Thursday, May 19, 2016

Conjure Materials / Materialize Goblins

My main influence for my art practice goes back to Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, in particular the chapter Material Consciousness. Sennett states that we are interested in and become engaged with material when we see it change. When it is in the moment of change.

Sennett states material change happens in three distinct ways.

“…Metamorphosis, presence, and anthropomorphosis. Metamorphosis can be as direct as a change in procedure, as when potters switch from molding clay on a fixed platter to building it up on a rotating wheel; potters who do both will be conscious of the difference in technique. Presence can be registered simply by leaving a maker’s mark, such as a brickmaker’s stamp. Anthropomorphosis occurs when we impute human qualities to a raw material; supposedly primitive cultures imagine that spirits dwell in a tree, and so in a spear cut from its wood; sophisticates personalize materials when using words like modest or sympathetic to describe finishing details on a cabinet. “

Beyond the French scientific philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s definition of the material world being categorized as either soft or hard in Earth and the Reveries of Will, I believe the very notion of material is also going through a change as our virtual technologies continue to develop.

Virtual technologies rely on our memories of soft or hard physical materials in order for us to comprehend our increasingly virtualized experiences, but go well beyond those initial interactions based on touch. During moments of interaction within these immersive virtual worlds we are thinking differently due to the virtual qualities of these virtual materials. Due to which, as Nicholas G. Carr states in The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, there is a shift in our thinking because our world is different than the one we previously only knew. Our world is no longer strictly physical.

We coexist between both worlds now, almost seemingly and at a moment’s thought. I’m on my bus commute and I am running a campaign on a MMORPG at the same time. My back and shoulders are aching as I am creating massive and immersive 3D cityscapes. Virtual technologies allow our minds and our bodies to separate in very extreme ways, by simulating physical knowledge to the point of near indifference.

In my art practice, this concerns me. I am curious to know what is being lost in this transition from a purely physically constructed mind to that of virtually produced one. What do people think of traditional building materials today? Do people have the same knowledge of physical materials as they used to? To what extent do they know how the world used to work? My biggest concern is what type of people are we turning into due to this shift in the qualities of material and material knowledge.

In the past if we did not understand how something worked or more specifically if we could not comprehend how something wasn’t working, we created myths and mythological creatures to explain the incongruities. We conjured mythological creatures as manifestations of our own ignorance. They were scapegoats, things to point at and blame for our misinformed minds.

Are we creatures of destruction now? If we are growing more reliable on a virtualized reasoning of things and processes, are we the goblins of our once handcrafted world? By allowing for more virtualized experiences to be part of our lives, are we consequently also allowing for the deconstruction of our physical material knowledge?

In my ceramic-based art practice, I am attempting to show this loss of material knowledge as well as suggest that we are changing. My work attempts to capture a moment of my struggle to comprehend a change in material consciousness. They are often violent or somber moments of frustration and acquiescence. Some works have haunting and ominous presences. Some are mere wardens or barriers, structures suggesting that we have reached a limit in our physical comprehension. What gives me hope in my practice is the process, the labor behind the end product. The act of making keeps me engaged; it is a rebellious act against purely virtual reasoning and thinking. It allows for mistakes and irregularities to be part of the piece, which I value as being more human. I'm not striving for perfection, but instead, an honest record of my interaction with clay and glaze and charcoal and paper.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Letter of Love and Safety

Dear D______,

That's all good news to hear. I'm glad you are teaching, I think you need to. Congrats on setting a wedding date! I'm happy for the both of you. Planning can be a lot of work, take your time with it, it's your day, do what you guys want to do. Send me an e-vite, I'll see if I can swing it.

Things are well, again. I went back home to Michigan for the winter break and it was good to be with family and familiar surroundings. It put my mind at ease, I felt comfortable, safe and loved, which, I must say I have needed for some time. Coming back to West Philly after the holiday hiatus has helped me to accept the city for what it is. Although I find it very depressing and filled with destruction, paranoia and anger, I no longer have expectations that it will change, furthermore I no longer question why it doesn't change or who to blame for it's appearances and failures. It just is what it is. A dump. I hope to move to a better neighborhood in July when my lease is up. 

