THE LONG ESSAY: Hattie COPPARD > Staying With The In-Between. Play & The Everyday

Arts practice as a form of thinking about play and everyday encounters in a public square

We recognise playfulness in the energy, gestures, facial expressions and myriad other meta-communications of others and in the bodily responses it provokes in ourselves. But the experience of play does not translate well into academic text or conventional research methods; when it comes to communicating kinaesthetic and affective states the language is lacking. Drawing on the work of dancer and writer Erin Manning and philosopher Brian Massumi, and referring to my own study of play in a public square undertaken with a dancer, a writer and a painter, this chapter discusses arts practice as a form of thinking and doing research.

It argues that it is at the intersection of creative and academic collaboration that new ways of thinking can emerge and that trans-disciplinary projects should be perceived of as new forms of practice in their own right, creating new conceptual and methodological models for engaging with lived experience.

The gap between experience and expression suggests the question: what are the suitable means for ‘grasping the world and making sense of what it feels like?’ (Crouch, in Paterson, 2009: 784). But this implies there is a ‘something’ out there to be grasped and an ‘it’ to be felt. The empirical view of the world filled with static ‘content’ has been challenged; for example, (Merleau-Ponty 2002:29) argues this view creates a ‘kind of mental blindness’ that limits and fixes in place what is dynamic, multifarious, ephemeral. Representation and experience are not separate states but integral, formed one from the other: rather than thinking in terms of distinct entities or objects that exist alongside one another, Deleuze and Guttari (1988) point to the ‘difference’ of intensities (of scale, energy, desire and so on) that ‘becomes the condition of possibility for phenomena’ (O’sullivan 2006:31). This suggests a world where there is no neat distinction between an inside and outside body, where categories of subject and object are in continual relation and continually emerging and coming into being. The question this begs, and the one that this chapter discusses, is: what are the suitable means for giving attention to play as an emergent sensual disposition?

Deleuze calls for an experimentation with thinking and language in order to ‘palpate’ the subject and ‘conjugate’ thought with life, suggesting that ‘to improvise is to join in with the world, or meld with it’ (Deleuze G 1988:311). Frustration with the limitations of conventional research that prioritises rational thought and the codification of ‘data’ as the primary means of creating information about the world, has led to collaborations between scientific and creative research methodologies, ‘fostering transversal connections that are engaged and creative rather than typical and habitual’ (Smith 2016:45). Cross-disciplinary projects are disrupting academic habits and common assumptions and have seen academics working alongside visual artists, poets, film-makers, dancers, performers, for example Doreen Massey and Patrick Keiller (Massey 2008); Charles Olson and Carl Sauer (Cresswell 2014); Erin Manning and Forsythe Dance Company (Manning and Massumi 2014), Harriet Hawkins and Caravanserai (Hawkins 2015). These collaborations bring together diverse traditions and skills in processes less concerned with ‘results’ than with different ways of investigating and expressing the world.

This chapter adds to debates about what creative practices can ‘do’ and in particular how play as an emergent, sensual disposition can be thought through creative methodologies. Drawing on a study of play in an urban square, involving a dancer, a painter and a writer, the discussion centres around different artistic modes of enquiry and the insights these can bring to an understanding of play and affective experience. It begins with a foray into creative practices and thinking beyond representation, then goes on to briefly describe the context of the study of play in an urban square before introducing the distinct creative methodologies employed by the artists and finally some concluding thoughts about how creative practices can orientate research towards play as an emergent sensual disposition.

Thinking Beyond Representation

A research study is a framing of attention upon a subject, with the research question, the language and methodology forming the lens through which meaning and knowledge can be constructed. Researchers have sought conceptual and methodological tools capable of engaging with everyday experience, acknowledging that the ‘ostensibly banal, low key, everyday things, places, embodiments and events can matter profoundly’ (Horton and Kraftl, 2006: 259). Visual methods such as video and photography have been employed to give participants the tools they need to express themselves directly, beyond words and text, extending the research process to include multiple perspectives and different forms of representation. But there are dangers attached to using media images as data: a video can appear ‘real’ because it seems to be unmediated; a photograph of a child may be chosen for its emotional impact but be presented as impartial ‘evidence’; participants (often vulnerable) can become ‘collaborators in their own visual commodification’ (Crang 2010). Photographs and video are seductive and powerful methods that fix in place what is fluid and complex and are frequently mistaken for visual ‘fact’ rather than a constructed view reflecting the technology and purposes of the research project.

