In praise of legwork

Eik Hermann

Published on 31.12.2023

Eik Hermann is a lecturer on philosophy and practice-based theory at the Estonian Academy of Arts and editor-in-chief of the architecture magazine Ehituskunst. He completed his MA in philosophy at the Estonian Institute of Humanities, Tallinn University in 2005. His current focus lies mainly in the grey areas between the theoretical and practical, material and mental, psychological and political, and pragmatic and poetic.

What I would like to point out with this small text is relatively simple. Namely, that a crucial role in any kind of making is played by legwork. Yet unfortunately, insufficient attention is given to studying or teaching it.

Traditional approaches to making fail to mention legwork. Instead, they are structured around the opposition between intellectual and manual work. To be more precise, manual work is presented as subordinate to intellectual work. First, a designer, architect, curator or artist comes up with a brilliant idea, and then someone secondary materialises it. First the concept, then the execution.

This is by itself already a somewhat suspicious arrangement. Glenn Adamson for instance has called attention to its dual origins. On one hand, the notion of craft arose from the older technē or ars through opposition to the concept of art, which had just acquired a new sense; on the other hand, however, there was also an opposition to industry.1 In both of these polarities, the artisan represents a rather regressive character, who supposedly differs from the brilliant artist or inventive industrial designer through the fact that her work is more of a physical than intellectual nature. According to Adamson, it is especially the opposition between industry and craft that has clearly colonialist undertones. It was used, for example, in the context of fabric making to indicate that the British textile industry was more advanced and better off than the Indian handicraft industry. “Craft conditioned the relations between colonizer and colonized by framing the latter as static, trapped within tradition. British authors like James Mill described Indian artisans as slow and intuitive. Modern textile designers, by contrast, were presented as inventive, progressive, technological, efficient: in short, as pioneers in a developing realm of production. Never mind that in mid-nineteenth century, Indian cottons were superior in quality and lower in unit cost than their mass-produced British equivalents. That problem would doubtless be conquered in time, just as colonial subjects themselves had been.”2

In light of this, a project that would seek to rehabilitate the concept of craft and challenge the unquestioned superiority of intellectual work would already sound promising. Yet, I would like to go one step further. While doing research for my doctoral thesis, I stumbled upon the idea that the more than suspicious hierarchy of headwork and handwork is in turn supported by the tacit submission of legwork and its exclusion from the accounts of making processes.

To explain this, let us go through a short detour. While teaching philosophy at the Estonian Academy of Arts, I first came across another distinction that seemed undervalued and poorly used. Namely, the Estonian language proposes two excellent words to describe making processes, which are not necessarily found in other languages. They are mustand and puhtand, which could be translated as ‘rough draft’ and ‘final work’, the words themselves derived from “impure” (mustand) and “pure” (puhtand). They are primarily used in the context of writing. Most Estonians probably know them from lessons on literature and writing, where one had to first work through a rough draft and only then start working on a final draft when writing an essay. But as the whole process was usually very limited timewise, the rough drafts essentially meant final works with minor impurities.

Teaching artists, artisans, designers and architects helped me realise that these words have considerably more potential. They could be used in a more profound sense to mark two fundamentally different stages in the process of making objects, spaces, artworks, performances and texts. The concept of a rough draft could cover the entire “rougher” and more obscure part of the making process, which is usually also more explorative and tentative, while the final draft could refer either to a finished work or to the part of the making process that is already directed towards a more clear and formulated goal.

This distinction already allows us to formulate a thing or two. For example, we can point out that art and design education are often biased towards the final draft. Almost all courses end with the students presenting a final work, although it could also be argued that always reaching the final goal might be counterproductive and more emphasis could be placed on the richness of exploration. Secondly, this distinction allows us to notice that we know significantly less about the processes of the rough draft compared to those of the final work, as the histories have mostly emphasised the latter, almost sanctifying them.

Over time, new facets have opened up within this distinction. Namely, in the process that leads from the previous final works to an emerging gathering of raw materials and from there to new final works, two aspects can be distinguished – legwork and handwork.

What made me notice this distinction in the first place was a passage from Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s book “A Thousand Plateaus”. In the passage, they describe a character they call a complete artisan. As they point out, it is not justified to frame work with materials as imposing ideas (the results of headwork) on them, because it is equally important to be able to follow them. This implies a capability to feel and appreciate the inherent tendencies and behavioural patterns of the materials.

As Deleuze and Guattari note, we shouldn’t assume that this activity should be entirely sedentary. “Doubtless, the operation that consists in following can be carried out in one place: an artisan who planes follows the wood, the fibers of the wood, without changing location. But this way of following is only one particular sequence in a more general process. For artisans are obliged to follow in another way as well, in other words, to go find the wood where it lies, and to find the wood with the right kind of fibers. Otherwise, they must have it brought to them: it is only because merchants take care of one segment of the journey in reverse that the artisans can avoid making the trip themselves. But artisans are complete only if they are also prospectors; and the organization that separates prospectors, merchants, and artisans already mutilates artisans in order to make “workers” of them. We will therefore define the artisan as one who is determined in such a way as to follow a flow of matter [...]. The artisan is the itinerant, the ambulant.”3

