[NB first published in Arts Hub, March 2008.]
One of the great and, as yet, unrealised promises of the digital age is more leisure time and opportunities. High-tech and automated workplaces and homes are supposed to save us time and money so that we can spend less time working and more time playing, learning, relaxing and participating. Recreation is supposed to be radically recreated. While that promise was not born out and we disturbingly negotiate work/life balance - pushed ever harder into longer work hours - we now have at our fingertips different types of leisure spaces and opportunities. Digital culture, new technologies, design and lifestyle have converged to revive public spaces for recreation in the 21st century. Our cities hum day and night and we are seeing the emergence of a participatory public realm that slips between physical and virtual space, enabled by wirelessness and mobility.
Having briefly examined a number of policy and planning documents developed by state and local governments, it seems that recreation tends to be addressed as engagement with sport and physical activity. Passive engagement can also refer to consumption of sporting and cultural events. According to various policies, outdoor recreation results in social, community, health, spiritual and educational benefits and all outdoor recreation activities are dependent on access to open or public space. These spaces tend to be structured or regimented, like the activities they accommodate, framed by purpose built facilities. Such physical activities emphasise sociability, civic life and consumption. However, with the proliferation of DIY/MIY, open source and locative media, it seems that the prevailing and normative definition of recreation is rather narrow. Are we inadvertently not designing or making public space or facilities that encourage an active way of life, where outdoor activity or play is more integrated rather than boxed in this park or that sporting complex? Or are we overlooking the pleasures that some of our lost or hidden spaces might avail? Can we enliven those sometimes derelict spaces while enervating our senses and thoughts?
In catalysing physical activity, and ultimately physical health and wellbeing, there is a need for diverse spaces and facilities. In Spacing Magazine, Edward Keenan argues that “it’s precisely in the places that a community plays — parks, schoolyards, beaches, community centres — that it most becomes a community, drawn together despite economic or ethnic or artistic differences, and because of a common interest in blowing off steam or competing or relaxing.” Does sport and recreation always have to be so tightly organised and tied to particular sites? Can it be impromptu or improvised in our city streets? What about fun and play? New technologies are often accused of sealing us inside domestic ‘data caves’ and promoting sedentary and anti-social lifestyles overfed on mindless violence. Mobility means movement. So, it’s worth considering how digital culture might enhance physical activity and to interrogate some of the assumptions of cultural, public art and recreation policies. Are there – or should there be - ways that health promoters, urban designers, media artists and content developers can work together?
Perhaps we should also encourage leisure and play experiences in streets and other urban spaces, to use those spaces in challenging ways (like parkour) and to encourage fluidity: intentional hanging around, participatory gathering and meaningful passing through. In the online discussion group empyre, which is toying with the theme ‘play’ for the month, one of the facilitators, Dr Melinda Rackham, describes participating in a laneway game at 2am on a Festival night. The night time foray might have provided respite from the unbearable heatwave. Clearly, night life needs to offer more than cafes and bars. Set up spontaneously by Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), the game involved, as she said, “throwing many socks full of crushed coloured chalk at a moving graphic projected onto a wall. The object of the game, which ran from a laptop and a generator powered projector, was to hit a moving bouncing head projection.” The game leaves “a beautiful pointillist chalk wall abstract for others to enjoy in the morning”. Through such artworks and social interactions, a peripheral space is rediscovered and transformed into an ethereal and ephemeral playscape and artwork.
GRL was visiting Adelaide, presented by Carclew Youth Arts and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (Dr Rackham is ANAT’s Executive Director), to present a masterclass and public art interventions throughout the city as part of the Festival. As artists, programmers and urban activists, GRL works with open source technologies, light and projection to create temporary public art and graffiti. They invite the public to participate – to alter their surroundings – clandestinely bathing the city in light. Fugitive and furtive street art sits in unruly contrast to the carefully orchestrated community consultations and artistic commissions of Adelaide’s public art and urban design. We are transported into the situationist world of spectacle, player, street culture and spectator. On the GRL masterclass weblog, writer in residence, Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart beckons, “grab your nearest tech appliance and strap it to your back, the night is young and tech street art is to be had. Get out there and make yourself heard any way you can. The laser calls.”
As locative media are increasingly engaged in the meaning-making of places, virtual and physical paths cross. In these wireless negotiations of space, mediated by mobile phones, players are immersed in chaotic fictions and tend to be searching or discovering something about the urban environment. Locative games and narratives have been developed by media-makers, game-makers and artists. In Melbourne, the A-LURE Project, a community-based locative media game in development, will trigger social interactions and active engagement within the community. Players will be ‘lured’ to locate and interact with artworks in public spaces throughout the City of Melbourne in April 2008. Pervasive gaming consultant David Fono’s Ghost Town game, a mash-up of scavenger hunts, transmedia storytelling and mobile gaming, was presented at last year’s Byte Me! Festival in Perth. Players used their phones to explore central Perth, following clues, solving puzzles and unravelling a mysterious story. Games available through portable platforms shift people away from desktops into the streets where art, narrative, technology and activity can coalesce. The nature of locative games encourages walking around, tracking down the clues and exploring the city. On a bulletin board, one player praised the game saying “not only does it get you outdoors, but working in a team. While Ghost Town could have been played alone, having others with you to work through the puzzles and kick you out of a lateral-thinking-loop when you were stuck was a lot of help.” In other words, it achieves the same result as traditional team sports.
It feels like there is an intense focus on the future of our cities – creative, healthy, green, smart, livable – and the way we live. Yet so many old forms and ways prevail and dominate. There are countless examples of interactive and participatory projects unfolding in cities globally. Artists, designers and architects are staking out strange territories: providing critiques of the city, entreating us to come out and play, and embracing both our bodies and minds. Without a doubt there are politics and aesthetics involved with art that infiltrates and disrupts public space and artists may not be concerned with the potential physical benefits of these interactive works. However, health promoters, recreation planners and local authorities could probably take note. Given the emphasis on creativity and innovation in the new economy coupled with an emerging preference for ‘walkable urbanism’, they could probably pause to consider collaboration with and commission of artists and cultural organisations. Policy and planning that refuses the hybridity of culture and recreation bares its shortcomings in the face of emergent media practices and platforms. In acknowledging those media and the narratives that can be woven through the city, the rich traditions of urban pedestrian and perambulatory life are summoned. People hunger for experiences and sensations. We want spontaneity and variety. There is an energetic sense of ‘eventure’ (event and adventure) in these hybrid forays into streets and other urban spaces. The city takes on a life of its own, talking to us, leading us, surprising us and egging us on.
Linda Carroli is a writer, editor, researcher and consultant. She is principal of Harbinger Consulting and working in the area of urban creativity, innovation and futures. She is an award winning writer and has published and presented non-fiction globally as a journalist, essayist and critical writer focused on art, urban environments, culture and technology. She has also developed a range of creative projects focused on experimental writing including artist books, public art and the writing formerly known as hypertext.