Community Media Discussion – Crafting Community Media

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This week at the Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about our experience of industrially produced media, and the opportunity to make and share media outside these systems that have been crafted and created with the care and attention that an individual brings to the material they are working with. Would a craft mindset of thinking be better at explaining the values and purpose of community media than a design and mass media mindset because each programme or article has been uniquely and individually produced?

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A typical strategy for the development of a community media project will often follow a design approach and methodology. It will identify and lay out a set of questions and proposition that need to be asked at the outset, when planning begins, identifying what the assumed outcomes might be, how these outcomes might be articulated, and how they may be reconciled with a corresponding analytic rubric. These rubrics inevitably shape the nature of the project, such as measurable engagement, participation or cost-effectiveness, and in many respects limit the scope of what can be achieved and reduce what is valued to what can be measured. Given the nature of community media as a set of DIY and emergent forms of social engagement, and as diverse sets of platforms used to articulate different types of creative practice, we might wonder, however, what the benefit will be of working with different approaches for planning for community-focussed communication projects, such as craft and the arts.

To relate to community media as a crafted practice, rather than a designed practice, one has to understand the mindset that motivates much of the way that community media operates. This is a mindset that doesn’t reduce our practices and ways of organising to systems and the mass-production ethos, such as the Ikea approach to design, where mass production at scale is regarded as the apotheosis of design, manufacture and mass-consumption distribution, and which is often regarded as the pinnacle of our commercial endeavours. Because it is difficult to articulate a unified idea of what community media is about because there are so many contributory strands to community media, it’s often simpler to push-back against what we think community media is not. This is further complicated because there is a tendency for community media makers and advocates to operate against the grain of the industrial media processes, which itself makes it difficult to bring people together around a common set of experiences and values. The strength of community media is its diversity, but this can also be a great challenge, especially when trying to communicate the inherent differences in the community-focussed approach to communication. An approach that is values-driven rather than transactional and outcomes focussed.

With community media’s focus on expressions of community identity, civic expression, social values and the articulation of a sense of belonging to specific places, it is often difficult to articulate a coherent and logical set of characterisations about what community media makers and advocates are trying to achieve. The enactment of community media is more often demonstrated in the fields of mutual engagement and social communing, where people come together for the sole purpose of coming together, rather than for some gran purpose. Community media promotes, therefore, an intangible sense of socialisation and participation in community life which is based on mutual recognition of our shared needs, and a reciprocal expression of those needs that help us to understand one another. Can this sense of belonging and mutual reciprocation, however, be planned for and systematically designed from the outset? Would be better, instead, to articulate a different model of engagement that is better suited to crafting as an alternative approach to social development? Something like a craft rather than a design approach?

Trying to measure what we get out of community media, in the form of measurable indices, is next to impossible. There are huge disparities in expectations between a mass-communications approach and a community communications approach. For example, when we seek funding for community media related projects, they often get contorted to fit with the dominant mindset of corporate communications and audience development. A project that is experience and values led, rather than products and outputs focussed, requires synthetic rather than analytic tools of evaluation. A community engagement project may only be able to paint a holistic picture of what has been undertaken, as a general expression based on reflection, and would struggle to break that process into constituent components that can be characterised and evaluated as separate constituent parts. How do we come to understand that a community-based project is more than the sum of its parts, and offers something transcendent?

We need, then, a different framework of reference to understand community-focussed communications that is equally respected and valued by community media makers and advocates, their allies and funding agencies. We need to develop an account of community media’s purpose; therefore, that offers equality of esteem for the validation of the wisdom and learning that comes from community-led projects. This may mean pushing aside the often reductive and managerialist processes of evaluation, and embracing forms of reflection that are cognitively diverse and founded on the reciprocal exchange of experience and values. This can’t be done to a formula, in which a strategy is developed and enacted on the basis that it is aligned with specific and measurable social outcomes. Instead, we want to be about to experiment with how we craft our understanding through combined practice, reflection, evaluation and discussion in a shared wisdom-exchange setting.

Design methodologies are a powerful tool for the manipulation of products, systems and processes. A design methodology is integral to the building of the contemporary world, whereby the matter from which we have manufactured the physical and social world of experience is approached systematically. This usually has a high regard for efficiency, operability, aesthetic congruity and utility. Whether it is architecture, product design, graphic design, systems design, transport flows or data management, we’ve been encouraged for many decades to think in terms of the precepts of design thinking, and to put our lives right by modelling, testing and adapting human experience and conduct, and the institutions and social processes that facilitate our lived experiences, on the basis of an instrumental and behaviourist ideology. This ideology posits that people are process formed and driven, goal oriented and seek self-actualisation through the satisfaction of material needs first.

