Irrepressible City: Pat Kane's essay on the state of PLAY in London
The Centre for London is a think-tank dedicated to exploring the possibilities and challenges of one of the world's great cities. A/UK's co-initiator Pat Kane has contributed the lead essay to their Play edition of London Essays (previous issues have explored topics like Work, The Future, Night, Food).
Pat's essay tries to map London's complex and conflicting cultures of play and players, rooted in his studies into the evolutionary roots of play behaviour. There's maybe a method here for doing a "play map" of any town or city - one which pays attention to the particular social and structural conditions that generate creativity in any place.
An extract below:
The great synthesiser of play theory, the late Brian Sutton-Smith, described play as “adaptive potentiation”. Play wrests out space and time for imaginative creatures, in order to rehearse and prototype forms of life.
So a London in and at play is a city in rude health: an entity with enough surplus energy to respond to whatever limitations it experiences; and with enough cognitive excess for those responses to open up zones of novelty and creativity.
Evolutionary accounts of play lead to the conclusion that it is most sustainably supported by a “ground of play” – from the delimited space for cavorting lion cubs on the savannah, to the loose yet robust structures of the open web. These are platforms that raise the floor above the zone of sheer survival for organisms to flourish and “potentiate”.
How does this map to London? With its astounding levels of public investment in the subsidy of arts, culture and primary science, and in public infrastructure through transport, parks and sports facilities – never mind its flows of private capital, whether consumer-led or philanthropic – London could be regarded as a particularly well-resourced “ground of play”.
But as this is an essay space – and as Susan Sontag once reminded us, to “essai” is to attempt a measure, not to establish one4 – I want to suggest how uneven and incommensurate are the play-spaces and playtimes of London. Some of this can be framed by policy and the design of institutions – but some of it, qua play, arises free from these determinations.
This unevenness has already been revealed in London Essays, as the meanings of play are struggled over. For example, in the Culture issue Justine Simons praises London as a “chaotic playground” for the arts – whereas in the Futures issue, Celia Hannon calls it a “playground for the super-rich”.
Of course, the two are often linked. Anyone visiting the annual Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park will witness the ludic energy of contemporary art practice mesh with the bottomless bank-balances of London’s global plutocrats. Some excellent jokes have been played around this, including Christian Jankowski’s 2011 The Finest Art on Water, involving the sale of two multi-million-pound Riva speedboats, one bearing the imprimatur of the artist (and thus justifying it as an “artwork”). Of course, it was snapped up instantly.
As an occasional reviewer of contemporary art, I have heard more backstage chat about six-figure sales to private collectors than about radical aesthetics. But however you regard the dirty marriage of conceptualism and capitalism that undergirds much contemporary gallery art, it would be hard not to categorise it as a play-phenomenon – that is, a pursuit of possibilities under conditions of surplus.