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The latest edition of Fucking Good Art is entitled It’s Playtime.1 It circuits around the topic of play in our contemporary society. Through four interviews with people from various professional backgrounds, the book aims to clarify what it is that we do as artists or other cultural professionals when we think, make, organise and conceive – are we working or are we playing? This question is generously indebted to the ideas of Johan Huizinga and his book Homo Ludens, whose quotes are inextricably woven throughout the text as punch and pick up lines.

Huizinga wrote, “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” Tijs Goldschmidt is the first interlocutor in the book. He is an evolutionary biologist and essayist and has written extensively about the naturalness of culture. He is particularly interested in habits that we often consider to be human and highly cultivated, but that are in fact practiced by animals as well, such as playing. “It all has to do with the availability of food,” Goldschmidt suggests. “If intelligent animals [considering that human beings are particularly intelligent mammals] don’t always have to flee from predators and can find food easily … then they’ll get bored to death, and invent things, and play.”

This basic principle is the pivotal idea throughout the entire book. Considering that we, humans, need to use very little of our time and energy to find food and shelter, we spend a lot of our lives playing, may it be while making art or through many other forms of cultural expression. So why is it that most of the time we play as if our lives depend on it?

Goldschmidt, who is also an advisor at the Rijksakademie, detects a professionalization and hardening in the art world. “Everything that was fun about that form of play is more or less gone.” Most artists work alone in the studio. This is where they decide the rules of the play. Goldschmidt: “It’s a strange form of play of course. Some people get very depressed by it.”

Not only in the art world do we see this curious constellation of work is play and play is work. The second conversation of the book is with Joris Luyendijk, an anthropologist and journalist who keeps a weblog in which he investigates the behavior and social structures amongst bankers in The City of London. While carefully dissecting various quotes of Huizinga on play, he concludes that people in the financial sector are emerged in a “highly addictive status game” that is played in a secretive and secluded community with very little affectionate relationships.

The rules of the game assume its players are calculative and narrowly self-interested actors, that wouldn’t do things that jeopardize the banking system. But the extreme competition, material interest and precarious work conditions instill little sense of ownership and responsibility; “you can get fired in five minutes.” This provokes irrational behavior and cheating. Luyendijk portrays finance as a world onto itself that is utterly absorbent. Business is play becomes play is business. It is a game in which the stakes are high and failure disastrous, but the rules are flawed and the game is mainly played through loopholes in the system.

This fuzziness of work and play, and the increasing oblivion of what is at stake, is a consequence of drastic change in work conditions. Competition and precarity are not only dominating the financial world; they are regulating factors in most sectors. “Almost half of the population has no job, or a very precarious and unstable job, or has difficulties finding a job. The other half has an adequate job, and often needs to stay constantly connected to keep this job,” says Evelyne Reeves in the third interview. Reeves is a legal expert, psychologist and researcher for Bureau de Temps, a governmental organization based in the French city of Rennes, that carries out studies on how people divide their time in between personal, family and professional life.

Reeves explains that during the twentieth century the amount of time someone spends on work that is paid went down from 40 per cent to only 10 per cent of their entire lifetime. But most of this 10 per cent of paid-work-time is concentrated specifically to the time that they are between 25 and 49 years old. People in this age have never worked more, while it is also the time in which they have children. The overall decrease in time spent on paid work not only suggests that there is less work available; it also indicates that it is less necessary for us to work. We spend less and less time to provide for our basic needs of food and shelter and therefor potentially have more time to play. But in practice work is still considered a “precondition for money, and money is the thing you need for food, shelter and everything else.” Even though there is not enough work needed to keep all of us busy, we still derive our social status from our jobs and spend most of our time either working or looking for work. “If you have no work, you have no place in the society,” says Reeves. “Having a job is really important for recognition.”

Not only do we have an obsession with being busy, we suffer from pressure for pleasure. “To have social standing, you are supposed to do what you love, and be busy with that all the time. If not, you’re kind of suspect,” says curator Zoë Gray in the fourth and last part of the book. “I’m really enjoying what I do as my work, so maybe in fact I am playing all the time,” Gray continues. “Instead of thinking of what we do as work, which always has this serious, negative connotation, can’t we think about it as play? However, if we do so, it becomes too frivolous, and you can’t take it serious anymore as an activity.” So despite the amount of time that we potentially have to do what we love; to play, explore and create – time for what Aristotle called poiesis – what we do has to be serious and stressful in order to look like work and be valued as a job, so that we can sustain our living with it.

Confronted with this Catch 22, the editors of FGA try out a more hopeful note, suggesting that art always involves a kind of ‘transformative play’ that is capable of exposing the rules of the game and enlarging or narrowing the borders of the playing field. We will not know if that is really true. But there is also another way to look at this, referring back to the words of Tijs Goldschmidt and his emphasis on the natural flow of culture: “Art isn’t static. Fifty years from now, art will be totally different from how we imagine it today. Some people try to think freely, while other design and maintain their own straitjacket.”

1 It’s Playtime was commisioned by curator Zoë Gray as part of the 2014 Biennale de Rennes entitled Playtime
2 Aristotle wrote about the three basic activities of mankind related to three types of knowledge; theoria to find truth, poiesis to make, to produce and create and praxis to act.

FGA #31 It’s playtime – 2014
ISBN (&*-90-817756-2-5

Rieke Vos

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