Pots in Action: The ceramics project that made Instagram sparkle

Ayumi Horie

4 December 2019

Photo: Joe O’Leary and Peter Lee

Ayumi Horie reflects on the groundbreaking Instagram project, Pots in Action—why she started it and why she has decided to finish it.


(A message to the reader.)

@potsinaction has run its course; I’ve changed and so has Instagram. After 2,400 posts covering a vast range of clay and ceramics globally, @potsinaction will be archived as a website so it can remain a functional resource for the field. @potsinaction expanded a liminal space between pop culture and academia. It turned on people outside the field of ceramics to ceramics by introducing them to a world beyond Paint Your Own Pottery and stuffy museum cases. It became a staple resource for students doing research and for professionals in the field, it dug deeply into what we thought we knew well. For four years, this collaborative project consistently created new content and tried to show not only the best work, but also the unexpected and ubiquitous ways that clay touches lives.

In the early days of the Internet, and even on Instagram, it felt very much like a meritocracy. The more time I put into it, the more I got back. The feeds that created original content were gaining followers, unlike the feeds now that simply pirate material by reposting with no commentary. Instagram felt utopian and hopeful. Of course, the Internet is not dystopian, it’s just that the algorithm is gamed for advertisers and predictability, neither of which is interesting or motivating to me.

As individuals, how do we decide when to let go or when to become more resourceful? @potsinaction and I were effectively one entity for years. It worked for me to be habitually checking my phone and the research fed my curiosity. I found so many “wows” in ceramics: footage of Dutch ice skaters in 1919 shows skaters in a contest to see who could break the fewest clay pipes (no ordinary pipes, they looked like tangled balls of yarn) that had been pinned to their backs; Jal Tarang musicians from India tapping on ceramic bowls filled with water; and Georgian egg beaters that were basically jars with teeth. I found performance artist Lerato Shadi, who saved the memory of enslaved African peoples who committed suicide by eating clay in order to escape a lifetime of suffering, was a particularly intense post, as was Haakon Lenzi’s post about a rice bowl melted in the atomic blast in Hiroshima. Snapshots into industrial process’ like modern brick printing machines, and conductive plates, and 3D house printers are some of the ways we looked forward as well. These are just a few examples of what kept me and 120,000 followers interested.

The convergence of two precipitating factors has led my decision to archive the project. Disillusioned by the corporatization of social media and algorithm changes that discourage community engagement, I believe that @potsinaction will better serve the community if it is a searchable archive. Second, as a new mother, it’s time to let go and shift my focus to family, as I no longer have the time to give what @potsinaction demands.

Archiving @potsinaction will take time and I welcome input about how best to do it justice. We are seeking funds to help build out the website, so if you’ve enjoyed @potsinaction, please consider signing up to our mailing list to chip in later.

Two Chapters: Pots In Action and @potsinaction

To understand the history of Pots In Action is to recognize how it has succeeded because of the utopian promise of the Internet in the early aughts. Before people were drained by trolls, self-righteous and monotonous posts, there was a window of time in which these platforms actually worked well and brought people together.

Pots In Action has had two phases of development: the first began as a crowd-sourced Google Map and photo project in 2005 on my own website, www.ayumihorie.com, and the second began in 2014 when the concept broadened to encompass all ceramics and migrated to Instagram (@potsinaction).

Old School Blank Backgrounds

When I designed my website as a studio potter in 2001, the internet was still very young. Barely a handful of ceramic artists had websites and the images that most people saw of ceramic work were limited to singular objects on blank gray backgrounds in the form of academic slides and images in books. Even the few ceramic artists who had websites showed their work in this aseptic context. Having a background as a working photographer, it felt natural to put my work in context and my own experience of making and living with pots was wholly different than the sterile and removed visual depictions that were the norm.

Real Life Context

On my website and through printed postcards, I situated my work in “real life”, often showing them in use or in unexpected contexts. One early postcard showed an annoyed squirrel looking up from a bowl after being interrupted from a meal. Another was a plastic lenticular postcard of a Montana rancher who winks as he holds a steaming cup of coffee that blows in the wind. It was a moving picture, ala Harry Potter, that brought ceramics to life in a way that proceeded gifs by years. These kinds of banal images that situated pots outside of a white cube and into the messiness of life was what I wanted the world to see and reflect back to me.

Selling Online 2005

In 2005, I began to sell pots online at a time when people were still suspicious of inputting credit card numbers online and no one thought that people would buy something that they could not hold and touch. While I still had gallery shows, it was a deliberate move to focus on selling directly to users/customers/consumers. My website relied on selling lifestyle and on closing the gap between maker and user. In selling consignment to galleries I often felt cut off from those who used my pots. What the Internet afforded in those early days was a direct relationship to people outside a 100-mile radius to people who valued handmade pots. While this idea of selling online directly to customers is now mainstream, it was a new model fifteen years ago when a virtual kiln opening was unheard of. This business model of an independent maker without a middleman to “broker” a relationship with a user was also behind the idea for Pots In Action.

