|Alexander Calder, Tight Rope Artists from Calder's Circus, 1926-1931|
in thinking about play as an aesthetic, we must consider interaction. interaction in art is, by no means, a new concept or idea, however when we are discussing play, we have to think about interaction differently.
interaction in art can mean anything that involves the audience. simply viewing art is interactive, but touching it, performing tasks, playing games and integrating oneself into the work are new to the aesthetic of 'play.' in the near past, art such as installation and video interact with audience. they attempt to affect you, the way you move, or the way you feel. you are forced to take notice and be a part of the work, by viewing or simply by being there, but you don't have to make any choices about your interaction. there is no discovery. you simply become a living part of something static. a passer-through.
alexander calder's kinetic sculpture mobiles were an initial jump into the idea that art can interact with its audience. they move and shift and hypnotically change and rearrange before your eyes. they were some of the first work that wasn't simply static sculpture or painting. but they interact with you, you don't necessarily have to interact with the sculpture. and if you do, by blowing on them, or by trying to get them to move, you will be harassed by a museum security docent in a burgandy coat (personal experience from the calder show at the whitney in 2008). hence, muting your ability to have a 'play' response to the work.
play asks that you involve yourself directly with the tangible piece. you have to actually ride holler's slide to get it. you have to play the games. you have to turn the cranks on my 'county fair' work. you have to touch the work. you cannot understand it by simply viewing or being a non-participatory by-stander. play asks that you use your sense of touch or sound or taste to understand the beauty of the work beyond its static visual character. it creates sensory undertones that effect you in a way that viewing cannot.
being able to touch the work also removes the preciousness of art. it removes the white box cellophane window that you must view the art from behind, and asks you to challenge your ideas of the value of art. interactive is certainly breakable. but sometimes it is better to lose the work entirely and affect an audience intimately than to nod to that interaction, and assume that the audience will get it that it works or moves or does something.
it's more than that. the aesthetic exists as much in the experiences of playing with the work, as it does in its visual beauty and value exists in more than just monetary insurance coverage. people always ask if i'm afraid that one of my pieces will get broken. and i respond that, yes, i'm afraid pieces will get broken. and pieces have gotten broken. but the beauty exists beyond the work's physical structure. so if something breaks, i replace it with something else or i fix it. i always tell people that art is important, not precious. and when you are trying to affect an audience through an intimate connection like 'play', it's more important that the non-visual aesthetic is experienced, because without it, what is the point in the tangible sculpture living on. it's like having the body without the life in that body. it's dead whether it's mangled or simply static.