Geographies of Skilled Practice

InstagramCapture_1107f399-c99d-4d15-bc85-d1f6b1f84844

RGS-IBG 2014 is done and dusted. It was a hectic few days, but I saw heaps of great talks and met some lovely fellow geographers! The session Merle and I organised on skilled practice went really well, and we thought we would put our introduction up on our respective blogs for those who couldn’t make it on the day. Without further ado – here it is!

 

Introduction to Geographies of Skilled Practice and Co-production Joanna Mann and Merle Patchett 

These two sessions stem from our shared interest in skilled craft practices, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Independently and collaboratively we have been attempting to theorise and practice a range of skills, repeatedly coming back to questions concerning how to define, recognise, and witness skill.

Skill is an inherently conflicted subject, with a myriad of definitions, applications, and understandings. The accepted OED definition is taken as ‘the ability to do something well’, with an etymology lying in the Old Norse word for discernment and knowledge. This older conception understands reason as a faculty of the mind, and speaks to the orthodox view that skill is the application of knowledge, serving to reinforce the sense of a mind-body spilt. More contemporary understandings quoted by the dictionary, however, speak to skill as a form of practical or embodied knowledge. Rather than foreclose understandings of skill and skilled practice, this session is a forum for exploring conceptions, characterisations, and applications of skill within and beyond geography.

Broadly situated, we understand these two sessions to fit in with the growing interest into the geographies of crafting, making and mending. To date much of this scholarship has sought to underline the social, economic and political potentials of craft and DIY ‘making cultures’ for responding to post-capitalist relations in a messy post-disciplinary environment. However, our concern with the focus on DIY cultures and ‘make do and mend’ philosophies is what happens to the place and relevance of skill?

If skilled practice is defined as the ability to ‘do something well’, are these (often) quick-fix solutions, combined with the availability of new technologies and learning platforms, leading to an impoverished conception of skill in the 21st century, whereby anyone can learn to become a plumber, coder or a taxidermist in a day?

Or is it simply the case that we are becoming skilful in different ways, in different settings and through different means?

Our specific interest in skilled practice emerges from a concern to move beyond interest in short-lived making and learning cultures, to instead think through the more long-term and committed geographical and bodily dynamics involved processes of enskilment. Yet rather than perpetuate romantic and static conceptions of skill, we seek to draw attention to the ways in which skill has always been dynamically co- and re-produced in both the past and the present. Furthermore, taking account of David Pye’s assertion that the crafts have no unique purchase on the matter of skill, we have compiled this session to showcase how research reaches areas as diverse as music, contemporary art, and digital technologies.

As geographers our understandings of skilled practice are shaped by a wide range of work, both within and outside of our own discipline. However the work of anthropologist and long-time theorist of skill Tim Ingold has perhaps been the most influential in terms of rethinking skill in recent years. Ingold’s body of work has steadily overturned the orthodox view that skill is the mere application of knowledge, by demanding instead a perspective that situates the practitioner, right from the start, in the context of an active engagement with the constituents of his or her surroundings.

grown

According to Ingold’s ‘dwelling perspective’, skills are neither innate nor acquired, but are rather ‘grown’: “incorporated into the human organism through practice and training in an environment” (Ingold 2000: 5). Ingold’s focus on practical enskilment, conceived as the embodiment of capacities of awareness and response by environmentally situated agents, has therefore helped us to overcome the overly rigid divisions between mind and body, and ‘art’ and ‘technology’ that have plagued prior theorisations of skill.

Moreover, by arguing that skills are ‘ecologically’ rather than ‘culturally’ produced, Ingold has highlighted that skills are not static ‘cultural traditions’ that are passed on by processes of learning from generation to generation, but are rather ‘regrown’ in each, responding to the specificities of particular ‘ecologies of practice’. 

