First, a short story: once, last week on the playground, two older boys were observed to be engaged in a moment of play (these two boys, you see, had been the same two who’d been exercising their subtle and not-so-subtle psychological malefactions on the other inhabitants of the playground at either end of the summer). This is the moment of play observed: there had been some filling of thin latex gloves with water by some children (one walked around the playground with his heavily-filled glove, proclaiming it to be some form of udder!); the two older boys filled their gloves and, finding that they swung in such a way that amused them, proceeded to hang them around their necks to form a pair of heavy breasts each; the boys tucked them into their t-shirts and bounced around, laughing.
I needed to write this because it was an observation of light relief in amongst some of their otherwise more challenging behaviours. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the writing of it until I went for a walk earlier on, several days away from the playground, thinking about the city. For ‘city’ here, you can also read ‘town’ or ‘any given urban area’. I got to thinking about how we go about our day-to-days in quite guided ways: the city is, despite our possible interpretations of freedom and free-will and the like, somewhat prescriptive. That is, everywhere there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling us what to do, where to go, how to be. We can do certain things here and here and here: the city is a functional place. What if we could actually just do our own equivalent of the older boys’ latex glove play? Or rather, by extension, what if the city weren’t so layered with the functional ‘do this here and do this there’ as it is? Would it all break down?
Many, many years ago, at architecture school, we were given the project of designing a city, I remember. Being young and more naïve than I am now, my project co-students and me designed what I now see as being a ridiculously functionalist, largely science-fiction-based, quartered, quasi-Utopia which was neither living nor liveable in. We had long debates about where we’d plant the dead, where the workers would be placed, and so on. Our cities aren’t like that now, are they?
What we didn’t know back then was that cities carry messages, many millions of messages, and we’re all subtly and not-so-subtly floated along in the stream of ‘do this and do that’: on the obvious level there are direct signs, but there are also roads and paths and railway lines that convey the message that this is a route from A to B and not for XYZ other endeavours; within this infrastructure there are the various architectures that have their space or social designation written in their size or decoration or the like; there are open spaces, which are really enclosed spaces, with their messages of ‘escape’, or ‘temporary use’, or ‘be restored’; there are skateparks or fixed play equipment areas (which I always want to write as ‘fixed play areas’), which carry in them the message that this is a corral in which, and only in which, it’s acceptable to be creative, inventive, free-spirited (which in the case of the former is often within replications of props of the wider urban environment, and in the case of the latter is a place that often resembles zoo enclosures built for captured gorillas). The city is, in short, full of messages about the designated function of its constituent parts: use this part in this way.
Would society collapse irrevocably if we played with the infrastructure (put everything of absolute necessity for conveying humans from Point A to Point B underground)? How might we then use the strips we formerly called roads? What if we took down all the fences (which carry their messages in their size, position, degree of hostility, and the fact that they’re there at all)? Could we learn to transfer all our received mistrust of others into an ability to share? What if the acceptable captivity of children’s fixed play equipment areas (or teenagers’ skateparks) — transmitted to us at present by tucking them neatly out of the way under the auspices of ‘safety’ — were exploded from its current ghettoisation into the greater city-scape?
This is not just a question of child and adolescent play though: if the city were less ‘guided’ it would be less so for all us, adults too. We may think we’re free of mind to come and go but maybe we’re not. A little Nietzsche might illustrate my thinking:
‘Absolute free will can only be imagined as purposeless . . .’
What if we could do our own equivalent of the latex glove play in the less guided city? Messages might still be apparent in our day-to-days but at least the bombardment wouldn’t be so fierce. In this strange new world, we wouldn’t have the eyebrow-raising, the comments, or the disapprovals that we often currently find hidden, or overtly shown, in the actions of others. In this odd new place, no-one would be concerned at the ‘being me’ or the ‘being some experimental me’ exhibited in the play. We might think we’re pretty liberal now, but we’re less than absolutely tolerant: all the messages we’ve absorbed have affected us.
In conclusion, let’s rewind a little. The latex glove play example is an odd (and slightly flippant) one to choose, but I use it here now because it has its comic extremity: imagine, let’s all walk around with latex gloves hanging inside our clothing and no-one bats an eyelid, or cares! Or, imagine the city is a continuous carnival, not a three-day affair. Or, imagine, instead of adding something ridiculous to the city, let’s take away the ridiculous elements of all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages: the dominance of the conveyance infrastructure — where convenience is superseded by capital necessity; the fences and the enclosures, demarcating forbidden trespass and acceptable usage; the ghettos where play can be allowed to happen . . .
Perhaps this odd city I’m dreaming up, a city of fantasy rather than of function, is just as quasi-Utopian as the naïve functional science-fiction city of my student days. Call it an exercise in thought, an operation on the city as it is (with optional latex gloves!)
Nietzsche, F. (undated) in Spariosu, M. (1989), Dionysus reborn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Cited in Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.