I had a visitor in my shop not that long ago, talking about this and that. He ended up staying for a bit to watch me carve. It didn’t take very long before I could tell he was agitated about something. Finally, in a low conspiratorial tone he said, ‘you know you can get a robot to do that right?’
Maybe… I’m not so sure. The digitally carved work I’ve seen actually looks pretty limited – no under cuts, no incised lines to flute cuts, no thin parts, and certainly no way to improvise on the fly. Much of it has a lumpy, yet regimented quality (which is as odd as it sounds) when the pieces are un-sanded. And when they are sanded they look like bars of soap that have been left in the shower for a month. I’m not saying that the technology out there won’t catch up to me sooner or later, but for now, it’s not even that close.
What struck me about this visitor mentioning the robot thing wasn’t his lack of sophistication about the technology though - hell, maybe he was right. It was more that there was a clear desire to help me overcome the sheer inefficiency, or even drudgery, of what I was doing. This realization got me thinking. There have been lots of people who have asked me how long a particular piece took to make, and a lot of the time I found the question to be far from interesting. But now I realized that what they were really asking had less to do with how, and more to do with why. My studio visitor, conjuring his non-existent technological short cut, was in essence asking much the same thing.
Why, as opposed to how long, is a perfectly fair question of course. There is a deeply held aversion towards needless labor that’s probably old as humanity itself, and if anything, that aversion has only increased in our automated present. With that in mind, it seems clear that a very large part of what I’m doing has to do with labor itself, and that inefficiency and drudgery are both intrinsic to the conceptual starting point of the work. This is in response to the contemporary world, which has put so much value on exactly the opposite approach, by prizing efficiency over pretty much everything else. That in turn has had the unfortunate consequence of making things like beauty and durability sound like unreasonable extras. My work posits the idea that they are actually essential. And as odd as it sounds to most contemporary ears, inefficiency and drudgery are an excellent way to accomplish that. Inefficiency, for example, ambushes rote repetition in favor of surprises, and improvisation. And drudgery makes clear that spectacular results don’t happen by stringing together spectacular moments – the lows exist there right along side the highs.
My interior reverie didn’t end there though. The other thought that occurred to me was to consider a world in which the carving I had just made could in fact be carved by a robot. Would that be a win for humanity? And what exactly is our relationship to technology in the first place? At what point do our lives become so distant from the world via technology, that it actually makes us worse off, rather than better?
It’s not exactly a new thing to think about. People have been asking that question since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The Luddites became famous as the machine breakers in the early 1800’s – destroying the mechanized looms that they felt were taking away their livelihoods. William Morris followed that in the 1860’s, when he starting the arts and crafts movement, based on a his very critical assessment of the industrial revolution. And so began, in fits and starts, a long line of proto hippies, which progressed until the actual hippies showed up, in the 1960’s. Now we have all the locavores, and slow food enthusiasts, the slow fashion movement, the small house movement, and the Etsy crafters, among a whole lot else.
There have been doubters about technological progress from the beginning, despite the fact that they tended to be the minority, and despite the fact that they tended to be viewed as a little nuts. Which is the way a lot of movements start, if you think about it. Suffragettes, or civil rights advocates, or feminists, or environmentalists, all seemed out of step, until the day came when they didn’t. Whether we are to that point with technology yet, as always, is an open question.
What is pretty clear though, is that spinning a dystopian bummer about the evils of our current technological moment, with all of our gadgetry, and fractured attention spans, would be an easy thing to do. But I’m not going to do it. Because at this point, new technology has to play a role in un-fucking up a lot of what our old (and current) technological fuck-ups have wrought. Food production, clean energy, clean water, environmental issues, medical breakthroughs, transportation, among a whole lot else, need to be solved in order for billions of us to avoid the catastrophe we certainly face. We are too far down that path to change it now.
What I’m doing by laboriously bashing on blocks of wood certainly talks about technology by way of its absence, but in my opinion that strategy isn’t a clear condemnation of it, far less a plea for us to return to caves. It’s an acknowledgement that a physical relationship with the world is still absolutely essential, and so too is the human agency required to negotiate it. That frequently overlooked fact means that we will have to find a sustainable relationship with more than just what’s left of the natural world, we will also have to find a sustainable relationship with our technology. So far, we aren’t close to doing either.
Understand that my own work depends heavily on technology – I’m not carving large blocks of wood with my fingernails. True, my process requires no screens to peer into, and no set of digital instructions to program, but the technology involved in making what I make is still high nonetheless. Metallurgy, tool design, and even lighting and dust collection are all things that have relentlessly been improved on over many centuries, and I couldn’t do what I do without them. At the same time, I also couldn’t do what I do without understanding that the tools I use, powered or not, aren’t magic – they won’t make things appear without my hands knowing what to do. The short cut that tools represent is misinterpreted if we conflate ‘fast’ with ‘good’ and ‘fastest’ with ‘best’. We have plenty of evidence all around us that shows the unfortunate outcome of thinking that way.
