Imprinting Presence / Touching Touch 2019. Text

digital ceramics: a haptic research tool?:

Repositioning our idea of the Hand through a critical examination of the conceptual interface between the digital and the analogue.

Imprinting Presence:  

An installation that I created in my residency at Sunday Morning at EKWC (the European Ceramic Work Centre) in Oisterwijk, Holland.

I intended it not solely as an art-work that should elicit  an aesthetic response,  but additionally as a “tool for thinking”, it asks the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The work employs a new ceramic language of “the hand” and the pieces exist as signifiers/metaphors for the human.


The idea of the haptic is so central to our existence. We are animals that touch. Transforming touch into ceramics forces a realization of our embodied selves. A piece of clay formed in the squeeze between two hands stands for togetherness / encounter / meeting. I took this simple piece of clay that was moulded in an instant by two people – an object both unique (it is the document of a moment never to be repeated), and also banal (everyone can make it – for it requires no special skill in its manufacture), and used it as the basis for my exploratory work in a three month residency at the EKWC in the Netherlands. These incredibly simple analogue hand-pressings were scanned and transformed through  digital manipulation to create molds that were the enlarged form of the piece, in which I could manufacture (what Freud would have termed) “uncanny”, large versions of the negative space of the hand – the point of contact between us.

One year later, in COVID time, I now reflect that this is work that is no longer possible with social distancing; it is simply too dangerous to have contact that close with many new acquaintances. Thus it is a work that speaks to a time when human contact was an essential part of getting to know someone.


They endeavour to achieve this aim by making physical the void that exists between two individuals when they encounter one another. It aspires to ask additional questions, both about the nature of practice: e.g. Where is the hand of the maker located?; but  also sociological: e.g.: Who is the other? The work is processual – it exists in the liminal space between contemporary techniques of digital manufacture and ancient analogue modes of hand-creation; in this way it embodies a phenomenological critique of new practices of “mechanical reproduction”[1].

The work interrogates the possibility that the authenticity of sensual contact, which appears to be being superseded in our digital, online age, can actually be reclaimed through those very same methodologies. The hand is the extension of our body into the world; it not merely explores but also creates relationships – with both objects and people.  

Imprinting Presence comprises hand-formed pieces, digitally printed objects and press-molded and slip-cast elements, to generate a dialogue of things and ideas. It was an embodied examination of the ways in which digital making can inform the creation of ceramics by hand; symbolically, the work is a commentary on the post-human (a concept with which we have lived for twenty years and that Yuval Harari has identified as the next stage in human evolution[2]); the work uses “the hand” and “clay” as signifiers/metaphors for the human/culture, and asks an artist’s fundamental question: is the trace of the hand of the maker still significant?

This new work is a restating of that most ancient (creative) act performed by our ancestors, the primordial hand-forming of clay. The rationale of the work is that the hand is integral not only to making but also to our most intimate encounters, where it can communicate formality as well as gentleness and affection. The work engages with the memory of touching and handling  ceramic objects in our homes – the everyday domestic sphere – thus it is interleaved with the history of clay in use; it is important in retrospect to note that our experience there has been the observation that fired clay does not register any trace of the user. By contrast the elements of the installation embody the echoes of previous encounters that have now been fired hard as stone; this ephemeral human contact documented an historical moment of encounter with the Other, made to be a sort of ‘fossil record’ of that transient moment, due to the longevity of ceramic. The magnification generated by the digital enlargement of the originals created an uncanny (unheimlich[3]) set of objects that draws the attention of the audience to what Martin Buber referred to as the authentic possibility of an I-Thou encounter[4] (where human beings truly meet). This has been achieved through the engagement of the audience with the work, the individual elements of the original captured gesture of the touching of hands, emphasized by re-iteration – by placing a number of casts from the mold into the public arena as an installation. The work encourages the audience to examine the place where the hands meet and imagines the past of a softness of clay that recorded the impression of the hands in the now inert fired ceramic. It thereby highlights the sensuality normally associated with the hand – of meeting, holding, caressing, pushing, squeezing, with the kinds of hardness and clinical precision associated with fired clay, mediated by digital processes. 

We can understand the work more profoundly by digging deeper into the philosophical foundations of the work, which draws on an understanding of the medieval scholastic ideas concerning the  “thingliness” of objects, which in turn derives from the elaboration of the Aristotelian concept of hylomorphism, that is the idea of the object as a combination of matter and form[5]. This permits of the possibility that we can be influenced by objects in the way that we also influence the objects themselves. Martin Heidegger was also fascinated by our relationship to the world, and drew a distinction between objects that are merely here as objects of scientific scrutiny, (those that are “present-to-hand) and those which are to be read as tools (“ready-to-hand”)[6]. In this context, my pieces comprising the works Touching Touch are tools to think with. Building on this understanding, Heidegger’s student, Hannah Arendt, developed the concept of homo faber (man-the-maker)[7], whose creativity is the distinguishing quality of our humanness, and it is this aspect which underpins my work.

This distinctive quality of homo faber was recognized by her student Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman[8], where he typifies the act of the craftsman as asking the question “Why?” (Sennett, p6). This question sums up the phenomenological thrust of our Being as makers and represents the natural conclusion to the observation by Merleau-Ponty who stated: “Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning” [9]. As a consequence of this understanding, I intend my work to interrogate our existence.

