The Intelligent Hand

By Todd Oppenheimer
By Todd Oppenheimer

For many anthropologists, their work involves delving into obscure corners of humanity’s past; for Trevor Marchand, a Canadian-born anthropology professor in England, the field offered him a way to look into the work of living master artisans, identifying what it took to build their skills, and why such difficult, physical work still matters.

“I think it’s extremely important,” he says, “for the general public to understand the diversity of knowledge that goes into producing something with the body.” Marchand, a former architect, has now spent his career parsing, identifying, and describing every layer of that knowledge base. For the past 17 years, he has been teaching classes on this topic as a professor of anthropology at London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies.

For those of you who have followed our work recently, Marchand spoke eloquently about these issues in a documentary short we recently presented, called “The Future is Handmade.” Now he goes further in another mini-doc, which he directed himself, called “The Intelligent Hand.” Since the film, which follows a group of wood-working students at East London’s Building Crafts College, might be a bit long for some of you (it’s just over 20 minutes) Marchand was kind enough to allow us to present a condensed version, of about six minutes, which you can see below.

Somewhat like us, as the stewards of The Craftsmanship Initiative, Marchand sees grave danger in how quickly modern technology has made people forget some fundamental truths. With each generation of mobile phones and other digital devices, the power of what we can do seems to become more limitless. Unfortunately, it’s the machines that are getting more powerful; meanwhile, we only get weaker. As we lean more and more on technology, we neglect the tactile experience and work that build our skill with our hands, our eyes and ears, and the other senses that have guided creativity since the dawn of mankind. “The trends today, in schools and the workplace, are taking us further and further away from the body,” Marchand says. “It feels like we’re moving forward, but we’re actually moving backward.”

Marchand developed these opinions through a remarkable series of anthropological adventures.

It all started when Marchand set out, as a young architecture student, to do field work in northern Nigeria, studying mud-brick building techniques. Before he knew it, he was signed up to be a laborer just like the people he was studying. (Studying these laborers’ work in such depth is what turned him away from architecture, and toward anthropology.) More stints followed—working with minaret builders in Yemen; brick masons in Mali; and, most recently, fine wood-workers in East London.

Fortunately for us, it gave Marchand a chance to get to know an astounding array of people, all experts (or budding experts) in an equally astounding array of fields. In the old city of Djenné, in Mali, for example, Marchand filmed multiple generations of mud-brick masons struggling to keep the tradition alive, and to pass on a durable system of apprenticeship. And in London, Marchand worked with an unusually gifted Ugandan, named Andrew Omoding, who became a “voluntary mute” as a way of dealing with separation from his homeland.

Marchand worked with Omoding partly to help him, and partly to study the mathematics of craftsmanship in pure form—that is, when language and the other artifices of education are not available as crutches. If you don’t watch all of Marchand’s eight-minute film on Omoding, make sure to catch the ending, where the two men share some laughs over a new joint creation.

I don’t know about you, but after I surveyed Marchand’s work, I was left feeling partly impressed, and partly envious. At a time when the age-old traditions of skill are disappearing so fast that a magazine like ours can’t even catalog them all, I am amazed that one man has managed to pay such deep homage to their meaning.