In many ways, our understanding of a craft object is deeply connected to its tactile nature. The way it feels when you hold and use it. The centrality of skilled hands in its construction and narrative. But what happens when this physicality is exclusively mediated through online spaces? According to cultural theorist Peter Walsh, we live in a time in which the “un-photographed, unpublished work of art exists in a kind of limbo. In fact … [it] can hardly be said to exist at all” (2007, p.30). Increasingly, a digital presence is a non-negotiable, legitimising part of creative professional practice. We are moving towards a future in which the most common way a craft practitioner will make their work public is through the internet. Short and curated documentation of work made—at least for the time being—flat and smooth behind glass screens.
Instagram is the most popular medium for sharing images of craft works: by September 2017, it had 800 million active users. The Australian ceramics community—largely facilitated through the Journal of Australian Ceramics account, @australianceramics – provides an example of practitioners using the platform to promote their work. I’ll draw on images from this community here as I explore this idea.
The process of touching is fundamental to how we understand objects. Touching allows us to quickly gain information about physical qualities such as scale, shape, texture, temperature, and materiality, allowing us to build up “haptic images.” However, when engaging with objects on Instagram – as in much of the online world—we can’t actually feel what we are looking at. That is not to say that the experience of using Instagram is exclusively visual. The contours of a smartphone guide your fingers outwards and up as your palm becomes a makeshift cradle. The screen is smooth—sometimes warm, sometimes sticky—under your thumb as you follow fixed lines of action: drag up or down for newsfeed, tap bottom left for like. The scale of the phone means small images are viewed closer to the body, creating a kind of intimacy. As Swedish writer Vaike Fors argues, the centrality of touch in engaging with photographs on a smartphone means “digital visuality is inherently embodied” (2015, p2).
While users can upload their own content, the framework of Instagram itself – the positioning of the search button, images presented in grids—is fixed. The platform, therefore, restricts the ways it is possible to navigate and engage with images and so leads to a limited vernacular of haptic interaction. Thus, when viewed via Instagram, the same set of physical experiences are activated for experiencing an earthenware pot as a porcelain teacup, or even a puppy or friend’s drunken night out. Through frequent repetition, we are largely able to disengage from the immediate physicality of using a phone. Navigating content draws on a kind of muscle memory as the phone becomes an extension of the body. Arguably then, for the Instagram viewer, literal touching and moving of the phone becomes merely a mechanism to explore imagined haptic images informed by the specific photos presented.
A lecturer from Vancouver, Laura Marks, in the context of film studies, uses the term haptic visuality to describe imagery in which the “eyes themselves act as organs of touch” (2002, p2). Although for Marks these images are normally non-figurative, her definition of visually accessed haptic images as “[encouraging] a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image” (2002, p.3) can be applied to the documentation of craft practice on Instagram. Drawing on our memories, we predict the tactile experience of surface textures visually presented to us. Studies indicate that, at least in terms of perceiving roughness, sight or touch alone are equally effective (Tiest & Kappers 2007, p. 179). While two images might literally “feel” the same on Instagram, sight nevertheless allows us to distinguish earthenware from porcelain and infer their alternate haptic natures.
Images of crafted objects have the capacity to amplify the signifiers of their tactility and form: textures can become hyperreal, surfaces more evocative and immediate than physical reality could allow. Reflected light creates long, spinning focal lines along smooth curves, encasing liquid bowls [Figures: 1-2]. Dense and competing visual detail infers rough cladding, indenting phantom fingertips [Figures: 3-4]. Eyes follow grooves along undulating forms, tracing surface [Figures: 5-6]. When presented in the composed image box of Instagram, signifiers of texture don’t need to be constrained by the objects alone. Background settings can be used to intensify and add nuance to our haptic understanding. Metallic backdrops may echo smooth and precise finishes or hint at a glittering glaze that comes alive under moving light [Figures: 7-8]. A wooden base may remind us of the natural, timeless and somewhat uncontrollable materiality of the ceramics above [Figures: 9-10]. The inclusion of the tools used to create texture – real or imagined – makes the surface an active site: texture is, through implication, reconnected to the physical movement that created its surface [Figures: 11-12].
Hyperreal haptic images are not limited to the physical-to-digital photographic translation of objects. Across the design sector, use of high-quality image manipulation and three-dimensional rendering in place of photographing actual objects is on the rise. Around 75% of the IKEA catalogue is now computer generated. We are moving towards a future where most of the commercially advertised objects we see online will be “fake”, unblemished by the “imperfect” realities that come with physicality. However, owning and articulating the human-centred nature of its making is key to the allure of the artisanal object. The decision to make things by hand is an active choice. It can be seen as a deliberate stand against the increasing industrialisation and digitisation of object production. But how can this resistance be communicated in an entirely digital medium? Sydney academic Fiona Cameron argues, in the context of museology, that the known presence of the original form ‘acts as an alibi for the virtual [object]’ depicted in the image (2007, p.58). Thus, for craft practitioners, beyond simply documenting form, photos must also exhibit physical, albeit remote, reality.
