Lars Spuybroek – The Sympathy of Things

Upon reading the assigned excerpt from Lars Spuybroek’s The Sympathy of Things, I was most interested in the way Spuybroek spoke of human action as an intelligent system of communication between the mind and the body, a complex “mental-motor schema.” This makes me think of the muscle memory that our bodies develop after repeated practice of the same action over and over. Though the motions are repeated, there exists an infinite variety of expression and intelligent movement, “the same organization of actions under ever-changing circumstances.”  The way that Spuybroek describes the interaction between the butcher and his tools on page 32 expresses this symbiotic relationship between maker and the world around him/her.

I felt this related to the way that I think about art-making. I myself have been a bit resistant to technology because of my love for labor and the connection that occurs between the mind, body, and matter when I’m making by hand. So, you can imagine how I reacted upon reading Spuybroek’s rejection of the hand… “as craft moves towards design, all labor must move towards robotics” (Spuybroek 39). My work is contemplative, rooted in the act of self presencing through the palpable act of working… so the potential displacement of this relationship between body and matter worries me.


Understanding that this was my perspective upon beginning the passage, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I vibed with most of the ideas that Spuybroek was expressing later in the essay. The phrase that stood out the most to me was this: “a computer is not a machine that replaces handicraft; it is handicraft taking place at the level of drawing and design” (Spuybroek 34). What really got me excited about the potentials of digital fabrication was the idea of digital code as a modulating mold, a place where drawing and carving meet. I never thought about it like this, but by using digital technologies, we are actually able to connect to materials on a deeper level, using code to “speak the language that matter speaks.” Digital fabrication may transfer touch from hand to machine, but it replaces this labor with an ability for artists to conceptualize form in a way that handcraft never could (from both the inside and out, and with the potential to iterate endlessly.)

The connections that Spuybroek made between the natural world and the digital, through the common link of iteration, was also a very compelling concept for me. Seeing how the complex patterns present in snowflakes, or in puddles of cracked mud, could relate to parametric equations in the digital realm started to give me ideas for my own art-making in this course. This closeness between natural phenomena and digital craft communicates the universal logic of pattern and the possibility for artists and designers to borrow and be inspired by the structures in nature. This borrowing from nature is a concept that could be applied to restructure human systems and how their impact the earth.


Spuybroek, like Ruskin, believes that ornament is a sign of caring and an act of sympathy, due to the sacrifice that is inherent in the process of ornamentation and its essential uselessness to the audience. I can get behind this idea, and I understand how this excess of work and care connects the maker to the object, but I don’t think that this translates to the conclusion that abstraction, or simplicity of design, is therefore “cruel or perverse”. It seemed like a sweeping generalization to make. But aside from that one section, I found myself really getting a lot out of Spuybroek’s principal message that digital technology has the power to bring ornamentation (and its sympathetic nature) to the future of design.



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