The rhythm of engagement

Forty-three-year-old Gilda Civitico and I are sipping tea and talking about craft in the open-plan rear extension of the modest brick home she shares with her partner, electrical engineer Andrew Peel, and their two young daughters. In the light-filled space are shelves of games, fossils and magazines: New Scientist, IEEE Spectrum, New Economist, Make and Craft, amid a collection of specialist books she calls her ‘craft porn’ (including The Art of Manipulating Fabric and Metal Clay: The Complete Guide).

In her previous professional life, Civitico often worked with fluffy ducklings, easing them tenderly into a sink. ‘I gave them a little pat and let them have a swim,’ she tells me. ‘With their mates.’ Then she cupped a duckling in her hand, anaesthetised it, and while its tiny heart still quivered, she sliced open its belly, snapped through its rib cage, disentangled the organs, and harvested its slippery liver, snipping off portal veins and connective vessels. ‘You have to do it while it’s still alive,’ she explains, ‘or the blood clots.’

It was fiddly work, in which speed and precision were essential. You can’t culture live cells if cell function starts shutting down.

After taking a liver, Civitico swiftly flushed out its red blood cells. She doused it with collagenase, an enzyme that breaks down the binding proteins and transforms the organ into the consistency of soft tofu. She pressed this still-warm mound into a sieve so fine as to only allow single cells through. The resulting slurry she spun in a warm centrifuge, which separated the cells into three distinct bands: fat cells at the top; remnant red blood cells in the middle; and at the bottom, the denser material she coveted – hepatocytes (the main liver tissue cells).

As we tuck into hot scones and homemade jam, she explains the labyrinthine process that followed. Once she isolated the cells, she suspended them in pre-warmed culture media and started a gentle layering and centrifuging in a process she likens to cooking. ‘Think liquid red jelly being gently layered onto not-quite-set green jelly,’ she says. ‘You don’t want them to be mixed.’ When she got the cell density just right, she syringed the substance into a pipette, washed the cells, counted them and checked their viability by a staining process. ‘And then you dilute them out with media to the right number of cells per millilitre of media and this is what you use to seed your cell culture plates.’

Left overnight, exiled in their Petri dishes and sustained with the right temperatures and gas mixtures, the duckling liver cells bonded together and also to their new homes. And, each day for the next few weeks, Civitico tended to their needs, changing growth medium and nutrients. This microbial life-support regime, she explains, is but the first of many procedures before the finicky business of DNA profiling and Hepatitis B dose-response analysis.

Civitico earned her PhD in virology at Melbourne University and, working at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, soon became a deft hand at complex experiments. Some contingents, like the ideal nutrient profile in growth medium, were knowable by keeping abreast of specialist literature. But others – like the subtle colour- or shape-shifts that might suggest cell fatigue, or the ways some cells seem to prefer certain plastic plates – couldn’t be codified in a procedures manual or even adequately explained to an assistant.

‘You get a feel for what the cells like.’

People would be surprised, she adds, at how much tacit knowledge is involved in lab science.

‘You can’t explain it, but you just develop a feel for what works.’

The deliberations of a research scientist, Civitico explains, are not far removed from what she now does at home. ‘The things that made me a good scientist are what make me a good craftsperson. I have a very high tolerance for repetitive stuff people find mind-numbingly tedious.’

Civitico is one of those people newspapers like to call ‘downshifters’, but her career change wasn’t calculated as such. She started crafting to anchor her mind when suffering postnatal depression. It was a way, she says, to channel mental and bodily energy into material problem-solving rather than the anxieties that plagued her. She could have returned to her job, but that meant other demands – bureaucratic, collegial, time, political– as well as neglecting what she considered the more important work of parenting. Nor did she seek the status or monetary rewards of work. She didn’t especially need the objects she started making, though their material value was a happy side effect. What she needed can be understood as engagement, a way of transforming her mind-noise into that liminal rhythm she had experienced when culturing cells.

