Collectivity turns the Elephant around

Namita Wiggers
Ben Lignel in conversation with Namita Gupta Wiggers (part two)

Critical Craft Forum (CCF), a Facebook platform founded by Namita Gupta Wiggers and Elisabeth Agro is one of the liveliest craft forums around. It does what so few other online discussion groups have managed, which is foster respectful, but intensely critical conversations on and through craft, driven by a community of 10 000 members. The quality of those conversations – the diversity of its members – reflects and even exceeds the founders’ vision for an inclusive professional development platform: this is where people – amateurs and professionals alike - go to think craft. Elisabeth, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, has taken a step back from the forum’s management and ancillary projects, and now acts as advisor at large. I caught up with Namita Wiggers for a long conversation on how CCF works.

«When I learn of a professor assigning CCF in their syllabus or using articles posted in their required readings, I believe it is doing what it is meant to do – to be a catalyst for discussion and dialogue both on and offline»

Namita Wiggers

Benjamin Lignel:  I'm quoting from an excerpt that I found on the CCF website. It says, "In 2008, Namita Gupta Wiggers and Elisabeth Agro started Critical Craft Forum out of a desire for a place to talk with people across the craft community. From this emerged a Facebook group in 2010, annual sessions at College Art Association since 2010, and a Twitter feed."  

This doesn't quite convey the richness of the conversation that you put in place. I want to go back to the beginning of CCF and ask you how, you know, what was the starting point.

Namita Wiggers: I had a negative experience connected to an exhibition project in the Fall or 2008 that led me to reach out to a few colleagues to see what we could do to better model collaboration. I was in Philadelphia reviewing grants for the Pew Charitable Trust in the Spring of 2009. Elisabeth and I met to walk through galleries – leading to an intense conversation about the lack of a place in the field for curators focused on craft to come together except in marketplace situations, like the Sculpture Objects Functional Art (SOFA) show that happens in Chicago.

While walking and talking we recognized that we occupy a very specific role as people who create nodes or hubs. As curators, we have to understand what's going on with artists and craftspeople, what’s happening with theory and in academia. We have to watch the marketplace. We have to understand the museum as an institution and its connection to the public. We are this nexus, if you will, of what's going on in the visual art world. We wanted to create spaces where all of this could come together. Our first gathering was a pre-conference session at the American Craft Council’s National Conference in 2009, which included about 25 curators from institutions of all sizes, collection types, geographic locations, and curators of various backgrounds and generations – gathered for the first time to discuss curating in the field.

College Art Association Annual Conference, 2015 Critical Craft Forum Session on Curating Craft: What Happens Now? From Left to Right Namita Gupta Wiggers, Wendy Gers, Anthony Elms, Glenn Adamson

Then College Art Association (CAA) graciously gave us a spot at 7:30 on a Thursday morning during their 2010 conference in Chicago. There was a massive storm on the East Coast, and Elisabeth couldn't even fly in from Philadelphia. But even at 7:30 in the morning, storm and all, we had 75 people show up for the session. And that's when CAA said, "Keep doing this."

The beginning of Critical Craft Forum was linked into systems and places that were already there. At the 2010 session, attendees asked for a way to come together between conferences. With my responsibilities at Museum of Contemporary Craft at that time and Elisabeth’s at Philadelphia Museum of Art, neither of us had the ability to actually manage a website. The Facebook group came out of that session: it was really a matter of determining what could be an easy way to create community, an easy, linkable sort of platform that requires minimal amount of moderation. The timing for trying to bring a group together coincided with the rise of social media platforms. 

When I first visited the CCF page, around 2013, it was already much more than the professional network you just described: in quite a short time, it became a conversation destination for makers, thinkers, curators, and freelancers, beginners and old hands alike. Was that development a surprise?

Namita Wiggers: That was our hope and intention – and it’s always wonderful when things work out! College Art Association and the American Craft Council are specific groups that don’t always intersect but where we knew we could connect with certain groups of people. We wanted to experiment with Facebook to see if we could make an open virtual space where the kinds of conversations that Elisabeth and I were having with people on an everyday basis came together -- with amateurs and hobbyists, as well as professional artists, gallerists, students, collectors, colleagues, etc.

