Encounters on the Shop Floor at the V&A

Encounters on the Shop Floor at the V&A

At the end of June, I attended a remarkable 3-day symposium at the V&A, Encounters on the Shop Floor. It results from a research project the same name involving the V&A, Imperial College London, University College London (UCL), the Art Workers’ Guild, the Royal College of Music, Tate and a group of independent artists, makers and performers. The project is housed at the V&A Research Institute (VARI) and is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The symposium was opened by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and introduced by project leader Dr Marta Ajmer (Deputy Director of VARI). According to Ajmar, and the project’s promotional blurb, the symposium and the project from which it stems, aim to:

  • Make the knowledge of the maker explicit, and track its significance in learning and cognition

  • Champion its importance in education and society, and in all areas of practice, from art, design and science, [to] medicine and manufacture in challenging the divide between ‘mind’ and ‘hand’ and between ‘intellectual’ and ‘manual’ knowledge and their compartmentalisation

  • Model ways in which it can be effectively integrated into education

This stance is intended by the project team to address ‘educational underperformance, social and economic inequality’ and to inform ‘socially and environmentally progressive industrial practices’. The project’s methods include:

  • Methodological experimentation with multiple approaches

  • Collaborative interdisciplinary research in the form of Design Clusters

  • Educational modelling

  • Advocacy

  • Public Engagement

The symposium in particular sought to ’develop strategies for recognising, showcasing and championing the value and usability of this knowledge within learning, the workplace and society and to propose a productive way forward’ from multiple disciplinary contexts resulting, eventually, in a manifesto! Ajmar provided a foretaste of Professor Andrew Brewerton’s (Plymouth College of Art) emphasis on ‘making learning’ and insistence that ‘Making comes before knowing’.


Dr Marta Ajmar opening the symposium

Co-Investigator Prof Roger Kneebone (Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College), who has added to his several roles a new one as Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Art, talked about the term ‘reciprocal illumination’ coined by Gunther Kress and Kneebone in their collaboration. Ajmar, Kneebone and Kate Cowan all spoke fondly and extensively about Kress who had been due to participate in the conference but sadly died the week before. Kneebone lamented the challenges resulting from the fact that the school curriculum is being stripped of making, not only in the creative subjects but also in terms of any practical teaching in the sciences, for example. Kneebone was widely reported for lamenting the lack of sewing skills in his surgery students in October 2018.

He praised the work of Fleur Oakes, a 3D Embroiderer and Lacemaker who trained as a fine artist and fashion designer and is lacemaker in residence at St Mary’s Hospital, part of Imperial College. Her work ‘Textile Body’ bridges textiles and surgery by replicating in cloth and thread the experience of rummaging inside a patients’ body to perform a detailed surgical procedure, pushing body parts aside, not knowing what each part does, performing ‘thread management’ and focussing on very small physical details with a steady hand. ‘Textile Body’ represents the complexity of the body’s interior - participants navigate parts they don’t understand to find a tiny part and insert another one.

The first session, ‘Challenging the Body/Mind Divide’, began with Kate Cowan’s (UCL Institute of Education, formerly V&A Research Institute) ‘In Tribute to Gunther Kress’. Cowan first encountered Kress through his book Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy (1997). She went on to work with him and made clear his enormous influence on her work, her entire field and many other varied fields too.

Cowan was followed by Mark Johnson (Philosophy Department, University of Oregon) who is perhaps best known for his book with George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By (1980). At the symposium, Johnson spoke about ‘Embodied Mind, Meaning, and Thought’. He described disembodied knowing as a 2700 year old tradition, and distinguished between ‘knowing-that’ which is supposedly objective and its subordinate ‘knowing-how’ which is not objective. Johnson explained that we will never be able to justify embodied knowing if we accept the construct of a mind-body division. However, he argued, all knowing is doing, an action for the transformation of experience, and therefore all knowing is embodied. Humans are makers and seekers of meaning, meaningfully engaging our environment. Linguistic meaning is parasitic upon and grows out of experience. Johnson cited the work of Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error; Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, 1994) on the organism-environment interaction, J.J. Gibson’s theory of affordances (1979), philosopher John Dewey’s view that objects are events with meaning and Don Tucker, neuroscientist with whom he is writing a book about embodied knowing.

