Topographies of the Obsolete is an artistic research project that focuses on the closed Spode Works in Stoke-on-Trent, UK.

The first workshop Resurrecting the Obsolete took place in September 2012 in the Spode Factory, Stoke on Trent, UK organized by Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Norway (KHiB).

KHiB was invited as a Research Fellow Partner Institution by the British Ceramics Biennial 2013 and the first workshop included 33 staff and students from KHiB, The Royal Academy of Art Copenhagen, Muthesius Kunsthochschule Kiel, Sheffield Hallam Univerisity, University of Nottingham Trent and invited alumni/artists from KHiB. Together we explored the Spode site’s histories, industrial space and infrastructure.

The workshops have uncovered a variety of methods and strategies exploring the complexity of the site from different perspectives and practices particular to each of the artists/students involved. We had a great variation of expressions ranging from the performative intervention based to installation and object based work.

The second of the research residency took place in March 2013 as the artistic research project Topographies of the Obsolete. The third workshop takes place in August 2013.

In September a number of participants from the research project will present their works during the British Ceramics Biennial 2013.

This site will act as a meeting point for participants and others interested in our progress.

Monday, 29 July 2013

All of China in your hand; a first impression of Spode

The lyric writer of British band T’pau, Carol Decker, explained when asked about the lyrics to China in Your Hand that “it is the effect that if you hold a china cup to a light, you can see your hand through it – therefore 'china in your hand' means something that is transparent.”

With this song unavoidably playing itself in the back of my conscience since I first started to work for Topographies of the Obsolete in June, I think of my misunderstanding of these lyrics as a young child; that it is about comparing something seemingly impossible to the act of trying to gather the nation of China into your hand.

Being introduced to Josiah Spode, before heading off to Stoke on Trent for the first time, made me aware of the fact that he managed to give a piece of ‘Chinese luxury’ to many a hand. With Anne Helen Mydland explaining the details of  Spode’s bone china and blue under-glaze printing technique, by showing samples at Spode Works Museum, it became clearer why this novel equivalent to porcelain became sought after.

The local community prospered and declined parallel to Spode during those 230 years of production. There is something here, in these surroundings, that reminds me of the old Norwegian post industrial town of Odda; an intangible mood of some sort that saturates the terrain. Seeing the closed down factory for the first time, it seemed remote to me, even though it dominates the area physically with it stretching over a large portion of the urban territory. Here, time is frozen in some ways and accelerated in others. Decorative Christmas lighting on the outside makes sure everyone knows what time of year you enter when you enter Spode. However, the advancing decay speeds up the perception of time. Inside, it looked like there has been inactivity for several decades, not just for a few years. The process is astonishingly rapid.

Being guided around Spode, I noticed traces of human activity visible in the various rooms. The factory became more ‘transparent’, in a sense, when it began to reveal bits of its past. Objects left behind gave hints about previous work in the different departments of the factory; traces of former bodily routines. All played out in these document-filled offices, dusty showrooms, great factory halls, and mysterious storage areas for casting equipment as the ‘keepers of memory’. Even though I haven’t been working in the factory, as a participant in the previous workshops, I nevertheless experienced the desire to interpret and create; to revive something in this place.

I've learned that the song China in Your Hand is about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel which was the outcome of a conversation regarding the possibility of bringing a dead body back to life. Shelley started writing her novel the very same year that Spode first launched the Blue Italian range.

Jane Sverdrupsen, research assistant

Anne Helen Mydland explaining the process of Spode's blue under-glaze printing technique. With Neil Brownsword, Øystein Hauge and Johan Sandborg.

The first impression of Spode.

Plans are being made as we are shown the different departments of the factory.
Bits of history of the pottery craft at Spode, told by Anne Helen. Øystein Hauge paying close attention.

The oldest plaster moulds in storage.

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