Radiolab: Podcast

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A Seed Jar & A Can O’Beans

As a maker of things and a believer in those things I constantly question our relationships to those inanimate objects around us. I marvel at how things came to be and question their existence, story, necessity and lack there of.

At the moment I find myself reading Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins, it is my third go at reading the novel in perhaps five years. I’m a Tom Robbins lover. Each sentence he writes is an entity onto-itself, an absurd creation with nothing to do with the sentiment it so aptly describes. This endears  Robbins to me, a fan of nonsense, he must giggle after every sentence and revel in the fact that he is at once a total jerk for writing such prose and a genius of slicing away at what it is to be human with prose that is a joke onto itself and amazingly insightful. The man has chops and is eloquent as fuck. This is however exactly what can throw a gal off now and then. For some reason Skinny Legs and All didn’t succeed in gnashing my giblet- to be all Robbinian about it. I think quite simply I couldn’t relate whole heartedly to a handful of the main characters, a gang of inanimate objects: Conch Shell, Painted Stick, Can O’ Beans, Dirty Sock and a Silver Spoon. Here I had a book handing me what I should have eaten up, objects laden with story, with purpose. What gave? I am delighted to say third times‘ the charm. I have gotten over Robbin’s showmanship and cut through to something quite applicable. In the novel a main character sells an airstream trailer welded to look like cooked turkey to the MoMa and a painter married to the ethics of painting struggles. It has snippets like this:

Mocking birds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they are born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mockingbirds aren’t content to merely play the hand that it is dealt to them. Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovates, willful, daring, not bound by the rules to which others may blindly adhere, the mocking bird collects snatches of birdsong from this tree and that field, appropriates them, places them in new and unexpected contexts, recreates the world from the world.

It’s been an unlikely prompt to consider the artist and the object.

Having just moved as I do every year, a pilgrimage of sort to the mighty Muskeg Tower, I have been ruminating on stuff. All the stuff (you know what I mean all of it and often with a pang of guilt for it’s existence see The Story of Stuff , a short that will conjure up that pang of responsibility simply existing comes with if you want to get in my headspace). In dealing with my own objects that make the cut: a salt fired jug, a woodfired jug, a electric fired jug, a golden 300lb triceratops bust, a wooden lobster trap (strapped to the roof of my car at that), a giant kitsch painting of the ocean framed in velvet, my tent… I’ve been asking myself what imbues objects with meaning? History? A cultural hierarchy of materiality? Esthetics? Market value? Personal value? In other words time and a swak of complicated systems of definition. In a world that Ayumi Horie has referred to as “identity-obsessed” (stay tuned for her self inflicted instagram rules this week on the blog) where all our objects are largely self curated and inform our identity: A consumerist-based identity (capitalism prevails)! (It is worth noting that non-capitalist actions can define you and be based on different systems… tool libraries, food co-ops, farmers markets etc.. However, these idenity-defining object-based sources orbit around consumerism, even though they may be executed in a rebellious manner, object hood is at their core) This topic “the meaning of an object” either cultural or personal is something that many of us have sat through some very dry readings/lectures on and some fascinating lively ones (Oh, the craze for porcelain). What a pot means in modern times can be largely self dictated by an artists creating said pot. A museum and gallery disseminating another take. The individual user, owner or collector perhaps defining another. My point is that seldom with a contemporary object in modern terms are there rules, anything goes. Anything can be deemed meaningful in short term to oneself or small groups. Then what say us as ceramists? What are we ceramists, most of who make to fulfill a desire in oneself (raw and human making), what are we defining, what meaning is being laid down now to be a embue’n the future when our now is the past? Is it so individualistic and diverse to be meaningless? No, I hope not.

Now, What of all those other objects, the conch shells and socks and spoons? I ask myself and others to imagine the entire course of an object to get to the now with you. There is no way the ins and outs can be known most of the time. But still, the imagining of all the labour and machinery and tech in making and all the distance in traveling all the people, companies and countries involved to me (and hopefully others) results in value, in appreciation, in respect. Can reverence for object deminish consumption and heighten experience? Nothing is “disposable” though marketers will tell you something else.

Now the impetus, all these words I’ve put forth to you were largely prompted by the most recent Radiolab podcast entitled “Things” sucked into my computer and spit out to my ears while I toiled away in the kitchen making bread from scratch and memory. Perhaps sticky hands transfer to a sticky brain. “Things” questioned just, as I do, the transference of story of juju and mojo and un rasion d’etre of whirring electrons and feeling an object might spirt out to a person through interaction, through time. What of our daily interactions with objects? If the hand crafted can slow down the pace of living, can enrich life (all romantic and W.Morrisy,  I know) how is it done? Intention in making, in use? Time? Ascertained value? Documentation? Popular consumption? I began listening to the podcast, as story of a egg made of sugar first, a failed attempt to rapid prototype said egg next, then a philosophical theory called the swamp man theory, took a trip through Explorer Club artifacts and then…. and then of course the podcast took a turn I did not expect. The podcast about things took a trip to the desert and to am ancient seed jar some hikers came upon.  WHAT!? Radiolab’s big example of an object that can stand the test of time and relay meaning and the erie feeling of people past is a SEED JAR? Holly irony, I’m not sure if popular culture should indulge us potters like this confirming that the material communicates through time. The hikers in the podcast get that feeling of connection to the past and fear that the pots will be moves, touched that the story of its being will be altered to they leave it. The pot becomes to be the thing they talk about, the thing that represented a time and place that they all shared, what happens to objects after we leave them, after they leave us?  The Radiolab folk intend to find out just what is what. My favorite line is this: “We could have done the thing where we’re like Oh the narrative power of objects…, meta, blah blah. No! We were like, is the dam thing there?”

Is that what be potters do when talking about the test of the ceramic material over time? Get all meta? Yep. We subscribe to “the conscription of our genre”.  We get “self-referential” (those bits in quotations are straight from my comps. definition of Meta!)? Ya, we do. We find reverence in materiality the malleable magic stuff of clay, the stuff that lasts as long as we’ve witnessed a man made thing last. What about that? What does that mean? What role does it have to play in modern times, as art, at the dinner table? For others? For us in the future?


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