Inside Story

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2669 words

A kind of groove

17 October 2017

Extract | Gilda Civitico’s story illuminates the art and the science of tinkering


“The things that made me a good scientist are what make me a good craftsperson,” says Civitico. TommL/iStockphoto

“The things that made me a good scientist are what make me a good craftsperson,” says Civitico. TommL/iStockphoto

Some mornings, when Gilda Civitico arrived at the Victorian Infec­tious Diseases Reference Laboratory where she worked as director of experimental design, she would open a cage of fluffy ducklings and ease them into a sink. “I gave them a little pat and let them have a swim,” she recalls, “with their mates.” Then she cupped one in her hand, anaesthetised it, and while its tiny heart still quivered, she sliced open its belly, snapped through its ribcage, disentangled the pulsing organs, and harvested its slippery liver, snipping off portal veins and connective vessels. “You have to do it while it’s alive,” she explained, “or the blood clots.”

It’s fiddly work, in which speed and precision are essential. You can’t culture live cells if cell function starts shutting down. In this kind of experimental work, a confluence of material forces and knowledges interplay. You have to meld your theoretical knowledges (objective, measurable, explicatory) with your bodily knowledges (subjective, tacit, intuitive, skilful), and these are in continuous correspondence with the material forces around you (contingent, intractable) as well as the forces of time, climate and culture.

After harvesting a liver, Civitico quickly flushed out its red blood cells and then doused it with collagenase, an enzyme that breaks down the binding proteins and transforms the organ into a mound of substance the consistency of soft tofu. She pressed this slippery, still-warm mound into a sieve so fine that only single cells could find a passage through. She spun the resulting slurry slowly 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 cells she coveted — hepatocytes (the main liver tissue cells). A labyrinthine procedure followed, in which she suspended those cells in pre-warmed (37°C) culture media. With a process of gentle layering and centrifuging, she got the cell density just right. “Think liquid red jelly being gently layered onto not-quite-set green jelly,” she told me. “You don’t want them to be mixed.”

This done, she syringed the substance into a pipette, washed the cells, counted them, and checked their viability with a staining pro­cess. “And then you dilute them out with media to the right number of cells per ml of media and this is what you use to seed your cell culture plates.”

Left overnight, exiled in their Petri dishes and sustained with exacting 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 explained, was but the first of many procedures before the finicky business of DNA profiling and dose-response analysis. Had she infected the ducklings with another strain of the hepatitis B virus she was using, or had she been testing a different viral inhibitor, she might have designed this experiment altogether differently.

Experimental science isn’t merely a series of procedures, it is an art form. It requires a fine attunement to aesthetic detail and sen­sory attention. It’s ars and techne. It involves educated guesswork and mindful inter­action of procedural, tacit, bodily and propositional knowledges, interplayed with the knowledges embedded in technologies and materials. Just as a cellist might subtly adjust her technique to the proclivities and demands of a particular instrument, experimental science’s raw materials and tools aren’t simply passive recipients of human will, they are active agents. It’s the same deal from surgery to brick-making. Anthropologist Tim Ingold describes a confluence of human forces and materials in his description of clay brick-making, which “results not from the imposition of form onto matter but from the contraposition of equal and opposed forces immanent in both the clay and the mould.”

In Civitico’s lab, too, intimate attunement to these agents and their nuanced qualities — all their variabilities, tensions, fluxes, flows and resistances — was essential. Sometimes there was no telling what infinitesimally subtle variable of matter might violently sabotage a trial and undo months of evolving research. “Sometimes,” she told me, “a supplier would subtly change something. So, for example, if you ordered foetal calf serum, you made sure you stocked up on supplies of the same batch. You want to minimise variables.”

