Music for Writing

As I’m moving deeper into PhD territory, while working from home in our Covid isolation bubble, I’m slowly trying to develop good habits for writing. I am not a disciplined person and I’m not very good with structure, so starting a new, big project on my own, working in genres (such as a “PhD plan”) that are new to me, well, that takes some getting used to.

I’m trying the “pomodoro technique” for creating manageable time slots for reaching writing goals, but how do I get into the mood for writing? Now, I have a great interest in atmosphere and moods in general, not least when it comes to designing spaces for playful experiences for other people, but for myself, at home?

I always listen to music, but I get carried away by the lyrics and I forget what I’m doing. I started looking for instrumental albums, but it’s not a genre I know particularly well. I was listening to Adrianne Lenker’s lovely “Instrumentals, but wanted to put together a playlist, so I asked around.

Twitter to the rescue! I receieved A bunch of recommendations: – thank you!:

  • Beethoven
  • Boards Of Canada – In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country
  • Brian Eno – Thursday Afternoon
  • Four Tet – Morning
  • FroKeith Jarret’s The Köln Concert
  • Joanna Brouk – The Space Between
  • Johann Johannsson
  • John Medeski’s A Different Time
  • Max Richter
  • Mike Sheridan
  • Mozart
  • Nils Frahm
  • Ólafur Arnalds – re:member
  • Soundtracks – Never Let Me Go, Amelie, Lord of the Rings, Tron Legacy, The Last of Us, Game of Thrones, Blade Runner

I’m starting with Olafur Arnalds – Re:member, since almost everybody recommended Arnalds, and it’s stunningly beautiful.

Maybe it works, since I immediately started writing this, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I mean, it *is* writing, but…

Anyway.

Are there other artists or albums, I should check out? How do you get into a good writing flow?

Drafting an experiment

Table of Contents

This document describes an experiment I was planning for an event at Designschool Kolding, the DesignCamp 2021 – “Island Matters – Speculative Fabulations of Possible Futures”. Now the event is online, so I’m working on a different version, but for inspiration, I’ll share the initial draft here.

“What if…”

First, the “what if” statement for the camp:

“What if… – making use of speculative design as a tool for imagining worlds that can be radically different, students will produce tangible stories & objects based on potential new systems of the near future.”

Design Camp 2021 – Island Matters

And my “what if” for the experiment:

What if…we establish a junk yard playground for DesignCamp 2021, where students can engage playfully in material-driven speculation to spark their imagination and explore “radically different worlds”?

Goal

The aim of the experiment is to cultivate an atmosphere of openness, creativity and trust where students can play, let loose, get out of their heads and into their bodies, exploring materials and harnessing the vitality of playfulness and silliness. The experiment elaborates on the theme and “what if” of camp, as it invites the students to engage with each other in playfully speculative, embodied, material-based dialogues and imagine worlds that can be radically different.

Context

Playful interaction sometimes leads to a deep, embodied engagement that can be understood as a special kind of democratic participation: players explore ways of being and living together, often challenges what is known, going beyond norms and expectations in search of new narratives, atmospheres, moods and worlds.

Here I focus mainly on notions of participation and the imaginary as it is sparked by a playful, embodied engagement with materials and artifacts. The experiment is framed as an invitation to play because the atmosphere and mood of play has been shown to cultivate presence, sincerity and openness as well as agency and imagination. When people really play, they are typically less inhibited and more prone to explore radically different ideas, worlds and ways of living.

More specifically, the experiment draws on the tradition of “skrammellegepladser” (junk playgrounds) because such a space lends itself particularly well to open-ended, embodied and material-oriented engagement with artifacts, each other and the world.

Experiment setup

The experiment is shaped as a miniature (but not-too-small) junk playground situated in the middle of camp (or somewhere central, where students pass by regularly or can easily go). It can be in the canteen, in the mirror hallway or elsewhere on the ground floor. It can be an a classroom, but that might risk isolating it too much from where the action is. It could also be outside, but considering it’s winter, that may deter people from visiting.

The area is styled to convey the narrative and invites students to explore a parallel universe. It is not just a random collection of junk, but instead it is framed as a meticulously curated collection of important artifacts – everything is there for a reason (a reason we may not yet know of).

There is a fairly large selection of junk material scattered around the place to invoke the curiosity and wonder. In addition to the junk, there will also be a selection of hand tools (knives, scissors, hammers) and supplementary materials (tape, glue, string, nails etc)

While all the materials might come with certain embedded associations and affordances, they are all to be considered “loose parts”, that is, artifacts without a predesignated purpose. The students can use the materials to speculate and imagine “radically different worlds”, to explore aspects of their ideas and to build mock-ups and prototypes.

