A weekend close to Hell
«craft practices are important to human existence due to their relation to the body, celebrations as much as routines in everyday life, functionality and use»Edith Lundebrekke
Punctually, the aircraft landed at the Trondheim airport. Peeking through the small window I could see a green hill, where four monumental capital letters in the manner of the Hollywood letter sign stood out in the distance: HELL. Considering that I was about to attend the seminar ‘Crafting Utopia and Dystopia’ around the future of craft in museums I felt slightly uncomfortable and hoped that this sight would not be a premonition. Some hours later, at the dinner with other guests of the Norwegian Crafts Visitor Programme, ceramic artist Brit Dyrnes, explained me that Hell is the name of a small village next to Trondheim, that the word in old Norse meant something like cliff cave, and that the infernal association is indeed a fact, which has become a touristic attraction. The anecdote around (mis)matching topographical and linguistic aspects of a place turned out to characterise several statements heard during the seminar: the definition and articulation of a Topos, the place for craft in museums, with the territorial challenges, border crossings and naming exercises it involves. Aside from few exceptions, the emphasis on issues of place made that the ‘crafting’ part of the seminar, the only verb contained in the title, received less attention: there was almost no time for ‘action’. With this I mean the possibility for speakers, guests and general audience to interact and collectively discuss those places in order to make them fit for hosting possible futures, which was at the heart of the seminar’s intention. Not only in the time allotted for the sessions but also during coffee breaks, whispering between talks or walking across the city from one event to the next, those fleeting moments managed to create a temporary ‘sitopia’, or ‘situated utopia’, as envisaged by Namita Gupta Wiggers in her introduction as initiator and moderator of the seminar.
After having spent one month in Norway as a curator in residence invited by Norwegian Crafts, Wiggers had gained a privileged overview on the Nordic contemporary craft scene. For this sharp curator, educator and writer based in Oregon, USA, the institutional situation was characterised by several concerns, including funding cuts, closure or transfer of craft collections, risk of losing disciplinary identity, or a reduction of self-managing capacity within a landscape of consolidated museums. Therefore, the conceptual frame of the seminar was determined by the following four questions: Firstly, which kind of museums are we talking about? Which size? Cultural history museums? Art museums? Specialised or consolidated? Secondly, which kind of craft are we talking about? Folk craft? Studio Craft? Art and design using craft as material or metaphorical strategy? Thirdly, which kind of public encounters are we facilitating? Within or beyond the museum’s walls? This question was accompanied by examples of Wigger’s practice as a curator at the Portland’s Museum for Contemporary Craft, where one could acknowledge a critical edge and innovative forms of mediating craft, from loaning pieces to the visitors to using social networks to elicit collective knowledge about the collections. The fourth question asked where does specialised knowledge go when collections are absorbed and new compacting narratives arise? What happens when craft histories are erased or never addressed? She mentioned the example of Steinar Haga Kristensen, an artist investigating the ‘brown period’ of ceramic, which for a certain generation was an embarrassing, over-rustical period. Coming from a different time and different background he has not inherited those prejudices and therefore is able to delve into forgotten craft histories and bring to light new interpretations. Within this frame, four speakers, one craft/punk collective and a panel of three guests were challenged to speculate on the future, and describe possible scenarios for crafts in the museum. Around 70 participants composed the audience and amongst them, several international curators and scholars, who were specially invited to attend the event.
«Which kind of museums are we talking about? Which kind of craft are we talking about? Which kind of public encounters are we facilitating? Where does specialised knowledge go when collections are absorbed and new compacting narratives arise?»Namita Gupta Wiggers
Åshild Adsen, director of the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim was the first speaker. After introducing her museum, which in 2012 consolidated as part of an art and heritage, music and history of mining museum conglomerate, she stated that they could keep their name and a full control of what to exhibit and when. ‘Not how we are called, but what we do is what is important’ she added when admitting that the museum’s name is sometimes difficult to communicate. That was an interesting point, when the name of the institution becomes objectified and becomes a reminder as much as a burden. Beyond the predictable art and/or design naming alternatives, it seems that there should be more discussion about this important branding exercise. Adsen’s vision for the future was ‘to question definitions and pose new questions through investigating collections’. The Dialogue Series, which consists of inviting contemporary craft artists to explore and interpret the museum’s collections, is already making her vision come true. She continued referring to the challenges of ‘eventisation’ and the balancing act of programming exhibitions: on the one hand the experimental and on the other the commercial. In the last part of her talk she mentioned the need to reach wider audiences and, as a reaction to digitalisation, develop educational programmes that make material processes accessible and understandable for society.
