A few thoughts on errors, breaks, and imperfections – Temi Odumosu

There is an ancient Japanese method of pottery joinery called Kintsukuroi, or Kintsugi – meaning “golden repair”. Broken pieces of pottery are recomposed back into a vessel using resin or lacquer that is often mixed with gold dust; transforming what would otherwise be discarded into something very beautiful. Sometimes other metals like copper, silver or platinum are used. Folklore maintains that the practice emerged during the 15th century as a solution by Japanese artisans, who tried to more pleasingly fix a broken tea bowl belonging to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. He had already sent the bowl to China, where it was originally made, but received it back with crude metal staples. So began the process of beautifying breakage, which is now also viewed as part of a wider philosophy on the acceptance of imperfection.

Kintsugi
Kintsugi

These vessels embody the idea that things/people are elevated through the process of breakage and repair, and furthermore for having a visible history (an archive) that can be contemplated or witnessed. Certainly the visual effect of golden scars marking a smooth ceramic surface, can be mesmerising, and (as an art historian) a broken plate or pot somehow evokes imaginary scenarios: a 19th century servant releasing a tea tray shocked at the sight of their employers indiscretion; or a solitary woman in our time, recovering from a fractured arm, accidentally dropping a bowl as she attempts to perform simple daily functions. The artefact is marred by our stories. And in this sense the Kintsugi vessel never looses its presence or value in the world.

Kintsugi came to my mind, more and more, as I reflected on network discussions around the word error and the family of words that accompany it: glitch, mistake, fault, failure, disruption, flaw, crack, imperfection, flicker, and break. Words that articulate an integral frailty in the human experience, but also our negotiation of life in relation to computerised interfaces. Our interdisciplinary group talked a lot about whether and how differing technology systems are built with thresholds or algorithms for error. What became clear (at least to me) is that humans are generally not as forgiving with machines when it comes to making mistakes. Our expectations of technology are high, and given that we humans conceived of it, I have been wondering why? Perhaps it has something to do with magic. Not the hocus-pocus kind, but those expanded possibilities that machines provide in realising that which we secretly think is impossible, or that we can’t wholly prove: like a bionic limb, or a pacemaker. How is it that we have managed to create a link between biological synapses and digital ones? Only a few very smart people know. We depend on this technical magic not just for cures but also in countless daily activities, and thus its absence or error is palpable. Like, for instance, getting to the till at the supermarket and being told “the system is down” and you will have to pay with cash. Even though it’s to be expected sometimes, the shift in transactional possibilities can feel unnerving. The seamless flow of magical data has been disrupted, and the weightiness of material is reinstated – we need paper and coins again.

Kintsugi was initially used for repairing ceramics broken in error, but has also become a method for upgrading items that were either broken on purpose, or were made of cheaper materials. This has made the gold lacquering an aesthetic style somewhat detached from its original ‘healing’ purpose. Or, perhaps not. A scar, after all, is just that, however it was made, and the overall outcome is essentially a transformation. In my mind, this particular pottery practice provides an artefactual complement to our network as we interrogate ambiguity and the delicate spaces between us, with so many different research practices. We might benefit from emphasising rather than hiding our fault lines. Our first collective introduction to the Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT) with network member Ruth Gibson is a great example of the gold that could link us together, whilst maintaining our uniqueness. I tend to have a momentary slither of panic in new social situations. It doesn’t last long, but there is an acute awareness of my own body in space that emerges. Except for my colleague Susan, this was a group of complete strangers. The intensity of the Skinner practice was unexpected, even though Ruth’s guidance was very supportive. We moved a lot and in ways that required absolutely zero vanity, and doing a lot of partner work we had to relinquish personal boundaries. In the end it was a wonderful and eye-opening experience, and it struck me that the whole process provided a very clear space of encounter with all that was glitchy, flawed or out of synch in our human bodies. We had to adapt to ourselves (what we could and could not do) and to each other, and the more we did this, a subtle synergy evolved between us that I think helped to make us more open and thus connected.

 Something to read:

Exploring Japanese Art and Aesthetic as inspiration for emotionally durable design by Pui Ying Kwan

Temi Odumosu, Malmö University