This past year and a half I've been in shock, taking in new information, a new culture, new architectural stories, trying to understand a different people, I forgot who I was, attempting acceptance. That, and this divorce, well it's been a very hard year and a half.  That, by the way, has been long, emotional and arduous, yet has been progressing as compassionately and congruent as possible between us. We have not seen each other since the day it happened, A______ lives and has started a new life back in her hometown in Michigan. Of all of it, I miss my friend the most. In a few more months it will all be over. Again, the new year has proven to feel more settled. I feel calmer and more myself again. Weird and moody. 

The new job at The University of the Arts is going better the second semester. It too, feels more familiar as I have found my place here. The professors and students both fear and respect me! Har! Just kidding, every one is very nice and they have all remarked on my attention given to organization and cleanliness, which in the field of ceramics means safety. That's the crux of my position, that and ordering and selling supplies. 

The Clay Studio is going well too, now that I'm an official resident. Before that I was just subletting and some folks were throwing some shade my way. They have left now and with this new batch of residents the playing field has been leveled. I feel very comfortable there and very supported. Hence larger goblins. At the school, I have access to 50 inch tall kilns, so they may grow to a very large size soon! 

The past six months of my life have been turbulent. On the surface, I've been awarded many things that I have wanted for a very long time, a decent job in my field, a respected residency, but I have considered at what cost? I have been separated from things I had previously took for granted, by both my own choice and by being victim to stranger's intentions - when I was mugged at gun point a few months ago a block from my apartment. Love and safety, things I thought were just standards in life, things that every one had or deserved in life are now gone, in the very least their definitions have changed in my mind. I'm not sure how to think of those things anymore and I feel like I lost some part of what I knew of humanity, of myself and my understanding of people. It has been an odd moment in my life, like I said, only in the past few weeks have I started to feel like those things are coming back in a familiar way again, in hopeful and reliable ways. 

It makes for some ugly twisted thoughts. I am very grateful to have my job and studio, without them I'm not sure I would be here or where I would be. It's odd to me that the city that I attribute to so giving me so much pain is also the same city that has provided so much support. Philadelphia. 

Thanks for asking how I'm doing. It was good to write this out in a letter form. Art isn't enough some times.

You still at the same address?


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ceramics in a Post-Internet State of Mind

Now what? WTF am I even supposed to do with this stuff these days; does any thing actually matter any more?  Sure, probably more so than ever!  Get it?  Things? Matter? Anyways...

I’ve been asking myself for a long time why I constantly feel compelled to make with my hands in clay in today’s internet based everything life.  It seems so ironic, messy and stupid to me.  It’s frustrating and exciting at the same time.  Every time I open up a bag of fresh clay or scrape some out of the pug mill I become excited for the possibilities that the malleable material suggests.  Now I know that may be due to some prolonged exposure to clay and the ceramic process.  It’s ingrained in my psyche, its who I am, its how I think through new situations and about the world.  Sure, but todays world, as it is vastly distinct from my late 1970’s through 1990’s upbringing, is increasingly immaterial.  I lived it; I watched it happen, I’m Generation X, Generation Crossover.  As an object maker, that is huge, and probably true for most people born in the same time frame or earlier, to comprehend that change in some way that makes sense to them; it may take some more time.  Solid things are now virtually, and therefore mentally, being replaced by digital versions of themselves, coded copies, archived, ready for up and downloading upon your command.  

The state of the object is just at the beginning of its transformation according to Bruce Sterling in his book Shaping Things.  From tangible Artifacts to three-dimensional printed Spimes and bio-nano-tech Biots, Sterling intelligently speculates our object oriented future, asking us gear up and adapt to rapid change.

So why make with clay still I ask?   

 Robert Smithson thought about geologic and immaterial things intensely and his awareness of comprehending two seemingly different states of consciousness still hold true today.  Heres a quote from, “Fragments of an Interview with P.A. Norvell, April, 1969”.

“To be located between those two points puts you in a position of elsewhere, so there’s no focus.  This outer edge and this center constantly subvert each other, cancel each other out.  There is a suspension of destination.  I think that conceptual art which depends completely on written data is only half the story; it only deals with the mind and it has to deal with the material too... There is no escape from matter.  There is no escape from the physical nor is there any escape from the mind.  The two are in a constant collision course.  You might say that my work is like an artistic disaster.  It is a quiet catastrophe of mind and matter.”

Smithson, of course is writing about the budding conceptual art movement in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the height of immaterial thinking as art, as a thing, presiding ideas over objects, and by that I mean data and information having importance and meaning over formal concerns.  (I wonder what Smithson would have thought about three-dimensional printed Spime objects?)  He suggests that there is no escape. 

