Life of Clay

A short essay

Made in ceramic workshop, Manufaktura Radovljica, 9.-13. September, 2019

Tutors: Lukas Wegwerth, Nicolas Coeckelberghs, Urban Magušar

If we think we already know what is out there, we will almost surely miss much of it.

Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter

We can find abundant quantities of earth as soil or dry land (latin: terra) in all inhabitable parts of the world, it might just be the most fundamentalmaterial there is. Clay, contained by most sorts of soil, is produced from weathering granite stones and represents the smallest particles among sediments like sand and silt. The refined application of clay has evolved through one of the longest human-material interactions in history; from basic vernacular shelters in impoverished regions of the world to complex engineered ceramic composites in modern technology (there is more ceramic than metal parts in 21st century cars). Various interest groups that include architects, designers and craft practitioners are using clay as their primary material however only a few are sourcing it by themselves. Due to its labour-intensive and highly unpredictable nature they tend to neglect its elemental, experimental character. Efficacy and predictability of the material behaviour dictates the industrial processing of raw clay to a degree where the material loses its autonomous vitality - being an actant in the creative process. Can we revitalize the material’s creative agency through a more nonanthropocentric approach? Can we identify any vital characters of the material that would reinvigorate our practice? Can letting the material lead the creative process help us understand its behaviour better? Are there ecological benefits of building non-hierarchical relationships with the working material? Can this lead to a more respectful exploitation of our natural resources? 

During the Made in workshop in Radovljica, practitioners tried to embrace the ambiguous, but playful notion of stepping into the dark with clay and getting to know it from scratch. Spending time with the material from its source habitat at the riverbanks, tactile operation in the workshop, to kiln-firing and eventually breaking it apart again, returning back to the beginning of its life-cycle. During a week long investigation of the material composition and construction properties, the ambition was also to explore a wider range of social, political and geographical topics related to clay.

The workshop was hosted by Urban Magušar, an experienced potter from Radovljica, who coordinated a small-scale ceramic process and Nicolas Coeckelberghs, an architect from Brussel’s BC Architects, who took the lead in the architectural examination of earth samples to produce building bricks from rammed earth and adobe mixtures (earth with straw as reinforcement). Participants came from various backgrounds, majority from non-ceramic lineage, which posed another juxtaposition of experts and newcomers - craft masters and young designers. Fresh insights into the process were had that include mixing the glaze directly with the clay and perform single firing for a more sustainable approach. Bisque firing or first firing, before applying the glaze, evolved in history as a more controlled and efficient process for creating certain effects and qualities of ceramic pieces. But can it be rethought in the contemporary? Could we melt the glaze without clay? Mix clay with synthetic material? These may seem like naive questions to an experienced ceramicist, but for a newcomer it feels like an exciting pathway worth exploring. Not having any experiences with the process provides means of inventing new ways of handling the material which can lead to more contingent, non-predictable results. 

Through the tactile soil examination we tried to analyse material ingridients and their functional attributes. Opposite to the round shaped sand and silt, particles of clay come in forms of thin leaves and together with water act as a friction agent that hold the form in place. Sand and stones prevent shrinking and cracking, while adding straw stems provides strength and cohesion. Various tests of soil quality can be easily executed on site of excavation and define the technique of the building method (or method of use). If there is a lot of clay in the soil, we can clean and fire it, while with a lot of sand and other organic materials, the soil is more suitable for making building bricks.

Natural glaze used for ceramics can come from soil as well, as Urban explained in an almost romantic story: the water flows over rocks and stones picking up minerals, before the trees take it up by their vascular tissues. When the wood is burnt, the minerals are extracted and can then be applied to clay as a glaze. Minerals oxidize on high temperatures and form a sintered chemical structure, similar to making glass. Thirteen main mineral compounds of natural glazes consist of potassium, calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, iron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, boron and chlorine. There are unlimited number of combinations of these mineral compounds that can be prepared for a glaze. Our mixture of burnt wood ashes produced some interesting results, with each different clay body having a unique, colorful effect. A little incident of overfiring a first kiln caused quite some curiosity and called for more attention. A certain tile made of dug-out clay (10x10x1cm) turned out black and very porous - inflated almost like it would explode. We identified the piece was exposed to extreme temperatures just above the gas blower, reaching over 1,100C. Together with the mixed-in flux mineral (Borax*) it vitrified and changed its appearance and composition dramatically (*due to time restrictions of the workshop, we had to take advantage of certain shortcuts in the process – such as using the extracted mineral Borax as a flux, an agent that lowers the melting temperature of a glaze, so the pieces can be fired at lower temperature). We also used experimental gas kilns and shortened the firing time from 20 to 2 hours, which undeniably affected the results, but kept the general process intact.