Pots In Action on my website

At the same time in 2005, I began to ask my customers for posed and candid images of my “pots in action” as a way to understand the lives of these objects after they left my studio. Hundreds of images came in over the next few years from all over the world, which I then plotted on Google maps, which had just been launched, to show their variety, function, and breadth. A cup overlooking Moscow from a penthouse apartment, a cup on a tractor on a farm in British Columbia, and one serving a cocktail on an inflatable raft in a Floridian pool are peepholes into the social lives of these inanimate, yet relational, objects. It was a creative dialogue between me and my customers that felt intimate and completed the satisfying loop between making and using.

Beginning

In many ways, the arc of Pots In Action has paralleled the introduction of online technological features and trends ranging from Google Maps to hashtag challenges to calls for justice. In 2014, I began the @potsinaction feed on Instagram as a way to continue to promote handmade pots to a larger world. By then, many makers had websites, but still needed help using social media as a tool for economic independence. At first, my focus was on helping makers see how quality images and interesting shots could help grow their brands and their businesses. Ceramic artists Lauren Gallaspy, Kristen Kieffer, Max Seinfeld, Adam Chau and Adam Field were early guest hosts who were already active on Instagram and acted as sounding boards about where this project could go.

Structure

@potsinaction has always been about shared knowledge. We could not have gathered such a large following of 120,000 if not for the community supporting us by participating in hashtag challenges, sharing information, and tagging friends. At Adam Field’s suggestion early on, I used Instagram’s Weekend Hashtag Project (#WHP) as a model for our themes which always started with #PIA. For example, if the theme was “performance in ceramics” then the hashtag would be #PIAperformance. Followers would tag relevant posts with the week’s hashtag. This was a way for people to crowdsource themes through shared knowledge and if they won the challenge, they would be reposted, moving traffic to their feed. On the last day of each challenge, the guest hosts and I would decide on winners.

The structure for @potsinaction was to invite well-respected makers and curators in the field to cover a topic in 7-21 posts for one to three weeks at a time. Unlike a typical “takeover,” the material they submitted was carefully edited. Using Dropbox and Google Drive, I would work with them fairly intensively over the course of weeks to tighten up media, writing, and content. Given how interesting ceramic art is and the myriad ways that clay has been used globally, the focus from functional pottery and photography broadened quickly to covering ceramics in general, including sculpture, performance, and conceptual art. Over the years, we hosted 120 themes by 87 guest hosts, many of them international.

Growth

During the first 3 years, followers and engagement for @potsinaction grew exponentially. @potsinaction filled a curatorial niche between academia and pop culture that no other feed was filling at the time. With the deluge of information online, students defaulted to searching online, skipping trips to the library altogether. My strategy in working with guest hosts was to prioritize video, which brought in engagement from a younger audience, with meatier static content, which often needed long captions. Variety within a theme was crucial to understanding how broad the orbit of clay and ceramics was in practice. We tagged our posts in a multitude of languages to reach out beyond the US.

Pushing the ceramic canon

The themes, which at first were formal in nature (color, pattern, shadows), shifted quickly to themes more particular to ceramics (#PIAprecariouspots, #PIAoutofthekitchen, #PIAtea, #PIAgathering, #PIAarchitecture) and then finally to themes that were regional and also sought to be more inclusive (#PIAlatinamerica, #PIAsouthafrica, #PIAindia and #PIAadoptedcountry, #PIAdoubleculture and #PIAculturalcontext). After the #metoo movement broke in the ceramics community in August of 2017, we ran #PIAbadasswomen with several different guest hosts including Tess Mattern, Carole Epp and Habiba El-Sayed in order to celebrate and highlight the contributions of women in a field long enamoured with machismo.

Our last theme, #PIAeducation, was exceptionally strong because it questioned the bedrock canon that modern studio ceramics has anchored itself to for 75 years. Erik Scollon, an educator from the California College of the Arts, poked holes in ceramic narratives that rarely have been re-examined, because we are a field built on legacy and being “nice”. This questioning could never have happened so effectively on any other platform. It took the real-time mix of insiders, outsiders, students, amateurs and professionals to foment more questions in response to his provocative posts.

Challenges

In 2018, we began to see our followership plateau for a few reasons. @potsinaction had always dabbled with political content and thought-provoking material, but we stepped it up. The more political or provocative a post was, the more followers we lost. In a way, we were honing the audience we wanted, instead of being driven by clicks and a safe position. At the same time, having a large followership gave us a voice. By using @potsinaction as a tool for activism, I felt that @potsinaction could make a difference in the field by giving visibility to people and groups often left out of discussions. Putting a moral stake in the ground for @potsinaction coincided with a shift in my own work addressing issues of social justice.