In the new discipline of Object-Orientated Ontology[10] the animate and inanimate are entwined, that is the human making activity and the objects are both considered to have agency. Through this framework, I regard objects as portals to narrative.  These new readings of things allow us to perceive the world differently for our contemporary existence: traditionally objects have borders, but now can be seen to have a disruptive energy, which in this work is the confrontation of scale – the small, intimate hand gesture writ large. These objects that I have made disrupt the timeframe of the present; they have been created to bleed into our lives as “uncanny” intrusions, returning us to memory of the deep past.

Walter Benjamin draws our attention to the re-iteration of a work of art, in his essay on Mechanical Reproduction. He argues that the quality that makes the work special, its aura, can be lost or diluted by repetition[11]. With this in mind, I have used the repetition of mold-made pieces to emphasize the uniqueness of the hand-made thing, and, by confronting the audience with such apparently unique and yet reproduced qualities (like the mass-production of a portrait  – a signifier of personal identity) a disruptive feeling is provoked by the work.

My methodology involved using part of the human body as a mold, by taking a soft piece of rolled, plastic clay/porcelain, which was squeezed to create an impression of the negative-space of our hands, when the clay documents the negative space of our hands in meeting. This simple form is both generic, in that anyone can make it irrespective of age, education, skill or artistic intent, and it is simultaneously unique – both physically and temporally – it can only be created by the maker(s) and their idiosyncratic hand-shapes at that particular moment in time. These impressions of the negative space of hands were scanned, digitally enlarged and outputted to a CNC router to mill plaster and Styrofoam molds, translating the positive to a negative form. This shape was either slip-cast in bone-china, or press-molded in terra-cotta, finished by hand, and fired. Thus the work is a translation of “the hand”, making the audience confront the familiar (yet not immediately recognizable) negative-space of the inside of the hand, and through this encounter I aspire to establish a disruption in the normal modes of perception.

Thus the methodology comprised an arc: firstly came the act of taking simple hand-fashioned forms, transforming them digitally into the alien non-tactile world , but finally creating a haptically-seductive object. Further developments  (Touching Touch ) involved forcing these pieces into the surface of a still soft form made from common brick clay, where it left its trace as a negative impression – like a surrogate hand pressed deep into flesh.

Understanding the work as a manifestation of the uncanny (“Unheimliche”, as Freud called it) allows the audience to re-address its own relationship to touch, in the dialogue between perfected white clay bodies and torn, everyday earth. The bone china material was selected as it is the signifier for a highly technical industrial process that is not generally associated with the sensual contact of the hand; it is one of the most precious and rarified materials in our ceramic lexicon, most commonly associated with mass-manufacture of tableware and thus relating to function. Porcelain also has its own history in the creation of precious decorative objects of consumption via the extreme difficulty of manufacture and firing and its purity and whiteness –important aesthetic qualities embodied in their creation. Terracotta is the most common and most often used of clays throughout human history – it speaks of the ordinary and the everyday necessities of eating and drinking. The cast is finished by hand and final polishing of the unglazed surface– thus restoring haptic finesse to the work. Conceptually, this simple (yet highly considered) hand-pressing takes the form of  either a solipsistic statement by myself,  or in conjunction with an “other” to symbolize human sociability.  The work crystallizes the moment of an action that is unique to time, place and actors, in this way it can “perform” memorialization and remembrance. (The germ of the work originated when I employed hand impressions in an installation, Grenzerfahrung, which was created in Germany to investigate aspects of my own identity as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, searching for traces of community and  in an attempt to rebuild humanity in the metaphysical wasteland of the memory of the partial destruction of my family by the Nazis. I found that the simple performative gesture of creatively marking meetings with members of the communities in Germany indicated new possibilities that could preclude the “othering” of minorities).

In conclusion, I have argued that  these new works and the philosophical readings of things that underpin them allow us to reclaim the handmade as a contemporary mode of expression that does not need to be subsumed by the digital and virtual world, but can offer a balance to our apparently deracinated online existences. In many previous accounts of objects they are considered inert, but I have briefly argued that they can be seen to have a powerful, disruptive energy, which in this work is the confrontation of recognition and scale – the small, intimate hand-gesture suddenly writ large in the work. These objects that I have made disrupt the timeframe of the present; they have been created to intrude into our lives, reconnecting us to a less alienated world of  human contact.

[1] The work of art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Benjamin, W., Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt, Orlando, Fl., USA, Harcourt Brace, 1968

[2] Harari, Y., Homo Deus, Harper Collins, 2017

[3] Freud, S., The Uncanny, London, Penguin Classics; UK, 2003

[4] Buber, M., I and Thou, New Jersey, USA, Paulist Press, 2003

[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc , 2016

[6] Heidegger, M., Being and Time, Oxford, Blackwell, 1962

[7] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998

[8] Sennett, R., The Craftsman, London, Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008

[9] Merleau-Ponty, M., The phenomenology of perception, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970    P xix.

[10] Harman,G., Object-Oriented Ontology, London, Pelican Books, 2018

[11] The work of art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Benjamin, W., Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt, Orlando, Fl., USA, Harcourt Brace, 1968

This is an essay that I wrote for publication in the NCECA papers 2020, to accompany the lecture to be given at the conference that was cancelled due to the COVID 19 epidemic.