Messy and stupid is who we are and clay personifies that exceptionally, as it has for a long time now.  As my ceramic practice is part of my make up, I suggest it is also part of humanities, it’s who we are as a species.  A material relationship created over numerous civilizations and a few thousand years will be hard to just right-click delete.  And yet, I feel a disingenuous life creeping up in our near future, hygienically so, possibly puritanical.  In denial of our upbringing, our species strives for further advancements in technologically supported purification.  As a maker, some one who identifies by the work of their hands, the duality between a genetically imbued tactile comprehension of the world and one that is more and more removed from touch, continues to confound.  That may just be the state of things these days, but unlike Smithson’s description between immaterial and the material  knowledge, the line that divided the two is becoming more and more blurred through a hyper-reality of what is consider possible today.

It is easy to take a reactionary stance to all this, consider the Sloppy Craft label that was being thrown around a few years back.  What reeks of humanity more than drippy lumpy fucked up-ness?  Probably all consuming discussions about identity.  If I had a completely malleable virtual avatar of myself who’s aspects I controlled most every day of my life online, so too would I have the same expectations IRL.   

The idea of a post-internet culture/ society, what have you, is refreshing to me.  The concept is in its infancy, possibly premature for the masses, but it gives me hope that we have not thrown everything, and by that I mean what we used to consider everything, down the drain just yet.  My hope is that a post-internet mind is aware that there may be limits to our understanding of the tangible word, not everything can be converted, that may still we need some stuff around.  We need things to make for the act of making.  That is why art makes the most sense to me, of all things to make.  Ikea makes fine dishes and I quite like them, as an artist with a ceramic based practice, I know I could make something equally functional, but why would I?  We just don’t live in that world anymore. 

That being said, the things that post-internet artists are making or are having made I find utterly lacking in interest.  The work feels blasé, like they did all their art history reading, research is automated, then shrugged and gave up; creating for irony over any other human impulse.   Regardless of the thing produced, regardless of the form that is presented, the concept is still the same, nullifying individuality completely.  I suppose that’s what the internet did, it has rendered all its users ubiquitous, copy and past, hash tagging, reproducers.  That sucks if that is where we lead humanity, I don’t want any part of that, and yet here I am dealing with it as I write this.  My hope is that all this is a fad, we accept that yes, we outsourced our passions, but the desire to make is still within us and it is necessary to do so, let us mature as a species.   

From a ceramicists point of view, I propose that this sticky situation of “to make or not to make”, can be better understood if we take the time to examine the material qualities of the substance itself.  A formal approach I admit, but I think that’s my point of this rage essay. To be clear, I am discussing the material qualities of clay and not ceramic.  As one comes before the other, as soft clay is being interpreted, we may be able to shed light on the continuing desire and impulse of haptic comprehension.  

Clay, moist malleable ground with the potential for permanence, is in its most potently creative state right out of the box, mixer, or pug mill.  At that point it urges use, it seduces us.  Suggesting forms already, the freshly mixed clay, pulls at our imagination and insists we do something new to it. Clay is responsive. We play with a poke, a jab, possibly a good punch, before we bag it up or slam it into a heavy plastic tub for keeping.  There it waits for further instruction, taunting us.  When it is time, we haul out a lump, ten or twenty pounds, divide that into smaller portions and wedge.  An exercise affirming connection between mind and hand, imagination stirring in potential.  Clay is easy.  A child can do it, and as the adage goes, so many of us try to remember that the more our practice grows.  

Clay is a mimic.  It can’t be pinned down.  I think it is wonderful that clay, once fired, still confounds professionals and the public alike.   That such an old medium, a mere geological substance, can continue to stir up speculation and controversy, says more about our humanity than anything else.  Clay successfully dodges labels with each unique incarnation of form it takes; in the twenty first century that is a rather amazing thing to be able to say.  Clay is political.  The subject doesn’t take sides, the people do, creating a tension that will only spur discussions between the convictions of future generations.  The debate will never die, it is not in clays material nature.  It is messy and stupid, and constantly in motion, just like we have always been and should never forget to be.  From that point of view, we can make anything and should.   

