Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

Choose what you want to do … dance, talk, or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

– Fun Palace draft design, 1961

It’s been satisfying to watch the message of play spread across museums, libraries, and other public institutions over the last few years.  It’s timely, as the entertainment industry, too, begins to explore participatory and immersive forms of engagement. Events like Fun Palaces remind us that play is a vital element of learning and exploration. Play in cultural spaces, public or private, can promote self-directed learning, creative development, or simply the joy of using your imagination.

Now I’m wondering if play could get even wilder.

Bode Miller, American slalom skier

I guess structured or programmed play is great, insofar as it reminds people working in museums, galleries, and libraries to offer more than just colouring-in when they provide kids’ activities. But what that programming mustn’t do is mistake itself for schooling. Play belongs to all ages, and institutions should avoid controlling play to such an extent that it just becomes formal education all over again.

Scott Eberle of America’s National Musuem of Play has blogged brilliantly about going beyond structured play, using the example of “riotous” champion skier Bode Miller:

Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts.[…] Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”

Eberle’s piece resonates well with a blog post written last year by Anna Cutler, director of learning at London’s Tate Gallery. Cutler argues that cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, and I would add libraries, should not “replace or mimic school’s curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers.”

She goes on to write:

I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

The wild ride Eberle describes on the ski slopes, the sense that you can have “the greatest time making mistakes, crashing”, can happen in cultural institutions too. Sport, art, and games all offer opportunities to go off the currricular piste, pursuing instead the dizzying pleasure “at the limits of performance.”

Fun Palaces showed how this feeling of playful exploration could flourish in communities of all kinds around the world, using partnerships to extend the reach and capacities of individual institutions. 2013’s zombie siege in Parkes, Australia – a pretty wild ride in itself – was a library event run together with local schools, cops, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. This chimes nicely with R. David Lankes’ call for public libraries to “unleash” their communities, rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

So – can we trade control for fun in arts and culture? That might be scary: when we acknowledge that everyone has some creative contribution to make in life, we surrender the old privileges of authorship and prestige along with the old constraints. But even when budgets are tight – especially when budgets are tight – we must take opportunities to innovate, whether that’s  in publishing, universities, galleries, or museums.

What would happen if these institutions went off-piste? What lies at the limits of performance?

4 thoughts on “Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

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