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Posted 28.05.15

Making Futures: Malcolm Ferris Q&A

By Jake May

Making Futures is a biennial college-led international conference and research platform exploring the future of small-scale creative production.
 

The conference draws in an international audience of academics and creative practitioners and investigates contemporary craft and maker movements as ‘change agents’ within 21st century society – particularly in relation to sustainability, social entrepreneurialism and community regeneration.

With the next Making Futures fast approaching (the 2015 edition will take place on Thursday 24th and Friday 25th September), and the 1st June deadline for abstracts approaching faster still, we caught up with Making Futures curator Malcolm Ferris to find out what Making Futuresaims to achieve, the things it’s achieved so far, and how creatives can get involved.

So, in a nutshell, what is Making Futures all about?

Making Futures is a college research initiative that explores the future of contemporary craft and making, what they can do for individuals and communities, how they connect to the economy and to notions of ethical practice and sustainability agendas. It includes all forms of creative work – glass, ceramics, textiles, film, fashion, etc., – and is really trying to situate small-scale production at the centre of a series of debates about where society is going. In a nutshell, it asks, does the vision of a locally embedded ‘maker economy’ offer us an alternative to the current system of mass production? In this sense Making Futures is, I think, simple and yet very profound.

Making Futures really is an international event and as a result the college has become connected to a lot of very important groups and networks.

What does Making Futures hope to achieve?

That's a good question. Essentially, it wants to raise the status of creative makers so that what they do is valued more, but also to understand and develop their potential to contribute to the kind of sustainable, ethically-valid world we would all like to live in. To do this we connect contemporary making to politics and society, and other relevant areas from materials engineering to philosophy, anthropology and sociology. This gives small-scale making a wider platform, brings attention to it, allows ideas about it to be explored from multiple perspectives, and influences perceptions of it.

We always look at the relationship between what is going on in the UK and the West with what's going on in other countries. It can be quite useful as some of those countries like China have been through mass industrialisation and we can look at what is now happening to their traditional small scale making patterns and systems.

Making Futures at Beijing Design Week in 2014.

For instance, we question what we actually mean by craft. Is it only people in the applied arts working with small-scale metals, ceramics, glass and textiles, or can notions of craft be profitably developed outside this area? We think yes. For example, craft can be found in Drawing, Painting, Performance Art, Graphic Design, Photography, Film, Precision Surgery, Formula One, Aerospace, etc. So Making Futures is also saying, “let’s not restrict ourselves with narrow definitions of craft, but try to understand what it really means in the contemporary situation”.

Of course, it's a ‘research’ conference – so it’s out there, ahead of the game in many respects. But it’s looking for ways to positively influence what's going on in our college, other universities, and beyond, in the next five-year period or so.

So who attends the Making Futures conference?

It draws a broad audience, including artists, craftspeople, designers, curators, theorists, etc. But it’s principally an academic conference so many of these tend to be from other universities from across the world – students and tutors who are also creative practitioners. It also attracts some very influential specialists from wider institutions such as, the Crafts Council, the University of Cambridge, the Institute of Making at University College London, FabLab Barcelona, the Fibershed network in California, the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA, all of whom are participating in this coming September’s edition.

Where relevant we also draw practitioners from global corporate industry. For example, you don’t get much bigger than the Inditex Textiles Group, and we had their chief designer for Zara Homes participating in the last conference.

We try to make strong connections to politics, to philosophy, and to anthropology.

And how does Making Futures hope to achieve its aims?

All these people who I’ve just mentioned know about materials, they know about tools, they know about media, and they think about what they do. In different ways they apply those skills to problem-solve the issues Making Futures addresses. So, at the conference, we’ll have a number of keynote sessions where everybody comes together to listen to invited speakers, and then we all divide up into smaller group sessions for presentations by those attending.

These could be practitioners talking about their projects: “this is what I’m doing at the moment in trying to integrate these principles or techniques into my practice”. Or some might give more traditional academic papers: “I’ve been researching this issue in India and these are the findings I have come up with”. Or, it could be someone doing a performance-led piece - we are really open to people using their presentation to address the conference themes in interesting ways.

And then from these workshops, lecturers or makers may see something they hadn’t previously and take that away from them?

Yes, absolutely. Participants are exposed to lots of different ideas and ways of doing things – for instance, on sustainably sourcing materials, on the processes they use, on the social applications of a particular practice, or even on the marketing and selling of what they are doing - and take these back into their work and teaching.

The point is, by exploring how others are actually working through the issues, we get information and practical examples, case by case, of what can be done. And in some instances it’s maybe worth us taking elements of these results into our future teaching programmes.

How does Making Futures benefit the college and the students?

Well, apart from influencing the development of our curriculum in ways we’ve just discussed, Making Futures is an international event and as a result the college becomes connected to a lot of important creative practice groups and networks that help keep ideas and standards bubbling here in interesting ways. For example, the Made@EU project that's currently running behind the scenes developed directly out of Making Futures. This is a two-year EU funded project – partnered with Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) and the French national school for advanced studies in design (ENSCI) – exploring the integration of 3D digital printing and related technologies with traditional processes of creating and making. 

Also, the recognition the college receives is truly global. For example, we were invited to run a Making Futures at Beijing Design Week in 2014, and this year will be contributing to the prestigious Cheongju Festival in South Korea. The fact that these far flung organisations, and others closer to home such as the Royal College of Art, Cambridge University, The Institute of Making, and Brighton University, etc., all want to participate says something very positive indeed about the college and what it is doing. 

Finally, I should also mention the on-line archive that includes papers from virtually all the presentations across the three editions of Making Futures to date. It represents an incredible research resource for any College student or staff member interested in the issues Making Futuresdeals with.

It gets through to some very influential practitioners and academics who are themselves engaged in doing very interesting things.

And do students get involved? How can they get involved for 2015’s Making Futures?

Absolutely they get involved. There are two ways in which they can be included. One is as a volunteer, because we always need a number of people to assist around Making Futures, guiding delegates around the site, etc. In return volunteers get to see some of the keynote speakers and sessions. But also our students – and we really encourage this – can participate as bona fide presenters by submitting an abstract to the conference.

To do this you need to look closely at the themes on the website and ask yourself, “…does this connect to my practice and my interests?” If it does, use the on-line form to send in a short proposal summarising what you will talk about. Make sure that you are clear about how your proposal addresses the theme you choose. 

The deadline to submit abstracts for consideration for this year's Making Futures is 1 June – with student applications welcome.

Your abstract is then sent to an independent peer review committee whose task is to decide who to accept. The process is called ‘double blind review’ meaning that each proposal is seen separately by two reviewers who do not get to know the identity of the author. This helps ensure the system is fair and independent and that standards remain high. It means anyone who is accepted can say, “I got in on my own merits and against some of the best in the field.” And that counts for a lot. In the past, as well as college staff, we’ve had undergraduate and postgraduate students accepted to give presentations at Making Futures. Moreover, if you’re accepted, the college supports you to attend by covering your delegate fee, which would otherwise cost a lot!

To find out more about Making Futures – including how to submit an abstract, to find out key dates, and to explore the previous journal – head to makingfutures.plymouthart.ac.uk.

And if you’re interested in appearing as a student volunteer, please contact Josie Spencer on jspencer@pca.ac.uk.

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