Experimenting with experiments

A new beginning?

Today is my first day as PhD student, which feels a bit funny. As Camilla said in the morning when I left, hardly concealing her laughter: “have a nice first day of school” (when we met each other, she had just handed in her own dissertation and now, 9 years later, I’m finally ready. I guess that makes it painstakingly clear just how slow I am).

Anyway, it is the start of something new, and I’m slowly coming to terms with what that might mean. I had a chat with my supervisor, Eva, and she suggested that I start experimenting as early as possible. That’s music to my ears, of course, I can’t wait to get out there and make things happen in the world.

Those who know me will be aware that I have a rather broad interest in play, and I will only reluctantly limit my scope and prioritize certain kinds of play over others. While I initially wanted to consider all possible types of play, I eventually had to accept what a PhD project is also about and demands: focus. I chose not so much a type of play, but a context which allows for any interesting type of play I can think of: the junk playground (originally known in Denmark as “skrammellegeplads”, now often referred to internationally as “adventure playgrounds). I insist on using the “old” term, because I like how it invites a renegotiation of the meaning of junk.

While I will initially study practices, experiences and knowledge from existing junk-/adventure playgrounds, the core of my project will consist of a series of experiments, where I aim to bring the spirit of these playgrounds to new contexts and new people, primarily adults.

In designing these experiments, I wish to build on, but also reimagine and recontextualize the traditional playgrounds. The original “skrammellegeplads” was indeed also seen as an arena to practice democracy, and I believe there is still much potential here, as people engage in playful, embodied interaction with each other and the materials to create a shared reality that express their collective dreams and desires. I was recently pointed to the delightful journal “Anarchy – a journal of anarchist ideas”, where Colin Ward writes about adventure playgrounds in a way that resonates with me:

“The adventure playground is a free society in miniature, with the same tensions and everchanging harmonies, the same diversity and spontaneity, the same unforced growth of cooperation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant in a society devoted to competition and acquisitiveness.”

Colin Ward

That image mirrors the atmosphere of the design experiments I want to conduct, though I don’t yet know what these playgrounds will look like in detail, or how exactly I’ll organize them. I imagine that I will make a few experiments for a longer duration of time, maybe a few weeks to a month, where people can come back several times, and some smaller interventions over a few days, like a weekend. I’ll be talking to municipalities, recycling sites, companies as well as good people, who are already involved in this domain in one way or another (suggestions are more than welcome!).

Micro-experiments

For now, I’m considering really short experiments – micro-experiments – to get the ball rolling and to start identifying and playing with central traits of the junk playground. I have often thought about the smallest conceiable invitation to play, but what might be the smallest conceivable way to spark deep, sincere “junk-based play” – that can then, in turn, lead to explorations of way of living together?

What could an experiment look like? What kind of materials are essential? What would you like to do? Maybe you want to actually play along?

Please, play along

Now is the time to remind you that I don’t think of this as just my project; it is our project, and the more people will play along, challenge me and shape this somewhat daunting endeavor, the more we’ll all make of it (assuming I can live up to the responsibility of joining the pieces in meaningful ways, but for now, let’s make that somewhat outrageous assumption).

An open invitation

I recently wrote the first post about my upcoming PhD project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, which I’m extremely excited about. I ended the post with one of my Freire quotes and an invitation to play along:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

While I am already exceptionally grateful for this opportunity, it will all mean far, far more to me if a host of travel companions will join me.

I know so many brilliant people who have endured the struggles of PhD projects. All experiences are different, of course, but there seems to be a pattern of loneliness, a realization that doing a PhD project is a solitary affair.

Does it really have to be?

I’m aware that this is my project, that it is me who have to do the work, and that there will be periods of hiding away somewhere, striving to meet some quota of words to be written.

That’s a given, I guess, and I’m fine with that.

To an extent.

Only to an extent, because while I accept the premise that this is also an education for me to become a proper researcher, I intend for it to be much more than just that. Let it be a project that becomes meaningful, helpful and valuable to more people, the more the better.

The way I have worked over the past decade was always a delicate balance between being on my own while having an urge to cultivate communities and co-create shared experiences. I was self-employed and as a natural consequence of that, I was often left alone with the final decisions and the final responsibility. At the same time, I was never alone, because I always had friends embarking on these journeys with me. Everything I’ve ever done, including my biggest project, CounterPlay, only ever meant anything when there was a shared ownership and when someone else started building, expanding and sometimes – to my delight – subverting my ideas.

