Thursday, February 9, 2012

Social Sculpture - Playgrounds formed by Players

This idea of social sculpture--works of art that take place in the social realm and require social engagement for their realization--originated with artist and sculptor Josef Beuys in the 1960s and 1970s and has real relevance for how playgrounds were conceived in that time period.   The revitalization of his ideas in the virtual realm of social media means they are also trending to influence the physical environment of the playground again.  

the beginning of Beuys' 7000 Oaks installation via the tate collection

Beuys' definition of social sculpture was more philosophical than, say, Superblue's Giant Knitting Nancy (below), which is nonetheless its intellectual descendent.  Beuys was thinking grandly, about society itself as a giant work of art in which any one person's action changes--'sculpts'--the whole.  He famously insisted that "everyone is an artist" (I often wonder whether those who incessantly refer to themselves as 'creatives' were asleep the day they covered Beuys in design school or if they just don't agree!) and social media has now made his concept self-evident beyond his wildest dreams.

I thought of Beuys this week, during my first experience with jury duty, when a fellow panelist was removed from the courtroom for trying to surreptitiously use her cellphone to photograph herself.  In the jury box.  So she could post it on Facebook.

It reminded me of Beuys because his ideas have taken on a new relevance within social media, with those who ponder how individuals craft their virtual space:  the 'museum of me', if you will, to which my fellow juror was apparently trying to contribute.  Beuys did create tangible, physical works of art, but in spite of the utopianism of his ideals it was deeply introverted; as insulating and insular as the felt he often used as a medium.  And not at all playful. 

But around the same time period artist Allan Kaprow tied the idea of social art creation explicitly to play.   His Happenings of the late 1950s to early 1970s, though inherently temporary, were defined as "A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing”  and some of these, in vintage photos, can still be read as playgrounds or something like. 





You may be wondering where I'm going with this.  But I don't think it's a coincidence that the adventure playground--the fullest realization before or since of social sculpture in space for play--had its heyday at the same time that these ideas did.   

from the Children's Play Information service archive

Historians are tempted to make too much of the linear transmission of ideas, to seek to draw orderly lines from one thought-leader to the next, to show ideas building neatly one on another like blocks.

But it is always messier than that, and what is more difficult to trace (and therefore write scholarly articles about) is the effect of concepts that are percolating in the wider culture in a variety of places and with a variety of people; part of the bloodstream, the zeitgeist, the idea ecosystem, but no less powerful for being less definable.

half of the pieces of Michael Grossert's 1971 play sculpture could be moved and stacked at will

So I went back through my old posts and my personal archives of play spaces looking for elements of social sculpting, and they were nearly always from the 1960s and 1970s....or from today.   I think today's playground environment, in keeping with wider cultural trends, is going to move once again towards social, but this time as well towards self, construction.  

So, you proponents of adventure playgrounds fondly reminiscing about the seventies (hello, Greenwich conference attendees!) have reason to hope.  

Do you know of more examples of social sculpture on the playground, readers?  I'm interested in how you think the playgrounds of the future could be socially, or self, constructed in new ways. 

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