Edited conversation based on the panel discussion at the 2007 College Art Association open session on ceramics, ‘Five Emerging Artists Survey the Field’. The discussion took place in New York city on Friday February 16 2007, and was conducted and edited by Dr. Mary Drach McInnes, of the School of Art and Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.
McI: I would like to ask the big survey question. Where, for you, does the field of ceramics lie in relationship to the art world in the 21st century? In a sense what I’m asking is, what’s the identity now?
LS: Multiple identities. It kind of shuffles along, it lurches. There is a lot of space that is created when you move in clumsy ways. Interesting things happen. It makes space for things to happen that aren’t predictable and aren’t circumscribed. There’s not even a clear trajectory. I think the field is really open in that way but it’s also slow and disjointed. There’s so much disjointedness. Even in our discussion this morning, and we’re pretty close thinkers actually, there are huge gaps that are hard to address in this time frame. One of the things I find interesting is that we all think pottery can fit into the contemporary art dialogue. So, right there, what kind of animal is that? Can collaborative, community-based work fit into the contemporary dialogue? Can it really? The kind of criteria that is emerging is shifting, and changing, and unstable.
McI: I liked what Sanam said earlier about the field being so broad that there is a state of confusion but also freedom. The sense of possibility that currently exists is evident.
SE: I think it’s interesting the way people introduce themselves and how they talk about their work. Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I say, ‘I’m an artist’. Sometimes I say, ‘I’m a potter’. I think we identify ourselves in different categories at different moments. This happens on an artistic level and on a cultural level. I’m not sure that everyone in ceramics wants to be part of the art world. I’m not sure that everyone working with clay wants to be a ceramic artist. I’m really interested in the way that Mike introduced his thinking in his presentation.
This question of where ceramics lies and how do we fit in relation to it is similar to what I was saying in my talk. The more I thought about it, it was almost like this gap that happens when you try to understand a culture outside of your own. It [the field] is so vast and full of idiosyncrasies. Everyone has his or her own take on it. I’m not suggesting that we don’t try to understand it, but simply that your background and education may affect your point of view. And there are other factors, such as our individual experiences and what we want from the field. We want to be in different places. I may choose to position myself in a certain place because it’s interesting to me; other ceramic artists may not want anything to do with that place.
MM: I was going to say that this question sets up a polarity where somehow ceramics is put in opposition to the art world, or the art world is put in opposition to the goals and aspirations of what ceramists want. I think one of things about the conversation today is that a lot of us are thinking that maybe that Cartesian way of thinking – that duality – doesn’t necessarily have as much weight as it once did. Maybe posing questions in that way confuses that matter, or distills things down. It loses all the local flavor and grit that ceramics interesting. It’s such a fabulous disjointed world. On one hand, you have artists like Kathy Butterly or Ken Price who live within the art world and their work has been completely assimilated into the art world proper. Their work is shown in all the major galleries and exhibitions such as the Carnegie International. They make traditional ceramic objects in a very traditional way. In the same breath you have someone like Rebecca Warren, who is just throwing clay on casters, who is also assimilated into the contemporary art world proper. Then you have other artists who are doing something similar things, but have been relegated to the ceramics realm. Right now there is an artist, Mark Manders (Anders’ work completely overlaps with his), whose work lives within the contemporary art construct, although he says he’s a craftsperson. It depends on what community or group you position yourself in that has something to do with it.
So there is something really disjointed about it. Maybe it has something to do with style or fashion. There could be one small thing that makes particular work very fashionable so that it can live within the contemporary art world.
McI: I agree with what you are saying. And yet, for people in the art world, there has been a traditional hierarchy in terms of fine arts versus ceramics and other craft-based practices. There has been a separation, perhaps less so in parts of Europe, but certainly in North America this still holds true. I think one reflection that it is still alive is the lack of critical material that supports the practices you are all involved in. Michael, in part of your discussion today you talked about that gap between practice and the critical discourse. That’s interesting to me; I think the perspectives of this group may still be a minority opinion.
