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The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
Choose Essay:
We don’t grow into creativity
we grow out of it,
rather, we get educated out of it.
Sir Ken Robinson
Combinatory play seems to be
the essential feature in productive thought.
Albert Einstein
If we have given up our ability to play,
we will have lost the cutting edge of our creativity.
Peter London
Play and Creativity
By Ernst Lurker
The correlations between play and creativity could be the subject of a book, however, I am attempting a short cut here. To get to the core of the matter, I am contrasting play with linear thinking, a rather uncommon opposite. We are all endowed with our linear mind, which usually attacks a problem with plodding, step by step logic. It appears to be the dominant obstacle that gets in the way of trail blazing creativity. And it is play that liberates us from such ponderous, uncreative thinking. PlayArt can be a singularly beautiful and easy path to our liberation as it quite naturally shifts our negative attitudes towards play. The artwork invites us to explore and experience the richness of play.

Linear thinking constitutes our normal thought processes since we easily get disturbed if there is a break in the accustomed sequences. Children are unencumbered in this respect and don’t have entrenched notions of the natural world. They are initially spared the systematic limitations of adults, but in the first year, the educational system starts its destructive work by instilling in students the fear of mistakes. The child’s curiosity and inclination to try out various possibilities become inhibited. The linear thinking gets cast in concrete, and creativity is buried under an immovable weight of conventions. At any rate, it is absurd to have an educational system claim to prepare the young generation for the future and then not only ignore creativity, but literally prevent it.

Serious adjustments to our outlook will be necessary to improve such cultural shortcomings. The secularization of art has traditionally enabled us to overcome old taboos and religious narrow-mindedness. In the course of this secularization, it is now the immense task of PlayArt to correct the entrenched misjudgments and misconceptions regarding creativity and play.

PlayArt has elevated play as its main subject, primarily to let the viewer participate and to re-enforce the cultural significance of play. Schools and creativity were in essence secondary concerns. Nevertheless, PlayArt can still influence negative attitudes, and in terms of creativity, it can provide decisive and illuminating insights.

Some PlayArt objects resemble puzzles, especially when an individual is challenged to recreate a specific configuration that is shown in an illustration of the piece. For example, starting with a ring shaped chain, the Triamond (by Klaus Pfeffer) can be turned into a Diamond. Guided by linear thinking, most people try to knit the piece together one segment at a time. They quickly discover that the Triamond seems to have a mind of its own and does not want to move in the desired directions. It is actually a struggle to form the diamond in this fashion.

There is a more elegant way to arrive at the solution, which is demonstrated in the following video. It shows the creation of the diamond in five moves. After four moves the piece looks like it might require at least another four or five additional moves to the finish. But surprisingly, the next move yields the diamond in a single complex twist.

Our linear mind can never conceive of such a solution. It is only through play that we can discover unexpected phenomena of this kind. Even Klaus, the inventor, did not arrive at this solution by methodically constructing the moves; he played with the object and explored the possibilities which appeared more or less by themselves. The object showed tendencies for certain inherent movements, and Klaus simply followed the movements the object wanted to do. When he found the one that produced the diamond shape, it was a surprising and happy discovery. He also discovered and documented numerous other movement sequences and unexpected sculptural configurations which he could never have devised in his mind, such as the this wobbling construction:

Is it possible to create the diamond in a single motion? "An impossibility," is the usual answer.
Klaus never told me how he conjured up this magic, but exactly such staggering surprises are the main characteristics of playful creativity. We won’t find any instructions in school books for this. Therefore, it would be entirely appropriate to use PlayArt objects as teaching tools, but our policy makers have no tolerance for such "fooling around." They are obligated to motivate schools to transmit an immense amount of knowledge which then becomes outdated after a few years. In addition to imparting knowledge in today’s global crisis situation, it would be more sensible to introduce the fundamentals of creativity, inspire inventors, and discuss problems that urgently need solutions. We certainly should uncover linear thinking and steer it into manageable proportions. Last, but not least, we should recognize play as the foundation of creativity and culture. How long do we want to ignore Einstein’s insight regarding play and productive thought?

The discoveries we make through play normally remain hidden to our linear and plodding mind. Only this turbo-charged creativity can produce the breakthroughs and quantum leaps that humanity seems to increasingly depend on. It has immense potential in every aspect of human endeavor, from medicine to space exploration and the creation of new energy. While we place great faith in computers since they are of considerable help in numbers crunching and data management, they are only an extension and enforcement of our linear approaches; they are totally useless in the realm of the unexpected and unthinkable.

A typical example of such an unexpected but frequent phenomenon in nature is the tensile strength of chrome-nickel-steel. The strength of its individual components is:

Iron:60,000 psi (pounds per square inch)
Chromium: 70,000 psi
Nickel:80,000 psi
(Source: Buckminster Fuller, UTOPIA OR OBLIVION.)

Conventional wisdom maintains that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link; consequently a chrome-nickel-steel cable should break at 60,000 psi. We might perhaps be willing to accept an average strength of the alloy, but the suggestion of the sum of its parts sounds preposterous. The fact is, however, the actual strength is even greater, an unpredictable 350,000 psi, a value that’s completely beyond our logical and linear thinking. This phenomenon is called " behaviors of wholes unpredicted by the behavior of their parts." Jim Woolsey, energy expert, stated: "Nature is not always going to behave in a linear fashion, just because our minds think that way." Several years ago, I experienced how an engineer attempted to solve a problem with my Cubigon (one of my PlayArt objects). For over half an hour he struggled with the same, linear approach. Children often succeed, in a playful manner and without preconceived notions, within minutes.

Science has been moving into unpredictable and counterintuitive realms for some time now. One of the most serious blows to classical Newtonian physics was the discovery of quantum mechanics with the uncertainty principle and "spooky action at a distance." Even Einstein found these things difficult to accept. He certainly understood the importance of play. The famous mirror thought experiment he devised at the age of sixteen is the archetype of a playful scientific idea. Einstein imagined traveling at the speed of light and holding a mirror in front of him. His unusual question was: Would light rays from his face be able to catch up with the mirror so he could see his reflection? This singular thinking culminated in the theory of special relativity, a mind-boggling concept for most. As advanced as his discoveries were, some of his linear thinking lingered on and he was seriously annoyed about the unsettling advances of quantum mechanics. He responded with the famous quote: "God does not play dice." Since then, many predictions of quantum mechanics have been verified experimentally to a very high degree of accuracy. Stephen Hawking paraphrased Einstein’s quote: "God not only plays dice, but also sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen."

This reality makes it clear that cutting edge science has moved into the realm of the unpredictable, unthinkable, and impossible. Plodding, linear thinking no longer does the job, and computers are virtually helpless automatons that are not even close to being creative. How can we accomplish and possibly cultivate such breakthrough thinking? We need to let go of the conventional linear mentality and aim to think the unthinkable. And we can do it by making peace with our play instinct and letting play be the source of our creativity.

Ernst Lurker

Brian Sutton-Smith  |  Our Playful Culture  |  Museum Animation  |  PlayArt’s Cool Factor  |  Culture and Play in the Emirates

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