Permanent Spectacle, 2017. Hand-cut paper, Plexiglas, porcelain, terra cotta, weaving, wood, and marble, 14 x 16 x 8 ft. Photo: Future Retrieval

Fabricating History: A Conversation with Future Retrieval

Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker have collaborated as Future Retrieval since 2008. In 1999, after meeting as undergrads in ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute, the pair earned graduate degrees from Ohio State University; they now lead the ceramics department at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Their earliest collaborations were slipcast porcelain animals covered in elaborate, decorative patterns, but now, their mostly installation-based practice—including 3D-printed objects, porcelain, rugs, wallpaper, paper, and wood—is indebted to research conducted as artists-in-residence at various museums, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. A mashup of objects and images from different periods and cultures, Future Retrieval’s work offers a layered understanding of the present while holding on to the past and looking toward the future.

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams: How do you balance collaboration as Future Retrieval and your individual practices?
Guy Michael Davis: We don’t have individual practices anymore. Even though someone might see things come out of the studio that lean toward one of our specialties as individuals, anything that leaves the studio is labeled Future Retrieval because we have developed an aesthetic together.
Katie Parker: It is one big idea. We break out separately to do the work and then meet back together, divide and conquer. It’s from one idea and one aesthetic.
GMD: That evolved. It wasn’t a decision we consciously made.
KP: A lot of the first year, we tried to figure out what we were doing, and what collaboration looked like. It seems really obvious now—many artists are sharing resources and skills to execute ideas and make larger projects. When we had our first solo museum exhibition, “Still[ed] Life,” at the Taft Museum of Art (2011), we were invited to respond to the collection. That was the first project from end to end in which all decisions were made collaboratively, because we started our research together. We realized that is how we work best.

ADVA: What does Future Retrieval mean?
GMD: We were basking in the essence of our student loan debt, and this term came up. I still don’t really know what it means. We thought it was a comical phrase, but it also directly related to the fact that we dig back and mine antiquities and their stories and remake them for now and the future—looking forward while celebrating the past.

Chinoiserie Taft Busts, 2018. Hand-cut paper, CNC-milled wood, porcelain, overglaze, and 23K gold leaf, 48 x 144 x 8 in. Photo: Future Retrieval

ADVA: How do you define craft and respond to or against it?
GMD: There was a period very early on when we denied ourselves that world because we were so trained in it. Now we embrace all methods of making. A lot of it probably has to do with where we teach and the availability of tools and cross-pollination. We are looking for things that can translate into different materials; what our hands are capable of becomes the deciding factor.
KP: We love good craft and form—to the point where it might hold us back—because we were educated as potters. We were taught to look at form microscopically and analyze the glaze, the edges, the body. Something can have a hairline crack and we think, “Chuck it.” At the same time, you can go to any art exhibition and see that ceramic work does have faults—it doesn’t ruin the idea. Ceramics are hard to make, hard to manage, and hard to scale. We hold ourselves accountable to something that is pretty tight.
GMD: I think the sincerity lies in the amount of labor put into the work. That’s what we value the most about craft, and we believe that’s what sets us apart in the other disciplines in which we participate. We have crossed the line into the design world and the fine art world, and we’re still participants in the craft world. I don’t know how they homogenize, but for some reason, we have acceptance from all these areas without forcing it.

ADVA: Permanent Spectacle (2017) and The Living Room Fireplace (2013) are indebted to domestic or interior space. How do your works address the domestic?
KP: We want to place our objects into some kind of home, either literally or metaphorically. They need a place to live. We’re constructing a scenario in which we see our work existing. Permanent Spectacle came from our Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2016. I spent my time at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, researching block-printed wallpaper and European porcelain. Guy was at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, working alongside the Office of Digitization and the Division of Mammals. We spent the next year building a diorama, making molds, and hand-cutting 18 feet of scenic landscape wallpaper, combining our collected imagery and narratives. The animals are in the background as two-dimensional images sourced from our photographs, and in the space as three-dimensional objects interacting with the scene we created. The back and forth builds a connection and allows us to tell a story in the gallery. The animals and objects can always be seen alone, but then the viewer loses the backstory.
GMD: That is the environmental part—we build a world to create a scenario. The interest in domesticity could also come out of being hyper-aware that our work lives with people. It sits in a domestic setting and is walked around and used. Maybe there is an unconscious element in the fact that we live together, so we are always thinking about what we want surrounding us. Since “Still[ed] Life” at the Taft, we have found a niche in the museum. More of our recent work responds to the environment of the museum and what that looks like as a permanent home.
KP: We built two versions of The Living Room Fireplace at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, with printmaker Terence Hammonds. Rookwood gave us access to current products, as well as to all of their old molds and archives. We would go to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) together to look at other Rookwood fireplaces and try to imagine a contemporary version. In the spring of 2018, CAM acquired The Living Room Fireplace, and it is now installed next to the originals that inspired us. It was initially made for an exhibition in 2013 at the Contemporary Art Center, to make a large space feel domestic and inviting. It seems appropriate that it went back into a museum where it can do that.

