Craft, Performance, and Grammars
Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA USA
Abstract. Recent interest in new, digital and computational ways of making has
been paralleled by rising interest in traditional making and craft practices. Most
efforts to merge digital and craft practices focus on the things produced, with
attention to process only to the extent that it informs results. However, the
socio-cultural, aesthetic, and creative dimensions of a craft practice are
expressed in its performative, temporal aspects as much as in its products. A
new computational theory of making offered by making grammars points to
new possibilities for the study of temporal performance. In this paper, I use
traditional kolam pattern making in India as a case study to probe the potentials
of making grammars to represent craft performance, in contrast with the use of
shape grammars to represent craft designs. Different generative strategies are
revealed in the comparison.
Keywords: Shape grammar, making grammar, craft, segmentation.
Recent interest in new ways of making and in computational tools, technologies and
theories to support them has been paralleled by rising interest in traditional making
and craft practices. Researchers look to by-hand techniques and traditional materials
to advance digital fabrication with new materials. Conversely, hand-crafters
experiment with digital fabrication and new materials to expand the possibilities of
their craft. “Digital craft”  is a phrase often used for work fusing made-by-hand and
made-by-machine methods. In architectural design, craft techniques such as sewing or
weaving are emulated in fabrication processes , and traditional materials such as
bamboo are combined with digital fabrication .
Most efforts to merge craft sensibilities and practices with new making
technologies and computational strategies focus on the things produced (from
buildings to jewelry), with attention to making processes only to the extent that they
facilitate or inform results. Relatedly, important socio-cultural dimensions of craft are
often left behind in the borrowing or emulation of craft techniques. Socio-cultural
aspects of craft, along with aesthetic and creative ones, are expressed in the products
of craft practices. But, just as important or even more so, they are expressed in the
performative, temporal aspects of craft. Craft activities, weaving and calligraphy for
example (Fig. 1), are often public or communal activities – performances in time –
meant to be shared or viewed. They may be deeply imbued with unique cultural
values and expressive of cultural identities. Understanding and making explicit, even
formalizing and computing, the performative aspects of a craft may help provide new
insights into its cultural dynamics as well as its creative and generative possibilities.
However, the performative nature of craft – it’s embodied. improvisational, and
time-based qualities – may seem an uncomfortable fit with formal computation,
especially computation of the digital kind.
Fig. 1. Expert calligrapher Mohri Suzuki performing calligraphy (left, retrieved from ) and
Kenyan women weaving baskets (right, retrieved from ).
A new computational theory of making offered by making grammars , though,
points to new possibilities for the study of craft practice. Making grammars are an
adaptation of shape grammars, a long-standing computational theory of design. In this
paper, I use traditional kolam pattern making in India as a case study to probe the
potentials of making grammars to understand and represent craft performance, in
contrast with the use of shape grammars to understand and represent craft designs. In
particular, I consider how making grammars might be used to express temporal
aspects of craft performance. While I do not consider explicitly the socio-cultural
aspects of craft, or kolam in particular, my work here suggests a computational basis
for socio-cultural and other inquiries.
2 From Shape Grammars to Making Grammars
Shape grammars provide a unique, computational theory of design, one aligned
especially well with creative design practice. They are distinctive for their visual
approach. The rules of a shape grammar generate designs by computing directly with
shapes made of basic spatial elements (points, lines, planes, and solids), rather than
with symbols, words, numbers, or other abstract structures that represent visual shapes
indirectly. Computations with shape rules involve seeing and doing. In each step of a
computation, the user can choose what shape to see and then what action, or rule, to
Designing with shape grammars is thus a kind of performative, making activity.
Shape grammar theory offers a natural basis for a computational theory of making.
Designing with shape grammars is about doing (drawing) and seeing with basic
spatial elements to make shapes. George Stiny and I  have recently extended this
definition of designing to a definition of making: making is doing and sensing with
stuff to make things. I summarize the details of our work here, beginning with
informal definitions of the terms we use. Doing is an action such as drawing, knotting,
folding, typing, throwing, stomping, and so on. Sensing includes any one or more of
our senses. Both doing and sensing can be done with ‘‘tools’’. Tools might be our
bodies’ ‘‘tools’’ such as our hands or our eyes, or tools might be extensions of our
bodies, for example, pencils or eyeglasses. Both doing and sensing might include
actions or sensings by a machine as well as by a person. Stuff includes physical
materials like gases, liquids, or solids with properties that can be visual, acoustic,
mechanical, geometric, and so on. A little more abstractly, stuff can be points, lines,
planes, and solids. Things are finite objects made of stuff.
With these definitions in hand, Stiny and I adapted shape grammars for computing
or making shapes to making grammars for computing or making things . The rules
of a making grammar are based on both the thing being made and a person’s sensory
interactions with that thing. Thus, a making grammar is a theory of both the
constructive and the sensory aspects of a making activity. Of course, a making
grammar, like any finite description, can never capture all aspects of a making activity
and can only approximate it. The rules are limited to particular aspects of interest.
A making rule has the general form M ® N where M and N are sensed things.
More specifically, M and N are things with any sensory interactions indicated in some
explicit fashion. Details of these sensory indications may vary according to the things
made. The arrow ® denotes “replace with” in the usual, formal way. In terms of
making, though, the arrow ® stands for a particular doing and/or sensing.
A making rule M ® N applies to a (sensed) thing T being made, when the maker
can identify a copy of M in the thing T. Then the thing M can be changed into the
thing N. Depending on the thing being made, the formal definition of “copy” might be
the same as that for shape grammars, or it might be specific to the things computed.
A making rule can be distinguished as either a sensing rule or a doing rule. A
sensing rule represents a perceptual change in a person, through the person’s sensory
actions (moving hands, eyes, etc.) with a thing. It represents a change, shift, or
(re)focus of attention in how a thing is perceived. A sensing rule A ® B says: If a
(sensed) thing A is a part of a current (sensed) thing being made, then (re)grasp,
(re)focus on, attend to it (with eyes, hands, nose, etc.) as shown by the (sensed) thing
B. A doing rule represents a physical change in a thing through a person’s physical
actions (folding, drawing, etc.) with the thing. A doing rule X ® Y says: If a (sensed)
thing X is a part of a current (sensed) thing being made, then do something to it as
shown by the (sensed) thing Y.
Separating sensing and doing in a making activity is subjective and represents a
particular perspective on that activity. Sensing and doing may sometimes be
inseparable. In this case, a making rule may represent sensing and doing
simultaneously, in other words, a simultaneous change in a person and in a thing
through the person’s sensory and physical actions.
In our preliminary work on making grammars, Stiny and I gave an example of a
making grammar for knotting strings, a highly tactile making activity inspired by
khipu, the knotted strings made by the Incas as a physical recordkeeping and
communication language. The knotting grammar generates single and multiple
overhand knots along a string. In this grammar, the things are knotted strings, the stuff
is fiber, doing is knotting (looping, pulling, etc.), and sensing is touching (grasping,
focusing attention, repositioning) with the hands. The rules include doing rules for
knotting and sensing rules for touching or grasping, as well as a combined sensing and
doing rule. The grammar is a highly schematized version of an actual knotting
process. But it is suggestive of the possibilities for making rules to encode temporal
qualities of knot making. As Stiny and I noted in our paper, the rules capture natural
stopping or stable points in a continuous tying process. Readers can refer to  for
more details of this example and making grammars in general.
3 Making Time and Making Grammars