SE: That raises another question. Which is, do you want specialists simply talking about a special field? Our conversation about who is seeing your work and what community you are in is also connected to who is writing about it. What sets up this notion that there would be separate historians or critical theorists for one type of work and then a different one for other types of work? What sets up this separation? Is it the artist’s point of view, or is it the overarching critical theory that is being written? Is it the willingness for somebody to talk about a Mark Manders or a Kathy Butterly? With a very different kind of language they may also be talking about Tim Hawkinson. What’s interesting to me is the notion that the field of ceramics has people who want to write and talk about it . . . people who are not practitioners. While I think it’s important for artists to speak about their work, at a certain point if you’re the one creating the theories, what are you perpetuating? I’m not passing judgment here; it is more of an inquiry. I’m thinking about who is interested in our field and what that reflects.
AR: I would like to say something about what’s going on in Europe. There is a different thing going on right now [versus the United States] where there is actually a lot of traditional art historians who are now specializing in the field of craft, if we can call it that. In a much broader context, we are trying to write about a familiar concept . . . what craft is and what craft should be.
McI: Do you have names of some people that you have found particularly engaging?
AR: Yes, there is one Danish art historian, Louise Mazanti, who just finished her Ph.D. Her dissertation is only available in Danish right now. She’s working together with Kanute Abel, from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Trondheim. Together, they are writing a book on this area where Louise is on the side of conceptual craft and he is more on the side of material side of craft. They are part of a larger group called ‘Think Tank 04’ which is a think-tank specializing in contemporary craft and applied arts. Altogether, there are about ten people trying to write about new areas as well. They come from many different areas. It’s an interesting discussion group and they also curate a few shows that go along with the whole endeavor. So there is a lot of critical discourse going on in Europe right now.
McI: Sanam, who do you bring into your discussions? Whose work do you look at for your own studio practice, what are the books next to your bedside?
SE: To add to what Anders was saying, I think there are particular people who are pushing and developing and celebrating a word like ‘craft’ in critical discourse and theory. Often people come from Europe and they don’t use the word ‘craft.’ they use the word ‘design’, which I find really exciting. It’s interesting how we name things and maybe those things are about art, design, and craft. I’m really excited to hear you using the word because it seems to be disappearing in a lot of places.
AR: Yes, exactly.
SE: I think there is a particular type of discourse within a craft genre or a studio pottery genre. I also think it takes a particular kind of historian or person to go in there and dig that stuff up. I try to give my students some of that, but I also try to give them things that are really outside of that. I am interested in how they can connect those two things. I don’t want to suggest that we don’t need a craft discourse; I think that is fundamentally important. But if you are going to present that piece, what I like to see is a dialogue the students to mediate. I do not want to simply tell students, ‘This is the work you do, and here is your discourse’. I think students really benefit from the discourse about craft, about making, about studio philosophies that are particular to ceramics. But they are getting inundated with all kinds of other stuff and I think it’s important for them to be able to step out of the craft discourse and connect up with other things.
AR: In terms of developing my own work, I took toward sociology and the area of material culture. For the last five years that has been my focus, although that seems to be changing now.
McI: And Linda, what about you?
LS: I’ve honestly been deeply dissatisfied with a lot of the reading I’ve done in ceramics. Just listening to the discussion today and the presentations this morning, I think here is a group of people that I’m willing to listen to. What’s been really satisfying in the past few years has been listening to artists talk about their work. I think there is a time lapse of people who are starting to find their voices in the spoken word that haven’t been published yet. I think we’re on the verge of a lot of things starting to get published. There is a new body of practitioners who are writing about their work.
JB: I agree with that. There are a limited number of writers. I do see things I question that are based on their relationships with other writers. I think there are some good young writers. I met a young writer from Brooklyn, Elizabeth Riechert, who I think she is writing some challenging articles that are getting published. She has an article coming out in Ceramics Art and Perception that is not the typical essay seen in that magazine. I think it’s going to be interesting and challenging. I’m curious to see what the response is going to be to it. I still love the old Robert Hughes’s essays in terms of the slow art and instilling discipline; and I’m a big fan of Ricky Swallow’s work, the Australian sculptor. I apply their work to my classes.
McI: Michael what about you? You’re the one who brought up the issue of that gap between contemporary practices and the critical discourse.
MM: I think that situation is endemic of any discourse. If we were a group of painters we would say there is no one who can write about painting.
