HYPHEN show 2017: Joseph Thompson disrupts the routine of craft

For his graduation project from the BA Design course at Goldsmiths, Joseph Thompson is trying to uncover the complexities of craft processes:

“I’ve been looking to expand what is meant by the word “craft”, and unpick the problems with it in contemporary culture.  The output that I’ve created is a diagnostic tool for ceramicists to re-evaluate how they throw pottery, which comes from the idea that people who have an ingrained habit find it inconceivable to change, or to progress in their practices. This tool exists to disrupt the process that they normally throw pottery by, so that they can re-evaluate and train themselves to learn different techniques.

The experiment consists of ceramicists throwing under a strobe condition, and there are two ways you can configure the strobe light. One is to act as a stroboscope, where the pot is completely still, so every time it does a rotation, you see the same side of the pot. This makes it really difficult to tell if the pot is off-center. The second way you can configure it is to allow people to set the strobe themselves. I found that when people were throwing under these strobe conditions, those who weren’t as confident would turn up the speed, whereas those who were more confident would turn it lower.

I think it’s a perfect opportunity to disrupt something as simple as hand placement, and then you have to refocus and retrain. A really good part of the research was based around the psychological state of flow, when you’re tensely focused on a present action and you have no fear of failure, and the feedback is immediate. This applies to handmade and physical production, which is why the entry point into the project was trying to disrupt people’s flow, to take them out of this state.”

How did the idea come about?

“I had a lot of thoughts and opinions about making and practically engaging with the world, and I thought that they needed to be challenged. So instead of having a romanticised, fetishised view of craft, I tried to take the opposite stance to what I love. I never did ceramics before starting this project, but I thought it was a good place to start precisely because it was something I’d never done before, and I could be objective in my experiments and investigations, and put myself in the position of someone who is a ceramicist, or is involved in these craft processes, but is deeply unfulfilled.

In my early experiments, I was trying to put myself in the position of a disenfranchised craftsperson, someone who is just throwing, because there are people who work for big ceramic studios, sit at a wheel for eight hours a day and throw the same shape, and they have no other experience of ceramics. I would throw dozens of pots every day, trying to get to a point where I hated ceramics. I tried different challenges, like covering my eyes, working with different distractions, and then the strobe light just became the most interesting disruption. I was throwing with the strobe and it was so disorientating the first time I did it, it sort of undid everything that I’d learned.”

On the feedback received from ceramicists who interacted with the tool:

“A lot of people found it quite nauseating. Some people found that it made them more considered and slow when they were approaching the task, because pottery is normally a continuous process of looking, acting and reacting, but the strobe light breaks it down into chunks where you look, act and react. The the most interesting thing was the difference between an expert and a novice. One of the ceramicists I worked with said that in longer periods of darkness he could completely block out the strobe, any light, and rely solely on the muscle memory of the learned technique that he’d been doing for twenty years. When you increase the strobe, it completely disrupted his making pattern and it made him make mistakes, made the pot go off-center. Whereas with someone who’s never made a pot before, they much prefer having the strobe very fast, because they can see what they’re doing, and rely on their sense of sight, as opposed to the sense of touch.”

On his time on the BA Design course at Goldsmiths:

After I left school, and did a foundation course, I was still not very clear on what I wanted to do, and I thought this was a really good place for someone like me. I was interested in a lot of different disciplines, and when I came into Goldsmiths for an interview, I found out that this was one of the pillars of the Design department. This course teaches you to have an arsenal of skills at your disposal to tackle different design issues. One of the attitudes they try to instil in us is to be quick to make things, without questioning or doubting what you’re doing. Your ideas become a lot easier to evaluate once they materialise out of the sketch book.”