The Philosophers Stone, Virtual Light, Nothing Left to Resist

In his book, Earth and Reveries of Will, An Essay On the Imagination of Matter, Gaston Bachelard considers the physical world in a state of hard and soft.  “The dialectic of hard and soft governs every image with which we picture to ourselves the inner nature of things.   This dialectic animates every image through which we participate actively, ardently, in the interiority of matter.  Hard and soft are the primary qualifiers of the resistance of matter…”  I find that observation of the world utterly mind-blowing, so simple and also so exact.  As a ceramist, I am quite familiar with Bachelard’s notion of the world, and yet consider other possibilities. 

Leather-hard is term ceramists use to categorize clay in a firmness state between soft and hard. It is a material state with in the making process that has numerous possibilities. At first it is a difficult condition to understand, one has to gain a tactile sensitivity to drying clay and that is only learned through extensive making.  Often the first few attempts to execute an intended project end in disappointment due to not having gained the sublets of leather-hard clay.  There are varying degrees of leather-hard as well.  With each tick on the scale of firmness, water moisture escapes clay and thus losses plasticity.  What was once pliable, slowly renders to crumbles.  After some experience a ceramist becomes attuned to the varying leather-hard states of clay and realizes that each one is moment when something can be done to a work in process.  Leather-hard is a making moment, when decisions in form can be executed; they are charged moments.  Between clay’s soft and hard state is the moment of potential.   It is no longer held by its weight to the conditions of gravity as it is when soft, also, it is not yet to be handled lightly as it is fragile when in a completely dry and hard state.  Leather-hard is a third state of thinking about things. For me the leather-hard state is a moment of consideration, clay is at its most limitless in form.

Considering that material qualities inform thinking about the world, and using the concept of leather-hard as a theoretical jumping off point, I would say that the world now consists of other states of mind, between the physical and the virtual.  Over the past twenty years I have spent exceedingly more time on-line.  Just as the material conditions of the tangible world have informed my thinking, so too have the immaterial conditions of virtual space. 

I was born in the late 1970’s.  My understanding of things was formed pre-internet.  To know things was to touch stuff, to get messy.  I was introduced to clay at a very young age and working with it has created a foundation of my understanding of the world, a tactile material knowledge.  When I was an freshman in college in the mid 1990’s the internet was made available and thus began my engagement with virtual space.  I was talking to unknown entities from who-knows-where in chat rooms, they could have been anybody.  I was going to webpages and buying things with money, a very risky endeavor back then.  The words to describe the internet were co-opted from real material things and places; this was the beginning of my confusion with the internet, but also my growing interest.  Peers in the freshman dorms thought I was a geek for spending so much time on the shared computer, now it is probably quite the opposite. Generation X became a generation of crossovers, of transition, from clay to code. 

A few years ago during graduate school, 2009-2011, I started playing with some form building software called Google SketchUp, and it had a major impact on my notion of materials, objects and spaces.  What I once knew to be hard messy hand-work was now neither soft nor hard, just mind-bendingly confusing, it was a complete 180 degree turn around in thinking about what a world could be made from.  The more time I spent working with those particular digital materials, the more my thinking about things changed.  Things that I knew to be concrete, both physically as well as psychologically, were no longer rendered in my mind as being from purely physical origins.  Objects became, before my very eyes, simultaneously immaterial and obsolete.  One was replaced by the other and not in the soft to hard transitions I previously understood about objects through my use of clay, a material that changed based on conditions of time and climate.  The objects I was creating online were no longer held by these same circumstances, they had been created by a new set of criteria in a new world.  

I spend more time on a computer and in a virtual world now than I ever did growing up.  That world, ever expanding, ever growing technologically, has radically altered how I think about things.  I still work with clay, I still make ceramics.  In a way, I think clay is the perfect medium for understanding this shift in thinking from the material to the immaterial.  Clay’s amorphous qualities allow me to adapt to new forms; it allows me to regain a perspective of the object with each leather-hard interpretation.  Each poke, each bend in the clay, keeps my mind as adaptive and plastic as  the material is.  Its limitless possibilities have helped me to become pliable when it comes to considering things, and as quickly as the nature of things is changing, that quality is of utmost importance  to have today.  Ceramics continues to serve a purpose.  Its material qualities serve to help our psychological transition from the soft and hard to the limitless and immaterial.  Ceramics continues to help us think about change.

