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The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
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(About the Origins of PlayArt)
By Ernst Lurker
1. How did you arrive at artwork that requires audience participation?
2. Why did you call this type of work "PlayArt"?

These are the two questions I am frequently asked when people encounter my artwork, and I am going to answer them here again.

Answer No. 1
My discovery was the result of musical perception.                                                        
 -  Albert Einstein (when asked about his theory of relativity)
The decisive factor in my discovery of this art form was my experience as a jazz musician, especially the times when I played with my band and was totally absorbed in the music. Jazz improvisation is for me a uniquely satisfying and exhilarating activity. In the chord structure, each jazz piece presents its own set of restrictions that still allow an unlimited amount of creative freedom for the improviser. Jazz musicians also continuously invent new chord substitutions or progressions and consequently always keep their material fresh and up-to-date. So while certain pieces in a musician’s repertoire may be old and familiar, they always present an opportunity for new adventures and discoveries.
Researchers of the human mind often refer to this deep involvement as the “flow experience,” and interestingly, we musicians in the band experienced it almost routinely. We lost any sense of time. After our engagement of four hours, when it was time to pack up, it actually felt like we had started only a half an hour ago.

While engaged in creating my artwork, I usually had similar experiences as long as I played with the sculptural elements I had chosen for the project at hand. However, as soon as I fixed these elements into a permanent configuration, my creation had lost its fluidity and its power to hold my interest. While a jazz number can always be a departure for new creativity, a finished sculpture no longer possesses that quality.

As a result, I searched for a way to keep my sculpture fluid and flexible. I wanted to make the improvisational spontaneity of jazz available in visual art. It is the creative process that holds the spell, not the finished work. I also wanted to convey this experience to the audience so that it a could participate in the act of creation as well.

Making my pieces movable so they could be manipulated and rearranged was certainly a way to provide improvisational flexibility, but random mobility was not the answer. I also wanted a system of restrictions, similar to a chord structure in music. So I experimented with mechanical levers and pins. Once I connected my modular elements in this fashion, I realized that such a system did indeed provide restrictions that would eliminate most of the arbitrary and chaotic movements. When I realized that these interconnected sculptures obeyed some inherent order-creating structure, it was a surprising and satisfying discovery. The mechanical function of the assembly is defined and governed by geometric laws. This makes the work akin to music and poetry wherein structure and rules are also dominant principles.

Answer No. 2 – Why call it PlayArt? - Exploring the numerous possibilities that these movable sculptures contained was again a surprising and fascinating journey. Many of the configurations that appeared were quite unexpected. It is in fact virtually impossible to envision them simply in one’s mind and execute them in the form of a given image. It became obvious that the surprising variety of compositions needed to be photographed. I took more than 100 photographs of one of my earlier creations. They, in turn, provided a second surprise. Testing my creations with groups of people, it was at times extremely difficult to recreate certain configurations by looking at a photograph. We are all endowed with a linear mind, and I discovered that we like to construct a given configuration in a step-by-step, linear fashion. This is not always possible. The more intricate shapes require moves that our mind is incapable of predetermining. I observed that a more playful and looser approach renders the surprising results more readily than a forced and rigid one. It is also more enjoyable.

There is no better word for this type of activity than "play." I was playing when I explored the numerous possibilities in these sculptures. So were my subjects to whom I handed them for their own investigations. In fact, this ability to draw in the viewer and provide an experience which substantially exceeds  the customary way of looking at a work of art is the main characteristic of PlayArt. The viewer becomes a creative partner with the artist. An interesting story can illustrate this concept a bit further. When my "Trixagon" was first produced, I gave one to a former professor of mine. Five or six years later I visited him again, and he had the object on his shelf in a position that I had never seen before, even during all the intervening years. His creation was especially surprising since it was symmetrical and rather simple; it should have shown up much sooner. It is evident that such PlayArt sculptures take on their own lives, and clearly, the professor took part in creating a work that was in essence his and mine. His creative judgment was actually the last word on the appearance of this creation.
This is, of course, a much more intense and intimate involvement with a work of art for it provides the viewer with the priceless joy of discovery and allows him to experience the creative process first hand. For an artist, this kind of communication, or communion if you will, is a new and groundbreaking event. It represents the unprecedented complicity of the beholder. I was both moved and exhilarated by this experience.
My own definition of the term PlayArt was initially (in 1962) based on my own approach and rather limiting. I was dealing with geometric, abstract elements that enabled the viewers to create their own versions of abstract sculptures. The players could explore and discover the creativity in art; they themselves moved into the arena of art and became artists. In 1969, when MoMA explored the concept of a PlayArt exhibition, I became familiar with many other artists who provided playful experiences, and they arrived at them without employing abstract elements or restrictive devices as I did. Calder’s or Berrocal’s figurative creations are of an entirely different nature, yet they obviously belong in the art form of PlayArt. This was also the time when I realized that a movement had already started, and the art form kept expanding ever since.

In later years, I also encountered the expressions interactive art, participatory or participative art, which seem to describe the same phenomenon. However, upon closer examination, it became evident that these terms are simply euphemisms for PlayArt. Unfortunately, the term "play" itself is still burdened by outmoded, negative attitudes and a significant stigma; especially in the museum world it is a tainted word, which must be avoided assiduously. Many professionals and curators seriously and amicably suggested abandoning the name PlayArt. It is true, most of this advice was well meant; yet there are also those who adamantly reject or condemn PlayArt (see Ludophobia).

Nevertheless, there is significant support for this new art form, and the PlayArt philosophy is based on the work of a large number of prominent thinkers, (Einstein, Piaget, Huizinga, Maslow, etc.) who established the critical importance of play in a broad spectrum of human activities, in creativity in the arts and science, even in culture at large. We have "The Association for the Study of Play" (TASP) that keeps track of the entire academic discipline of play research. I have lectured there and published two essays in their journal. Obviously, there is full-hearted support in these circles. There is also the National Institute for Play and many similar organizations in other countries. I have been invited to lecture on the subject of PlayArt at MIT, at the Creative Education Foundation and numerous other institutions and corporations. The libraries of some of these places contain an impressive number of books on the subject and on the importance of play. This immense support structure and the phenomenal substantiation would become meaningless if we abandon the name PlayArt and accept a euphemism such as interactive art. At present, the various euphemisms are still better established than PlayArt. These deep-rooted attitudes are difficult to eradicate.

PlayArt represents a linear continuation of the secularization of art, which started in the Middle Ages when only religious art was acceptable. Ever since, art has moved forward by embracing more and more subjects that were previously taboo. The long list of formerly forbidden subjects includes landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, nudes and numerous images of every day. All of them have by now become completely absorbed by our culture and no longer pose any threat to the religious establishment. Interestingly, play as a subject of art still causes some discomfort in conservative circles. Consequently, PlayArt has the potential to make a significant contribution by enabling society to make peace with the human play instinct. Unfortunately, many are very much at odds with it. As George Santayana suggests:

To the art of working well
a civilized race would add the art of playing well.

Ernst Lurker

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

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