Researching play as a sensuous disposition rather than an activity to be evaluated, requires a ‘supple awareness of the repertoire of haptic knowledges’ (Paterson 2009:785). These are the bodily sensations that form the perceptual systems that are fundamental to an innate embodied sense and include: proprioception which is the subliminal sense of the body’s axis and the felt awareness of the position of the body in relation to the space around it; and kinaesthesia which spans several perceptual systems forming a ‘nexus of visceral sensation and exterior perception’ (Paterson 2009:769) creating awareness of body movement. Although the notion of the haptic is thoroughly embodied there is no neat distinction between inside or outside the body: it is the bodily continually coming into proximal and performative being rather than existing as a separate and distinct entity. Recognition of the importance of haptic sensibilities, including the sense of spatiality, time and affect, has led to interest in the body as a research tool and the assertion of ‘the validity of non-visual experiences of space and place’ (Paterson 2009:769) that challenge assumptions of how we think and sense the world.

Thinking differently requires different conceptual tools that disrupt dominant ways of grasping the world, going beyond mere criticism (which reflects the criticised view), in order to bypass altogether the priority given to what is generally accepted (Paterson 2009:771). Horton and Kraftl (2006) argue for a methodological slowing down in order that attention and appreciation can be given to mundane, unresolved, taken for granted activities and materialities that make up most of life. Nigel Thrift (Thrift 2000) also suggests that ‘practices of slowness’ such as those associated with contemplation and creativity, can enable a way of experiencing the world directly, rather than as it is assumed to be, avoiding the progress and future-orientated assumptions of modern capitalism. Deliberately changing pace forces an alteration of habitual ways of perceiving, revealing what is difficult to notice when going along with the flow and enabling attention to be given to incidental, taken for granted moments and events that make up most of life. For (Manning and Massumi 2014) observation is a skilful and disciplined practice, requiring focus and attention that is simultaneously detached and engaged whilst resisting the tendency to interpretation and the urge to tie up loose ends.

Tapping into artistic practice as a creative dimension (rather than the making of an art work) involves a pre-cognitive process that is ‘perpetually upstream of itself’ (Massumi 2011:18). Artists talk of evoking a state of ‘un-knowing’, where thought and experience merge in a space of open-minded investigation and where no answers or conclusions are being sought (Fisher and Fortnum 2013). In her exploration of ‘thinking in moving’ with the Forsythe Dance Company, Manning describes the technique of ‘not knowing’ as being key to maintaining the dancer’s focus on what is happening ‘just now’. Dancing with ‘unknowability’ creates a sustained sense of uncertainty and a heightened sensual awareness, of the movement and position of other dancers, of duration and pace, of sound, light, touch, thought, in ‘disjunctive synthesis’ (Manning 2013:33, citing Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, Anti-Oedipus, pp 12-13). Similarly the dancer Merce Cunningham’s focus is on ‘pure movement’ where ‘proprioception enters into a zone of indistinction with thought’ and bodily gesture has meaning in and of itself, resisting interpretation or symbolic association, ‘in a state of perpetual nascency’ (Massumi 2011:18). This is ‘beginning in the middle’ of a relational field, before experience settles into categories or takes representational form, existing in the middle of the ‘complexity of the present presenting itself’ (Manning and Massumi 2014:46).

Different art processes activate registers of experience that bring attention to different modes of thought and manifestations of the world. Whilst dance can be understood as an expression of kinaesthetic and affective understanding in space and movement and an articulation of experience expressed through and with moving bodies (McCormack 2008); drawing may be described as a process of embodied and aesthetic attunement, requiring an attention that facilitates a being ‘with’ rather than simply a representation ‘of’ the subject (Hawkins, 2015). A musician, may be alert to the acoustic and rhythmic nature of an environment (Morton 2005); whereas a writer’s thoughts may focus on the potential narratives she sees unfolding, wanting to imaginatively get ‘under the skin’ of people and place (Cresswell 2014). Whilst different art practices and academic research occupy different research modes and purpose, Manning and Massumi (2014) argue it is at their intersection that new ways of thinking can emerge and that creative and academic collaborations should be perceived as new forms of practice in their own right.

