Art and Play

This is an essay I contributed to the very first Short Play DVD publication.

Curated by Rachel Feery, Short Play is an excellent collection of video art, with a slim, but nifty volume of writing to accompany the works.

Short Play can be purchased through their website, or at a range of reputable galleries, shops and outlets (possibly) near you.

Short Play: Volume 00:01 Play, Edited by Mark Hewitt.
Jessie Scott, “Art and Play”, p.16-18
What is play? Colloquial understandings vary from simply ‘mucking around’ to the heavily invested belief that all play is significant practice for a future survival skill. Freud pioneered the belief that play can reveal subconscious thought processes or emotional states that are too difficult to verbalise1, a concept underpinning the fields of art, music and play therapies. Sergio and Vivien Pellis argue that play, above all else, is an autotelic activity; that is, one which has its own rewards beyond any other functions it may serve.2 For example, ‘playing basketball in a team, with the goal being to win, is not play, but shooting hoops by yourself is.’3 In other words, you may get better at playing basketball from shooting hoops on your own, but that’s not necessarily why you do it. So a key feature of play is that it is fun, with no forgone conclusion; the ‘fun-ness’ being an adaptive ‘sweetener’, ensuring you reap the embedded survival rewards: brain organization, hunting skills or, indeed, how to nail a slam dunk.

In an art context, play is an integral part of the creative process. Artists may engage in the pleasure of drawing, documenting, moving, singing or even just talking, in order to generate new ideas which might later be refined into finished artistic outcomes. But what about art that is, in itself, play? This kind is often derided as self-indulgent – especially now, in the hangover of the supremely self-righteous and ambitious political art of the 20th century. There is a sense that working in an open-ended way with no goal in mind, and enjoying it too, is a selfish act. On the other hand, the artist’s enjoyment can suffuse work with a joyful energy that is transferrable to the audience, unlike in more resolved contemporary practices. It could be argued that true play, where artists are free to work in open-ended, process-based contexts, is not simply a style of art, but an absolutely vital element of the continued expansion of what art can be, and one of the engines which drive innovation.

In the collaborative projects of Alanna and Matthew Lorenzon, and Rachel Feery and Lisa Stewart, we see the results of art that has open-ended play at its core. In the production of Green Eye Hill Sound (2010), the Lorenzons adopt the five rules of play set out by French theorist Roger Caillois4

as the framework for their collaboration. The resulting video work is a deceptively simple series of drawings combined with music, where it is impossible to tell which came first – the sound or the image (so balanced are they) – and the light, open result belies the sophistication of the work behind it. The vast array of complex social interactions which are engaged by play – following and leading, risking and rewarding, guessing and assuming – are often seen and celebrated in performing arts but are rarely acknowledged as such in videos like the Lorenzons’. Furthermore, through a conscious embodiment of the childhood fascination with colour, light, movement, shape and sound, and aware of its key role in brain development, Matthew and Alanna reflect on both the biological and sociological features of play.

In their video Echoes of Gold (2008), Lisa Stewart and Rachel Feery embrace the language of film and television, incorporating it into their own practice, rediscovering a magic in the lantern that had been all but lost for most of us. Their wilfully mawkish, unpolished adoption of ‘special’ effects (the use of scale models in particular) creates a wonderment, not in terms of awe and incomprehension (as with cutting edge 3D or CGI), but the opposite: intense identification with the imperfect, the handmade. That their work is redolent of myriad childhood art projects, produced in the no-fail environment of primary school where everyone is good at art, makes it particularly affecting. The miniature trees, the hand-painted backdrops, the stand-ins for nature – all meticulously crafted and casually knitted together with simple camera work and grabs of TV noise in a loose, non-linear narrative sequence – take you back to a time when you could suspend disbelief more easily. Taking you gently by the hand, they show you something simultaneously old and new, knowing and naïve, ironic and sincere, which has childhood imagination and play at its heart.

With slightly higher production values, and conscious of traditional mise en scene, the works of both Safari Team and Michael Vale are engaged in less open-ended play, but are no less infused with a sense of fun and energy for it. In Safari Team’s Dig To China ­­– Part III (2008–9) we have artists dressed up in costumes, romping through fantastical and natural landscapes, wielding props and scripts. A delicate balance between levity and gravity, between form and content, and an allusion to childhood play-acting, are all there. However, the stagey blocking, elegant composition, and poetic speechifying make it less play than playfulness: a subtle twisting of extant filmic and literary tropes. The video is rear-projected onto the back of a tent-like structure, received via a black plastic tunnel. This encourages the audience to get down on their hands and knees or sit cross-legged to view the work, allowing a sense of playful adventure to carry the content of the video through to its execution, drawing the viewer into the play and casting them in a similarly adventurous role. The juxtaposition of the grandiose language of the hero narrative, and the patent ordinariness of the heroes depicted, serve to poke fun at all self-serious constructions of human heroics, be they literary, filmic or of our own imagining.

In Michael Vale’s The Servants of the Moon (2007), part of an ongoing series, this play-acting is taken even further and generalized to art history. Vale has created a cock-eyed world, inhabited by a series of recurring characters, and inserted it into a meticulously reconstructed history of the ‘real’ world. By using a contrast between the familiar and the absurd, and by donning the trappings of authority, he seeks to unsettle linear narratives of history and canonical views of art. To this end, the motif of the ‘Le Chien qui Fume’, or The Smoking Dog (a refugee of countless variations of ‘Dogs Playing Poker’), is celebrated as the ultimate symbol of lowbrow art and is recast as a valid agent of an alternative art history. Like that of Safari Team, Vale’s work presents film representation as an elaborate, preferential construction, where elements extraneous to or distracting from the central narrative are edited out. He also highlights a parallel to popular ‘onward and upward’ historical narratives by restoring some of the chaos that has been removed.

Through this diverse collection, we can see both a connection and a comparison to be drawn between art and play. As raised by the Lorenzons’ work, our early attraction to bright colour, rhythm, shape and form ensures we will forge those important neural pathways in our brain. That this manifests in the enjoyable, autotelic activities – the naïve painting, play-acting and model-making that Stewart and Feery and Safari Team resurrect in their work – means we will not only do them in the first place, but some of us will continue to perform them throughout our lives, forever expanding on methods and outcomes in innumerable ways. From this perspective, art is dependent on play; rather than a mere aesthetic trend, play is intrinsic to art in every way. And who is to say art is not in fact a vital outcome all along – one of the many that play has tricked us into?

Art should not be viewed in terms of a progression from some basic place to a more complex, refined and presumably predetermined state. Such is a bunk view of evolution, as Vale’s work explores. There is no final point on the horizon, no perfect state for us or for art; it must keep moving, and we must keep moving with it – playing, mucking around, and making it up as we go along.


1 S Freud, The case of ‘Little Hans’ and the ‘Rat Man’, Hogarth Press, London, 1909.

2 S & V Pellis, The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009.

3 S & V Pellis, quoted directly, 2010.

4 R Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. M Barash. Free Press of Glencoe, New York, 1961.

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One response to “Art and Play

  1. swelligantly argued, vividly explored

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