As such, the essence of skill for Ingold comes to lie in the improvisational ability with which practitioners are able to disassemble the constructions of a craft or technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life. François Sigaut goes so far as to call this the law of the irreducibility of skills (cited in Ingold 2011:62), whereby even the emerging technological work of the digital age demands that skills are, in Ingold’s terms, ‘re-grown’. 

However, while theoretically Ingold’s pronouncements on skill do not sit uneasily with the ‘ecologies of practice’ of the digital age, when selecting ethnographic material to substantiate his arguments he has tended to focus on the comparative study of hunter-gatherer and pastoral societies, drawing particularly on his early research on northern circumpolar reindeer hunting and herding peoples. As such Ingold’s work has be criticised at best for having little or nothing to say about the skills required for the digital age and at worst for putting certain ‘ecologies of practice’ in aspic. Moreover, although Ingold has helped us to overcome the overly rigid division between the works of human beings and those of non-human animals, the fundamental focus in his work, unsurprisingly for an anthropologist, is the role of the human in the development and practice of skill. 

By contrast, a particularly exciting move in geography at the moment is the way in which this human focus is being de-centred by theoretical influences such as non-representational theory and new materialist currents of thought which are increasingly changing the way we understand and interact with the world. For example the re-focusing of cultural geographic concerns on bodily-practices has turned attention away from cognition and representation to issues of embodiment, performance, skill and affect understood as relational and distributive forces and competencies that cut across human-nonhuman divides. These geographic arguments thus promote a modest and inclusive approach to understanding the social which depends on: ‘a philosophy of epistemological detail’ (Deleuze 1994: xix), the foregrounding of tacit knowledge (Rheinberger 1997), and ‘knowing interestingly’ through the development of rich and original articulations (Latour 2000).

A number of interesting and exciting studies have emerged of late, many picking up on these prevailing theoretical currents and empirical orientations. These include, for instance, Caitlin DeSilvey et al’s stories of menders in Southwest England, Richard Ocejo’s examination of cocktail bartenders, and Tim Edensor’s study of stonemasonry. In all of these instances, the work carried out is seeking to access knowledge which is rooted in deep practice and elucidate it for means of preservation, theoretical exemplification, or the passing-on of techniques.

These examples all highlight the way geographers work with skilled practitioners to co-produce knowledge. Arguably, they also showcase the way in which geographical research is a skilled practice in its own right. There are a plethora of methods available to the geographer, all of which require practice, refinement, and engagement to employ successfully. 

Conventionally, geographers have used techniques such as ethnography, interviews, archival research, and participant observation. Auto-ethnography is favoured by Erin O’Connor as an invaluable tool to understand ‘learning by doing’ in the realms of glass blowing. Similarly, Merle’s research into taxidermy practice highlights how the position of learner or apprentice can be a highly instructive context from which to enquire into the decidedly more-than-human sensory, bodily and affective registers of certain forms of skilled practice. Joanna, meanwhile, has found material-led interviews useful, going beyond a straight-forward question-and-answer format into a series of demonstrations, lessons, and experiments within practitioner’s workspaces.

Kenward(Picture from Steve Kenward’s ‘Made not manufactured series’)

All these techniques broadly encapsulate the recent turn towards practice-based inquiry that has witnessed academics using and honing their own skills, new and existing, as part of their research. James Ash, for instance uses his existing skills of video gaming to theorise affect, temporality, and technicity, whereas David Paton applies his experiences with stonemasonry to address materiality. Furthermore David Bissell has drawn on his experience of witnessing skilled performances in golf to challenge the ‘slow-creep dynamic’ through which skills and proficiencies are understood to evolve and become refined over time through repetition and habit. Following a decidedly anti-humanist logic Bissell has gone as far to argue that skills ‘might be better understood as competencies that temporarily possess us: fragile proficiencies that evolve in ways that unsettle the predictabilities inherent to more slow-creep understandings of practical refinement’ (2013: 127). The emergence of skill for Bissell therefore becomes less about trust in the narrowing and perfecting of movements through the drilled repetition of practices and more about the supple exposure to more volatile forms of life that just might develop the skill in a new direction.

