Bricoleur or engineer ?

In his ‘How I failed‘ article, O’Reilly lists some of the areas where he could have improved his work as an entrepreneur. The last failure that O’Reilly catalogues (#6: I’ll Take Care of That) was that he did not proactively hire people in pursuit of new business.

“… the existing team tries new things, and hires only after it’s clear that there’s really an opportunity there. It’s great when your management team leads from the front. But overall, we took it too far, and didn’t build a strong enough culture of deliberate hiring to go after new opportunities.” (‘How I failed‘, LinkedIn, accessed 2013-09-25)

He compares that situation with Levi-Strauss’ distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer. This really struck a chord with me, in a way that resonates with both my work life and my photography. Wikipedia describes the difference nicely.

“…the Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting pre-existing things together in new ways, adapting his project to a finite stock of materials and tools. The Engineer deals with projects in their entirety, conceiving and procuring all the necessary materials and tools to suit his project.” (Wikipedia, Claude Lévi-Strauss, 2.3.1 The Savage Mind: Bricoleur and Engineer, accessed 2013-09-26).

Untitled O’Reilly identifies with the bricoleur, and “aspire[s] to be more of an engineer”. Me too. I’ve always preferred working with what was at hand rather than planning out and sourcing entire projects. For instance, I’d work through many dozens of uni essays by collating sources and discussion points into some sort of order, making sure not to miss anything. Also with web development; I’d pick up and repurpose snippets from the web rather than write from first principles. I picked up a great deal that way, as I know many others have as well. Of course, as you gain experience you learn what’s required for different types of jobs, but as a default behaviour I’m certainly more of a bricoleur. If I was being unkind to myself, I called that being lazy and unimaginative. At other times, I thought of it as efficient and pragmatic.

Until recently, my approach to photography had been similar. I had a strong preference for capturing existing situations, as with candid street photography or urban exploration. That’s been changing during my time at COFA, particularly during the studio lighting courses I’ve done this year. Exposure to artists like Jeff Wall and Rosemary Laing, who meticulously plan and construct their works, has shown me that candid isn’t always best. The creative process taught at COFA too, emphasises weighing up the right approach for the intended outcome ; a balancing act that’s more like engineering than bricolage.

So in both my day job and (nascent) art practice, I’m finding that tempering the bricoleur approach isn’t easy, but is expanding my options.

This is one of the advantages of a ‘dual boot’ lifestyle; both areas sometimes inform each other, and it’s possible to develop both areas simultaneously.

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Posted on September 26, 2013

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