Coming to Constellation with no background of studying philosophy, I found the arguments and concepts difficult to grasp at first. I feel I’ve been introduced not so much to a new field of knowledge but more to a new way of thinking about the world and my place in it. Initially I didn’t feel confident engaging in class discussions, worried I would say something ‘wrong’ or worse, silly, but as the year progressed I’ve realised these debates are more about questioning and thinking independently than knowing information, and I’ve started to grow in confidence and enjoy them. I feel I’ve significantly developed my critical thinking skills as well as my ability to listen to others and engage in debate. I’ve realised that I don’t have to agree with anything or everything, all things can be questioned and picked apart. Previously I’d considered my work in a historical context but not a philosophical one. Constellation has made me think about the theory that underpins my work and I feel it also gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artwork of others.
During the first term my study group was Martin Woodward’s ‘New Materialisms’ – an exploration of the debates surrounding phenomenology. Each week, as a group we took part in a different drawing or making activity and analysed the results. I felt this was a fantastic introduction to constellation because I was able to ground complex theories and ideas in something that felt real and concrete. In contrast, Clive Cazeaux’s ‘Things can be otherwise – an introduction to philosophy’ (my second term study group) was more centred on group discussions. Although I found these more and more valuable as the term progressed, I felt more engaged and remembered what I’d learnt better with interactive activities.
Previously I hadn’t questioned why I wanted to work with clay in much depth but learning about theories such as the agency of materials discussed by writers like Ingold and Jane Bennett have helped me better understand why I’m studying ceramics. For last term’s formative essay I wrote about the hierarchy of senses in society, and the more I researched about society’s oculacentric culture, the more I felt that ceramics and craft have an important role to play in making people aware of a more embodied existence where we pay attention to all our senses.
A book I received for Christmas about practicing mindfulness (which focuses on paying attention to all our senses) was an important catalyst in getting me interested in Eastern philosophy. I felt a breakthrough came for me during a class discussion in ‘Things can be otherwise’ about theories of technology which led to discussions about agency and the difference between eastern and western thought. I felt I’d fallen across something that really excited me. Finally, I could begin to draw connections with the ‘New Materialisms’ study group about how much we shape the world and are shaped by it in return. I found that eastern, specifically Japanese ideology was more in line with my definition of beauty and the values I hold important, so I chose to explore how eastern philosophy relates to material agency in my essay, using the work of Bernard Leach as an example.
Having spent time in the study groups analysing small passages of complex essays in detail, such as Joseph Jastrow’s ‘The Mind’s Eye’ I have learnt that by dedicating time and attention to pieces of writing that at first glance seem inaccessible, I can slowly begin to understand what the author is saying. As a next step I need to spend time practicing reading the style of academic writing I’m becoming more familiar with through Constellation. I feel the time I’ve already spent has been rewarding and enlightening as I begin to find connections between the theories of different writers. Although, having read Tim Ingold’s ‘Making’ I now know that academic writing doesn’t have to be dry and difficult to follow and this has reinforced the importance of knowing the audience you are writing for. What I especially like about Ingold’s writing is that he gives examples of activities he’s done to illustrate his theories, and like the activities we did in our study group, it makes them more memorable.
I felt the keynotes were a bit of a lottery, some being worthwhile but others not so much. One that really stood out for me was Cath Davies’s ‘Purple Haze’ in which she discussed how Art Nouveau had a heavy influence on 1960s Psychedelia culture. I became interested in the theory that nothing is really new, elements of past trends are just re-configured and combined with the present. I recognised this was why I’ve had an obsession with Quentin Tarantino films, because of how well Tarantino knows his film history. When potter Geoff Swindell visited CSAD to demonstrate his making techniques, he spoke openly of his distaste of potters today who work in the tradition of Bernard Leach, making pots that resemble those from ancient Japan. Although I agree it’s important to move with the times, before I dismiss this ceramic tradition as being old fashioned I want to better understand it so I can learn from it, hence why I wrote the essay about Japanese ceramics and philosophy. While constellation addresses theory, I feel what may be missing from my course is the historical context. I attended some of Jon Clarkson’s fine art lectures, but we have no equivalent for ceramics.
Above all constellation has taught me to ask questions even if at the present moment I can’t answer them. While subject deals with what and how I make, constellation deals with the equally important ‘why’. It has given me a more holistic approach to life and making, now that I begin to see the interconnectedness of materials, tools, the body and the environment. As a practitioner, this has made me more interested in exploring art that can be interacted with and is currently feeding into my centrepiece project where I hope to make a table centrepiece that can be played as a game.