One way to demonstrate this is by extrapolating the materiality of the object. When presented in its ‘raw’ state – slabs of clay, tubs of glaze – the materials can act as proof of a base or starting point [Figures: 13-14]. Elsewhere objects are presented in a state of flux: a point of transition as the material is, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, tamed into form [Figures: 15-16]. Even when finished, objects may still wear their material immediacy or fragility as a primary aesthetic [Figures: 17-18]. This presentation of materials can be read as a declaration, consciously distinguishing craft objects from the prefabricated and frequently materially anonymous aesthetic of commercial mass production. As argued by US jeweller Bruce Metcalf, the more an object manifests its medium – and the disciplines and traditions connected to that medium—the more craft-like it is (1999).
When objects are finished products, it may be harder to differentiate the form from a hypothetical computer-generated counterpart. However, image composition can be used to prove physical, or “real world”, context. The inclusion of foliage in an image of ceramic vase demonstrates function [Figures: 19-24]. It also acts as a proof—both metaphorically representing the raw and earthy, and practically, by including a source of visual complexity that is still challenging to realistically reproduce digitally. Similarly, the inclusion of pets creates another source of visual complexity that simultaneously grounds the object through a connection to domestic spaces [Figures: 25-30]. But perhaps the best way of proving an object’s physicality is by presenting the handmade process of making and the object in relation to the human body.
Over recent years, the story of artisanal provenance has become as important—sometimes even more important—to the viewer as aesthetics or functionality (Cormier 2015). Thus, documentation of the process of making acts to both prove physicality and authenticity, and to construct a provenance narrative. When documenting making, the focus moves from the implicit tactility of the object itself to the active and performed touch of the artisan at work. That is not to say that this haptic interaction is entirely separate to an observer’s embodied viewing of the image. As US Professor Di Benedetto has observed, touch witnessed at a distance and presented as a performance can still be felt as if it were ourselves interacting with the object (Di Benedetto 2010). As in dance or theatre, we are able to experience, to varying degrees, kinesthetic empathy—projecting our bodies into the image.
Many images of the artist at work feature the part-made object still physically connected to its maker. In the world of ceramics, perhaps the most common example of this is the photograph of the artisan at their wheel [Figures: 31-36]. Often caught is a state of apparently unguarded flow– a simple vignette of hands, water and fast turning clay. However, the performance of craft does not always need to be a documentation of the making process itself. Traces of making sit on the body, recording a process undertaken out of sight [Figures: 37-40] or the artist is shown in a utilitarian uniform [Figures:41-42]. Images of messy studios show residue left behind at sites of making [Figures: 43-48]. Tools – either documented during a “work in progress” or presented with exacting precision – indicate unseen skill [Figures: 49-54], a reminder that only through practised use can they create beautiful forms.
The objects themselves can also function as a marker of past action. In the world of extended supply chains and anonymously produced goods, we can easily forget how long it takes to actually make something. The documentation of artisanal process makes visible the embedded temporality of production that exists within all objects. Rather than measured in minutes and hours, here time is collected in movements of the body—clay onto wheel and foot onto peddle, palms enclose and mould, thumbs dig down, hands throw upwards, wire cuts base and the process begins again. As Marx observed, an object can be viewed as labour fixed in time through conversion into form (Marx 1858). Thus, a final craft object can be seen as a unit of time—of past action—and, when shown en masse, becomes a measurement standardised through repetition [Figures: 55-60].
Kinaesthetic empathy can be amplified through the composition of the images themselves. Sydney academic Michele Zappavigna argues that Instagram has led to a type of “you could be here with me” photography where, through partial inclusion of the photographer’s body, images ‘invite the viewer to imagine themselves into the frame’ (Zappavigna 2016, p.2). Perhaps this technique can be best seen in photographs of objects being used. When viewing these images, we can project ourselves onto the partial figures depicted – those are your hands pouring the milk, holding the spoons, reaching for the strawberries [Figures: 55-60].
These photographs not only allow us to imagine a relationship between the forms depicted and our own bodies. Through constructed or styled settings additional symbolic meaning, brand value or even “aura” may be added to the crafted form. More often than not, within documentation of craft practice, this value is linked to ideas of simplicity, mindfulness, and wholesomeness. We don’t just see a coffee mug – we see having enough time to relax with a novel [Figures: 67-68]. Handmade plates would enable us to start cooking healthy, gourmet meals from produce grown in the garden [Figures: 69-70]. The only thing stopping us from taking time out and enjoying a lazy breakfast in bed is the lack of artisanal serving wear [Figures: 71-72].
Rather than viewing recordings, or reproductions, of physical ‘original’ forms as being reductive and without aura – as argued Walter Benjamin (1936) – we are increasingly recognising that digital recordings of objects have ‘material expression in [their] own right’, in the words of Melbourne academic Andrea Witcomb (Witcomb 2007, p.36). The act of documenting the crafted object can be seen as a continuation of the creative act: the object acts as a static node from which a multiplicity of representations can then be constructed. Within this framework, platforms such as Instagram offer another kind of tool to be used by, and even to extend the work of, the contemporary craft practitioner.
As we move further into the twenty-first century, digital and online presentation will be an inevitable part of craft’s future. The craft practitioners of the future will explore boundary points between sight and touch, between making and made form and between object and digital aura.
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Yasmin Masri is an artist and creative producer, living and working between Canberra (Ngunawal and Ngambri land) and Sydney (Guringai land). Yasmin has previously worked on events including: the DESIGN Canberra festival, the Australian Ceramics Triennale and the London Design Biennale. She has also taught craft and design subjects at the ANU School of Art and the Canberra Institute of Technology. Currently, Yasmin is Creative Producer at Hotel Hotel.