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  • Craft, Performance, and Grammars

    Terry Knight

    Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning,

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA USA tknight@mit.edu

    Abstract. Recent interest in new, digital and computational ways of making has been paralleled by rising interest in traditional making and craft practices. Most efforts to merge digital and craft practices focus on the things produced, with attention to process only to the extent that it informs results. However, the socio-cultural, aesthetic, and creative dimensions of a craft practice are expressed in its performative, temporal aspects as much as in its products. A new computational theory of making offered by making grammars points to new possibilities for the study of temporal performance. In this paper, I use traditional kolam pattern making in India as a case study to probe the potentials of making grammars to represent craft performance, in contrast with the use of shape grammars to represent craft designs. Different generative strategies are revealed in the comparison.

    Keywords: Shape grammar, making grammar, craft, segmentation.

    1 Introduction

    Recent interest in new ways of making and in computational tools, technologies and theories to support them has been paralleled by rising interest in traditional making and craft practices. Researchers look to by-hand techniques and traditional materials to advance digital fabrication with new materials. Conversely, hand-crafters experiment with digital fabrication and new materials to expand the possibilities of their craft. “Digital craft” [1] is a phrase often used for work fusing made-by-hand and made-by-machine methods. In architectural design, craft techniques such as sewing or weaving are emulated in fabrication processes [2], and traditional materials such as bamboo are combined with digital fabrication [3].

    Most efforts to merge craft sensibilities and practices with new making technologies and computational strategies focus on the things produced (from buildings to jewelry), with attention to making processes only to the extent that they facilitate or inform results. Relatedly, important socio-cultural dimensions of craft are often left behind in the borrowing or emulation of craft techniques. Socio-cultural aspects of craft, along with aesthetic and creative ones, are expressed in the products of craft practices. But, just as important or even more so, they are expressed in the performative, temporal aspects of craft. Craft activities, weaving and calligraphy for example (Fig. 1), are often public or communal activities – performances in time –

  • meant to be shared or viewed. They may be deeply imbued with unique cultural values and expressive of cultural identities. Understanding and making explicit, even formalizing and computing, the performative aspects of a craft may help provide new insights into its cultural dynamics as well as its creative and generative possibilities. However, the performative nature of craft – it’s embodied. improvisational, and time-based qualities – may seem an uncomfortable fit with formal computation, especially computation of the digital kind.

    Fig. 1. Expert calligrapher Mohri Suzuki performing calligraphy (left, retrieved from [5]) and Kenyan women weaving baskets (right, retrieved from [6]).

    A new computational theory of making offered by making grammars [4], though,

    points to new possibilities for the study of craft practice. Making grammars are an adaptation of shape grammars, a long-standing computational theory of design. In this paper, I use traditional kolam pattern making in India as a case study to probe the potentials of making grammars to understand and represent craft performance, in contrast with the use of shape grammars to understand and represent craft designs. In particular, I consider how making grammars might be used to express temporal aspects of craft performance. While I do not consider explicitly the socio-cultural aspects of craft, or kolam in particular, my work here suggests a computational basis for socio-cultural and other inquiries.

    2 From Shape Grammars to Making Grammars

    Shape grammars provide a unique, computational theory of design, one aligned especially well with creative design practice. They are distinctive for their visual approach. The rules of a shape grammar generate designs by computing directly with shapes made of basic spatial elements (points, lines, planes, and solids), rather than with symbols, words, numbers, or other abstract structures that represent visual shapes indirectly. Computations with shape rules involve seeing and doing. In each step of a computation, the user can choose what shape to see and then what action, or rule, to apply next.

    Designing with shape grammars is thus a kind of performative, making activity. Shape grammar theory offers a natural basis for a computational theory of making.

  • Designing with shape grammars is about doing (drawing) and seeing with basic spatial elements to make shapes. George Stiny and I [4] have recently extended this definition of designing to a definition of making: making is doing and sensing with stuff to make things. I summarize the details of our work here, beginning with informal definitions of the terms we use. Doing is an action such as drawing, knotting, folding, typing, throwing, stomping, and so on. Sensing includes any one or more of our senses. Both doing and sensing can be done with ‘‘tools’’. Tools might be our bodies’ ‘‘tools’’ such as our hands or our eyes, or tools might be extensions of our bodies, for example, pencils or eyeglasses. Both doing and sensing might include actions or sensings by a machine as well as by a person. Stuff includes physical materials like gases, liquids, or solids with properties that can be visual, acoustic, mechanical, geometric, and so on. A little more abstractly, stuff can be points, lines, planes, and solids. Things are finite objects made of stuff.

    With these definitions in hand, Stiny and I adapted shape grammars for computing or making shapes to making grammars for computing or making things [4]. The rules of a making grammar are based on both the thing being made and a person’s sensory interactions with that thing. Thus, a making grammar is a theory of both the constructive and the sensory aspects of a making activity. Of course, a making grammar, like any finite description, can never capture all aspects of a making activity and can only approximate it. The rules are limited to particular aspects of interest.

    A making rule has the general form M ® N where M and N are sensed things. More specifically, M and N are things with any sensory interactions indicated in some explicit fashion. Details of these sensory indications may vary according to the things made. The arrow ® denotes “replace with” in the usual, formal way. In terms of making, though, the arrow ® stands for a particular doing and/or sensing.

    A making rule M ® N applies to a (sensed) thing T being made, when the maker can identify a copy of M in the thing T. Then the thing M can be changed into the thing N. Depending on the thing being made, the formal definition of “copy” might be the same as that for shape grammars, or it might be specific to the things computed.

    A making rule can be distinguished as either a sensing rule or a doing rule. A sensing rule represents a perceptual change in a person, through the person’s sensory actions (moving hands, eyes, etc.) with a thing. It represents a change, shift, or (re)focus of attention in how a thing is perceived. A sensing rule A ® B says: If a (sensed) thing A is a part of a current (sensed) thing being made, then (re)grasp, (re)focus on, attend to it (with eyes, hands, nose, etc.) as shown by the (sensed) thing B. A doing rule represents a physical change in a thing through a person’s physical actions (folding, drawing, etc.) with the thing. A doing rule X ® Y says: If a (sensed) thing X is a part of a current (sensed) thing being made, then do something to it as shown by the (sensed) thing Y.

    Separating sensing and doing in a making activity is subjective and represents a particular perspective on that activity. Sensing and doing may sometimes be inseparable. In this case, a making rule may represent sensing and doing simultaneously, in other words, a simultaneous change in a person and in a thing through the person’s sensory and physical actions.

    In our preliminary work on making grammars, Stiny and I gave an example of a making grammar for knotting strings, a highly tactile making activity inspired by

  • khipu, the knotted strings made by the Incas as a physical recordkeeping and communication language. The knotting grammar generates single and multiple overhand knots along a string. In this grammar, the things are knotted strings, the stuff is fiber, doing is knotting (looping, pulling, etc.), and sensing is touching (grasping, focusing attention, repositioning) with the hands. The rules include doing rules for knotting and sensing rules for touching or grasping, as well as a combined sensing and doing rule. The grammar is a highly schematized version of an actual knotting process. But it is suggestive of the possibilities for making rules to encode temporal qualities of knot making. As Stiny and I noted in our paper, the rules capture natural stopping or stable points in a continuous tying process. Readers can refer to [4] for more details of this example and making grammars in general.

    3 Making Time and Making Grammars