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Posted 20.06.17

Making Futures 2017: Q&A with curator Malcolm Ferris

By Kat Peberdy

Plymouth College of Art’s Making Futures is an international research conference, that explores contemporary craft and maker movements as change agents in 21st-century society.

Investigating how to move beyond mass consumption and examining the possibilities for contemporary craft — not to replace global manufacturing, but to contribute to a progressive social and economic change locally, regionally and beyond.

The conference will be held on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 September 2017, at Mount Edgcumbe House on the River Tamar opposite the city of Plymouth. With previous events attended by over 150 presenters and delegates, from as far away as China, Australia and New Zealand, the event is a symbol of the college's growing involvement with the international art community and also allows for a cross-cultural perspective on contemporary art.

Curated by Malcolm Ferris, Director of Research and Postgraduate Studies at the college, this year’s conference is titled 'Crafting a sustainable modernity towards a maker aesthetics of production and consumption'.

We sat down with Malcolm to discuss the evolution of the conference, what to expect this year and how to get involved...


Making Futures is in its fifth edition now, can you tell us about how it's evolved since the first event?

The conference was first conceived of way back in 2007: in fact, it developed out of some externally funded research we were doing for National Arts Learning Network on ‘endangered subjects’ because many Higher Education craft courses were closing or under threat.

Part of our approach was to look at the ideological constructs that have often surrounded craft and artisan production throughout its history — the most obvious example being William Morris’s socialism and his idealisation of a pre-Modern craft past, in opposition to the mass manufacturing factory system that was coming to dominate at the time.

Despite Morris’s opposition, craft production was progressively marginalised by modern mass-manufacturing and took refuge in the high-end niche — what we call the studio arts and crafts. However, we wanted to ask if contemporary circumstances were now changing in ways that made craft and design-to-make ideologically, socially and economically more relevant again.

Audience receive the keynote speaker, Dries Verbruggen of Studio Unfold, at the 2015 conference

Clearly, a change was in the air when we thought about this. Feminist inspired ‘craftivism’ was already writing a new chapter in craft history by taking the domestic crafts of quilting, knitting, sewing and repair out of their ‘hidden’ home environment and celebrating a DIY ethic that challenged the restrictive narrative of the studio arts and crafts.

We believed this ‘craftivist’ ideology could be extended to environmental and wider issues concerning the future of productive work, given how the post-1989 regime of deregulated global capitalism was (and is) disrupting local and regional communities, and trashing the environment through climate change.

However, we absolutely did not want to promote a nostalgic revival — we wanted to genuinely ask whether there was now an opening developing for craft and small-scale production that might see it make a return.

Throughout the development of this conference series, I would say Making Futures has remained true to these core ideas but evolved more subtle ways of thinking about contemporary craft. For example, a desire to explore its meanings not just through the decorative arts tradition (ceramics, textiles, wood, glass and metal) but within other creative fields — such as the craft of film production, graphic communication, artistic performance...its inclusive of artists, ‘makers’ and ‘hackers’, as well as design-to-make and related creative movements. 

"In the face of a growing disenchantment with global mass consumption, there is a developing consumer desire to buy ethically produced or locally sourced goods that support community resilience and environmentally responsible production."

– Malcolm Ferris

This year you'll be joined by some fantastic keynote speakers, who sound like they have some great experience to share...

Yes, we have Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, USA, who is the author of the impressively important 'The Invention of Craft'. He will address our theme by exploring how craft is a construct of modernity but crucially, how craft-based making skills have occupied pivotal roles throughout the formation of industrial modernity — within the factory system as much as outside of it. In this way, he will connect with one of our workshops that we are running in collaboration with the Royal College of Art on Crafting in Industry.

We also have Professor Angela McRobbie from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, The University of London. She will explore the maker economy that has developed around creative micro-entrepreneurs and small-scale fashion designers in Berlin, as described in her book 'Be Creative, Making a Living in the New Culture Industries', to see what lessons might be gleaned from this example.

The example is important to Making Futures because promoting post-industrial maker ecologies means bringing small maker groups together, into the physical and digital networks that help create mutually supportive systems.

For example, in the 2015 edition of Making Futures we looked closely at the north Californian ‘Fibreshed’ movement. With the help of Angela in this 2017 edition, we will turn to explore the Berlin ‘alternative culture’ of auteur makers.

Flourishing across the last decade, represented through a proliferation of designer owned boutiques and supplemented by educational outreach initiatives, this maker ecology couples a sense of material (knitting, sewing, tailoring and pattern cutting) and concern for environmental factors (recycling and up-cycling), with a strong commitment to neighbourhood and city.

This year's theme 'Crafting a sustainable modernity towards a maker aesthetics of production and consumption' seems to highlight the need for craft to stay relevant during times of social, economic and environmental change?

This goes back to what I said earlier, that rather than seeing maker cultures as an escapist refusal of modern life, we want to see if we can adopt a more constructive view — that frames creative regimes of contemporary craft as part of an attempt to re-imagine a future-orientated and sustainable late Modernity.

One in which small-scale makers and micro-manufacturers are attempting to innovate around technology, form, function, aesthetic meaning and social relevance — engaging in responsible market economics but striving to step outside the exploitative forms of commodification associated with global markets, to create new creative relationships between individuals and communities.

However, we must recognise that we are not looking at pitching craft and industry against each other but at a spectrum of behaviours in which customised finishes blend with unique one-offs, for small batch production through to mass-production systems. Hence our speaker Glenn Adamson’s contribution and the workshop, Crafting in Industry.

Mount Edgcumbe is the location for the conference, undoubtedly one of Plymouth's most inspiring locations. How does this contribute to Making Futures?

It’s really important because we have a dedicated conference ferry that takes people across, which means we have a captive audience! But seriously, as a secluded location, it makes the conference feel more like an intensive but supportive retreat where people can meet each other and really get down to the issues at hand without distractions. It helps create the right productive atmosphere and spirit amongst the participants.

Who can attend Making Futures, and how can students get involved?

To attend as a presenter, we ask that people submit a proposal (a short abstract) to one of the three workshops or six thematic sessions described on the website. They submit their short abstract telling us why their project, or what they have to say, might be important to the conference.

All abstracts are then reviewed ‘blind’, without the reviewer knowing the identity of the author, twice by two different reviewers. Their results are put together and the final conference programme is designed according to their recommendations. It makes for a fair system that also helps maintain high standards.

Anyone, including students, can submit an abstract and we have had undergraduate and postgraduate students accepted in the past. Moreover, if a student gets accepted to the conference through peer review, the college will pay their full delegate fee to attend. 

Finally, we always bring a shortened one-day version of the conference back into the college as a mini-Making Futures that reprises the main themes, for students and staff who couldn’t get to the Mount Edgcumbe event.

To find out more about Making Futures — including key dates and to explore the previous journal — head to makingfutures.plymouthart.ac.uk.