Alison Britton on Ceramics in the Expanded Field Conference, 17-19 July 2014

Alison Britton is an internationally renowned ceramic artist and is Senior Tutor and Research Coordinator in the Ceramics & Glass Department of The Royal College of Art.

This conference was the culmination of a three-year AHRC funded research project of the Ceramics Research Centre, CRC-UK, at Westminster University. I believe it to be the largest so far for ceramics funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its aim has been to “explore the relationship between contemporary ceramic practice and museum culture.” The researchers involved in “Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Ceramics in the Expanded Field” are Professor Christie Brown, Clare Twomey, and Dr Julian Stair, and the project supported a PHD student, Laura Breen. Their interests, we also learn from the website, “span ceramic installation, art practice, ceramic history and the interface between ceramics, performance and museology.” The three researchers achieved a range of interventions/installations/exhibitions in museums and affiliated buildings, and each artist spoke, spaced through the two days, about what they had done. One project from each was exhibited in Ambika P3 the gallery space within the university, and Laura Breen reported on the progress of her PhD research.

Borrowing half their title from a prize-winning 90s novel by Kate Atkinson, and the other part from an essay by Rosalind Krauss of 1979 entitled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, the project’s researchers invite curiosity about where ceramics have expanded to, and what was to be found behind the scenes. But clearly a main objective has been to assess and evaluate a decade or more of innovations with the material, and make some new contributions. They have also commissioned a strong series of essays from critics and curators and historians and ceramic artists, now numbering twelve, which are to be found on their website, and will, I think, be enduringly useful (link to the essays here).

We also read on the website that “critical discussion is essential to the development of the discipline”. So this conference is a vital part of the whole project, the concluding exchange with an interested audience.

Did discussion happen? During the two days there was difficulty in finding time for repartee between presentations, and as so often it seemed impossible to back-track to interrogating the first speaker of the session after hearing two more. But the best discussion happens more slowly, in a residential conference or course where you remain for a while, get to know each other and can join all kinds of conversations in a more casual way. These of course are harder to preserve and document. For an actual disagreement being aired, I can only recall an exchange between Tessa Peters and Stephen Knott/Kimberley Chandler, who gave a joint talk, about the context in which the Theaster Gates project at the Whitechapel Gallery could be understood; was it a throwing demonstration, or was it a metaphor for social transformation, an idea about Utopia?

Theaster Gates gave the initial keynote presentation, “Five Brick Stories”. He is a contemporary phenomenon in the international art scene and gave a captivating performance, with aspects of jolly sermonizing, and as I write this BBC Radio 4 are about to re-broadcast a profile of him in Zeitgeisters, a series by Will Gompertz about artists whose ‘impact goes beyond mere commerce, it shapes contemporary culture’. I did feel though that Gates was not addressing this particular audience, and it was a pity that he had to leave that evening and disengage from the rest of the conference.

Over the next two days the conference sustained a full programme, quite internationally inclusive. Phases grouping the speakers posited a path through interesting territories to be explored: how museums evolve, how audiences matter, how artists have something to contribute institutionally, how stuff happens. On the final day two panel discussions surveying the critical landscape of theory and practice concluded the event.

There were three high points for me. Phoebe Cummings, exploring her astonishing finely detailed work in raw clay, made without a studio, in residencies and projects around the world, often in museums. “The Walls Come Tumbling Down”, given by Martina Margetts, was a wonderful explication of new museum practices internationally, with beautiful images, adeptly captioned, and best of all talked with clarity and precision from a few notes. It is so rare in conferences these days to hear a spoken lecture, not a reading of a paper that might work better on the page. Tanya Harrod also moved through many very interesting current questions in “Out of the studio, or, do we make better work in unusual conditions?” Abandoning the plinth, industrial nostalgia, or starting from scratch (again), all contemporary strategies for making new work that were delicately probed in Harrod’s talk.

So what is the expanded field – did I know more at the end? I realised that museums need artists to invigorate their programmes with fresh and less permanent things. This was the crux of expansion that these researchers have explored. But artists have intervened in museums for ages – when Christopher Dresser gave his collection of South American pots to the V&A he ensured that there would at least be a few South American pots in the ceramics collection, where at the time they were seen as material for ethnographic collections.

Scholarship is always changing, and artists can bring in the fleeting signs of new thinking. The research team has worked very hard. But such big projects cannot reliably engender the most significant artwork, even seen within the oeuvres of those involved; research grants can constrain intellectual/creative freedom as well as stimulating and facilitating it. What happens next might be what counts.

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