To marry a tool

I am in the process of transcribing interviews and going through the notes and audio recordings from my one-week-stay in the end of August at the Blender Institute. It is both a frustrating and exciting work. Exciting because I see many interesting themes popping up which I would like to write about, but frustrating because they all come into fragments from a sentence here, a sentence there which people said, and I have not yet a clear idea how to arrange the puzzle together, and not even how to keep track in a well structured manner over the fragments and themes that matter. This particular puzzle is also more difficult because it does not have one right solution – there are many depending on the way one combines the puzzle. Tricky.

In any case, I thought to share here a few interview fragments from the first  talks that I have gone through. I have chosen them as a very first attempt to illustrate an aspect which I find important and interesting to write about – a culture of craft/making that is developed in the relationship tool-artist-maker in the process of mixing animation, open-source, digital technologies and the Internet.

When talking on IRC to David Revoy about the relationship between tools and artists, and how does he reason about his choice of open source tools he used the metaphor of marriage to describe it:

<deevad>“[I]n 2D the skill of painting or drawing is core. Software, pen, painting is really secondary. But sometimes after using a tool, an artist can melt/marry his style with it. Just a rendering, or a feeling. I prefer to mate here with an open-source solution. I would be afraid my style depends of the market price of a software, and if he will be continued or discontinued by the publisher”.

I liked the metaphor of mating and marriage. It speaks about the tight, personal and intimate relationship between an artist or generally – a maker and a tool. It is also a relationship developed over long period of time through the complexity and effort of learning – an effort which seems to increase when moving from the world of 2D to 3D tools. As Mathieu Auvray pointed out:

“You have to know the software very in-depth to be able to be very efficient with it […]. It can take 10 years to actually master [a 3D tool]”.

This reminded me also of something which Bassam Kurdali from the Blender community mentioned in his talk during the LibrePlanet 2013 conference when he spoke about Blender.

“…if you look at similar software from its class, it (Blender) has a steep learning curve, but then it all goes smooth. But using Blender is better – because you install it on your brain, not on your computer. Once you “install it in your brain”, you can not migrate to anything else.”

All these metaphors – installation, mating, marrying confirms and illustrates what Ton briefly summarized as a different – special relationship which people have with Blender:
“…for Blender most people have a different relationship….[Be]cause it is a different way of working. We are more on the edge of what is possible.”

I think all this is important in several ways.

First – it seems like artists’ choice to go for open source tools is mostly pragmatic (with perhaps just a pinch of ideology) – something that creates a difference with other areas where open source software is used and developed, and generally draws a line of distinction with the free software movement – something that I will write separately more about.

On the other hand from a cultural perspective this sort of relationship – the tools, the artists and those who improve the tools (be it the artists themselves, or developers in cooperation with artists) is really interesting. It is close, it is personal, it is intimate – as a marriage is. It is based on knowing each other really well in order to hold together and change as each one of both sides evolves and changes too – making things “on the edge of what is possible”. Marriage is also complex, complicated and could be full of frustration. Frustration leads though to new developments.

This is also the core of craftsmanship. In how to think about it, I like the way the British philosopher Richard Sennett defines it: the craftsperson has a special attitude and mindset to the process of work defined through the desire to do something of quality – for its own sake, and the engagement in a problem-solving – problem finding rhythm in close relation to technology, skills development and closeness to materials (Sennett, 2008, Chapter 1). Craftsmanship is also related to a concern with the procedure of making (what people would call otherwise a workflow) and the way of working rather than simply getting things to work (ibid, p.20). I also like this quote from Peter Dormer who defines craft “as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology” (Dormer, 1997, p. 140)I think both Sennett’s and Dormer’s way of speaking of craftsmanship are close to the way one could understand Blender (and Synfig – the other tool which I look at) – their development and use can be seen as an exercise in public craft which is made in a new way – by combining the physical space, the “workshop” where people craft their tools and develop them in a relationship of frustration and “resistence of the material” (Sennett), but it also takes place in public by sharing and discussing things online.

The craftsmanship attitude – a specific mindset – can also go beyond the limits of a particular tool, or a particular project. It could migrate to a whole lifestyle where crafting, tools, art and open source merge. A nice illustration of that is this work by David Revoy:

David Revoy’s mixture between a table and a Cintiq. Image by David Revoy.

<deevad>I started to mix a drawing table and a Cintiq. I’m still working on the air system.
<konfeta>I am looking at the picture, trying to understand what does it do. It reminds me a little bit of a painter’s stand – but it is a table and you have a cintiq on it with a linux station connected. Very geeky, and still – very classic.
<deevad>: yes, it’s a classic. I wanted to get the position of old drawing table but for modern hardware. It’s still just a test. I still prefer a classic workstation for working daily.
<konfeta>: perfectly illustrates the mixture of an artist and a geek
<deevad>: Yes, I think I like to have it as a sculpture. For what it represents […]. I keep it around for the ‘potential’ it has. But for daily work, it’s not enough practical.
<konfeta> But you draw on it?
<deevad>: sure, I draw on it. Little sketch here and there, at evening, after ‘work’.

How is this important?

So, naturally, here comes the question of why all this is important to bring up and talk about? Well, when discussing my work on open-source based, open-content animation films with colleagues and scholars who research alternative ways of media production I often meet the assumption that the film productions within the Blender and Synfig communities should be a product of amateurs. Why? Because of the own tool development, the own models of work , etc – the different way of work. This assumption stems most likely from a common theory on participation and alternative media which says that “The entire ideology of alternative and community media is built on the concept of providing access and participation to non-professionals” (Carpentier, 2011, 341).

The key word from where everything gets difficult is of course “non-professionals” because connecting alternative or different ways of work to the image of the amateur leads to the conclusion that what is produced in the end is a work of lower (as compared to professional) quality. This is especially common in the context of discussions of the new ways for collaboration and distribution that the Internet has enabled.

What I think however is that the division professionals-amateus is not really productive to refer to the Blender and Synfig projects, especially when bringing up the work of the Blender Institute – which can hardly be called amateurish. Even if taking Leadbeater and Miller’s definition of a “Pro-Am” – who try to expand the definition of amateurs by using the term “professional amateurs” who have skills and competence at professional level but are otherwise seen as “hobbyists”, I find it still not really proper. What I think could be better instead is to borrow terminology and ideas from theories on cultures of craft and making where skill and mastery over technology are seen in a different way, and where the division professional-amateur is more difficult to apply. Can we speak of a professional craftsperson? Or an amateur craftsperson? This sounds a bit nonsensical because craftsmanship  obviously refers to identity and attitude, and somehow manages to go beyond the politico-economic way of structuring which the professional-amateur implies. This does not mean though that market and the media industry are irrelevant to craft. It means simply that there are more axes and dimensions than the polarity of quality-non-quality or prof-am allow for.

And I guess it is the question of quality which ties together the relationship between tools and people. The whole work of improving and mastering tools is in the end, as Ton pointed out, to develop the quality of the artistic work. “in the end, of course you make a film. With a sheep. That’s awesome. And that’s…and that’s in Blender.”


Cited authors:

Carpentier, N. (2011). Media and participation a site of ideological-democratic struggle. Bristol; Chicago: Intellect.

Dormer, P. (1997). The culture of craft: status and future. New York: Manchester University Press ;

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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