Making A Shift From National Crafts To Transnational Crafting

in conversation with Henriëtte Waal (Atelier Luma)

Henriette Waal is artistic research director of atelier LUMA. As artist and designer her work was awarded by the International Award for Public Art for her placemaking approach. As curator for Mediamatic’s Bio-me program, Waal has developed a cross-disciplinary platform for knowledge exchange about brewing practices and design with micro-organisms. Waal’s projects have been exhibited worldwide in institutions such as Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Venice Biennial, RUHR 2010, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, Pioneer Works NYC, Centraal Museum Utrecht, NAiM Bureau Europa and Dutch Design Awards. In addition to founding and implementing a number of socially engaged art and design projects, Waal has taught since 2013 in the Social Design Master Program at Design Academy Eindhoven.

Throughout your own design practice, but also through teaching at the Design Academy Eindhoven, your focus has been on ‘modelling the network of relationships’. Could you expand on what it means to design new collaborative structures? What role does social design play in producing critical societal thinking? How much impact can designers have in development and transformation of society today?

Other than designing objects, small scale interventions or experiences, designers can also develop scenarios, systems and solutions for complex problems. In many of my own projects, I designed small, multidisciplinary and multicultural structures in which the designer and ideation plays a central role. This means gaining people's trust and dealing with a lot of misunderstandings. It also means ending up in strange and uncomfortable situations, but it definitely means inspiring people, letting the team get deeply committed, having patience and faith while managing expectations as well.

In collaboration designers can ask different questions as they are not obliged to just follow protocols. Good designers can work cross-disciplinary, deal with uncertainty, push boundaries and improvise. I will even argue that design helps to protect a kind of biodiversity in thinking and making.

Similarly, looking onto his/her own habitat and immediate environments, enables a designer to contribute in previously unimagined ways, which seems to be the case with Design Research Lab Atelier Luma in Arles where you act as an artistic director. What were the initial reasons of establishing such space? What subjects are in its primary focus in becoming a learning network? What can be adopted from its inherently communal ecological approach given the current eco-socialist climate?

I’m really grateful to Maja Hoffmann giving us the chance to create this unique space network. Working on the scale of the Camargue delta and beyond, was something that really attracted me in the project from the very beginning. Initially, the research focus was more on the direct needs of the site of the cultural institution in Arles itself – 'What can be made with local materials and local skills?' Gradually, we developed a broader vision and expanded the notion of locality to a Mediterranean scale. As a learning network Atelier Luma aims to become an aggregator of knowledge, studying the variety of local renewable resources in wetlands around the Mediterranean and connecting to local designers, farmers and institutes. In a world that loses species on a daily basis we need to understand the environment in order to work in symphony with it, or to try to restore the ecosystems that we have disturbed. Especially in a profession such as design.

By placing collaborative processes at the center of Atelier Lumas’ production, this think tank, production workshop and a learning network uses ever-growing team of experts as a main driving force in facing the challenges of rapidly changing world. Which group do you appoint in the role of cultivators of the content generated there and how are the multidisciplinary teams usually formed?

In French culture in general, content cultivation and social debate are at the heart of the society. This can be tiresome at times, but it is also creating an agency you can put to work. At Atelier Luma, every research project has a project manager or ‘project guardian’, to use a Camargue’s equestrian term, which coordinates the organization and also structures collaborations and production. The initial mapping for Atelier Luma was mainly done by myself in close conversation with the community of Arles and its surrounding region and with the designers and theorists that were invited by Jan Boelen and myself during the summer of 2016. After the mapping phase, we recruited specific project guardians from very diverse backgrounds (design, crafts, engineering, art history, communication, architecture, etc.). This group still forms the heart of our Atelier Luma team.

The bio-laboratory set and running in Arles, deals with several projects around the region’s culture and history. What types of ‘new crafts’ are currently being developed? What exactly do you consider ‘new crafts’, and how would you define crafts within the realm of technological advancements?

For me, craft is skill in making. Skill in making is learned through the integration of embodied knowledge with technical understanding and pushed by imagination.

New crafts can be developed particularly well on a transnational and cross-cultural platform in a distributed form, as designs and techniques can also travel digitally. Challenging and testing a new craft in various environments simultaneously, can accelerate its evolution.

Let me give you an example. I've noticed that with the lack of governmental support and its current economical climate, designers in Istanbul are generally far more pragmatic, more solution-driven than French designers for whom philosophical aspects and narratives hold more value. These two approaches can benefit from each other, because different circumstances and cultures bring about their own set of solutions for similar problems. It’s better to not just introduce one solution, but to bring about an exchange of experiences to form a set of solutions. It’s not about one product or one solution, but about differentiation and a flexible process. In order to make that shift in crafts, crafts people might have to react faster to changes in demand. That means less of the slow process of making the same product over and over again, less of preserving the craftsman and more refining of the crafts process to gear it up for rapidly changing markets. In our field trials at LUMA we’ve already started with trying to change the mentality of crafts people and finding effective ratios between market and making. Our designers send their concept drawing to our crafts people overseas. These design drawings are kept open to interpretation, so the crafts people can insert their own interpretations and solutions. It’s an experiment in dialing up and dialing down certain factors in order to make the crafts process more adaptable. The types of ‘new crafts’ we are developing don’t have a name yet but they are all craft-digital hybrids related to renewable resources.

