Traditional skills are being lost by designers relying on computers

Working digitally can be fast, low-cost and has endless scope for creativity and sharing content - but it's also a flat, two-dimensional medium.

The benefits of an ICT-based world have led to an inevitable switchover across all areas of people's lives, but particularly in work and education. And that means an essential change in skills, attitudes and capabilities that is a particular issue - and problem - for British creativity in art and design.

With the opportunity to cut costs by stripping out workshops and the pressure to focus on the English Baccalaureate or subjects that are felt more important than creative arts subjects, some secondary schools are phasing out any kind of hands-on craft and design from the curriculum. Universities have been busy closing departments like ceramics, glass and craft based material subjects for some time. Even art schools have been reducing the focus on the 'process of making' to chase the digital approach to design.

The UK has traditionally been very strong at making things, and working with real materials. The industrial revolution was made possible by capitalism - but perhaps equally by the stream of high-quality and practical craft and design ideas that were taught in the art and craft colleges found in virtually every town. ICT is a great tool, but that's all. The danger is that we let the tool become the main factor in shaping what's produced. Digital design is inevitably detached from any sense of the quality and characteristics of things and how they work, and is much the poorer for it. 

More and more products on the shelves have been purely designed via an IT screen, and you can tell - they possess no inherent material qualities. They might look well-finished but they are often unsympathetic to the materials used. For employers or universities looking at a portfolio from a candidate you can see almost immediately if they've actually spent any time working with real materials. This is why our university is sticking to its guns on keeping craft workshops open, for glass, ceramics, metals and wood, and balancing this appropriately with the use digital technology which is a great tool.

Beyond the loss of important skills, purely using digital media leads to a different mindset among students. ICT allows for instant 'cut and paste' results, easy changes and easy delivery. Consequently that can be what young people expect from everything they do. Making real things takes patience, physical skills, co-ordination and the maturity to cope with failure and difficult challenges.

Digital technology is a great leveller. That's good for access and participation, for opening up design to larger communities. Not so great for business and for the UK's position as a world-leader in art and design. The UK has traditionally had an influence entirely out of proportion with its size. A reputation for quality and consistency of new talent has kept us in the premier league. But for how much longer? The BRIC economies have caught on to the value of creative arts, not just in themselves, but underpinning many other industries, and are putting major investment into art and design education.

What's needed is digital understanding combined with craft and making skills and a sensibility rooted in the real world of things. We need it in schools and colleges and in HE if we're not to end up with generations of people incapable of 'making', and quality design becomes synonymous only with the industry for antiques.

Professor Mark Hunt is deputy vice chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts.

Students using lathes at a technical college in Bolton, 1966. (Photo: Getty)
Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.