Problems arise, however, when we want to access skilled practices of the past. Although the studying of embodied practices and skills of the past should be a central concern of the historical geographer because ‘as one of the chief sources of renewal of social systems… practices and skills are, in a sense, a motor of history’ (Glennie and Thrift 2004: 154) and therefore historical geographies, there is often very little in the historical record to mark them. As Gagen et al (2007:5) point out ‘the passage of time erodes the ‘presence’ of past practices and we must, by necessity, forgo any claims to the possibility of recovering in fullness realms of lived gesture, touch, and emotion’. This is especially so for skilled practices given that many skills were ‘passed-on’, or rather ‘re-grown’, largely tacitly and performatively, as in the case with craft guilds and apprenticeship schemes.

One method around this problem has been to use archival fragments in an attempt to reconstruct and reimagine the past. Increasingly, researchers of historical geography are finding that the notion of historicising does not need to mean deadening what has gone before. Instead they are enlivening the archive in ways which reveal the dynamic and distributed nature of past skilled practices, and are even showing that the leftover pieces of a craft or technology can be creatively reincorporated into the research process and their own walks of life. 

We have devised a few questions to act as a shared touchstone over the next two sessions. They are by no means the sole focus for what follows, but hopefully a good starting point and a basis for a larger group discussion at the end of session two. 

  1. What is the relevance of skill in the 21st Century?
  2. What is skill? How do we co-produce it?
  3. As geographical researchers, how do we witness skill in the past and present?
  4. How do we understand and trace the ‘passing-on’ of skill?
  5. How do we theorise skill as a collective endeavour?
  6. What is the relationship between skill and technology, historically and in the present?

These two sessions will showcase contemporary research into skill, as well as the skill of research. We’re interested in placing/grounding skill – not necessarily as something that is locatable in one particular body, but in the entanglements through which it comes into being and is sustained, lost, and recovered. In turning towards a notion of skill that is simultaneously embodied, placed, tethered, relational and distributed, we look forward to learning more about the practices, politics, histories, and futures of skill. 

Key References:

Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking Through Craft Oxford: Berg.

Ash, J. (2010) Architectures of affect: anticipating and manipulating the event in processes of videogame design and testing Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(4), 653-671.

Bissell, D. (2013). Habit displaced: the disruption of skilful performance Geographical Research 51(2), 120-129.

DeSilvey, C., Ryan, J., & Bond, S. C. (2013) 21 Stories Cultural Geographies

Edensor, T. (2012) Materiality, time and the city: the multiple temporalities of building stone Spatialities: The Geographies of Art and Architecture 35-52.

Ingold, T. (2000) The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill Psychology Press.

Ingold, T. (2011) Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description Taylor & Francis.

O’Connor, E. (2005) Embodied knowledge The experience of meaning and the struggle towards proficiency in glassblowing Ethnography 6(2), 183-204.

Ocejo, R. E. (2012) At your service: The meanings and practices of contemporary bartenders European Journal of Cultural Studies 15(5), 642-658.

Patchett, M. (2014) ‘Witnessing craft: employing video ethnography to attend to the more-than-human craft practices of taxidermy’, in Charlotte Bates (ed) Video Methods: Social Science Research in Motion Routledge.

Paton, D. A. (2013). The quarry as sculpture: the place of making Environment and Planning A 45(5), 1070-1086.