Design thinking has at its core a model of human interaction that is both conceptual and predictable. Even unpredictability is built into the SMART thinking model, with the incorporation of feedback and haptic sensory information positioned within a systems approach that allows for human non-rational behaviour. Le Corbusier famously described a house as a ‘machine for living in,’ which has remained at the forefront of architectural practice since the mid-Twentieth Century, whereby social life and relationships could be regulated and provided for in the design process. The ‘machine’ can provide for the entirety of our human needs if it is intelligently planned and built along modern, efficient and rationalistic ways of thinking.

Machines can operate beyond the total of their parts in a self-regulatory manner that provides coherent operations and a unity of purpose. The machine is a powerful metaphor for modern life, and it is no wonder that it has underpinned the design ethos for such a long period. Who wouldn’t want society and the people who populate it to operate efficiently and coherently? Aldus Huxley famously critiqued the fantasies of the rationalist age in Brave New World, which were represented in the Fordist mindset of logically calculated and measured factory-style production which sought to achieve the maximum output for the minimum input.

Design is about pre-empting how the new things that we want to incorporate into our lives, be it cars, computers, clothing, medicine or media (among many other forms of product and service development), so that we get a noticeable sense of utility from them, and a return on our investment in terms of the affordances that they have opened up to us. Social media, for example, brings forth a capacity to digitally manage our relationships based on distributed – i.e. non-place dependent co-presence – mobility and movement. We don’t have to cluster in specific places any longer to form and manage social relationships and identities. Instead, we can carry our network in our pocket and engage with our community of interest from anywhere. This digital interconnection also gives us access to a cheap and plentiful range of consumer products, more than we could have imagined when we were living in specific localities and dependent on what was available within those specific places. The consumer experience has been augmented with data that now predicts and anticipates wants and needs because the design process has itself become capable of processing high levels of data and matching information across datasets.

Design, moreover, is all encompassing, and anyone who suggests that we might forego the obvious benefits that a design mindset might bring, is often questioned for their sanity, regarded as a Luddite or regarded as a risk-taker for daring to step outside the design mind-set that defines modern life. And yet, this is what we must do if we are to avail ourselves of different, and no less valuable, ways of thinking than the dogmatic approach to design may emphasise. It is almost sacrilegious to intimate that a design-led process may not be desirable when founding and establishing a social project, and yet that is what we may need to do to ensure that our future-focussed social projects can thrive.

One might not an equivalence between design thinking and marketing and branding. Design has become a ubiquitous and all-encompassing set of ideas in which everything we interact with is regarded as having been designed in some way. This is similar to the proposition that all communication is marketing and branding. This is clearly a farcical proposition that does not stand up to scrutiny and examination. These are effective ways of dealing with problems and challenges, but neither design nor marketing are ‘total systems’ capable of manifesting a coherent and meaningful answer across all domains of human life. It is sufficient to remark, that we require more than one lens through which we may view the world and our social activity within it. We need multiple lenses that allow us to view different problems from different perspectives.

Two additional lenses come to mind, one of which will be discussed in more detail here, and the other on later occasions in different places: aesthetics and art being one alternative lens; and craft being another. The artistic mode of thinking requires considerable space for elaboration, but has to be noted as a mode of consciousness on its own terms, despite being conceptually linked with both design and craft in its mode of expression and manifestation in the cultural domain. To follow what Carl Jung says about art, we would be expected to follow two congruent pathways: the psychological and the visionary. In these separate pathways we can look at artistic practice as rooted in social viability, that is the symbolic realm, either because it is an expression of the psychic forces that are manifest in the collective consciousness, or because they go beyond the definable social realm of expression because they are emergent from the collective unconscious, and give us an intimation of the ineffable. Art is how we bring our intuitions into consciousness, and enables us to explore what we are feeling but can not yet put into words or a designated and designed form.

Alongside art and design sits craft, which has been the dominant mode of creative production prior to the modern, industrial age. Craft is typically small scale, and the product of the work of a single person, or at most, as small groups of people working together. Craft tends to focus on the use of products and material that are ‘at hand,’ and are not remediated by machines that routinise operations. Each action is unique and an expression of the moment of the individual who is making the thing that they have in their hand. While there may be a template and broad expectation that a crafted object will fit specific functions, it is commonly accepted that each iteration of this product will show individual and unique characteristics that come from the hand of the craftsperson undertaking the work.

