Model urinal at the ICA

Up to London twice last week for two very different events which turned out to have a good deal in common. At the first a group of us – historians of design, science, ideas, literature and politics largely – met at the Institute of Contemporary Art in The Mall to brainstorm a project about the three early modern meanings of ‘craft’ – as material practice (hand-crafted things), as political mode (statecraft etc.), and as the codification of knowledge into, for instance, encyclopaedias. We met in a workshop at the top of the back stairs – low ceiling, sink for paint-mixing, strongly skylit with autumn light – to discuss how those three ideas might have woven together up to the edge of modernity.

Some key questions surfaced, particularly from Justin Champion and Rob Iliffe – when and where did the figure of the expert develop, and what was the nature, the foundations of their expertise and their authority? How did practices move from a personal to a public level – how were individuals’ skills scaled up, codified, standardized?

Then, on Friday, in the lecture room at the V&A, with its intricately painted half-dome over the stage and enormous figures of famous craftsmen, I went to the final conference of the Fashioning the Early Modern project. Here Evelyn Welch talked about the stories told about individual, heroic male inventors who overcame enormous obstacles to create new technology. She asked where collectivity comes into narratives of discovery, how less ‘serious’ inventions such as clothing innovations happened, and what place the changes wrought by women might have had?

This brought me back to our brainstorms earlier in the week, looking at that relationship between making the same object and improving it; altering the product or the process. It reminded me of our conversations about the distribution of knowledge – how much do you need to know about the way a thing is made to appreciate it? How do you write down knowledge in books? What is the relationship between personal and common knowledge?

One object that we discussed seemed to encapsulate the transfer of knowledge and skill between designers, producers and potential consumers: the model – site for trying out and communicating ideas; pattern for makers. Trying to leave the ICA, we had to wait because they had a large model of a urinal, signed ‘Will Gompertz’, stuck in the door. It keeps coming back to mind, making me think through those boundaries between craft, art, pre and post modernity…


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