R. Blair Sullivan on play time, some of its roots, & relevance to his own artistic practice.
“The opposite of play is not work it is depression,” Brian Sutton Smith
by R. Blair Sullivan
During a studio visit a friend said, “So you’re a process guy,” which disarmed me a little. Not just because he was referring to the ubiquitous and passé, process based work that oversaturated the art market, but because process is so inherent in the creation of something. Aren’t we all “process people?” Most of the processes I use to make art are based on managed chance. I’m not a planner, I’m a player. When I mentioned this piece to my Dad he reminded me of a game we use to play when I was a boy. He would draw a line on a piece of paper and tell me to turn it into something. It’s basically still how I make things today. The process of discovery is what I value most when creating something. I’ve always believed in the potential for art to teach the artist about themselves. The most immediate way to invoke that self imposed psychotherapy is through playing around, improvising, leaving critical thought at the door until later, when you can examine what’s been made. Play is intrinsically linked to learning. It’s funny to think about my work as a byproduct of learning, but in many ways it is. Museums are like mausoleums and art is educational waste, lol. You can learn a lot about a society by examining it’s garbage.
Fundamental elements of play have potentially influenced our notions of community since prehistoric times, and now have deep roots in our early childhood education systems in the United States. The scope of these topics is prodigious, so I will do my best here to describe the relevance of play to my art making process in light of these historical transgressions.
In my work I often reference pre-agricultural societies. I’m very interested in the pre (wild_ and post (built) Civilization dichotomy, so it was interesting to discover that play is inherent in hunter gatherer communities. Their gods are not stern judges, but playful jokers, no type of work is regarded as toil because it doesn’t make sense to choose to do something that makes you miserable, and the education of children is assumed to be naturally acquired through observation and playful curiosity, not formal schooling. It’s the last aspect of education that didn’t enter into western civilization as a built environment until the Age of Enlightenment.
Jean Jacques Rousseau’s novel Emile was a benchmark for the 18th century sea change from a pedagogical system based on the memorization of facts and information (with threats of pain for disobedience) to the encouragement of learning through a child’s inherent curiosity. First hand experience and play were emphasized to the extent that books were forbidden until the age of twelve. Emile inspired a number of educational experiments, the most indelible being Fredrich Frobel’s Kindegarten.
Originally a crystallographer, Frobel intended to develop a child’s perception of form to a point where the underlying unity of the universe could be intuited. Towards this end he developed objects and exercises designed to introduce children to the harmony of his three spheres of life, science and art. The desire to materialize conceptual ideas resulted in Frobel’s Alphabet of Forms; sets of objects that when manipulated allowed a child to sense the connection of the spheres. He called these toy like tools, “Gifts,” and the activities they were used in “Occupations.” Frobel’s system not only revolutionized education, but had a lasting and monumental impact on the rise of abstraction in modern art. A list of the Gifts and Occupations is as follows:
1st Gift; Color
6 colored worsted balls, about 1.5” in diameter
The first gift was intended by Frobel to be given to very young children. His intention was that through holding, dropping, rolling, swinging, hiding and revealing the balls the child may acquire knowledge of objects and spatial relationships, movement speed and time, color and contrast, weight and gravity.
2nd Gift; Shape
Wooden ball, cylinder, and cube 1.5” in diameter
The second gift was developed to enable a child to explore and enjoy the differences between shapes. By attaching a string or inserting a rod in a hole drilled through these wooden geometric shapes, they can be spun by a child.
3rd Gift; Number
8 x 1” cubes, forming a 2” cube
A child delights in pulling apart this gift, rearranging the 8 cubes in many ways, and then reassembling.
4th Gift; Extent
8 brick shaped blocks forming 2” cubes.
Each of these 8 identical blocks is twice as long and half the width of the cubes of the previous gift. Many new possibilities for play and construction arise due to these differences.
21 x 7” cubes, 3 bisected, and 3 quadrisecteddiagonally
27 brick shaped blocks, 3 bisected longitudinally an d6 bisected transversely forming a 3” cube……
Plastic clay cardboard work, wood- carving, etc
Paper folding, paper cutting, parquetry, painting
Interlacing, intertwining, weaving thread games, embroidery, drawing
Stringing beads, buttons,
Softed peas or wax pellets, sharp sticks or straws
It seems to me that largely there are two approaches an artist typically employs during the creative process—form, becoming feeling, and feeling becoming form. For me it fluctuates back and forth, making the mark how do I feel? Now I have a mark, play with the mark, change it how do I feel now? More broadly for artists the popularity of using found objects has led to the challenge of creating objects that feel found. If we can consider Froebel’s vision of the universe to be romantic, then there seems to be a new realism or surrealism dominating our current aesthetics (see Dis Magazine et al) that more reflects a perceived reality- chaotic and unformed. Our city, country, world feels fucked up. It’s not about harmony in nature it’s about the law of the jungle. We’re using mass produced products more and more as art materials. This subjugates not only their function, but their meaning, and in so doing claims back our fucked up out of control culture for the creative class. It’s not always as aggressive as it sounds though. In the end all most artists have ever wanted to do is be able to play on their own terms.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” Plato