Typified in the work and writing of William Morris or John Ruskin, who each exemplify the craft mode of working, there is a recognition of the limit of what object can be produced by hand, and for what purpose. Artisanal craftworkers could never meet the demands of industrial-scale production for mass society, but they might meet the needs of personal expression and meaningful objectification, as the craftsperson represents and embodies the creative leadership that points to what is valued in our cultures. The craftsperson has the urge to explore the relationship between form and function in a way that is embodied and personal, and will lead to unique aesthetic pleasure. It is said that there is an intimate and natural relationship between the craftsperson and the object that they produce, which is then passed to the user of the object as a ‘felt connection,’ often despite the ‘fit’ of the object in the functional repertoire of modern lifestyles.

Craft items are unique. They may follow a general pattern that determine their form because there is space, and indeed an imperative, to follow the inherent characteristics of the material being used to form the product. The crafted object eschews perfection because it stands as a symbol of the space and time in which it was made. The crafted object follows the energy of the material, which is the craftsperson’s job to tease forth. No two items are ever the same. They are made from unique items that only offers consistent form over time, being generationally observable. The mass-produced object is the same regardless of time and the place that it is produced. Each crafted item, however big or small, has an imprint of the person who produced the work.

Because craft is an esoteric activity, it is suited to modes of production that are highly social, with skills being shared and passed on through intimate forms of social interaction. These forms of interaction are typically experiential and hands-on. Learning is done through attentive watching and listening, and extended periods of trail and error.

Craft Guilds would traditionally form around economically essential modes of production, for example stone masons, blacksmiths, tanners, and so on. These guilds would regulate the supply of labour and controlled how apprentices would be enculturated and initiated into the craft mindset of the guild. In less formal settings, typically where women’s labour was needed, the tight-knit social group formed the mechanism for policing the boundaries between those who are part of a craft-focussed social group, and those who are not. To this day, many professions continue to demarcate their territory on the basis that they are either masculine or feminine forms of work.

The relevance of the craft model for community media is borne in the degree to which one might expect media to be crafted or created as part of an industrial process. While the industrial distribution systems of media have afforded us great benefits, in that we can now share and distribute forms of personalised media that are highly engaging and entertaining, the industrial media production process is less forthcoming in enabling individualised and esoteric forms of media. The large-scale offerings of the industrial media producers have swamped us with media products that are the equivalent of Ikea flatpacks. It is cost-efficient to industrialise the media production process, and to seek large-scale and mass audiences to sell these products to, but the result is that niche and small-scale producers have to work much harder to gain attention across different consumer networks.

When projects that related to community media and communications set their objectives, there is a tendency to resort to the evaluation criteria that are used in mass and industrialised media products. We can only produce media products that can be counted in the mass media domain. This limits the range of forms of media that we may wish to initiate and use that engage our fellow citizens because our expectations have been narrowed even before we start. Questions of identity and cultural fit are notoriously difficult to measure and account for, and forms of media that fit outside the industrial media model remain outside due to a lack of recognition and affinity with the legacy forms of media that people are used to.

Seldom do we give unequivocal recognition to objects and media that come from a craft tradition, unless they are designated within the bounds of the craft fair, the museum or the workshop, and the expectations of the restricted number of buyers who are interested in non-industrially produced things, with the additional cost that is associated with them.

Community media has a significant inheritance from the crafts movement, particularly in its social democratic form. William Morris asked us to consider not what we got for our efforts, but what we become by them. It is the same for community media. We should always be asking what our contribution might be, and as a unique expression of ourselves, what will we become because we are making that expression? In an industrial and mass-market approach, we would be focussed on the profit margins of what we can buy and sell. In a craft economy, we are considering the corresponding monetary value based on the love, care and attention, i.e. the skill that went into making a product, while the standardised products of the market will never elucidate much passion and are hence inherently disposable.

The lesson for community media is that we must learn to be more confident at recognising that industrial templates do not make meaningful content, but that meaningful content is bourn from the manifestation of care and attention that someone, a beginner or a practised hand, has taken to create something of character and integrity. There’s plenty of space for people to make and use industrial media products, but we may need to carve-out some protected spaces to ensure that we can conceptualise, manage and evaluate media that is made in accordance with the principle of craft because that is where we will find the imprint of the people who care sufficiently to make it.