Monday, November 17, 2008

Old Wine, New Bottles

The field of “relational aesthetics” is fairly new to the art world, and one has to accept that art can be redefined in such a way that the object is no longer the art-maker’s goal. Artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Carsten Höller, and my personal favorite, Pierre Huyghe, traffic in events and installations which require viewers to be active participants. Wikipedia's page provides this: “Relational Art (or relationalism[1]) is defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder and former co-director of Paris art gallery Palais de Tokyo as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space."[2] Artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.[3]” But even though the purpose of these relationships is to make art more democratic, relational artists mostly preach to the converted, while the public at large still prefers to define art as something one hangs on a wall.

This past weekend, the craft-faith-based initiative WOWHAUS, out of California, came to Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine, to present a Symposium on Deep Craft. WOWHAUS puts its faith in the involvement of community, and in teaching people to use what’s locally available, from food to building materials. They define deep craft as an “interstitial place” where skills, tradition, innovation and knowledge come together. But does this create a place that is deep, or only just spread thinly across the social landscape? Mainers are a pragmatic bunch for whom deep craft is digging out after a serious snowstorm, and I think too, it seemed to most of us that deep craft is something we’ve been doing every day partly just to get by, and partly because we came in on the seventies wave of environmental awareness.

So what’s new about ecodesign, permaculture, and the biodynamic movement? Just the buzzwords, really. WOWHAUS’s contribution to craft is in the field of possibilities, brewing the legacy of William Morris in the stewpot of sixties activism. Though they have realized some impressive designs, for Alice Waters among others, for WOWHAUS, building community relationships matters more than the actual making of things. Still, in a world where we can now order Domino’s pizza directly through TiVo, there’s something to be said for keeping the flame alive.

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