My experience with the internet is ubiquitous these days, we have all had to acknowledge its influence on our lives.  It is a major conversation in many circles of thought, including art.  What I don’t see, is many ceramists talking about it, and that concerns me.  They are not considering the internet-mind.  If at all, the internet appears to be only considered as a marketing tool for self promotion, which it excels at, but the way it does so has its effects.  My mind thinks differently because of the amount of time I spend online.  I have witnessed that change in my thinking.  Connections happen instantaneously with clicks. Places are no longer a condition of static objects casting shadows.  Space is an infinite tundra of flat code.  Forms hover ominously at eye level.  The sun never sets, never rises.  Life and death merge into one continuous loop, if they exist at all.  Producing in virtual space, with digital materials, eliminates a resistance to material.  I can’t leave a lasting mark, I can’t carve out a space.  Labor defines nothing.

All of this would suggest the need for new forms.  I don’t see ceramics doing this as much as I think it can.  Ceramics appears to have given itself a pass, made itself exempt from the meta-modern post-internet condition of life that the rest of the world it trying to figure out.  Ceramics continues to re-create rather than innovate.  (Three-dimensional printing is merely individualized industrialization, a mere appliance, another gadget to clean up after wards.)

But what would a ceramicist make if the notion of the object is in flux? If a whole generation of young people consider objects and images equal?  What to make then? What would be the best design to exemplify our current formal situation? This has been my existential quandary for the past few years since graduate school.  I love making with clay / nothing physical has any meaning anymore.  And yet, I wake up every morning in the sunlight.  I still have to watch for cracks in the cement when I’m walking outside on my way to work.  The physical world never went away, just the context of how I look at it has changed.  Everything is fantastic these days, nothing material is taken for granted, I see labor in every object. I see misuse or care, and a story in every thing I can pick up and hold.  Everything has become a sculpture in a way. The internet-mind is a mental condition, a context which places everything in a virtual light.  That is the condition that needs to be told.  I believe ceramics has that possibility and needs to add its wisdom and experience.  It needs to look forward.  I continue to need its help.    

Although, in the end I ask, what’s left? Ceramics can’t transcend its material state, its material qualities.  I am left with desires to make objects but wrestle with the permanence of that end product.  Making lives on as an innate human expression but objects appear to have become irrational or in the very least non-relevant, taking up space.  Ceramics and all things really, after considering the contemporary state of objects in todays post-internet world, appear to be nothing but takers-up of space, mere records of time obstructing my physical path.  Needless to say, and maybe this has been the case for many makers over many years, I struggle between the need to make with my hands and my logical mind, but will say that the post-internet context that continues to blur realities, exemplifies this struggle ten fold in very rational ways. Without the ability to work against matter, how do I know my place in the world?

Jason Lee Starin, 2015.

Friday, March 13, 2015

An email to a possible grad student considering the AC+D program

Dear Jason,

Hi! My name is ______ and I am contacting you hoping you might have a minute to offer me some feedback about your experience in the AC+D program. I am very excited about the opportunity, but am trying to weigh all my options carefully and get as much information as I can. Many thanks for your time!

I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have about the ACD program, please consider that it has changed a lot since I was a student in the first class of 2011, but I will try my best answering honestly.  Email works best, please just send my your questions.  


Thanks Jason. Any overall impressions would be appreciated. And any feedback about how grad school helped further your career or didn't help. I am grateful for you taking the time to write!

Well ______, grad school in the ACD program changed my life.  How's that for an over all impression? Just kidding. But it did really. In the ACD program we considered what I call everything known to human kind.  Allow me to explain.  the program is not specific.  It considers, in conversation with your student peers as well as in open dialog critics, art, craft and design. Those three disciplines are the umbrella for all human thinking and innovation including all of the sciences. In my opinion.

I considered the program vast in scope, our dialog was not art or craft or design specific.  There are many different teachers and students with different interests and backgrounds.  No one previous language is suitable to discuss all the different view points in the room.  At times this is freeing and at other times this is like treading water and gaining no traction for what you want to do.  At no one time did I ever feel that I had an ally in my group who had the same intentions or expectations in this program while in grad school.  

While the generalized language we developed over the first year opened up my mind to possibility in the things I make and what they could be, at no time did I find a focus.  Personally, only now, some 5 years later do I feel like I know what I want to make as well as gained a group of like minded people to help support those ideas.  And I had to move across the country to do so. I did meet one person during grad school to help with my current situation though. 

This may all sound like bad things, it is not.  I say if you want your practice expanded, go for it. It is the long road, you may not find your immediate group.  You will be exposed to one or two guest artists or mentors who you respond to and they may become helpful to you after school.  

