Reflections on the Nordic Platform for Critical Craft Theory

Having participated in the first meeting of the Nordic Platform for Critical Craft Theory in Bergen, Norway, Johnny Herbert reflects on a few aspects of the discussions and their focus on the conception and practices of duodji.

Having been instigated by Norwegian Crafts, Rian designmuseum in Sweden, and Designmuseo in Finland as a network for critical thinking around contemporary crafts, the Nordic Platform for Critical Craft Theory (hereafter NPCCT) looks to develop the critical language for what they understand to be “an increasingly diversified contemporary crafts field.” Rather than revolve its first meeting around practices and forms long since institutionally established and recognized, a central focus of the meeting at the end of October 2019 in Bergen was duodji, the term and practice used to denote “a specific work that is created by hand and anchored in a Sámi activity and reality” that also has “spiritual significance and value.”[i] Having attended this first meeting, I will briefly tease out a few points that struck me during the discussions in Bergen and in my readings around duodji up until now, drawing particularly on the work of fellow discussant Gunvor Guttorm to do so. I will then return briefly to reflecting on the NPCCT.[ii]                

One of the chief challenges in Bergen was getting a feel for the relation of duodji to dáidda, the latter, readily translatable as “art”, a term coined in the ‘70s when, as Gunvor Guttorm writes, artists “felt the need to join each other and find a proper name for their occupation”. Dáidda’s conscious aligning with a western notion of “art” can tempt a translation of duodji as “craft” (and kunsthåndverk), but, to my mind, after having studied prior to and listened during during the discussions in Bergen, duodji seems to be yoked to substantially different cultural attitudes and practices.[iii] Along with Irene Snarby, Guttorm was the NPCCT participant most able to explicate specific issues around this relationship and, along with the rest of the group, how the Norwegian term kunsthåndverk might be put in relation to duodji. Given that discussions were held in English, the translation craft for kunsthåndverk (and duodji), in a British context at least, was a latent but persistent reminder for me of how a translation mediates terms with such different connotations in their respective languages and cultures. 

Guttorm’s text Hutkáivuohta, improvisašuvdna ja innovašuvdna kultuvrralaš ovdanbuktimis (2011) was translated from Northern Sámi to English on the occasion of the meeting in Bergen. [iv] Under the title Creativity, Improvisation, and Innovation in Cultural Expression, the text was sent round as required reading for NPCCT participants and it is her focus on improvisation and duodji in this essay that I’d like to briefly reflect on. 

The intricate problem the text approaches (no doubt informed by her teaching of duodji at Sámi Allaskuvlla) is the following: how can specific practices and ideas, such as duodji, be thought of as creative whilst relating to traditions and inherited knowledges? Looking to detach creativity and innovation both from the market (to the extent that this is possible)—in which any innovation must be maximally incremented and worked into a product lifecycle in order to maximize profits over time—as well as from the figure of the genius that often forgets social conditions and historical prescience, Guttorm aims “not to explain creativity, but rather [to] examine some aspects of creativity that reflect the duodji process.” Although working with Mihály Csikszentimihalyi’s extensive research on how environments affect creativity, which perhaps reintroduces the problem of considering creativity as “a concept in all cultures” and approachable “as a universal idea”, Guttorm strives to “set creativity in a specific context” and consider it in connection with duodji.[v]

Towards the end of her paper, Guttorm draws from Tim Ingold and Elisabeth Hallam’s assertion that “maintaining”—i.e. working consciously according to a tradition—is not opposed to invention of the new as maintenance requires an improvisatory aspect. Here is the key passage from Ingold and Hallam she cites: 

“Copying or imitation, we argue, is not the simple mechanical process of replication that it is often taken to be, as if running off duplicates from a template, but entails a complex and continuous alignment of observations of the model with action in the world. In this alignment lies the work of improvisation.”[vi]

This idea of improvisatory maintenance is also alluded to by Joar Nango when interviewed by Namita Gupta Wiggers. Here, however, rather than a relation to tradition or a past method, “maintenance” refers to the material upkeep necessary when making do with limited resources. The examination of “creativity” is transposed into what Nango conceives of as duodji’s material ecology, what he later in the interview calls its “material flow cycle”:

“I've been sort of looking at these real life examples of people that have done these on-site makeshift designs where they have shown an extreme capacity of improvising with the location, improvising with the limited resources, recycling ideas, or sort of being inventive and solving problems on-spot when the problem is occurring. I believe that autonomy and autonomous cultural dimensions are really created through adaptations. There's this tradition of adaptation that I think is at the core of the traditional and contemporary if you really start looking at what's being made in a vernacular Sámi setting. And this adaptation is what interests me but it's also really maybe one of the most important reasons for us having survived as we have done for thousands of years. We've been a minority up there for such a long time, and you can sometimes just be really amazed if you think about why we still wear this super different clothing and why we still have a completely different language. How have we been able to maintain it, you know? And I think that the capacity to adapt and to negotiate different roles when needed is really an important reason for it.”