Luma is set to provide local solutions to globally present issues, from agricultural waste recycling to promotion of traditional crafts. In your current 3+ year experience, with case studies conducted in the Camargue region as well as in the Mediterranean area. How important is interdisciplinary approach and what interaction methods do you use when facing an entirely new cultural situation?

I’m always trying to understand the social and environmental urgencies that are at stake locally. Also I map local technological capacity for (potential) production. I took algae as an ambassador for the Mediterranean design research, aiming to share knowledge between European, north African and near Eastern communities. This way I’m not just exploring new geographies to gain knowledge and appoint potential, but I also share that knowledge and I have a concrete project to offer in which the people I meet, can participate. I have a very curious nature and I’m passionate about what I do. This is an energy I use to make initial contact with people I don’t know. I think most people recognise my sincerity and see that my curiousness is heartfelt and goes beyond work.

McCullough says: “Craft implies working at a personal scale, acting locally in reaction to anonymous, globalized industrial production.” When you are formulating the scope of a specific subject of interest, what role does spatial and geographical scale take and how does it inform the exploration of and the development of alternative systems?

Well, especially if you want to work with farmers, your design proposal needs to relate to the scale on which they are acting. This means that you need to be able to work with 5.000 tons of rice straw and find its purpose, instead of trying to convince them with 1 beautiful prototype. There is always a lot of focus on the crafted artefacts, whereas to me, designing an alternative system of organizing the transmission of the craft, is as interesting, to say the least. We should take it so much further, beyond the preservation of crafts and develop scenarios for its evolution in relation to technological advancement, geographical and socio-economic factors. Also, the notion of ‘the local’ has shifted greatly. A lot of what are considered typical local crafts are oftentimes banal worn out representations of the given culture. We need to respond to that shift and reconnect the unique sets of local expertise to our contemporary landscape and needs so we can revitalize circular local economies.

One project we work on in the Camarque region is the use of rice straw into a resource, in order to reduce the pollution caused by burning of the straw. Instead of weaving baskets and household products the research team initiated a project in which the craft of weaving is used to develop reinforcement devices of dunes and shores made of the rice straw material to protect the Camarque from erosion as a result of rising sea levels. This could potentially give the rice culture the socio-economic boost it dearly needs ànd the local response to the very pertinent global issue of climate change. We need to make a shift from national crafts to transnational crafting.

Concept of restorative design, addressed in the coming XXII Triennale di Milano curated by Paola Antonelli entitled ‘Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival’, is a promising turn in current design practice, facing circular production and circular learning strongly rooted in local and traditional production and culture. How does Algae Geographies project reflect this tendency and what artisanal skill does it promote, through both bio-fabrication and decentralized fabrication?

Over the course of the Triennial I will direct a pilot project in Sardinia. The biodiversity of Sardinia is rather exceptional. It is the heart of the Mediterranean and a stepping stone and stop zone for birds. We're partnering up with MEDSEA, an organization that aims to reduce the loss of natural and cultural heritage on the island. Atelier Luma and MEDSEA explore the possibilities of a craft-science-design relation. We want to demonstrate the power of international and democratic collaboration by using design as a tool to drive those initiatives towards sustainable solutions. The collaboration started off with a first residency project in San Vero Milis (Sardinia). Its main goal is to preserve the craft of weaving and improve the socio-economical position of female weavers by using design as a tool. Climate change has its own set of repercussions locally in any given place. When you investigate global issues on a local level, it becomes much more understandable. And when it is understandable you can act.

How do you envision further development of the Mediterranean wetlands project, and do you see potentials in connecting it to the MADE IN initiative itself?

In Arles we established a model for catalyzing circular economy that is embedded in communities and local ecosystems. Continuing with this ambition of placing Atelier LUMA as a model of global reference, we must add a number of locally developed projects to test and validate this model and reinforce a truly diverse perspective for our design approach. To avoid institutionalization, I proposed a personal and informal approach to initiate the Mediterranean project. Sensing and experiencing is very important in my practice and for design in general. We try to embrace intuition at Atelier Luma, which also functions better on a local level. Drawings you can exchange on a distance but to really taste and sense each other you need to come together. However, as we can interact beyond physical limits we might need to rethink the local as well. Move beyond sensory limits and speculate about other possibilities. Socio-economics could potentially develop by investigating more similar activities in more wetlands at the same time. My current focus is on the Balkan region. I’m very much looking forward to explore further collaborations within MADE IN project.

in conversation with Andrea de Chirico (Superlocal)
in conversation with Marion Poortvliet and Willemien Ippel (Crafts Council Nederland)