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

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).