The program is odd, it is what you contribute to it, it is very open in that way, you may feel empowered by this or you may feel isolated at times.  There is not much of a previous history of which to attach your anchor to. (there maybe now, as I said I was part of the first class, I had no anchor, but there are more current graduates who have looked to me and my class for support, I did not have that opportunity.) 

This may all seem pretty wishy washy, but I will end on this, if your graduate intention is to focus on a medium or a certain discipline, a certain way of thinking (for instance a specific interest in ceramic sculpture) consider another school, if your graduate intention is to loosen up and explore other ways of creative thought consider the ACD program.

FYI the ACD program has other things to take into consideration as well, there is a strong focus on branding, marketing and entrepreneurial studies.  This may or may not be of interest to you and therefor you may or may not find distracting to you creative interests. 

Grad school in the ACD program did not further my career, it confused the shit out of me, which I think is what all grad school programs are supposed to do.  Its called being a student.  I took in a lot of information, I considered a lot of other peoples interests that I had no interest in, I learned patience. I learned to look at the world in a more broad light, I can talk about the same thing from a few different stand points now.  I appreciate this greatly,  but I will say that most people don't appreciate this, people want specifics, they want to know what you do in one sentence, they want to be able to attach what you do to something they all ready know, they want to label what you make and what you do.  I find this annoying and limited in thinking about things today.  But I enjoy challenges and that won over my decision to go to the ACD program.

Sorry, there are no simple answers, (that's probably due to my education in the ACD program as well.)

Best of luck,

Jason Lee Starin

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Foundations of Privilege, from Portland to Philadelphia with Goblins, 2014.

I’ve been living in Philadelphia for six months now.

After six years of living in a utopia bubble, my wife and I moved from Portland, Oregon so she could go to graduate school at UPenn.  Ivy league, social work, full ride. Of course you leave / go.  She’s been learning about mass incarceration, race and gender inequality, and interning as a transitional counselor for soon to be released inmates.  We are an interracial couple, married for one year, have been with each other for ten. 

Privilege has come up often.  In our time together, I have learned a lot about mine.  But not as much as I have learned about it than in the past six months living in West Philly.

I didn't grow up in a household that talked about religion, politics or race.  We ate dinner together every night and mom, sister and I went to church every Sunday morning. Dad stayed home, we never talked about it.  These subjects were considered impolite I supposed. We were kept safe and then we watched TV in the evenings.  Around ten years old I started drawing cartoons and making ceramic animal sculptures delving into my own fantasy world, filling in the gaps of my ignorance about the world.

The first time I was introduced to the idea of privilege, the word, the meaning, was during my first art critique in graduate school.  It happened so fast, in the middle of confusion, art history and theory.  At one moment we were talking about holes in ceramic work and why mine didn’t have any, and then the next moment the professor was saying he wanted everything I had always had as a child.  I said I wanted what he had, I felt so empty and naive at that moment.  It all ended abruptly and the group moved onto the next students work.  

Philadelphia is the biggest city either of us has ever lived in. We found our place on Craigslist from Portland, took a FaceTime tour with our iPhones.  We asked about the neighborhood and she was honest, Philly is divided block to block.  It was close to the school for my wife and a landing place for us.  We took it and signed the lease contract from a Fedex Kinko’s. Nine days driving and we pulled in front of our apartment in West Philly.  One of the first things our new landlord said, upon meeting in real life, was don’t walk anymore north or west from our new apartment, ours was the last block.  We are on the edge. Safe for others but not me, it’s not my culture, I don’t fit in here and I’m not welcomed. I am an uninvited guest. 

We’ve driven around and can see why.  Abandonment, undefined masses, rubble and debris, black windowless structures, and garbage slowly fills the streets the farther you drive in either of those directions.  My co-worker said once when he was growing up that his mom wouldn’t let him go past 40th.  We live on 50th and I haven’t walked past 52nd, and I only do that if I need to catch the train, but usually walk the opposite direction to 46th for the same reason, it feels safer.  The ten blocks past University City, from 40th to 50th, are a mix of housing for home owners, students and low income renters, and abandoned lots and buildings, the contrast from block to block, even from building to building is jarring.  I stay in my apartment most of the time, usually only going out side to walk the dog or go to work.

