Making things – geographical perspectives

How are things made, and how might this need to change?

Such questions dominated a busy week which saw simultaneous sessions at the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) and Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) conferences on ‘making things’ and ‘craft geographies’, as well as the release of a new essay, “A country that makes things”, written by a team of us at AUSCCER – Andrew WarrenChantel Carr and myself. That essay has just become freely available online in the journal Australian Geographer‘s new “Thinking Space” commentary section.

Here in Australia, such discussions have been prompted by a heated public debate over the future of manufacturing. With a high Australian dollar, fuelled by unprecedented mining exports, manufacturing as well as tourism and retail sectors have been hard hit. Successive closures and cutbacks at Bluescope Steel, here in Wollongong, and in the car, aluminium and apparel industries have triggered a renewed debate about the national importance – or otherwise – of manufacturing.

A question of geography and scale?

In our Australian Geographer essay, we traverse some of the arguments geographers might wish to plug into this debate. One concerns the social, economic and ecological consequences of opaque systems and geographies of global production. Who and what gets screwed when things get made? Where are the impacts of our consumption of ‘things’ felt? We have been inspired by the work of Ian Cook and others seeking to follow things as they get made, distributed and consumed, to uncover otherwise hidden stories. Especially creative is their followthethings.com initiative. It brings together in a shopping parody website the disparate knowledge on what happens around the world when the things you consume get made. Another unrelated, but also terrific, project mapping global consequences of trade in ‘things’ can be viewed here.

A second argument concerns the agency of those who make things – of specific industry sectors, of workers – amidst ‘global’ economic forces. As geographers, we are suspicious of arguments that rest on assumptions about the way power is exercised as hierarchy of scales. Part of the problem of contemplating the future of manufacturing is when all power is assumed to invisible global market forces, while workers, and even whole nations, are depicted as powerless. Janelle Cornwell‘s research with worker cooperatives for instance demonstrates how powerlessness can be challenged and assumed hierarchies of geographical scale can be inverted.

Boards and boots – crafting in the contemporary economy

Bob McTavish marking out a custom hand-shaped surfboard, Byron Bay (Photo: Andrew Warren)

Andrew Warren‘s work on the surfboard industry provides another vivid counter-illustration: as he outlines in a recent AUSCCER Discussion Paper, surfboard-making is a form of manufacturing by hand that has survived despite intense competition from cheap labour locations. The key is how this ‘industry’ is embedded in highly social subcultures where loyalty and collaboration rule. It is a precarious industry, but the present uncertainty afflicting the surfboard industry is as much a product of dynamics internal to that industry than to the high dollar. Such dynamics include rapid technological change and replacement of hand-based crafting skills in some workshops; an ageing workforce with poor industry succession planning; and a rapidly changing retail environment involving e-commerce and fierce battles for visibility and presence in surfing megastores.

Nevertheless, surfboard-makers do exercise agency over the terms and scope of their work, and hard-earned crafting skills are central to this. But capacities to shape the terrain of work are constrained, contingent and evolving.

An unexpected connection has emerged between Andrew’s work with surfboard-making and my own research with Naomi Riggs on custom bootmaking in the United States. Similarly afflicted by competition from cheap mass-produced imports and poorly understood, the century-old industry – responsible for America’s iconic cowboy boots – nevertheless survives in the hands and minds of highly-skilled craftspeople. Both the surfboard and bootmaking industries rely on renewed legitimacy granted by their status as ‘creative’ industries – where consumers know, meet and even socialise with those who make the things consumed.

Handcrafting boots, El Paso, Texas (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Papers in the ‘craft geographies’ session at RGS-IBG (organised by Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob from Exeter) this week especially explored the historical dimensions of crafting things. Is the problem of how things get made confined to the neoliberal present? What insights and opportunities arise from deeper historical interrogation of creativity, crafting and regulation of the means of production? Their work retrieves historical geographies of guilds in the UK and elsewhere and asks critical questions of the political intent of craftivism. Is the point of crafting to privilege skill rather than a more distributive means of production? How have the nature and purpose of craft guilds changed over time? They argue for more historical and geographical sensitivity to analysis of how things get made. See Nicola’s project and blog for more on connecting crafting with communities.

More than manufacturing, what kind of economy do we want?

A particular interest within AUSCCER is in rethinking the manner in which the economy is being imagined and engineered – especially in the midst of global debt crisis, and in Australia in the middle of the so-called mining boom. Timothy Mitchell talks of the economy not as an entity, but as a ‘project’, orchestrated by vested interests (experts, inventors, capitalists). Once switched onto this logic, it becomes clearer to see that we are in the midst of discourse and policy wars over the constitution of the global economy, over Europe’s future, and even the supposedly resilient Australian economy.

