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  • Am I Robot, Paul Granjon, 2016. Photo: Michael Pollard


Annie Warburton examines the relationship between play and making

Play is a subject for our time. Going by the wealth of recent books and festivals on the topic, the claim that we live in the ‘ludic century’ – the century of play – shows early signs of being true. Everyone, it seems, from neuroscientists to business gurus, in arenas as diverse as medicine, technology and education, is waking up to how play drives new ideas.

In some cultural fields, connections between play and creativity are embedded in the language. Actors and musicians are players. We speak of wordplay, playing an instrument or a role, directing a play. Yet, in craft, playful aspects are generally less explicit, sometimes even denied lest a work or practice be dismissed as lacking gravitas.

Now, States of Play, the Crafts Council exhibition for Hull City of Culture, takes a look at how playfulness shapes our lives and the world around us. Through the eyes of makers and designers it presents play as a way of being, of understanding the world and giving it form. Turning upside down the idea of play as merely frivolous or trivial, the exhibition reveals it as a serious creative, social and political force that infuses all of life.

AGAIN, Lawrence Epps, 2015, customised coin pusher and ceramic coins. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Play has current resonance in many fields, beyond the trend of ‘gamification’ – the application of game-like rules to an activity. Playfulness, it is argued, enhances resilience and health, helps children build life skills and fuels scientific breakthroughs. There is even a global network of Playable Cities, from Lagos to São Paulo, using playful smart technologies to build communities.

This is not just theory. Clinical trials substantiate the stated benefits of Jane McGonigal’s game SuperBetter in tackling depression, chronic pain and brain injury. And, when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov collected the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on graphene, the Nobel committee drew attention to the playfulness underpinning their approach. They isolated the material, using delightfully low-tech Scotch Tape during one of their ‘Friday night experiments’, sessions in which they try out things at tangents to their core research.

In education, the LEGO Foundation is on a mission to restore the value of play to children’s learning, empowering them to respond to challenges in an era of accelerated change. And Ian Livingstone, a giant of the games world, advises the government on education. Advocating the cognitive rewards of play of all kinds – material, imaginative and video gaming – Livingstone argues: ‘Computer science and “play” should be at the heart of learning, built-in rather than bolted-on to the national curriculum.’ A founder of two schools, play goes to the heart of his pedagogy. It’s no accident that he called his most recent book Hacking the Curriculum.

It is in the realm of invention that the grandest claims for play are made. Innovation foundation Nesta devotes a third of its FutureFest event to the topic, programmed by popstar-turned-writer Pat Kane, who first conceived of what he calls the ‘play ethic’ back in 2004. And, in his already influential Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, published last November, Steven Johnson posits that it is not so much a work ethic but the human appetite for novelty and entertainment that has driven a myriad of inventions and social advances, from robotics to the American Revolution.

With invention, a craft story emerges, following a lineage from early automata to feats of modern technology. Japanese karakuri, mechanical puppets from the 17th to 19th centuries, are precursors of contemporary robots. And, as Charles Babbage tells it in his autobiography, it was a boyhood visit to John-Joseph Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, where he was captivated by a silver automaton of a dancing woman with an animated bird on her hand, that set him on a path that culminated in the invention of his Difference Engine, the first computer.

More than witty amusements, or satirical or uncanny toys, contemporary automata, such as Ting-Tong Chang’s kinetic taxidermy works, jolt us into new perspectives on ethical, even existential, matters. Pedro Reyes builds mechanical music machines from dismantled illegal firearms recovered from drug wars in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Paul Granjon’s Am I Robot interrogates questions of the co-evolution of humans and machines. Alongside his installations, Granjon creates temporary factories where people can join in making, thinking and playing. (And, interestingly, Johnson casts Merlin’s museum as an 18th-century proto-makerspace.)

With their ethos of tinkering, maker labs and hackspaces take a self-consciously playful attitude to making. It’s an ethos that extends beyond the culture of the maker movement. Materials such as Sugru, Bare Conductive paint, or Peter Marigold’s FORMcard, put power in all our hands to play with, hack, improve and adapt the objects around us, to make them our own.

In this way, playing and making empower us to shape the environment. They are expressions of our agency in the world. This is not to make a trite identification of one with the other: making cannot be reduced to a form of playing. Rather, it is that an experimental mindset, curious about materials, willing to try things out, to explore through trial and error – in short, a playful attitude – characterises many craft practices.

This attitude is something that, in part, David Pye was getting at in ‘the workmanship of risk’, a phrase that encapsulates the moment-to-moment responsiveness, spontaneity and improvisation that distinguish craft practice from more automated forms of making. Pye casts the workmanship of risk as ‘free’ in contrast to the ‘regulated’ workmanship of certainty found in automated production at scale. And freedom and playfulness go hand in hand.

Pye also folds dexterity, judgement and care into his concept of the workmanship of risk. He is referring to skill in its broadest sense: the practised, embodied knowledge of materials and process. Skill and playfulness have a paradoxical relationship. Coming to a process naive and unskilled allows freedom to ask fresh questions or explore new avenues without preconceptions of what can and can’t be done. Being unbound by expectations confers freedom to be spontaneous, to just try things out. Discoveries are made this way. Sometimes.