The right density of cell suspension, or the ideal nutrient profile in growth medium might be knowable by keeping abreast of specialist literature. But other contingents — like the subtle colour- or shape-shifts that sug­gest pH change or cell fatigue, or the ways some cells seem to prefer certain plastic plates — were knowable through intense observation, tweaking, inkling and kinaesthetic knowledge. Some knowledge simply couldn’t be codified in a procedures manual or even ade­quately explained to an assistant, because it relied on intuition. “You get a feel for what the cells like,” Civitico explained. People would be surprised, she added, at how much tacit knowledge is involved in lab science. “You can’t explain it, but you just develop a feel for what works.”

In his celebrated essay on intellectual craftsmanship, the sociol­ogist C. Wright Mills argues that theory doesn’t simply, through application, become praxis: instead, theoretic knowledge is itself “part of the practice of craft.” Craft — like tinkering — is a way of knowing by doing. To many craft theorists, the applied knowledge gained by making can’t be disentangled from the theoretical knowledge behind that making. Sociologist Richard Sennett observes that “all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices” and then “technical understanding develops through the powers of imagina­tion.” There’s a recursive relationship between making and thinking. In Tacit Knowing (1967), the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi asserts that humans carry a certain knowledge-awareness without being able to identify it in words.

Craft has long been under­stood as ineffable: something learned with the whole body and its senses rather than simply the mind. As early as 1677, craftsman Joseph Moxon wrote that craft “cannot be taught by Words, but is only gained in Practice and Exercise.” In The Art of the Maker (1994), Peter Dormer asserts that the knowledge to make something work, or to understand how it works, “is not the same as understanding the principle behind it”; tacit knowledge “differs from propositional knowledge in that it cannot easily be articulated or described in words.” Polanyi distinguishes between knowing how and knowing that; the former (the how) is being rapidly lost in a Western educa­tional system that privileges more abstract vocational training geared towards information economies over manual, bodily or skills-based knowledge.

Although her former career as a research scientist gave her an understanding of the tacit knowledge of tinkering in the lab, Civit­ico’s solitary tinkering in her home offered her additional freedoms: freedom to play and learn in a way that was unfettered by economic, political or bureaucratic concerns. In her home, tinkering became “a playful pursuit,” she told me. It’s about “applying knowledge you already have to a new problem or creative challenge. Tinkering is experimental so the results of your tinkering might be anything. I enjoy this element of uncertainty because I only ever have to please myself, and the process is always instructive.”

A few times when I visited Civitico, she and I sipped tea in the open-plan rear extension of the postwar brick home she shares with her partner, electrical engineer Andrew Peel (a tinkerer who was at the time researching a PhD in electrical engineering) and their two young daughters. Each time, her sewing machine and various sewing paraphernalia occupied half of the dining table. This was consistent across my research: tinkerers’ living arrangements tended to be physically — as well as temporally — organised around their tin­kering. In the light-filled space were shelves of games, shells, 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.

This library represents a more pleasurable stock of references than the procedures manuals she once followed in the lab; yet the deliberations and processes of a research scientist, Civitico told me, are not so far removed from those she now undergoes here, in her industrious domestic life. “The things that made me a good scientist are what make me a good craftsperson,” she told me. “I have a very high tolerance for repetitive stuff people find mind-numbingly tedious.” This repetition, she said, doesn’t negate creativity, but enables it. Both lab work and her current occupation — as prolific maker of jewellery, clothing and preserves (the “jam lady,” as she was known at her daughters’ school) — require strategic imaginings, a high frustration threshold and a willingness, dedication even, to learn from mistakes. She’s happy to unpick a garment just as she might, in a lab trial, analyse a procedural error and start over again. “Any kind of technical learning,” she said, “requires you to research, imag­ine, plan, execute a technique, fail, troubleshoot, try again and keep tweaking.”

Civitico’s story is one of psychological sanctuary — of tinkering-as-refuge. Her upbringing in an Italian-Australian family involved an array of cooking and crafting, but as an adult she rekindled crafting as a way to anchor her mind when postnatal depression hit hard. It was a way, she told me, to channel mental and bodily energy into material problem-solving rather than the dark wrestle of abstract anxieties that besieged her. She could have returned to her job, but that meant dealing with other stresses and demands — bureaucratic, collegial, temporal, political — and it meant 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 (and social agency) became a happy side-effect. The refuge she needed can be understood as engagement, a way of transforming her mind noise into a liminal rhythm that at times she’d experienced in her lab work.

