Arcadia University Art Gallery presents Free Play, an exhibition that explores works by an international array of artists who borrow from play and games to reveal social, philosophical, and cultural issues. Curated by Melissa E. Feldman, the exhibition, which runs through April 20 at Arcadia, is organized by Independent Curators International (ICI). Arcadia University Art Gallery is this touring exhibition’s debut venue.
Free Play seeks the initial moment described by Guy Debord, a founding member of the Situationist International, an international group of social revolutionaries that emerged in the 1960s and aspired to find ways to liberate everyday life from the strictures of capitalism. “No vital periods ever began from a theory,” Debord stated. “What’s first is a game, a struggle, a journey.”
All of the works in the exhibition are functioning games, which gallery visitors are free to handle and play. Whether derived from the playground, the video arcade, the casino, or the rec room, each example serves to create experiences that reflect on contemporary socio-political conditions.
The exhibit includes an opening event and lecture on Tuesday, April 3, by Feldman, “Playing in the Expanded Field: Art, Activism, and Games.” Feldman will offer insight into the interactive works in the exhibit and explore the legacy of play within Surrealism, Fluxus, the Situationist International, and New Games Foundation. The lecture is scheduled for 5 p.m. in the Commons Great Room and is followed by a reception in the Art Gallery.
Participating artists are Cory Arcangel, Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin, Ruth Catlow, Mary Flanagan, Ryan Gander, Jeanne van Heeswijk & Rolf Engelen, Allan McCollum & Matt Mullican, Paul Noble, Yoko Ono, Pedro Reyes, Jason Rohrer, Jennie Shanker, David Shrigley, and Erik Svedäng.
In her introductory text about the exhibition, Feldman writes: “Artistic processes tied to game playing have historically attracted the avant-garde, most famously the chess master Marcel Duchamp. His every artistic move had his chess partner in mind: you, the viewer. Games were also intrinsic to the work of war-addled Surrealists and Dadaists, the inventors of exquisite corpse and automatic drawing, in their quest to upend the bourgeois pretensions of art and free the artistic imagination. In the 1960s and ’70s, the counter-cultural and anti-war Fluxus group and the New Games Foundation questioned capitalism and corporate culture by staging massive public games in city parks. Moving away from the classical chess period of kings, queens, and bishops, the works in this exhibition do not represent medieval figures but strategies of decision-making around topical issues.”
Among the arcade of objects in the show is a version of “Guitar Hero” by Arcangel, which the artist has reprogrammed to perform a variation of La Monte Young’s minimalist drone Composition #7 (1960) as a power chord.
“Bombscotch” (2013), a version of hopscotch by Flanagan—an artist and professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College—uses data from the United State’s most virulent attacks of the 20th and 21st centuries to consider the history of American aggression. The entirely white board and pieces of Yoko Ono’s “Play It by Trust” (1966) is one of three variations of chess in the exhibition that use inventive formal devices to subvert the classic game’s competitive impulse.
Philadelphia-based sculptor Shanker’s “Shoot the Moon” mounts a simple "get the ball through the chute" game to the fulcrum of a seesaw. This work, originally completed in 1992 and re-fabricated expressly for Arcadia's presentation of Free Play, explores what happens when two people are confronted with a choice between physical play and a competitive game.
The negotiation of balance operating in Shanker's piece finds a foil in the conspicuously unmatched scale of the paddles and balls in Shrigley’s transformation of ping pong. Entitled “Your Parents, You, Your Wee Sister and The Social Services” (2001), the work demonstrates the existential humor characteristic of this British artist.
While these and other examples require participation from at least two participants, many of the works can be readily enjoyed by individual visitors. These include Rohrer’s “Passage” (2007), a computer game by an individual who has emerged as one of the most prominent, independent designers in the field. Acquired for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in 2012, this celebrated five-minute, quasi-autobiographical work is about life and the choices one makes along the way. Similarly, Svedäng’s “Blueberry Garden” (2009) encourages players to explore the potentially endless adventures of an avatar in a mysterious, seemingly infinite landscape. This low-fi computer game, a response to the hyper-realistic style that dominates the industry, won first prize at the 2009 Independent Games Festival in San Francisco.
The themes of chance and personal destiny is taken up directly by McCollum and Mullican’s “Your Fate” (2004), which uses a set of 25 dice marked with symbols to create a divining game with the physical allure of a gambling table. Reyes’ “Citlileaks” (2011) invites viewers to write secrets or confessions on sheets of paper and roll them inside of an empty bottle to be read only by others who have done likewise. An exercise that takes the mythical notion of the “message in a bottle” to reflect on pressing questions about security and privacy in the digital age, the work exemplifies Reyes' interest in promoting individual and communal agency that are at the core of the exhibition.