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Handmade: Understanding Creative Gesture in Pottery Making

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - HANDMADE (Handmade: Understanding Creative Gesture in Pottery Making)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-03-31

The process of making by hand lies at the intersection between cognition and material culture. The full creative dimensions of this process are not well understood and require cross-disciplinary research. This project aims to fill this gap in our knowledge focusing on one specific material with long history and cross-cultural significance, i.e. clay and the craft of ceramics. Our main research objective is to develop new theoretical and empirical means that will allow the study of handmaking as a way of thinking through and with materials. Special focus is placed on understanding the varieties and meanings of creative gesture in pottery making. To achieve our objectives we study pottery making at first hand through participant observation in several ceramic workshops spread around mainland Greece and the Islands. We observe, record, describe, compare and analyse the exact ways by which craft practitioners use their hands to produce a variety of material forms. Our research procedure, grounded on material engagement theory, is designed to facilitate a heightened responsiveness to the details of action and the properties of the materials and the tools involved. Our broader aim is to use our knowledge about the creative entanglement of the hand and the clay and lay down the basic conceptual foundation for an archaeology of handmaking over the long term.
Since April 2018 the HANDMADE project has achieved all major objectives and milestones set out in our original work plan. We assembled and appointed the core research team; set out the final details of our research strategy; obtained the required ethical approvals (CUREC); established the analytical and methodological framework for the programme. Special emphasis was placed on the design of our ethnographies, developing questionnaires for phenomenological interviewing and exploring new interventions and forms of dissemination. Moreover, we have purchased the necessary equipment and undertook training where needed. We also defined exact roles, responsibilities and expectations. We are also developing strategies to maximize the quality of research outputs and to enable clear pathways to dissemination of results and public engagement activities (both in Greece and in the UK).
The major research objective for 2018-2019 has been to undertake the preliminary ethnography and visit all participating potters and ceramists. In total we have visited and interviewed twenty seven potters and ceramists in their workshops. During those visits we had the opportunity to discuss with them the objectives of our research program and to conduct initial interviews. We have been filming some of their potting and sculpting activities, discussed their techniques and materials. All the potters we visited have been very enthusiastic and willing to participate in our project. We have discussed with them a possible timeline for our next visits. This ethnographic part of our research program has been especially productive and conceptually fertile. We have already learned a lot and accumulated a great deal of information that we now analyse in order to design our research plans for our next visits in 2020.
From the very start of our project, and parallel to conducting our preliminary ethnography, we have set out to exploring new innovative cross-disciplinary methodologies that could enrich and complement our core ethnographic work. To that end we have been experimenting with the use of portable eye-tracking opening up new lines of anthropological enquiry. Working with the ceramist of our research group Paul March (who is also undertaking his PhD in Oxford under the supervision of Lambros Malafouris) and in collaboration with psychologists Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau and Wendy Ross from Kingston University we attempted our first pilot eye-tracking study at Paul’s workshop in Geneva. The use of eye tracking was intended to encourage Paul to become critically aware of his senses (especially the interplay between vision and touch). Paul constructed a clay sculpture for two days and we have recorded the full process, going back and forth between engaging with clay, watching eye tracking videos, and interviewing. We are now analysing our recordings exploring the benefits and the limitations of portable eye-tracking in the context of anthropological analysis and trying to set out how this innovative method could be productively incorporated in the context of our major ethnographic study in Greece in 2020. We plan to use eye-tracking to capture motion and to understand how the eye of the potter touches the clay (as the hand of the potter touches the clay). Ultimately, our concern is to understand the chronoarchitecture of action. We want to be able to follow the movement of the eye parallel to the movement of the hand and use that in the photo elicitation stage.
HANDAMADE also organised a number of small workshops, consultations and research visits where we had the chance to work closely with the project’s external collaborators and agree the main plan of actions and research activities for the next few years. In particular, the project was launched with the organisation of a two-day workshop in July at Oxford, focusing on the visual aspects of our research. We discussed methodological issues concerning the visual ethnography, and ideas about the visual outputs (especially the film and photographic exhibition). Technical issues concerning the purchase of cameras and other audio-visual equipment were also discussed. Shaun Gallagher (University of Memphis) came to Oxford twice and we discussed the philosophical and phenomenological dimensions of the project, followed by Erik Rietveld (University of Amsterdam) with whom we discussed the links between material engagement theory and the skilled intentionality framework and explored avenues of collaboration. Carl Knappett (University of Toronto) visited Oxford in June and we agreed to work together on issues of material agency and the affordances of clay. We also visited twice The Centre for the Study of Modern Pottery in Athens and had productive discussions with the curator Nikos Liaros with whom we agreed future collaboration. We discussed many ideas for both scientific and public engagement events and we will be able to agree a more specific plan and timeline in the following months.
Last, we are pleased to report a number of research outputs and publications as well as the establishment of new collaboration in the area of mental health that will provide avenues for enhancing the social impact of the project and our research. In particular, the links between material engagement and mental health, how the one affects and impacts the other, was the theme of a cross-disciplinary workshop that took place between 1-2 of April 2019 at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. The workshop brought together a range of specialisations from archaeology, anthropology, psychiatry, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, education, design, material science, art history and philosophy. This combination of theoretical perspectives and methods enabled productive dialogue across disciplinary boundaries on the material basis and ecology of mental health and, importantly, on the role of crafts in enabling people to improve their psychological well-being. In addition, we launched the 1st edition of the project’s website to provide online platform for communication and exchange between practitioners, researchers, the project’s collaborators as well as key stakeholders and publics. This will be constantly updated with new material and videos from the field.
Although the main bulk of our ethnographic work had to be re-scheduled for 2021 due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the project has already made important progress, especially relevant to several theoretical and methodological issues. The constant development and refinement of the material engagement approach is already having an impact across the cognitive sciences changing the way we understand the boundaries of mind and offering alternative ways to conceptualize the dialogue between maker and material. Our study of pottery making activities provide a rich source of information about the cognitive ecology and phenomenology of craft which have wider societal implications especially in relation to issues of mental health and human wellbeing. Understanding the process of handmaking has never been as relevant and timely as it is today, in a world whose aesthetics and daily activities are increasingly determined by digital media and disembodied forms of expression and fabrication. HANDMADE will help us make better sense of the changing craft’s relation to digital design and to modern art. There are practical considerations, ethical considerations and ontological considerations here, not just about creativity and the human hand, but also, for the ways we relate to and touch the environment, how we understand and experience time and, above all, for how we make sense of the world and ourselves.