Not that I’m mad at efficiency, as a goal. I’m mad at efficiency replacing awesome as a goal. There is no question that technology has been really successful at shortening the distance between wanting something and getting it, but maybe a bit counter intuitively, that often puts awesome further out of reach. And it does so in a couple of unfortunate ways: the first is to convince us, quite logically, that taking on long term, challenging tasks is for suckers. And the second is to cut us off from how the basics of our lives come to exist. By now, we are hazy on how our food arrives in the grocery store, how our shelters are made, how our clothes are stitched, our phones assembled, because all of it just seems to appear like magic. What this means is that not only have we limited our ability to intersect with systems we don’t understand, we have also limited our desire to try. For people who face a lot of problems, that’s not a good place to start.
Making things posits another approach to this particular predicament, by trading away drift and paralysis for agency and action. It connects our own abilities, physical as well as mental, to our own ambition. It makes clear that acquiring a high level of agency means acquiring a high level of ability. And gaining agency over something is to unravel the power dynamic of the contemporary world, which is set up on the premise that if we willingly jettison a portion of our initiative, knowledge and power, then we will get our needs to met by a group of invisible others (inevitably browner, poorer, and far away) in return.
If the work starts with the idea that actions are freighted not only with political consequences, but also form a very reliable portrait of one’s values, then it’s clear that actions, far more than words, reveal us. So what actions do we choose? Carving might seem like an obscure outlier as far as actions go, but it’s actually deeply embedded into the human experience. In fact, it pre-dates the appearance of Homosapiens, by a lot. Our proto-human ancestors, Australopithecines, started carving at least two million years ago, and probably closer to three. For that reason, tool use is now thought to have inspired our brains to expand and adapt to our hands, rather than the other way around. Pretty much every culture, in every era, figured out how to carve. That means most of us relate to carving as an activity without relating it to a specific context, unlike performance art say, or painting. Chances are good that you saw something that was carved today – maybe in a church, a park, a public square, a cemetery, or maybe on a fire place mantel, a piece of furniture, on a building, or maybe even in a museum or gallery. All of this adds up to carving being a very good vehicle to demonstrate a tangible interaction with the world, via a very familiar method, in a very familiar material.
And a sidebar here about making: what I’m talking about is the opposite of romantic amateurism understand, where a gauzy nostalgia, and a studied lack of ability can often end up as art – maybe only end up as art – because what else could such a thing be? No other sphere but art would accept making something poorly as a premise. And that ends up being a problem, because if there is a formula for making something look like art, then plenty of us will see that as enough. If there is a formula for eliminating a laborious search for art, then we'll stop looking. Our default route now is to find the short cut.
What I’m talking about instead is pretty much in the opposite direction to that, by working towards gaining knowledge, skill, and competence - clear thinking meeting clear ability, and using both to push each other forward. That requires discipline, following through on what you start, and doing something with love. Oh - and making it plain that love is work. Sound like a bumper sticker? Yeah, well that’s fine. The results of this particular approach may or may not be art, or contemporary art, or craft, or any hybrid thereof. I’ll leave it to others to name it. All I can do is persist in making sure that the work reflects me, that it reflects my values, my interests, and my concerns. If it does that, then I’ll name it successful.
That word concern really taps in to the last part about why I’m spending so much time laboriously making stuff. I’m concerned about responding to the world in some tangible way. The opposite of that of course is no response, no engagement. Which, for the nitpickers out there, might form a response of its own. But I’m not interested in that kind of apathy. To me, it’s as if I can hear the world in a low humming voice ask me if I have truly paid attention to it, truly seen it, heard it and felt it. (Or is that voice Bruce Nauman?) The work I do is trying to say yes to that, as respectfully as I can.
Thinking that way has made me realize that the reason I’m doing this is not because of all the contemporary art I saw as a kid – suffice to say that there wasn’t any in Anchorage Alaska, where I grew up. No, the reason I’m an artist is because I saw and experienced plenty of other things that most of the time didn’t call themselves art, but inspired me nonetheless. Things like native carvings, frontier architecture, airplanes, hippy crafts, the Northern Lights, and opera. (Yes, I said opera. I worked in the set shop for the small opera company in Anchorage). I was a voracious reader as well, and through the words of others, I saw views of the world that where starkly different than my own. This spectrum of stuff had a cumulative effect on me that can only be described as wonder.
The curious thing about wonder, as opposed to awe, or admiration, is that it not only draws one in, it also encourages participation at the same time. It’s the music that inspires the dance. Which is why the grab bag of stuff I was looking at seemed to call out for a response from me. It just didn’t seem crazy to think that I too had something to add to all I had seen and experienced, and that my participation might even be necessary. Wonder has that power.
Back in my studio, my visitor stood to leave, and my thought train came to a screeching halt. I hadn’t really answered him about the robot, probably because it would have caused more confusion than clarity. But if he were here right now, like you are, I would tell him that I’m content to participate in the way that I already am - with inefficiency and love, and drudgery and respect. I’ll skip the robot… but thanks for the tip.