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Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

Choose what you want to do … dance, talk, or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

– Fun Palace draft design, 1961

It’s been satisfying to watch the message of play spread across museums, libraries, and other public institutions over the last few years.  It’s timely, as the entertainment industry, too, begins to explore participatory and immersive forms of engagement. Events like Fun Palaces remind us that play is a vital element of learning and exploration. Play in cultural spaces, public or private, can promote self-directed learning, creative development, or simply the joy of using your imagination.

Now I’m wondering if play could get even wilder.

Bode Miller, American slalom skier

I guess structured or programmed play is great, insofar as it reminds people working in museums, galleries, and libraries to offer more than just colouring-in when they provide kids’ activities. But what that programming mustn’t do is mistake itself for schooling. Play belongs to all ages, and institutions should avoid controlling play to such an extent that it just becomes formal education all over again.

Scott Eberle of America’s National Musuem of Play has blogged brilliantly about going beyond structured play, using the example of “riotous” champion skier Bode Miller:

Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts.[…] Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”

Eberle’s piece resonates well with a blog post written last year by Anna Cutler, director of learning at London’s Tate Gallery. Cutler argues that cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, and I would add libraries, should not “replace or mimic school’s curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers.”

She goes on to write:

I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

The wild ride Eberle describes on the ski slopes, the sense that you can have “the greatest time making mistakes, crashing”, can happen in cultural institutions too. Sport, art, and games all offer opportunities to go off the currricular piste, pursuing instead the dizzying pleasure “at the limits of performance.”

Fun Palaces showed how this feeling of playful exploration could flourish in communities of all kinds around the world, using partnerships to extend the reach and capacities of individual institutions. 2013’s Aussie zombie siege – a pretty wild ride in itself – was a library event run together with local schools, cops, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. This chimes nicely with R. David Lankes’ call for public libraries to “unleash” their communities, rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

So – can we trade control for fun in arts and culture? That might be scary: when we acknowledge that everyone has some creative contribution to make in life, we surrender the old privileges of authorship and prestige along with the old constraints. But even when budgets are tight – especially when budgets are tight – we must take opportunities to innovate, whether that’s  in publishing, universities, galleries, or museums.

What would happen if these institutions went off-piste? What lies at the limits of performance?

Beangrowers, Big Brothers, Time Travel, and Play

I’ve got a few blog posts lined up over the coming weeks. I’ve just met a number of deadlines, and the break allows me to turn some of my notes into text fit for human consumption.

Big Brother 2015: Timebomb logo

Big Brother 2015: Timebomb logo

Raiding TV for inspiration

Late last year, I wrote about using action-adventure stories from TV, movies, and comics to inspire new play activities. I’m a geek for old telly: the shows of the past offer great inspiration for today. The technical constraints and different pace of television from fifty years ago means that heroes often faced perils which are easy to mimic in a setting like a library or museum.

There’s no shame in plundering the past, either. Present-day TV producers do it all the time. Robert Thirkell’s excellent book on reality TV, C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T., tells us how Jane Root, an executive producer with a stellar career at Discovery Network and the BBC, drew on her own nostalgia to create compelling new formats:

You know how we came up with I Love The 1980s[?…We rewatched] The Rock and Roll Years. David Mortimer and I got Rock and Roll Years out of the BBC archive because I’d remembered it from when I was a child.

A lot of the younger BBC team had never seen it and I showed it to them in my office and said, “What could we do that could bring this show back?” I Love The 1980s, the hit the team went on to create, turned out to be even bigger in America, where it ran on VH1 for years.

Get Real

I’m also a sucker for reality TV, although these days I find I’m usually too busy to keep up with it. Big Brother, with its cast of housemates trying to complete challenges, avoid eviction, and not go bonkers over ten weeks, was always one of my student favourites. I still remember characters like the drama queen Makosi from BB6 or the kilted rebel Sandy from BB3, a personal shopper who managed to escape from the house over a wall.

People get sniffy about reality TV, but it’s really no different to drama or comedy: you create a format which offers exciting situations, and then set it loose like a shark in the sea, moving forward, consuming new contestants, new scenarios. Great formats like Doctor Who, Family Feud (Family Fortunes in the UK), or Big Brother, run and run.

What’s more, reality puts people who aren’t entertainment professionals in front of the camera. For all that we might deride reality show participants as wannabes, and for all that they’re at the mercy of production teams, those contestants are also an example of the barrier breaking down between audiences and artists.