It’s tricky, with the polarised language of labour and leisure, to explain this liminal rhythm, something that can be experienced in both work and play but is itself neither and both these things. The sociologist Richard Sennett writes of engagement as the ‘experimental rhythm of problem-solving and problem-finding’ craftspeople experience. Sennett sees this as an essential human condition:

The carpenter, the lab technician and the conductor are all craftsmen, because they are dedicated to do good work for its own sake. Theirs is practical activity, but their labour is not simply a means to another end … The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged. [his emphasis]

Engagement is recognised in contemporary psychology as ‘flow’, a term coined by US psychology academic Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who wrote, among other books, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Csikszentmihalyi, in an attempt to codify the ‘optimal experience’ that gives life purpose, interviewed artists, chess players and others whose work involved the mind-bodily rhythm of concurrent problem-finding and problem-solving. Flow, he believes, is ‘the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake’. It is a ‘merging of action and awareness’ involving a ‘loss of self-consciousness’:

In our studies, we found that every flow activity … provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting a person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance …

The way Civitico tells it, engagement or flow (she describes the state as ‘a kind of groove, like a form of meditation’) both quiets and occupies the mind. During the state, it doesn’t occur to you to check your watch or to eat: you are ‘completely caught up in what you’re doing’. Many craftspeople attest to the seduction of this rhythm. In a recent exhibition on rare trades at the National Museum of Australia, bookbinder Daphne Lera described:

this feeling [that] has stayed with me all these years. It is to do with the fine physical task. It sounds repetitious, and possibly it is repetitious, but it’s also got this rhythm to it … this rhythm I’m talking about, all I can say is that I recognise it, and that it does exist.

Civitico’s previous work might give an idea of the concurrent mindfulness and mindlessness in which engagement can be experienced: in intimate, self-directed skilled enterprise that involves sensual negotiation with material and technological processes (or biotechnological processes, in Civitico’s case), involving a loss of self. While the task may be repetitive, engagement is not something that can easily be experienced on the factory floor following a supervisor’s directions, because it demands a kind of self-determined commitment that is ‘simultaneously technical and deliberative’, as motorcycle mechanic and philosopher Matthew B Crawford writes in Shop Class As Soulcraft.

In her professional life, Civitico enjoyed a level of autonomy that many of us don’t experience in the age of assembly-line division of labour (including the white-collar specialisation in today’s so-called knowledge economy) which separates manual and mental skills, often to the point of what Crawford describes as ‘deadening abstraction’. She didn’t tend to delegate, in part because ‘if there’s a cock-up, it’s mine. You’re more likely to understand what went wrong if you made the mistake.’

Just as in her current domestic occupation. The way Civitico describes it, getting into the rhythm of engagement sometimes involves mentally and physically pushing herself through a portal of frustration. She shows me a tube the size of a child’s thumb. Inside are open-ended silver rings: they are breathtakingly small.

The woman [that is, Civitico’s supplier] twists fine silver wire on to a mandrel, then she tumbles them to get the burrs off. When you choose them you have to be precise about the size of the internal hole compared to the gauge of the wire.

Once Civitico settles at her desk with a pile of the right proportioned rings, she switches on her task-light, and takes up two fine pliers. So begins the painstaking process of opening, twisting and closing the tiny rings, and fashioning them into impossibly intricate patterns:

There’s a certain amount of getting the rhythm back – you’re all thumbs. Sometimes you keep dropping them and swearing for half an hour before you get to that state, and then you could just keep going forever.

Other accounts of craft work concur with this bloody-minded determination. When fixing vintage motorcycles in his workshop, Crawford reports:

At this point I’ve exhausted my entire lexicon of ‘motherfucker’-based idioms … and a certain calm takes over. I used to try and hypnotise myself into [this] Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work …

Pushing herself into this resolute state helped restore Civitico’s equilibrium, but she never intended to be so prolific or committed. Nor was her career change deliberate. Late one morning, as she placed a necklace – a birthday gift from her brother – on her dresser, she paused. ‘I looked at it and thought, “I can make this.”’ She hadn’t really considered how jewellery ‘works’, but as she studied it closely, perhaps with the trained eye of a microbiologist, the necklace revealed its workings to her

It was made of a piece of flexible-coated silver-coloured jewellery wire … onto which oval-shaped, flattened beads had been fixed at regular intervals and held in place by small crimps. It was closed with a spring clip and tag … when I had a really close look I thought: ‘how hard can that have been?’ I wondered about the crimps and how they stayed in place.

