What if …

Jack Tan shares his understanding of the ‘what if’ experience

Feature article for Ceramic Review, Issue 253, Jan/Feb 2012

What If…

…is the question that haunts any maker or artist. It is the type of question that opens up the imagination to new possibilities, and is one of the most important questions to ask if the work is to move on. It invites the promise of new ways of seeing things, new objects, and new pleasures. But it is also a disruptive question, almost violent if it is allowed to take its course to conclusion. For people who create (be it pots, sculpture, a new business, or even legislation) this question causes an upheaval that throws them, and most probably those around them, into a state of flux.

Of course the question of ‘what if’ must not be mistaken for the doing of anything. It is just the necessary precursor of the doing; it is a ‘playing with’ or a mulling over. But the question opens up the way for the doing to be possible, and thereby the realisation of something new. It pierces the barrier of the normal, the safe, the familiar, and is the springboard from which the maker jumps into the flux of improvisation.

However, improvisation is not just a state of doing. To improvise requires a kind of performance: a ‘thinking on your feet’. While you are in it, the original question of ‘what if’ disappears. You are too busy spinning plates, or dancing through shifting sands, or dodging balls to remember ‘what if’. Asking it at that point in time would be a hesitation that could lead to plates crashing and walls flopping (which implies that there is an appropriateness of timing attached to the question). All you know is that you had asked the question, that you took a leap, and that now you are committed to a kind of reflexive thinking with your body, eye, and hand.

In a way, this improvisation is not so much a state of doing but of producing in the ancient Greek sense of poeisis. Poeisis is a ‘coming into’ from not-knowing to knowing, from non-being to being. Perhaps it could be thought of as a child coming into adulthood, or when a form is brought out of a lump of clay or stone, or what is revealed years down the line after someone has chosen a different career path. Poeisis describes a way of knowing the world through unveiling or becoming, and to jump from the ‘what if’ into the space of improvisation is to inhabit a poeisis.