Bean Brother

When I was an infant school teacher, I worked with a class of thirty kids, most of whom didn’t speak English at home. One term, we had to grow a bean from a seed on a wad of damp cotton wool in a plastic cup. I remember doing the same when I was a pupil. It’s one of those rites of passage every British kid goes through, the foundation of natural science: infants starting to practice taking measurements and observing living things carefully.

I wanted my class’ bean experiment to be lively and fun, so we reimagined our science project as “Bean Brother”. Each day, we’d play Paul Oakenfold’s iconic Big Brother theme tune before bringing our plants out before the class.

My long-suffering teaching assistant would put on a Geordie accent to mimic Marcus Bentley, the famed narrator of UK Big Brother. Our kids would use a video camera to report on their bean’s growth in a “televised update from the Bean Brother house” before drawing, writing observations, and completing their other science tasks. They were engaging with elements of the pop culture that surrounded us, doing serious learning about science, using audiovisual equipment to record their own stories, and best of all, they were playing while they did it. Bean Brother made the daily routine exciting, incorporated modern media both as something to consume and create…and each anonymous bean took on its own life as a contestant for our class to cheer on.

This year’s UK Big Brother is called “Timebomb.” You can see the trailer here:

I’m excited, looking at the iconography lifted from Doctor Who, steampunk, and the Transformers movies. Earlier this year, Celebrity Big Brother drew on the imagery of dark fairytales, but this new series is even closer to my heart. Russell T. Davies’ superlative run on Who already featured a Big Brother episode and now I’ve started to think of the Big Brother house as a TARDIS control room.

I’m curious to see how the Big Brother production team apply the concept of “time distortion” to a reality show. It’s harder to mess with causality in a live production than a scripted, pre-recorded series. Whatever they get up to, and however well it works, I think that anyone who is interested in play, cultural programming, and community outreach should take a good look at what Big Brother producers Endemol are up to this year.

Read more about the new UK Big Brother at Digital Spy, and to see what a time travel themed play activity in a public institution might look like, go check out Auckland’s citywide 2013 heritage programme, TimeQuest.

The Thrill of Heritage: Playful, postapocalyptic, postcolonial cultural programming

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

Heritage is one of the most exciting challenges in community outreach. It’s an opportunity to dispel the myth that the past is staid or somehow divorced from the present. Many public and private bodies hold weird and wonderful archives, unique traces of the generations that have preceded us.  Everything we do and dream is rooted in what has gone before, whether we like it or not, and yet the past is not fixed, as we uncover new truths, new ways of looking at those who have gone before us. The strange and beautiful thing about historical narrative and memory is that even a path you’ve already trodden can still change course in retrospect.

Two years ago I visited Auckland in New Zealand for a six month contract as Service Development Adviser to the city’s libraries. My brief was “to push the boundaries in how our large public library network creates innovative programmes for children and young people […] to inspire others to experiment and learn from the experience of working in fresh, even unexpected ways.”

During my stay, Auckland celebrated its 2013 Heritage Festival, an annual “opportunity for everyone, locals and visitors to Auckland, to celebrate and remember our past and discover our heritage.”

With my Auckland Council hat on, I looked for ways to make the past thrilling, and immediate, and to create opportunities for each neighbourhood library to take responsibility for devising and delivering inspired, playful programming.

A trip to Chromacon, the city’s festival of illustration, led to a meeting with British expatriate artist Nicola Brady. Her drawing of a crumbling present-day Auckland was the perfect inspiration for a time-travelling heritage event.

Nicola’s doomy vision provoked questions: What if we made our heritage programming about both the future and the past? What if we turned it into a dynamic mission of rescue, with participants making their own choices about the value of history?

TimeQuest was born: a season of cultural programming for the school holidays, with a heritage theme and an overarching narrative:

Auckland, 2379. It’s the end for planet Earth – a red sun burns in the sky and the ground is parched of life.

The last survivors are preparing to leave for a new home on the other side of the galaxy, when the scientist Maia completes her greatest invention – a time portal that can take you to any moment in Auckland’s history.

Her plan: to send you back in time to recover the best books, art, and objects from New Zealand’s past. Time has run out for the planet Earth, but we can still rescue the best of our heritage and take it with us to our new home.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

Time Quest – Raid the past to save the future.

For me, it was important to create a storyline which respected New Zealand’s bicultural past and future. If we were going to imagine a postapocalyptic science fiction setting, it would be one where Māori identity was front and centre. Our defiant genius hero would be a Māori woman and a scientist, who invited TimeQuest participants to make their own decisions about the value of heritage, rather than accept some dusty authoritarian imposition.