Rather than investigating play as an identifiable category of time and space-bound activity, researchers have looked for ways of thinking alongside lived experience and conceptualizing play as an on-going, multifarious process that ‘occurs at the intersection of being and becoming’ (Harker 2005:53). This has led to an interest in creative processes capable of giving attention to everyday embodiments and events that may be meaningful yet not explainable. Performative research goes beyond textual and visual representation by putting the body centre stage, explicitly drawing attention to sensual, spatial and temporal dimensions. Whilst there can be a reluctance to engage with the bodily practices of children and young people beyond a ‘cognitive and neatly mappable realm’ (Horton and Kraftl 2006:78), thinking with and through practices such as dance or drawing can orientate attention towards embodied and imaginative registers of experience. These are thinking-feeling research modes operating in the midst of experience rather than from the sidelines, acknowledging that ‘everything is in-between where actuality happens’ (Dewsbury 2000:488).

Research Project: Looking for signs of play in a corner of east London

To consider thinking through art practice as a way of thinking about play in a public space, I invited a dancer, a painter and a writer to observe children and adults in a London public square over the period of three days. This particular square is situated in a densely populated area of East London, adjacent to a busy high street, across the road from a market that sells giant African snails, international mobile phones, Asian pizza. Here people’s lives stretch across continents, bump up against each other locally, as children and adults cross paths, negotiating and practising public space (Massey, 2005). As part of an initiative to make the square more attractive to children and families, large-scale loose play equipment is regularly brought out and left for anyone to use. These colourful objects occupy a sizeable proportion of the square, aesthetically and practically disrupting its conventional character and signalling that children and play are welcome here.

With the play equipment in the square, toddlers, older children and families start to arrive. There is nothing explicit about the shapes, they do not resemble any particular form and there is no ‘right way’ to use them or hidden solution to be found. Children are drawn to the indeterminacy of the objects that offer multiple possibilities, creating opportunities for exaggerated and unexpected situations to occur. They build wobbly bridges, narrow entrances, high platforms, testing the potential for generating a state of being in control of being out of control (Gordon and Esbjorn-Hargens 2007). Play may be unique in being emotionally exciting, rewarding and at the same time relaxed and it is this combination of affective states that generates the pleasure players get from psychically and physically being knocked off balance (Spinka, Newberry et al. 2001). Play is a meandering path rather than a pre-planned route (Massey 2005, Ingold 2011) and asking players to explain what it is they are ‘doing’ is a hopeless task: the aim is not to ‘do’ anything but to create a stimulating and enjoyable affective state (Hännikäinen 2001).

The artists were invited to observe play and interaction in the square over the period of three days and to report this back in some way. Rather than attempting to remain objective or unaffected by their investigations each artist was asked to give attention to their own emotional and imaginative response and to note how they used their bodies, imagination and skill to make sense of what they observed. ‘Every practice is a mode of thought already in the act’ (Manning and Massumi 2014:vii) and the distinct interests and perceptual modes of the painter, dancer and writer enabled attention to be given to experience in the square that would not have been possible from a single viewpoint. What emerged was an account of play as a sensual disposition, often subtle and enmeshed in other behaviours, made up of layers of perceptual engagement and a ‘creative receptivity’ of bodies and environment (Merleau-Ponty, 2002).

Embodied Knowing

‘A thinking that composes with-movement, with-body-in-the-making’ (Manning 2013:14).

Rather than making choreographic notes to record her observations, the dancer employed her own body as an affective recording instrument, ‘absorbing’ sensations she picked up in the square, the moments of tension, changes in atmosphere. Her embodied awareness became her ‘data’, creating a bodily store of affect that she could draw on at a later date: ‘It’s like you are a sponge, you just soak up the atmosphere … it’s just that sense of anxiety, sense of playfulness, comes into your body’. She was drawn to the emotional significance of small gestures: the frailty of an old man repeatedly turning his head to look behind him; the joy of a young child flinging out her arms as she hopped down a step. She began to re-enact these fleeting moments, mirroring the ways in which children and adults inhabit their bodily frame, experiencing their movement and energy and bodily expression.

