[a short essay written for the new book Audience Revoluton: Dispatches From The Field, which has all kinds of other interesting things in it.]
- Play is free, is in fact freedom.
– Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
1 – The City
Hyper-scrutinized and super-surveilled, fractured and fracturing, crowded with people, ideologies, contradictions, rhythms, retail opportunities, inequalities, inequities, good ideas, bad ideas, lost dogs, wifi hubs and sites of contested historical value, it is in our major cities that the coding that organises contemporary society is at its most visible and consequently its most reprogrammable. In our ever-growing metropolises we negotiate literally and figuratively the relationships that constitute the society we find ourselves a part of; relationships like that between ordinary citizens and bodies and instruments of conspicuous power, between private business and public good, and between you and me, the other people around us and the streets, buildings, parks and squares that make up the physical spaces we inhabit.
Through this plurality of relationships we return again and again to the notion of freedom, the spectre of control and the ways in which both are manifested on our busy streets. Cities have long been places where this ideological conflict is played out with bodies and buildings through actions that are at once real and symbolic. In Paris in the 19th century the city’s streets were famously redesigned in order to inhibit the kind of collective urban action that had fuelled the transformation of the entire country in the previous century, creating wide boulevards that prevented the construction of barricades and enabled swift access to potential sites of subversion from the city’s military barracks. At around the same time the city of Melbourne in Australia was being designed without any public squares at all, specifically in order to discourage the kind of democracy that such gathering places fostered.
This association of public space with freedom and democracy, and the consequent attempts to restrict freedom through the restriction of our access to such public space, is an equally significant component of the 21st century city. Consider the number of political movements that have emerged since 2011 which have been grounded in physical spaces, from Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park, and how frequently the reaction to these movements has involved restricting access to those very same sites, often indefinitely. Alongside such blunt confrontations with the democratic potential of the public realm there are other, more insidious threats. Architect Sam Jacobs, for example, has suggested that the dream of a digitally-driven ‘smart city’ of the future seductively envisioned by tech giants like Google and Apple has the potential to transform us into ‘voluntary prisoners of smart architecture’. In the smart city our behaviour is monitored and moderated by an elaborate array of networked devices that could include everything from the phones in our pockets to the park benches we sit on to the driverless cars we will soon be riding in. Convenience lures us into acquiescence.
Yet public space and the uses we are able to make of it remain crucial to our understanding of who we are, as individuals and as a community. And as traditional gathering places and familiar forms of protest are designed out of our urban environment and our personal and political agency is eroded by the utopian fantasies of unaccountable corporations, alternative methods of re-imagining and renegotiating our relationship with public space become increasingly important.
2 – On Play
Seemingly lacking both explicit intentions and meaningful outcomes, play is ideally situated to evade the kind of restrictions placed on more direct political action. Play can appear trivial or unserious and yet in its defiant unproductivity, its superimposition of alternative rules or structures over the rules that normally govern our public behaviour, and its encouragement to imagine something other than the ordinary, to imagine ourselves as something other than the ordinary, play can create a space of thrilling otherness to our current social and political conditions. Play invites us to imagine ourselves as free. Free to impose our own reality upon the cities we inhabit, even if temporarily. In doing so it might fulfil a vital purpose in an environment in which more explicit acts of freedom-making can be so vigorously policed and constrained.
But if even if play has the potential to serve as just such an act of ‘freedom-making’, what does that look like in practice? Is it the child crouched behind a park bench, waiting for just the right moment to leap out and scare her passing parents? Is it the elaborate Zombie chase game I attended a couple of years ago in an empty industrial estate in North London? Is it me, just earlier today, walking down the street secretly pretending to be a racing car? Is it all these things or is it none of them? How might we begin to configure a politics of play, as a means of understanding when playing on our city streets is a radical gesture and when it isn’t?
One way to answer this question would be by identifying a possible history of such radical play. Such a history might lead from the purposeful aimlessness of the dérive, through the playful event scores and happenings of sixties artists such as Allan Kaprow and George Brecht, to more contemporary manifestations of urban play such as flash mobs, pervasive gaming and certain kinds of contemporary site-specific theatre and performance art. Through recourse to such a history I can begin to map a kind of play that is placeless and appropriative, that disappears into the everyday activity of the city, that occupies time rather than space, that exists perhaps most fundamentally as a way of looking or a way of operating, ascribing new meanings to familiar actions and old architecture, and in so doing producing radical new experiences of the city. This is a definition of play I recognise as an act of oblique political resistance. It is the kind of definition around which my own practice has been constructed, informed by a critical and aesthetic vocabulary that has not only helped me to understand what I want to make, but also how to describe it.
3 – On Play and Privilege
Knowledge, however, is rarely only knowledge. In this instance the knowledge that has shaped the way I think about play has brought with it an artistic legitimacy and a cultural capital that has been just as crucial in affording me the freedom to play in the streets of my city. This freedom is manifested in a variety of ways; an ability to secure grants and commissions to devise and develop new projects, participation in festivals of play and performance that frequently enable special access to streets, parks and other public places, and perhaps less tangibly a kind of confidence – a sense of what I am able to get away with and where. This confidence is born of experience, of my ability to justify or explain what I am doing, of my position as a professional artist, and perhaps most fundamentally from privileges of race, sex and class that mean the streets are freer for me and people like me than virtually anyone else in society.
