|Formula for Living by Simon and Tom Bloor at the Cotham School, Bristol. Commissioned by the Bristol City Council. Photographs by Jaimee Woodley|
I particularly appreciate that Simon and Tom's work is deeply historically informed. They share my passion for vintage playground books, and rather than clamoring to claim first-rights to some form or idea, willingly reference play thinkers and places of the past. It gives their work a context and depth that playground design (and contemporary art for that matter) too often lacks.
We had a great chat at the Whitechapel Gallery about all things play, some of which is transcribed below. I was especially heartened to learn that Simon and Tom have now been asked to design actual playground spaces! (see the final question) Kudos to the planners who were forward-thinking enough to consult them.
So if you are so lucky as to be specifying a space for play, be willing to look beyond traditional providers to artists and architects whose work you admire. If they're doing great work, they can make a great playground.
How long have play forms been a part of your artistic focus? (and to me 'play forms' just means shapes, colors, compositions etc. that are related to playground space) What started your interest in play forms?
Our earlier work often looked to history or popular culture for points of reference, and our interest in the urban landscape, mid 20th century design and architecture and utopian ideas inevitably led us to events and figures that to varying degrees have worked with or influenced ideas of play. We got interested in the idea that learning, creativity and play were all sorts of everyday utopian pursuits.
A lot of the work we have made could be described as ‘playful’ but in 2005 & 2006 we made some artworks specifically with children in mind—one was a sticker book we designed and gave away for free at a Zoo, the other were some sculptural objects we made during a residency in Rotterdam that were based on a design in Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture book. They were painted corrugated cardboard box like objects that could be sat on, stacked and climbed on. Some of the studio artists had kids who made forts & played with them, but other artists and adult visitors played with them too. A couple of years later we made new work for Eastside Projects in Birmingham that included ink drawings of 1950’s and 60’s concrete play sculptures as well as a series of sculptures that we thought of as imaginary proposals for failed play sculptures. These works were placed in the gallery with twenty Silver Birch trees, creating a space that was somewhere between a park and urban wasteland.
I love the New Yorker cartoons, and their satirical edge has made me think about our reflexive honoring of mid-century designs, which were always interesting but not always great for play. Why did you pick the cartoons?
We initially saw the use of the cartoons as a way to re-appropriate them, in that the first jokes we redrew were really at the expense of mid 20th century artists like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth,
so we wanted to steal the imagery back for ‘Art’. There was a visual relationship to the exaggerated sculptures in the cartoons and some of the objects we’d made for the Eastside Projects show, as well as to some of the mid 20th century play sculptures we’d discovered, and we found other cartoons that made jokes about the playground designs of the same period so we’ve made further works with them.
Obviously you pull from the physical environment of the playground for your work, but I wonder how it might in turn change the way you look back at the physical space of the playgrounds. What do you think about today's playgrounds? Do they continue to inspire you? Do you have a favorite playground space and why?
Even though we know they’re massively flawed as play spaces (and in some cases, as artworks) we do have a soft spot for the aesthetics of mid 20th Century playgrounds, especially now they have a patina of age and have gained a sort of melancholy through their decay. We’ve recently been looking at Pierre Székely’s concrete play sculptures in France, and in Birmingham there are still some by John Bridgeman and others, and of course we’re big fans of Aldo Van Eyck! Our work of the past few years has tended to look to a similar period in art, architecture, design and play. The mid 20th century was full of optimism for all of these things but ultimately the vision was flawed, and how we are now dealing with what has been left is interesting to us.
In terms of playgrounds as spaces for actual play, the move towards more natural and adventure play and the rejection of the awful ‘springy chicken’ is definitely a good thing, and hopefully the paranoid approach to health and safety is abating—we made a print a few years ago that paraphrased Lady Allen of Hurtwood and said ‘Better a broken arm than a bruised spirit’—kids still need to take risks! For the sake of variety we would hope that playground designers continue to make more interesting land forms and sculptural elements though, and that it’s not all tree stumps and stepping stones!
Where are you going next with play?
We’re currently working on a number of projects that involve play in different ways—we’re in the middle of a residency organised by the Whitechapel Gallery in a London primary school and we’ll be making some new works for a show in the gallery in 2013 as well as designing a new chalkboard artwork for the school.
Over the past year or so we’ve also got the opportunity to do ourselves what many of the artists & designers we’ve been researching did—to make a number of permanent artworks for new developments that focus on ‘Art & Play’. For a site near Battersea in London we’re combining our interest in the history of public art, a take on natural playscape features and an updated version of Victorian artificial rock features (of which there are many!) to create a bronze and concrete climbing sculpture and series of stepping stones.
In Cambridge we’ve been commissioned to make artworks as part of a large new housing development and we’re working across site, liaising with a number of developers, landscape architects and other artists to embed visually interesting playful artworks into the schemes. We’re thinking of Aldo Van Eyck’s ‘inbetweening’ approach of using the left over spaces, alongside considering opportunities for ‘incidental play’—so we’re proposing zigzags in footpaths, bollards at appropriate heights for leapfrogging, slopes for climbing, areas for chalk drawing and so on. We’ve also been invited to input into the design of more ‘traditional’ play areas so we’re proposing more interesting use for the ubiquitous wet-pour surfacing, adding patterns and gradients. Elsewhere we’ve proposed to make some acoustic sound barrier walls also function as climbable structures, and we’re going to be working with fellow artist Nils Norman on a large earthwork. We’re also keen that we consider older groups, from teenagers to the elderly, and how as artists we might make interventions into the development schemes to make spaces more interesting for them too.
After looking at play as part of our wider studio practice it’s proving quite a challenge to now work out how we can re-evaluate some of the past approaches & learn from mistakes, while still drawing influence from play spaces and landscape designs that although often unloved still may have something to offer. As we’ve researched into historic playground design we’ve also read critical opinions about more contemporary approaches, about what makes a good or bad play space and so on, so we’re now challenged with making work that can not only stand up as good artworks but also as good playthings.