In the afternoon, Paul Craddock (Research Film Maker, V&A Research Institute and UCL Medical School) described his work filming for the Encounters Project. Academic journals do not publish research films, with the exception of the Journal of Embodied Research. Yet, useful knowledge is to be gained from research films such as Craddock’s. For example he filmed potter Julian Stair at his wheel showing how he creates a firm triangular form with his left elbow on his left thigh, and his right elbow on his right thigh, leaning forward to brace for steadiness, and then this hands come together and work in partnership, rarely separating. This triangular form is also seen in Pétur Jónasson’s (Royal College of Music) guitar playing. Stair and Jónasson have worked together for the Encounters Project Investigating Touch and their commonalities have been further revealed.

Carey Jewitt (UCL Institute of Education) spoke about ‘In-Touch: Exploring touch through touchy, felt-experiences and processes of making’ stating that touch research is still emergent, perhaps because it is hard to access multimodal and sensorial experiences, but we need to look at socio-technological imaginaries, beyond the arrival of the smartphone.

Tamar Makin and Danielle Clode (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL) discussed ‘How the Body and the Brain Adapt to Material Change: An interdisciplinary perspective from neuroscience and design’. Dani Clode studied MA Design Products at the Royal College of Art. For her Alternative Limb project she made three prostheses for model Kelly Knox who was born without one of her hands: one with a pulse that reflects the shape of her arm, one assembled from a variety of different materials, and one like a worm or tail. Prosthetics extend a person’s physical ability. The Third Thumb is symmetrically positioned across from the biological thumb and controlled by the user’s feet. Drivers in cars, and users of sewing machines, electric guitars and drums all use their feet to assist the hands: it is normal to do so in these contexts. The Third Thumb was protoyped with flexible 3D filament. Users train for two hours a day to develop their skills and increase their proprioception of the thumb. Close demonstrated the Third Thumb in a V&A gallery after her talk.

Aldo Faisal (Faculty of Engineering and Brain and Behaviour Lab, Imperial College London) spoke to the title ‘Putting the Human back into the Loop with Neurotechnology’. It takes 1000 hours to learn how to nap a flint hand axe for an individual but it took a million years for the human race to learn how to produce hand axes. Today we can offload parts of the mind and body to technology.

A session titled ‘The Thinking Hand: Histories and Practices’ was chaired by Elaine Tierney (V&A Research Institute) and began with Simona Valeriani (V&A Research Institute) talking about models which were used to make visible and tangible chemical structures at the molecular level, architectural models which were used for planning, and how physical models are still In use in the twenty-first century but digital models are becoming more prevalent.

Next, Haidy Geismar (Department of Anthropology, UCL), Pip Laurenson (Research Department, Tate and Maastricht University) and Catherine Yass (Artist) talked about their Encounters Project ‘Obsolescence, Precarity, Persistence: The social world of embodied knowledge in contemporary art photography’. Yass has spent her career as a photographer navigating technical changes and changes in film stock. She has stockpiled the last of her favoured film stock in a fridge in her studio. She uses the Bayeux lab in Fitzrovia, which has technicians who have developed social skills, good communication, and understand that excellent printing results from developing a strong personal relationship with the photographer. They also use skill to maintain obsolete equipment, software and hardware no longer maintained by their manufacturers.

The second day of the symposium began with a session chaired by Prof Lynda Nead (Department of History of Art and Screen Media, Birkbeck, University of London) featuring Prof Tim Ingold (Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen) and Prof Pamela Smith (Department of History, Columbia University). Ingold talked about ‘Making Growing Learning’. He asserted that no knowledge of practical work is transmitted. It is a myth that a body of knowledge is passed from one head and transmitted through observation to another. Practical instruction as a kind of copying is not a downward transmission, but two overlapping parallel activities. Ingold insisted that there is no link between creativity and copying nor between creativity and innovation. He used the example of there being no more creative thing than having a baby, but that is not an innovation. In every generation knowledge is being regenerated, rediscovered anew.