The next lecture was given by Edith Lundebrekke, artist based in Trondheim and one of the jury members for the Kunsthåndverk 2017 (Crafts) exhibition. Her point was to remind the audience that craft practices are important to human existence due to their relation to the body, celebrations as much as routines in everyday life, functionality and use. Her experience as curator led her to the observation that there had been great changes in the perception of craft in Norway in the past 10 years. The exhibition Everyday Life at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in 2007, marked for her a turning point in the craft discourse. As project manager and co-curator for the exhibition, she argued that the show contributed to professionalise the activity of curating craft exhibitions, and established some standards, like closely collaborating with art and design schools, launching a call for participation based on projects instead of existing work and improving the communication of the even. In her view, the annual juried show is very influential to define what is contemporary craft in Norway, both for practitioners, theorists as much as for the public eye. Since every year the jury composition changes, there are always new, controversial, and unexpected views on the field. The Kunsthåndverk annual exhibition is playing a determinant role for the future of craft in museums. Her wish was that museums investigate aesthetic, functional, social, and ethical topics: from cultural migration, identity, environmentalism, or gender, to the understanding of materials, use and repair. Picking up one of the initial questions, ‘which kind of craft are we talking about?’, the challenge of the craft museum of the future is to become the place where to lead a more complex discussion about the handmade and materiality beyond Studio Craft. She laments that official authorities think that art and craft are the same field, and the further renaming of some museums including the word design only increases the confusion. The struggle for preserving a craft museum identity will be a recurring theme during the day, even though the terms to define such specifity will remain vague.
«craft museums have their own identity, which is neither the one of an art museum nor the one of a design museum»Petter Snare
Petter Snare, director of the KODE Museums in Bergen, offered a structured analysis on the current situation of craft collections and introduced the audience to what he called ‚the miracle of consolidation’. Firstly, he recognised what might get lost, like not being able to prioritize specialised interests anymore. Visitors, media and funders have become the most important stakeholders to be looked after by the managing positions. Accordingly, the museum’s management will put more attention into branding its identity as central activity. Secondly, he introduced what might be won, for example pulling a bigger audience, involving different kinds of specialists to investigate craft, or visualising connections with other art forms in a wider context. Then he proceeded to mention the possible threats, like how material knowledge is becoming marginal in the curriculum of neo-liberal compacted universities, the effects of design becoming a catch-all phrase for everything or the exodus of craft specialists identifying themselves as visual artists and therefore leaving the field. After his statement about the benefits of interdisciplinary dialogue, I could not understand, why someone with a craft background moving into visual arts should be a problem. In the last part of his talk he suggested to strengthen the arena for contemporary craft discourse through a consistent programme of changing exhibitions and then he warned about ‘not showing design masquerading as craft’. His concern with tracing hard edges around practices that are increasingly fluid made difficult to follow Snare’s vision. He, like the previous speakers, had stated that craft museums have their own identity, which is neither the one of an art museum nor the one of a design museum. Despite the emphasis on gate-keeping his talk sent a clear message to curators in the room, urging them to identify the ‘DNA’ of their collections and what is the singularity of what they show and collect in order to brand it.
«Don’t give up the place on the margin, craft takes its power from there»Kim Paton
Craft on the periphery
After a healthy lunch amongst the vitrines of the Japanese permanent display, the performance of the craft /punk collective Scrotum Clamp opened the afternoon session. Musicians, jewellery makers and educators Tim Carson, Petra Bishai, Harvey Stephens, John Coughlin and Felieke van der Leest staged a hilarious talk, cleverly informed, ironic, embarrassingly to the point and dissecting in a merciless way the main issues posed by the seminar’s frame. What follows are some fragments of their contribution: Wigs, glitter, a Pre-Columbian penis, kitsch porcelain, a crash-course in baking jewellery and a human-sized rabbit. ‘Welcome to the jewellery show!’ Hovis takes a stack of poker cards, which from now on represents the museum institution. ‘This is a museum of things’. He immediately throws away the joker card, ‘Don’t need a joker, the museum is not a place for laughing’. Then he asks a volunteer to pick up a card; ‘Please, sign it, and we will call it the ‘craft card’. The card is inserted back to stack. Hovis will pull out one card after another, trying to find it again: ‘Oh, not this one, this is contemporary art; No, sorry, it is not antiquities; No, not dinosaur bones; Oh, no, no, this is the gift shop’. And after a while: ‘Sorry, I can’t find it, there is no craft in the museum!’, followed by laughs from the audience. In another part of the performance a jury situation was enacted, where the audience should help the group to decide in the acquisition of an artefact for their Scrotum Clam private museum. Hovis shows two candidates: a cat with huge eyes and a lady holding an umbrella in pastoral dress, both hand-sized porcelain figurines. He recites an auction-like description and the audience is asked to vote which object will enter the museum and which one will be destroyed right away (smashed with a hammer) by a volunteer from the public. Obedient and amused the audience accepted to play the game and the cat was the winner, a safe bet, considering its popularity in social media videos. I hope that I was not the only one to vote ‘None!’. Parody and critique went hand in hand until the group ended the presentation by singing and dancing, accompanied by the audience, who would chorus in unison Monty Pyton’s adapted refrain “always look at the bright side of craft!”. I remembered that ‘bright’ translates as ‘hell’ in German, so my worries from the airplane vision temporarily dissipated.
