Alternative play

Like the previous types, this direction within playful experimentation creates opportunities through which one can explore urban relations and collective bonds, but at the same time, these actions model alternative forms of civic engagement. Toronto playwright and artist Darren O’Donnell’s Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDR), a “researchart atelier dedicated to investigating the social sphere” (MDR 2010), orchestrates unfamiliar situations that twist expectations and roles. He strives to reconfigure social relationships through unexpected encounters—ones that draw on elements of collaboration, enjoyment, risk, and confrontation—to create new contexts for collective engagement. For example, he has organized a number of projects that all involve interactions with strangers in a variety of contexts, from the street to the home to the classroom, each of which presents various challenges and discomforts.11 He refers to his work as a type of “social acupuncture”—a pointed remedy for the city directed towards social realignments and through his actions, calls for an “aesthetic that can work directly with the institutions of civil society—an aesthetic of civic engagement” (O’Donnell 2006, 24). However, this is not a mode of civic engagement without friction or just conviviality and exchange (30). In Haircuts by Children (2006), O’Donnell dares adults to let children cut their hair.12 Through the provocative and absurd scenario of children cutting adults’ hair, O’Donnell argues that granting children a space of respect and the ability to express good judgement is essential to encouraging future political participation (85). It is also a moment during which adults must trust children to exercise careful decision-making, and this rather comical scene actually demands mutual respect and trust. The play experiment, in this instance, is charged with realizing an alternative to patterns of social exchange, where adults and children together must (temporarily) renegotiate their place in the social order.

These above-mentioned examples indicate some of the general features of urban play experiments and their exploration of the process and characteristics of urban social relations, making quite different demands on urban subjects in terms of the character and requirements of participation through forms of spontaneous play, subversive play, or alternate play. The play character comes out in different ways, from the exuberance of collective games to the pointed humour of “carless” driving to the absurd scenario of children cutting hair. In keeping with the previous discussion that stressed contemporary art’s employment of play as a key urban principle, we can better position the implications of these actions in the final section.

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