Category: Sources

On material consciousness

On “The Craftsman” (Richard Sennett) Chapter 4: Material Consciousness

In The Craftsman Richard Sennett explores the the idea of craftsmanship, the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Very broadly speaking the book deals with the integration of thinking and making.

In the chapter about material consciousness he specifically discusses the relationship between a craftsman and his materials and tools. “

“The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stephane Mallarme, “I have a wonderful idea for a poem but can’t seem to work it out,” whereupon Mallarme replied, “My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” (p.119)

Sennett proposes that a craftsman is driven by the ability to change things, and that their thinking revolves around three key issues: metamorphosis, presence and anthropomorphosis.

Through three stories on pottery, brick making and stucco, Sennett argues that these crafts and the thinking about them have developed over the centuries through intimate interaction with the materials, through trial and error. Gradually perfecting techniques, or applying them to a different context. But also identifying themselves in and with the work by leaving makers marks or signing. Sennett uses brick making as an example of how anthropomorphism becomes part of the discourse:

“Honest”brick describes brickwork in which all the bricks laid, say, in a Flemish bond course come from the same kiln, and even more, “honest” brick evokes a building surface in which the brick work is exposed rather than covered over: no cosmetics, no “pots of whore’s rouge” have been applied to its face”. (p.140)

This is in contrast with the developments in stucco, which could be used mimic other materials, or hide any underlying materials. This sparked a modern debate on the virtues of naturalness, and the contrary freedoms of fantasy artifice, with brick embodying the Enlightenment desires to live in harmony with simple things.

The projection of human qualities to materials (anthropomorphism) leads to a philosophical debate on simulated materials or objects, made to look like they were hand-made.

Position of the author

Sennett is not one to take a very explicit position but throughout the book it is clear he is proposing the craftsmans integrated thinking and making as a model for living a productive and meaningful life. On multiple occasions he is critical of the split between thinking and doing that has been central to a lot of western thinking since Plato.

Why is this relevant

Within the last century effects for cinema have moved from physical and photo-chemical to much more metaphorical using digital tools.

My argument is that although digital visual effects may not have as much of the tactile physical interaction that, say, clay has – it can be seen as craftsmanship in that the result is shaped through integrated thinking and making. For most visual effects artists, their craft is part of a way of life, and they are driven by a desire to do great work for its own sake.

Second: I am exploring the issue of material ‘honesty’ and how it relates to digital work. On the ‘surface’  it would be convincing to propose that digital effects are to traditional effects as bricks are to stucco (which according to Sennett renowned historian John Summerson classified as ‘fake material’ p.139). This would imply that for instance brick (and especially hand-made brick) have an intrinsic honesty whereas stucco is actively trying to fool people.

Upon further thinking this concept seems more and more ridiculous. Or better: it is a cultural construct. But nonetheless an important part of my motivation.




Source: “Swimming with Sharks”

Trygve Allister Diesen is a Norwegian film director. Out of frustration with having his vision for his films compromized by (his words) ‘sharks’ he started a research project as a fellow of the Norwegian Film School. He has published a video essay in six parts documenting this process. Below I will summarize the episodes briefly and then reflect on it in the context of my own research.

Part 1
His question: “How can you maintain your vision in an artform this collaborative and commercial”. The premise of his research is that in filmmaking there are a lot of people influencing the creative process, from writers to actors, cinematographers to casting agents, and the worst: producers.

Part 2
Diesen points out that on ‘Torpedo’ he had what he thought to be full creative control: he initiated the project, approached the producer, chose the cast and cinematographer and had the final decision over the edit. On set there were lots of conflicts eventually leading up to an actual fistfight amongst the crew. He describes his ‘vision’ for the film mostly as style: high pace acting, cinematography and editing.

In this part he describes that because he had a good relationship with the cinematographer, he could focus more on coaching the actors. But the lead actor on ‘Red’ mentions that he rarely gets any useful input from film directors – because they are more interested in their ‘vision’ than in the ‘truth of the moment’.

And then Diesen mentions how his advisor told him that vision could also be more related to how you see the world around you.

Part 3
This is mostly anecdotal.

Part 4
In part 4 he mostly discusses how his decisions about the shooting style (very loose camerawork) compromised the quality of the audio recording – but he thought at least the actors would be happy because of the ‘freedom’. Except that shooting extremely long days for weeks on end took its toll on the actors and all the other crew. But at the same time it is acknowledged that having more time to ‘fix’ things would not necessarily have made the film better.

In the second half of part 4 we have a look on set of another director: Per Fly. The atmosphere on this set seems much more calm and relaxed. On the surface the director seems to exercise much less control.

Part 5
The plot thickens: Diesen accepts to finish an American feature film that was started by another director. It has been a long time goal to land a directing job in Hollywood, but it seems at odds with his research into maintaining his personal vision (even if he’s not clarifying what a vision in this context is, or what his vision is…).

Later on he states his vision for ‘Red’ was: “to take care of the story, and give room for Brian’s performance”.

Part 6
In this last part Diesen is confronted with some strong visions involved with the film other than his own. The producers cut a scene from the film, and the lead actor forces him to shoot a very long scene without backup plan. He realizes that the visions of others can contribute to a film and make it stand out. Make it better. That when you control a work in every detail, you are limited to the boundaries of your own talent.

One of the reasons this project resonates with me is that I really see potential in the form. The narrative of his research really lends itself to this documentary approach. I am seriously considering video as a documentation and publishing tool for my research project.

Another reason is that the question of personal vision in the context of collaborative work is really closely related to my own, and as such forces me to secondguess myself. Interestingly on first viewing I thought Diesen’s conclusion was a bit stating the obvious.  “By harnessing the visions of your collaborators you can make work that extends beyond your own talent and capabilities and can become much stronger” (I’m paraphrasing) is not a very surprising outcome of the research.

But after watching the episodes again and thinking about my own research I realize that in a way my own research question is similarly focussing on the challenge of maintaining my own fingerprint and authorship within the context of a larger team. This is still a valid question, but it seems equally important to allow for the collaborators fingerprint and ‘vision’ to manifest itself in the work.

Watch the series here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Source: “The Craftsman” – Richard Sennett

My father was a carpenter and woodworker, as were both my grandfathers. I grew up in the wood workshop and have been tinkering my whole life.

No wonder that I feel that thinking cannot be separated from making – and the dialogue between the hands and the brain is what shapes my work. Even though nowadays I spend most of my working life on an office chair looking at a computer monitor I still feel the same.

So the notion of craftmanship is central to how I see myself as a designer. I don’t ‘sketch’ so much as that I ‘shape’ or ‘sculpt’.

To be continued.