The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects

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Full Circle

Museum of Contemporary Craft curator Namita Gupta Wiggers introduces Manuf®actured.

Full Circle

Namita Gupa Wiggers

Industrialization is often blamed as the demise of craft. The ability to produce functional objects more quickly and efficiently shifted the place of craft and the handmade object in modern times. As it became less essential for those who create with their hands to make tableware, textiles or furniture, object-making shifted within and outside of the craft arena to include the production of utilitarian-_based_ forms. Societal needs shifted to different places on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Conceptual practice merged with craft, resulting in a contestatory relationship that continues to percolate to this day.

This shift is particularly problematic today for those who choose to work in one of the five historically defined craft media: wood, glass, metal, fiber and clay. The academy today provides a menu of offerings to students in visual art disciplines. Whether you study art, craft or design, you can add clay and performance or embroidery and computer animation to your repertoire of making skills. Promiscuity with materials, techniques and concepts prevails as artists have – and continue – to actively cross the boundaries between visual arts disciplines.

In early 2006, Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov first proposed a project that evolved into this exhibition and the accompanying publication. Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects is a focused critical study of an emerging class of objects created by artists, craftspeople and designers who are working with rather than against industrialization and globalization. Consumer desires made consumption go global, a problematic process for a number of reasons, including the demise of regional identity. The fifteen international artists included in this exhibition, however, reveal a significant shift in the relationship to such globally available goods that counters homogeneity in a surprising way. Steven and Mara define this cultural shift as manuf®acturing, a process through which makers use banal and abundant industrially-produced objects as their raw materials, seamlessly merging techniques and processes drawn from art, craft and design to create uniquely hand-made work.

Thus, as our guest curators have identified, the conversation comes full circle. The hand and machine work together, and the visual arts are merged into a single practice. Importantly, the artists included in this exhibition call our attention to new materials and ways of working. Through careful curatorial selection, this exhibition also reveals how manuf®acturing returns our attention to traditional craft forms: the bowl, teacup, dress, comb, light fixture, rug and chair. Here, utilitarian-based forms remain conceptual, not functional, but their creators are visibly operating from within rather than against industrialization.

Museum of Contemporary Craft thanks Steven and Mara, the participating artists, craftspeople and designers, and Chronicle Books for their collaborative vision and work beyond the call of duty that made this exhibition and accompanying publication possible. As a museum that engages craft as a richly diverse subject of study, this exhibition reveals one of the many new and exciting ways in which craft prevails in contemporary culture.

Art, Craft and Design Realigned and the Birth of Manuf®acturing

Guest curators Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov talk about art, craft and design revolution that has given rise the manuf®actured object.

Download the Manuf®actured exhibition brochure.

Art, Craft and Design Realigned and the Birth of Manuf®acturing

Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov

At the beginning of this new century, craft was in crisis mode. Craft was being banished from institutions, organizations and general civilized discourse, sending craft-centric circles spinning with anxiety about the future of their field. Some of the greatest fears took hold when New York’s American Craft Museum became the Museum of Arts and Design in 2002. Just a year later, the California College of Arts & Crafts (where Steven has been on the faculty since 1995) became California College of the Arts. But it wasn’t just the large urban institutions that were shifting semantic positions. Even arts organizations in smaller towns were experiencing similar existential moments, electing to drop the term craft altogether. Some in the craft world embraced the changes while others responded with grumbling, confusion and even anger.

Only one year ago, the seventy-year-old Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery went through a similar questioning period and ultimately changed its name to Museum of Contemporary Craft. Their choice could almost be considered a radical one for the time – to embrace craft and focus on the term in its most active form, as a verb. Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects is a key part of their mission to present new, relevant and expansive ways to define the discipline.

