‘Any large-scale project, be it artistic, political or military is decidedly collaborative in nature. At the same time, collective experience as well as the intimation of worker autonomy, poses a potential threat to centralised, capitalist management.’ - Gregory Sholette
Labour and Authorship
Pottery is inherently sociable. Potters create vessels - containers or platforms for other things. Pots are also symbols of the collaborative nature of their creation - each element referencing its individual author (thrower, glazer, painter), yet comprising a unified, indivisible whole. Something so democratic, with such primitive foundations, seems to deny the notion of authorship, to organically come into existence.
It has been nearly 50 years since philosopher Roland Barthes declared the birth of the Reader at the cost of the death of the Author. For Barthes, ‘to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.’ Since its first publication in 1968, this discourse has stubbornly remained at the threshold of every critique concerning creative authorship, collaboration and participation. It has been dismissed, reclaimed, mythicised, and become disorientated throughout the rapid expansion of technology. Or, more accurately, the role of authorship itself is no longer a contentious issue. In the age of digital publication everyone is dying but no one is grieving.
Barthes’s text was written with specific reference to the singular author, critical of the blind association between creator and their work: ‘…criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.’ However, the 1960s saw the proliferation of political protest movements and their infiltration into the visual arts, the erosion of public and private and fundamentally, the popularisation of the collaborative unit termed ‘the collective.’
‘The Death of the Author’ is the perfect precedent for this social model of production in its opposition to any connection between character and artistic creation. The elimination of meaning attached to any particular author, or even any particular reading, facilities an attack of institutionalised hierarchies. The collective operates on political ideology - beliefs which transcend the individual. Here, meaning is not inextricably linked to the point of creation, but rather is in constant flux; Reader and Author inhabit the same space - forever oscillating between birth and death.
The practical framework of Poole Pottery during the 1960s and 70s both celebrates and negates Barthes’ dismissal of the Author. It is a remarkable juxtaposition of the support of authorship and the anonymity of manufacture. Operating on a small-scale production line, the pots were thrown by one potter, sprayed with a base glaze by another and then passed on to a ‘paintress’ to be hand-glazed.
The Delphis range, launched in 1963, is still one of the most popular examples of this configuration. Each piece is anonymously thrown but uniquely painted – with each paintress adding their own monograms next to the factory stamp on the reverse. These small, hand painted marks are visible indications of individuals working within a larger process. Subsequently, encouraged by the success of the Delphis, workers were allocated ‘Free Time’ - official respite in which to explore their own designs and creativity, further institutionalising personal authorship within a factory setting.
Free Time: Authored and Un-authored
In his 2015 project ‘Free Time’ artist Ian Giles adopted this historical set-up - with specific reference to the introduction of ‘Free Time’ into the factory routine. Taking on the role as ‘thrower’, Giles held workshops within a range of present-day local Poole businesses and manufacturers in order to facilitate the glazing aspect of the process. During break times and after-work sessions, he introduced employees from organisations including Lush Cosmetics Ltd, Hamworthy Heating and the RNLI to a range of glazing techniques. The result of these workshops is a large collection of multi-coloured hand-painted pottery, inspired by the vibrant designs that Poole Pottery is now renowned for.
This exchange of labour, and the original structure it mirrors at Poole Pottery, does not necessarily constitute a working collective - ideologically or practically. However, it does assume the principles of collaborative working; each element relies on the success of its predecessor and/or successor. Thus, it is simultaneously authored and un-authored, personal and anonymous. It both mirrors and challenges the autonomy of mass labour. In his project, Giles has analysed and re-created this juxtaposition, using his own labour to create a framework in which others can experiment creatively. In this sense, Giles has inverted the Poole pottery paradigm: in being the only ‘thrower’, this “laborious” aspect of the process has become unique and authored, while the glazers are numerous and their specific designs are unattributed.
If meaning is mutable then authorship, rather than being irrelevant, can also be mutable. The multiple points of exchange in Giles’ project allows for responsibility and authorship to fluctuate between artists, non-artists, participants, viewers, history and objects. The resulting objects themselves oscillate between disciplines, meanings and authors - imbued with their cumulative ethos. There is also a clear trajectory of dialogue which, in essence, is similar to a production line - an accumulation of skills and knowledge which culminate in a finalised product.
This dialogue began, and begins, with Giles and the institution of Poole Pottery. Through research and interaction with the various formations of the Pottery, Giles has recreated its historical and creative ethos. This framework was then adapted to formulate the workshops with local Poole businesses and residents - who share a a fundamental association with the town itself. The role of these group sessions within the project is two-fold: they are the crucial point of interchange between historical and personal references of the site, and they also produce the objects that will come to represent the project itself. It is this collection of pots which will be viewed and analysed as a finalised product - the last meeting point in the system of creation, but the starting point of dissemination.
Labour: Unstructured Structure
Predominantly, labour is not identified with the singular author, but instead with the masses. It is often associated with physical work, which, in turn, is commonly unacknowledged. Labour is collaborative - normatively, the efforts of ‘the people’ rather than ‘the individual.’ However, Poole Pottery’s introduction of ‘Free Time’ was a recognition of the potential success that can be derived from the combination of personal and collective motivations. Fundamentally, that is, the understanding that structure can nurture rather than hinder.
Facilitating personal artistic practice within a fully-functioning business model gives structure to the unstructured. It is supportive and productive, celebrating the worker, the maker, the artist - but within a limited environment. ‘Free Time’ is never completely free. Not when it aids the aims of the employer. But, employers can be blind to the quietly dangerous - the political potential of shared experience. That is, could the (intentional) embracement of the individual pose the biggest (unintentional) threat to the uniformity of the factory or workplace? Or, conversely, could this specific character flourish so vibrantly without the framing and support of an institution?
Giles’ resulting collection of collaboratively produced pots are an indication of the balance between many things: the personal and the mass-produced, structure and chaos, history and myth, but perhaps, most importantly, the delicate balance between two seemingly opposed phenomena: the institution and the individual.