These days of busy holiday businesses, long to-do lists, cold mornings and bodies in thick black winter coats rushing up and down the streets in relentless search for perfect objects to buy and consume, a word keeps rumbling in my mind:
In Danish, this does not refer to one of the two body parts that connect your feet and your torso. It means play, or game.
Leg. Lege. Legende. Legesyg. Legeplads. Legekammerat. Legebetingelser.
Play. Plays. Playing. Playful. Playground. Playmate. Play conditions.
The playful body
When was the last time you shared a playful moment with someone?
A couple of weeks ago I was in a four day workshop with two lovely teachers from Teatro de los Sentidos – an internationally acclaimed theater company, who for decades has been making immersive, sensorial theater plays with an actively involved audience.
Theatre play. The connection between play and performance is obvious here. In Danish, not the word play, but the word “stykke” (piece), is traditionally used about a piece of drama. However, the Danish word “forestilling” (imagination) can as well be used as a synonym for the theatrical performance.
So, we can say: “I saw the imagination (at this or that theater), and really liked it”
In the workshop, Theatro de los Sentidos kept circling around the intention of creating an imaginary. How spaces can be transformed into imaginaries. How rooms, houses, nests, and other built spaces can encapsulate and evoke dreams. How this is crucial for their method of creating sensorial journeys where the audience is the protagonist.
The workshop became such an imaginary in itself. For four days, we played countless games. Mostly they were plain, simple children’s games, but they made us laugh, sweat, loosen up and become better listeners. (When was the last time you played hide and seek with someone at your own age? Try it!). We immersed in countless blindfolding practices. And we explored countless rooms in the old, historical buildings of the workshop venue, and made short experiences for each other. Most of the time we worked inside, then at last going out for a while on the last morning. For me, the closed non-space of the theater black box was beautifully contrasted by a stunning winter landscape outside. There is magic in this dark, slow time of the year.
Thank you, Teatro de los Sentidos and Den Danske Scenekunstskoles Efter- og Videreuddannelse, for the (re)treat.
The playful city
In the unfolding of Sensescapes, my interest is mainly in how to implement methods from artistic fields of sensorial performance and body work in the everyday lives of everyday people, who work, move and live in everyday surroundings.
In other words: If embodied, sense-based knowledge is as equally important as rational, scientifically based knowledge, how can sensation, sensitivity and sensuousness become more present in our private lives, our homes, work places and – not the least – in the public space, that we share?
In November, a shared sensescape was created in public, as a Sensescapes workshop was held at the water front of Aarhus, in and around the temporary urban space Dome of Visions. It was part of a three-day urban laboratory program, centered in the fundamental question: How do we create a livable city? (See the whole program here)
Familiar and unfamiliar participants came to explore the space and transform the area through sensorial intervention. The frame of the sensorial workshop was simple as always: After a brief introduction, the participants paired up and tuned into each other’s presence for a moment. Then they set off to investigate impulsively together, hand in hand, without words. One was blindfolded, the other not.
This time, a special emphasis was put on the equality of participation. In any game, so much power lays in the few sentences of instruction! In the intro, I therefore asked the participants to act on their impulses, no matter if their were blindfolded or not. The intention was to create a clear frame for potential curiosity and action to grow. Instead of a blind citizen, waiting for a seeing guide to lead them somewhere, the couples were encouraged to become one joined, impulsive, investigative, playful body.
The game began. Within minutes, individual and shared sensescapes arose.
Later the same day, a few of us blindfolded ourselves and curiously engaged the inside of the dome for a while.
Slowly. In silence. Alone.
In a debate on the last day of the laboratory, we re-posted the question: What is a liveable city?
Engaged debate participants suggested various answers to the question. A liveable city is a co-shapable city, a place with diversity, with green areas, with spots to breathe, with respectful meetings, a place where individuals have a sense of belonging.
And so on.
What would you answer?
What is a city worth living in, for you?
In 1938 the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens. A study of the play element in culture. In the book he argues that play is not only a fundamental phenomenon in human culture and society, in fact, “culture itself bears the character of play” (from foreword in J. Huizinga, 1949: Homo Ludens, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd). I have still to read the whole book, but as with many great theoretical books, reading the first couple of pages already brings plenty of food for thought:
[…]even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function-that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play, “instinct”, we explain nothing; if we call it “mind” or “will” we say too much. However we may regard it, the very fact that play has a meaning implies a nonmaterialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself.
(Chapter 1, page 1)
… a nonmaterialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself! This corresponds wonderfully with the theoretical background of Sensescapes, where the aesthetic is regarded as an intentional search for impulsive perception with no other aim or agenda than the aesthetic experience itself. Thus, throughout the last months, is has become clear to me that the essence of Sensescapes is play. To playfully explore a relational world that is present in this moment, with and through the body, with and because of each other.
But what can you use it for? Nothing! Sensescapes is useless! It wants to be useless! It intends nothing else than – borrowing Huizinga’s words – transcending the immediate needs of life in the here and now. No hidden evaluation forms. No efficacy measurement. No promise of life changing fitness results, and obviously no materialistic gains. Sensescapes intend to facilitate playful relations between bodies and their surroundings with no other aim than the powerful force of play in itself.
These are the good news.
The bad news is that this work-and-life philosophy is having a seriously hard time in real, actual, globalized life.
As I write these words, news are constantly throwing bombs of depressing information from all over the world. Horrified, dust-covered children from Aleppo. A truck driver killing randomly at a Christmas market in Berlin. Wars, refugees, climate crisis, natural catastrophes, terror, political madness, suspicion, inequality, trauma.
Have our world lost its playfulness?
Let’s hope not. Recently I met a great guy who is founder of the locally based Counterplay Festival. We chatted about play, and he said, almost in a side comment, that playing is highly political.
Of course it is. Perhaps more than ever.
In a time of too much hopelessness, despair and desperation, let us be deadly serious in bringing back playfulness to society. If playing together is transcending the immediate needs of life, play is not only for kids. It is for everyone. I dare even say, it is a human right to play.
With wishes of a seriously playful midwinter season,
and a New Year of hopeful togetherness,