'Postdigital Artisans' goes beyond the 3D printing hype to explore the work of over 60 artists who combine an immersion in the digital age with tactile materials and processes
In his new book Postdigital Artisans, current editor of LS:N Global and previous editor-in-chief of POSTmatter Jonathan Openshaw, addresses the ways in which contemporary artisans are responding to the post-digital moment. Certainly, when the average person spends half their waking life connected to the web, and when the screen has become our primary means for processing visual information, it is digital technology that defines our present-day experience of the world around and that dominates the way we consume digital culture. However, as the post-digital moment develops, the realisation of this disruption between physical and digital is manifested in an emergent desire to blur the boundaries between the two. While the digital is a presiding force, it has not extinguished the basic human desire for tactile and physical experiences, nor led to an alienation from artisan skill.
Within this context Openshaw introduces today’s post-digital artisans, those creating a ‘new aesthetic’ across the visual arts. Working across art, design, fashion and architecture, these are artists living in digital world who do not reject the presence and importance of the physical. Using and often manipulating both technology and more traditional artistic tools, they address the way that technology has made an impact on how we see and experience the world, using it to reinvent the way that they shape materials to take traditional crafts to new heights. Their work is part of a new digital moment that sits between the digital and physical realms – as Openshaw notes, they nurture both the "imprint of the digital" and the "fingerprint of the craftsman" to create something that is both innovative and compelling. Following these themes, Postdigital Artisans profiles sixty contemporary artists and designers, accompanied with rich illustrations of their work, along with essays and interviews with such figures as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nathan Jurgenson and Liam Young.
While the digital is a presiding force, it has not extinguished the basic human desire for tactile and physical experiences, nor led to an alienation from artisan skill.
POSTmatter: You distinguish pieces that are solely machine-made (in processes such as 3-D printing) from those that are influenced by the post-digital moment but have the mark of the human artisan. Do you think that digital craftsmanship can exist without this integration of the physical, or human touch?
Jonathan Openshaw: The book was partly conceived as a response, or antidote, to all the hype around 3D printing, generative design and other computer automated processes. It's not that I'm personally against these technologies, but there does seem to have been a disproportionate amount of hype around them in recent years, and I think this is mostly down to the press seizing on a few charismatic technologies and running with them. There's nothing new about 3D printing - it's been around in some form or other since the 1970s - but what is new is the hype and hyperbole about what it means for design.
If you actually speak to most designers or artists (even ones who are really engaged with technology), then you'll find that these things only play a part of their practice, and often quite a small one at that. Basic human needs and desires stay the same in the post-digital age, which means tactility and materials are core. It's just that digital technology, logic and aesthetics have become an undercurrent to everything we do.
PM: The categories that you chose to order the book are unusually interdisciplinary, following formats such as 'Forces', 'Structures', and 'Bodies'. What led you to define them in this way?
JO: I started off splitting it out by discipline, looking at sculptors, architects, fashion designers etc. But it soon became clear that this traditional approach wasn't going to work for this book. Although it covers all of these disciplines, many of the creatives move across categories and blur the boundaries between things. This is an aspect of the post-digital too, where certain barriers to entry have been eroded, and knowledge is open sourced.
So I started to map thing out by themes that had a bit more stretch to them. The chapter on the 'Body', for example, contains quite a lot of fashion work, but it also has sculpture and other disciplines that are exploring the human form in the post-digital age. Likewise with 'Structures', you can find a lot of architecture in this chapter, but also art and design.
Basic human needs and desires stay the same in the post-digital age, which means tactility and materials are core.
PM: A number of the post-digital artists featured reference more traditional modes of production, such as Faig Ahmed's woven carpets or Barry Ball's classical carvings. What function do you think that this explicit interplay between the two outlooks performs?
JO: One of the big criticisms of the digital is that it's such a total break with heritage, tradition and craft. I actually don't agree with this at all, even though the digital format does throw up interesting questions about legacy and preservation. But I wanted to find artists and designers who seemed to be able to fluidly integrate tradition and technological innovation, and that is core to this book too.
The idea of the 'artisan' is very old fashioned, and actually quite a controversial term in design. It was a deliberate clash to use this kind of language with a term that is still only just emerging and very up for debate (the 'post digital'), in order to investigate what kind of work comes out of this clash.
I wanted to find artists and designers who seemed to be able to fluidly integrate tradition and technological innovation
PM: You have an anthropology background. How did this impact on your approach to the transformation that has come about from the rise of the internet and digital production?
JO: Yes, I think that anthropology greatly informs my outlook. It forces you to interrogate your own biases and assumptions, helping you to look at things on their own terms, rather than through your culture's internalised logic. I was very interested in the agency of objects during my degree, and how seemingly inanimate things can actually be incorporated into human social networks in ways that will profoundly change the human actors. These objects have a form of agency that is independent of what individuals may desire, and are often called quasi-objects or 'objectiles'.
These vibrant networks of human and non-human agents are very familiar in anthropology, and I think explain a lot about the changes that are happening through digital technology. The Marshall McLuhan observation that "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us" throws some light on the feedback loop between technology and the human mind.
PM: How do you think that the post-digital moment has affected your own approach not only to art and craftsmanship, but to your own work and writing?
JO: I think that digital technology works against specialisation in some ways – that is one of the great gifts, but also risks. I certainly find that my own work and interests move quite quickly and freely, and the role of editor, writer and curator can all bleed into each other.
I'm unsure how I feel about this; it's liberating and exciting to work in this way, but I also very much believe in the importance of specialists and experts. The idea of a kind of 'wiki-person' who skims over things with only a surface engagement is not a very attractive vision of the future. I think that it's all about balance, and knowing when certain things require more time and thought. The post-digital gives you much more freedom as a writer and editor, but also introduces far more distractions and diversions.
Postdigital Artisans is published by FRAME. The book launches this evening at The Future Laboratory, London, where Jonathan Openshaw will be in conversation with Robert Shore, editor of Elephant magazine. To RSVP, click here.