The Living Room Fireplace, 2013. Porcelain, wood, and gold leaf, 10 x 8 x 4 ft. Collaboration with Terence Hammonds and The Rookwood Pottery Company. Photo: Rob Deslongchamps, © The Rookwood Pottery Company, Future Retrieval and Terence Hammonds, Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum

ADVA: Why do you include animals, and how do they function in your installations?
GMD: Animals have allegorical qualities, they are really loaded in content. Humans have learned from them and have developed together with them, whether through companionship, domestication, science, or spirituality. We share the planet with them in such odd ways. In Permanent Spectacle, the selection process began with the Smithsonian, which obtained a lot of its early collections from U.S. expeditions. Charles Wilkes took a fleet of ships down to the South Seas under the guise of scientific exploration, but they were also looking for trade routes to the East, among other things. Along the way, they collected a lot of specimens. There were scientists, botanists, and artists on the ships trying to record as much information as they could. These stories of the museum’s development became a launching point, and I wanted to insert our work into this firsthand. The animals are props in a way: they could be stand-ins for us and the situations we get into.

There is perfect form in natural design—it’s evolutionary, which is hard to beat. That’s where the influence comes from. It gets tricky because taxidermy does have another artist’s hand in it. There are multiple layers of translation between someone collecting a specimen and then an artist rendering it based on drawings and measurements. We have gone back and taken another set of measurements with digitization tools, rendered them again, and converted our animals into another material. It’s really interesting to be in a lineage of making.

ADVA: How do you edit your research?
KP: It feels like we are always in the situation of what to edit and what to keep. We were recently artists-in-residence at the Lloyd Library and Museum, looking into its collection of scientific research around botany, exploration, and eclectic medicine. We go down different rabbit holes as we slowly start to narrow in. The more we get into it, the more we realize what we really like. The editing happens in the studio, once we start bringing disparate things together to contextualize them into our longer-running narrative.

ADVA: You employ ceramics, carpet, wallpaper, 3D-printed objects, paper, neon, and plywood. How do you decide on a material?
GMD: One reason to go beyond ceramics is because of the scale limitations.
KP: We usually start with porcelain and slipcasting. To make molds of animals, we scan them and scale them 18 percent larger than life and 3D print in sections based on the parting lines. Once we have the individual parts, we make a series of plaster molds, cast them in porcelain, reassemble the object, and then it shrinks back to life size.

Image of Order, 2014. Hand-cut paper, LEDs, porcelain, Plexiglas, wood, and Formica, 120 x 96 x 30 in. Photo: Future Retrieval

ADVA: There’s an absurdity to the amount of labor used to produce these works.
GMD: The weird thing about this process is that, in the end, almost all of the labor is erased.
KP: This is how we earn a form as our own. We’ve examined it, put it back together, stood it up in the kiln, glazed it, and re-fired it. We have touched it on all ends. The labor to get to one object is definitely absurd. We’re not mass-producing anything. We just want to see it exist. Molds can become so large and heavy that it’s physically taxing to move them. At the same time, porcelain can only get so big before it wants to collapse. Switching materials allows for a freedom of scale and weight. Wood, paper, and fibers can sit for months in a studio, untouched.
GMD: We carved classical shapes out of logs in Sloyd (2017). It was so liberating to throw them in a box and push it through airport security. Although we did have to argue that they were not clubs in disguise.
KP: In 2017, we were resident artists at Iaspis in Stockholm for three months. We made a series of rugs and just rolled them up. Part of switching materials is continuing to push ourselves through craft. It also lets us make work without a ceramics studio, which feels really freeing.

ADVA: How does your work relate to authenticity? There’s a tension between an emphasis on a high level of craft and the copying that happens in your process.
GMD: We do copy things. We aren’t recycling them; we’re refreshing pieces that we want and love, and making them new. Everything goes through a transformation. We take things out of context, and then there is some level of manipulation to change the content before they are transformed into another material. By going through this process, the work slowly becomes our own.

