The Work of Play

Seger Park Playground, 10th and Lombard, Philadelphia (photograph by Jody)
Seger Park Playground, 10th and Lombard, Philadelphia (photograph by Jody)

Differences in teaching objectives and strategies are bound to emerge in the close quarters of a 360°. While we are inviting our students to play with the unexpected, and to do so en route to developing a political critique of “things as they are,” our creative consultant is eager to engage them very differently, in the kind of exploration and extended labor involved in the practice of making art. Some of the students push back on the expectation that they create “refined tight work,” preferring instead to experiment with projects they are unsure of. Trying to model for them each of the levels of hard work—inspiration, commitment, creation, edition, revision, presentation–that goes into art making, frustrated that they aren’t pressing harder to fine-tune their projects, the artist identifies their location in a nested structure—a larger culture that does not value art, a college without an art program, a 360° with no art course–that she feels discourages many of them from fully taking up the challenges and possibilities of the work she is asking them to do.

Structural obstacles also bedevil our shared project from the get-go. Although all of us co-teachers expect our students to do the creative work, we have not scheduled a fourth course that would grant both time and credit for this labor. Students feel that the cluster isn’t organized to allow them to focus on their art projects. Jody and I listen carefully to students’ concerns, respond by shifting expectations. And now we wonder: did our responsiveness discourage them from focusing on their creative work, rather than help them develop the discipline fundamental to making art? By allowing the students not to prioritize their own artistic endeavors, did we foster a light-hearted attitude toward the artist’s work, even a disrespect for her installation?

The dispersal of the installation pieces, and our own mixed responses to this story, bring the implications and consequences of “the politics of play” to a particularly fine point. As Deborah Rose and her colleagues ask of their own encounters among coyotes and ravens: Who is positioned to play, and what risks do different players encounter? When and how does the play of some risk the well-being of others? In our 360° in particular, what does it mean to play with things that are not our own? A friend and colleague, Michael Tratner, observes,

Moving the bundt cakes symbolizes moving the boundaries of what is presented to us–and yet seems a violation of what someone else has done. What kinds of violations of the rules we live by are playful, what kinds are hurtful to others, what kinds are liberating, what kinds are illusions of freedom?1

The students who “played” with the installation knew little of the extended negotiations involved in arranging the creative consultancy, or of the costs of placing the materials…. Is it unfathomable that an artist, trying to make her living by creating works of art, should be asked to countenance the risk of losing those creations? Yet this too is complicated: who actually owns (“should” own?) the installation, if its construction and placement are paid for by the college?


Questions about what enables playing, pointed queries about who is excluded from play, what the limits of play should be, can be and are, animated the planning for “Play in the City,” and lingered after that course ended. During explorations of environmental art in the following semester, we begin to see that the answers to those questions might be curiously “flipped,” that the sort of playful attitude we are seeking might not necessarily be enabled by material privilege. Precisely the reverse could happen, if an investment in property, possession and permanence entail attachment to outcomes and control.

Our friend Joel Schlosser, who is a political scientist, nudges us to acknowledge more frankly the limits of our claims:

Play is a “political project,” but how does it move from playing with politics–i.e. coming up against politics through play in ways that conventional academic approaches would miss–to playing politically–i.e. playing in ways that create power and use this power to disturb or disrupt regnant political orders? If it’s always only the former then I think you may be promising too much when you talk about the politics.…Are the “politics of play” doing anything more than showing how the neoliberal world most of us inhabit prevents play? Does this provide any basis for challenging the political orders of dispossession and exclusion themselves?2

In other words: is our argument for dispossession one that can only come from privilege? (We think here of artist Vincent Desiderio’s joyful celebration, when Kanye West appropriated his painting for a new music video: “A work of art goes out there, and there’s a stream that activates and widens the communal imagination.…There was no money involved at all.”3 Isn’t such a claim unlikely to be made by those who lack the public acclaim and wealth shared by Desiderio and West?) Asking this question, we recall Lisa Delpit’s caution against embracing creative grammar for students who are disenfranchised.4

In a system where we’re in a tussle about the “public” in “public space”–where art always runs the risk of becoming commodified, with no guarantees of who will gain or lose in this transaction; where space, art, and ideas are always subject to re-appropriation–the moving of the installation pieces simultaneously signifies loss and a taste of new possibilities. Like the woman crying in the bathroom stall at the public library, like the headless batik-clothed figures seated around the table of global politics, the circulating installation figures a form of collective interaction that, as Edensor and his co-writers say about play, is “potentially transformative or subversive of power.”5

From the moment that Mark and I first escort our students into city play, it is clear to us that “open-ended exploratory interactions” can have consequences in the real world. Our invitation to recognize such playful imagining as political is even more fully realized the following semester, when the 360° students re-arrange the installation. In doing so, they are threatening the artist’s work, and her concerns about damage—eventually mitigated by the return of each of her pieces–are real ones, needing acknowledgement.

