Rye Lathe 

Oli Pratt


Technological evolution and the sequence of human externalisations it involves has, for the most part, facilitated a progressively effective and altogether more comfortable engagement between ourselves and the material world.

However, although more pertinent now than ever, certain principles essential to this evolution have been removed over time and remain evermore exclusive to antiquity. Among these, are localisation, authenticity, haptic-feedback and self-sufficiency – all of which are associated more with elemental, or ‘low’ technologies.

This project has transcended tool evolution gradually in reverse, serving as an iterative mechanism to re-establish a more conscious relationship between ourselves, our tools, and the environment, albeit a very different one, with regards to these principles.

To do this, I made a pole lathe, an ancient woodturning technology and probably one of the oldest of the developed machine tools, entirely out of a new set of raw, urban materials found discarded on Rye Lane, Peckham.

It took ten days to build in isolation, but four months to develop through a systematic de-technologizing of machinery, from the interface of buttons and keys to the ductus of the hand, as a process of authenticity, self-sufficiency and extreme relocalisation:

Cybernetic and industrial machine tools (not made by me, composed of foreign materials) were used to make hand tools (made entirely by me, from mostly local materials), which were then used to make a manual machine (made entirely by me, from completely local materials).

Throughout this process:

Technology, or tools, made and used became less ‘advanced’.

Materials used to make tools became increasingly localised to Rye Lane, Peckham, where they were found.

Tools became more authentic, in the sense that they were increasingly self-made.

Rational and reflexive thought was developed with the greater haptic feedback that increasingly low-tech tools involved in their use.

Self-sufficiency increased with the greater quantity of these tools that were acquired.

Video documentation could be accessed in lockdown through alongside details of these conceptual drivers. This also included an independent forum, Rye Lathe Community, to facilitate discussion.

To then operate this machine, was to perform a re-evaluated and recontextualised ‘heritage craft’ known as ‘bodging’ in, and for, a new and vastly different moment, encountered by the community local to where the materials of the lathe were gathered.

This performance was a mechanism for discussion, which embodied a localised, socio-political initiative to re-familiarise with what is available locally, to find creativity within the confines of our limitations, and to liberate technology in the service of our independence by having tools to work with, as opposed to tools that work for us.

Although originally a by-product of this performance, the turned pallet wood was then used to make bats for a new lockdown-induced back yard-scale game. These were a homage to the cricket bat which, in recognition to Peckham’s manufacturing heritage, was what Bussey building was most notably known for producing in the early 20th century – only 100 yards from where Rye Lathe was operated.