 

Advertisements

RGS-IBG 2014: Geographies of Skilled Practice and Co-production

RGS-IBGThe RGS-IBG conference is a mere two weeks away (where did the time go?!) so it only seemed right that I swing by to plug the sessions I’ve been organising with Dr Merle Patchett – ‘the geographies of skilled practice and co-production’. The two sessions that we’ve put together stem from our shared interest in skilled craft practices, in both historical and contemporary contexts. We had a great response to our call for papers back in January and I’m delighted to announce that the line-up is as follows: 

Session 1: placing skill 

Introduction to Geographies of skilled practice and co-production – Joanna Mann (University of Bristol) and Merle Patchett (University of Bristol)

Simplicity, soul and skill: new folk geographies of hut and bothy – Rachel Hunt (University of Glasgow)

Suffolk and The Suffolk: 21st Century Co-production of Heavy Horse Skills – Kim Crowder (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Machine-made lace, the co-production of knowledge and the spaces of skilled practice –Tom Fisher (Nottingham Trent University) and Julie Botticello (Birkbeck, University of London) 

Binding Us Together: The Artist’s Line for Skilled Co-Production – Elizabeth Hodson (University of Aberdeen)

Session 2: Rethinking skill 

The craft of musical performance: creativity as skilled practice – Emily Payne (University of Oxford)

 A tradition of becoming skilful? – Joanna Mann (University of Bristol)

 An ethnography of image making practices in Hyderabad – Fiza Ishaq (Heidelberg University, Germany)

Struggling over skill: materiality, embodiment and contestation in the surfboard industry – Andrew Warren (University of New England, Australia) and Chris Gibson (University of Wollongong, Australia) 

Re-thinking redundancy in crisis: materials and skills beyond excess – Chantel Carr (University of Wollongong, Australia)

Both these sessions will be on Thursday 28th August, the first starting at 14:40 and the second starting at 16:50 in Electrical Engineering room 403a. We’re also hoping that independent artist Jethro Bryce is going to run a drawing exercise for us during the break between the two sessions, so it should be a jam-packed afternoon. 

I’ve had a quick look through the online programme of events as well, and can already spy lots of sessions that interest me. On Wednesday there’s a discussion on ‘performing geographies’, and three sessions on ‘making geographies’. ‘Postcolonial geographies, political ontologies, and posthumanism’ sounds like it might be a good way to start Thursday morning, and I’m totally intrigued by the notion of ‘ad-hoc geographies’ that day too. I was hoping for a quieter Friday, but alas, ‘Speculative Realism and Speculative Materialism’ sounds too good to miss, and I’ll definitely stick my nose into ‘cinematicity’, ‘assemblage theory’ and ‘literary cartographies’ as well. It’s going to be a hectic few days! 

albert hall(Clearly the Albert Hall and not the Royal Geographical Society, but it’s one of the only photos I took last year… and it’s quite pretty)

 

RGS-IBG 2014 CFP: Geographies of Skilled Practice and Co-production

RGS-garden (1)Myself and my supervisor Merle Patchett are organising a session to be held at the annual RGS-IBG conference this summer on the theme of skilled practice and co-production. If you’d like to take part then we’d love to hear from you! Details below: 

Call for Papers: 2014 RGS Annual Conference, London 26-29 August 2014

Geographies of skilled practice and co-production

Session abstract: What is the place of skilled practice in the 21st century? Does the frenetic pace of life and availability of new technologies augur the death of skill or are we simply becoming skilful in different ways, in different settings and through different means? Where past conceptions of skilled practice have focussed on notions of the solitary artisan refining techniques alone or under a master in the workshop, geographers are increasingly paying attention to the ways in which skill is co-produced between different actors (both human and non-human), technologies and materials in and across a variety of temporal and spatial scales, contexts and settings. In this session we thus want to make space (and time) for papers that offer theoretical reflections on skilled practice and processes of becoming-skilful, as well as papers that showcase committed empirical engagements with skilled practice and its geographies of co-production.

As such we invite papers exploring, but by no means limited to:

* The place(s) and relevance of skill in contemporary life

* Theoretical reflections on skill and becoming-skilful

* The learning and refining of skills – i.e. how is skill co-produced?