Making things lurks in this debate. In contrast to the high-risk, volatile world of debt and ‘invisible’ financial instruments, material commodities are tangible, useful, enduring. Yet here and elsewhere, the tabloid assumption is that an economy dependent on manufacturing equals economic doom. In contrast to the assumption that manufacturing is moribund, there is evidence to suggest that manufacturing is in fact thriving – in Australia even with high dollar competition. Manufacturing output has quadrupled since the mid-1950s and Australia has one of the most efficient and productive manufacturing sectors in the world. This is hardly the picture portrayed by the federal government (and the opposition) when they suggest that Australia must abandon manufacturing and transition to the knowledge economy. And as recently discussed in an analysis piece for theconversation.edu.au, that liveliness in manufacturing occurs mostly at the scale of small businesses who employ less than 10 people. Again, this is a long way from the image of vast factories of low-paid workers sewing underpants or screwing on toothpaste lids.

Andrew Warren has been paying close attention to the manner in which the very constitution of the Australian economy is up for grabs: while manufacturing is depicted as fading away, and the tourism industry suffers to air its own set of complaints, the mining industry, through PR campaigns, media ownership strategies and lobbying, has positioned itself as a ‘normal’ and ‘sensible’ driver of economic growth in Australia. Reserve Bank insiders, politicians and economics ‘experts’ writing opinion pieces have all bought into this ‘project’. Op-ed commentators in conservative newspapers persist in arguing that manufacturing is unimportant and tied to a nostalgic vision. All this buttresses the view that manufacturing doesn’t matter, and that instead the ‘mining boom’ is new and natural, a happenstance, good thing.

Instead, in our Australian Geographer piece, we ask: what kind of ‘project’ is this being imagined for the Australian economy, and do we want it? How might the project of the national economy be imagined differently by concentrating on the things we make and consume?

Inside the black-box of industry

Port Kembla Steelworks (Photo: Gordon Waitt)

Chantel Carr‘s PhD work is proving critical in our re-thinking of how, why and to what effect things are are made. Chantel’s background is in design and architecture – and in a previous career she worked at Wollongong’s steelworks. At this week’s IAG conference, she brought a unique perspective, with intimate knowledge of the cultures, capacities and creativities present within manufacturing processes and workplaces. In contrast to assumptions that industrial cities are plagued with the burden of decaying manufacturing cultures and workplaces, what kinds of vernacular capacities and creativities exist within them? Chantel cited examples of cultures of reuse, mending and making taking place within the steelworks (of things such as car battery chargers and barbeque hotplates). Such practices were in part resistances to the demand for hyper-efficient labour, but also simple acts of informal collaboration furnishing people with things they need in life. Creativity and ingenuity were also present among workers who have been dealt the task of making the whole place work with dwindling funding and resources.

What is in part at stake, then, is how industrial cities, workers and sectors are factored into debates as caricatures, with heavy cultural baggage already attached.

Vibrant things

Finally, such discussions have taken on extra resonance against the background of ontological critiques of what constitute ‘things’. In light of Jane Bennett’s work on a political ecology of vibrant matter, what is the agency of things, and how might it factor into human lives (and workplaces)? There is a wider discussion taking place within AUSCCER about the manner in which human-nonhuman relations are recast in light of ecological and political economic critiques of climate change and sustainability imperatives. Leah Gibbs has been central to this. At the IAG conference Leah explored Bennett’s idea of “agentic assemblages” to ask questions of the agency of individual things – haybales, food, fires, grasses, animals – within wider constellations of landscape, actors and senses. At one level this is a philosophical reflection on what ‘makes place’; at another it is a political question of how humans re-position themselves in the world. Such thoughts are captured in Leah’s forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A, entitled “Bottles, bores and boats: agency of water assemblages in post/colonial inland Australia”. 

If humans are to take climate change seriously, then re-orientating consumption patterns and habits must be part of the equation. So too must be debate about how we make things, using energy, carbon or rare earth minerals, and who gets to consume them in a marketised, profit-orientated system. AUSCCER’s Elyse Stanes also presented at the IAG on ‘things’: in this case, clothes, and how young people shop for them. Elyse’s research explores how and why people shop and how this practice is tied up in social norms, emotions and habits.

How easy is it to imagine alternatives? What kinds of things must we be making to furnish humans with sustenance and quality of life? What are the constraints on consuming things differently imposed by commodity production methods, infrastructure, and a broader economic system that depends on constant retail throughput and spending? Is crafting the answer? Are cultures of sharing things another alternative – and if so, what are the design and production systems that will support this? Or is the deeper, more critical issue one of ownership of the means of production – as vividly illustrated recently in the case of that most important of daily things: newspapers? What are the social justice implications of foregrounding frugality – and must there be room for celebrations of abundance?

All these debates entangle things: material cultural objects of our economy and our daily lives. Far from irrelevant to the future of the economy, making things is a critical practical, political and philosophical issue.

Click here to access the inaugural “Thinking Space” essay in Australian Geographer, on the future of making things – written by Chris Gibson, Chantel Carr and Andrew Warren. 

Many of the people and projects mentioned here can be followed on twitter: Chris Gibson (@profcgibson), Chantel Carr (@lifeofstuff), AndrewWarren (@AWsurf), Leah Gibbs (@LM_Gibbs), Elyse Stanes (@elyserstanes), followthethings.com (@followthethings), Nicola Thomas and Doreen Jakob (@craftgeography)

 

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