Saturday November 1 2008 I attended the closing debate of the Urban Play project that took place during ExperimentaDesign 2008 themed “Space and Place: design for the urban landscape”. The event explored the role of designers in shaping the urban landscape, and the Urban Play project – organized by Droog Design – specifically focused on play. 19 Designers created playful ‘urban design interventions’ temporarily located along both sides of Amsterdam’s IJ-river, which invited people to participate and interact with the urban environment.
Throughout almost every major city in the world, individuals are taking it upon themselves to physically alter their cities to make them more creative, interactive, personal and fun. What we are witnessing is an unparalleled level of creative urban intervention which represents the intersection of the latest genre of street art and the beginnings of open source urban design. Conceived and curated by Scott Burnham, Droog Event 2: Urban Play is an international project that believes this street-level inventiveness, energy and innovation is a window into a new form of creativity and urbanism in the city.
Speakers at the closing session were: Ester van der Wiel (designer public space, curator Sunday Adventure Club), Kamiel Klaasse (NL Architects, participant), Scott Burnham (curator Urban Play, Montreal), Renny Ramakers (Droog Design), Ji Lee (graphic designer, participant, New York), Hilary Tsui (director of the project City-Transit, Vienna), and hosted by Farid Tabarki.
An brief overview of the different projects was given, zooming in on whether it invited people to interact with the interventions or merely provoked vandalism (further down I’ll show some of the projects with pictures). One of the participants, Ji of the Bubble project, stated the potential of play most clearly by calling urban play “creating glitches in the matrix”, and fucking up the pre-programmed everyday reality. Hilary Tsui spoke about urban interventions as new “cultural landmarks 2.0″. Characteristics of such playful urban interventions are that they are often mobile, not flashy in the sense of drawing attention only to themselves, participatory, and site-specific. In the closing discussion everyone was asked to give their view on what should be done next time, in two years when Experimenta again is held in Amsterdam. Answers were: more new media, more co-creation, better maintenance, focus on relevance.
This last remark by the curator was kind of surprising: how do you judge ‘relevance’ in combination with ‘play’, which according to many play researchers (Huizinga, Caillois, and many contemporary game researchers) is only relevant in itself?
The most interesting to me was the fact that designers also have taken up the theme of play in relation to the urban environment. ‘Urban play’ has been deployed much longer, for instance in the theatrical performances and interventions by Situationists, and more recently by the multitude of ‘pervasive games’ or ‘location-based games‘ that spring up in cities all around the world. At the same time this is a point of critique of the project: it did not seem to clearly position the possible contribution of designers in shaping the city vis-a-vis other disciplines that already have taken up play. What can design deliver to the reshaping/re-appropriation of the urban landscape that other disciplines can’t?
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Another interesting aspect is the relation between these kind of guerilla projects as bottom-up disruptive interventions in the city, yet being incorporated into a discourse about the ‘creative city’ which is mostly top-down and involves huge financial interests. Although the organization claim on their website that these “open source” urban design interventions have been done “done outside of the formal channels of institutions, commissions and urban planning in cities around the world”, it became clear that negotiations with the city government had taken place. However, due to bureaucracy no formal permissions have been given for the installations, resulting in more than one of the projects being taken apart prematurely. One of the participants, Ji, gave a beautiful example of the thin line between ‘hacktivism’ and commercial interests. His Bubble Project – using blanco cartoon text balloons glued on advertisements inviting people to write down their own textual comments – was meant as a kind of anti-advertisement, reclaiming public space from stupid commercial messages. Soon however, advertisers found out that this was the perfect viral strategy to draw more attention to their commercial posters, and started to employ the bubbles themselves…
|“Fishes in the Sky”, plastic fishes moved by the wind on a pole along the IJ-river. Only hours after they were attached people started stealing them, tying them to their bikes.|
|“Cycle Recycle Cycle”, a bicycle shop along the road where people could ‘pimp their bikes’ using recycled materials.|
|A DIY fence inviting people to weave any kind of material in the raster to ‘enhance’ the looks of the fence. It didn’t take long before city cleaners took the ‘rubbish’ from the fence.|
|300.000 Euro cents were laid out on the streets by Stefan Sagmeister to form a birds-eye graffiti on the ground. Only hours after it was finished, the police came and scooped up all of the coins…|