Jill Shah
Designer & Technologist


- Computationally Augmenting the Craft  of Pottery

New.ances is a series of critically designed, computationally augmented making experiments in pottery; resulting in a collection of vessels with altered, nuanced forms. The new.anced ways of making reside in the gap that exists in the leap from hand made, wheel throwing method of making clay wares to ceramic 3D printing. These experiments seek out the polarities between the machine as a connoisseur of speed, control & rapid iterations, and the human hand which serendipitously imbibes subjectivity and self expression to a piece of craft - offering a dialogue between technological production and traditional pottery techniques.

The project reimangines handmade crafts by leveraging the benefits and inconspicuos imperfections of computation to demonstrate human-computer collaboration.

Experiment 1: Data Texturing
Studio pottery has come a long way from the traditional notions of how a ceramic vessel could look like. What sets apart studio pottery and the craft that small rural communities practice is the difference in types of resources, learning and technical expertise of practitioners. Extravagant experiments in glazing, texturizing and finishing are often not found in the mellow terracotta works produced by Indian artisans due to a lack of modern studio techniques, material unavailability and technical inexpertise. 

With this experiment, I intended to build a computational tool that would allow a potter, in this case me, to manifest their own signatures in the surface level form of the vessel itself.  The tool was a small metal attachment to an existing electric pottery wheel that could be fitted with differently shaped tips to puncture and/or texture the wet clay on the wheel immediately after giving it a desired base shape. The metal attachment was driven by a microcontroller with sensors listening for audio data.

Not having to depend on highly complex and expert clay handling and glazing skills, computational texturing would help in layering the thrown vessel with unique patterns which, ideally, would be derived from various types of data and thus give the end product a personality unique to the artist.

Experiment 2: Manu(frac)turing
The earlist known technique to build clay pots is called coiling. Potters rolled clay into long strings and stacked them layer by layer to build clay vessels. Like every other piece of technology that was ever invented to make our lives easier, more ‘automated’, the 3D printer shamelessly replicated how people have always known to build pots and recreated magic that is so rooted, so familiar. Could pottery be reimagined in a way which is halfway between the hand coiling methods and the 3D printer? 

The hardware consisted of a simple wooden frame housing a clay extruder that I had 3D printed (conflicted, i know). But this time around, instead of a fully mechanized and a 3-axis hovering machine, I attached the frame over an electric pottery wheel. The wheel rotates as it does while the extruder, stationary above it, extrudes coils of clay on the wheel, essentially repeating the ancient wheel coiling technique.

The fun thing about this experiment is that it’s not complex in its technology but it becomes extremely challenging to do both, work on shaping clay on the wheel while simultaneously being cautious of the clay extrusions. I struggled to keep up as the consistencies of both the clays (from the extruder and on the wheel) were really different and even though it was the same material, they didn’t go well with one another. This was a reality check; it was a challenge that I didn’t quite conquer and maybe, I didn’t want to. This whole project has been about embracing the imperfections too, after all.

Experiment 3: Breaking Muscle Memory
Artisans and communities in India are able to prduce hundreds of pots everyday and each of them have the same shape; it’s muscle memory really - to make the same thing over and over again much like mass production because it is what might sell. This memory has led to a stagnation in the aesthetics of the terracotta pots most commonly found in the country. What if I could alter their muscle memory? I wanted to create a language of chance, of randomness within my art - a randomness that has been so heralded in the times of algorithmic art. It is both, an ironic statement on how much agency our hands truly hold when it comes to wheel thrown pottery and also an experimental approach to creating new.anced forms by giving up control of the pressure that our fingers exert on clay and how.

A TENS unit that is controlled by a microcontroller, sends electrical pulses to the nerves under the skin and makes the fingers and at times, my wrist twitch. For the purpose of this experiment, the muscle twitches happen in a pseudo-random way but ideally, it would be interesting for me to explore if some specific type of data can be used to send muscular impulses; for example, if an experienced potter was to see me unsuccessfully throwing a pot, their brain could control the movement of my hands in order to salvage the clay vessel.

New.ances was my final thesis project at Parsons School of Design. In its final form, New.ances offers experimental approaches to the craft of wheel throwing pottery and makes a parallel commentary on human-machine collaboration when it comes to the act of ‘making’ or ‘manufacturing’ things. I dare to think that each of these would become tools and craft ‘skills’ that a ceramicist could hone, practice and perfect; just like a beginner might learn making simple pots or knitting or any other craft. All the three experiments had clear distinctions when it came to what has to be done by hands and what the machine would take part in, making it clear that making crafts is not a solo gig; it requires collation; and in my case, I envision Computation as the Collaborator.