I have an upbringing in building, making and maintaining things, objects. I place a high value on material and space.  They are precious to me, I identify with them.  Material is potential, expression, thinking with my hands, exercising my imagination, and has always helped me to understand the world.  Material lies around in mounds and as discarded waste in empty lots where buildings once stood in West Philly.  Broken cement chunks and bricks randomly thrown in heaps in the allies. It’s a chaotic mess, I have to watch where I step. There are whole abandoned lots in my neighborhood that could fit every tiny shitty apartment I’ve every lived in. Philadelphia is old, one of the oldest cities in the United States, layers upon layers of rebuilding and change. I know, but still vastly different from Portland. 

I did not know how much organization and maintenance played into feelings of safety and beauty until I moved here.  I keep thinking that all this potential is lost when I walk outside.  I think, if this material was maintained, it could still be what it was intended for when it was originally constructed, or, after its demolition, it could be recycled and made into something new.  And this is when I start to be aware of my privilege. 

Make. Build. Maintain. New. These are the ideals of my culture, I was afforded to think in this linear fashion.  Some call this progress, but now I'm learning that maybe it is the foundation of privilege.  It was my upbringing. I had the time, money, material, and space, the resources to create.  I had abundance and didn't know it, didn't know it truly on a level of comprehension that was specific to my learning language, until now, seeing, being, and living here in this neighborhood. 

I don't live in a place that can afford the criteria for life that I had / have.  I’m having a very hard time understanding that. I'm left wondering who made this place, who left this junk here, what happened here, how did it happen and how come no one seems to care? Who would choose to live like this? As I did when I was a child, I am filling in the gaps of my ignorance with fantasy explanations.  Goblins must have constructed these surroundings and I am a goblin for thinking that as well.  I feel like shit, no one chooses to live like this, they have to, and they have for some time now, this is and has always been life.  I am the unwelcome guest and they have never been to, or will probably never go to an overly well manicured place such as Portland, Oregon.

In Oregon I was poor, as I am now, but there I could still fake like I wasn’t.  And before Oregon, living outside of Detroit, I was poor too, but we just called it young, stupid and searching.  Now, here in Philadelphia, the curtain is raised, I am in my late thirties and for the first time in my life I am living in a place that fits my financial situation. It’s ugly, depressing and heartbreaking.  Everyday I walk the dog trying to become more accustomed to it all, but find a quick reason to return back to my apartment, hiding in my fantasy world, drawing and making dumb ceramic sculptures, furiously processing these feeling in starts and fits, scratches and smashes.

Only recently, after six months living in West Philly, have I been able to rest with it all.  My privilege is mine and I am thankful for that, from an early age I learned a way to cope with change and stress and loss.  But my fantasy world has been a blessing as well as a hinderance, and I see that now, I am hyper aware of my place and surrounding.  I am a humbled guest in the neighborhood, some people say hello now, and some don’t.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
The more time our “digital native” kids spend on entertainment media, the more we lose the tactile intelligence critical to design and manufacture physical products.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The New Influence

Bruce Metcalf’s essay Craftsmanship in the Age of Hot Glue and Tape, edited and renamed Hot Glue and Staples for American Craft issue June / July 2014 irritates me.  I guess it has irritated many other folks as well, but I feel compelled to share some of my own thoughts.  I don't disagree with much of what he says about the importance of craftsmanship, but its a rather narrow perspective to have with consideration to the changing state of the object these days.  Metcalf is projecting his values based on his practice onto the entirety of art.  Doing so, he is perpetuating the classification of objects solely between art and craft.  His essay doesn’t include a perspective of the object beyond physicality, a world we have lived in for quite some time now.  The age of the internet has changed craft. 

Metcalf does highlight an important aspect of craftsmanship, the influence that practice has to change our minds, but fails to consider it in a much broader analysis.  Prolonged repetition does change neurological pathways, that is to say, how we think.  After twenty years of using the internet we are just beginning to catch up to the implications of this new information technology, this new medium.  With prolonged use, the internet has changed our minds.  Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, proves that how we communicate, think, and create, have all been neurologically reformatted due to the internet.  After two decades of working within virtual systems, with virtual material if you will, how can I be expected to approach physical materials in traditional ways?  How can I think of objects by a purely physical description alone? How could I possibly approach them in the same way?  Furthermore, why would I want to? 