«Studio craft have long been marginalized in print media. Craft communities transferred their interest in sharing knowledge and making skills into Internet formats»

Namita Wiggers
Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

You now have a very solid community of 10,250 members. I was trying to parse out the different types of engagements that I have encountered in the different threads, and I sort of divided them into three. First, you have calls for knowledge transmission. People say, "Help me figure this out,” or "Can you maybe help me source the material on this particular problem?" Second, there is a wealth of information postings…

Namita Wiggers: These information posts about job openings, grants, or residencies are one kind of pass-through post. These connect communities through opportunities. Sharing articles or posing questions adds another layer. It creates a visible trail of textual resources out in the world – and connects people to one another through suggestions of artists and craftspeople.  

…and finally, you find invitations to engage in an actual conversation: a problem had been set, and people respond and engage with it. This is rhizomatic conversation at its best. Can you point to feeds that in your eyes were particularly good and what, in fact, defines a good online conversation?   

Namita Wiggers: Several conversations that have expanded into people having to communicate with one another across the different roles and roles we all have in the craftscape. And that's when CCF is most effective as a platform for dialogue and exchange, as described in the formal website introduction.  

There was a very interesting thread a few years ago on an artist named Charles Krafft who works through ceramics and draws on Delftware traditions. For years, people believed that his work that referenced Hitler and Nazi ideology was intentionally ironic. It then surfaced that he is actually a Holocaust denier. It created a flurry of discussion...from curators, from artists, from scholars, from critics, from students. It was a very active, heated, but respectful conversation where people were really trying to understand what that meant if you owned his work, if you showed his work, if you wrote about his work, if you no longer were interested in engaging his work, where we discussed censorship, meaning and content. A productive conversation that led to numerous side discussions that circled back into the thread.

Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

How much work do you actually put in managing such a debate?

About 20 years ago, Maurice Burger led an online conversation that resulted in a book, Museum of Tomorrow: An Internet Discussion (Issues in Cultural Theory). I was talking with him about how his project worked around the same time we launched Critical Craft Forum.

He warned that a listserv format means spending all your time cultivating the conversation and bringing people in and out when they get upset or distracted or busy.

But the thing about Facebook is that I didn't have to manage all of those conversations. I do post, share, and ask questions several times a day -- even probe or put my own thoughts out there as a benchmark for people to work against or with and to turn around in their heads – but people have conversations on their own.
Another time this has social media platform worked well was more recently with conversations about the Beyond Bling exhibition at LACMA and the symposium that accompanied it was simultaneously available online. Those of us who are not makers were very quick to critique institutional issues around this exhibition, to critique the seminar and the scenography and so forth. And in some ways, it was too fast. It didn't allow for the artists who are in the exhibition to have a moment of simply relishing the fact that they were in an exhibition in LACMA. In retrospect, it illuminated some of the sensitivities and challenges that need to happen when you're working with people across different parts of the field. Critical exchange is tough – and timing is a factor to consider with this interactive media form.

There is a difference between creating content to deliver, much like a book or article versus dialogue. The way the conversations happened with the Beyond Bling symposium shifted the conversation far beyond LACMA’s walls during the symposium. Those in conversation online could address questions, ideas, issues more immediately and more thoroughly than those attending the conference itself, and others, even the curators, joined the discussion later.

Critical Craft Forum, screengrab
Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

I would like to stay on the issue of knowledge building – thinking back to Charles Krafft and the Beyond Bling debate, for example: how do these conversations migrate back into publications or syllabi, both of which are more easy to reference? Put differently: if you are not present to the conversation, and followed its thread, how likely is it that you will find it?

Namita Wiggers: It’s tricky. It is not as searchable as other forms, no question about that. You can search in the Facebook feed, but you would need to know that the conversation happened, what terms to use, etc. This puts it into a very of-the-moment, in-the-moment kind of site. It means that whatever conversation is happening is highest on the feed. But discussions resurface or get referenced in other ways: I do step in as moderator and repost older threads to help reconnect past conversations with new posts.

