ESR 3 Blog January/February 2023: Maria Mkrtycheva

This past year was for me very much about losing ground – and searching for it under changing circumstances. In both a political and personal sense, the ground is what you stand on, what you belong to and what gives you a sense of self. It is something you rely on, even for a short moment before you take a step further.


In this past year, framed by the destructive war in Ukraine, my ground was replaced with a battleground – an unstable and unknown environment you can’t relate to. As much as the immediate localized effects of the battleground are devastating, its aftershocks are spreading globally and keep affecting many, every day. Regardless of who takes over in the battle, it is a type of ground which is unreliable, and which takes away the sense of self from all those involved.


A battleground is not only a territory where the fight takes place, but also a situation. In sociological terms, a situation is a context in which human behavior occurs; it shapes us, and we equally shape it. Besides that, throughout the process of interaction, the situation becomes a separate independent entity with its own capacity to change shape. The situation and a social process take place somewhere. Finding or creating this landscape – real or imaginary – for a situation to happen and for you to ground yourself in is a powerful strategy of coping with crises. That said, I wonder, how does the sense of losing ground affect the way we behave, interact, and find meanings of the self and of others?


This past year, while continuing to search for a physical and symbolic place to situate myself in, I’ve been thinking about playgrounds. Children’s playgrounds are designed as training sites for dealing with natural and constructed environments as well as with social processes, be that a conflict, a competition, or a cooperation. Through different types of play children learn to respond to circumstances that compel and constrain their behavior and to actively choose the situations in which to expose themselves. At the playground, the environment and the obvious interaction scenarios are set and given. Whether or not the alternative ways of interaction are possible largely depends on the broader political framework in which a particular playground is located.


One of the elements I recall from a playground from my childhood is a geodesic playdome, also known as a spider web. Unlike the natural spider webs with a dense center to observe from and attack from, all units of this metal web were triangle-shaped and equal in size. This half-spherical structure occupied quite a lot of space and was confusing in size and thus in function: too big to climb on, too wide to play under and too open to be converted into a shelter. As a result, the spider web was left abandoned most of the time.


Now, when I think about my sense of place and the current feeling of losing ground, I see how it was affected by this playdome. It feels like a landscape with very little room to relate to, alter or adjust. The landscape was there, take it or leave it. It was an architectural ultimatum, and growing a relationship with it did not seem like a possibility, at least for me. Yet it was also impossible to ignore, as it was taking up most of the space of the playground. My sense of ownership of the place and authorship of the playground was framed by being in such an environment. My capacity to deal with the changing circumstances was also shaped by it.


This past year that I’ve been naively dreaming of replacing battlegrounds with playgrounds, my perception of the stable and reliable environment changed quite a lot. As I’m trying to search for a firm ground to stand on, it seems like what you can only really rely on are the unstable structures that can be disassembled, altered, adjusted, and reassembled and played with – and I’m actually one of these structures. While the landscape, both in personal and political sense changes, the notion of play becomes the coping strategy, the way to respond to the environment and the reliable ground.




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