Play:Active Interview with Tom Leeser and Tyler Calkin, 2013

The following interview is from the project and book: “Play:Active—A Curatorial Project in the Form of a Workshop.”
The project also includes the work of James Benning, Sara Roberts, Tom Jennings and Norman Klein. Special thanks to the Shree Mangal Divip School, Shirley Blair, Pema Norbu and the Kathmandu University’s Center for Art and Design and its Academic Program Coordinator, Sujan Chitrakar.

Tom Leeser:: Let's focus on your practice—how do you see education “playing” a role in your art practice…and how do you see your art practice “playing” a role in your teaching?

Tyler Calkin:: Both of these practices involve the use of “play.”

Despite a forced separation between play and learning in childhood, as with recess and class time, I don’t think play and education can be easily separated. Play is, in a sense, an act of learning. Children use play to learn their bodies and become social, and that potential mode of discovery stays with us. I try to tap that potential by framing situations that cannot be navigated without playfulness. Performative interaction is educational as it teaches engagement and self-awareness. I could also say that my art practice deconstructs codes of behavior and provides a condition in which indeterminate learning can occur. Indeterminacy is a quality of not knowing, and of being open to the unfamiliar. This is why I am interested in defamiliarization. In order to create new social possibilities we need to learn how to operate differently. So learning is intrinsic to my motivation as an artist.

I have brought artworks to classrooms and held workshops in galleries, so art and education are completely intertwined in my practice. I sometimes invoke the word “workshop” in order to cue the expectation of directed learning or problem solving within a somewhat unstructured situation. Or more specifically, a situation whose structure itself requires problem solving. But while these situations break from conventional expectation, I do still consider them workshops, whose goals are intangible and tied to interior experiences.

Conversely, I also hold workshops in a more identifiable sense, in which I am an actual teacher and there is an actual curriculum. Specifically, the workshops we are talking about here. In these workshops proper, my “workshops” become “games” to be “played” by the participants. My art practice becomes a sort of recursive framework of games and play, a strategy to examine notions of social embodiment and learning.

TL:: Play was critical to the psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s work regarding education and analysis. One aspect of his work was defining play as a transitional space between a subject and an object. A transitional or “in-between” space that was creative by nature and in which education was emergent.

Is there a connection with D.W. Winnicott’s ideas about play and your art/education practice?

TC:: I identify with D.W. Winnicott’s consideration of play as an essential operation for healthy selves. Play does not belong solely in the realm of childhood. In Winnicott’s ideas on analysis you see a return to play for the adult. Play is an operation that can creatively restructure one’s sense of self. I use this same premise in facilitating play amongst adults. As a uniquely generative and potential-laden space, the “in-between” state of play is a territory in which multiple subjectivities can interweave, overlap, and redefine boundaries. I stress the social aspect, but I almost always use objects as tools to facilitate this interpersonal connection. These objects function very much like Winnicott’s transitional object that connects the self and other. I am very much indebted to his theory in this sense.

I think Winnicott stressed the importance of play as a reaction to the overly didactic methods of education and analysis. Play belongs to the player; it can and must be shaped as she sees fit. I am interested in this basic agency, and how it emerges rhizomatically within a group.

TL:: Did new experiences and ideas emerge during the (Kathmandu) workshops?

TC:: The workshops were completely emergent. We entered Kathmandu University with a set of priorities for collaboration. While we had a trajectory planned, with multiple exercises and discussions, there was a purposeful indeterminacy that we embedded into the process. We were very sensitive to the impulses and intuitions of the students. I noticed that we became facilitators of their investigations as much as we were leading them with our own conversations. As you remember, I am sure, we spent much of our time between sessions of the workshop retooling our plan in order to expand upon the direction in which the students were heading. So coincident to the explicit focus of the workshop there was this model of emergent pedagogy that we were embodying.

Very quickly the focus of the workshop centered around the process of conceptualization itself. Cultural, interpersonal, and sensorial factors all influence mental functions, so examining their relationship to the formation of ideas became essential. As a group we worked from the inside out, starting with proprioception exercises to ground us in our bodies, and group actions that forced a negotiation of individual intentions. Eventually we came to the question of how to generate creative work within a larger culture while avoiding the conflicting forces of globalization and reactionary localism.

