Mar 6, 2011
Zelda Harrison

Lightspeed and the Human Hand, No. 3

Jonathan Arena explores art, craft and design in Japan: Entry # 3


Richard Sennett, author of the lauded book The Craftsman, teaches that “machine systems break down when they don’t work in an explicit manner, whereas people make discoveries”.  It seems slightly ironic then, that the most ubiquitous tool for design today is the computer, singularly capable of providing direct experience through sight. There is a loss of the sensitivity that came from detailed handwork that was required by graphic designers twenty years ago, before computers.

Typographers, for instance, would set wooden type by hand and eye, create layers with transparent film, and physically achieve what it takes seconds for a computer to render today with pixels. Writer-scholar Alain De Botton, in his article On Distraction, comments that “the obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.”

Much like Larry King’s famous quote “I have never learned anything when I was talking,” De Botton compliments that “The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.” Both web design and social networking are billion dollar industries in Japan, where internet speeds are among the most rapid in the world, and overall knowledge of computers and virtual/web based applications and phenomena is acute. Web design exists only in virtual space and can never be experienced in the same way as a physical object. It has no smell, no taste, no sound, no organic feel. What experience, then, are we left with? What memory or stimulus endures? Can an instant create an experience, or do we need to take more time in our lives to slow down and experience the society we have created?

This suggests the very Japanese philosophy of zen buddhism – something ingrained into the collective unconscious of the country. The generation Y’s of technology driven countries, however, may risk losing grasp of this more visceral notion, all-consumed by the internet, technology and forced media. Zen Buddhism follows a nonverbal path, “taking the craftsman to be an emblematic figure who enlightens by showing rather than telling” (Sennett). Zen councils that to understand the craft of archery, for instance, you need not become an archer; instead, silently compose its decisive moments in your mind. The master-apprentice relationship works in much the same way – observation and tacit experience absorbed by the student.

Jonathan Arena attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island where he received a BFA Graphic Design in 2009. He is most inspired by creative workspaces, uncommon food combinations, and perfect dovetail joints. In his free time, he likes to build things by hand, use his polaroid land camera, and create small experimental websites. Jonathan currently works as a UI/UX designer in San Francisco, California.

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