Rules of engagement

When you step into the space, you have to adhere to “The Law of the playground”:

  1. The materials have their own voice, agency and desires
  2. Follow your hands and body as they engage physically with the materials
  3. Say “yes, and…”
  4. Conflict is good – when you respect and take care of each other (agonism, not antagonism)
  5. There is no being or looking stupid
  6. Trust your imagination and intuition, defer judgment

Narrative

The junk playground is built around a narrative you can step into, explore and influence. It creates a universe for telling stories of what might be, drawing on embodied deliberation and the playful imaginary.

Ideas for themes:
• Sci-fi / future: these materials are sent from the future to guide us on our path.
• Archeology: these materials have been excavated from archeological dig sites and hold important information about our past.
• Crime scene:
• …

The junk is not framed as junk but as something else – it could represent:

• Opportunities
• Loose parts
• Not-yet-fully-formed ideas
• Space debris
• Excavations
• Someone’s memories of the past
• Someone’s hopes for the future

Concrete examples/scenarios

  1. A group walks into the playground, frustrated with their current progress, and they are tasked with finding an artifact each and improvise a story about their project from the perspective of the artifact.
  2. A group is working in their own space, and a few seemingly random artifacts – a broken lamp and an old typewriter – arrive at their table. They can pick it apart and put it together in new ways in order to figure out how it challenges or informs their current idea.
  3. Several students from different groups walk into the playground, looking for a break from intense work, and start creating a shared work of art that express their current state of mind.

Loose ideas for activities

Getting to know each other
The better the students can get to know each other and their collaboration partner / organisation, the more everyone usually benefits from the process. The playground is a great place to learn more about each other, so maybe it’s an idea to design an introductory play activity for alle the groups and their partners?

Traveling junk
As a part of the experiment, bits and pieces from the junk playground will travel to the group spaces, insisting on joining the conversation. Every piece of junk has something to say – maybe it’s important, maybe it’s just random nonsense. You’ll have to listen closely to understand.

The big junk lottery
Every group gets a lottery ticket and wins random pieces of what might appear to be useless junk. It does however contain an important insight about their project.

A collective art work
During camp, all the students have the opportunity (or obligation?) to contribute to a collective art work which explores the theme of camp. Maybe you only add a single piece of junk or a word, or maybe you revisit it several times, maybe even explicitly drawing it into your design process.

Documentation

The experiment is also the first step towards developing a strategy for capturing and documenting empirical data throughout the project.

The main challenge is to also capture non-verbal interaction. Embodied engagement with each other and materials is often at least partly non-verbal, where much is expressed without words.

For this experiment, I aim to use a triangulation of documentation methods such as:
• Video of the playground
• Video booth capturing reflections from “visitors”
• Drawings
• Short written messages on a “living” message board
• An exhibition of small art works with titles and short descriptions

Adults play, too

That title is almost too obvious for me to write, bordering on the plain ridiculous.

Of course we do.

Even so, I still regularly have to explain that I’m particularly interested in the (sometimes invisible or even ) play of adults.

When I founded CounterPlay, I hoped to create a space where adults could meet and play together (and yes, this was definitely also driven by my own longing for such a space). I wanted to cultivate a play community that could, ideally, transgress borders, and encourage people to explore the role of play in all aspects of our lives. Some of those adults would then bring their experiences and ideas from CounterPlay into their work with children (and thank you for that!), but CounterPlay itself was and is always more concerned with the play of adults.

Sure, play is important for children, but not so much because they are children. It’s important because children are human, too, and play is essentially a mode of being human and a form of human expression. To play is to explore, insist on and sometimes question the formation of our humanity.

I’m skeptical about all the popular “recipes” for children to grow up (fast!) in a certain way, to learn specific things according to detailed procedures that should somehow magically be valid for all children.

I think I am more intrigued by being than becoming, just like I am more attracted to process than result, which is probably also why I keep insisting that we examine how we get into play, not what we get out of play. I think we miss out on essential components of our existence when we maintain that everything must have a quantifiable outcome. We instrumentalize ourself to death. Maybe you remember my anger with the “ROI regime“?

I have argued before that if play can somehow help us, if we can indeed “get something out of play”, it is that we learn to live more playfully:

The best reason for playing, I believe, is that you get better at it, and you connect more deeply with your playful self. That’s the purpose, that’s the reward, that’s what we should be pursuing.

I think Fink was right when he, in Oasis of Happiness, argued that we, as humans, “live in the prospect of the future. We conceive the present as a preparation, as a station along the way, as a way of passage”, whereas “play gives us the present”.