ADVA: Your objects, motifs, and designs are decontextualized, but each one is rich with historical connotations—Triumph (2016), for example. How does your work investigate history?
KP: Triumph, which we made during our time at the Cooper Hewitt, was sourced from French block-printed wallpaper illustrating François Boucher’s The Triumph of Venus (1740). The background of trees is sourced from Zuber & Cie’s Eldorado scenic (1915–25), mimicking forms that we were already making in our studio. We started to play with those two ideas together, having the figure point at the three-dimensional forms that we could then stage behind her. With each project, we have the chance to delve into something else, and we pull that back into the bigger narrative that we are creating. The history is real, but it’s also semi-fabricated through us—combined with our database of digital material and stacks of molds. With each new experience, we are pulling information in, making connections, and then putting that back out, eliciting a response that fuels the next project. We’re always on a search for the perfect form. It’s not all past history—a lot of it is contemporary as we go to shows and travel.

Triumph, 2016. Hand-cut paper, Formica, porcelain, and wood, 78 x 30 x 9 in. Photo: Future Retrieval

ADVA: Sèvres and Meissen porcelain were originally prized for their opulence. How do you think about these objects in relation to their economic and cultural value?
KP: We think about that a lot. In 2008, we worked as artists-in-residence at Dresdner Porzellan, which is similar to Meissen, but without the state sponsorship. Before we went, I had never really examined figurines or thought seriously about them. In Dresden, we went down to the factory vaults, and I realized that those pieces are amazing. They have everything that we want in a tiny figurine—how it’s modeled, and how the beautiful and the grotesque highlight craftsmanship in a material that at the time was almost unworkable.
GMD: We were in Dresden during the 300th anniversary of the discovery of porcelain in the West. We basked in the richness. We actually feel like we’re part of that; we were there in that moment, using forms directly from the factories that made them. This is what charges things personally for us.
KP: These pieces were created for the elite, but they were made by artists pushing the limits of what they could do given an almost unlimited amount of resources and support. Those artists literally defied gravity. We are making facsimiles cut out of paper or weaving the likeness into a shag rug. That’s the best we can do at this moment, using whatever means to have a similar version in our lives. Anyone can have the paper version, or a rug to walk on. With a material shift, lavish objects are suddenly less precious and unattainable.
GMD: We’re not trying to be political by any means. It just so happened that the most labor-intensive, extravagantly complex, and finest pieces ever produced were made because they were sponsored by some royal family. I know that there are issues, but we’re celebrating and embracing the laborious and artistic side of it, the achievement and innovation and technologies that were developed.

ADVA: You are based outside major art centers, in a city with a rich history of pottery. Your work seems very tied to place, and your research begins by investigating the history of where you live. Why work in Cincinnati?
KP: We talk a lot with our peers about what it means to be an artist in Cincinnati. There is the availability of space, as well as the ability to rent a studio and work at the scale that we work at while teaching at a university that provides easy access to new technology and equipment.
GMD: It’s like the whole city is our studio. There is an interconnectedness within the art community that is really easy to navigate. Cincinnati was particularly supportive of us from the beginning, maybe because of a longing for contemporary ceramics.
KP: We’ve been afforded a lot of freedom to experiment. If we were working in a smaller space and trying to figure out how to get a kiln or a sheet of plywood into it, the ideas would change pretty dramatically. Cincinnati is necessary for our ideas right now. We’ve been working with Amy Dehan, the decorative arts curator at CAM, and looking at pieces in storage as we develop an upcoming project. I remember the first time I sent her an email to see the collection with students almost 10 years ago. She replied immediately and said, “Yes, when do you want to come?”
GMD: People want to share this stuff. It just so happens that we’re here, and they want to share it with us because we are truly interested.

Sloyd, 2017. Hand-carved wood, 12–25 in. high. Photo: Future Retrieval

ADVA: The duration and collapsing of time are always present in your work. The taxidermy animals make me think of memento mori; other works, like Image of Order (2014), deal with the monolith, which brings to mind future times; and then the landscapes in Permanent Spectacle (2017) allude to the environment and a very ancient time.
KP: We talk about Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire (1833–36), which moves through time.
GMD: Or Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510), where the garden is in the present and then in collapse.
KP: But we want the beginning and the end together. What happens before people come and then after everyone’s gone, what are the animals doing? What is left behind? We’re trying to bring a lightness to the situation and a hopefulness to the work.
GMD: A hopefulness in destruction. It’s getting worse for the humans, but the rest of nature is thriving.