Thursday, 21 May 2015

Print Me a Ming Vase, Darling

I am a crank about crafts. I believe we would all be happier if we made things regularly. This view has got me into trouble on occasion.

For instance, I remember asking a mature-age student radical, after he'd explained to me that until he was 35 he'd been a cabinetmaker, why he thought studying political science and anthropology was a better way to live his life. The question was evidence that I was a patronising snob, apparently.

But I wasn't being patronising. I genuinely thought spending your life making things would be a deeply satisfying way to earn a crust.

I even took my enthusiasm so far as to incorporate it into what I, totally absurdly, sometimes like to refer to as 'my career'. That is to say, I worked for a while at the Crafts Council of Great Britain, (now defunct, I believe), on their magazine, Crafts, (also now defunct, I think).

To my surprise, I soon began to notice that my colleagues at the council didn't appear to be quite as keen on crafts as I was. But perhaps, I told myself, it was just that they were English and therefore less noisy and demonstrative than me, an Australian (or at least a half-Australian).

That worked for a while but one day, during a discussion about how we ought to do more articles on textiles, the truth became distressingly clear. In the course of conversation, I let slip the fact that I liked making patchworks from old clothes.

The reaction was an icy silence. The magazine's editor, (a woman who is the only occasionally-sung inventor of the phrase 'Sloane Ranger', [Peter York sometimes mentions that it was her, but usually allows it to be assumed that he thought it up himself]), looked at me in horrified amazement.

'Ugh', she said, 'I hate making things.'

Looking back, I think I may be able to faintly discern some of the reasons that Crafts and the Crafts Council have both since vanished.

The council certainly didn't help itself, at least in my view by, in its dying days, organising a V & A exhibition that was supposed to showcase English crafts. I went along to this exhibition, with very -(naively) - high hopes.

My hopes, needless to say, were quickly dashed. While they did have the odd item of traditional, richly skilled craft, the exhibition's organisers  reserved their real excitement and enthusiasm for brand-new technology - most especially 3D printing.

The exhibition was my introduction to 3D printing. This was about 10 years ago and at the time I'd never heard of the process before. It seemed kind of amazing, if you find machines extruding things amazing, but nothing about it, so far as I could see, could be described as a traditional English craft.

Leaving that quibble aside, there is no denying that 3D printing has been on the rise ever since. Nowadays, most people seem to agree that the process is going to revolutionise everything from medicine to house construction. At an exhibition in Brussels the other day, I saw a bicycle on display, together with some armchairs, all produced by 3D printing. Everything in the exhibition was very impressive, inasmuch as things made out of plastic can be very impressive.

But, leaving aside the fact that, so far as I can tell a 3D printer has not yet managed to extrude a walnut-veneered Beidermeier chest of drawers or a mahogany library table with a gold-tooled leather top, there is one other aspect of the new global 3D-printing enthusiasm that bothers me: namely, the aspect that involves relying on printers.

As my younger daughter wisely observed to me the other day, while all our other gadgets leap forward in their speed and ability to perform miracles, there remains one area of machinery that seems to have got stuck in the 1980s and that area is: printers. You can flash pictures across the world in an instant, you can chat away to people in Australia while you sit in Europe, you can discover the dates of Carolingian dynasties in a millisecond, (supposing you want to), but, when it comes to printing out a letter, you are stuck in an earlier age of recalcitrant equipment, sweating and cursing as you wrench mangled, ink-smeared bits of paper from the maw of your printer, hovering beside it, like a nursemaid by a baby's cradle, for the entire time it is required to function (Warning: do not watch this clip if you object to swearing):

Given this reality, how is the 3D revolution going to work exactly? If we can't manage to produce a printer that doesn't jam, exhaust itself of ink or that powdery laser substance, (of which there always seems to be more than enough to blacken your fingers and add smuts to odd bits of your face, when you take the old cartridge out to change it), or simply go on strike for no clear reason at all, how are we going to manage to build whole cities with the things, as some people are predicting?

Or perhaps I have suddenly hit upon the solution to the inevitable post-automation rise in unemployment. All the people who used to make the things that the 3D printers will now be making for us will get lovely new 3D jobs instead - they will be paid to spend their lives standing beside the 3D printing machines, soothing them into operating without a hitch.

Or mightn't it be better just to go on using our hands and our eyes, slowly accruing greater and greater skill and gaining huge satisfaction from  making things ourselves?

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