Thoughts on a Plane

The workshop @ Upshop is a fascinating place to visit: so many tools, all arranged neatly (at least, on a good day). I can’t recognize what many of them would be used for so they have a kind of magical ambiguity; they make me curious. These tools exist in the kind of dual state that interested the philosopher Martin Heidegger: on display, they are “present to hand”, just an object to be looked at. Yet, they are also “ready to hand” and when we pick up a tool and start using it, then we don’t see it any more, the (present) object disappears and our  awareness shifts to the task itself.

But what happens when a tool no longer works? Heidegger would say that the tool then becomes conspicuous, and the flow or process of making is interrupted. And then what happens? Do we turn our attention to fixing the tool itself (which then becomes the task) or do we replace the tool in order to continue with the current task? Is the tool still a tool when it no longer works?

This isn’t just a philosophical question; it’s directly related to upcycling. Why do we throw out so many tools? Is it because we don’t know how to repair them or that we have learnt that it is the task itself that is most important?

Think of all the tools collected in boxes at markets or in someone’s old shed: broken, rusty and in disrepair. Heidegger might declare that they are no longer “ready to hand”, but have become “unusable”. I would say, with their rusty patina and knobbly bits, that they are still beautiful – but I don’t know what they are or what to do with them.

As someone with a lifetime of experience working with tools, Mario would recognize what they once were, when they were ‘ready to hand’. And he has the skills and knowledge to return them to their original state as tools. For example, Mario found this blunt and corroded hand plane at a market. He dismantled it, cleaned all the parts with a wire buff and on an electric grinder. All the parts were oiled; the threads were cleaned and checked, the blades honed – and then the entire thing was reassembled.

Perhaps what Mario did is just a form of restoration; I’d like to suggest that it’s upcycycling because the life cycle of this object has been extended – it will be a little while longer before it enters our landfill. It’s also more than making an old tool work better and having the skills to repair it. Upcycling is an ethos, a practice of sharing know-how. Listening to Mario explain how he refurbished this hand plane (even learning that is it is a plane!) enriched my understanding of tools.

I still go into the workshop @ UpShop and find that I just stand there, looking at all these objects and trying to figure out what to do with them. I don’t actually agree with those who, following Heidegger, argue that by looking at a tool we don’t really understand its essence because it’s just perceived as a lump of inert matter. Whether its “present to hand” or discarded and “unusable”, I think tools are wondrously ambivalent things (because they invite curiosity) * They become even more so when upcycled because this process places them within a social and ethical practice of sharing skills and know-how. Tools are no longer objects or instruments for use; they are transformed and so, too, is our perception of them.

, you could start here with JONATHAN HALE’s conversation).

*if you are wondering why and how wonder invites curiosity, take a look at Philip Fisher’s book On Wonder, The Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences