28th May 2020: A few notes on “Being Alive“ (Tim Ingold)

Spent today reading chapter 4 of Being Alive – “Walking the Plank – Meditations on a Process of Skill”.

Beginning with a detailed account of sawing a plank of wood, (which reminded me of my own attempts to describe the process of stitching) Ingold goes on to describe the process of a skilled action. Pointing out that each stage – planning, beginning, carrying on, finishing off – flows into the next. These are not a series of discrete actions but a fluid process, each stage setting up and bleeding into the next. The distinction between actions can only be really perceived in retrospect.

Ingold conceptualises the first stage – planning – as a constellation of ideas, plan of action and materials, pointing out that this planning does not just exist in the mind of the maker but extends out into the space they work in (as in setting up and laying out tools) and preparing materials (such as measuring up and marking out). I am reminded again of the hidden labour in the process of making and how, even though this planning does indeed exist outside the mind of the maker, it is their internalised knowledge, experience and understanding of tools, materials, and technique that enables them to successfully conceptualise the work before it begins.

Ingold goes on to point out that setting out or beginning the work requires a shift in perspective from the whole to the detail, “a narrow focus on the initial point of contact”. These first steps require a concentration and, perhaps, a slower, deliberate action, before moving on into the rhythm of the work. Finally, Ingold describes the porous nature of shifting into finishing off, describing it as an “infection” and noting that there is another slowing down and increase in concentration. Finishing off requires the judgement of the maker, it is not just a matter of stopping once the outcome matches the intention, there must be a recognition that there will have been deviations from the original plan and reactions to the materials and process will have been accepted or corrected. Ingold also regards the process of finishing off as in encompassing the preparation for next time, giving the act of putting away tools as an example of this, but I would be inclined to extend this to things learnt during the process and/or ideas for new things that arise. This idea places the making of something, not just within the processual cycle of its own making, as outlined by Ingold, but puts it within the wider practice of the maker – each thing made leads to or contributes to the next. I think this is especially true for me and my wandering mind that thinks while making.

Ingold then goes on to consider the tools used during the making, arguing that the function of a tool is a narrative of its intended, past, or potential use but that this narrative only exists in the body movement of the practitioner, not in the tool itself. This is an interesting idea, but I wonder about the marks of use that a tool might bare? He then discusses the hand, whether using tools or in itself, as having its narratives and that these are expressed as gestures. The skilled practitioner, then, tells the story of their craft through the precise, concentrated gestures of their hands (and body). This is the story of their development as a practitioner up to this point and the story of the tools they use.

Ingold then talks about skilled practice as the synergy of perception and gesture, pointing out that the movements of the skills practitioner are not identical (what he describes as metronomic) but adjusted in response to the tools, materials, environment et cetera (what he described as rhythmic). This struck me as a description of the ‘micro decisions’ I’ve been thinking about in my own making practice. Ingold then argues that the flow of skilled practice is not the automatic, unthinking gesture but an increased concentration between gesture and perception, which seemed contrary to my own experience. I have always found the flow of rhythmic making to be one I would describe as ‘automatic’, not needing any concentration on my part, until I realised that, in Ingold’s conception, concentration does not simply exist in the mind but in the whole body.

This is key idea! That skilled practice is not an automation of gesture (because we micro adjust in response to the work) but one of heightened concentration that exist, not just in the mind, but in the whole body.

I wonder if this is why it is so difficult to articulate the actions of making? A bodily concentration so refined it feels intuitive?

Finally, Ingold discusses the relationship between technology and skilled practice, noting that, even though the aim of technology (in the west) is to convert and reduce skilled practice to a sequence of repeatable operations, this will always fail. Firstly, because no machine can be perfect and so the human will always be among the machines, and secondly, because new skills develop around new machines and technologies. So, the skill of the practitioner is in their ability to improvise, disassemble, and re-construct – in my mind USE, PUSH and SUBVERT – new technologies and absorb them into their practice.

This got me thinking in the first instance, are there some technologies (such as hand embroidery) that are simply too complex to be automated? And secondly, it got me thinking about the use of digital technologies in my own practice, about the digital drawing tools that capture my gestures almost perfectly while providing a (controllable) automation to the lines, and about the differences between digital (i.e., drawing tools) versus computer (such as coding systems) – this is a distinction I think I need to return to.


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