In the earliest Tarot decks, The Fool is often shown as a beggar, a risk-taker with little to lose; unlike other figures in the Major Arcana (the trump cards which form the foundation of the deck), The Fool doesn’t even have a number, just the placeholder of zero.6We now see our students as enacting the roles of archetypal fools, tricksters who take risks and transgress boundaries in service of their own impulses, their capacities to tap into unknown possibilities.  The zone of play offers them a delicious, even purposive opportunity to experiment with such transgressions.

But what zone do we occupy, when we leave our classrooms to go “outside”? When we visit various urban spaces, encountering those who live there? When we return to our suburban campus, rearranging the pieces of art that have been installed there?

While we are urging our students to locate themselves in a zone of play, the artist occupies a different zone, one which encompasses both her aspirations and her livelihood. When our students put her installation pieces into circulation across campus, these two circles of work and play overlap, intersect, criss-cross in a border area where play gets serious, has very real consequences. Like the unpredictable, creative and consequential encounters of Deborah Rose and her colleagues with coyotes and ravens, our story describes an unsettled space of learning, where our students experiment with playing the trickster, and in so doing, carve a zig-zag path into a territory where art is taken seriously.

Taking our pedagogical direction from the politics of play means getting outside the classroom and questioning some of its primary presumptions, then bringing what we discover back in; it means continuing to grapple with nuances that sometimes feel like gaping divisions, sometimes like entering that “area of unrest” known as an ecotone.7

Bringing the concepts of political and ecological play into our understanding of the complexities of our interactions means that we are still wrestling with hard pedagogical questions: what can come of our going outside with our students to learn from the aftermath of what is unpredictable? We take up the startle of such encounters as openings into a world larger, more diverse and complicated than any of us can encompass. How to play in a way that helps students meet this world freshly, inventively, and respectfully; that recognizes and takes on some urgent injustices without ignoring other perspectives; without ceding to overwhelm? How to hover in a border ecology, where play, power, and property are always subject to question and revision?

Giving voice to such complexities are the sorts of activities we trace here: those of refusing institutional boundaries, the property they demarcate, the sort of “arrogant perception”8 that knows where to draw such lines, and (eventually) the distinction between inside and out altogether. In his introduction to The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Jack Halberstam refuses the “call to order” that occurs when the teacher picks up the book, and also quite wonderfully refuses “the academy of misery” that this order perpetuates. In the book that follows, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe at length an alternative to the “deadening labor” of the university, and ask, “What would be outside this act of the conquest circle, what kind of ghostly labored world escapes in the circling act….?”9

Our encounters in the Free Library mark some of this “ghostly labored world,” as do Yinka Shonibare’s “magic ladders.” The dispersal of the installation marks some more.

Playing “outside” the classroom leads us beyond “the circling act,” then invites us once again in.


  1. Michael Tratner, e-mail message to authors, June 4, 2010.
  2. Joel Schlosser, e-mail message to the authors, June 6, 2016.
  3. Joe Coscarelli, “Artist Who Inspired Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ Video: ‘I Was Really Speechless,’” The New York Times, June 26, 2016, accessed June 26, 2016.
  4. Delpit, Other People’s Children.
  5. Edensor, et al., “Industrial Ruins,” 65-79, italics added.
  6. “Tarots Marseille de Jean Noblet,” 1650, refreshed by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2001, accessed July 17, 2015,
  7. Rachel Carson, “ The Marginal World,” in The Edge of the Sea, 1955, posted on-line 2016, accessed June 20, 2016,
  8. Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, “World”-Traveling and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2, 2 (Summer 1987): 3-19, accessed March 1, 2016.
  9. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 30-31, 34, accessed March 1, 2016.