The Impropriety of Property

William Warner Memorial, Laurel Hill Cemetery (photograph by Anne)
William Warner Memorial, Laurel Hill Cemetery (photograph by Anne)

Over the course of the next two months, “playing ecologically” in this way begins to stir up a range of further questions: from how we are being educated, to how we might live in the world, to what might happen after we die. The students have queries about permanence: how transient are we? How transient might (or should) our productions be? They ask about property: how might we think (think differently?) about ownership? When we visit the expansive, historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, for instance—rambling independently, then sitting and talking together among the tombstones–they are puzzled to see how much the wealthy people of Philadelphia have invested in creating permanent monuments of their having once been alive. Why haven’t they been able to accept their “transience”? Might we ourselves learn to hold our lives—and the record of our living—more lightly?

These questions get carried back to campus, where our consulting artist invites us to an open studio to witness her process for creating an on-campus installation. When we gather for the demonstration, she acknowledges that, in her representation of the natural world, she uses materials that are not ecological, manipulating color, size, material to make the real appear unnatural, even bizarre.

Some of the students blink at what they are seeing and hearing. Fresh from all those permanent gravestones in Laurel Hill, they express dismay that this new project will be made of concrete. Having researched a range of more transitory projects created by eco-artists, they are uncomfortable with the plan for an installation that uses such a heavy, permanent material to remake the landscape.

When advertisements for our final celebratory event go up around campus, we are concerned that some of the students may resist, by commenting on, even defacing, the installation, which they see as not aligned with their evolving ecological understanding and activism.

But actually? Something much more interesting–more playful, ecological, and transgressive–transpires.

We host the installation in an open space in the center of campus, where the students put on an interactive performance, in which they use pieces of the installation as props for “playing house.”

We picnic, and invite others to also move, enjoy, play.

Many do so, with gusto.

As various members of the campus community stop by in the days thereafter, the artist captures images of them playing with the installation.

The signage invites play at the site. Over the weekend, however, these activities extend beyond that space.

On Monday morning, we hear from the artist that every piece of the installation has disappeared, and that she is—of course!–upset, worried about possible loss and damage to her art. With the help of public safety officers, she spends the day scouring the campus, discovering pieces scattered behind dorms, on branches, beneath a hanging willow; arranges for them to be promptly picked up and delivered to her home.

As we help to track down the missing pieces—asking our students, the deans, the housekeeping staff and security team to keep an eye out—our own reactions are mixed. After such an intense academic semester, all those months of hard work, hard weather and ill health, we actually find ourselves smiling, to see students now taking up the invitation to “play,” even redefining the terms of the game. Their hands-on engagement with the public installation suggests, to us, that it has been a success.

As Anne’s husband observes,

students are like squirrels–they take what they like and ignore what they don’t….creativity is…a collective enterprise…like unscripted performance art, and here the movers and users were performers….It’s a story that evolved in a way that was not imagined (at least by me)….this is a happy story …impermanence is ecological; “permanence,” like “forever,” doesn’t exist….

Sara Gladwin, who has seen in Shonibare’s “magic ladders” an image of her own entrapment in the educational structures of progressive education, sees an alternative in the dispersal of the installation. She muses on how, when art is placed in public spaces, the unpredictable public may become part of the material, altering what is made, how it is understood and used. She explains that, when she first received her requests to help find what was missing,

In asking that we attend to the “varying channels” from which art arises, as well as to how it may best be distributed, Sara is again an intellectual saunterer, both taking up our invitation to free herself for play and finding the space to critique that opportunity structure. Making her questions manifest in metaphors, in unexpected winter storms and books stacked to create ladders, in installations that disperse and reappear, Sara’s reflections seem to us exemplary of how the politics of play may be made material. But as she herself points out, others may feel more snagged than freed by options such as those she’s selected, which don’t recognize other legitimate claims.