So she jumped online, and a universe of possibility revealed itself. It was a coup de foudre. Once she had the tools and materials, she made the necklace successfully and, recognising her handiwork as the neophyte impulse it was, she unpicked it, and set out to construct something more challenging.

Civitico’s craft room doubles as the family’s music room and houses a floor-to-ceiling wall closet that itself contains a hierarchic organisation of boxes within boxes, like some monumental Matryoshka doll. These contain buttons, vintage fabrics, patterns and tiny tubes of infinitesimally small jewellery components. There are various grades of wire and silver coils, beads with names like ‘bugle’, ‘hex’, ‘Charlotte’, ‘seed’, ‘faceted’ and ‘Japanese delica’, and hand-made lampwork beads she ordered online, inside of which jellyfish-like forms are suspended. ‘People slave over a hot torch flame to produce these,’ she tells me. ‘From coloured glass rods.’

Each tiny globe holds a universe of otherworldly forms. We squint for a few moments, holding each of them to the light and marvelling at their innards: opalescent and ethereal sea-floor forms. ‘Part of the joy of craft is the joy of discovery,’ she says. ‘It awakens in you the possibility of things, and whole other worlds.’

We move on to onyx flowers and military buttons. Civitico unfolds some waxed paper to reveal black Victorian glass buttons she’d bought online. When she first edged them out of their packaging, she recalls, ‘I gasped.’

She might choose to brick-stitch these treasures, or use a wide-angled weave, or employ square-stitch or peyote – there are any number of traditional ways of working jewellery in her collection of craft porn. ‘You choose your torture,’ she says.

I’ve visited Civitico’s home a few times now, and each time she disappears down the corridor and returns with a trove of handcrafts of a scale seemingly disproportionate to the capacity of the house. She shows me a chain-mail bracelet and I catch my breath: thousands of tiny silver coils are linked together to form a wide, flat band whose elegance belies the finicky, curse-ridden labour it embodies. Its weave has the uniformity of machine-knitting. I had never before, on seeing similar bracelets, considered their workmanship. Had I glimpsed this one in the context of a jewellery shop window, I would have passed it by without thought.

‘We are over-exposed to beautiful things,’ says Civitico.

Culturally saturated in a cornucopia of mass-production, we’ve become desensitised. Still, now I’m confronted with its status as handcraft, the bracelet seems something other than a sum of its labour, parts and time. It is simply its own beautiful thing. Civitico tells me she can recognise the bracelet’s independent thingness, but she doesn’t tend to relate to her handcrafts as entities distinct from her labour until after she has secreted them away, sometimes for a couple of months, before retrieving them afresh.

She then gives much away. She gets the odd paid commission, but ‘I can tinker for my own pleasure; if I had to do it as a paid gig, it would get very stressful’. And yet she rejects the suggestion that her occupation is a hobby, practised as it is in domestic time without monetary payment. ‘Collecting is a hobby. Making stuff isn’t.’ Is it leisure? ‘No. Leisure is passive. This is work, but with a different purpose and focus.’

It’s a sentiment I’ve encountered in some form or another from many of my, for want of a better term, ‘cottage-industry’ interviewees. Jess McCaughey, a prolific maker of artisan bears that command handsome prices (these prices nonetheless hardly compensate for her time), described her craft as not simply restorative or therapeutic, but vocational, and essential to her sense of self:

I get annoyed when people say craft is something no longer done out of necessity. I have to make things. It’s not a luxury for me.

