(by Maja Kuzmanovic and FoAM. first published in the trg book )
After several decades of high-stress technological and economic optimism shaped by a strong work-ethic, leading sociologists and designers predict that people's lifestyles in Europe and beyond are becoming more focused on play, leisure, creativity and low-stress activities, with lower negative influence on personal health and the environment. The ethic that these activities demand is closer to an improvisational 'play ethic', based on the ability to act playfully in a variety of situations - from research for innovation, to extreme sports and online game-play, but also life-long-learning, participatory art-forms and even child-care. To address the social and cultural requirements of future societies, public spaces should become capable of stimulating play, creativity, relaxation and imagination. These four human aptitudes are not just there to improve other aspects of life such as science, education and the economy, they are essential for the construction of a rich and diverse reality.
However, contemporary public spaces are rarely structured to allow free exploration or expression and are often usurped by the private sector (retail and hospitality industry), for increasing profits and encouraging addictive consumerism. Instead of functioning as places where people can perform socially, drifting through malleable sets of regulations, the public spaces of today have become places for advertisement and representation. Instead of being active doers and players, with the ability to change the flow of events influencing their experiences, people in public spaces commonly become passive observers and customers.
With environments equipped with technologies capable of perceiving and knowing about the wishes of their occupants, this trend can be taken to its extremes - think of the personalised advertising in the film adaptation of 'Minority Report'. Then again, like almost any technology, these developments can also be subverted and offer the means for a more playful and engaged social (inter)action in spaces that are encouraging improvisation and exploration, such as playgrounds, flea-markets, festivals and street performances.
Developing and using technology to enrich everyday situations has been common practice in the arts for centuries. Many contemporary artists tend to use a mélange of self-developed and scavenged off-the-shelf technologies to reach a common goal: infusion of the rigid reality of daily life with imaginary, unforeseen situations. These situations tend to be targeted towards some kind of personal transformation of the people involved, less focused on promotion and representation of a lifestyle and more on creation and deployment of life, in as diverse forms as possible. Against homogenising of public spaces around the world into a concrete-and-glass jungle of shopping-malls and office blocks, the artists can take up a new role as propagators of heterogeneous life, as gardeners of a weedy, scattered, involuntary wilderness. Even though this wilderness might be feeding off the same technologies, we should be focused on their interoperability and interaction, rather than homogenisation of use. In that sense, the technologies we are interested in are ones that are less techno-fetishist gadgets (think of the mobile gaming industry obsessed with GPS enabled cell-phones and PDAs) and more context sensitive systems, aptitudes, facilitators of free speech, conversation and action. Bruce Sterling labelled such technologies SPIME, or Space-Time-Media.
For such media to exist, modular, persistent and easily reconfigurable protocols and systems are needed, systems that can unobtrusively adapt to a wide variety of environments and social situations. Ordinary gestures and deeds should be adopted as interaction modalities, appealing to people's multiple senses, encouraging them to re/discover their bodies as more or less tuned, but always expressive instruments. The cumbersome hardware should be molten into the fabric of the architecture, allowing for the space to become more active and adaptive. Whole environments should be able to support playful behaviour, in which the duality of right and wrong dissolves in the magma of intentional exploration. Media in these spaces are used as a means to soften physical reality, to actualise participants' the imaginary worlds that can be shared through play.
In a world in which many decisions about our global future seem to happen remotely, outside of our personal sphere of influence, resulting in behaviours grounded in either cynicism or fear, we find the need to reintroduce local (and trans-local), co-present, playful situations, where it can be fun to be insecure and even scared. We want to work with media that can surprise and cause unexpected situations to emerge from the simplest, most ordinary event such as falling over in a public space. We are not interested in introducing new gadgets or new media (which proved not to be a particularly sustainable approach), we want to actually, physically alter public spaces. Rather than making artworks for some fictional user or visitor, we want to make artworlds, places in which we ourselves want to dwell and encourage participation of intentional and accidental passers-by. Starting from there, from our own realities, we might be able to influence a wider social order - not through a revolution (that seems quite an inappropriate strategy nowadays), but by working our way inwards from the periphery, from our small and seemingly insignificant niches, in which lived and alive experience propagates into everyday life through a myriad of experimental situations, one of which was TRG.
TRG is not the first and not the last in the series of endeavours meant to make our lives and lifeworlds more pliant and adaptable entities. However, it happened at the right point in time and with the right people to strengthen our belief that researching and creating play-spaces as public experiments is a cause worth pursuing. The enthusiasm of both developers and the public will make the ideas, methods, designs and technologies developed in TRG grow beyond the scope and the end date of the project. Exactly what form the next instalment will take we can't tell as yet, but that it will come is more than certain. The bonds are forged and the weapons sharpened. We're just unsure about whether green or pink would be more appropriate battle-colours. Any suggestions? Join our discussion on firstname.lastname@example.org.