More importantly, fellow curators and academics more and more often mention CCF as a resource, assign it on their syllabi, or quote from it: T'ai Smith referenced some discussions from the Facebook Group in an essay she wrote for the "Art Journal." Cat Rossi mentioned CCF as a resource in an article for the "Architectural Digest." Aaron McIntosh referenced online content in a review he wrote for "Hyperallergic” about the “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick.

And then, there are other moments such as when Jenni Sorkin questioned Helen Drutt's decision to donate artwork to Russia given the abuses against LGBTQ individuals in that part of the world. It spawned a rich discussion about where the pieces should go, what the ethics of gifting are, what the ethics of collecting are, and so forth. Garth Clark picked up on Jenni’s post and wrote an essay in response to it on CFile. The historian in me wants to track and archive all mentions but the realist in me questions how or whether I need to do this. I wonder where the information goes  – and when I learn of a professor assigning CCF in their syllabus or using articles posted in their required readings, I believe it is doing what it is meant to do – to be a catalyst for discussion and dialogue both on and offline.

This does sort of frame Critical Craft Forum as really as a conversation, as something you attend, and if you attend it, you hone your skills as a critical thinker. You learn stuff, but it may not necessarily be something that you reference as you would a book, or as you would a source. 

Namita Wiggers: The way the content is engaged reflects shifts in ways in which information and access to information is understood today. In school, you reference books, journals, magazines, and for the most part, it is a tight adherence to the printed word. Critical Craft Forum operates in a very different kind of way. When referenced it tends towards a summary of the gist of an issue or discussion more than pointing to or naming an individual. This is tricky and remains to be analysed – is this reflective of the craft community’s emphasis on collectivity both in action and citation?

«Women makers such as Kate Bingaman-Burt, Lisa Congdon and Grace Bonney used the Internet to create presence, to work around publishing systems and patriarchal systems to employ the Internet as a tool for individual agency mixed with community-building. This was very influential for me. »

Namita Wiggers
Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

I wanted to focus more closely on crafters’ embrace of social media. In my own experience, the contemporary jewellery community has been keen to use online networks to promote their own work, but also to wage a sort of permanent and generous campaign in support of their peers, their projects and the field at large. Do you find that crafts' position towards social media is unusual? 

Namita Wiggers: It’s about communities that extend beyond those in person to virtual communities. Your question reminds me of when I first joined Facebook. It was during an ice storm in 2008 and Portland was covered with ice for nearly two weeks. Facebook became a lifeline to people beyond the four walls closing in on my family. It made me better understand the powerful online communities of makers, many connected to DIY communities and etsy, and in particular women connected to Portland if not actually living here who built large followings and communities online such as Kate Bingaman-Burt and Lisa Congdon, both of whom live here in Portland now, and Grace Bonney who started Design Sponge and Rena Tom. They used the Internet to create presence, to work around publishing systems and patriarchal systems to employ the Internet as a tool for individual agency mixed with community-building. The way they did both – bring people together and maintain their own voices - was very influential for me.

Do you feel that this drive towards community building is specific to craft, or have you seen in fashion, in design, in the arts world a similar drive towards creating a platform where you facilitate the transmission of knowledge and provide professional development opportunities?    

Namita Wiggers: It’s not specific to craft, but different craft communities unquestionably employ the Internet well towards community building. Studio craft and other forms of craft have long been marginalized in print media – either magazines or journals -- or in publications. Craft communities transferred their interest in sharing knowledge and making skills into Internet formats, from Facebook to Instagram to YouTube. It seems to work best when people try to engage various social media platforms for what each medium can do. When individuals or organizations try to force older systems of communication into these platforms it feels stilted. Sharing is essential with craft based work – whether generationally or in classrooms and studios or across the Internet. 