«always look at the bright side of craft!»Scrotum Clamp singing on top of Monty Pyton´s ´Always Look on The Bright Side of Life´
Kim Paton, director of the Objectspace public gallery in Auckland was the next speaker and offered the most inspiring talk of the day. She used the remoteness of her geographical location, New Zealand, as a metaphor to describe how aesthetic practices ‘at the fringe’, like craft, might receive less attention and therefore enjoy more experimental running room. The rhetoric of the margin turned out to be essential in her talk, in order to de-colonize and diversify the craft discourse in Western museums, which continues to privilege the artistic debate. Paton showed some examples of artefacts, where the particular fusion of materiality, performance and fine art does not fit within the dominant polarities between art and the customary, the traditional and the contemporary, or the home and the museum. The challenges in the next years will not only consist of developing an institutional critique from within and professionalising the institution, but also about professionalising the public and the patrons. ‘The power of the marginal’ is instrumental to develop the exhibition programme at Objectspace, which has a focus on craft, design and architecture. She acknowledges an increasing instability of the borders between craft, art and design and is sceptical about establishing an incremental relationship with knowledge: ‘more affiliation with the field of fine arts or design is not necessarily better’. ‘Don’t give up the place on the margin, craft takes its power from there’ she concluded. Her vision for the future of craft in museums was to encourage more complex narratives around craft, which beyond the aesthetic object engage in social, economic and cultural histories of making. What was refreshing in her talk was the fact that she acknowledged the complexity of craft and its entanglements with other disciplines. Furthermore, she introduced critical design examples (a video game by artist and graphic designer Johnson Witehira, reflecting on the confrontation between Maori and Pakeha population). This experimental and conceptual area of design, which also explores materiality in an expressive way is hardly addressed in the craft context. Paton’s view on the subject reminded me of the writings by Christina Zetterlund, one of the few craft theorists that are addressing the grey area between craft and design collections.
«Kim Paton´s vision for the future of craft in museums was to encourage more complex narratives around craft, which beyond the aesthetic object engage in social, economic and cultural histories of making»Mònica Gaspar
Utopian, dystopian or sitopian
The seminar was rapidly coming to an end and there were already so many statements made, new insights, unanswered questions and potential conversations. The last part of the seminar, a panel discussion with three new guests, came across as a slightly disconnected afterword. If the previous speakers would have composed the panel, the moderator would have probably transformed the frontal presentations into a basis for collective debate amongst them and the audience. At the same time, without the contribution of Shannon Stratton, chief curator at MAD Museum of New York; Love Jönsson, curator and critic based in Goteborg; and Anne Szefer Karlsen, associate professor at the University of Bergen, the seminar would have missed their critical voices that effectively counterbalanced the talks. There was something in common in their professional biographies that the panel members identified with humour: like in a support group they confessed to be ex-curators at recently closed museums (Jönsson at Roshkamuseum closed in 2017 and Wiggers at the Contemporary Craft Museum in Portland closed in 2016), have a degree in a specialised department that doesn’t exist anymore (Szefer Karlsen having studied photography in Bergen) or work in museums which carry problematic names that ‘mean everything and nothing’, as Stratton herself admitted. Wiggers centred the panel discussion on the question of facilitating encounters with shifting audiences and of identifying the main challenges that museums will face in the coming years. Szefer Karlsen made a point answering both questions as one, when she stated that the role of the museum will be increasingly focused in developing social practices around their collections and the challenge will be to develop new forms of mediation. For Jönsson the challenge will reside in engaging more actively with the new media and coping with the stiffness that large institutions may suffer as consolidation’s side-effect: ‘creating macro-museums is making institutions less flexible’. In a similar vein, Stratton’s vision for craft in museums would be ‘constriction instead of extension’ and points at the complexities of matching the interests of all stakeholders, content wise and financially, as the main challenge. She puts the example of museum patrons, who do not see themselves as craft collectors but as fine art collectors: ‘they only support the spectacular, exuberant and luxurious side of craft. This is a conundrum, as there are not many funding vessels for craft’. After the panel there was some time left for the audience to pose questions. For example, Anne Dressen, curator at the Museum d´Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, made the speakers aware about the important work in studying and promoting craft that is currently performed by art museums, which are not explicitly specialised in craft.
Wrapping up the insights of the seminar was the task assigned to Lars Sture, head of the Norwegian Crafts exhibition programme. After such intense day ‘There were too many issues to be summarized in such a short time’, he apologised, and asked instead: ‘Why are we here?’. His question seemed to demand more vehemence in the act of envisaging and speculating future scenarios, or to raise awareness of the effects of decision-making, here and now. Compared to the visual arts, craft and design have almost no tradition of institutional critique. Institutions like museums continue to be bastions of cultural legitimation, and the unstable position of craft and design in the museum, leads to permanent anxiety about mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. Namita brought at the beginning of the seminar the example of the art performance ‘Sámi Dáiddamusea’, where the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø closed during two months in order to become another kind of institution: the museum of the Sami ethnic minority. This is an example of critique from within that disrupts power structures and inspires to show craft in new ways. Considering that the origins of museums of applied arts are directly linked to the beginnings of industrialisation, what are the most powerful and inspiring visions, utopian, dystopian or sitopian, for museums hosting craft and design collections in the face of the industry 4.0 revolution? The seminar might have offered a starting point to address this relevant and urgent question.