TL:: Can you talk about the objectives of the workshops in relation to the goals of your creative practice?

TC:: Well that is an interesting question, because my creative practice seems to be evolving into a series of creative workshops. This comes from the need for participation in my work, and my interest in those participants as authors and producers.

The most basic objective for the workshops is to re-learn what society has taught us. To do this I defamiliarize certain habits and actions so that participants can experiment with their bodies to come to new configurations. Often this takes the form of obstructions. We didn’t let the KUart students sit in chairs, for example. We submerged them in a radically different creative environment than they were used to, and they became a kind of think tank for experimental learning and content production. It was a way of making culture from within culture.

I particularly look to the structures of gameplay as an alternative to more rigid ways of learning. In Kathmandu the ultimate output was game creation, so using play as a method for brainstorming folded into their brainstorming different methods of play.

I introduce the notions of finite and infinite play—essentially whether one is working toward a defined outcome or engaged in a process of improvised perpetuation—as a way to tie a brief workshop to the larger and enduring challenges of critical engagement to cultural forces. Fortunately, a collective output is unavoidable.

TL:: What were the similarities and differences between the CalArts and KUart experiences?

TC:: CalArts’ workshop was contextualized by the KUart workshop. The overall project of two mirrored workshops developed in Kathmandu, and the specific trajectory was laid out by the KUart students. By introducing the KUart workshop to the students at CalArts we could accelerate certain concepts, such as the intention of game play, while also influencing the students’ expectations. It was a way to embed the DNA of one workshop into the other.

For me it was also a matter of a familiar and unfamiliar context. Holding the first workshop in an unfamiliar setting was very important, I think, so that we weren’t just bringing CalArts to Kathmandu University. We came to them and formed a hybrid institution together, then this hybrid changed again in Valencia.

They actually had quite a different feel to them. KU was much more exploratory in a structural sense. CalArts had a structure laid out to begin with, and focused more closely on exploring bodily relationships. The CalArts workshop was also more condensed, lasting only a single session, so there was an energy and attentiveness that had to exist without much evolution. And during the weeks and months following the workshop, I would piece by piece hear feedback and reflections from the students involved. It was like feeling conceptual aftershocks or ripples, and it revealed the incubation of ideas within the school. It was very different to witness this incubation over several days and ultimately have much more limited contact with the students in Kathmandu.

The transcendent similarity between these experiences was the adaptability of the students. These workshops demanded both intellectual and interpersonal adaptation to sometimes awkward effect. But all of the participants were quite committed, and it was quite natural for them to generate such interesting outcomes.

TL:: We are all “inheritors” of cultural traditions, while a contemporary international art practice tends to value the subversion of tradition. Can you explain how the workshop navigated the cross-cultural affinities and detachments from tradition?

TC:: The underpinning of our workshop at KUart was an attempt at cross-cultural collaboration that somehow moved beyond the dichotomy of affinity to and detachment from cultural traditions. Our ethos of emergence was a way to sidestep the pitfalls of authorial cultural reproduction; of going to a place and transplanting our own cultural tradition, either overtly or embedded within a seemingly deconstructive methodology. As a practitioner of contemporary international art, I very deliberately kept a certain distance from my institutional impulses.

We brought equipment, and materials and texts with us, but I don’t think we used any of those in a prescriptive manner. The hope behind our exercises was to shake everyone—ourselves included—out of our preconceptions, and to create a cultural interstice that drew from our and their backgrounds but was beholden to neither. At least that was what I was thinking; it was the only way that I was comfortable operating.

Thinking of ourselves as inheritors can work two ways. Of course we inherit culture and operate within the context of dominant traditions, and we must be conscious of this. As empowered inheritors, however, we are the agents that will steward or dismantle these traditions. Rather than inheriting something that we must merely fight for or against, we can think of inheriting material to rework and reshape as needed. As artists we generate narrative and structural possibilities that sit amidst local and global culture, offering alternatives from within. It reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous line, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”