Chris Keenan, Continuing Drama - episode 153. Starting Point Series, 2010
As part of our Summer Of Craft series, former Crafts Council Director, Louise Taylor, offers her insights into the recent flourishing of crafts collectives.
The artistic avant-garde has for decades taken collective, direct action to get new work and ideas noticed and understood, opposing accepted systems and institutions. From Dada to Fluxus, this has been accompanied by protest and radical innovation leading to new art forms and expression.
Craft makers graduating from the new art schools of the 1960s were part of this. They emerged with innovative artworks, needing different support structures and places to exhibit, with an urgent need to engage with critics and reach a new public. The 62 Group of firstly embroiderers, then later all textile artists, is a collective which was founded in 1962 to be a pressure group and support system. Then, as now, the ‘lone voice’ was considered less effective than collaboration.
In more recent times, showing art in unconventional spaces, from warehouses to garages, has become the new normal for groups of artists seeking an audience. Strangely, makers have been slower to employ this modus operandi. They have instead excelled at running shared studios, from Cockpit Arts in London to Yorkshire Artspace in Sheffield, and selling direct to the public in open studio events and via exhibitions run by regional Guilds and Associations.
Such organisations, all over the country, provide vital networks of expertise, mentoring and education. Their collective activity is a notable part of the heritage of the Arts & Crafts Movement. But before the early years of this century it would have been hard to point to a new, avant-garde collective in the crafts.
Judging by the output of some of today’s most dynamic craft collectives such as 60|40, Manifold and Intelligent Trouble, co-operative effort in the 21st century is not about protest. It is about constructing an alternative environment in which new work can be made, shown and discussed. As a result, a new seam of experimental craft is taking shape.
The leading craft collective 60|40 was founded in 2008 by bookbinder Tracey Rowledge, silversmith David Clarke and ceramist Clare Twomey. Fed up with the lack of curators and spaces for experimental craft, they decided that they would do it themselves in a positive, directional way. They took over a house in Fournier Street, in London’s east end, holding an exhibition and private salons to generate discussion. The Manifesto they wrote at the outset took six months to get right and the five tenets still represent goals to be achieved today.
To be successful as a silversmith, potter or bookbinder, you need time and relative isolation to hone your skills and physically make your work. So what happens when makers join together? Something of the quiet directness of craft making comes through in their collective activity. There is no energy to waste on moaning or anger. The name 60|40 is about imbalance and flexibility; they function as mutual critics and projects are honed through conversation.
The project Thrown involved conceptual and practical input from all three members, not to mention trust and open minds. In the process, Clarke’s objects made of lead were thrown by Rowledge onto carbon paper as a form of mark making; both the destroyed object and the mark produced were exhibited.
It has formed a community of makers and a professional critical framework. Privileged access to the space has extended the practice of the makers who have exhibited and has enabled 60|40 to show new craft to a large audience. So, what is the ‘shelf life’ of a collective? The founders of 60|40 say they will continue as long as they have projects to do. There are new people coming through and when they are ready to pass the baton to the next generation, they will. For now, it is too fertile to stop and there is still much work to be done.
The final exhibition in the Starting Point series is, fittingly, by the London-based collective Manifold. A group of nine artists and designers, originally graduates of the RCA MA in Ceramics, their base is a shared studio in an East London railway arch. Alongside individual work across fields including digital art, drawing, research, teaching, product design and sculpture, their communal output includes a newsletter, regular discussions, educational workshops, talks and collaborations.
As a point of distinction between their own commitment to bookbinding, metal and clay, the members of 60|40 selected Manifold because they are interested in material but not tied to just one material. As Clare Twomey puts it, Manifold’s fluidity is ‘the serious voice of the future’, asking questions about the specialism of skill.
Contributed by Louise Taylor
More about craft collectives
Summer of Craft on Axisweb