I believe that craftsmanship is on a sliding scale, a tool used incrementally from low to high, in order to support a makers intention.  I have witnessed two unspoken reactions to the internet over the past few years when it comes to object making in craft.  Very high craftsmanship, inciting an over fetishized product, both in form and nostalgia, and very low craftsmanship, creating haphazard, almost lackadaisical works which slightly refer to Process Art, but lack in the that movements intention.  The high end reaction feels stubborn, in denial of the technological change we are all going through, and the low end reaction is lost in the quagmire of infinite possibility, feeling half inspired and half defeated.  Given the overwhelming influence the internet has had on our notion of production, objects, and materials, I find it truly amazing that both camps are still making, with there hands, and with tangible substances.  It is a testament to our genetically formed relationship with all things tangible and the will of humanity.  Non-the-less, the notion of the object has been forever changed in the minds of all the internets users.  I do not believe sloppy craft exists.  The so called sloppy craft maker has purposely put that object into the public, opening it up for discussion. I have to at least meet the maker half way and believe that they choose that level of craftsmanship very intentionally.  Furthermore, I have to consider why they choose to do so, and by that I mean what context the maker producing from.  

I suspect that Metcalf is not so much upset with so called sloppy craft, as he is with wanting makers to have a sense of respect for material, with their work, and taking some pride in themselves.  I agree, but the classification of created objects must transcend the previous models of art, craft and design, and begin to include, in the very least, the awareness of virtual sensibilities.  Science fiction writer and design theorist Bruce Sterling helps to give some semblance to the virtual objects of the present and near future in his book Shaping Things.  The physical object, what he calls the artifact, is merely our first notion of the object, there are many more to come.  If form equals content, I suspect that there is a lot more understanding to be done and this can only happen with continued experimentation.
Metcalf calls for us to look through the surface of the object and into the meaning of it. I argue that lavish attention to an object completely hinders the disappearance of the surface and only reflects the makers technical ability.  This is not concept.  We need to think broader.  We can no longer rely on our previous definitions of what makes a good art or a good craft object.  To start, we all need to stop defining craft by material association and start defining it by the makers intention.  Even infinitely malleable clay has its limitations in use, which in turn creates limitations in practice and the associative maker’s identity.  Like the internet, intention has no bounds.  

Let us pretend for a moment, that craft, as a noun, has died.  It no longer exists.  Regardless of means of production, whether by hand or by machine, people will continue to produce objects, for there will always be an innate calling to do so, that is something we can always rely on.  Now, regardless of the inspirational source, utilitarian or not, people can now set there intention on only one aspect, whether an object is functional or is not.  There would be objects that are sculptures and there would be objects that are designs.  My point is, as makers we all side either one way or the other already, and that may change from day to day, but what I’m asking for is that makers get out of their own way and label the objects they make and not themselves.  Let intention drive form and thus content.

Playing out this thought experiment a little further, how would such an approach to material and making change how we think about craft?  Craft is reformed into a verb.  Craft becomes a means for sociology including, but not limited to, education, community awareness, sharing, empathy, thinking, and discussion. These craft qualities far exceed the stagnate limitations of the individual object.  

The influence of the internet places the maker in confusing territory, without a doubt, but that does not exclude us from trying to make sense of it.  Any reaction to a major paradigm shift, is a good reaction, it shows consideration and thoughtfulness, but if there is one thing I have learned from my considerations of the internet, is that it affirms that there is more than one approach to thinking about things and that includes objects.  The possibilities of a thing are endless, embrace them all, and let them influence what you love to do.  You’ll make better work for doing so.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In the year 2013

How do we know we exist today?

What evidence reflects this awareness?

Do we still gain knowledge through physical experiences, through tactile interpretations and bodily acts?

Is knowledge merely the outcome of research?

What does this information look like?

Does physical information have the same relevance today as it once had?

Is material evidence still important? Is it even necessary?  

Has documentation replaced our artifacts of effort?

What is the outcome of labor?

What is the purpose of intention without physical evidence?

Is art merely the refuse of the making act? 

Are there substances to resist to in virtual realms? 

What can be learned form those types of resistances?

What materials can genuinely record my interpretations? My questions? My curiosities?

Can I trust them? 

What continues to compel me to leave pieces of myself behind?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Object Changer

This short SF novel changed how I think about objects, craft, craftsmanship, and technology.  The general mechanic in the story is that in an alternate reality there is no technology that improves the quality of things, but rather the effect of using objects makes things better.  Though use, objects evolve, become better tools, and become more luxurious.  As a maker of objects, keeping this concept in mind in this reality, has radically changed my intention for making a "new" thing at the onset of its making.  Thank you David Brin.