21st Century Ceramics

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21st Century Ceramics Art Monthly July 1995 81:21-22

In Australia's own revolutionary manifesto, the Creative Nation statement, multimedia is presented as the country's ticket to the `new world order'. Here culture finds a place in Paul Keating's broader mission to open Australian markets to global competition. In a recent speech, however, the Prime Minister confessed a certain reservation about the capacity of new media to transform everyday life, a doubt which he limits to his own generation. He intoned: `So, despite our reasonable doubts about the capacity of technology to change the things which really matter - like love, laughter, life and death - we say "Yes". This "Yes" is justified as a commitment to the more technologically literate `kids' who will inherit these reforms. What does this "yes" mean for a traditional craft like ceramics?

`Yes', potters will place images of their work on Internet and this will widen their potential clientele beyond local galleries and markets. At the same time, potters will converse through email discussion lists (e.g., [email protected]) and exchange ideas about wheels, glazes and kilns with fellow practitioners around the world. And, `Yes', eventually a kind of virtual pottery will evolve, using computer aided design to produce images of work which will not exist outside the net. The most interesting aspect of the `Yes' option is what's missing. Though the absence of clay might seem a necessary economy in order to facilitate the circulation of information, it's quite reasonable to speculate that this loss may be the very purpose of such a move. We should always wonder whether it's the end which justifies such a means, or the means which justifies the end.

Our Future in Bits

For information revolutionaries, matter is more than inconvenient, it is a scandal. The head of MIT Media lab, Nicholas Negroponte, encapsulates this attitude in his recently published book, Being Digital. Matter for him is limited to atoms, whereas information is made of their metaphysical essence: bits. The world of atoms is bulky, provincial and monologistic. By contrast, the world of bits is ethereal, global and interactive.

His main target is the print media. Though technological innovations have accelerated the input of information into the newspaper office, the output still relies on atoms: `the entire conception and construction of the newspaper is digital, from beginning to end, until the very last step, when ink is squeezed onto dead trees. This is the step where bits become atoms.'3 In the digital future, news will no longer require its payment in sap, medical science will stop butchering real animals for research and online travel will reduce our dependence on fossil-burning vehicles.

How could we resist this digital world? The global information revolution offers to rid our lives of everything that burdens us most: ecological waste, xenophobia, foreign debt, just to mention a few evils. That we have nothing left to put our hands on besides computer prostheses seems a small price to pay.

What's required of any counter argument is the kind of scepticism which Freud used to see around the corners of the official moralities prevalent at the end of the Victorian era (more recent attempts to see around Freud himself notwithstanding). In ascribing motivation to consequences of action, rather than intentions, Freud was able to explain why a society which professed purity of mind should be so obsessed with sex. So why the obsession with matter in the current drive to digitalisation?

In Australia's own revolutionary manifesto, the Creative Nation statement, multimedia is presented as the country's ticket to the `new world order'. Here culture finds a place in Paul Keating's broader mission to open Australian markets to global competition. In a recent speech, however, the Prime Minister confessed a certain reservation about the capacity of new media to transform everyday life, a doubt which he limits to his own generation. He intoned: `So, despite our reasonable doubts about the capacity of technology to change the things which really matter - like love, laughter, life and death - we say "Yes". This "Yes" is justified as a commitment to the more technologically literate `kids' who will inherit these reforms. What does this "yes" mean for a traditional craft like ceramics?

`Yes', potters will place images of their work on Internet and this will widen their potential clientele beyond local galleries and markets. At the same time, potters will converse through email discussion lists (e.g., [email protected]) and exchange ideas about wheels, glazes and kilns with fellow practitioners around the world. And, `Yes', eventually a kind of virtual pottery will evolve, using computer aided design to produce images of work which will not exist outside the net. The most interesting aspect of the `Yes' option is what's missing. Though the absence of clay might seem a necessary economy in order to facilitate the circulation of information, it's quite reasonable to speculate that this loss may be the very purpose of such a move. We should always wonder whether it's the end which justifies such a means, or the means which justifies the end.

Our Future in Bits

For information revolutionaries, matter is more than inconvenient, it is a scandal. The head of MIT Media lab, Nicholas Negroponte, encapsulates this attitude in his recently published book, Being Digital. Matter for him is limited to atoms, whereas information is made of their metaphysical essence: bits. The world of atoms is bulky, provincial and monologistic. By contrast, the world of bits is ethereal, global and interactive.

His main target is the print media. Though technological innovations have accelerated the input of information into the newspaper office, the output still relies on atoms: `the entire conception and construction of the newspaper is digital, from beginning to end, until the very last step, when ink is squeezed onto dead trees. This is the step where bits become atoms.'3 In the digital future, news will no longer require its payment in sap, medical science will stop butchering real animals for research and online travel will reduce our dependence on fossil-burning vehicles.

How could we resist this digital world? The global information revolution offers to rid our lives of everything that burdens us most: ecological waste, xenophobia, foreign debt, just to mention a few evils. That we have nothing left to put our hands on besides computer prostheses seems a small price to pay.

What's required of any counter argument is the kind of scepticism which Freud used to see around the corners of the official moralities prevalent at the end of the Victorian era (more recent attempts to see around Freud himself notwithstanding). In ascribing motivation to consequences of action, rather than intentions, Freud was able to explain why a society which professed purity of mind should be so obsessed with sex. So why the obsession with matter in the current drive to digitalisation?

acouncil.gif (1263 bytes)Full text of this article is published in the July 1995 issue of Art Monthly (GPO Box 804, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia). This article and the three to follow are assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.