Deleuze and Guattari challenge the traditional perception of the sedentary artisan, asking whether this vision is unduly influenced by a bias that posits sedentism as superior and more advanced compared to nomadism. Of course, if we stick to the traditional belief in the linear progress of societies, then it is self-evident that the hunter-gatherers and nomadic herders cannot be as advanced as the settled artisans or farmers, whose production of surplus value has laid the foundation for cities, culture and economic growth. However, recently, new approaches to history have proven this vision to be a myth, showing sedentism in a much more ambivalent light.4

Isn’t it true that only after the artisan became sedentary could she be framed as a passive and regressive character, inferior in a variety of aspects to the headworker – the forward-thinking and broad-minded intellectual? Undoubtedly, such a vision would have been difficult at a time when freemasons, or artisans from the masons’ guild, travelled around Europe, building higher and higher churches and troubling the authorities as they resisted attempts to control them.5

The more I dwelled on these propositions from Deleuze and Guattari, the more sense it made to divide the making process into two aspects. The first aspect is spatial and divergent: it consists of wandering. It includes all kinds of more elaborated searches in a so-called field or landscape – fieldwork – in order to gather ideas, skills, good examples, interesting materials or found objects. A big part of this happens outside explicit goals and projects. For example, the entire learning process from apprentice to master is also a part of it. Besides the more physical and embodied engagements with materials, it also includes all kinds of intellectual wanderings, all the ways of expanding and enriching our inner worlds. This aspect could be called legwork.

The second aspect is objectly and convergent. Even if instead of objects, the process results in a performance, exhibition, house or text, the latter are still objectly in their nature:  they are taken as separate from their surroundings, even though they can certainly be recontextualised later. In any case, when we talk of making, it is this kind of work with materials towards a specific goal that we usually have in mind. The project has started: perhaps a client has made contact or an idea to make an exhibition has emerged. A clear conception might not have surfaced yet, but the work is already underway with an end goal in mind. This aspect could be called handwork.

Legwork and handwork are definitely interconnected. Sometimes handwork is at the service of legwork, when, for example, in the course of wanderings one comes across a physical or mental material: in order to understand its potency and potential, it is worth exploring what could be made of it. Sometimes, on the other hand, legwork is at the service of handwork, when during the process of making or arranging we discover that an important piece of the puzzle is still missing and we have to go looking for it.

Both legwork and handwork can be explorative, although their explorations are somewhat different: in the case of legwork they appear as wandering and erring, while in handwork as experimentation. Among other things, this helps to convey what is meant by a well-made rough draft. Ideally it involves both kinds of exploration. Even though we could define a rough draft as anything preceding a final draft, I’ve come to think that, similarly to a well-made final draft, a well-made rough draft is an achievement of its own, which definitely shouldn’t be taken for granted. The criteria for a well-made rough draft include the amplitude of wanderings and experiments, the willingness to take risks and to try out moves that do not have a clear purpose or might even be likely to fail, but which can also accidentally lead to something completely new. The concept of legwork also helps us to notice that besides making rough drafts for specific projects, one can also talk of general draft work, consisting of aimless wanderings, gatherings and experiments, forming the basis for an archive of raw materials and sparking ideas for new projects.

What I particularly love about the distinction between legwork and handwork is that it allows us to account for both material and mental (and irreducibly material-mental) aspects of making. Besides being relevant for describing the work of material-based artists, it also applies to the work of philosophers and writers who also need to wander in faraway lands or local side streets, previously written works or conversations with friends and strangers in order to gather materials and wait for an idea for a new work to surface. Based on this conception, we could also say that headwork is nothing else than a mix of imagined legwork and handwork in imagined environments. This kind of imagining can be purely nonmaterial, but it can also be supported by all kinds of material means, from sketches to mock-ups to stage designs. Even if the imagining takes place without material crutches, we probably wouldn’t be able to evoke them without having experienced a sufficient variety of real-life environments, undertaken enough real-life wanderings, and made enough handwork based on these endeavours. Therefore, instead of separating and hierarchising different disciplines and skills, this conception brings them together, revealing their shared core.

These ideas suggest that ideally, legwork, handwork and headwork are inextricably enmeshed, supporting and inspiring each other in a variety of ways. The artificial boundaries that have been drawn between them and the ranking games revolving around them are detrimental to all parties involved, including the headworkers at the top of the hierarchy. Despite its secondary status, handwork is at least discussed from time to time. The same cannot be said of legwork. Instead, it belongs with all those activities that remain invisible but are a prerequisite for visible works. Often it is precisely the quality of legwork that decides the success of a project. Moreover, the resources gathered and the physical and mental toolkits constructed in the course of one’s wanderings make up the soil from which new ideas and new projects could grow, later helping to steer them from the initial stages to the finished work. Ultimately, the environments where we wander and the examples we decide to retain in our bodyminds largely determine the characteristic grain of our work. It is for these reasons that I believe that the rich variety of possibilities provided by legwork deserves to be appreciated, gathered and taught.

  1. Adamson discusses the former in Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg, 2007) and the latter in The Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
  2. Adamson, The Invention of Craft, p. xvii.
  3. Deleuze, Gilles, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, part 2, translation by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 409.
  4. See for example James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), and David Graeber, David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (London: Allen Lane, 2021).
  5. Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pp 368–369. See also David Turnbull, Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2000), especially pp. 55–89.
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