The popular baking show and Netflix’s new glassblowing equivalent show a growing fascination with craft and the tangible in an increasingly digital world. By Priya Khanchandani
‘I had been blowing glass for about 30 years before the show,’ says Deborah Czeresko, the winner of the recent Netflix series Blown Away, ‘and now I am getting recognised every single day.’ Glassblowing, sewing and other such crafts were not the most aspirational of pursuits, until recently. Being a skateboarder or a YouTuber, perhaps, but not blowing into a metal rod with a lump of molten glass gathered at the other end. However, a string of craft-based reality TV shows are transforming our perception of what it is to make things with our hands and, in the process, are turning their protagonists into household names. ‘I really enjoy it,’ Czeresko continues. ‘I like to be in the public eye, I like to be the person singing karaoke. In glass, you only get to do that when you are doing a demo, you don’t usually get celebrity status.’
Being able to make things by hand is a skill I generally associate with my grandmother, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Before she lost her sight, Shanti could often be found at her sewing machine stitching her own curtains and cushions and could fix a tear like a miracle. She taught me to knit and crochet when I was a girl; to her it was normal to know how to make your own possessions. That was before computer games started to consume our time – in the case of my brother and I, that began with Tetris on Game Boy, then Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Megadrive and Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. Then gradually, through the 2000s, the smartphone began to kill off those moments that a pair of knitting needles might have filled. Now many of us spend more hours looking at screens than we do anything else.
In an increasingly digital world, there seems to be a renewed consciousness of the tangible. And the popularity of craft and maker culture in reality TV is the most remarkable manifestation of this. The Great British Bake Off, which marks its tenth anniversary this year, has turned Britain into a nation obsessed with ‘bakes’, glued to our screens in the millions, watching contestants compete in challenges ranging from crafting an obscure French pastry to sculpting flamboyant showstoppers that aim to push the boundaries of the age-old art of baking.
Baking, making sewing and glassblowing
Cookery is not new to TV, but Bake Off is different because its amateur participants could represent any of us; their personalities are embodied by the cake sculptures they make. This is epitomised by the Vampire’s Kiss raspberry Vodka Cake and Wicked Witch Finger Biscuits made by Goth baker Helena Garcia. Her elimination from the show in week five of the most recent series sparked controversy on social media because she had won the technical challenge that week.
The success of Bake Off has led its producers, Love Productions, to spawn several spin-offs, including The Great British Sewing Bee (2013) and The Great Pottery Throwdown (2015). The latter is filmed at Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent and is promoted with the catchphrase, ‘Making is the new baking’, heralding craft as the medium of the moment for reality TV. Blown Away, produced by Netflix, is the latest addition to the wave of such shows. It consists of a competition between a group of glass-blowers who cut their teeth at ‘North America’s biggest hot shop’, a purpose-built workshop in Ontario, Canada, and in each episode, create a glass object in response to a brief, aided by a group of assistants. The contestant who is deemed by the panel to have performed the most poorly is sent home.
The rise of maker-based reality TV has followed an unlikely trajectory. In the UK, reality TV became staple viewing in the early 2000s with the airing of Big Brother. It has really come to be associated with good-looking people rolling around in the sun and hooking up on a remote island, and therefore in many ways the antithesis of the wholesomeness associated with craft. However, watching glassblowers shape molten glass is surprisingly gripping for a number of reasons.
Glassblowing is a hot topic
With workshops in places such as Murano in Venice attracting swaths of tourists each year, glassmaking is a practice that has long attracted a culture of spectacle due to its physicality, the heat and the movement of the glassblower. The way in which the artist must balance the gob of glass and blow through long pipe, shape the molten vessel with pliers and run over to get the finished article into the cooling oven (or ‘annealer’) to slowly reduce the temperature of the glass and protect it from cracking, involves a constant element of risk. Then there’s the tension involved in watching a glassblower carefully balance a piece of glass in the furnace – known as a ‘glory hole’ – only to draw it out and smash it into smithereens with just one misstep.
The phenomenal success of maker-based reality TV is not just the result of its entertainment value, though. According to craft theorist Glenn Adamson, who authored Thinking Through Craft (2018), it also stems from the revival of craft in society at large. ‘Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction,’ Adamson says. ‘But for a lot of people, when they get disconnected from the physical environment, there’s something non-human about that: they feel like if they don’t get their hands on something, or see something happen through their own creativity, something is missing. And craft readily provides that.’ In an increasingly intangible world, craft appeals to our senses in a way that we have come to appreciate, even idealise – after all, celebrity culture is surely the ultimate form of 21st-century idealism.
Although the physicality of glassmaking is central to the allure of Blown Away, as the series progresses, it becomes more about the competition than the sculpting of glass itself. The turning point in the series is when Czeresko becomes the sole female contestant, alongside three men, and she points out in a one-on-one interview that she is the only person left representing anyone who is marginalised in society.
Why craft is political
In the final episode, Czeresko fills the gallery with glassworks sculpted as foods that manifest the gender dynamics of the glass workshop. A fried egg symbolising the female gender sits precariously atop a plinth, representing the woman as a minority, surrounded by glass-sculpted meats, including strings of sausages that are strewn across the gallery. One of them is strung through a pan with a hole in the centre and underscores the phallic culture of her discipline and the patriarchy of society beyond.
Czeresko consciously decided to embed a strong message about gender identity within her work. ‘I am a maker and that’s a worthy point of view,’ she told me in a phone conversation soon after I had watched her win. ‘I’m a woman – a queer woman – and ownership over my body is important to me.’ Through her work, the act of sculpting glass becomes more than about the physicality of her craft and reveals the politics inherent in its fabric. ‘That’s an important message for someone to say out loud,’ she continues, ‘so I decided to own this as the way in which I express myself; through my body as a maker. Because it’s a very labour-intensive process to make things in a sophisticated way through glass.’
At a time of extreme political division, it is possible that craft, thanks to its ability to be practised by anyone at an amateur level, can be a mode of expression for those at the periphery of mainstream discourse. It also has the capacity to help transcend difference and unite us through a sense of certainty and predictability. ‘There is a sense of direct control when working with glass, or other materials,’ according to the show’s resident evaluator and professional glass artist, Katherine Gray. ‘The political situation in the US engenders a feeling of helplessness, lack of autonomy and control, and doesn’t spawn the sense that you can do much to ameliorate the situation.’
We might once have perceived craft to be a tradition of the past, but its unlikely popularity in reality TV manifests the fact that we need to hold onto something tangible today, in an era when unity, materiality and any sense of certainty in our real lives is slipping away. At the same time, for now any prospect of rekindling our relationship with the material, and in turn a sense of hope, is most naturally found through the medium of our screens.