning of any word is derived locally. By taking into account context, and by looking at language-use in close detail we can show what language is used for in craft practices. In doing so we can reveal specific vernacular uses, rather than standardised uses, particular to each situation. We can demonstrate the use of talk in diverse settings, from the practical communication of hammer-blows across a workshop, to work done on professional identity, group membership, and affiliation to the material world. The localised nature of these communicative practices do not necessarily support a generalisable language of making. Nonetheless they do disrupt the standardised view that knowing in crafts practice is an entirely tacit process.
Copyright David Gates 2018