On Playful Cities

“The future cities we envisage will offer a wholly new variability of sensations…and unforseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, such as modifications of air, sound and light.”1

Recently, I was commissioned to make a short film about Swing It!, an installation by artists Morag Myerscough and Luke Morgan commissioned by Beam at The Orangery in Wakefield. Here it is:

Swing It! was commissioned as part of “Playful City”, a “14-month programme of artistic commissioning and learning activities for creatives, local communities, families, and young people” and the installation seeks to create a space for play within the heart of Wakefield. Visitors can play on large, brightly coloured, metal swings. High above the roof of the Orangery, and visible from the street, large, bright signs bearing words such as “Play”, “Swing” and “Adventure” sway in the wind and with the motion of the swings. On other signs, words taken from a poem written with local children seek to trigger nostalgic memories of picking blackberries in summer and returning home with mucky hands and grubby knees.

The notion of the playful city harks back, perhaps unconsciously, to Situationist thought – in particular to Raoul Vaneigem’s quirky Situationist text, The Revolution of Everyday Life.2

The Situationists were a loose collection of artists, writers, thinkers and activitists influenced by the Dada and Surrealist movements of the first half of the twentieth century and The Situationist International movement lasted from the late 50s to the early 70s.Most people will have heard of something to do with the Situationists, perhaps without knowing it. Factory Records’ Hacienda nightclub and the band The Durutti Column, for instance, got their names from Situationist texts.4

The Situationists were also, deeply, Marxist. They believed technological progress and improvements meant that it was no longer necessary for survival for everybody to be forced to work. Capitalism had progressed to the point where we ought to be able to enjoy more free time, but for the Situationsts, modern, capitalist society failed to deliver this freedom and was, instead, alienating. Everyday life – personal and social – had been, they suggested, colonised by consumerism. We not enjoy increased leisure time and what leisure time we have has become commodified. Leisure, travel, fashion, holidays, sport, walking, reading, going to the cinema, the theatre or a gallery – all these are based on forms of consumption. How and where we relax, who we relax with, and how we understand ourselves in doing so, are all mediated by consumer goods. We have no direct, unmediated relationships with the world, others or ourselves that does not involve consuming commodities. In this way we are alienated from ourselves, others and the world.

For Vaneigem and his fellow Situationists, identifying the problem was only part of the programme. What they also sought to uncover was the means by which such alienation could be overcome. In this, Situationist thought is no different to any other form of Critical Theory – a type of theory which identifies problems in a social situation but which also seeks to identify those elements of the situation which might enable those problems to be overcome.

What liberation there might be from capitalist alienation was always going to be city based. The Situationists found the countryside dull and lacking in possibilities.

For Vaneigem, the element of everyday life which provides the key to our overcoming of alienation from ourselves and others is play. Whilst play in Capitalist society is always mediated by consumer goods, it is possible to see in the spontaneous and creative activity of play the possibility of a non-mediated form of activity.

Thus, Vaneigem and others sought to redesign the city in such a way as to enable more free play and, in doing so, more authentic experiences not mediated by consumer goods.

“Only play can deconsecrate, open up the possibilities of total freedom…the freedom, for example, to turn Chartres Cathedral into a funfair, into a labyrinth, into a shooting range, into a dream landscape…We must start to play right now if the future is not to become impossible.”6

Now, and before you ask, I’m not convinced by all of this analysis. I’m none too sure that the concept of play is the right concept to be looking to if you want to overcome capitalist alienation. Nor do I think that cities can be redesigned in such a way as to enable its citizens to engage in a kind of free and creative play which might lead to, or itself be, a better form of life. But what I find interesting in all of this is two things, the first of which leads to the second.

Firstly, what would Situationist thought make of Swing It!’s playful city? I suspect that Vaneigem would see in it a form of play not liberated but circumscribed by capitalism. The form of play is not rebellious but carefully determined and, in its nostalgic appeal to the visitors’ pasts, it might be argued that the installation seeks not to tap into any kind of liberating force which might lead us to change our futures but invites us, instead, to dwell in and on a (perhaps fictitious) golden age of childhood.

On the other hand, perhaps in reminding us of what we believe was a limitless and uncommodified form of youthful play – regardless of whether it existed or not – Swing It! highlights for us the diminished possibilities for our own children. Perhaps it makes us ask, directly, what should and could be possible and places this in stark contrast to the commodified forms of play which have colonised our children’s lives. If we believe that our childhood summers allowed us the free time and space to explore derelict buildings, build dens, climb trees and roam the town and country at will then how should we regard time spent in more regimented, commodified activities? Not just time spent on X-Boxes, but time spent at organised play sessions and summer schools?

Thinking about this issue has also made me think more about what Art should do, or maybe what Art could do. Whether or not Swing It! aims to draw our attention to the deficiencies of modern forms of life and highlight better possibilities, there’s no reason why Art cannot be called upon to do this. Art as critical theory is possible. Indeed, the separation of academic theory and the arts is something that the Situationists abhored. As Sadie Plant says, “Poetry, political theory, adventure, scandal: anything which disturbed the old world and revealed the possibilities of the new was collected and woven into situationist theory”.7

And if this is so then the art of film as critical theory must also possible. And that’s what makes me really think.

____________________

1. Another City for Another Life (1960) Constant Niewenhuys, translated by Ken Knabb.

2. rather than to his more famous friend Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle

3. The best book about the Situationist International is Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (1992, Routledge). You can also get an e-book copy of Ken Knabb’s excellent edited & translated Situationist International Anthology for nowt on the web.

4. Sort of. “The Hacienda must be built” is a quote from Ivan Chtcheglov’s “Formulary for a New Urbanism“, written in 1953 before the Situationist International kicked off properly in 1957.

5. See Debord’s essay The Theory of the Derive (1959)– “Wandering in open country is naturally depressing…the great industrially transformed cities…are such rich centres of possibilities and meanings”, and also the numerous writings on “Urbanism” by members of the movement, especially Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism or Constant’s Another City…, quoted above.

6. The Revolution of Everyday Life, p.201, quoted in Plant.

7. Plant, The Most Radical Gesture, p.4

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