Urban Avant-Gardes, Sociology, and Aesthetics at Play

Within the history of art, play has often surfaced as a challenge to urban values and organization, such that the current turn to playful urban experimentation finds a measure of historical correlation with staple movements such as Dada, early Surrealism, and the Situationist International. While this is well-trodden territory in many respects, what is less recognized is how these movements represent an intersection between play as a key urban principle, necessary to rethinking the city, and play as a sociological method of generating social knowledge through attention to the dynamics of sociability and experimentation.

There are a series of associations that can be made between art and play as a mode of social participation and analysis. First, we can link play practices of Surrealism and the SI to key theorists of play, Roger Caillois and Johan Huizinga, respectively. Surrealism is an example of how aesthetic practices influenced a distinctive sociological theory of play. The SI represents how a novel appeal for the significance of play to culture influenced radical urban practices. The theory of play advanced in each example presents fundamental principles and characteristics, as well as dilemmas, which stem from play as a form that is both inside and outside of everyday life, one that challenges and reproduces social norms. These different perspectives point to a history of thought that appeals to play as a mode of analysis and social form, and in this sense, they help to make sense of urban experimentation in contemporary art by accentuating the contradictory dimensions of play as creativity-based urban participation.

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