Material Thinking & How to Weave a Basket

The idea of material thinking and inclusion of the self in the importance of the creative process is what seems to be most important to me in thinking about my practice in general and its generative quality both in terms of research and the work it produces.

“Critics and theorists interested in communicating ideas about [material thinking] cannot emulate it. They remain outsiders… usually trying to make sense of a creative process… purely on the basis of its outcome. They lack access to the process.” (Carter, 2004)

Carter is referring to the tacit knowledge of the creative act, the ineffable nature of trying to discuss process whereby theorists can help to provide a bit of a vocabulary through which to articulate it, but they are ultimately, as he says, outsiders.

He goes on to mention how “[Creative practitioners] feel equally tongue-tied: knowing that what they make is an invention that cannot easily be put into words” … and so we arrive at a bit of a problem! The inappropriate and ill-fitting methods for discussing and describing what is arguably one of the most important (and recently most shoved-aside) aspects of art, the process. However, I find that, having this post-colonial heritage, there is also another issue that comes up: the idea of primitivism and the way that the ‘other’ seemingly has access to primal and profound aspects of existence through this ineffable physical process, and in this instance it is the artist. Whereas the Other is the artist versus the critic/theorist for Carter, in regards to post-colonial critique it is the colonized versus the colonizer and the assumed nature of being ‘uncivilised’. However, with the way that Carter describes it, this physical act and the work produced are anything but uncivilised, for him they are so overly articulate that we cannot word it.. And thinking in this way it can also be a way to empower the exoticised and formerly dominated Other.

Carter is interested in addressing the gap and disparity between the importance of process and the meaning of the material as well as the importance of the creative process and handling of material not only to art, but also to how we can think about ontological issues of becoming and to society at large.

As he says, “the process of material thinking enables us to think differently about our human situation and, by displaying in a tangible but non-reductive form its inevitable complexity, [it] demonstrates the great role works of art can play in the ethical project of becoming (collectively and individually) oneself in a particular place.”

For Carter, this isn’t a wholly self-serving sort of ontology, it’s about how artwork and material thinking can help us understand how identities form, how relationships with others are actively invented (and therefore susceptible to reinvention), and for him this is essential knowledge if societies are to learn how to sustain themselves… and I wholeheartedly agree as this is what I feel is at the centre of my interests in my practice. I do of course have personal interests vested in my work, but I also feel that it is important to address the marginalized situation of mixed identity as well as caribbean identity. The materials I keep coming back to serve as another way to help me think through this. But maybe it is also the materials that are leading this process…

In addition to Carter’s ideas on material thinking, I would like to throw a bit of Tim Ingold into the mix and his ideas on basket weaving. As Practice-based Research deals with the importance of process, it might be important to mention how the materials might have a certain dynamic and life of their own within this.

Tim Ingold on his essays on dwelling, livelihood and skill, suggests that we view the process of making and role of materials to be more like weaving a basket than sculpting. He says that with things like sculpture or molding something out of clay, we assume that we are essentially ‘applying a form’ when in fact, this may not be the case at all. He argues that instead, perhaps it the materials leading the process and what comes out of it is more of a growth of a work as opposed to us applying a form to the formless. In basket weaving, the materials are rigid and there are many limitations in the form, but the thing seems to grow as the skilled worker completes each under-over movement. It is in this way that I like to think that my practice is molded by the pallets, videos, maps and lights I use, rather than me molding the work. It helps to account for the organic nature of the process and the way that, given their relationships to and within space, things can grow. I think that identity can be a lot like this as well so it seems a very fitting metaphor for how I think about myself as a practitioner and a person, and my work as a whole.

It’s also of interest to me because we often think of pallets as these structured rigid things that are built to be battered and strong, but these ideas of them as part of an artwork seems to give them a new life and animates their nomadic and travelling nature. By moving and shuffling them around I echo what they did in their ‘life before art’ (for want of a better term) and I feel that there’s something quite poetic about that.