Watching a young child repeatedly throw himself onto a skateboard and then fall off again (child-skateboard-ground composed in the act of movement), brought back her own memories of learning to skate: ‘I had forgotten how precarious and how ruthless, that we would just go on and on’. In contrast, she noticed how adults were more bodily contained and less physically expressive, keeping their arms close to their bodies, tending to stay upright and in one place: ‘grownups don’t want to do something out of the ordinary because they become self-conscious and self-critical, you can tell when the grownups are performing, then they have to make a big gesture, otherwise they keep their bodies close’. The exception to this norm were the exuberant and quirky movements of a woman dancing drunkenly in the square that seemed to express an uninhibited and child-like energy. The dancer was alert to subtle changes of pace and atmosphere and aware of inexplicable moments of stillness in the square, such as when a girl became quite still for an extended period of time, staring at an object for no apparent reason. She found this stillness striking as ‘there were children busy all around her, doing things, jumping … and then there was this stillness’: an unremarkable event that appeared meaningful, disrupting more predictable or expected behaviour in the busy space.

Understanding play as performative rather than a determinate category of behaviour, and focusing on affect that ‘undoes the sense of self as containment’, play comes into being ‘in the midst of activity’, not as a pre-existing ‘something’ but as the ‘passing present’ (Manning 2013:5). In mirroring the expression and movement of children and adults, the dancer was not attempting to define or interpret but to highlight what appeared meaningful and expressive without the need for explanation, revealing ‘the novelty and diversity’ of ‘worldings that populate us’ (Manning 2013:220) by staying in the midst of experience.

Drawing as Attention

‘Life’s key descriptive practice is drawing… think of description in the first place as a process not of verbal composition but of line-making’ (Ingold, 2011: 224).

In contrast to the dancer’s engagement with mobile and affective experience in the square, the painter’s focus was directed towards the pathways of children and adults as they moved through and around the space. From a vantage point overlooking the square, his concentration centred on carefully tracking the routes of children and adults, using marks and lines on paper to map their direction and proximity. His focus was solely on movement as it happened, without associating this with any particular individual or activity, slowing his own energy down and becoming immersed in the pathways he was following. In these drawings, the lines associated with children are shown to meander and weave, creating skittish, multi-directional paths that move back and forth and between one another. In contrast the paths associated with adults are straighter, usually taking the shortest route across the square, rarely meandering or lingering along the way, or staying firmly in one place and not moving for some time. In his work on lines, Ingold (Ingold 2004, Ingold 2007) discusses ways of inhabiting the world and describes two contrasting modes of movement: ‘transport’ and ‘wayfaring’. Transport is measureable and contained, defined by its function which is to move as efficiently as possible from A to B, usually along a pre-defined route and avoiding being side-tracked on the way. In contrast wayfaring is an open-ended, meandering activity, the wayfarer ‘dwells’ in a continual landscape, engaging with affordances encountered. For Ingold, transport and wayfaring are not simply categories of movement, but expressions of an approach to life and ways of being in the world. The drawings show a striking resemblance to Ingold’s descriptions of transport and wayfaring and illustrate how differently children and adults inhabit the square.

Drawing is a felt process of looking, an activity in which thought and sensual attention merge in seeing-feeling expression. The artist’s technique was to limit his own emotional and aesthetic engagement as he focused his attention on the pathways created by movement of people in the square. He became immersed in the experience of looking, slowing his own energy down and becoming attuned to subtle and transient differences in the emotional vitality, ‘weights of presence’ and energies that children and adults possess. These differences were expressed as marks on paper (lines, dots, wiggles, blobs, colour, texture) and enabled a way of conceiving children and adults inhabiting the square that is quite different from how a photograph, say, or a diagram might represent this information. The drawings show relationships on the move in time and space, they do not purport to be a ‘true’ or accurate representation, but do depict the attentive engagement and active manifestation of someone’s looking.

The ‘nearlyverse’

‘The truth is not “out there”. It is in the making’ (Ingold 2007).