What struck me when reading this before the discussions in Bergen was how applicable my experiences with improvised music, both as a performer and a listener (as much as they can be separated), were to thinking of duojarat (duodji practitioners) particular sensitivities and attitudes toward environments.

As Nango points out, improvisatory practices emerge because of situations of strife, duress and “making do”. This reminded me of Fred Moten’s consideration of the improvisation within the aesthetics of the black radical tradition. Improvisation, Moten argues, can be thought of as a surplus to writing that also constantly animates writing as meaningful and not redundant, similarly to how what he calls “black social life” has fostered radical imaginaries even in situations of extreme duress in which slaves were excluded from but objectified, instrumentalised, and put at the service of the figuring of “humanity”—a humanity that now chants “all life matters” without irony. The imaginative improvisatory “making do” in order to affect a semblance of stability (or enable flight) in hostile conditions is perhaps a similarity of the black radical tradition and duodji and duojarat.

However, great care must of course be taken in grafting ideas of (post)colonization and/or indigenousness into a consideration of the oppression of Sámis—any abstraction for the sake of comparison should never be forgotten. Astrid Dankertsen has stated some of the problems tersely:

“The definition of colonisation as ‘settlement in a new country’; ‘a body of people who stole in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state’, does not take into consideration indigenous people like the Sami. In contrast to a context in which there is a relatively fixed point of time from which colonisation starts, the situation for the Sami people entails a different complexity. […] If, from a Sami perspective, the colonizers neither arrived nor left, where is then the postcolonial? […] The omnipresent colonial elements of a Sami everyday life are concealed and retold as signs of free choice and individuality, rather than of cultural oppression.”[vii]

The cultural forms—which is to say all cultural forms—emerging from the brutal relationships of coloniser and colonised, oppressor and oppressed seem to me to testify to the inextricability of the suppressive and repressive asymmetries born of such relationships, e.g. individuality and freedom of choice.

Joar Nango's work 'Sámi Shelters' in the exhibition ᐊᕙᑖᓂᑦ ᑕᒪᐃᓐᓂᑦ ᓄᓇᑐᐃᓐᓇᓂᑦ/Among All These Tundras at Onsite Gallery.
Detail of Joar Nango's installation 'Sámi Architectural Library' at the Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel
Detail of Nango's installation the 'Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel' exhibition at National Gallery of Canada

Throughout the NPCCT discussion day in Bergen, the group continuously vacillated between reflecting on aspects of duodji and how an institution (most discussants worked for or in institutions), e.g. a museum, could be sensitive to duodji—to paraphrase Irene Snarby: what is the sense of putting duodji in a glass box?

Gunvor Guttorm has put the challenge succinctly when discussing higher education: 

“[H]ow and under what conditions is it possible to [think of a] higher art education that has duodji as its foundation? A key question is what is the significance of the overall discourse and praxis that has emerged and developed in indigenous societies when it is transferred to higher education. In answering this question, it is necessary to analyse the content of duodji.”[viii] 

Thus, similarly: how and under what conditions is it possible to conceive of institutions that have duodji as their foundation, in their collections or exhibitions? (How could a museum improvise?) 

I am still left thinking of the example, brought up by Snarby, of Iver Jåks’s outdoor sculpture Runebommehammeren (‘The Holy Drum-Hammer’, 1983) being relocated from a place in the woods near the Sámi high school in Kárášjohka onto a “manicured lawn” in 2015 when the school was expanded. In writing about Jåks’s work, Snarby has emphasised his relationship to duodji and his embrace of transformation and decay—an aspect it is possible to understand as linked to what Snarby calls “an understanding of history as cyclic” she considers as crucial to “Sámi thinking”[ix] (this also invokes Nango’s interest in “material flow cycles”). We might then conceive of Runebommehammeren as having been used by the Earth, a mediator for the Earth’s improvisation, if you will. This is not to sacralise the intentions of an artist but to attend to the conditions of a work. In fact, when considering Jåks’s relationship with duodji, does not relocation alter the very “content” of the work, not the artists intended content, but, in terms of the frame of my focus here, the content carried by the sensitivity and attitude to an environment duojarat infuse into duodji and which duodji objects help nurture? If just emphasizing this one aspect of duodji, it is clear that it presents an enormous challenge to arts institutions grounded in chronological time: to extract such work from its environment of use is to destroy it, to kill its eventual transformation (back) to living material.