I’m not sure play can teach us things that we can then go on to apply or implement in various domains, I question the “transfer” value of play, but I do believe, firmly, that if we continue to play, throughout our lives, and to approach the world playfully, everything changes. Many good, compelling arguments have been made for what we can learn from play – such as creativity, imagination, empathy and so on – but I feel increasingly convinced that we will only be able to fully enjoy those skills when we play. Maybe it’s a bit like learning to speak a foreign language (in my case French and German) and then stop speaking that language for years, only to discover that it has tragically disappeared when you suddenly need it. It only stays with us if we keep it active, if we make it part of our lives – of our identies, maybe even.

When we play, we become better at playing and we may also, in those moments of playfulness, be better at other things, too, because we are present.

In my PhD project, I will continue along these lines, and I will mainly invite adults to join the playgrounds (but don’t worry, I’m sure there will also be opportunities for children to play along).

The voice of objects

Let’s talk a bit about objects, materials, artifacts.

I decided to narrow my exploration of play as democratic participation down to the arena of “skrammellegepladser”, AKA junk or adventure playgrounds, for a number of reasons. I am particularly motivated by the social, embodied forms of play, where players interact with each other, materials and objects, often in interesting and surprising ways.

These situations are particularly fascinating to me, and I have observed this take place so many times over the years and in several different contexts. Basically, gather objects and materials, create a framing narrative and invite people to play with it. Sometimes, there are more specific guidelines or directions, often it remains rather open-ended.

In playwork, there’s the notion of “loose parts”, including a “theory of loose parts” and a lovely “Loose parts manual“. Loose parts are, in short, any material that is not already too fixed and filled with meaning.

My friend Helle describes how “play media” are part of “play practices”, which in turn allow for certain kinds of “play moods”, in which “I am especially open-minded towards creating meaning; I am filled with hope for something meaningful to happen; and I bear a great trust in the people I am around” (from Framing Play Design).

It is in this “mood” of play that I have observed a particularly outspoken presence, sincerity and openness as well as agency and imagination: when people really play, they are typically less inhibited and more prone to explore radically different ideas, worlds and ways of living.

Miguel Sicart has an interesting take on this in Play Matters:

Play matters when it is appropriative, taking over a situation and turning it into a context of play. Toys facilitate appropriation: they create an opening in the constitution of a particular situation that justifies the activity of play. Through toys, we realize that play is possible, and we start playing. The toy is a gate to the world understood through play.

Toys (in the broad sense), “play media” and “loose parts” are all objects that can inspire and help maintain play.

Now, while this topic already figure prominently in play research I believe that the field of design – both research and practice – still has much to teach us about the role of materials and objects in play. For me, coming into the world of design, these issues have been a bridgehead: our interaction with the physical world, matters of touch and tactility.

I’ve been happy to learn that “material-oriented dialogues” are quite popular (allowing materials to inspire and inform our conversations, thinking and talking with our hands), and that a “new type of design process is emerging, in which the material is present from the outset and can be seen as the driver of the process.” (Bak-Andersen).

I’m currently reading (albeit slowly) “Design and Political Dissent: Spaces, Visuals, Materialities“, where it is argued that “disobedient objects” “material practices and artifacts have the capacity to articulate political arguments and act politically”. This is very interesting to me to uncover: the role and voice of objects.

In “Design and Agency: Critical Perspectives on Identities, Histories, and Practices“, Ece Canli asks “What Do Things Do? Can Inanimate Things Act, Enact or React? Do Things Have Agency?” and continue:

“Things talk back, act back or “kick back” (Barad 2007) on us, insomuch as they become “actants” in their own rights, possessing the socio-culturally negotiated capacity to exert power (Gell 1998; Wassrin 2018). This also affirmed that agency is not limited to human volition, but manifested through other material configurations”

This mirrors what Hoskins wrote in “Agency, biography and objects” from an anthroplogical perspective:

Even those objects which seem to be without a directly identifiable function – that is, objects which have previously been theorized as simple objects of aesthetic contemplation – are in fact made in order to act upon the world and to act upon other persons. Material objects thus embody complex intentionalities and mediate
social agency.

Drawing on speculative design and design fiction, I intend to explore what happens if the agency of objects is exaggerated, at least a little beyond (what some would consider) the limits of reason. I believe this can invite the aforementioned play mood, and potentially tell us something new about the role of materials in democratic participation and deliberation.

I recently started describing an experiment I would like to conduct, and I made a set of rules – “The Law of the playground”. One of those “laws” were that “the materials have their own voice, agency and desires”.

Finally, in choosing to connect to the origins of adventure playgrounds, the “skrammellegeplads” in Danish (junk playground), the materials are not just any kind of material, they are discarded materials. Materials and objects that would otherwise probably have been considered worthless, but may now in fact guide us to new insights, fabulations and speculations not despite but because of their supposed worthlessness.

These are just a few of my current fabulations on play, design and democratic participation as these relate to physical objects and materials. More to come.

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).