Concurrently, Instagram began a series of well-meaning, but counterproductive, rule changes in response to political disinformation and spamming. Some Instagram rules were explicit, others were based in rumors and educated guesses since their algorithm rules are always a bit mysterious. Memes, which are often used in “fake news”, were one of the kinds of posts that might be flagged. While our theme announcements would look similar to memes, they weren’t, but nonetheless were flagged. Repeated hashtags were also penalized, effectively killing our hashtag challenges and “shadowbanning” our feed. The dreaded shadowban, where a feed would be downgraded limiting exposure, was a consistent annoyance as was a move away from showing posts in chronological order. The Weekend Hashtag Project model that Instagram created now worked against us and community engagement dropped significantly. Furthermore, the algorithms preference for extreme edgy material and the fact that followers seem preference for predictability (so boring!) also made it hard to gain traction, as this wasn’t our model. Yes, we were posting a huge breadth of ceramics, but it wasn’t narrowly defined in the way that Instagrammers understood it.

Instagram also became more corporatized and monetized about that time, so that feeds that were not advertising were not as visible. Because it was no longer feasible to post spontaneously crowdsourced content, themes became more planned out and academic. The captions were longer and the themes became more thorough surveys on subjects, whether they were on regional areas or cross-disciplinary subjects like architecture or performance art. For better or worse, the nature of content changed from follower-driven to guest host-driven.

Over time, like so many things online, the mission of @potsinaction diverged from Instagram because its algorithms reward both predictable material and extreme posts. I’m no longer interested in having Instagram’s algorithms be the standard by which good content is judged.

Sustainability

Many of us volunteer time for something we care about, on top of our daily responsibilities. @potsinaction was my service to the field because I wanted a meeting house for all stakeholders in ceramics. There is such a diverse range of people doing amazing work out in the world that @potsinaction was a place that tried to bring together those outside the conversation and those inside, young makers and established educators, those of different abilities, those who are committed to tradition and those who are experimenting and asking bold questions. @potsinaction was an attempt to decentralize the conversation so people could make global connections and see what was happening beyond their sightlines.

On average, I worked 10-15 hours a week with guest hosts, who contributed an additional 20-40 hours for the themes they curated. A guideline that covered technical matters and best practices helped us organize the material well ahead of time, so there were no stressful last-minute scrambling (which isn’t to say it didn’t happen). When it became clear early on that it was an incredible amount of work, I switched from one-week themes to two to three week themes so it would be more manageable. When four posts a day became too much, I cut it down to one a day, so the content would play out longer as well. I filled in gaps in themed weeks with news and random material that I felt were important and interesting.

Having a baby is a transformational shift that has made me much more reflective about how I want to live and work, especially at this point in my career. I’m old enough to remember what life was like before computers and the internet, what it was like to have no digital distractions. While a baby is a distraction from work, it’s one I welcome, one that makes my life so much more rich and joyful. I’m more present now than I have been in years- thank god! It feels good to not be on my phone as much and we want our child to have healthy boundaries around technology. I used to call my life online my second studio practice and maybe it will be again, but right now it’s not sustainable the way it used to be. Besides, I need that extra hour of sleep!

The Future of @potsinaction

Looking back at @potsinaction, I think we pushed open the ceramic canon and brought in many people who never would have looked twice at ceramics. I’m grateful for all the guest hosts I worked with who generously contributed their expertise and their time for free. I never pursued grants or online revenue streams like Patreon, because I wanted to spend the extra time I had editing and curating, rather than cooking up incentives to donate. Moving off Instagram means being more independent and organizing information into searchable form. As an individual, I don’t know how to continue in a sustainable way, but am open to suggestions. I welcome contributions, ideas and thoughts about how @potsinaction can be the best resource it can be as it moves forward into its new iteration as a website.

You can donate to help preserve this important project here

Author

Ayumi Horie is a studio potter based in Maine, who co-founded The Democratic Cup, Pots In Action, Portland Brick, Obamaware and Handmade For Japan. She is a Distinguished Fellow in Craft at United States Artists and is a trustee at the American Craft Council and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

 

 

 

 


A sample of the Pots in Action project:

Lerato Shado

November 26, 2018
Guest Host Belinda Blignaut

 

Dutch clay pipes

February 15, 2018
Guest Host Ayumi Horie

 

Georgian egg beater

March 3, 2016
Guest Host- Michael Connelly

 

Jal Tarang

November 1st, 2017
Guest Host Teri Frame

 

Colonialism

June 22, 2019
Guest Host Erik Scollon

 

Hiroshima Rice Bowl

February 6th, 2019
Guest Host Haakon Lenzi

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Comments

  • Jaden Salama says:

    Ayumi Horie, wonderful article. I have been following PIA for a few years, but not closely, and didn’t know all of the thought and backstory that went into it, let alone that it was started and managed by just one person. Amazing! I would love to commend you and thank you for your addition to the world in your work on PIA, especially your (and your guests) inclusion of difficult topics. These topics are very relevant and necessary to the lives and the work of those who make things that last ad infinitum, especially those who have the privilege, power, and obligation to right some of the wrongs of the past, as well as not repeat those wrongs. In short, thank you. One of the things I appreciate the most about the PIA posts are the highly thought out, insightful, and provoking questions asked at the end of most posts. One question/comment I have, is that I believe the comments section of PIA is extremely valuable, and I think that there has been much wisdom shared there. I request that in the transfer process, thought is put to how those comments/threads can be transferred over into the post along with the picture(s)/video(s) and caption. Many thanks for reading this comment, and for all the work you have done and continue to do.

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