Yet, true liberty to tease out the possibilities of a material or technique comes only with consummate skill. It is an artist’s virtuosity that enables them to play within and extend the limits of a form to create something entirely new: think of John Coltrane or James Joyce, both improvisatory innovators through mastery of their discipline. The same holds true in craft: it is the most skilled who push the boundaries of their materials, with results that invoke awe and wonder.

The value of limitations is key to understanding playfulness, in making as in life. Philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost shows that, whether in football or Tetris, it is rules that make a game fun. Constraints are not only what define a game and make it playable but are also what force inventiveness, opening up new possibilities. Play in craft is not an unlimited license to do anything. Instead, it is by accepting the limitations of a material, and then recasting, that a maker discovers what new things it can be made to do.

Pascal Anson describes his practice as making ordinary things extraordinary. ‘I have always loved making and breaking things to find out how they work, behave and can change. A resourceful attitude and way of working is key to me, but so is fun, playfulness and sometimes magic.’ His Balance chair is seemingly miraculously poised, mid-tilt, on one leg. It evokes a sense of time stood still, recalling the joy of rocking back on a chair, playing with the constraints of gravity and balance, to find the point of equilibrium. Like the tricks of a sleight-of-hand magician, the effect is achieved purely through skill: three simple, perfectly precise cuts.

Such subversion of form and function is a theme running through the last half-century of craft, from art jewellers pushing the extremes of what can be wearable to ceramists, glass artists and basket makers manipulating ideas of a vessel. It’s a sensibility visible, for example, in silversmith David Clarke’s ‘hand-made/readymade mashups’ or in the work of Carol McNicoll or Carl Clerkin, who all, incidentally, seem to be having a lot of fun.

Fast Basket, 2013, skateboard, basketball hoop, wind. Photo:basket: courtesy gallery s o © gallery s o

Dominic Wilcox is another maker and inventor driven by a sense of fun and a subversive take on material and function. His joyous, beautiful Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car makes us smile while sparking new thoughts on what a vehicle is or could be. It’s borne of the same playful-yet-serious questioning of the world that he encourages through his Little Inventors project that sees makers and manufacturers turn children’s inventions into real things.

Other makers play with our perceptions, setting out deliberately to deceive. Only in picking up David Bielander’s corrugated cardboard bracelets does one discover they are actually made of gold. Julie Usel’s cling film strings of pearls masquerade convincingly as the real thing. The process is an imitation too: Usel’s pearls are made using a technique that mimics, with PVC, an oyster’s layer-by-layer accretion of nacre. Being played with can be disconcerting, or the discovery of being duped can be a delight. Either way, it prompts us to recalibrate the value and meaning we place on materials.

So, playfulness is sometimes embedded in the process of making. And, sometimes makers play about with what materials are and do. Some make objects for playing with – toys for simple enjoyment or, as we’ve seen in the case of some automata makers, with more serious intent. Others make environments for playing in. Think of Assemble’s foam-constructed Brutalist Playground or the Polyphonic Playground by Studio PSK, which combines archetypal elements of a playground, such as swings and slides, with sound engineering, transforming them into musical instruments.

These are indicative of a wider trend towards hand-made game environments. Award-winning video game Lumino City is a case in point. In this puzzle adventure, the player navigates an animated city constructed by hand from wood, felt, cardboard and clockwork mechanisms. While the gameplay is engaging, it is the precision and materiality of the exquisite, hand-made environment that has most captivated players.

More low-tech still are such works as Lawrence Epps’s arcade coin pusher stocked with thousands of hand-made ceramic coins, Michael Landy’s Spin the Saint Catherine Wheel and Win the Crown of Martyrdom (which, like Epps, reminds us of play’s darker side, of being at the mercy of chance) and Brenda Romero’s board games. Romero, who won this year’s BAFTA special award, first made her name in video games and is one of the few high-profile women in the industry. She is known for her series The Mechanic is the Message, analogue games that engage some of the most difficult subjects of human history, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. As with Epps’s work, material is integral to the playing experience – for example, the knitted fields of Síochán Leat, Romero’s game of Irish history.

Egyptian artist Wael Shawky also uses the stuff of play, in this case, puppetry, to tackle political subjects. Shawky’s video trilogy Cabaret Crusades tells the history of the Crusades from an Arab perspective, using 200-year-old wooden marionettes, custom-made ceramic figures and Murano glass puppets, intentionally drawing attention to manipulations of history.

Employing hand-made objects to make political points is not confined to art, however. Playful dissent abounds in political activism – in slogans, costumes, placards and banners. The knitted pink Pussyhats, worn in their tens of thousands at the January 2017 global Women’s Marches following US president Donald Trump’s inauguration, are a powerful – and playful – symbol of solidarity.

They are also a symbol of freedom. Play at its most pure is about delight and wonder, curiosity and novelty, mischief and fun. Yet, as much as games are defined by rules, play requires freedom. Hull, known for its subversive humour, rebellious spirit and, in William Wilberforce, its championing of liberty, is the perfect place in which to tell this story. And so, States of Play runs during the City of Culture’s summer Freedom season. It is a celebration of play as imagination and as expression of our power to change the world.

States of Play, a Crafts Council and Hull 2017 Partnership Exhibition, supported by the British Council, is at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, 7 July to 24 September