Q&A: Keith Harrison

792 words

David Trigg

Keith Harrison, Float (detail), 2011
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Your work seems to be a million miles away from what we might normally think of when we consider ceramics. How do you get from making coil pots to recreating Jah Shaka’s sound system?!

I never really did the coil pot thing. As an undergraduate I transferred from an industrial design course to ceramics because I wanted more freedom. I had no real experience in ceramics beyond an enjoyment of working with the material at school and a short design project for an airline when a ceramics tutor threw some raw plates for me to cut and work back into. Therefore I had to make things up as I went along.

Keith Harrison, Float (detail), 2011


Your work is certainly unconventional!

I am interested in the opportunities that clay offers in its different states; as a liquid, plastic and solid and, ultimately, the potential to transform the material directly using electrical systems both domestic and industrial.

The relationship between clay and electricity is central to your recent work. What was it that drew you to this unusual area of investigation?

The electrical connection comes from my family background; my dad and brother were trained as electricians and subsequently worked in the electrical engineering laboratories at Birmingham and Aston Universities. My works are live tests, experiments acting as a bridge between our two respective worlds, and they’ve both helped me to realise past projects.

Your work for the Jerwood Makers Open, Float, draws inspiration from the ‘gramophone scene’ in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo and your memory of seeing the Jah Shaka sound system. Was this the first time you’d incorporated sound into your work?

I used sound, and records in particular, in a work called Brother, 2009, in which a record deck played Northern Soul while a life-size clay replica of Karl Marx’s head was fired at one end of the gallery. At the other end of the space, a facsimile of Michael Faraday’s Royal Institute lecture table became an impromptu mobile disco, which also provided a hub for powering the work. From this I started to experiment with using a turntable like a potter’s wheel and also to explore the potential for ceramics to carry sound. I made ceramic copies of New Order’s Blue Monday and played them on hired disco equipment along with the original 12″ and raw clay copies of the record.

Keith Harrison, Blue Monday / White Label, ceramic records, 2009


How on earth do you go about making ceramic records?

I had to make a polyurethane cast, then a silicone one and then a plaster cast from the original Blue Monday vinyl. Then I made a copy using porcelain casting slip.

And how did it sound?


So what records are you playing on Float?

I’m playing two records taken from Florian Fricke’s soundtrack for Fitzcarraldo: Il Sogno sung by Caruso and Musik aus Burundi. This music is played as the steam ship Aida journeys up the Pachitea river. The main character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, played by Klaus Kinski, stands next to a gramophone as Caruso plays out into the jungle and the drumming responds. In the performances as part of the Jerwood show I’m attempting to recreate this scene using the sound system and DJ equipment.

Are you using ceramic records?

I’ve made ceramic copies of both records but in the performances so far I’ve only used the vinyl records as I felt there was sufficient clay in the work impacting on the sound produced, both as raw clay filling the bass speakers, acting as a mute, and the one thousand Piezo ceramic transducers covering the sound system, which function as tweeters.

Why did you want to mute the speakers?

It was an attempt to keep the noise levels down as the capacity of the sound system is for a much bigger, stadium sized venue but at the same time it provided an opportunity to set up a tension out of the wilfully oversized nature of the work and its potential for damage to both onlookers and surroundings. The act of the clay blocking or absorbing sound has references to the trumpet mutes of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

But the clay has started to crack.

That’s one of the things clay does and in doing so the material make up of the work is made very apparent. I think it’s also about attempting to control some aspects of the work whilst allowing others to be left more open, a testing ground to see what happens when the unpredictability of raw clay meets electricity. There is an initial suppression of the sound but, as the sound system is played, the clay will progressively crack and shatter, resulting in the sound system becoming louder, leading ultimately to the complete breakdown of the work.