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The Power of Mud

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Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace. Fiona Jack, Riverbed, as installed at Artspace.

Perhaps you're questioning whether 'Riverbed' comes across a little too idealistic at points: sitting there, warm and cosy on a mat, made to feel safe within challenging conversations, all-the-while undertaking a potentially kindergarten-esque task. The wider world is not nearly this rose-tinted, or comfortable. Hundreds of clever, strong-minded people are picking up clay, every day, in this city and across the world, and it's yet to start a revolution.



Fiona Jack


16 November 2018 - 2 March 2019

Riverbed began as a wide-reaching and ambitious series of workshops, devised and led by artist Fiona Jack, in collaboration with activist and educator Sue Bradford, and Kotare, New Zealand’s school for social change. Jack’s positioning of the work of Bradford and Kotare as a centre-point and driving force within the project, echoes the framework of her 2016-2018 work for the Glasgow Women’s library, entitled Our Red Aunt, which circles the story of her great, grand aunt, Helen Crawfurd, radical activist and Scottish suffragette (1877—1954).

Following practices used to great effect by Bradford and Kotare, the exercises included in Riverbed‘s programme are grounded in Paulo Freire‘s concept of conscientization, or critical consciousness; a methodology of pedagogical practice grounded in Marxist theory (1). Conscientization focuses on achieving an in-depth understanding of the world, through raising the awareness of collective consciousness to a level where multiple political and social views may be simultaneously understood (2).

Kotare’s Freire-informed mission statement is powerful — their work centres on helping others to ‘regard the world with clear vision, speak with a strong voice and act with a bold heart’.

The image of a rock runs through the Glasgow exhibition, and into Jack’s Artspace project, originally attached to a story of Helen hurling a rock through a window that belonged to Jack Pease, the United Kingdom’s Minister of Education, in 1912. She was consequently arrested, and the action went on to inform a work of the artist’s, included in Our Red Aunt; consisting of approximately 2,000 river stones, engraved with Helen’s words; ‘In the hands of the proletariat’, piled in a large sack, free for any visitor to take home in their own hand.

Riverbed extends this empowering, stone-based action, with Jack inviting workshop contributors to craft rocks from clay, while engaging in group discussions, and moving through a series of diverse, Friere-based talking-thinking exercises. These sessions took place at Karangahape Road’s Artspace, and out at Kotare, in Wellsford. The title Riverbed references the dual nature of each event, with conversation and making intertwining, as the course of a river shapes the stones that line it.

Perhaps you’re questioning whether Riverbed comes across a little too idealistic at points: sitting there, warm and cosy on a mat, made to feel safe within challenging conversations, all-the-while undertaking a potentially kindergarten-esque task. The wider world is not nearly this rose-tinted, or comfortable. Hundreds of clever, strong-minded people are picking up clay, every day, in this city and across the world, and it’s yet to start a revolution (3).

What’s more, when considering the task of organising a collective towards radical discussion (and ultimately action), Jack’s approach of extreme inclusivity may be seen as overly optimistic. Workshop participants have covered massive diversity. While Jack’s background as an activist, artist and teacher has drawn many others working across art and social change, beyond that, a huge range of wildly different people have been involved in the project, with voices as varied as the rocks they’ve formed.

Each workshop session has involved contributors from an impressive range of vocations, and stages of life—together forming a reaching web of connectivity, that has continued to expand in a loose and open way, throughout the course of the project.

While the ‘anybody is welcome’ message may be seen by some as too sprawling to be rigorously critical, I would argue that Jack and Bradford’s conscious effort to invite in, and then truly value voices from many different contexts, fits clearly with Friere’s pedogogical methodology. Such diversity in participants creates ideal conditions for better understanding a range of perspectives; various bubbles of sub-culture may be popped, offering us all a wider or longer view.

The idea that Riverbed may be at all soft, fluffy, or romantic is quickly dispelled when you look at Jack’s methods. These workshops are durational, and intense; involving vast amounts of both talking and listening, often around difficult topics (4). Out at Kotare, the two-to-three day group workshops have featured multiple making and talking sessions per day, sustained by intermittent eating, walking, and napping. Thousands of rocks, and thousands of thoughts. This approach has allowed people to learn slowly, at self-determined pace, while generating many, many conversations — the effects of which will continue to ripple outwards for a long time to come.

Following this durational vein, Jack cites the late Michael Asher as a significant influence in Riverbed’s development (5). This is tied to Asher’s radical style of pedagogy; notably the infamous twelve-hour critiques that made up his Cal Arts class, which Jack took in her late twenties, during her Masters.

With a single artwork under examination for an entire day, or longer, the marathon-like quality of this exercise influenced the style in which students engaged with each other, and their environment. Eating and napping happened while the work continued to be stripped down to its bones; viewed from this way, that way, upside down and inside out. In terms of seeing something from multiple perspectives simultaneously, it sounds as though Asher had a no-nonsense, no short-cuts approach.

The work of Kotare, Asher, and Jack intersect in exploring what can happen to thought or perception after many hours of talking around a topic, turning it over, separating its constituent parts, and tilting the light on it again and again. Riverbed may be sprawling in its inclusivity, but has encouraged genuine depth of engagement and experience, partly through the sheer time spent.

Finally, returning to the juvenile associations linked with communal ceramic work, or worse; clay’s ties to occupational therapy. In the face of such reservations, my personal opinion that child-like play is fantastic, and craft-based therapy of any kind should be far more widely utilised, is irrelevant, as clay is simply the exact material needed to glue Riverbed together, nothing else could be quite so successful, largely because of clay’s less-than-highbrow qualities.

The fun, feel-good aspect of clay work is well known, but what happens when you take this slow flush of animal well-being, and direct it towards positive social action? Scale this up to the level of Riverbed, with its involvement of over 140 people, and you start to see that clay can really contribute to intensive, open learning.