McI: Do you really think that’s true? I take issue with that; I think there are a lot of people writing about painting.
MM: Yes, we talk about that in sculpture classes all the time. We sit around using almost the same language only we supplant the term ‘sculpture’ for ‘ceramics’. Painting’s different in a way because all our critical language is borrowed from painting. So there are all these enormous gaps that occur. We have a bunch of people scrambling around, trying to make sense of what they do, refracted through this other language that’s a little more sophisticated.
One person that I look at or return to is George Kubler who wrote The Shape of Time. That book is timeless; it is pretty outrageous. Some more contemporary writers would be someone like Manuel De Landa who wrote A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, which I think provides a foundation for the way a lot people are thinking about ideas and racing through various directions in a continuum. He is a very important author to read for thinking about complexity.
If I were teaching ceramics I would be very, very careful to try to be as accurate as possible with the type of reading I gave them. I would never give them a romantic reading. I would hesitate to give them any Leach text. Inversely, when I teach in sculpture or extended media, I give my students Yanagi to read because that’s how they might approach the unknown craftsmen when they’re trying to swallow fifty-five gallons of ketchup. It is a great question and maybe our answers speak to some of the field’s problems.
LS: I think something exciting happens when we go naturally as makers to sources that are not in our fields. I’ve been reading architecture too, especially writings on Zaha Hadid. And there is a kind of chemistry that happens when things are not related in obvious ways. When I seek out readings for students, I first ask them to name three areas of research that they are really curious about but have never had the chance to read. Then we generate readings from that, and they start to criss-cross fields of research and bring hybrid information into their understanding and exploration of the studio.
McI: All of you are recently received your MFAs and are currently teaching. Do you see any differences between your education and that of your students?
JB: In my brief time of teaching, I have seen a different set of demands from the students. I came up through a very rigid, academic education. I made pots for my entire undergraduate career. I was very into that type of process and to some extent a lot of students now aren’t interested in putting up with that type of discipline. The type of discipline, let’s say that allows Sanam to put a pot on a level where it can be critiqued in the same dialog with contemporary art. A lot of students aren’t interested in the discipline to learn skill and a lot of schools aren’t actually conducive that type of kind of education.
At my university, I have had trouble. (Again, I haven’t been there very long and I am continuing to develop a curriculum.) I’ve had a hard time developing the same level of rigor in a specific medium. It has been hard in terms of defining a learning level within a discipline, where students can easily run and grab, and do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which is good in many cases. My point is, that if you learn to be really good in one media, you are quickly going to learn what a quality object is or a high sense of materiality that you can then apply to another medium--wood, plastic, whatever--and other forms. So, it’s been a challenge to me.
MM: In the relation to what John was saying, there is something pretty interesting about the gap that occurs between what we received as students not too long ago and what our students are receiving. If you walk into any ceramics department in the country, you will see: machines that spin things, tables with canvas on top of them, machines on the wall that you put clay into and when you squeeze it and something comes out the other end. And then there are these boxes that get really, really hot. Any department has these tools and this is how we interrogate the material; it becomes refracted through this equipment. Often, these tools don’t have any meaning outside of the fact that they just happen to be in the building, they’re simply part of the physical plant. So for us, and maybe I’m speaking more specifically to my own practice, I felt like I needed to reconsider what these things that were in the building. How could I use them and how could I disregard them if I needed to. So for me, there’s a give and take. Certain things seem very interesting and certain things seem like I could lose them. And so there’s more plasticity and flexibility with how many contemporary ceramic artists are kind of thinking through the material or thinking about the material.
LS: One of the things that interests me about our generation has been how we are moving things or how the generation has been moving us. There seems to be a heightened appetite for many different kinds of languages, different sounds and cadences. When you [Michael] talk about the tools, hot boxes and the thing that you press and the stuff squeezes out it leads me to think about what I have been curious about recently. I’ve been playing with the most elementary level of video editing. And the craft of that, and all its tools with their strange, idiosyncratic buttons, and how it feels to pull that arrow across the bar, click it, and cut it. You know, that stuff to me is language. The appetite for that language is there. And the students coming through our programs bring in contemporary language, the hip, the musical, the culinary experiences that they’ve had. The kind of diverse experiences they bring to the table into a classroom is not something new. But the speed of it is. The speed at which I’ll be talking—maybe about Japan and a so-called Japanese aesthetic, and a certain kind of ceramic, and then my students start talking about malls in Tokyo, and a particular mall that several of them have shopped at --is new. There is a whole different level and speed of moving from place-to-place and gathering thing–to-thing that I feel is new to the classroom.