My Auckland supervisor, Peter Thomas, is a Māori public servant with extensive experience offering guidance and representation to government bodies working in New Zealand. He helped us to choose the right name for our rebellious female science-hero, and also took me through the process needed to approve the use of a quote I’d found at Auckland Museum, which became the motto of TimeQuest:

“Haere mai, e tai, kei te wera te ao”

“Come and see, the world is going to be burned”

These were the words recalled by an eyewitness to the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, a violent natural disaster which decimated communities. I had seen the quotation in a display on volcanoes and earthquakes at the Auckland Museum, and saw it as a symbol of our programme’s link between an imagined future and authentic historical accounts. Peter helped guide me through the sensitivities around using a quotation in this way.

To balance out the gravity and drama of our programme, we also created an alternate promotional image which was friendlier and more cartoony, for TimeQuest events featuring younger children.

Auckland Libraries - Timequest

Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

Having established our storyline, we wanted to be sure that local communities would create their own events and not just copy some central voice of authority. We wanted local stories, local histories, local art, and local play – so rather than create a prescriptive centralised programme, we created a resource pack with eight model activities to serve as inspiration for local librarians to devise their own versions.

By kind permission of Greg Morgan and the team at Auckland Libraries, I’ve been allowed to share the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF download. 

Our simple missions included robotic dress-up, Nerf gun battles, creative writing, and research activities for a variety of age ranges. In many ways these events were the forefathers to later projects like Time Travel Detectives, Write Your Own Urban Myths, and Big Box Battle.

Auckland’s librarians ran with the inspiration they’d been given and came up with sessions such as these:

  • Time travellers from the year 2379 are on their way to find out information about the culture and life of the tweens and teens of today. They’ve asked us to make a teen’s room that they can teleport to the future. Help us to design and decorate a representation of what a teen’s room looks like in 2013.
  • Life in 2379 is rather bleak. With the sun burning out, life on earth is dying. The time travellers have come back to 2013 to gather enough knowledge and resources to save the future generations. But they will need enough sustenance to do this. Tweens and teens will be asked to investigate the vitamins and minerals humans need to keep healthy and strong. They will then be blending up some fruity concoctions for the travellers to take back with them to help them save the world.
  • Time travellers, to slow the sun and save the future you have been asked to bring back to the future Maui, the Māori hero of How Maui slowed the sun. Listen to the story and help Maui to catch and slow the sun again by making your own fishhooks and ropes.

It was great to watch local librarians take on the challenge and the opportunity of a heritage programme that left space for their own creativity. TimeQuest was just one of many experiments in Auckland over my six month stint there: everything from zombie battles to librarians in comic book stores and a national youth libraries conference.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched with pleasure as participatory, local, and lively approaches to culture and creativity have spread. For me, the most promising model for a decentered, participatory approach to the arts in local communities has been Fun Palaces, the British event co-directed by the Kiwi-raised Stella Duffy from an original 1960s idea by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. If it’s true that the neighbourhood public library is the gateway to all human knowledge and culture, then Fun Palaces are a beautiful fit for libraries’ swashbuckling cultural mission.

You can download the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF file – and read more about the project in my blog “A Scientific Romance for Libraries.”

Daredevil, Heroism, and Male Teachers

“You run around dressed like a moron, beating people up!”
“It’s not that simple and you know it!”

Daredevil Cast

I was pleasantly surprised by Netflix’s new TV show Daredevil, based on the Marvel comics character.

I’m a bit over growlyman vigilantes, but it has a great supporting cast, an interesting and vulnerable villain, plus a New York where there’s plenty of languages other than English being spoken.

With its gangland politics, comic book elements, and deliberately narrow colour palette, Daredevil is kind of like The Wire, but set in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy universe. If you took the superhero out of it, I’d happily watch a show where a plump, mouthy lawyer, a woman with a troubled past, and a weary journalist decided to take on a larger-than-life crimelord and his syndicate.

I never read much Daredevil, as a kid or an adult, but Mark White in New York got me to buy a Christmas issue of the comic a couple of years back. It was an unexpectedly thoughtful story on the limits of macho heroism and the importance of education.

I wrote about the comic, and about men working in education, over at Role/Reboot a couple of years back. You can read “The Man Without Fear: Heroism and Elementary School” now.

#Citylis student feedback

Last week I talked with students on Ernesto Priego’s library and information science course for City University, known as #citylis on Twitter. You can see more, and read my notes & slides from that talk, in last week’s blog post.

