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The Wheel Keeps Turning – An Interview with Carina Ciscato and Chris Keenan

Photo by Michael Harvey, Copyright Chris Keenan

When I think about the role of technology in the arts, what first comes to mind is video or sound art, light installations or the use of VR machines, my mind does not instantly fall on ceramics. How technology has allowed for and shaped digital or video art is fascinating but perhaps somewhat straightforward. Mulling over the role of technology in art, I wanted to know more about how technology affects makers and artists who work in more traditional mediums. It was for this reason that I sat down to talk to Carina Ciscato and Chris Keenan at their shared studio in Camberwell to talk about pottery and technology.

I first met Chris and Carina when I worked as their apprentice during my gap year before university. I was set up with a manual kick wheel in the corner of their studio working quietly away to radio four; the most technologically advanced thing I encountered that year, apart from the kiln, was the microwave at lunchtime. Starting his career in ceramics as Edmund De Waal’s first apprentice, Chris Keenan specialises in wheel thrown porcelain for domestic spaces. Carina Ciscato was born in Brazil and moved to Britain to pursue making architectural ceramic forms, which she throws, cuts and reassembles into angular, geometric vessels and dishes. Their approach to making is modern but uses the traditional methods of throwing and hand building.

I wanted to know how they felt technology interacted with what many people perceive to be a hands-on, traditional craft. Chris immediately reminded me 'technology has always been with ceramics from the invention of the potter’s wheel to industrial slip casting, technology has always been used to speed up the process of production. What’s interesting at the moment is that new technologies are actually slowing things down; it takes a very long time to produce a pot on a 3-D printer. The technology of using a potters wheel still works for what people want to do, it’s a great way of making a pot but it’s not the only way.'

Photo by Michael Harvey, Copyright Chris Keenan

I ask if new technologies take something away from the potter, whether it distances the maker from their work? Are they still a potter if they use 3-D printing? 'It depends what you want to say,' says Carina. Chris comments, 'now there is creativity in the making of the machine – the shrinking nature of clay means that making a machine to produce pots is very complicated, as I discovered on my recent trip to Japan. Michael Eden is the case in point, a very good potter who happens to have diverted the way that he goes about things now. The ability that he has intellectually to shift from sitting at the wheel to his current work [3-D printing Wedgewood inspired pieces] is brilliant!' Ceramics is a wide-ranging discipline, with as many different artists as there are ways to manipulate clay, it is a mistake to try and fit artists into one category. Chris comments that, as you might expect with any technology, not everything that is being 3-D printed is good. What works so well with Michael Eden is 'that he is referencing back which is very clever, using previous forms from early Wedgewood and showing that now you can do it like this. His work won’t look out of place on a mantelpiece in a stately home as they may have Wedgewood pieces as well. He is setting up the conversation between the past and the present.'

So why do Chris and Carina not use new technologies within their own practice? 'For me, I enjoy the making, ceramics is the only craft that is really hands-on, you can’t touch glass, you alter wood or metal with tools. I like being

able to use my hands as a tool, I like the manipulation of the material and being able to take a print with your own hands,' says Carina. Chris has a wonderful view on the technology of making, 'every so often I upgrade my technology in that I get better, I haven’t reached peak ability yet and that’s what is wonderful.'

Technology doesn’t just affect the making of works of art. Social media has had a huge impact on the art world in general, allowing amateur and professional artists to reach new audiences outside of galleries or museums. Chris and Carina recognise the value of social media in helping potters promote their work, but there are problems. Pottery is not just a visual but also a haptic practice, on an Instagram post 'you can’t pick up the pots, you can’t feel them', says Carina. The weight and detail of a pot are as important as the colour or shape.

Photo by Michael Harvey, Copyright Chris Keenan

The impact of social media on craft education also concerns them. 'On social media, I am seeing a lot of plagiarism, people copying Lucie Rie forms and big names in the ceramics world but people are not educated generally enough about craft to recognise this. There is plagiarism in the fine arts too but people recognise it more easily. In a gallery or a magazine you wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it but with social media you can get away with it.' As Chris says 'There is no acknowledgement or reference required.'

Videos of potters making on wheels can be hypnotic and satisfying and are now extremely popular on social media. I ask Chris how he feels about pottery being described as therapeutic? He curses. Carina takes up the gauntlet, 'we have a preconception about the potter’s life being a serene life – it’s a job like everything else – it has the pressure and problems and the skills, it is over romanticised but this is part of people.'

However, they both agree that pottery still has a role to play in helping those, who say take it as an evening class, be in the moment. Carina: 'When I teach, especially evening classes, when people arrive, they arrive almost in a different motion, they are anxious, and they need time to come down to a different gear. In pottery if you are always thinking one step ahead, it won’t work on the wheel, it’s a good way of actually being in that precise moment.'

Chris agrees 'people don’t cook as much as they used to, they don’t sew, there are so many things that people don’t do anymore that was doing and different from your work – to engage with a material with your hands where there is no tool, no intermediary but direct effect and response, you can’t beat that. Maybe that’s one of the good things about pottery in a technologically advanced, fast-paced world, it slows you down and you cannot rush.'

Whilst technology can seem like it’s taking over the world, with a new gadget seemingly released every month, talking to Chris and Carina has helped to shift my perspective. The wheel, if you will excuse the pun, is constantly turning. New technologies have and will be constantly created but they do not pose a threat to what has been tried and tested. All technologies are tools, which are put to best use when used to enhance current practice or illuminate old ideas. However, if you do feel that you look down at a screen more than up and around you, have a break and take up pottery.

This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here:

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