SE: I would like to add to that. How does one absorb information and take it in is quite exciting and liberating. Maybe twenty years ago, the thought that you might be talking about Japan and one of your students might have actually been there was much more unusual than it is now. So globalization is happening. But the speed some things are coming at us is at an accelerated pace. There is a positive side to this, but I also think it can be challenging to maintain a diversity of learning practices. Sometimes it’s wonderful to learn quickly and sometimes it’s really interesting to slow down and to observe something within a given practice. If one can understand something, delve into it, understand it, you start to get complexity and multiplicity in another kind of way. Studying one thing doesn’t define it as a single thing. I think through that kind of inquiry, multiple possibilities open up. There is a certain level at which you can then address something new, because you know the other piece already.
McI: Do you feel that the interest in technical virtuosity within the practice of ceramics has been pushed off center by a broader definition of the field? Do you feel it’s not as central in our discourse anymore?
AR: I think it’s a very important thing to have that interest still. I think now we need to merge a more conceptual notion of ceramics with a very technical notion of ceramics. Some of the skill has gone out of the discipline over in the past twenty years. I think this is a huge problem in the sense of we have all these ceramic departments, but a lot of the students coming out don’t really have the kind of skills to deal with the material in an intelligent way. And so, how do we merge these two things? I’m into craft and I really feel strongly about the field. I think its one of the most important issues to be dealt with. So, how do we relate to craft on both a conceptual level and also at a practical level? This is both really important and really difficult. At the undergraduate level, I think we especially need to sit the students down and have them do things that are tiresome, boring, and repetitive. And this is really annoying when you have all these interesting ideas going on at the same time. But if they can’t speak through their hands it is a problem, I think.
LS: Wow, ‘tiresome’ and ‘boring’ . . . that was bait right there. (Laughter.) Part of the thing about appetite is that there’s something about repetition that may present itself initially as boring, but when approached as a conceptual force--if the craft process can be broken up into these really potent modes of language--then repetition takes on a different potency. When you feel yourself going into that boredom or that zoned-out mode, that zone can be described in ways that are really quite relevant to a one’s personal experience. I think these things are in our lives in the ways we approach any medium. Conventionally, as a community we might present such a seemingly clear, predictable, step-by-step way of approaching hand building for example -- coiling a pot, slipping and scoring a slab… These technical conventions might open up a kind of perversity, a kind of fetishization of the material and how we move it. Its ritualistic and odd in a way that I think holds quite a charge right now. There are not a lot of fields in which people are so invested in say, a three-day conference on porcelain. Do we ever hear of a three-day conference on video tape? You know, that could be really interesting and perverse. What if we took these seemingly limiting or tiresome things within our field and turn them inside out to see what kind of what kind of transgression can happen within that space. I think there’s a lot of potential in these sites.
MM: I also want to say, I think there are a couple ways to approach technique and virtuosity. One is technique for technique’s sake and the other is when you actually take three steps back from technique and you think of it as a sign. It starts to become a signifier for something else. And then, one is choosing to make a pot with a wheel or choosing hand-building techniques, or choosing to make a sculpture that’s fired or un-fired. And all of those decisions become signs that then feedback onto meaning. In the field, those are decisions at this point: we can decide to fire whether something or not; or decide to mix-or-match with this technique or that technique; or to use this skill or that skill. At some point these ideas become how we understand what we make. It’s no longer just about being able to physically make something. How you make that thing becomes the meaning of the thing. We are talking about complexity.
McI: That leads me to the content of your talk Anders. When you spoke about the “thing-ness” of objects, of using objects that have a particular history, of playing with our expectations, of mediating between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Do you feel that contemporary ceramics practices are critiquing the commodity in a new way or with a different inflection perhaps than what’s gone on before?