Why should a PhD project be any different? Should it?

I have been very inspired by reading Lynne Segal’s beautiful “Radical Happiness Moments of Collective Joy“:

Acknowledging the sadness of others, doing work we find interesting, sharing friendship and love through good times and bad while facing the tribulations life hurls at us, with help when we need it, seems to me the essence of pursuing any good life. As the world becomes an ever lonelier place, it is sustaining relationships, in whatever form they take, which must become ever more important. An act of defiance, even.

Segal, Lynne. Radical Happiness

I’m always deeply touched by this quote, because it resonates on the deepest, most fundamental level. There is no good life, no meaningful existence without sharing friendship and love.

That obviously goes for a PhD project as well, and I’ll do my best to keep it open: I’ll be the one with the re-sponsibility and I’ll drive the project forward, but always in an ongoing, open dialogue, where you are all more than welcome to play along, to ask questions, and to challenge my always-rough ideas.

I don’t know exactly how, but that’s my modus operandi, right? That’s just part of the fun and something I’ll figure out along the way – with all of you, of course.

Welcome to my PhD project

Welcome!

With this first post, I kick off my PhD blog, where I aim to share news about my project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, whenever I can. The project starts on December 1st and will be situated in the Lab for Social Design at Designschool Kolding. In the project, I will explore play as democratic participation within the context of junk playground settings (if you want to read the actual application, it’s available here).

Every post on this blog is an invitation to join the conversation and play along, as I sincerely hope this is the beginning of not just a project for me, but for a much larger community.

Background

The paths we follow are never straightforward or linear, there is no train that will take us straight to the destination. On the contrary, our lives are messy, unpredictable and chaotic – just like the world in which we exist.

“There is no order here and there is no middle ground, Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned”

Nick Cave, “Fireflies

To me, that’s a given, a basic premise and, in fact, a positive thing. That’s what makes for all the adventures I so immensely cherish (and I can guarantee it will also be a recurring theme in my project).

Once we look back over the actions, decisions and coincidences that have shaped our path, it happens that a more or less clear pattern emerges. For me, that pattern is a question I have asked over and over, with no easy answer ever in sight: how do we, as human beings, develop confidence in our own agency, how do we learn that the world could be different and that we all have some capacity to make it so? How do we, individually and collectively, become empowered to act in the world – to instigate change in the world?

Over the years, especially while with the CounterPlay community, I have observed something intriguing in this regard: in play, people experience agency, pushing their curiosity and imagination to explore how the world and their lives might be different. The festival was always also an attempt at exploring exactly that – how can play allow and inspire us to live differently together and what might a more playful society look like? I am reminded of Butler’s notion that “even the political question, how ought we to live together? depends upon an organization of life that makes it possible to entertain those questions meaningfully.” These playful interactions, the setting, the atmosphere and the community apparently provided such an “organization of life”. As my dear friend Helle (and, as it happens, now also my co-supervisor) wrote about CounterPlay in International Journal of Play:

“The festival invites you to surrender to the movement of play and to place faith in the future, without knowing where play will take you. In this way, the play festival inspires hope for the future of play and incites ‘play courage’ in all, because play is first and foremost with and for its participants.”

Helle Marie Skovbjerg, International Journal of Play

In contrast, “normal” democratic participation ever so often seems detached from our daily lives, our dreams and desires. As I recently wrote in “Framing Play Design”, “If the current crisis of democracy is indeed a crisis of participation, it seems likely that this is in turn caused by a crisis of imagination. We have apparently been unable to adequately reimagine a set of democratic participatory practices that are meaningful in contemporary society.”.

This is the paradox at the heart of my PhD project: we know how to engage in deep, sincere investigations of new ways of living together that are driven by our mutual dreams and desires, but such vitality is all too often absent in the more formalized democratic institutions and processes.

This is what’s puzzling me and what I will try to approach from three different (and very broad!) theoretical domains: play, democracy and design studies. In the following posts, I’ll introduce some of the main thoughts, ideas and concepts inspiring me and the project.

An open invitation

If there is any part of this you find interesting, if you see opportunities in playing along or if you think I’m gravely mistaken, please get in touch. Whichever slightly interesting thing I have ever managed to do, I was only able to do so because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people smarter than me. For it is indeed as Freire wrote:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Each other.

Let’s play well together.