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Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players. The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.
(Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens)


Note from the editors
For our issue FGA#31 It's Playtime we conducted four conversations on play. Johan Huizinga was present at all these talks. From his book Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element of culture (1938) we had challenging quotes at hand that we wanted to discuss with our interlocutors. Are we working, or are we playing? It is increasingly unclear. Are they opposites? For artists, the distinction between work and play has always been diffuse.

We talked with: Tijs Goldschmidt, writer, evolutionary biologist known for his essays on play in animals, including humans; Evelyne Reeves, director of the Bureau des Temps in Rennes who told us about shifting time regimes and the fuzzy borders between work and leisure; Joris Luyendijk, anthropologist and journalist currently involved in a long-term research on the bankers in the City of London, we asked: ‘is high-finance actually a playing field outside of “the real world” ?’. The conversation with curator, friend and Tati-fan Zoë Gray, functions—we hope—as an afterword to our book, and—in a way—to her biennale.

We reworked and edited the transcripts, and gave our interviewees and ourselves the opportunity to rephrase our sometimes stumbling voices and ideas, add information and further reflections, and react to each other’s reactions. In this manner, the resulting dialogues are developed through intense collaboration with the four participants, and two translators, Sherry Macdonald and Isabelle Grynberg, who played an important role. The basic rules of this game are simple—though they change with each collaboration—which does not mean the game is easy. We have retained the conversational style and original formulations as much as possible, and hope that at the end the dialogues maintain the spontaneity of the original exchange.

For ten years we publish conversations or dialogues, and recently we discovered what we do is linked to the concept introduced by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called the dialogical: everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. In other words, we do not speak in a vacuum. All language is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless redescriptions of the world.

Finally a quote by Richard Sennett, in which he refers to Homo Ludens as well as to the dialogical. Sennett describes how Huizinga 'noted the difference between observing the rules of a game and discussing what these rules should be'. Where Huizinga saw this as alternatives to choose from, Sennett argues that modern psychology considers it as sequences in human development: 'At the age of five to six, children begin to negotiate the rules for games, rather than, as at the age of two or three, take the rules as givens'. Sennett concludes that with the development of our skill to negotiate rules for games together 'freedom enters the experience of collaboration as a consequence'.

^Rob Hamelijnck and Nienke Terpsma, September 2014

Conversation with Tijs Goldschmidt

Tijs Goldschmidt is a Dutch writer and evolutionary biologist who has written about people and other animals, art, play, boredom, loafing, ‘fuzzy thinking’, and many other things. In his 2007 Huizinga Lecture* entitled ‘How to Fake Faking’, Goldschmidt elaborated on Huizinga’s famous 1938 study Homo Ludens. He suggested that it would be a beautiful addition to Huizinga’s culturally critical masterpiece to delve deeper into the evolutionary and biological roots of play, ‘to map out the constants and patterns that determine the element of play in human culture [...] to start with, by closely observing play in different animal species, including humans’.

‘Playing alone, playing with other animals, playing with objects: these are three common forms of play. […] Are the play motives of young animals the same as those of adult humans? That remains to be seen. Humans are primates who have retained several childhood traits. They play more than other adult primates, until, at a ripe old age, they drop dead.’ — Tijs Goldschmidt, Vis in Bad (Fish in the Bath), 2014, p. 135

Play and biology
Rob Hamelijnck: Play is one of the central subjects of this biennial. Do you think it’s an interesting subject within the visual arts?
Tijs Goldschmidt: Yes, I think it’s an interesting subject within any context. There’s still so much to be discovered that has yet to be studied. Misconceptions, too – such as people thinking, ‘you have fun with your game, and we’ll get down to serious business with our art’. Our understanding of play is so limited that it could be very liberating to learn more about it. Homo Ludens is Huizinga’s vision of culture: there are isolated cultures all around us – the judicial system, the military, sports, art, theatre – each of which you could say has its own rules of play to which the players must adhere the moment they enter that domain.
Nienke Terpsma: In your Huizinga lecture, you say you hope there will be a collaborative study of play from the joint perspective of evolutionary biology and sociology. What is it that you feel is lacking?
T: An evolutionary approach to play. All sorts of human activities that Huizinga alluded to as play can also be studied from a biological perspective, though a lot of sociologists are uncomfortable with this idea.
N: Why?
T: I think they’re afraid that if you try to understand human behaviour in behavioural-biological terms, you might project or simplify too much, that humans are too complex to be compared to animals. In the West, since time immemorial, a distinction has been made between natural beings and cultural beings. Biologists constantly run up against this distinction – though less so than in the past – when trying to describe human behaviour from a biological perspective. Humans are very good with language, with the major advantage that you can ask them things. But you also know that they don’t do what they say and they don’t say what they do. So a biological approach often has advantages: don’t listen to what a person says, just observe what he does. When I watch an interview on television, I often turn off the sound because then you see all kinds of interesting things, especially if you already know what the interview is about.
R: What do you see? Can you see if someone is lying?
T: Well, I can’t prove it, but when certain observable non-verbal behaviour is displayed, there’s a big chance someone is lying. What I mean is: it can be highly beneficial for psychologists and anthropologists not to think so differently about humans and animals. Not a gap, but a continuum.