In fact, people have argued that craft has some form of community sensitivity built into its technical apparatus – share kilns, shared studio spaces. I must say, however, that I am resistant to the idea that opt-in online platforms will foster debate. Is there a point where the “family” ethos becomes stronger than the desire to discuss things critically?   

Namita Wiggers: In the beginning of Critical Craft Forum, Facebook was kind of sorting itself out and people were figuring out how to use it. Even now there are people who want everyone to just get along. It’s contingent on how you set things up. Whenever I add members, I repost the guidelines to encourage people to read and work with them. If they don't follow the guidelines, they are removed from the group, which is a rare occurrence. I monitor, moderate, pose questions, ask for clarification and basically do my best to expand conversation versus shutting people down.

Members are aware that CCF is not a place to post images of newly created work. It is a place to post things that can get people to understand the scope of the field through texts, exhibitions, programs – connections and systems surrounding the objects.

Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

I think Norwegian Crafts is interested about Critical Craft Forum because it is a good model for engaged, exciting conversations. It is certainly not set up in any way that I could perceive as an American platform, and yet, to some extent, it is. Going back to this idea of the curator's a node that will carry existing institutional networks, do you feel that there is an inherent limit to how outward-facing these networks are?   

Namita Wiggers: It tends to be more U.S.-centric in part because Facebook is a U.S.-based platform. There's also an issue of timeliness: I'm on Pacific Standard Time which shapes what comes through my feed and impacts what I then repost in Facebook. I spend considerable time looking for articles, and questions, and videos, and things to post and I'm feeding it throughout the day and even into the evening, but it really does hit U.S. hours first. Because the conversations happen in U.S. time zones, by the time overseas members learn of the conversation, much of the thread had already moved quickly and they cannot easily jump into the fray. It is always terrific when folks outside of the US start threads, and something I’d like to see happen more frequently.  

But there is also a cultural difference at play that needs to be noted. In the U.S., we are accustomed to speaking our mind frankly, clearly, openly, publicly. Whether that will continue under the current administration remains to be seen, but at this point, that is how we all were raised in the US. I do notice a greater hesitancy and more of a concern about privacy in other parts of the world that have not had that kind of openness, and there are different risks involved in being too open and frank for many outside the US.

Do you find that when questions are asked in a more abstract way, when they are not linked to something that is local, like an exhibition or a seminar, international members feel encouraged to participate?   

Namita Wiggers: it does seem like the more abstract questions would be more open for other people outside of the U.S. to be able to engage more quickly, doesn’t it? However, to use museum parlance, the Facebook Group users tend to be object-oriented. Conversations work better when linked to a specific thing that can ground discussions amongst strangers connected by shared interests.

Can you tell me about the expansion of CCF into a website?   

Namita Wiggers: As a curator, there are many privileged conversations that I have with people that have no place to go. Creating podcasts is a way of sharing those conversations and expanding those to other people's conversations as well. The podcasts are also a way of thinking about dialogue and conversation as much as the importance of oral histories. It is a way for me to work through how we might create, archive and constitute a body of knowledge in the field that largely overlooks the spoken word in favour of written texts. This platform enables curators, critics, writers, artists, crafts people to speak to one another, but they have to speak in a way to make each other understand what they're saying. That's what prompted that very first podcast on Tim Ingold's "Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture" book. The discussion transpires between four people trained in art, art history or both, and who work and think through craft as makers, curators, educators, writers, etc. This book is applied by each in different ways, and the way they discuss the book and how it connects to craft reflects each of their roles in this growing field.

«It is challenging to think through craft and to have people speak through craft rather than through art, because frankly we're all trained as art historians in a Eurocentric, “Western” model»

Namita Wiggers
Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

Tell me about CCF’s sustained partnership between College Art Association and CCF. You've started years ago with the first pre-conference talk and next year, you are doing a whole day of sessions. And so, this has been strengthening. Two questions there, what is the link between the online conversations and the content of your CAA panels or conferences? And why has this partnership been useful to CCF?

Namita Wiggers: The first two sessions at College Art Association were discussion-oriented, what's going on in the field, what do people need, etc., and structured more programmatically in the way a museum staff works to understand its constituents. Bringing in the community together, taking temperature, figuring out what were people hungry for, and then deciding how to create a space for that to happen.