One of the #Citylis students has written their own blog post with very kind words about my guest appearance:

I have to say week 9 for LAPIS was one of my favourites. What’s not to love about a lecture that talks about comics, zombies and Snoopy? Dr Matt Finch has been one of my favourite guest lectures. Not only was he engaging as a speaker but his passion for literacy was actually infectious…

Read more at Thoughts on Library and Publishing In An Information Society.

Although I’ve done a lot of speaking and workshops at this point, it’s always a slightly anxious experience. I think it was the Scottish literacy guru Bill Boyd who said, “I always get nervous, no matter how many times I give a lecture, because it always matters to get it right.”

Ernesto’s students were a joy to chat with and I’m really pleased that the next generation of library students are going into the profession full of passion, play, and the desire to make a difference.

Thanks for having me, #Citylis!

#Citylis talk with library students at City University

I had a great visit to City University in London today, talking with students on the Master’s course #citylis, convened by Ernesto Priego.

Our conversation covered everything from the art history of Aby Warburg to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, tabletop gaming, and, of course, the inevitable zombie battles.

Here’s a PDF download of the notes from my talk on comics, libraries, and community, “Words and Pictures, Space and Play.”

Also speaking to the students was James Baker, curator of Digital Research at the British Library. His presentation on “Future Libraries: Considering Publishing” can be viewed here.

I often say that a neighbourhood library is like the TARDIS on your streetcorner – an ordinary box which can take you anywhere in human knowledge or imagination. If that’s true, watching James speak about the British Library’s digital innovations was like watching Doctor Who dance around the TARDIS control panel, flicking switches and levers with gleeful abandon.

You can find more of James’ work via his Twitter account @j_w_baker and his website, Cradled in Caricature.

To see more of what City University’s library students get up to, check out #citylis and #inm380 on Twitter.

Josie Long on BBC Artsnight: The importance of art for suburban communities

Writer and comedian Josie Long has made a short film for the BBC which neatly captures the reasons why arts venues and programmes are so important to suburban communities, those which are seen as “not pretty enough to be in Kent, and not exciting enough to be in London.”

The argument resonates with my work last year on Fun Palaces and the ongoing debate around arts access in Australia.

Josie Long on Artsnight

Check out Josie Long’s report from last Friday’s edition of Artsnight.

Lecture at City University London, Guest Editorial at Public Library News

The TARDIS from Doctor Who lands on a suburban housing estate

My guest editorial for Public Library News, The TARDIS on your streetcorner,” is out this week. Editor Ian Anstice offered me the chance to share my some of my experiences working with community libraries in Australia and New Zealand, and of course I worked a Doctor Who reference in there too.

Next month, I’ll be giving a guest lecture to students at City University, London. I’ll be talking about “Words and Pictures, Space and Play” alongside digital curator James Baker from the British Library and information science lecturer Ernesto Priego, who is also presiding genius at The Comics Grid.

Read more

The Library Innovation Toolkit, Out Now

The Library Innovation Toolkit

The Library Innovation Toolkit is out today from ALA Editions!

The book “encourages readers to take big risks, ask deeper questions, strive for better service, and dream bigger ideas”, with practical examples and suggestions for 21st century library services.

I wrote “Monsters, Rockets, and Baby Racers”, the chapter on working with children and young people, together with Tracie Mauro of Australia’s Parkes Library.

Readers will get inspiration and case studies from the team which picked up a 2014 national award for innovation in youth services.

If you fancy unleashing the power of play and immersive storytelling in your museum, gallery, school, or library, the book’s worth checking out. You can buy it from ALA Editions at their website.

Library Journal: Australian Coffee Cup Stories

Coffee cups on a shelf at Parkes Shire Library

Over in the US, Library Journal has just published a piece on a project which I helped to launch in the Australian town of Parkes last year. You can read “Coffee Cup Stories” at the Library Journal website.

Working with Parkes High School and Parkes Shire Council, our team arranged for local writers’ stories to be printed on takeaway cups used by cafés and venues throughout the town. This empowered local voices and gave people who might never enter the library a chance to enjoy new writing by their own community. Locals and out-of-towners all got a hit of Parkes’ literary scene with every drink they bought. This was part of my role as the town’s Reader-in-Residence. You can see TV news coverage of the project at the Prime7 website.

Our coffee cup stories chimed with the values of the ongoing Fun Palaces project, launched last year. Fun Palaces aim to give local communities a chance to take part in the arts and sciences. Parkes hosted Australia’s first ever Fun Palace last year, to great success.

Parkes High School librarian Tracy Dawson has the full coffee cup story over at Library Journal. You can also read Queensland librarian Alison Miles writing about this and other “locative literature” projects which blend place and narrative, at her blog reading360.

Parkes Library Coffee Cups

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