“the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternate reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “A War without End”, in The Wave in the Mind (2004)
It has been the great privilege of my life to have been invited to visit and to share my skills and knowledge with the people of Reite village in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. I’ve charted the arc of this journey in a series of posts since it got going back in 2009 with a request from my friend, James Leach, to help document the visit to London and the British Museum’s Ethnographic Department by two Reite Villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau. (Frédérik Lesage interviewed James in 2010 and wrote this up as a bookleteer case study.)
This journey has had the most profound effects on me, influencing life decisions and challenging all kinds of certainties I had acquired. Doubt, questioning and uncertainty have become even more powerful allies in the way I choose to live and, in the work I do. As an artist they have always been present, part of my critical and creative toolkit and way of life; but it is rare to have such an opportunity to experience ways of living that are diametrically different to our own. When an understanding of the true difference that exists becomes tangible within one’s own lived experience, it triggers a shift in both the centre and the orbits of one’s life. That re-orientation affects everything going forward – the sense of value and values, as well as rootedness in one’s own culture, purpose and activity. It has inspired my thinking with new revelations : providing me with a kind of double vision that offsets the familiar ever so slightly to suggest alternative perspectives and different priorities.
Elsewhere I have described this as helping me define a practice based on reciprocal entanglement: to create artworks which enable people to have empathic encounters. In the future, once the TKRN project reaches its conclusion (possibly in 2020), I hope to write up a more in depth reflection on what I have learned – for now it remains a fluid process that continues to draw me along, as currents around me shift and I do my best to be an agent for positive, transformational change whilst treading as lightly on the earth as needs must.
Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives
Since 2016 I have also been trying to develop a parallel project here in the UK (“Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives” or TKLA) that would be complementary to the TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project I’ve been working on in Papua New Guinea. It’s been a challenge that I’ve not yet cracked (in terms of funding or support), but I think the idea is too good to let go of and perhaps there are other ways it could find some sort of life. So I’m going to share it and see if it strikes any chords…
The tacit knowledges of how to make, shape, grow and harvest things and how to work with materials, tools, machines and other life-forms are acquired over time, with patience and perseverance. But in an age which increasingly values speed, automation and highly specific concepts of “efficiency” over human skill and judgement, what is our society in danger of losing, abandoning or simply disregarding?
- What values and valuables of human skill and knowledge are disappearing?
- What kinds of experiential knowledge are at risk?
- How can the values of such knowledges be self-documented as a digital/physical resource for the future?
Tacit and experiential knowledges are known to be at risk of loss in the face of automation, digital communications and data-driven decision making:
- Why do people value these kinds of knowledges?
- In what ways are they being, or can they be, transmitted to future generations?
- Who are the inheritors of older traditions of experiential knowledge? and,
- Who is currently adapting and evolving new experiential practices?
I believe that the processes and methods we have co-devised for the TKRN project could be equally adopted and adapted in our own communities in the UK – functioning as the kind of tools for conviviality described by Ivan Illich in his eponymous book: “People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.”
This conviviality – the making and sharing together of value through stories, descriptions and other forms of practising knowledge – has been a key feature of how we have seen the TKRN tools become woven into Reite village life. It is not so much their status as artefacts which has made them valuable or that has given them meaning, as the social processes of making and sharing – enacting knowledge within and among each other. The books act as waymarkers to the people, or Living Archives, within whom and through their relations with others, the knowledge actually resides.
In his 1980 book, Architect or Bee?, Mike Cooley defines tacit knowledge as informal knowledge “acquired through doing, to ‘attending to’ things”. He goes on to say, “Knowledge frequently applied in a domain may become wisdom, and wisdom is the basis for positive action.” He also includes a diagram suggesting how he sees it operating on the axis of signal/noise and the path from data to action:
Consumer society is becoming ever more mediated in the relations people have with everyday skills and practices, for instance, through the easy purchase of ready-made things (‘reified knowledge’) that remove any need for learning skills or to take time to acquire tacit knowledge. It is visible in so many aspects of life, the vital to the trivial. From how computers can simulate the effects of what were previously distinct skills and expertise and make them manipulable by others; to the sophistication of ready meals at the supermarket, providing varieties of quick-cook cuisine that approximate culinary skills formerly acquired through time, trial and error – hard-won knowledge of materials, their interactions, chemistries and behaviours.