AR: It’s really hard to say anything broad about what’s going on in the field. At least in terms of my own work, it is not a critique that I’m looking for. I’m just looking for a place where we can just deal with objects without thinking about kind of the whole context that goes with it. All of us here are members of Western society, where we are all consumers and we are highly embedded in this whole society. It’s about how can we just talk about these things in a kind of straightforward manner. My work is more about having a site where objects perhaps start having a life outside of what can be perceived within a large kind of grid-work of consumerability.
LS: Even in the moment I open the bag and the clay starts to dry, starts to transform in some way, I am complicit in this movement of objects through the commodity system.
SE: I don’t think the commodity is important for me. It’s there, but it’s kind of buried. I do sometimes think of it as a gift. I don’t necessarily think that one has to critique that commodity, because I think in many ways we make work to feed ourselves. But we also make work because it has the potential to go out in the world and be seen or touched by somebody. And so this notion of commodity and its critique is really important; this notion of excess and waste, and this idea of things being ‘out of reach’.
McI: This idea of bringing together disparate areas is something I’ve also been thinking a lot about. In fact, one of the questions I have for you comes out of my recent readings that pairs up ideas that normally aren’t discussed together. One of these pairings is the issue of materiality and politics. We often speak about the materiality of clay as this kind of it’s own entity that doesn’t exist in a larger arena like politics. It’s interesting to think about materiality as perhaps having some kind of political impact.
MM: In a way I think there is something interesting in the notion of politics and design. You go back to the Bauhaus ideas of design and materiality. There was a huge political agenda there; there was something utopian about that strategy. For us, I think maybe we’re more suspicious about words like “utopia” that are so loaded that we have to understand them on different terms. I think there is an enormous potential for design and materiality in relation to how it might interface with politics. At this point, simply by choosing to make something out of clay and all the processes that are tied to it, one could easily make a really tight argument for the politics behind that. Working in ceramics is a political act at this point.
McI: That raises the issue of the relationship between ceramics and globalization. There’s starting to be a broad conversation about this issue in the art world. In terms of ceramics, how does it actively participate in globalization? How does it relate in terms of bringing together different languages, in terms of marketing, in terms of resistance or surrender in parts of the world that have a particular cultural identity that’s carried forth in ceramics?
SE: I think about that issue a lot. James Trilling talks about the way we have lost something in Western culture with Modernism. I think one of things we’ve lost is the ability to make and to critique ornament, because Modernism attempted to “wipe the slate clean,” that is, destroying certain types of practices and expression. Something has been severed in our tradition of making and also in the way talk about art. If you go to other parts of the world where there has been the backlash against Modernism and its fight against ornaments and excess, the whole concept of form versus function, plays out differently. I think the whole idea now is that of a continuum in non-Western cultures and in Western culture there is a resurgence of looking backwards, of a longing or nostalgia for the past.
I think this is a different question depending on how and where you locate yourself. We talked earlier about the inevitability of being part of the commodity culture in Capitalism. I think we can’t separate ourselves from the larger system; in some small way artists consider questions of empowerment and identity by stepping back and observing. That’s what we do: we observe our culture, we look at it, and we question it. Then we go back in the studio and then, perhaps, make a statement on it. I think this is a really interesting question within a Western context. But within a non-Western context there are similar questions but I’m amazed by how they occupy a different place in that continuum. I’m speaking from having gone back to Iran three times in the last two years and am responding to their notion of what identity is, and what ‘now’ is, and what Modernism is.
MM: I am going to try to about globalization through a different lens. One of the things I am thinking about at this point is the concept of sampling. In a global culture, how does sampling exist within studio practice? (I am thinking about my own work and everyone else’s images we saw today.) At this point, I want to go back to British-inspired Modernism and sample that. I want to use that as a way to think about the work. One can go to Art Nouveau and bridge that with some kind of Islamic design. One can look at 1980s boom-box aesthetic. In a way, sampling has just exploded--it’s what we have access to. One way to think about globalization is a smoothing out of cultures, but if you want think of it in terms of sampling, it doesn’t become a smoothing out, but an overlaying of patterns and textures. The equation becomes infinitely more complex and not at all smooth. As a reductive strategy, I think globalization becomes marginal. Yet another way we can think about the concept of globalization is sampling and it’s rich impact on ceramics.