While ‘leisure’ implies decadence, or domestic time spent recuperating from (and for) the important business of work, engagement is about human vitality and self-knowledge: in both the autodidactic and psychological senses. It’s about a determined individualism that collectivists and libertarians alike might recognise (though it is antithetical to neoliberal ideas of individuality). For the people I spoke with, it is an individualism that is nonetheless deeply involved in ‘participatory culture’, a term that tends to be applied to online media collaboration, creation and sharing of skills, and also to the private production of things (rather than public consumption of them). Participating in something resembling a modern-day artisans’ guild, they are invariably global creatures when it comes to sharing knowledge and testing standards with peers, but they retreat to their private and domestic realms when tending to more tacit engagements with their crafts. As Crawford explains:

You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire. If the motorcycle is thirty years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business twenty years ago, its proclivities are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic antiquarians.

When Kirkpatrick Sale, in Rebels Against the Future, described ‘the human autonomy’ that the original Luddites took up hammer and pike to defend’, he described a certain dignity, agency: what the Luddites called ‘commonality’. It’s likely the idea of ‘commonality’ in Regency England didn’t exactly denote the more refined political or unionised meanings of today but a notion of a ‘common interest’ of private needs that developed from the medieval recognition that, as Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘private individuals have interests in common, material and spiritual, and they can retain their privacy and attend to their own business’. What distinguishes this idea from modern notions ‘is not so much the recognition of a “common good” as the exclusivity of the private sphere and the absence of that curiously hybrid realm where private interests assume public significance that we call “society”.’

Or mass society. Without wanting to idealise a pre-industrial past, I can’t help but speculate that, in the Western tradition over the past three centuries, we have lost a certain understanding that relates to this private engagement and commonality. This understanding slips between fissured definitions of work and play, professional and amateur, manual and mental, material and abstract – all of which polarised further as industrialisation progressed and money became inseparable from time. So much so that, when newspaper or union reports refer to the ‘work-life balance’, we accept that the two are in opposition.

It’s an understanding that implicates a very different relationship with time than simply a chronological progression, partly because during this state, time ‘no longer seems to pass as it ordinarily does’ – but just as importantly, because without clocking on and off, one’s time becomes something other than an exterior, objective authority. It becomes instead a dimension of experience negotiated between the self, the senses and the surrounds. As technology philosopher Cory Doctorow wrote (somewhat idealistically) of pre-industrial artisans:

He or she could choose how to sit, which tool to use when, and in what order to complete the steps. If it was a sunny day with a fine autumn breeze, the worker could choose to plane the joints and keep the smell of the leaves in the air, saving the lacquer for the next day. Workers who were having a bad day could take it easy without holding up a production line. On good days, the work could fly past without creating traffic jams further down the line.

In their profoundly insightful Time & Society essay documenting experiences of ritualised sole practice, Australian sociologists Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game write that the ritual of committed practice can bring on a form of transformative ‘grace’ that ‘can give a different temporal experience: by suspending participants’ future orientations, it allows them to be in the non-linear present, the time where life unfolds’. They see commitment to ritualised practice (like swimming and playing the piano) as a kind of secular ascetics, but conclude that, far from being monotonous, it ‘is what makes possible the gift of creativity’. This gift, or grace, is reciprocated between the giver and the task itself. It seems logical, then, that if one experiences ‘the time where life unfolds’ within one’s work, then the popular notion of a ‘work-life’ balance becomes redundant.

One of the assumptions I made before interviewing DIY technologists – people reclaiming technological knowledge out of the commercial sphere and into the domestic sphere – was that they were motivated by a political commitment or doctrine. Yet, while most revealed themselves as politically engaged, it soon became obvious that such people are more often motivated by a Romantic engagement with the world, by which I mean a sense of adventure, awe, discovery, possibility and a commitment to individual agency and sensory fulfilment. Political consequence seemed secondary or incidental: Civitico’s work, for example, isn’t motivated by an ideology of anti-consumption, but the effects of her industry coincide happily with her values: ‘I cook according to my conscience.’