The extreme improvisatory design practice builds a robust, yet subjective knowledge of the material. While it is essential to write down precise quantified experiment data to be able to replicate the production, the most innovations happen when we detour from the pre-set plan and introduce new features to the process. There are many variables to play with besides the position in a kiln: temperature flow, time exposed to certain temperatures, material mixtures, level of clay viscosity and dryness, weather that can effect the firing. The kiln works as some kind of a black hole with pieces coming out shattered, exploded, bubbly, inflated or plainly beautiful. Many times asking  questions during firing seemed irrelevant: ‘there is no easy answer’, ‘depends on so many things’, or subjectively, ‘in my opinion it is like this’.

Firing clay has a performative affinity to observe details on how the material behaves in the process of becoming, but only for ceramicists being present with the process. Knowledge with the material flow is available to the ceramicist, similarly to an improvisational musician when practicing. But the music is performed or recorded in time, while the ceramic object stays frozen in it. The result many times ends up being more interesting for the author, or ceramicists, than for the general public who are withheld access to participate in the process or at least hear the report of the event. The effect of the performative experience is taken to extremes in Korea and Japan with the burning of anagamas, huge wood-burning kilns. These kilns can take a couple of days before the pieces are fired, while vast amounts of woodfire is thrown into the kiln manually. The firing becomes a spectacle, an engaging social event where several artists gather and exchange experiences.

An interesting performative aspect when firing clay can be observed also from the materialistic point of view: the matter is forming itself during the firing. The becomings of the form and material join in the same event, an intimate interplay of form and matter in the enclosed kiln. In his book Making, Tim Ingold emphasizes that disctincting form and matter in the creative process is unsustainable. He proposes that the craftsman needs to look into forces of the material as its main properties, as an agent of form definition. He investigates some sort of prophecy comparing to prediction, which ends up being more sensous and participatory. The act of making is to be able to immerse in the material and then step out and reflect on it from a distance, not being in control of its flow, not working on an object with the pre-defined goal, but by feeling only. We can observe similar building strategies with vernacular architects, building with local clay in it’s native site, together with the dweller, figuring out the material and form according to the local environment’s social and geographical specificities.

Nicolas Coeckelberghs (BC architects) demonstrated a similar vision with an experience building earthen bricks in Africa. He explicitly stated that the workshop was not primarily to help the local people with building houses, but as a way to learn about the material and the process in a different country where earth material persists as an elemental source to the indeginous people. When they reached the building site in Morocco, they had to forget what they learned so far and immerse themselves in the local, being guided by the immediate environment not knowing exactly where it would lead them. Only later, when coming back to Belgium, they were able to reflect on the project and start a new business making earthen bricks for the European market. The juxtaposition of the unexpected and being able to adapt to any environment reflected back later with an innovative re-adaptation. Introducing earth bricks to European market is not an easy endeavor, as compared to fired bricks, earth is 20 times less durable and prone to collapse when exposed to significant amounts of rain and water. But some specific material features like moisture regulation, heat insulation, sound proofness and microwave mitigation might still be very applicable to some particular contexts. In many cases fired bricks are an overkill for construction, such durability is not needed and can be solved in different ways such as larger roof overhang.

Together with Lukas Wegwerth we defined several other issues surrounding the use of local materials. Sourcing local clay, for example, is facing serious legal issues. To be eligible for selling ceramic objects, the craftsman needs a certificate similar to land-mine industries. Further on, selling home-made ceramic tableware is illegal without proper tests for food contact which can be difficult to obtain. Can we establish some kind of a test center for ceramic craftsmen to support and help with legal paperwork? Should ceramic products have labels with material ingredients and source locations? Material sourcing has become an industry by itself and as such has restricted small crafts initiatives. Maybe such workshops can initiate some legal mechanisms to modify the laws accordingly.

If we would try to pursue the Made in workshop again, it would probably turn out very differently, also due to wide-ranging content and condensed timeline set up in the workshop schedule. We did not produce many tangible products, however some objects and things (as process remnants) generated interesting discussions and starting points for further investigation. The acquired experiences are prepared to spring up later working with other materials as well. We switched the design process from finding the right material mixture for the predefined purpose, to follow the material behaviour, finding properties that can initiate a particular function. This approach empowers a personal alliance with the material. Process ramifications feed the tacit experience in the form of feedback loops, offering more and more initiative points. Experienced craftsmen can be compared to alchemists, ancient experimental scientists, nurturing an interdependent relationship with the material for decades, continually finding curiosities worth exploring. We just got a brief look into the vast world of clay and felt that many things would be exciting to pursue further.

References in alphabetical order:

Frederick L. Olsen: The kiln book, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2011
Jane Bennet: Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, 2010
Suzanne Staubach: Clay, Penguin Putnam, 2006
Tim Ingold: Making, Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2013