What is play

We can think of it as work’s opposite. And thanks to Marx, we know that work is the transformation of nature into socially useful resources. Work is what makes the world ours. Play is an exchange of meanings that makes the world of socially useful things worth using.

In his 1938 study Homo Ludens, Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga argues that play is a primary condition of culture: he identifies the «play elements» in various forms of art and entertainment as traces of a primordial human drive. Huizinga argues that play can be set aside from ordinary life, a claim that may no longer hold today, when play is so fully integrated into everyday existence through information technologies. «To call all human activity play is cheap,» Huizinga wrote; he insisted on the status of play as an element of culture at large. Of course there are other fields of human activity: war and murder are not play, they’re matters of life and death, as is the doctor’s work on bodies. The work of the miner, the farmer, the oil refiner—virtually invisible in the information economy’s field of exchange—is work through and through. But notions of «serious» and «fun» have become useless in separating play from work, just as «ordinary» and «special» are useless designations in sifting play from life. Some Chinese prisons force their inmates to play the online role-playing game World of Warcraft to collect game-world treasures and sell them to gamers abroad for the profit of their captors. These days, play can sometimes be no fun at all.

When play enters art now as a theme, it is different from the «play element» that Huizinga identified as the trace of art’s origins. It has come to constitute away of seeing the world: play as the defining condition of life in a world buffered from nature by a cloud of information.

John Gerrard is an artist known for his «simulations»— three-dimensional models of places and the things that happen in them. These aren’t videos; they have no beginnings or endings. Some of them—such as his series of derricks shot on North American oilfields in 2009 and 2010—index work that is unseen and unknown by most of his audience. But recent projects take simulation itself as their theme. In Exercise (Djibouti) 2012, sixteen athletes, dressed in red and blue, jog in a figure eight, describing the infinite track of a Mobius strip, with pauses for rest every few minutes. Their shadows follow them, dark and even, yet slightly askew to the artificial sun, and this small displacement makes the shadows strange enough to be a reminder of the algorithm that produces them, and its divergence from nature.

Similarly, Gerrard’s Infinite Freedom Exercises (2011) varies slightly from reality, and in the friction of rhythmic gestures against the languidly shifting viewpoint and the even more slowly changing sunlight, which follows the computer’s clock. By the side of the road in an Iranian desert, a man in fatigues performs the exercises that soldiers do to practice shielding themselves from missile fire. But Gerrard’s subject is not a soldier, he’s a dancer. His gestures aren’t exercises, they’re choreography. The difference between work on the body for its preservation and the aesthetic play of motion matches the difference between the origins of the images and the simulation that Gerrard has assembled from them—a gap aligned with the one between nature and play. Significantly, Gerrard’s simulations are built on game engines—the software frameworks used for rendering

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