ESR 4 Blog October/November 2023: Jenny Fadranski

Play and Polycrisis: Exploring the Radical Playground

Could we play our way out of the polycrisis? This question popped up for me as I wandered through the recently opened ‘Radical Playground’[1] nestled in the parking lot next to Martin Gropius Bau. It is not your typical playground; it’s an open-air experimental space, an exhibition and a research project all at once. Various artists contributed different structures, and there’s an ongoing exhibition, alongside numerous ‘activations’ of the playground scheduled over the spring and summer.

As I stroll around the playground, I notice that I would like to shed my adult observant role and embrace the playful way of exploring that all the children drop into so naturally. As adults, we often find ourselves either restricting children’s play or merely watching them from the sidelines. I reach a beautiful pool with a fountain that offers some refreshing humidity on this very warm spring day. Children hop in and out of the pool that has signs all over it: do not enter the pool. So far that’s the most radical thing about this playground, children are breaking the rules because their pleasure is luckily more important to them.

In the accompanying booklet, I read that the radical playground is a place to think about the social and political potential of play. My attention wanders to the sign that advertises fancy vodka cocktails, which could help with my thinking and also soothe my frustration. Probably it is my inner child that protests because it intuits that playing would be so much more fun than thinking about playing. There is also a critical voice within me, noting, how easy it is to label something radical without offering anything radical at all.

To some extent, this radical playground mirrors society and its culture. The playground is free of charge and it’s a lovely atmosphere. But in the end, it resembles every other playground in Berlin – although with much more creative and interesting structures – with parents keeping a watchful eye on their children to ensure they don’t get hurt or break too many rules. In the center of the space, I spot the exhibition ‘The Playground Project’ which gives an overview of playground activism and design in recent history. It also references what is still the most radical playground project in art history. In 1968, the Danish artist Palle Nielsen transformed Moderna Museet in Stockholm into an adventure playground for three weeks. During this time, 20,000 children visited the museum. Adults over the age 18 were not permitted.

The exhibition statement read:

“The idea is to create a framework for children’s own creative play. Children of all ages will work on developing this framework. Indoors and outdoors – in all kinds of play – they should have the right to communicate their capacity for self-expression. Their play is the exhibition. The exhibition is the work of children. There is no exhibition. It is only an exhibition because the children are playing in an art museum. It is only an exhibition for those who are not playing. That’s why we call it a model. Perhaps it will be the model for the society children want. Perhaps children can tell us so much about their own world that this can also be a model for us. We hope so. Therefore, we are letting the children present their model to those who are working with or are responsible for the environment provided for children outside – in the adult world. We believe children are capable of articulating their own needs. And that they want something different from what awaits them.”[2]

It is the polycrisis that awaits future generations. Advocating for simple solutions as a way out, such as play, to some extent seems naive. In today’s world, play is often instrumentalized to capture attention, or, in the corporate world to develop new products and solutions. Play is made useful in the context of structures that are oriented toward acceleration. This kind of play is part of the polycrisis. Instead, what is required is to circumvent goal-oriented increases in productivity and reconnect to the desire and urge to play. At the very least it represents the opportunity to cease participating in the wrong kind of play. It also raises a question for socially engaged art: What kinds of engagements can teach people to stop participating, and to start truly playing?

While I am still writing my dissertation, this is my final blog post. The FEINART Research Project has come to an end after three eventful years. It has been such a privilege to be part of this group and I am grateful for the many opportunities to learn about artistic practices and their political and social significance. Thanks to all of you involved in the network and to our inspiring group of PhD colleagues.



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