For craft was not expiring as much as it was changing, evolving in a way that few could identify and that even fewer could anticipate. In fact, the small-scale titular loss of craft on one level turned out to be the large-scale rediscovery of craft on numerous others. On the professional front, craft materials emerged as key constituents of contemporary sculpture, furniture, fashion and industrial design; craft processes found new relevance as artists explored the meanings that accrued to mass produced goods, and industrial designers explored the promise of rapid prototyping and individualized production; luxury brands focused marketing muscle on their products’ artisanal traditions and highlighted areas where the handmade was celebrated for its virtuosity. In the two-dimensional realm, a surge in hand-made typography re-energized graphic projects everywhere – from restaurant menus to corporate identities.

In retrospect, what we experienced with the term craft was both a linguistic switcheroo, and the radical systemic shift that insiders feared. Even though the word lost some of its prominence, the key signifiers of craft remained undiminished. Craft – the process, the intention and the action verb centered on a deep and abiding sense of materiality – has seemingly been inserted back into everything that matters most in visual culture. Select artists from nearly every creative field – from art to design, music to theater, and cinema to literature – have been quick to claim or reclaim craft as part of their professional heritage, an integral part of their toolkit, and absolutely essential to the creation of great work. While the word may have disappeared from some very visible marquees, the good news is that the material concerns, processes and transformations that craft addresses are enjoying larger and more visually literate audiences than ever before.

Manuf®actured is based on that escalating visual literacy but also on the welcome willingness (a quality that has always been there, but is particularly prevalent now) among artists, craftspeople and designers to approach, absorb and act upon new ideas, new ways of making, and new types of materials. With respect to manuf®actured objects, the results so far have been three-fold: the creation of a class of strange-yet-familiar objects that are art-craft-design hybrids; the utilization of a wide range of already manufactured products and product components as powerful and readily available raw materials; and elevated attention, curiosity and dialogue among growing numbers of aficionados, collectors, critics and consumers. More people than ever before are turned-on to the merits, opportunities, and pleasures endemic to 21st-century object making.

Each of the artists, craftspeople and designers in Manuf®actured embodies the concept of conspicuous transformation, itself an updating of the term “conspicuous consumption” noted by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. They use a vast array of consumer goods as their raw material: tin cans, staples, detergent bottles, plastic tape, marker caps, lipsticks, zippers, foam packaging, plastic combs, thread spools, highway signs and more. They take these often virgin products of consumer culture and either separate them into modules, aggregate them together in great numbers, or both. This is manuf®acturing: the active and thoughtful accumulation, organization and transformation of common materials through a novel combination of hand, tool, machine and production processes.

The thing that is new in manuf®actured objects is that it appears to be the first time that artists, craftspeople and designers are pulling their raw materials from the racks of pristine manufactured goods or post-consumer products and packaging that have entered the waste stream. Because they are manufactured, these materials can be acquired in vast quantities with the relative ease of getting one’s groceries. Abundance on this scale often generates strategies of repetition – objects are multiplied by whatever power the artist chooses. Pedestals can overflow, corners can be filled, whole walls can be covered; complete rooms can be outfitted, dwarfing the eon-spanning metrics traditionally provided by the scale of the human body.

While diverse, the practitioners in Manuf®actured have the following in common: they all share the ability to transform familiar, banal, even previously manufactured materials into objects of great meaning. They all evince the deepest respect for their materials through their careful attention to even the tiniest of details. They all advance a new definition for what is considered beautiful through their pure visual presence, even as they offer social commentary about our immersion within consumer society and our disconnection from both nature and the act of creating.

Manuf®actured includes a wide variety of works that challenge our notions of what materials can be, accelerating our visual culture, and pointing toward a new type of environmentally-aware bridge between the creative disciplines. The work ranges from the precision-bound domestic ironies of metalsmith Harriete Estel Berman to the meticulously twisted wigs of fiber artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir; from the minimalist cubes of crocheted cotton frozen in resin by designer Marcel Wanders to artist Jason Rogenes’ glowing otherworldly light totems. Seen together – for the first time anywhere – the pieces shown in this exhibition are remarkably varied and thought-provoking.