* The ethics and/or politics of skilled-practice as a form of co-production

* Ethnographies of skilled practice

* The influence of technology and the non-human within skilled practice

* The use of ‘skill’ as a geographical research tool

* Challenges of witnessing and articulating skilled practice

* What counts as ‘skilled’ practice?

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Joanna Mann (Joanna.mann@bristol.ac.uk) and Merle Patchett (Merle.patchett@bristol.ac.uk) by Friday 7th February 2014.

***

Longer version: Geographers have long worked with skilled practitioners to co-produce research in a whole variety of contexts. Recent examples include DeSilvey et al’s (2013) stories of menders in Southwest England, Richard Ocejo’s (2012) examination of cocktail bartenders, and Patchett et al’s (2011, 2012) collaborative re-workings of taxidermy specimens. In all of these instances, the work carried out is trying to access knowledge which is rooted in deep practice and elucidate it for means of preservation, theoretical exemplification, or the passing on of techniques.

Meanwhile, theoretical insights from outside of geography are changing understandings of what it means to co-produce skill itself. Anthropology, for instance has shown how skills are generated in fields of force and through circulations of materials that cut across boundaries (Ingold, 2013; 2000). Sociology has highlighted how skills develop within processes, and become highly attuned to problems the more it is honed (Sennett, 2009). Meanwhile academics working within the theoretical realms of new materialisms have emphasised a move away from these romantic inflections to look at the capricious and unruly matter of matter, further enabling geographers to look at the materials of co-production without negating new technologies as forms of skilled practice in themselves (Bennett, 2010; Connolly, 2013).

Furthermore, the recent turn towards practice-based inquiry has witnessed academics using their own skills, both new and existing, as part of their research. James Ash (2012; 2013) uses his existing skills of video gaming to theorise affect, temporality, and technicity, whilst Tim Ingold (2000; 2013) often draws on his experience of cello-playing to illustrate arguments. The task of becoming proficient in such skills has also proven to be strong academic fodder whilst interrogating topics as varied as glass blowing (O’Connor, 2007) and corncrake counting (Lorimer, 2008). Yet, the skilled practices involved in academic work itself – both of writing and research methodologies – can also provide a fertile ground for thought, as evidenced by recent insights on archival methods (Lorimer, 2010), innovative phonographic work (Gallagher and Prior, 2013), and performative writing practices (Dewsbury, 2014), amongst others.

In this session we want to move beyond the plethora of methods advocating ‘make-do’ techniques and DIY cultures and make space (and time) for papers that offer theoretical reflections on skilled practice and processes of becoming-skilful, as well as papers that showcase committed empirical engagements with skilled practice and geographies of co-production.

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Joanna Mann (Joanna.mann@bristol.ac.uk) and Merle Patchett (Merle.patchett@bristol.ac.uk) by Friday 7th February 2014.

Worldwide knit in public day

Saturday (June 8th) was the ninth worldwide knit in public day. The idea is to get people together in a celebration of knitting, allowing like-minded people to meet, form friendships, and try to inspire others to learn the skill.

wwkip (1)

Among the events that took place in the UK, one of the largest that took place was at St Pancras Station in London where ‘loveknitting’ teamed up with Rowan yarns and provided the space, materials, and tuition for people to knit a mug cosy. Throughout the day hundreds of people knitted, exchanged tips and tricks, chatted, or simply watched. It was a hugely visible display of something usually quite solitary and domestic.

WWKIP

Photo from the St Pancreas Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StPancrasInt

Closer to home Paper Village pom-pomed a tree opposite the shop and I took my half-finished sock out for a coffee in the morning sunshine. Knitting in public is nothing new to me really; I’m part of two knitting groups, so I’m regularly spotted out and about with my knitting. I also hate sitting still without anything to occupy my hands, so whenever I’m in front of the TV or a passenger in a car I’ll have some needles clacking away. I love it when we spot other knitters on the motorway!

