Thinking about materials differently: workshop at the National Permaculture Convergence in Manchester, September 2018

This is a short review of my workshop for the people at the National Permaculture Convergence last weekend. What follows is the abstract from the event, some feedback from participants, and my own acknowledgements.

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We live in a material world that is structured around the consumption of resources. Being brought up in a modern and western society means it can be difficult to see how this could ever have been different. However, there were, and still are, many different and more sustainable world views and ways of life on offer. Choosing to view the world differently inevitably leads to experiencing the commonplace differently. Things, their meanings and value can then change before our very eyes. It is possible to find excitement, creativity and meaning within the previously mundane.

 

 

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Australian aboriginal Kimberley points are glass spearheads and knives produced from the mid 1800s to the 1980s from old glass and ceramic bottles. They are the direct result of an interaction between western homestead building and sheep farming colonisers and the mobile and indigenous population. The aboriginals adapted coloniser rubbish to develop their own material culture in occult and incredible ways. One example of this is the Kimberley point. In turn the colonisers began to desire these aboriginal artefacts as new and exotic commodities. Consequently, most large British museums have collections of Kimberley points within their stores.

 

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These glass points are more than commodities, and the skilled practice of making them is part of a transformatory process, not just of the glass bottle, but of the individual doing the producing. The making of them opens us up to a new understanding of the potentialities of our material worlds. Commoditisation of the end product literally misses the point. This workshop is designed to lead you through ethnographically recorded processes used by aboriginals to make Kimberley points. Making a glass point like these is a highly skilled practice and four hours is a short amount of time. However, four hours is enough time to grasp how the application of a skilled practice can open up a new world of excitement, creativity and meanings through the repurposing of what could be seen as rubbish. As I am not Australian, aboriginal or from the Kimberley region the points we will be making should be termed Manchester points. We do however have the Kimberley folk to thanks for providing us with a way of exploring and understanding our own world differently.

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Amazing, best workshop I have done in ages and I have done a lot. Great pace and knowledge. Thanks so much“.

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Loved your attention to each of us, your positive encouragement and practical support

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Brilliant workshop, well explained and really enjoyable. Thank you“.

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My thanks to everyone who took part in this four hour workshop. I really enjoyed it and I think everyone else did as well. Thanks as well to Dan who organised the convergence for giving me the space to run the workshop.

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And a special thanks to my friend Keith Reynolds. He selflessly helped me set up, took all the photographs, garnered the feedback, and then helped me pack it all away again. Much appreciated mate.

 

 

 

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Quartering a Patterson’s Camp Coffee bottle

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Yesterday we had a knapping session in the department lab. The above is an old Patterson’s Camp Coffee bottle base recovered from Chorlton Ees, and as can be seen, the glass is thick, uneven and with bubbles. Because of its square form I decided to try quartering it following the method described by Stanley Porteus (1931: 111-112) recorded after observing an aboriginal knapper producing blanks for Kimberley Points. The first step is to use a number eight wire to remove the base, and in this I was unsuccessful. The thickness of the base (~9mm) made it too strong, however during the process one of the side panels fractured nicely. I shifted to a small hard hammer and worked along the second longitudinal edge of of the fractured panel and I was able to remove it cleanly. Perhaps the subject of another post, but there were clear sonic signals as to how thick the glass was at each point, and I responded to that iteratively with the amount of ‘umf’ I applied.

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This gave me confidence and I continued working along the remaining longitudinal edges. Voila, bottle quartered into four usable blanks using a small hammerstone.

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I have tried this process before with a modern Bombay Sapphire bottle and it didn’t work. That I believe is because of the thickness of the glass being used. Like most modern glass bottles the Bombay Sapphire is well engineered presumably to optimise strength and minimise materials used, therefore weight. Consequently the Bombay Sapphire fractured unpredictably. The quality of the glass is everything here. Whilst the uneven thickness and bubbles on old glass present their own set of problems, the actual thickness provides some internal cohesion that makes it relatively forgiving to manipulation and modification. This suggests to me that Kimberley Points were ‘of their time’, in that the uneven thickness of early glass gave it qualities akin to a stone flake, and these were recognised as such by aboriginals. This similarity has diminished over time as glass has become more engineered. Aboriginals continued knapping materials such as Pyrex and window glass into the 1980s (Akerman pers. com.), and the methods would seem to have adapted as materials developed. Within this relatively short historical period a really interesting dialogue between human skilled practice and material development has played out. This was in tandem with an aboriginal recognition of the new qualities such as size, colour and transparency that could be marshalled into the traditional production process. In my own modest way I am, following in this tradition, and currently working on a ‘Glasgow’ Kimberley Point, which I am sure will be the subject of a post soon.

Porteus, S.D. 1931. The psychology of a primitive people. London. Butler and Tanner Ltd.

Materials against materiality

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I am currently reading a paper by Tim Ingold (2007) Materials against materiality. The gist of the paper seems to be that: if we focus upon the object first, and only then the materials it has been formed from, our understanding of those materials is constrained by our primary conceptualisation of the object. Ingold suggests engaging with materials directly to gain an interactive understanding of the material properties, and how these might change as activities change. I want to contrast a normative ‘Hard as stone’, ‘Solid as a rock’ approach with the relationship I have developed with four stones within my knapping toolbag. The first stone on the far left I use as a ‘soft hard hammer’ and I like its elongated shape for working on glass. In contrast, the second stone is harder and consequently I have used this as a ‘small hard hammer’ on flint. The third stone has a crystaline centre which is good for abrading. The final large white flint beach cobble is going to become something else at some point, but currently works well as a large hard hammer. So whilst all stone, and all hard, particular characteristics have emerged within a particular stone tool making context. I now look at materials differently based upon my experience from stone tool making, and this different view is the subject of this blog.

This is a free link to a PDF of the above article