“It is easier to set in motion a galley or factory in which human beings are used to a minor part of their full capacity only, rather than create a world in which these human beings may fully develop. Those striving for power believe that a mechanised concept of human beings constitutes a simple way of realising their aspirations to power.”
Norbert Weiner, quoted in Architect or Bee? (Mike Cooley)
Automation has for centuries been used to exert power by one group of people over another. This has often taken the form of de-skilling artisans and skilled workers by capturing aspects of their craft and tacit knowledge and encoding it into machines – to replicate the work at scale and more cheaply. This was, of course, the prime struggle of the Industrial Revolution, resisted in its early period by the Luddites who sought to challenge their deliberate impoverishment and the removal of their independent craft practice. This is rather different to the way they have been typically and perjoratively portrayed as anti-science and technology. The parallel is also clear between the forcible movement by the ruling classes of poorer human beings into factory towns (and squalor, disease, exploitation etc) and their use of Acts of Parliament to enclose common land and sequester it for their own benefit – also leading to the physical eviction of local people from their ancestral homes. The 1217 Charter of the Forest had been one of the great legal impediments to enclosure in England, and a model for stewardship, but increasingly it was circumvented by individual Acts that removed common land from common ownership into the hands of the wealthy, by their agents (often relatives or dependents) in Parliament. In Scotland, the Clearances of the 19th Century followed a more direct suppression of the Highland clans’ way of life following the Battle of Culloden and the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Such deliberate erasures of culture and creative or craft practices are now seen as tragedies, yet still counted as acceptable by those for whom the logic of ‘progress’ defaults to economic and monetary value over any other. A key aspect of resistance has been folk-culture and memory – losses memorialised in poetry and song, in banners and murals, stories and books, music and films. A counter-heritage that is intertwined with other pragmatic and political efforts, such as unionisation, cooperativism, mutualism and the social contract of the post-War Welfare State.
“The great thing about people is that they are sometimes disobedient. Most human development, technical, cultural and political, has depended on those movements which questioned, challenged and, where necessary, disobeyed the established order.”
Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee?
Automation is once again at the heart of the fears stoked by modern day fantasies of “Artificial Intelligence” automating away the ‘white-collar’ jobs of the middle class, who were protected from the job losses suffered by manual labourers and factory workers in the earlier stages of the machinic age and robotisation of manufacturing. ‘AI’, we are told by the frothy press and media, threatens to supplant all kinds of office jobs that were previously considered uniquely human and automation-proof. Conversely, a resurgence of interests in craft skills and practices over the past decade could be seen as a significant counterpoint to the growth of digital systems and simplicities and simulations of expertise that they offer. How can the benefits and drawbacks be balanced – to make sure that the benefits are more equitably distributed and not sequestered by the already powerful and wealthy? How can agency, good governance and equity be supported and promoted?
I believe that one way is to celebrate and share the tacit knowledges that people acquire over time and practice – valuing them and their skills, finding new articulations of value that are outside of mere quantification and accounting standards. In the 1930s and 1940s the visionary Mass Observation movement encouraged ordinary people to document and record their own lives and world – to create an “anthropology of ourselves”. In my own way, through the concept of Public Authoring that I have evolved through a variety of projects, places and technologies (e.g. Urban Tapestries, various Social Tapestries projects, and especially bookleteer) I hope I have made some contribution to the kinds of tools for conviviality that Illich speaks of, and which could contribute to a positive transformation in what we do, why and how we do it.
“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.
I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.”
Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)
Through my decade-long collaboration with James Leach I have been introduced to a trove of ideas, observations and learning from the world of anthropology. One of the most signal has been my exposure to the work and thought of Tim Ingold (one of James’ teachers at Manchester and, later, a colleague at Aberdeen). Ingold writes of the ‘practice of knowing’ as opposed to the ‘property of knowledge’, and this has been like a pole star around which I have navigated my attention from the outputs we make using bookleteer (and other artefacts) to the processes that emerge around the making. As the TKRN project evolved, the discussions James and I had reflecting on the project became less concerned with understanding the individual value of the specific books that were being made by people in Reite, and more focused on how the books function as signposts, within wider social and cultural activity, to where knowledge might exist within persons and the relationships that connect them (to others, places etc). Our conversations have continued to examine how it is in the co-creative acts of reciprocal exchange – the relationships – that any ‘knowledge’ is constantly made, re-made and made meaningful. A co-discovery made in each act of teaching and learning, a dynamic act of reciprocity rather than the simple transmission of a static state of knowing something or how to do something.
“To tell is not to represent the world but to trace a path through it that others can follow.
It is in the art of storytelling, not in the power of classification, that the key to human knowledgeability – and therefore to culture – ultimately resides.”
Tim Ingold, “Stories Against Classification” in Kinship and Beyond (2009)
In a previous post I described how I came to appreciate differences between Western and non-Western worldviews and conceptions of ‘knowledge’ – how for some cultures knowledge is always relational, not something which can be alienated from context.
“Stories do not, as a rule, come with their meanings already attached, nor do they mean the same for different people. What they mean is rather something that listeners have to discover for themselves, by placing them in the context of their own life histories.”
Tim Ingold, “Stories Against Classification”
I describe my practice as storymaking, not storytelling because my role is not to be the storyteller, but the one who helps make the space for the story to be told. I see the potential for a cultural movement of enacting tacit knowledges through co-creative acts of making and sharing, as being a critical moment for us to reflect and re-assess what we value and why. At this turning point in human civilisation, when the speed of resource extraction, exploitation and consumption is poised to overwhelm nature and the ecologies that sustain our very existence, now is the moment to re-consider what matters to us.
There is an emerging field of studies that compare indigenous stories and traditions in different places and cultures with scientific evidence of environmental change (c.f. this example). Some studies have demonstrated a remarkable accuracy in the stories, for instance to within one generation of accuracy over a very long timespan (thousands of years) when describing phenomena such as sea level changes. Such studies underline the importance of storymaking and telling – as persistent modes of communicating knowledges that remain neither remote nor alienated from context – but instead proximate and directly relational to the people who live with and through them.
For TKLA to become a reality it would be necessary to form a network of people who have such knowledges and are willing and able to communicate what it means to them to have acquired them, why they think they are valuable and to whom they are or would be willing to pass on their knowledge. Methods would need to be devised for them to describe and share what they value about these skills rather than the skills themselves. Not to slavishly document skills in books that will gather dust on shelves, but to signpost these knowledge holders as “Living Archives” whom others can consult and learn from.
The format of the hybrid digital/physical books generated by bookleteer is highly adaptable to varying literacies (both linguistic and visual), allowing people to communicate in ways that are natural to them – whether in terms of words, drawings or pictures. They can also incorporate visual links to online sound or video files that can be played back on other devices. The books also underscore the importance of human relationships to knowledge – as distinct from treating it as an object that can be separated from context and meaning. The emphasis would be on documenting the value of each person’s knowledge, rather than trying to isolate and extract the knowledge as separate from the person.
These are some of the kinds of activities that I believe would be an important part of developing TKLA as a project:
- Networking: researching and developing a network of knowledge holders covering a wide array of practices around the UK. Visiting people and places e.g.: craftspeople and artisans; artists; people who work with the land, sea, environment and animals; and to understand the context in which they practise their activities;
- Co-creativity: collaborative production of hybrid digital/physical book templates with participants to document and share what they value about the knowledge they have acquired; linking to other digital media resources (audio/video etc).
- Building a Library: developing an online library/resource of completed books for wider access and sharing of knowledge, values and skills;
- Exhibition: designing and producing a physical touring format for the library so that people can encounter them in multiple sites.
The true measure here would be to work at depth, not scale.
I have no specific agenda, plan or framework to make this happen – it is simply something I feel is right for our times. I’m open to suggestions.