Knitting in public always reminds me of a paper I read a while back by Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush (2011) called Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender. In it they make the argument that knitting in public is out of place. They claim it can be jarring, for it ‘turns the interiority of the domestic outwards’ by exposing that which is usually enclosed; an invisible and unpaid (feminine) labour of home life. Suddenly the usually invisible is opened up for public consumption, there for all to see.

The mix of reactions to this act is astonishing – just think back to the outcry last year when a young woman was caught on camera knitting whilst watching Murray play Baghdatis on centre court. I was watching at the time and remember cheering at the sight! She was knitting without looking at her work and certainly didn’t seem to be distracting those around her. But logging onto Twitter after the match had (finally) been won by Murray I was shocked to see that others were genuinely outraged by her actions. I was even more shocked to see that someone knitting at Wimbledon made the news the next day! ‘Knitting woman’ was all over the papers. No sign of ‘texting man’, or ‘tweeting teenager’. The display of pink yarn had managed to incite all manner of reactions in people, and I really couldn’t decide whether to be angry that this was a news story at all or happy that people were actually paying attention to the act and skills of knitters.

woman_knits_at_wimbledon

Given all this, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that knitting in public has been described as an act of craftivism – that curious combination of craft (as production, creativity, skill) and activism – in the way it can become political. This might be through space-making or community-building, or by raising awareness. Not only does knitting in public expose hidden labour, then, but it also highlights that public spaces are never static or permanent, but process that are always under construction. Furthermore, this construction doesn’t always have to be geared towards capitalist venture, but might instead focus on building values of mentorship, community, or gender empowerment. Knitting, and handicrafts more broadly, also sit wonderfully at odds with the contemporary imperative towards hyper-production through creating a slow space in which the regime of technology and the culture of speed are brought into question. I think this juxtaposition comes right to the fore in the WWKIP event at St Pancreas with the contrast of people sat knitting in the midst of a flurry of high-speed trains, rushing passengers, and frantic announcements. It just adds a whole new layer to the composition of places, and I for one think it’s brilliant. The best news is that WWKIP day has been such a roaring success in the past 8 years that it’s now become a week-long event. So if you’ve not had a chance to take your hooks, needles, and yarn out and about there’s still time!

A very woolly day out

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending my day surrounded by, and talking about, my favourite material – wool. All in the name of research, of course, I left sunny Bristol and caught the train into London for the day. Stop one was the ‘spring knitting and stitching show’ at Olympia. I’ve never been to this venue before, and as I approached I felt a sense of growing excitement as the imposing frontage came into view and I joined a trail of people also destined to the halls of crafty goodness. Upon entering I was greeted by two huge exhibition halls stuffed full with stalls selling all manner of crafts-stuff; beads, fabric, cross-stitch kits, books, buttons, sewing machines, and wool. Actually, there wasn’t anywhere near as much wool as I was anticipating, but that was probably a good thing given my tendency to buy and hoard the stuff.

My favourite stall there was ‘black sheep wools’. They specialised in selling heavily discounted branded yarns (Debbie Bliss, Sirdar, Noro, Rowan), all bagged up in packs of 10 and priced with sale stickers. They’d gone for the interesting tactic of just piling all the bags up on the floor and letting people scramble through them. I stood to one side for a few minutes and watched the scene. It was nothing short of hilarious as I witnessed women pushing others out of the way to get hold of the yarns they wanted, others grabbing random bags, throwing them across the stand to one another, and calling out to their friends. Some even decided to wade through the bags in order to get to the ones at the back.  The frenzy the combination of cheap yarn and induced panic of seeing it piled in such vast, random packages really did epitomise the enthusiasm people have for yarns.

After escaping the pulsating crowd I came across a stand hosted by the Royal Museum Greenwich where some of the cast of their upcoming performance of ‘Quedenraha’ were running workshops to teach people to crochet with plastic bags. This appealed to me for two reasons: 1) I’d not used plastic bags to crochet with before, and 2) I’d get the chance to sit down after 3 hours of walking around. So, sitting down with two wonderfully adorned ladies I managed to produce a flower corsage using carrier bags from Sainsbury’s and M&S.