Ingold is becoming more sceptical of the notion of embodiment. It is misused in academia as a way of avoiding accusations of Cartesianism. The word ‘embodied’ and the prefix ‘em’ implies that something is taken into the body, and subsumed very deeply so that the poor craftsperson can’t speak about what they do, which is not the case as craftspeople speak endlessly about what they do. But rather than taking things in, we are constantly pouring things out. Making things is not so different from growing things. We don’t impose a plan on materials but join with them in making something. Making is transforming materials from one life and taking them into another life.

Smith leads the Making and Knowing Project in the Department of History at Columbia. Ajmar had told us previously that she has been collaborating in this project, reconstructing C16th varnishes, and renaissance wood inlay (intarsia). This material experience has radically transformed Ajmar’s understanding of the technique including the breakages made by her unthinking hand and has allowed her to regard woodworm as a co-worker. The Making and Knowing project starts from the fact that from 1400 craftspeople began to write down their techniques (previously books were written exclusively by scholars). By the mid-sixteenth century lots of how-to books were available. They took the form of collections of recipes for how to do things, rather than a linear narrative. Examples are Cellini’s treatise on gold/silversmithing and Nicholas Hilliard’s The Art of Limning, in which he writes that the best way to learn to draw is to get an artist to show you. Leonardo, similarly, noted of his dissections, ‘... the more minutely your describes it, the more you will confound the mind of the reader.’ From 2014-19, the Making and knowing project has delivered :

  • I. Text workshops,

  • II. Graduate lab seminars -  to research and reconstruct the recipes in the mss

  • II. Working group meetings

  • iv. Digital development of a manuscript

It foregrounded craft making and scientific knowing, collaboration between the humanities and science, skill building, embodied knowledge, sensory tools and experience markers. For example in an early modern recipe a paste is described as having the texture of mustard and the same text also contains a recipe for mustard so a student made the mustard as a way of learning about the what the texture of the paste should be. The students developed a squeeze test which they passed down from student cohort to cohort across the life of the project. During the project, students became accustomed to learning through failure, which they had not previously experienced. Smith argues that hands-on learning, hands-on experimental history should be extended to all levels of learning. Ingold responded that treating graduate students as researchers, helps to get away from the idea that you are a pedagogue.

A panel titled Making Futures I: The Thinking Hand in Industry chaired by Sarah Green (V&A East) saw Julian Stair return to the stage in conversation with Peter Zinck (Petersen Tegl A/S, Denmark). Zinc is part of a family firm of brick makers Petesen Tegl A/S, Denmark, which imports clays to offer a range of colours, fires using charcoal for a variegated effect and makes bricks using a combination of hand and machine techniques to provide bespoke bricks https://en.petersen-tegl.dk/company-profile/our-history/ …

Next, Making Futures II: Making for a Purpose was a conversation with Tomas Diez (Fab Academy, Fab Foundation, Fab Lab Barcelona) and Daniel Charny (Design, Kingston School of Art; Fixperts, Kingston School of Art and FixEd). Diez talked about Fab Lab with great optimism. Charny talked about the Power of Making exhibition at the V&A which was commissioned by the V&A from Charny to explore ‘the trace of the hand’ but he objected to the phrase because it implied the end of something. Instead he shifted the focus to making, which was difficult to get V&A and crafts council to agree to. He promoted the work of Fixperts, which offers teacher resources and 600 films online.

The two final panels of the symposium’s central day addressed The Thinking Hand in Science and Medicine respectively and were chaired by Joanna Norman (Director of the V&A Research Institute). Conversation 1: Science featured Kneebone, Alan Spivey (Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London), Luke Delmas (Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London), Stephen Ramsey (Retired Scientific Glassblower, Imperial College London), and Ian Needleman (UCL Eastman Dental Institute). We learned that there is a crisis of reproducibility in science where scientists are unable to reproduce one another’s results even in the same institutions. This is partly a result of the ways in which research is reported. The difficulties of, for example, distilling, are not explained in journal articles, which simply refer to distilling without detailing the specific method used. Another example is found in the partnership between scientists and academic glassblowers. Luke Delmas talking about using glass taps in his chemistry experiments and how he learned how to turn them  gently to control the amount of gas let in. Students who are learning their skills can just turn them wide open and can ruin an experiment in the process. Kneebone explained that in surgery you don’t only use your hands, you use your whole body. Another problem in contemporary science is the focus on outputs rather than processes. Videos of experiments are helpful in facilitating reproducibility.