Still, there are many ways her home enterprise has enabled alternative systems of exchange that connect the family socially and disconnect it fiscally. The family doesn’t pay much tax, for example, because Civitico’s work (including clothing production and prolific cooking) limits their need to purchase processed goods. Hence they pay little GST. That she decided against paid employment also wipes out a wad of income tax.

More, the things she makes are integral to what she calls her ‘black market of jam’. In this economy, gifts are made; there is reciprocity between friends and colleagues; there is chutney for the woman at the fabric remnants store; there is exchange for produce or sometimes goods from other home industries. Parents from school know her from her products and request them. The relationships enabled by her craft attest to the seemingly antiquated Marxist idea that a sense of selfhood and social relations develop through making physical things.

For the past hour and a half, I have stood with my notebook in her kitchen at the home’s centre, watching Civitico, svelte in knee-high boots, fitted jeans and a large apron, make jars of quince jelly that will be given to family, friends and colleagues. Holding a jar of one of yesterday’s jelly batches up to the light, she tells me quinces ‘are the most underrated fruit. You could never find this in the supermarket.’ Making it to this standard is a convoluted process, for which hundreds of jars are stacked in the hallway. In boxes are some of the 500 or so fruit from the half-century-old quince tree growing on her in-laws’ grain farm near Winchelsea. The evening before, she stewed fourteen for three hours, until the water had turned magenta, and left them overnight to drain slowly through fine muslin into a bowl. ‘If you try to get extra liquid by squeezing them, you’ll pay later with sludge. You can’t speed this process up.’ After I arrived she set a dozen jars in the oven to sterilise, placed a handful of clean teaspoons in the freezer, measured the quince syrup and worked out the required sugar with a calculator (450 grams sugar for every 600 grams of liquid). She squeezed two lemons and poured the juice and the syrup into a stainless steel pot, adding the sugar and bringing it to the boil.

It’s impossible to imagine how the process that follows could be mechanised. It simply demands too much sensual attentiveness, and it is too humanly involved for the assembly line. ‘You have to pay attention,’ Civitico explains, ‘to how many bubbles form and how slowly they come up.’ She stirs with a practised hand, every few minutes taking up a flat straining spoon, removing the frothy scum that forms on the surface edge, washing the strainer and returning to stir. This process – stirring, straining, washing, stirring – continues for around forty minutes. We stand in the sweet humidity, waiting, watching, contemplating. ‘I like this bit,’ she smiles, and her contentment is palpable.

‘As it reduces down, the colour intensifies and the syrup becomes a lot clearer.’

The kitchen is now fragrant with tangy humidity, and we wait, relying on our senses to alert us when the syrup undergoes its next transformation. I’m reminded of Crawford’s observation that one of the values of material engagement as a way of understanding the world is that it involves wrestling with the limits of your own mastery over things. You learn to ‘submit … to things that have their own intractable ways’.

‘Here it goes,’ she says after a time, and the bubbling becomes finer and the whole pot starts to roar. Her pace quickens as she dips the teaspoons from the freezer into the syrup and drags her finger along the film of jelly that forms on their backs.

‘When the tracks become more distinct you know it’s about ready.’ She is concurrently judging the tensile stringiness with which the syrup drips off the wooden spoon.

And then: ‘It’s there!’ After a quick scum removal, she is carefully pouring the syrup down the inside of each jar. ‘You do it this way because you don’t want to introduce bubbles.’ There they are, nine and a half jars of pristine, deep ruby-coloured jellies, more than a day after the process started – or longer, if you take into account planning jars, harvesting fruit, writing labels.

It’s a triumph, that nine and a half jars of labour, and we marvel at the colour and jewel-like purity. Giving quince products away, Civitico tells me, ‘is an act of love, because they’re a pain in the arse to make’. She later gives me a jar and some paste as a gift, and after momentary hesitation I feel both elated and indebted, inducted into the black market of jam.

Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson is author of Tinkering (Monash University Publishing) and a former editor of Overland.

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