Displacement activity
N: I just read about that continuum in Frans de Waal’s The Ape and the Sushi Master: Reflections of a Primatologist (2001).
T: You’ve just performed a displacement activity!
R: Did I? What’s that?
T: A displacement activity is often the expression of an internal conflict. You were intending to say one thing but might suddenly have thought, ‘I’ll wait a minute before I say that’, or ‘I’ll say this first’. If these opposite impulses are equally strong, you might quickly brush your hand over your cheek – which is actually from the repertoire of fur maintenance behaviour: you were looking for a parasite but there isn’t one – but it’s irrelevant behaviour in this context, and that’s called a displacement activity. Biologists can physiologically understand and predict when it will happen, and you can read it as a sign that someone is hesitating, reflecting or lying. That depends on the context. You can already understand a lot about someone’s internal state without engaging in complex psychological analysis. And you can look at play in the same way – by observing external phenomena.
N: Now you’ve also performed a displacement activity. Or did you really have an itch?
T: Yes, I really did have an itch. I never hesitate!

The polar bear and the husky
N: Homo Ludens begins with an observation about play, and then examines play-communities. We could talk about what an artist does alone in his studio, and then about how the art world …
T: You could say: most artists work alone and decide, in their studio, the rules of play for their work each time. It’s a strange form of play of course. Some people get very depressed by it. There are many forms of play. If a cat is playing with a ball, for example, you could say it’s playing with an object. But that ball is also a kind of substitute for a mouse, and a cat plays with a mouse before killing it, but that’s quite different from social play, because the mouse isn’t playing along. That is how a cat practises skills like motor control and speed. Biologists are interested in the function of play; it’s generally assumed that play is practice for later. Social play is always back and forth; there’s an alternation of roles. Role reversal is characteristic of social play.
R: Like in the video of the polar bear and the husky?
T: Yes, I’m always amazed that that polar bear knows to accept the husky’s invitation to play, because the rules of play are so different for these species.
R: They both have to understand that it’s play?
T: Yes, and like you said, such play isn’t only fun, it also has to be serious. The play-bow, that playful bowing of the dog in which it collapses its legs and stretches its paws out front, wags its tail and barks – in fact that’s an ‘intention movement’ ritualised into an invitation to play. That gesture doesn’t at all resemble a polar bear’s invitation to play. Polar bears wobble their heads when they want to play. So it’s amazing that the polar bear understands the husky’s behaviour. Among all animals, at the start of play it has to be very clear that it’s not a threat but a playful invitation. It’s bizarre that this husky doesn’t try to run away with its tail between its legs – you don’t understand what led it to invite the polar bear to play. In fact, the polar bear does what’s called ‘self-handicapping’. It’s physically much stronger, it could kill the husky with one blow, but it restrains itself and plays a game. It even assumes a submissive role.
N: In your latest book, you wonder whether it wasn’t an overestimation on the husky’s part.
T: Yes, sometimes you see a Chihuahua attacking a Boxer and you wonder what kind of self-image that dog has. It’s difficult to say. In the first place, you have to ask yourself whether such a dog has a self-image. Chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins do, for instance.
N: How do we know that?
T: Through mirror recognition, among other things. One criterion for self-image is that an animal that looks in the mirror knows it’s looking at itself. Are you familiar with Gordon Gallup’s experiments? Gallup worked with a group of chimpanzees in captivity that had become accustomed to their own mirror image. One day Gallup gave the animals a sleeping pill and marked their foreheads with a red dot. He wondered what would happen when they woke up. All the chimpanzees ended up touching the dot with their finger! He saw that as proof of self-recognition and self-awareness. This was followed by a surge of what I think was a rather exaggerated discussion, mainly among philosophers, about the nature of self-awareness, and whether this was sufficient proof ...
N: Is that a sort of territorial urge – that only people are allowed to have self-awareness?
T: It wouldn’t surprise me, because every time biologists show that one assumed difference between humans and animals doesn’t exist, another assumed difference is immediately thought up. It is as if people are afraid to fall off their pedestal.
N: We discovered a series of videos on the internet of someone in Gabon who had installed a big mirror and a camera in a forest. You see all kinds of wild animals wandering around who stumble upon that mirror.
T: Beautiful. Gallup’s original experiment is also masterful in its simplicity. I love such simple interventions – they’re so close to poetry.

If you like to read more... buy It's Playtime

^

Are we working or are we playing? There are many forms of play. There is solitary play and social play. Most of us artists work alone and decide, in our studio, the rules of play for our work each time. Social play is always back and forth; there’s an alternation of roles. How can we artist makes a play bow – like dogs do – and invite the audience to play?

In the globalized and highly professionalized art world the distinction between work and play is increasingly unclear. For artists, the distinction between work and play has always been blurry. This was not an issue until we all experienced that the art world is a perfect sort of R&D department for capitalism, and we the artists are the perfect work force for economic exploitation. What can we do about it?

Author: Rob Hamelijnck and Nienke Terpsma
Publisher: Fucking Good Art
Design: Nienke Terpsma
Producer: Art Norac
Financial support: Mondriaan Fonds
Distribution: Motto and Idea Books
Date of publishing: September 2014
Language: English/French
Pages: 160
Size: 11 x 18 cm.
Weight: 145 gr
Binding: Softcover/paperback
ISBN: 978-90-817756-2-5
ISSN: 1874-0227
This issue is made for Play Time, biennale Les Ateliers de Rennes 2014, curated by Zoë Gray.

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First issue December 2003
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