Conversation 2: Medicine, again led by Kneebone this time with Chris Peters (Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London), Fleur Oakes (Three-Dimensional Embroiderer and Lacemaker), Will Houstoun (Magician, Imperial College, RCM Centre for Performance Science), and Rachel Warr (Puppeteer and Dramaturg). Chris Peters explained that there are three kinds of surgery:

  1. Open surgery

  2. Laparoscopic surgery using a keyhole cut into the patient with instruments pushed through it, pivoting on the body’s wall

  3. Robotic surgery, using a computer, which need not be in the same room, but are designed to offer haptic feedback.

These make different physical and intellectual demands on the surgeon. Peters also talked about the communication skills needed in surgery and consultancy. He has developed a technique for giving bad news:

  • A warning shot

  • Use three points at most, as this is all that shocked patients or relatives will take in and remember

  • Tell a story, take patients through the stages of the process from the beginning

  • Be unambiguous

Will Houston, magician, controls the viewer’s attention through his own attention: when he looks at his hand, or a handkerchief, or other prop, the audience looks at it. When he looks at the audience they look at him.

The final session on Thursday was a practical one in Gallery 220, dedicated to Sharing the Knowledge of the Maker. It showcased the work of the participants in the preceding Science and Medicine panels along with Prue Cooper (Potter, Art Workers Guild), Rachael Matthews (Textile Artist, Art Workers Guild), Samantha Gallivan (Orthopaedic Surgeon, Imperial College London), Keith Frederick (Puppeteer - see the image of his materials at the top of this post), Malek Racy (Orthopaedic Surgeon, Imperial College London) and Paul Jakeman (Stone Carver, City and Guilds of London Art School). They were grouped according to ‘Hard materials, sharp tools’, ‘Small-scale working’, ‘Dexterity and manipulation’ and ‘Working with precious materials’. A reception in the Silver Galleries followed.

On the final day, the conference turned to pedagogy. Helen Charman (Learning and National Programmes, V&A) talked about her several decades’ experience in museum education at the Design Museum and now the V&A. Professor Andrew Brewerton (Plymouth College of Art) talked about his experience of leading Plymouth College of Art and setting up Plymouth School of Creative Arts focussed on creativity and food skills, which has this year been judged as inadequate by Ofsted. Jackie Marsh (School of Education, Sheffield University) described her formative experience with ‘makerspaces’, noticing the lack of girls and young women. She has undertaken a major project on ‘Makerspaces in Formal and Non-Formal Learning Spaces: Principles of practice’ in order to provide more equitable impact in and from these environments.

The final session was chaired by Jack Tindale (Policy Connect). Kate Cowan (UCL Institute of Education, formerly V&A Research Institute) and Rebecca Goozee (formerly V&A Research Institute) talked about ‘Valuing Embodied Ways of Knowing: Multimodal perspectives on teaching and learning in schools and museums’. Goozee shared her despair about a generation of children missing out on making because of curriculum and funding changes. Sara Price (UCL Institute of Education) followed with ‘Embodying Science: Meaning making around interactions in informal science settings’.

The last word was given to Professor David Kirsh (Cognitive Science Department, University of California, San Diego) who provided a fascinating account of how dancers use ‘marking’, a kind of abbreviated enactment, to learn, remember and practice their dance phrases. Research supports the supposition that marking has benefits in terms of improved performance that visualisation does not provide. Kirsh demonstrated therefore that ‘We Use Our Bodies to Think'.

At the closing round table and discussion, ‘Where to Now?’ many of the speakers were invited to briefly state their manifesto. I perceived an unfortunate split in which makers such as Julian Stair asserted their distinction from academia in a highly critical way. One respondent in the Q&A said ‘I am on the side of the makers’. The binarism embedded in this phrase was inappropriate at the close of a symposium arising from a project which is all about interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and bringing people together for ‘reciprocal illumination’.

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