21st October – British Ceramics Biennial & Topographies of The Obsolete – Vociferous Void

On Sunday the family and I headed to Spode Works, an old pot bank in Stoke-on-Trent. This building is part of the original working compound. Unfortunately half of the site has already been demolished and it is possible that much of what is still there will be heading the same way. Luckily some of the building has been listed so there will always remain some of what we have seen today. The reason for the visit was to see the exhibition ‘Topographies of The Obsolete – Vociferous Void’, part of the events held there for the British Ceramics Biennial. As I have discussed earlier in my blog, Stoke-on-Trent is an area built on industry, in the same way Manchester was textiles, Stoke was pottery. 

The Spode factory had operated on this site for 230 years, by the 1800’s Stoke-on-Trent’s six towns parallelled China as a world centre for ceramic production. Unfortunately this is not still the case, in 1948 around 79,000 men and women were employed in the ceramic industry in North-Staffordshire, now this figure stands at just over 6000. As well as Spode, there are many empty ruins of factory’s and pot banks that add testimony to this demise, such as the Lord Nelson works that I have blogged about before. 

The exhibition offers a real sense of what has been lost within this community, for these were not just jobs they were more than that. Pot bank workers were creative, hard working and a family – some times quite literally as generations of the same family worked under the same roof. 

The exhibition pieces were made from materials found in the factory, discarded items turned in to art. Other pieces opened a dialogue with the building, was it a ruin? 

‘The Man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there.’
Calvin Coolidge (US President 1923-29)

If all Stoke-on-Trent’s factories are now ruins and industry has left, where does the faith of a generation lost lie? Volunteers on the day were ex-Spode workers, when asked about the demise of the factory and viewing it in this state it was with sadness that they accepted its inevitability. Investment in the area has been lacking for a long time. Their acceptance was almost blase, there was nothing to be done. One used this next display to demonstrate to us, the plates had been turned long before the factory closed. 

 ‘One of the many aspects of the factory is that it brings together many of the ideals of our modern society, such as efficiency and urbanisation, rational thinking, control and mechanisation. Today, we also find these ideas in various forms, for example in hospitals, the education system, public administration, the culture sector and so on. The Paradox is that, while the traditional factory has gradually removed itself from the fundamental ideas on which it was based, the rest of society has incorporated these same ideas. The factory has become a social institution and a cultural phenomenon.’ 
Oystein Hague, 2013 (in Topographies of the obsolete – critical texts)

So pottery workers retired, re-trained, or became unemployed. Their children who would have once followed in their footsteps, into a career in pottery, are left with nothing. There was no middle class movement in Stoke-on-Trent, the layout of the city did not promote gentrification of the centre. As industry left the job marked stagnated, investment was little.The exhibition symbolises the emptiness that is left, not only within the factory building but the community as a whole.

The exhibition is extremely powerful and sad, particularly if you feel that connection with Stoke’s past. However, it is note worthy to say that of all the people involved in this project, none of the academics were from either of the local universities or indeed the immediate area. One of the students participating from Newcastle University commented:
‘Throughout our stay, Stoke felt withdrawn, a city brought together through the mourning and memories of the good days. This ghost lingered around and felt even more present in the stagnant Spode factory’
My partner who is a Stoke lad born and bred,  found this hard to take from outsiders. Although it was powerful and a good, common sense, outsiders interpretation of Stoke he didn’t feel that it completely hit the mark. Stoke is not mourning the loss of memories of the old days, but the loss of its future.

For the academics and artists who are using this as a case study and a research project, view a lifeless coffin – missing heart and life. For the artists its an interesting echo of a lost era; for a local this is a lived reality. Workers are there waiting in the wings for spode and Stoke-on-Trent to be great again, to put on a show – all that is needed is a great ring master, to invest and develop. 
Spode is symbolic of Stoke-on-Trent, in that its like the old girl in the corner of the nursing home, quiet and dishevelled in her tatty old clothes. Viewed by the young as useless, and out of date but with the right attention she can be grand again, interesting and valuable. 

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