Versions of engagement have been described in sociology, psy­chiatry, labour studies and neurology. C. Wright Mills defines the craftsman as being:

engaged in the work in and of itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labour are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment.

Building on Mills, Richard Sennett defines engagement as the “exper­imental rhythm of problem-solving and problem-finding” that craftspeople experience. For him, 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.” He essentialises the craftsman’s rhythm. “The craftsman,” he writes, “represents the special human condition of being engaged.”

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. In an attempt to codify the “optimal experience” that gives life purpose, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed artists, chess players, and others whose work involved the rhythm of concurrent problem-finding and problem-solving. He found they could achieve a state of transcendental grace.

The way Civitico described it, engagement or flow (she explained the state as “a kind of groove, like a form of meditation”) concurrently occupies the mind and quiets it. During this state it doesn’t occur to the tinkerer to check her watch or to eat; you are “completely caught up in what you’re doing.” Many craftspeople attest to the allure of this rhythm. In an exhibition on rare trades presented by the National Museum of Australia, bookbinder Daphne Lera described:

this feeling [that] happened almost within the first week of starting to learn bookbinding, and it hasn’t really left me. It stayed with me all these years. It is to do with the fine physical task. It sounds repetitious… but it’s also got this rhythm to it… [T]his rhythm I’m talking about, all I can say is that I recognise it, and I know that it does, it does exist. I lose myself in it when I’m concentrating.

Lera says this happens when she is “forever trying to perfect the technique.” John D’Alton, another tinkerer I talked to, described this liminal, meditative focus as “a manifestation of God.” Polanyi, too, describes a kind of tacit human knowledge “from which a harmo­nious view of thought and existence, rooted in the universe, seems to emerge.”

Civitico told me that entering this rhythm sometimes involves a certain discipline, pushing herself through a portal of frustration. She showed me a tube the size of a small child’s finger. Inside were open-ended silver rings: impossibly small. Civitico told me her supplier, whom she sourced online, “twists fine silver wire on to a mandrel, then 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 settled at her work desk with a pile of the right proportioned rings, she switched on her task-light, and took up two fine pliers. So began 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,” she said. “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.”

Seducing herself into a tinkering state helped restore Civitico’s health in ways she never calculated. She started tinkering from home by chance. 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 took the time to consider it closely, with the trained eye of a microbiologist, the necklace revealed its workings to her. She jumped online, and a universe of adventure and 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 make something more challenging.

Civitico’s craft room, which doubles as the family’s music room, houses a floor-to-ceiling wall closet that itself houses a hierarchic organisation of boxes within boxes, like a monumental matryoshka doll. Some of these contain buttons, folded vintage fabrics, patterns, and tiny tubes of infinitesimally small jewellery components. There are varying grades of wire (with names like “half-hard” and “tigertail”) and silver coils. There are regular- and irregular-shaped beads (these have names like “bugle,” “hex,” “Charlotte,” “seed,” “faceted” and “Japa­nese delica”). And handmade lampwork beads she ordered from the US, inside of which jellyfish-like forms are suspended.

“People slave over a hot torch flame to produce these,” she told me, “from coloured glass rods.” (To be sure, if you google “lampworking,” you’ll discover a vast lexicon of technique and tradition.) In each tiny globe was a universe of otherworldly forms. We squinted for a few moments, holding each of them to the light and marvelling at their innards: nacreous, opalescent and ethereal sea-floor forms. “Part of the joy of craft,” Civitico said, “is the joy of discovery. It awakens in you the possibility of things, and whole other worlds.” ●

This is an edited extract from Tinkering: Australians Reinvent DIY Culture, published this month by Monash University Publishing.

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