The Work of Craft in the Aion of Mechanical Production
In partial fulfillment of a debt owed to Walter Benjamin
I’m unpacking a library of memories, and one of the things I remember well is making this quilt. I was working at Dabble & Stitch at the time, back when we had a storefront on Arcadia. That was before the pandemic.
We wanted to sell more fabric and patterns, so we needed more samples of the patterns and fabric being used together. So I took a very simple pattern that we had purchased, one that was available on a postcard for about a dollar. Then I took some fabric from a designer that I especially liked (Jen Hewett) and mixed it with some other fabric from the same company (Cotton + Steel) and laid out the idea. After that I asked Carol, who worked for the shop, to assemble the wonky squares and fabric in the way I envisioned. In the process, she asked about adding a border and binding and we also discussed the backing. It was collaborative, with her contributing design ideas as well as the work of quilting it. And that is how I made that quilt.
But did I really make it at all? Well, I didn’t conjure it from nothingness. But then again, no human ever conjures anything from nothingness. Still, my claim to make the quilt would be less contestable to the degree that I removed other people from the equation. If I had designed the fabric instead of Jen Hewett, for example, I would have exercised more agency with respect to the final (?) product, and I would have also done more work with respect to the display model we made for the store. Similarly, if I had spun the thread or designed the sewing machine or invented needles and then stitched it by hand, I would have also had more work and more agency involved in the work. And we could go through everything involved in the production of the quilt in this way: if I had invented math, or the universe that conforms to some math, or quilting, or a universe in which beings like us can quilt, or the pattern of this quilt, or the concept of patterns that supervene on material, or the contemporary pattern-making industry, or any of the other innumerable elements and priors involved in this project, then I would have done more work and also had more agency with respect to it.
The point here is to give credit wherever it is due as much as I can, and to gesture at the impossibility of fully giving all of the credit that is due here.
Still, I am grateful to have been somehow embedded in the flow of agency, attenuated as it was by market and social and other forces, that led to the creation of this new thing. The experience was satisfying. And it was deeply satisfying, in part, because it was the work of intergenerational communities spanning the whole of human history.
It was also satisfying, in part, because I was able to do a little bit to promote the work of Jen Hewett, whose work in the fabric design was some of my favorite from that year’s Cotton + Steel fabric. Nonetheless, if I had designed the fabric myself, or had used an AI system to design the fabric, in some sense my own agency would have been enhanced with respect to the product. And with respect to agency (but not work) I think this would be even more true with AI design. Why? Because I could have more quickly generated a large number of possible designs to consider according to my visual ideas. And then I could have chosen among them. The speed and cheapness and quality of AI art means that artists also get a lot more variety to work with a lot more quickly. The enhancement of my own agency, as an artist, would be real and would be clearly felt. And it would come at the expense of a work opportunity and an opportunity for connection with another artist. This quilt, then, nicely represents the conundrum of a complex relationship between agency, work, community, credit, and the long stream of action, work and labor in which we are always already embedded.