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Tactical Play Conference

July 4, 2009

On Wednesday I went to a conference called Tactical Play, organised by Sophie Hope and Elaine Speight in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research. If I were to reduce the topic of the conference to one sentence I would say it was the relationship between arts practice, social sciences research, and play. As an arts professional wannabe (see blog title), partial anthropologist (see undergraduate degree), and indefatigable player (see everyday behaviour and board games collection), I was very drawn to the discussion.

The morning session saw four different speakers take their turn to give their interpretation of the power of play in arts practice and in social research. Lynn Froggett spoke of the potential of play as a social research method alternative to the overemphasis on verbal communication in the more traditional scientific approach. One of her examples of this method was a creative writing project with young offenders, in which a poet helped them create, during a series of informal one-to-one sessions, various poems about themselves and their aspirations. Froggett showed a video of one session and the resulting poem, I was very impressed with both. The poem was light in tone, and yet self-reflective, and the poet was good at probing the boy and yet remain delicate. To show why a play-based method is more effective for social research in this case, Froggett used Jessica Benjamin’s theory of the intersubjective third, the most interesting aspect of which, in my opinion, is that play becomes a system through which to create a third entity by negotiating the relationship between the two subjects. This reminded me of a talk about the principles and dangers of arts therapy I went to a while back: the ‘intersubjective third’ dwells between reality and imagination, between the physical world and its reinterpretation.

Anne Douglas interpreted play as ‘learning by doing’, and gave as examples cases in which artists use ‘playful’ methods, albeit not defining them so, to carry out their academic research. The most interesting part of the presentation was when Anne showed the parallels between research and art by depicting both as a journey of exploration and investigation from a question to an answer. They also both mimic the world, although perhaps art starts from the inner world rather than the external world – but I don’t believe that’s always the case. One of her example’s was artist Patricia Cain’s way of engaging with other artists’ drawings by copying them detail by detail. I liked how this example made explicit the role of rules, if you allow a terrible pun: only with Cain’s attempts to understand the rules of the drawing she was reproducing, and by reproducing it faithfully, was she able to understand the act of drawing in its creative nature.

Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic, spoke of the power of play in light of two theorists: Brian Sutton-Smith and Paolo Virno. The first sees play as a sort of coping mechanism, a system of adaptation to the complexity of the environment. Play, then, is related to optimism, and it is also a means through which basic instincts in the amigdala are translated and interpreted in the frontal lobe of the brain. Virno, on the contrary, sees play as having a disruptive force, a revolutionary moment in which usual elements of the environment are altered to open unforeseen perspectives. There was also a potentially interesting observation of Virno’s to the extent of “our social infrastructure is moving towards play” but I would have to read his article before I can be more precise. These two interpretations of play seem opposite and yet I found both of them very powerful and didn’t really want to discard any of the two. I got the impression that it was the same for Kane. His conclusive sentence was, to the best of my note-taking, “Play slips from grasp, but maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do”. Play is definitely wonderfully polymorphic, and I don’t mean in terms of the number of games you can play, but exactly in its Greek sense: the number of forms that play can take. And the variety in the speakers’ approaches showed it well, I think.

The fourth presentation of the morning session was by Justin McKeown, about the Centre of Suburban Research that he and his family hosted in Belfast between 2005 and 2008. In an attempt to understand Northern Ireland’s precarious socio-political dynamics in a playful and non-confrontational manner, this make-belief institution was created. Like a true institution, it offers residencies for artists and organises events, but the welcome is that of a family, and the environment allows for playful and relaxed interactions between people and with the surroundings. I found the Centre for Suburban Research an incredibly poetic idea and am looking forward to read more about it – hopefully I can get my hands on one of the booklets that McKeown produced after each residency.

The Q&A session that followed was rather intense. Some ideas: play is ambivalent, it can be useful but also useless. Kane responded: play emerges out of a crisis in knowledge; Douglas responded: art and play are similar in the difficulty to establish their function – are they a tool or a condition?, why are they there at all? Other questions were about the exclusivity of play, and its inherent power relations: is playful research really more ‘amongst equals’ than normal research? (to which I want to say: is that because it is playful, or because it is research?); and also a question about radical play, and one about the necessity, in a research context, to translate play into verbal language.

In the afternoon, we were split into smaller groups, and I followed Lucy Kimbell’s ‘illustrated performance’ about her Rat Fair project. I loved the fact that her presentation was performed as a poem – it was all the more vivid and enjoyable. After having explored the relationship between rats and humans through the eyes of the scientist and of the pet-owner, Kimbell put on an event for people and rats at the Camden Arts Centre in 2005 in which she provided a playful and dare I say ‘artsy’ alternative to the rat fairs.

What followed was two and a half hours of basically uninterrupted discussion sessions. Again very intense, extremely hard to follow, and quite stubborn on a few points – I remember “arts must develop its own language, not borrow from other disciplines”, “why is play so popular and readily-funded in the arts world?” and “the playful artist risks becoming a joker”. I came away from those two and a half hours thinking I still didn’t know nearly enough about play itself. What is play, can it be created knowingly, how can it be documented and analysed? And on the relationship between play and research, one of the most interesting questions was raised by Lucy Kimbell: we talked a lot about play as a method, but what about play as a form of knowledge? That would completely revolutionise the kind of social research that goes on nowadays.

The whole day felt like a huge game of snakes and ladders (in an extremely hot building, which didn’t help). I think I got stuck somewhere at about two-thirds of the board and just never reached the finish line.


Some names that were heard during the day (in order of appearance): D.W. Winnicot, Jessica Benjamin, Patricia Cain, Heather Delday, Brian Sutton-Smith, Paolo Virno, Paul Gavin, Paul Stapleton, Emily Kyoko Snowden, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Donna Haraway.

One Comment leave one →
  1. psychonautic permalink
    September 4, 2009 02:30

    I had quire a lot of fun at this event too! What can be said about play? We do it in our sleep (literally).

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