The scramble for bargain yarn, my plastic bag crocheted flower, and one of the many intricate quilts on show

Other highlights of the show included knitting some bunting with ladies from The Knitter, looking around a stunning exhibition of quilts, and seeing young and old alike get excited about their latest findings. One woman, who stopped dead in front of me down one of the walkways summed it up well when she announced “I’m just too overwhelemed with desire for all this lovely stuff! I don’t know where to go next!” I’m not sure where she went next to be honest, but I had plans for the rest of my day so I left the chaos of the knit and stitch show behind and hopped back on the tube.

Thirty minutes later I arrived at my second stop: campaign for wool’s ‘Wool House’ exhibition at Somerset House. I knew it was going to be good when I was greeted in the courtyard by a flock of sheep! Real walking, bleating wool! Inside the exhibition featured a series of rooms designed to illustrate how wool can inhabit a space, playing with colours, textures, and different usages from carpets to coats, and chairs to wall coverings. My two favourite rooms were complete polar opposites of each other – first the ‘natural room’ by Josephine Ryan which played on wool’s natural, undyed beauty and authentic feel, the second was Anne Kyyrö Quinn’s room which was incredibly bright, vibrant, and orderly. There was also a huge wool runner down the length of the corridor, a crochetdermy bear, and a spinning demonstration. It was a very tactile exhibition – and difficult to restrain yourself from jumping on all the furniture and enjoying its glorious wolly-ness. I seriously enjoyed how good the exhibition smelled as well! A strange thing to pass comment on perhaps, but this wonderful exhibition was a proper treat for all of the senses. The main ‘take-home’ message though was that wool is a versatile, renewable, and sustainable material. Lovely stuff.

Wool House highlights: the sheep, entrance to the exhibition and my two favourite rooms

The third (and final) stop of my woolly day out was Goldsmiths, University of London to attend a seminar by Janis Jefferies on feminist ‘crocheted strategies’. The paper was just as interesting as I’d hoped it would be, and offered an interrogation of how the 1980 feminist ideas and strategies of Sue Richardson have been taken up in the recent resurgence of craft. What was particularly of note for Janis, is how many women recognise these feminist histories but do not feel bound by them, and instead use craft to make statements of empowerment. This has been recognised by much of the craft literature now, but still missing, Janis argued, is an understanding of how textile-based investigations contribute to the construction of knowledge. As a tactile experience, textile work has, historically, been subjugated to structures of power and ideology, and ignores the practical, material knowledge of the knowers – women. Contemporary feminist work is seeking to take account of how the many different worlds which co-exist in different communities, have different ways of thinking, and doing, knowledge.

Janis’s paper also touched on explanations for the recent resurgence in handicrafts, and supported the claim that at the heart of its rise is community. Not only is the notion of community associated with appealing values that people want  themselves to feel a part of, but, contra feminist arguments that craft represses women, craft is allowing for enhancement of the self though active participation. The increased prevalence of technology which has accompanied the rise in craft practices then, is not paradoxical, but an extension of the desire for collectivity. Collectivity might imply crafting together for a given cause – such as making a stand against capitalism – or it might be the more simple desire to just be around others for mutual support, help, and advice.

Our post-seminar conversation covered issues ranging from the sentimental importance of materials used in craft practice, the sustainability of the materials used (linking us back to my earlier visit to Wool House), the influence of technology of modern crafting (blogs, YouTube etc), and possibilities for a day at Goldsmiths to hold a cross-disciplinary craft based event (which would be awesome).

That was a long post! But it was a wonderfully busy day that’s given me loads of ideas to follow up and take forward in my own research. I look forward to sharing the results!

The spring knit and stitch show is on until Sunday 17th March (ticket prices vary), and the free Wool House exhibition runs until March 24th at Somerset House.