The history of play that has informed my own work is by and large a history of people with a similarly privileged freedom to play in radical and unpredictable ways in the public realm. Work emerging from, supported by and remembered in galleries, museums, universities and the pages of beautiful, expensive books. Celebrated yet circumscribed, well-intentioned but nonetheless legitimised by and legitimising institutions of explicit authority and privilege, does such play risk becoming part of neoliberal machinery that reinforces rather than re-imagines the power relations that govern our public spaces?
In 2009 on London’s South Bank, I was involved in creating a street game for a summer festival. Promoted by the South Bank Centre the piece encouraged players to dress in one of three colours and meet outside the Royal Festival Hall, freezing for two minutes and then moving in a series of stuttering improvised patterns towards a nearby park where we had prepared as a finale a giant game of grandmother’s footsteps led by a performer in a giant papier-mâché grandmother’s head.
As the people playing the game started to move in fits and starts across grass, dozens of other people, many local teenagers hanging out and drinking in the sunshine, noticed them doing so and tried to join in. These new people did not know the rules of the game, they had not received the pre-event briefing emailed to players the previous day, they were not visitors to the South Bank Centre. In delighted exhilaration they rushed at Grandma. We didn’t know what to do. We hadn’t anticipated this; we hadn’t invited them to play.
Responding instinctively to the danger posed to the performer braced inside the oversized costume we formed a cordon, a barrier, a strong line of defence; arms linked, we pressed into the crowd, forcing them backwards away from their immediate target. Behind me I could hear another supervisor using a loudhailer to encourage these new players to disperse. This was not the kind of play we had anticipated, and not the role we thought we would find ourselves playing.
4 – The London Riots
The complexity of my relationship to public space and the freedom to play was perhaps made most apparent to me a couple of years after this experience when, in the summer of 2011 a black man called Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in North London. Little explanation for his death was given and the police briefings about the circumstances surrounding it inflamed the local community. Hundreds of people from the area marched on a nearby police station demanding an explanation. They waited for several hours whilst no satisfactory response was forthcoming; the crowd growing, the tension building.
Eventually there was a scuffle, then fights, and quickly things began to fall apart, or perhaps more accurately they started to be pulled apart. Violence spread like a meme – an idea, a pose, an action, a euphoric, irresistible carnival, carried on mobile phones and through the social networking sites. What followed was a flash mob of fierce chaos; an ecstatic, angry mirror to the corporatized incitements to dance in train stations or freeze in city parks that had infiltrated London in the previous couple of years. The same vocabulary of play and transformation shouted in furious voices by those who hadn’t previously been invited to join in.
Following the riots a clean-up was organised on the internet by well-meaning, socially-conscious people I thought of as much like me. Some of those organisers were people I’d actually met, at arts conferences and similar cultural events. They encouraged people to get a broom and go out into the streets to help with the clean up. People arrived on the streets ready to make a point, ready to take something back. By the time the crowds had assembled the majority of cleaning up had already been done by local council workers. With little to do but gather awaiting instructions these unneeded players stood in the street, posing for journalists’ photographs, holding their clean new brooms in the air like banners. They laughed, they cheered.
They swept away antagonism and reclaimed the streets for play of a kind I recognised as familiar. Play that is just radical enough, participated in largely by people with the freedom to choose when and how they will be visible and when they will remain inconspicuous; people for whom the experience of running through the city has rarely been anything but a thrilling experience.
5 – Walking Holding
More recently I have found myself drawn to a different kind of play. Play that is not so reliant on adherence to a single set of rules or a secretive fictional scenario, both of which can often depend on the seductive idea of erasing the complexities of privilege, politics and power that are always present in public space in the same problematic way Peter Brook erases them in his empty space.
Instead the play I find myself drawn to is built around the more ambiguous, negotiated terrain of the encounter. An encounter that recognises that different people will understand public space and their relationship to it in fundamentally different ways. That invites us to acknowledge that difference and explore it. That recognises the production of meaning as a plural and collaborative act. This is play that, initially at least, does not appear so explicitly playful, and yet which to me is still a gentle act of re-ordering and re-producing; the fashioning of new freedoms out of extra-ordinary interactions.
Perhaps the best example I have so far seen of such an encounter is a performance called Walking:Holding created by the artist Rosana Cade. The piece invites you to walk hand in hand with a series of strangers on a journey through the city. The people you walk with are residents of the city who have agreed to take part in the piece, people of various ages, genders, sexualities. As you walk with each of these people in turn, you share a conversation with them about how this walking together, this visible intimacy, makes you both feel.
Through the playful and seemingly uncomplicated action of holding hands we are able to explore together some of the ways in which public spaces are performed and policed, the privileges of gender, sexuality, race and class that so often determine our freedom to roam, and the contingent nature of our own visibility within the city. It is the simplicity of this gesture which is so powerful – the realisation that just a held hand is enough to thrillingly and frighteningly transform our experience of the city and initiate new relationships of solidarity and resistance.