How so? Firstly, clay soothes. An hour or so of toying with mud often leaves the maker with a palpable feeling of calm. The goopy stuff is cool and squashy to touch, an immediate balm to all types of trouble. I find it brings a sense of groundedness, as if all the molecules in my body have received an earthy recalibration. From this state, problem solving is possible; I’m relaxed, much less inclined to catastrophise, and better equipped to work systematically towards a solution. Good therapy is extremely expensive, good stoneware starts at $20 for 20kg.

Leaving the Riverbed workshops was an experience of re-entering the evening in a fresh state of mind, perhaps tired, but nourished, easy in myself. From the gentle conversations had between friends, as we returned to our modes of homebound travel, I know I was not alone in this feeling.

But besides soothing, clay gives real power. Change starts in the hand. One of the qualities of claywork I love most is its ability to empower the maker through the instant manifestation of new forms. To look at a fresh object I have just made, that was until recently a lump of muddy substance, is irrefutable evidence of my ability to bring about generative transformation. An object made by one’s hand, quality or otherwise, is a demonstration of the maker’s potential to radically alter the matter around them, be this physical material, or abstract modes of thinking and being.

Within Riverbed, this feeling was accentuated by the extreme graspability of both clay and rocks. The grabbing, squeezing, compacting and rolling motions involved in forming a simple, palm-sized rock gives the maker a base feeling of motivated progress — a ‘mammal-deep’ sensation of using hands as hands were built to be used (6). How natural it feels to grasp a rock in your fist, use it to pound fibre, break open a nut, hurl it through a window… It is an old kind of embodied knowledge. Here, the haptic accessibility of clay matches the social inclusivity of Jack and Bradford’s workshop invitations; everyone gets it, bring your mum, or your kid, it’s truly for anybody.

Ceramic making practice naturally draws people together. There is a built-in social quality to claywork. Simple muddy tasks compliment many types of conversation; the kinetic fiddling often helps thoughts flow, and provides an escape hatch for a bit, if you’re tired and talked-out. It’s easier to speak about difficult things while you’re hanging onto a nice, solid, squishy lump of stuff. Clay creates collectives, organically, through its inherent appeal, then it does some amazing things while people spend time together, in a mud state.

It is this social, collective element that sits at the heart of Riverbed. Jack insists that more may be achieved together, as a chorus rather than a solo shout, as a bed of 4,000 rocks rather than a single stone. When it is common to feel a sense of impotence in the face of ignorance, illness, and political, institutional, or environmental violence; that mammal-deep sense of having the capacity to alter conditions, as one amongst many, is beyond useful, it is vital.

If the body of astonishing rocks, woodfired, gleaming, each with a distinct character, and an individual record of thought and feeling, exists as Riverbed‘s physical manifestation — the more significant outcome of the workshop series has been the generation of a different type of matter entirely; an abstract platform of fertile ground, populated by a feeling that change is possible, and that each individual’s actions will contribute.

I think of the after life of these rocks, taken home by participants, family and friends, gifted for Christmas, lining window sills, setting up camp on bedside tables, gathering dust, their shining surfaces getting the odd rub with an old, gingham tea-towel.

How can we ensure that Riverbed’s other, less tangible outcome, that feeling of potential for radical change, and an awareness of our own power to contribute to it, remains alive, and does not fade to a rosy memory, fixed inside a rather beautiful, smoke-glazed memento?

Somewhere between the quickness of clay, and the slowness of geological change, is the pace at which we might alter the way we live; how we treat other beings, and how we treat the earth. Nowhere near as instant as generating a clay rock, it will take many, many conversations to begin to raise our awareness, shift our value systems, and our modes of operating in the world.

Jack’s project, and the work of Kotare, emphasise that this is possible, but it is a task as continuous and wending as any waterway, and obviously can’t be accomplished within a single project. Such shifts require many of us to enter the currents of social change, and keep swimming in them. It takes dedicated labour to alter the course of a river, too much work by far for any individual to ever get through. But taken a single rock at a time, thousands of hands might do it.

Becky Richards

(1) Paulo Friere; Brazilian educational theorist (1921 - 1997)

(2) The English term ‘conscientization’ is a translation of the Portuguese ‘conscientizacão’.

(3) At least one that stands outside of the Bernard Leech inspired “flee-to-the-countryside” studio pottery revolution. Which still sounds appealing, to be frank.

(4) Riverbed‘s discussions focused on topics ranging from the legacy of politics in Aotearoa, to radical pedagogies, the empowerment of women, a discussion of reform vs revolution, to thinking around what an art school could be. The three-day Kotare summer school, held in late January 2019, featured a series of workshops (and a pit firing) digging into the ‘importance of hope and vision in our work for social, economic, Tiriti & ecological justice’ (4).

(5) Michael Asher (1943 -2012) Conceptual artist, academic, professor of art. Asher spent decades teaching at the Californian Institute of the Arts. His teaching style has influenced the work of many contemporary artists, with some suggesting that his pedagogical methods were his own best work.

(6) The term ‘mammal-deep’ is borrowed from the interview listed below, David Abram in conversation with Dougald Hine, co-author of the Dark Mountain manifesto. In their discussion on sensing and knowing, Hine begins to talk of activities and moments that strike to the animal centre of what it is to be human, experiences that are ‘mammal-deep’. Examples he gives include sitting around a fire, or watching a baby. Abram adds that walking holds something of this ancient, embodied knowing, as does baking bread. A purposeful engagement between rocks and hands, or clay and hands, is a very old experience, recorded deep in our bodies. This goes some way to explaining why holding clay, or stones, feels so very natural.

Sensing and knowing: David Abram in conversation with Dougald Hine, July 2015:

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