LS: It’s interesting to listen to the language about sampling. It’s about not editing not resisting, but implies a kind of acceptance. There’s something about that passive stance, about the choice to encounter and deal with the fall-out of globalization. As samples, these things come to us, little snippets of things coming from different places, at different times, with different values, with different energies of ambition and greed and opportunism. Just letting that wash over us is moving through our practice in ways that we aren’t really orchestrating. Passivity is kind of openness and receptiveness. The debris of the world is acting on us in our practices instead of the other way around.
McI: The discussion about globalization can be applied to that earlier question I asked about looking at field. What I hear are different languages, the idea of sampling, and how the nature of studio practice has changed. Studio practice today is quite different than the Leachian standard that he put forward in 1940. We’re having collaborative efforts, bringing in all different kinds of people; we’re videotaping, adding and destroying work. It’s quite different.
SE: Leach has come up a couple of times in our discussion. I think in some ways when we lost the Leachian model, we lost the ideal. We are skeptical when we hear words like ‘utopia’ or ‘ideal’ or ‘true’. We’ve grown up with a worldview that questions things. I want to say I question someone like Bernard Leach a lot. I question his legacy, his patriarchal model, and his chapter title ‘Towards a Standard’. But I teach it and I think it’s important to teach. These students are not the same students who would have read it in the 40’s or 50’s; they are smarter and savvier; they see through a lot of things. But I also teach Leach because we can’t escape him--as much as I would like to erase or delete him. He’s part of what shaped our history. So I don’t edit him out, I teach him. Often directly after giving a reading by Leach, I will teach someone who has written a revisionist history of him. I want to give my students that information. As much as I will critique something, I want to give my students the opportunity to read a primary source.
McI: So they’re not looking for a standard?
SE: I don’t think they’re willing to give themselves over to it in the same way as in the past. I think that certain ideas within the field, for most of us, have been demystified.
McI: The language that’s been used here to talk about what happens in your practices is quite different than conventional vocabulary. Perhaps there is a redefinition of what a ceramic artist is. Traditionally, a ceramic artist is someone who works with clay, that’s it. I’m interested in how that definition is being modified or expanded. Again, looking at the work of contemporary architects, they’re redefining their roles as managers of information or designers of websites or policy makers within a global economy. Do you think the term ‘ceramic artist’ has changed?
JB: One of the interesting phrases I’ve heard lately is ‘positioning yourself’. A lot of that comes from decisions, of how you see yourself, of where you want to conceptualize your work, etc. I do consider myself a ceramic artist. Part of that, in my mind, is an allegiance to the notion of craft and a type of hand skill. That said, I feel that my work is dependant on a slightly wider contextual umbrella. In my mind, the field of ceramics gives a kind of stable point in which to give some kind of variance to my work.
LS: Seeking that environmental tension is something we all do in different ways. It defines that category of making you were talking about; that feeling of being restricted or contained by something and the wildness that can happen within that. But there’s no tension, there’s no charge to push off, there’s nothing to transgress. I think that’s another reason why there’s something hot about that. We are somewhat bound by the old dialog and there’s this kind of confused, restrictive way of approaching our field.
McI: But you’ve shattered that in your work, didn’t you?
LS: But my work is super old school, too. In building my work, much of the risk asserts itself in how my collaborators transform the materials. This perhaps parallels the kind of rush that I get out of sticking something in a kiln and watching it change -- melting and vitrifying in unexpected ways. The anticipation and tensions that arise through installing work with collaborators and through the process of kiln firing feel very similar to me. In these recent projects, people didn’t know what the material was going to do, I didn’t know what the people were going to do, and it just became this open-ended, unpredictable, conversational thing.
McI: Do you see that your role as an artist is somehow different than fifty years ago? You wouldn’t describe yourself as an object maker, would you?
LS: Yes, I would, actually . . . as well as some other things. There were moments in the taping of the video where Leroy (one of the participants) would pull back from smashing a particular object I’d made. He would notice something about the object – for instance, a bowl containing wet slip – and suddenly decide he shouldn’t or wouldn’t destroy it. There was hesitation around changing some of that material – maybe some sense of the aura of an object was invoking respect. It’s a construct that’s in our heads, but it was palpable in the room. In that way, I’m very much an object maker. The invitation to diverse participants --from collectors to university faculty, from students to children, from clowns to performance artists--to me that’s become a very live approach to object-making.
