In a surgical education room at Imperial College London, a surgeon and a tailor are talking about stitches. The tailor eases the sleeve of a bespoke suit gently into place, flipping it slowly back and forth to work from both sides. The surgeon tugs gently at a piece of intestine, as he describes the process of removing a tumour. It’s crucial that his stitch holds the tissue firmly, he says, without restricting blood flow to the repaired tissue; so – like the tailor – he works from both sides, constantly monitoring the tension of fabric and stitch.
I’m in the audience at Assemble 2012, the Crafts Council conference, and as conference curator / programmer, I’m watching our Craft of Surgery film intently. Yet the quiet scenes in the Imperial College surgery transport me to a very different place – the noisy, grubby factory floor of a Sheffield pewter manufacturer. In the late 90s I was there as a doctoral student, watching as a visiting glass artist worked alongside the company spinners, buffers and polishers. There, as here, I saw a deep knowledge of materials – and the drive to explore and transform them – bringing very different people together; allowing them to share what they knew despite different professional vocabularies.
Our tailor and surgeon are just getting to know each other – at this stage they’re each most interested in understanding their own work better by seeing it through a new lens. In the long term though, their shared explorations could well produce new innovations in either field. Professor Kneebone tells us how the pioneering vascular surgeon and Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel learnt many of his techniques from Belgian lace-makers and seamstresses. And burns specialist Dr Sarah Pape– also speaking at Assemble – describes how knitting has helped her to gain a nuanced understanding of the material qualities of skin. ‘It’s actually a lot more like knitted fabric than it is like woven fabric,’ she says: ‘It has at least a two way stretch, if not a three way stretch.’ From my own recent research for the Crafts Council, I know there’s no shortage of innovation stories, featuring makers working in fields as diverse as smart fabrics, tissue engineering and digital gaming.
In programming Assemble, I began wondering where this kind of collaboration – between different professions, making together – might lead in the future. A clue came from fashion designer Suzanne Lee, whose vision of a dress grown from liquid has taken her from bathtub fermentation experiments to the molecular biology labs at Imperial College. The resulting, leather-like fabric – grown from tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast – could eventually be used for buildings but for now is showcased in a series of ‘archetypal’ jackets that combine wit and craftsmanship in every seam. Speaking at Assemble, Suzanne said that ‘the greatest future for creativity lies in discovering what science holds’, and it’s her pursuit of specific material qualities that I think is especially interesting, in driving this discovery process.
Intrigued by the interplay between the technical, aesthetic and human-centred aspects of Suzanne’s process, played out at a molecular level, I visited the community biolab Genspace. Operating something like a biotechnology hackerspace, Genspace is filled with the tools and materials needed to explore and manipulate living organisms. Professionals and students from all backgrounds – scientists, techies and creatives – work together here in Brooklyn, on new materials and products made from living cells, tissue and genomes. Genspace is working to bring Suzanne’s fabric closer to market, by experimenting with genetic plug-ins to the fermentation process that will improve its water resistence. And it’s this kind of challenge that is often a trigger to Genspace’s work: as president Dr Ellen Jorgensen said at Assemble, ‘We scientists love it when artists and makers bring us wild ideas to work on.’
We can expect an expansion of this kind of biocreativity in the UK, as similar open access spaces open at the London Hackerspace and Manchester DIYBio. As policy and research funding interest in collaboration between science / technology and the creative arts increases, perhaps more will follow.
Makers can find a place here, as they have already in the hackerspaces where craft meets electronics, robotics and 3D printing. It’s important that they do. Makers’ ‘wild ideas’ and curiosity about new materials push innovation forward, whilst their specialist materials knowledge contributes to the discovery process. Making itself is a process that helps collaborators from different professional backgrounds to communicate. And, as a new material or product takes shape, makers are uniquely equipped to bring it to life with warmth, wit and tactility. Here, in the lab and at Assemble, we may just have glimpsed the future of making.