The first organized panel in 2012 addressed "What is contemporary about craft?" and connected thinking from some of the most prominent younger scholars in our field at the time, who had never before and never since been on a panel together: Ezra Shales, Elissa Auther, Glenn Adamson, Jenni Sorkin, Damian Skinner, and Julia Bryan-Wilson.
Each panellist had eight minutes to respond to the question, and could choose up to three keywords to frame their points. Those keywords were shared on the Critical Craft Forum Facebook page for people to think about, talk about, engage prior to the CAA Conference Julia Bryan-Wilson's paper turned into “Eleven Propositions about Craft,” published in "The Journal of Modern Craft." Jenni Sorkin's discussion of craft-like turned into a lengthier essay she wrote for the “Nation Building” publication and symposium at the Renwick.  
The Facebook Group serves as a connector in advance, and the CAA panel a catalyst for people to generate new work, whether through making, writing, teaching, curating, etc. Since then, the topics that I've chosen for CAA are connected to questions connecting craft to the broader field of art history. The topics are responsive and come from watching and thinking about what people are talking about. Panels have addressed: social practice; skill, de-skilling, and re-skilling; curating when craft is visible throughout contemporary exhibitions; “The Black Craftsman Situation: A Critical Conversation about Race and Craft”; and gender and adornment. All were 90-minute sessions.

Based on the attendance we've had and the engagement and the on-going presence for a number of years, CCF was invited to do organize a full day of sessions at CAA for 2018. In fact, the call brought in so many submissions that the conference curator and committee accepted numerous additional sessions for other days of the Conference. There will be around three or more sessions each day of CAA connected to craft in addition to the full day of Critical Craft sessions on Saturday.
Have there been moments where you've felt like you had to speak the language of art to be accepted at CAA or where it's become uncomfortable to have to take on board ways of looking at a practice that come from the art world when you're at CAA?
Namita Wiggers: Never. Not once. What's more challenging is to think through craft and to have people speak through craft rather than through art, because frankly we're all trained as art historians in a Eurocentric, “Western” model. And that can be a challenge to disrupt.

CAA has been generous and pleased with the attendance and topics addressed because of the connections to issues of interest in the broader art history field as much as cultural questions that extend beyond art alone. The way in which CCF employs the Internet expands the reach of CAA, which is the largest professional organization for educators of art and art history in the US. CCF sessions have encouraged new memberships and the presence of craft at sessions over the past 9 years has expanded the field of art history.

Critical Craft Forum, screengrab

What conversations would you like to have through craft in the future?
Namita Wiggers: I welcome conversation ideas that come through craft but have a broader reach. Conversations about a book or an exhibition or topic that can engage artists, craftspeople, educators, art historians, curators, writers, etc. to spend time with the concepts and turn them over. It’s like the story of the elephant and the blind men, which guides me in my own thinking. A group of blind men each describe an elephant based on the parts they touch, so the one holding the tail thinks an elephant is like a snake, the one touching the leg imagines a tree, and the one touching the ears describes the creature to be like a fan. Together there is a composite image that comes close to a description of an elephant, yet no one is incorrect in the “view” they experience, either. Collectivity turns the elephant around and gets us closer to that composite image. I want the podcasts and conversations on CCF to feel like that – like listening to someone else describe the same thing and help you see something you did not understand was there until that moment.

I also think a lot about the physicist David Bohm’s ideas about dialogue, and I want CCF to be a place for people to develop and model listening and sharing and be able to practice moderating. Moderating is a very different skill from speaking your own thoughts. It is about asking questions. And I hope that CCF continues to develop into a platform for asking good, tough, and complex questions.

Ben: Thank you Namita. Our next and last interview –in anticipation of your trip to Tromsø to visit I Craft I Travel Light– will focus on nomadic culture, and the need to craft polyphonic histories of art. I know the subject is close to your heart. I just need to make sure I have finished reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies by then…