Play occupies the borderline between fiction and reality where anything is possible as imaginative and ‘real’ life merge in flexible and unpredictable directions (Massumi 2011:24). In cartoon sketches and jottings in notebooks the writer recorded transitory moments in which children and adults appeared to be on the edges of action, in what he described as a state of ‘nearly play’. A girl radiating happiness, a boy peeping through a hole, a man fiddling with a table tennis bat, all seemed to indicate to him a vague land between playing and not playing, between what might be and what might nearly be. Every situation, every moment, every movement is surrounded by an element of uncertainty about what will happen next and Massumi suggests that it is uncertainty itself that has the potential to be empowering, providing a ‘margin of manoeuvrability’ in which to experiment in ‘a threshold of potential’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Bennett 1971). For the writer uncertainty became the starting point for his imaginative interpretation of what might be going on in people’s minds: ‘the boy trundling his scooter along – is he escaping from Mars?’ … ‘a child chasing a plastic bag across the square, opens it to check there’s no motor inside it’. It did not seem strange to be guessing what someone else might be thinking: ‘the creative writer’s job is not to document accurately but to catch a narrative truth, to be convincing but not necessarily realistic and certainly not factually accurate’.

The division between representation and experience has been critiqued for artificially separating the world into what is ‘real’ and ‘not real’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988). Internal and external fields of reality are integral to each other, formed one from the other as body and environment form a material continuity that makes it hard to mark where thought and action begins or ends. In contrast to the dancer’s concern with movement and expression but not with invention, the writer’s prerogative is ‘what if?’, his aim to bring alive what might nearly happen as much as what ‘really’ happens. Ingold (2011) argues against a classification of experience as a way of creating understanding in favour of a ‘storied’ knowledge that emphasises a ‘field of relations’ continually coming into being and suggesting that it is only when your own story and others meet that meaning and knowledge can be created (Ingold, 2011: 160).

Some thoughts

The significance of creative methodologies is that they explicitly draw attention to the ways in which beings encounter the world. Unlike recognition, which confirms and reinforces an already existing view, encounter is a direct experience that disrupts expectations in an affirmation of something new (Massumi 2002:3). Art brings together recognition and encounter, ‘breaking one world and creating another’ as ‘the work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become “experience”’ (O’sullivan 2006). Thinking with and through art practice, such as dance, drawing, prose, orientates attention away from what can be quantified or explained, towards the incidental, sensual, un-representable registers of experience.

Academics and artists have come together to share ideas and projects, interested in how other practitioners apply themselves to thinking the world and keen to learn from each other’s processes and perspectives (Deleuze 2004:68). Academic text, drawing, dance, prose, can all speak of the same thing but reveal different sensibilities. In the study discussed here, the medium and mode of attention of each artist had its own story to tell: the re-enactment of a child’s gesture is an unrepeatable performance to be experienced rather than captured in words; a drawing done freehand contains the energy and perspective of its maker; a description of the thoughts in someone else’s head is a work of imagination. These are creations of the moment and expressions of direct encounter that challenge ideas of the present as a static and bounded moment in time, (like a photograph or the single frame in a film). A child leaping onto a skateboard is a synthesis of movement and feeling, always emerging ‘at the cusp of the present’, existing as an ‘arising present’ that is propelled by the subjective experience of leaving what came before (Cresswell 2014).

Every practice is an act of thinking and Manning and Massumi argue that collaborations between arts practice and theoretical research should be understood as a new form of research in its own right, that it is at the intersection of techniques and the modalities of expression of different disciplines that there can be new ‘concepts-in-the-making’ (Alliez and Massumi 2014:16). Rather than separating creative and scholarly practice, the aim is to ‘activate its modalities of thought, its rhythms, in a new concertation’ and to incorporate sensual modes of understanding into intellectual work, ‘composing thought in the multiplicitous act’ (Manning and Massumi 2014:89).

All research is political and how play is described and understood echoes the conceptual, methodological, cultural basis of the research. Manning and Massumi warn of the danger of collaborative arts and academic projects being defined by institutional agendas that maintain hierarchical and disciplinary boundaries. This chapter argues that arts practices can provide a springboard for new ways of thinking and doing research about play, including techniques and methodologies for exploring affective and unexplainable moments that are gone before you know it. The aim of creative practices is not to find evidence but to see what more might be said about the world: the challenge is to develop methodologies and language capable of giving attention to sensual emergent experience that slips the net of conventional research.

Playing creates pockets of alternative realities, enabling people ‘to use events over which they often have very little control to open up little spaces in which they can assert themselves, however faintly’ (Thrift 2009:92). Playing can be understood as an optimistic sign of life, a creative gesture and whatever else there is or might be, to play is to live now and to assert an engagement the world.

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