Reclaiming obsolete technology for art

I was struck by two opposing thoughts during my letterpress class. The first was, if this was my job, to manually set type, I’d go crazy scheming for a more efficient solution—something not unlike the combination of word processing software and a laser printer. Thank you Xerox Parc for doing the heavy lifting.

But in the moment, I was completely enthralled by the process of setting type. It was almost soothing—a feeling I imagine may have been more widespread up until the time industrial presses and affordable computers sat everyone in front of a cathode ray tube instead of a California job case.

I keep thinking about the little sacrifices we accept with every technological advancement. What has concrete wrought on architecture, photography on painting, computers on writing, and now digital photography on chemical? Isn’t there something to gain by adding (rather than removing) constraints?

Surely the productivity and accessibility associated with new technologies far outweigh the idiosyncracies of the old, but how cognizant are we of what we lose when we upgrade?

The time and care involved in using a press suggests it may be put to better use in making art. The combination of beautiful, heavy paper, and the precise physical impression of type, handset text on handmade paper. This emphasis on handmade these days seems to fly in the face of everything we believe about progress. Why do we value handmade goods (usually made in other countries, objets more relevant in the context of other cultures), but spurn the manual labor required to make them?

Perhaps it’s a question of having the choice. At work I do everything I can to reduce the amount of work I have to. Not by dillydallying or procrastinating, but by finding more efficient, effective, consistent, streamlined ways of doing things. But when I’m not at work, the constraints are different. I want to have the time to savor what I’m doing. As Brian says, I want to slow down. I want to appreciate the process as much as the product. Handmade makes sense at home. And I think for a few lucky people, handmade can become a sustainable venture.

An addendum

There’s a curious thing that happens when you call something art. Or handmade. Or a thousand other adjectives like artisanal, gourmet, etc. It seems to escape that thing from the capitalist’s imperative of bigger, faster, cheaper. It seems to give people a greater freedom to explore and enjoy the process of making while somewhat releasing them from the slaughter of mass market prices.

And these days it seems that art is being invoked on incredibly personal levels (in addition to the incredibly industrial: think Apple’s iPod). With the internet (as Robin mentions in the comments), what might have been hobbies before now take on the mantle of art in the eyes of an expanded community. They still may number no more than a dozen, but a dozen unencumbered by geographical diversity.


There are lots of people making a tiny, supplementary income from handmade goods, thanks to the Internet. It’s actually quite impressive, and inspiring, really.

And – this post reminds me so much of why we have weekends, and the Industrial Revolution, and labor unions, and, well, I’m having a bad day so my head is in a fog. Like the difference between work-for-pay and work-for-leisure. We want one to be efficient and the other to give us time to savor the passing of time, to let our mind open and wander. Or maybe not everyone does, but I’m sure we-you-and-I do.

Oh! One more thing.
I read something recently about the magic in handmade objects. Especially things like knitted sweaters that take a ridiculous amount of effort and time to make, ridiculous because one can just go to a store and buy one industrially-made for $20. And yet, all that time, and the maker’s hands, and the thoughts the maker had while making the item, go into the object and it’s magic.
Ha. I’m not just having a bad day, I’m loopy too.

Robin, your comments kept me thinking about this today, so I added an addendum to the post, but realized in it I let my mind wander into an unoriginal, pseudo-economics rant. The culprit: too little sleep.

So I hacked off the last two appended paragraphs—bad form, I know—to preserve the original intent of the post. What I removed revolves around a question I frequently find myself pondering.

What effect do our purchase decisions, in aggregate, have on our local communities?

Here’s the text I removed.

I wonder about the effect we have as consumers. What happens if we spend more money locally than at Wal-Mart, or if we pay a premium for Whole Foods groceries with the assurance that the premium is benefitting farmers, producers, livestock, and the environment directly?

I guess what I’m getting at are the short and long term ramifications of cost savings. I understand there’s a personal impact in terms of dollars expended per year, but I’m also curious about the social and economic impact of a community acting in aggregate. How does that awareness affect personal behavior?

what might have been hobbies before now take on the mantle of art

This phrase reminded me of something I’ve thought before (by no means the first to do so) that a craft that is historically done by men tends to be called “art” and a craft historically done by women tends to be called a hobby or, well, a craft. When, really, I think it’s all art. But then again, I have very little respect for the mainstream art world anyway.

Oh, I’ve been trying to lay off this post, but now I must weigh in. “Art” vs. “craft”, there lies madness. I don’t think there is necessarily a blatent gender bias in art vs. craft (cabinet-making, traditionally masculine, is the quintessential craft), but I do feel like “art” is tossed around when “craft” is more appropriate for the artifact. But the semantics of “craft” often mean that “art” is better applied to the act of creating, calling someone a “crafter” seems demeaning. That brings a question of value that lends itself to a discussion of high vs. low art, another path to madness.
I always figured that the design process in costuming represented the “art”, while the construction of costumes was the “craft.”

Ooo, Christy, interesting turn I hadn’t expected. If you had asked me outside of the context of this post what I thought was the difference between craft and art, I’d probably have said that craft values utility over aesthetics and art values aesthetics over utility.

But I wasn’t trying to contrast the two. In fact I was more equating art with all things handmade, gourmet, artisanal, etc.

If anything I share with Robin a general distaste towards the “mainstream art world”, but I believe that people, empowered by internet, are chipping away at that hegemony. I like the idea of a personal art much more than an ordained art.

I could sum this up by saying, on the internet, one person’s craft is another person’s art.

Recently Make magazine published an issue devoted to crafting (though I’m not sure how different this was from their other issues, maybe less techie?) which included a Crafter Manifesto.


have you heard of yurtz? look up pacific yurtz on google. or maybe it’s yurts.

Ha. Melanie, in what context did you want me to look up “pacific yurts”? :)


re: yurts… i have this hippie californian neighbor i hang with and she is all into the yurts! i thought maybe being in cali you had heard of them. those eco-friendly houses, you know ’em?

Ha. No I haven’t bumped into many yurt fanatics. :) I’ll keep my eyes peeled though.

We have spent several beach trips in yurts. Much more coastal-rainforest-friendly than tent camping in the spring and fall.


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