The decision to have a focus on duodji for its first official meeting of the NPCCT amplifies the initiative’s timeliness and gave rise to an illuminating set of events over the two days in Bergen. I remember now that I introduced myself to fellow discussants as always trying to work out from a piece of work—that theory came “from” the work rather than being imposed upon it. However, by way of self-criticism, does this not ignore cultural conditions (e.g. as I alluded to above with regards to the inherited improvisatory sensitivity and attitude to an environment)? Am I not just assuming access to work, having been so used to having access and so used to being “included” (or, more precisely, being the one to “include”)? As Norwegian Crafts seems to be aware, a crucial and difficult challenge here is, it seems to me, for institutions, to not “include” conceptions and practices of people identifying as Sámi (tending to a neo-colonial attitude of “what x can do for ‘us’”), but to nurture a teasing out of the their epistemologies—the “how” of the structures of knowing and coming to know, let us say—and the impact they will have, and have had, on other ways and structures of knowing. What must also be done, tentatively, is the inverse: how oppression has meant not only the eviceration of knowledges but has also logical transformation. This is, of course, fraught with difficulty, particularly so as the acquisitive attitudes and values of Western epistemologies readily (re-)impose, with varying (un)subtlety, necessities of intellectual “property”—and, thereafter, private property and the promise of profit—onto situations requiring a sensitivity likely impossible in current global capitalism[x]; that I found myself writing “Sámi conceptions and practices” earlier in this paragraph and feel the rewording I have now chosen to be clumsy is testament to the pervasiveness of such attitudes and values.

Footnotes

[i] Gunvor Guttorm, 2012, "Duodji: A New Step for Art Education", International Journal of Art & Design Education

[ii] The following people took part in the NPCCT meeting in Bergen: Gunvor Guttorm (Professor in duodji, Sámi allaskuvla), Anders Ljungberg (Silversmith and Professor at Kontsfack), Irene Snarby (Art Historian/PhD student at The Arctic University of Norway), Marit Lønning Reiten (Head of Education, Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts), Kirsti van Hoegee (Director, KRAFT), Randi Grov Berger (Director, Entrée gallery), Lars Sture (Curator, Norwegian Crafts), Suvi Saloniemi (Chief Curator, Designmuseum Helsinki), Love Jönsson (Director, Rian Design Museum), and André Gali (Head of Theory and Publications, Norwegian Crafts).

[iii] For a concise overview of the nuanced relations between dáidda and duodji, Jan-Erik Lundström’s reflections are informative: “[D]uodji may in fact suggest and mean both method and object, both process and work (as in a work of art), thus comprising material, mental and spiritual dimensions. Even more illuminating and elucidatory are the Sámi concepts of dáiddaduodji and duodjidáidda which, in distinct ways, aim at the inseparability of the two, their co-dependency […] Duodjidáidda identifies the crafted work as it eliminates the borders between art and craft. Whereas dáiddaduodji teases out deviant or irregular aesthetic elements in the crafted piece, superimposed upon or amalgamated into an object precisely chiseled out of its duodji roots.” (https://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/passages-across-life-worlds-some-ventures-in-duodji-craft-and-art)

[iv] Guttorm, Gunvor, 2011,"Hutkáivuohta, improvisašuvdna ja innovašuvdna kultuvrralaš ovdanbuktimis", Sámi dieđalaš áigečála 1/2011: 3–18.

[v] To complicate things a little, if working within a “specific context”, I would also add that creativity, as an idea, can also be read out from specific socio-cultural conditions (whilst acknowledging that such reading partially produces these conditions). In considering creativity and duodji together, “in connection”, the former (‘creativity’) is also a translation in which, momentarily, it is objectified and taken to be a specific thing in order to embellish and expound upon duodji. The reverse process could also be undertaken: how to think creativity through duodji? In other words, I am proposing to consider received concepts (e.g. ‘creativity’) under the same epistemological conditions as those being focussed upon.

[vi] Tim Ingold and Elisabeth Hallam (eds.), 2008, "Introduction to Creativity and Cultural Improvisation", Oxford: Berg Publishers.

[vii] Astrid Dankertsen, 2016, "Fragments of the Future: Decolonisation in Sami Everyday Life"

[viii] Gunvor Guttorm, 2012, "Duodji: A New Step for Art Education", International Journal of Art & Design Education.

[ix] Irene Snarby, 2017,"The Sculpture of Iver Jåks and the Question of Sámi Aesthetics" , Sámi Art and Aesthetics: Contemporary Perspectives, Aarhus Universitetsforlag.

[x] As Chandra Talpade Mohanty attests: “It is the colonialist and corporate power to define Western science, and the reliance on capitalist values of private property and profit, as the only normative system that results in the exercise of immense power. Thus indigenous knowledges, which are often communally generated and shared among tribal and peasant women for domestic, local, and public use, are subject to the ideologies of a corporate Western scientific paradigm where intellectual property rights can only be understood in possessive or privatised form.” (Chandra Talpade Mohanty “’Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles” [2003], Signs 28 [2], 512.)