As object-making has moved toward manuf®acturing, it has increasingly drawn upon the lessons, processes and intellectual challenges that artists, craftspeople and designers have always negotiated at the highest echelons. This new kind of craft is now thoroughly and unmistakably contemporary.

In so many ways, craft is still about what it was always about – the integral process of making, the joy of mastery, material exploration, secret but attainable knowledge, the mark of the maker, reference points to human scale, the kinesthetic relationships between hand and mind, and honest and sincere rendition. We are in the midst of an art, craft and design revolution, one in which the fringes are as fascinating as the familiar center – further fulfilling contemporary visual culture’s radical promise of innovation and possibility.

Lifting a lesson from popular culture (something that manuf®actured objects are prone to do), consider the story of the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi. He died a noble death in Star Wars, willingly succumbing to Darth Vader’s light saber so that his energy could be released throughout the universe. In a similar way, craft has vanished one moment only to manifest more broadly than ever a moment later. This time it has been absorbed into seemingly every element of creative culture – a powerful force and equally powerful source guiding the makers of objects whenever and wherever questions of material-based poetics are raised, celebrated and rewarded.

Adapted from “Art, Craft, and Design ReAligned” as printed in Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects, published by Chronicle Books, 2008.

Manuf®actured Website

Visit the Manuf®actured website to learn more about the exhibition, participating artists, and access extended texts.


Installing Manuf®actured

Go behind the scenes during the installation of Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects. Artists Jason Rogenes, Laura Splan and Harriete Estel Berman talk about their installation process and the work on view in the exhibition. Videographer/editor: John Brockway

Manuf®actured Exhibition Walkthrough

Mara Holt Skov, co-curator of Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects, leads an exhibition walkthrough. Also includes commentary by Museum of Contemporary Craft curator Namita Gupta Wiggers and participating artists Harriete Estel Berman and Laura Splan. Recorded August 27, 2008.

CraftPerspectives Lecture: Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov

Visiting curators Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov present Manuf®actured: From Readymade to Alreadymade, a lecture given in conjunction with the exhibition on view at the Museum of Contemporary Craft. The curators give a behind-the-scenes account of how they developed the exhibition, how they collaborated with the artists and how their work over the last three years has materialized into the exhibition currently on view. The lecture took place at University of Oregon’s White Stag Building on September 18, 2008.

Interview with Sonya Clark

Namita Gupta Wiggers, curator at Museum of Contemporary Craft, talks with Manuf®actured artist Sonya Clark about her recent series of work using combs, hairdressing as a primordial fiber art, and the social and historical significance of the black plastic fine toothed comb. Includes an informal Q & A with museum visitors. This interview took place at the Museum of Contemporary Craft on October 12, 2008.

Visit the Manuf®actured website for more information about related programs.

August 28, 2008 – January 04, 2009

Curated by: Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov

Manuf®actured introduces a provocative new class of objects emerging from the permeable edges of art, craft and design. The exhibition highlights works from fifteen international artists who appropriate manufactured products to create sculptural works and installations of all sizes and scales. Rather than transform a single natural material, the artists on view employ a variety of pristine goods culled directly from manufacturers and store shelves as their raw materials. Nevertheless, each piece exhibits craft’s time-honored, labor-intensive repetitive processes as a strategy for object-making.

Visit the Manuf®actured website to learn more about the exhibition, participating artists, and access extended texts.

Manuf®actured was organized for the Museum of Contemporary Craft by guest co-curators Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov and is accompanied by a Chronicle Books publication.

Artists: Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, Boris Bally, Harriete Estel Berman, Boym Partners, Jerry Bleem, Cat Chow, Sonya Clark, Mitra Fabian, Livia Marin, Régis Mayot, Jason Rogenes, Devorah Sperber, Laura Splan, Marcel Wanders, Dominic Wilcox