One of my friends from the RCA is now working at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and asked me for a .pdf version of my RCA thesis for their library. When I have finished converting it to .pdf, I’ll also send it to the RCA library where it will be available to students.
And yesterday, I received an email from a student at the Sotheby’s Institute who asked a number of incisive questions about my practice. From time to time students have asked to use my work in their essays and dissertations, so I thought it might be useful to reproduce the questions and my replies.
You mentioned in your blog that a new Arts and Craft movement may be necessary and that technology does not warrant good design and that a material led process is still essential. What do you think is the appropriate way to combine traditional craft with high technology in this age?
In Britain, at the present time there is a lack of joined up thinking by our political leaders. The Chancellor, George Osborne stood up at the dispatch box in the House of Commons to say that Britain's economic recovery will happen through the hands of makers, in other words there is a need to apply our creativity to manufacturing innovative products in the UK. Last week the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey was on Radio 4 championing British 'world leading creativity'. However, down the road in the Ministry of Education, Michael Gove was set to remove the Creative subjects from the curriculum through the introduction of the English baccalaureate. Though the proposal has been dropped, there is still a threat to the rating of schools through the use of EBacc criteria where the creative subjects are not taken into consideration. Where does he expect the next generations of creative thinkers to come from?
Hopefully, you will be able to see where my tirade is heading. There is a real need to recognize the place of making at all stages of the education system. It must go hand in hand with the use of technology, in fact there is a need to be far more creative with technology, so that coding should also taught in schools.
My generation spans the digital divide, I grew up before computers and spent a lot of time making and building stuff, it was what we did. So computers are something that I have seen as 'other' whereas generations growing up with computers and digital technology don't have the same potential hang-ups. The way forward is not to differentiate between digital and non-digital tools. They can be used singly, separately and in harmony. It's all about choosing the right tool for the job. But in order to make the correct choice the maker has to have experience of both sets of tools.
The definition of the word 'craft' has evolved over the years. The Arts and Crafts movement had a particular definition, relating to the inhumanity of the Industrial Revolution. It may have been the blinkered view of a privileged class, but it was very influential, encouraging generations of makers to head off to the countryside to grow vegetables and make heavy brown pots! Urban makers reacted against this in the 1970's and craft to a large degree became a dirty word, especially as conceptual ideas seemed to be the only thing that counted in the Art world.
I think that the definition of craft is changing again, with academics such as Malcolm McCullough, Richard Sennett, Glenn Adamson and Christopher Frayling helping to re-define the word. And the boundaries between the disciplines are becoming blurred, personally I define myself as maker, someone happy to inhabit and explore the grey area between art, craft, design and technology.
To quote Alex Coles, “…Eden’s work is persuasive evidence of how one of the most convincing ways to extend craft today in order to integrate it more closely with art and design is precisely by using cutting-edge technology to trigger a process of conceptual and formal investigation. By aiding experimentation in this way, technology is utilized as a means to an end rather than simply being an end in itself.”[i]
Could you expand on why and how you incorporate the virtual experiences? The QR code is a great example of this. Does this reflect that decorative objects will need to serve additional functions, to entertain its audience, to remain relevant?
A beautifully crafted teapot does not require an additional contrived virtual dimension to complete the users experience of brewing tea in it or appreciating it, sat on a shelf in the kitchen. The owner of such an object develops a relationship to it through use, through sharing a cup of tea with friends. Its physicality is enhanced by those sensory and emotional experiences, it needs nothing more.
However, as information becomes increasingly available through data it is now possible to not only realize information as objects but to interact with them in new ways. Both the Mnemosyne and the Babel vessel have been acquired by museums (Carnegie Art Museum, Pittsburgh and Aberdeen Art Gallery respectively). I plan to work with their web designers to allow the viewer/user to interact with them in meaningful ways, creating links to other objects in the museum and allowing new stories to be told. I see them.
I don't think these pieces are superior to non-interactive pieces, they simply offer another type of experience.
What motivates and inspires you?
You have included cultural and historical references, as seen in the Wedgewood Tureen, what is their significance in your works?
I hang a story on culturally significant objects as a way of commenting on making, encouraging a debate around craft and to tell a multi-layered story. But they are also chosen to seduce the viewer by their familiarity. I want the viewer to engage, to be surprised, to have their perceptions challenged.
To whom are you designing for? What type of home do you see your pieces in?
Primarily for me, it's self-indulgence. But I hope that this approach will connect the objects to an audience. I hope that I make artworks with integrity and passion and that the viewer recognises the energy and effort that goes into them.
What are your findings in working with a synthetic material? Do you miss the tactile nature and the warmth of clay?
My eventual aim is to 3D print clay. I have collaborated with others to produce a few 3D printed ceramic pieces, some of which I have successfully fired using the same lead glazes that we used on our slipware. The aim is to bring together the almost pre-industrial craft skills and materials that I previously used with post-industrial manufacturing, thereby creating a new ceramic language. Meanwhile, it is important for me to explore and fully exploit the technology and materials available to me. Nylon is not clay, never will be, but I can hopefully still use those materials to make meaningful objects. And they are a challenge to experiment with, so i have been copper plating and exploring silver plating amongst other trials.
Babel Vessel I:
I have read that the Chinese 'hu' vessel was an inspiration to you. Can you expand on your choice of this form and culture?
Unicorns adorn the side of the vessel, what do they symbolize?
On a visit to the British Museum I noticed the surface decoration of a 6th century BCE Chinese ceremonial wine vessel, known as a hu, as it reminded me of the QR barcodes.
When translated, the Chinese symbols tell of battles won or of heroic deeds by emperors. Like the QR code, I wasn’t able to read them without a translator (or an App). So the viewer can scan the Babel Vessel with their Smart phone, which then connects to a video on my website telling the story, providing additional information thereby creating a simultaneous actual and virtual experience.
The lion and the unicorn handles replace the traditional Chinese serpents and make a cryptic reference to the uncomfortable relationship that has existed between Britain and China at various times in our histories. They also (positively) refer to the Royal College of Art (taken from the Royal Standard logo of the RCA), without which I wouldn't have been able to make these things.
[i] Coles, Alex. ‘Michael Eden, The Practitioner, Artist, Designer.’ SOFA 2011 catalogue essay.
Alex Coles is the author of DesignArt (Tate Publishing, 2005), co-author of Project VITRA (Birkhauser, 2008), and the editor of Design and Art (MIT/Whitechapel). He also writes regularly for the Financial Times and The Art Newspaper.