Material Flux

By Caroline Bassett, 10 September 1997

Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand by Caroline Bassett

Will craft survive an age when the practice of design, graphic art, 3D modelling, and dynamic image editing, has migrated from 'direct' work with 'real' materials to the manipulation of abstract symbols on a computer screen?

Malcolm McCullough raises the question in Abstracting Craft, where his careful, but always engaged stance, is that skilled digital workers of all kinds leave their marks upon that which they 'work'. Humans engaged in machine production are not inevitably reduced to 'operators' and nor are the artefacts they produce necessarily without 'soul'. Craft, therefore, remains a relevant concept within the electronic sphere. Which isn't to say nothing has changed. Working digitally means old forms of contact between the craftsperson and the worked material are lost - particularly the sense of the haptic; the focus shifts from hand to eye.

But there are also gains. In particular, in exchange for the responsive engagement with material involved in crafting wood or stone, the digital craftsperson may engage in an intimacy with the material, which the immersive qualities of digital media provides.

McCullough considers the quality of continuous engagement human computer interfaces offer, the ability to flexibly experiment with shapes and forms, the provision of new notations for sculpture and 3D modelling, and the ability to easily develop new tools. His conclusion is that the digital too may be wrought. First, the abstract spaces of the digital can be understood to exhibit a kind of materiality. Second, this digital material has an "affordance" (the term is J.J. Gibson's), or a grain - albeit not a 'natural' grain but rather an artificial, machinic, diverse, re-writable, ephemeral grain; a digital grain; universal (like Turing's machine) because protean.

Within this framework, McCullough develops a vision of multiple 'craft' environments; spaces and notations which are increasingly specialised, and which might be understood to contain different production possibilities; for CAD/CAM, for graphics, for publishing.

Craft may only too easily be invoked nostalgically. The strength of this book is that the term is deployed forcibly, first to interrogate new practices and new possibilities for craft in the age of electronic production, and second, more obliquely to shed some light on a larger issue - that of materiality and digital worlds.

Caroline Bassett <caroline AT>writes fiction, journalism and essays about technoculture.

Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft:The Practised Digital HandCambridge, Massachusetts; London, England:MIT Press, 1996

MIT Press website