McI: So, for you, being a ceramic artist today may occupy a slightly different terrain but the definition is the same.
LS: I don’t know what the essence is of being a ceramic artist.
McI: Most of you are managing a website; that practice is quite recent. Are you articulating your practice in a different way?
SE: This question goes back to my hesitation about defining myself or defining the field, or simply demarcating where we are. As a maker, you’re obviously thinking about those things, but to state it is something quite different. I’m very careful about the notion that we’re traversing new territories. This is happening to some extent, but you have to look at what happened yesterday or five years ago, that has allowed these things to open up. When you talk about the separation between ceramics and the rest of the art world, I’m not so sure I necessarily see it as a separation so much as a continuum that’s delayed.
MM: It seems to me that a ceramic artist is someone who has a specific set of concerns that have to do with ceramics and their work. There can be someone who uses ceramics in their work, but they are a sculptor. They could care less about ceramics. There’s a certain kind of currency to call you a ‘sculptor’ instead of ‘ceramic artist’ in the market, or if I called myself a ‘designer’, a ‘potter’. These words have a certain kind of currency tethered to them. It’s pretty important how we select and choose what umbrella term we fall under; that’s how a discourse around our work gets developed. Imagine a place you were to say you are a sculptor. The work you are making in ceramics would be consumed and colonized a little differently within the art world. Yet, I don’t know that any of the concerns that someone has in their practice has anything to do with speaking to a conceptual agenda about ceramics.
AR: Perhaps there is a construct to be found that is meant to organize our minds but is not addressing the full scope of our practice. You may need to put your practice into two different categories, one in which there are two material languages in you work—one might be more sculptural and one might be more ceramic art. It’s a frustrating situation.
LS: Or it’s an opportunity. I think we call ourselves something in specific contexts so that we can talk to certain people more freely. One day I might be a singer or one day I might be delinquent, or a slacker, or a storyteller, a shopper . . .
MM: . . . a mother, a daughter . . .
LS: . . . a borrower, or a thief. On a good day, a thief. (Laughter.)
SE: There’s a need or a drive for categories. I think we need it as a species as sort of survival. And I think it feeds and empowers us.
When I look at work outside of my focus, I’m interested in the similarities. Not in the way the work looks, but in the practice, which is the main thing. And in the languages we have. One of the things that’s interesting about us sitting here and having this conversation is that our work looks very different and whether we want to call it ‘ceramics’ or something else, we have found a way to talk about it. We’re talking about the things that link us together. That’s an interesting thing about what the umbrella of ceramics has done as a broader field. I’m not so sure that we all wouldn’t benefit from this experience. We’re trying to look at something and see not its surface, but some other, underlying aspect of it. In some ways that effort seems so counter to contemporary culture and the way people identify themselves and categorize things. (Maybe I’ve learned how to do this more as a potter in academia because often I’m expected or interested in talking about all kinds of art-making practices. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily translate to somebody outside my practice being interested in talking to me.) I find there’s potential in conversing with artists who have different practices. We have a common language. That doesn’t mean we make the same kind of work. It doesn’t even mean we have the same agenda. It simply means we want to have a conversation.
LS: That’s where the fertility surges into the whole thing. People are talking to people who have very different backgrounds, and different ways of making. I’m about to start team-teaching with the architecture department. We’ll be teaching a class called ‘Wet Space/Digital Space’. It came out of a critique in architecture where I was speaking about how very different our approaches – our brainstorming and design processes are in the ‘wet space of ceramics’. This semester, my ceramic students and the architecture students will work collaboratively in community engaged projects. The architecture students will work ‘work wet’ together with my students using clay and other materials throughout a design charette. My ceramic students will work with the architecture students as they use digital design and fabrication software . . . not to learn the craft of it, but to start working muscles and begin thinking in new ways. Through this kind of dialogue, tension and connection, you can’t help but emerge very different from that experience. There is no way that people who are coming into contact with each other will ever be the same. Whatever we call each other. The chemistry that occurs will be potent and unpredictable.
|Edited Conversation Issue 9|