“If forty years ago free play was believed to be an ‘education in disobedience’; then the encouragement of creativity has today been turned into one of the means by which the commercial spheres of circulation adjust and control social processes.” Writing on playground designers and activists of the 1960s, Lars Bang Larsen reflected on the contemporary commodification of play.
Play has increasingly become a byword for the digital age with interactivity its defining feature. Corporations harness the addictive power of play; through any number of mobile digital devices games that are only ever a click away. Even Google’s toy-like primary colours seem intent on evoking emotive, childhood associations. However, play’s seemingly ubiquitous presence only serves to lessen the creative power of the term. It’s not just that digital play is locked into big business and commodified experience, but that all too often games are prescriptive, limiting the open-ended, subversive potential of play.
‘The Playground Project’ at BALTIC seeks to put the subversive back into play. The exhibition, first staged at Kunsthalle, Zürich, reconnects us with the playground’s historical connections to social activism and utopian thinking. Gabriela Burkhalter has been compiling a history of radical developments in playground design from the social reformers of the early 20th Century, through to community projects of the 1960s. For Burkhalter, the playground is “a contested urban space where ideas about education and childhood, creativity and control, art and public space can collide. It was once, and occasionally still is, a laboratory for adventurous ideas and radical forms.” This exhibition puts Burkhalter’s archive material into action.
Playgrounds in gallery spaces can often provide a strangely sterile encounter. The combination of self-conscious adults and overly vigilant gallery staff often militate against any opportunity for exploratory play. Put this together with an archival display and you would expect The Playground Project to be a rather dry, self-defeating experience. At least I did, but happily I was wrong.
On entering the gallery I was immediately struck by a wall of sound. In place of the polite, awkward atmosphere I had been expecting, the gallery was packed with children whose raucous games and exuberant screams animated the play sculptures. Whether it was leaping off and thundering through Yvan Pestalozzi’s giant tubular sculpture the ‘Lozziwurm’, or using the pipes in Group Ludic’s sandpit for some extraordinary engineering, the children’s lack of awareness of context or gallery rules brought the objects to life in a way not possible with adults’ self-conscious interaction.
The presentation of the archival material matched the energy of the play sculptures through the simple and effective decision to massively enlarge photographs and text. The dramatic and at times life-size images of seminal play sculptures created an uncanny continuum between the children playing in the photographs and those in the gallery, connecting the children across the time gulf.
I greatly enjoyed the absurdity of struggling to hear Assemble’s film on play and adventure playgrounds ‘Voice of Children’, because the children in the gallery were having too much fun playing with the bean bags in the screening room. At one point a narrative voice on the film broke through the noise with a definition of anarchy: ‘no one telling you what to do, not being constrained from above.’ These subversive interruptions and overlaps occur throughout the show. Archival material was constantly overlaid with the live experience of children playing. However, at times this can produce the rather uncomfortable, if thought provoking sense that the children are acting as laboratory animals testing object and theory, particularly if you are an adult attending the exhibition alone. Unequipped with a child, you can be left questioning the position of the observer and the observed.
However, this exhibition as a whole raises an issue that’s more important than any individual work exhibited: how society makes space for the child in an urban environment. The Playground Project illustrates how, in the post-war era this became a priority for many architects and town planners. Playgrounds were seen as a site of social reform and future building. In Denmark, the revolutionary landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen observed children playing on bombsites and responded with the creation of junk playgrounds. Imported to Britain by Marjorie Allen as the adventure playground, bombsites and wastelands were transformed into places where children could find free expression. As Burkhalter observed, with the shift away from playground activism in the 1980s we moved into a time of “child as consumer”. Today, with the cost of land at more of a premium than ever before, the DIY projects and open ethos of the adventure playground movement seems a world away, making The Playground Project’s reclaiming of interactive space in a public gallery even more timely.