Setting Up! | William Samosir, BFA Sculpture 2018
Behind the Museum
Two weeks ago, I was finally authorized to work as an artist-in-resident at the Strong National Museum of Play! Right off the bat, I started moving all my equipments—my 3D printer, soldering stations, fabrication tools, etc. My interim studio is situated within a storage room in the exhibit design workspace, and I am super excited to be surrounded by excellent and driven creatives—fabricators, concept artists, technologists, and many others. On that first day, Mike Streb who is the head of the exhibit design team, kindly toured me around the museum’s exhibit workspace. Being a maker, and also having worked as a woodshop and metalshop monitor for 3 years, these spaces feel pleasantly close to home.
I also met Martin Reinhardt—the head for arcade game conservation—and he toured me around the conservation space in the museum’s basement with thousands of toy objects. At one point, he showed me the circuitry of an arcade pinball machine, and it was mind-blowing. He expressed his desire to have a medium for play that hints more towards the existence of this incredibly intricate and fascinating understructure; that behind play itself, there is mechanisms, designs, and curations of play. He also showed me several arcade games from the world war era such as the analog, viewport-equipped Atomic Bomber—released circa world war II atomic bombing. “Looking at it today, this game is problematic on so many levels,” he said. “However, by collecting and having an all-encompassing range of objects, we get a retrospective of the historical influence of play, and how it shaped the cultures of a time.”
On another day, I had a brief afternoon conversation with Beth Lathrop, who is the director of libraries, and Julia Novakovic, who is an archivist. After inquiring about the day-to-day aspect of the collection, I found out that the museum’s library and archive collection houses a massive amount of papers, books, records, and digital artifacts. At one point, I browsed through the Playthings magazine collection—which spans for more than a hundred year! It is incredible to witness the evolution of toys through literal stacks of physical journal: starting from a time where prints were strictly black and white and are mostly dominated by a few toy companies, to the war era where toy advertisement were overtly propagandic, and finally to recent years where the journals brim with both variety and ever-increasing commercial energy.
Additionally, while the space is open to public by appointment, it is also a resource for the museum’s own departments. For instance, the education and public programming team would draw inspirations from various studies of play, while the exhibit team would use the archival collection to access artworks or schematics if they need to recreate a specific historical artifact as exhibit item. That said, running such a impressive collection is not without its challenge. Archiving and recording these artifacts is a physical process. In fact, digitizing and publishing artifacts online are not as seamless as they might sound. Julia describes how keeping tracks of statistics and metadatas of each item takes a considerable amount of time, and that there are various issues related to intellectual property rights as well. “In the end, it is about balancing the urgency of collecting with the goal of providing access of the collections,” Beth said.
Indeed, as a not-for-profit, the museum’s team is tight on expectations and deadlines—especially with its 100,000 ft expansion this summer. For the fabrication team, even using a machine for an additional finish could incur long bureaucratic process. This is perhaps really different from the creative freedom that is associated with having a personal studio, or even art school. As such, JP (my supervisor) and I both agree that the pilot-testing of this artist-in-resident program is meant to generate an unlikely outcome within the context of the museum, and to evaluate the possibility of housing future creatives and their experimental undertakings.
At the same time, JP and I strive to continually negotiate between creative freedom and goal oriented practice. Aside from purely experimenting and researching, one indispensable aspect of this fellowship is to design an effective structure for creative exploration—and thus while the past week has been incredibly productive in terms of experiments, JP offered a counter-balance by constantly pushing me to find a firm footing and a definitive final goal, especially considering the brief span of the fellowship. As JP said, “if the end-goal is to clear, the outcome may not be necessarily creative—it may be replicating what is already present in the museum’s context—but if the inquiry is always loose, one risks spreading themselves too thin.” We agree that creative experimentation that is sustained by research is key.
The library and the archive collection possess a great potential to bolster the artist-in-resident program—and from my own research experience, it has been an absolute game-changer.
The Research: A Case for Computational Playground
While the idea of performative computation was an accumulation of my practice at RISD, I was able to develop a richer conceptual grounding by opening up my research to the resources available at the Strong. One book and idea weave organically into another: from pre-2000s creative computing to the materiality of constructive toys, and then to histories of playgrounds and its relationship to loose-parts play.
In her most recent book the Design of Childhood, Alexandra Lange described how the first playground in America—made by a group of female philanthropists in 1885—is essentially a giant sandbox. While it was originally conceived as a tool of assimilation for immigrant children, the early sand playground is later on regarded as an anti-authoritarian space, where kids can freely rule and take charge of their own play. They create imaginative worlds using “loose parts”; horses out of knot of woods; miniature fields of real planted beans; mini structures out of spare boards and bricks. It had no climbing bars, swings, nor pre-designed nooks for children to hide in. Appropriately, as I was walking around the museum, I found out that many children are really engaged with open-ended constructions and choice-based activities: designing crowns, making pixel images, building things out of soft blocks, etc.
However, she also acknowledged that playgrounds, just like educations, are “…subject to the social and political designs of others”. Indeed, sighting of sandbox-inspired playground would be highly unfounded in many urban or gentrified areas. In an interview with the American Journal of Play, Joe Frost recounted the ways in which many playground designs are stifled by safety guidelines that are overly constricting—such as those released by Consumer Product Safety Commission and American Society for Testing and Materials. This sentiment is also echoed by Susan Solomon, who stated that due to unreasonable fear and anxiety, “… we find maintenance-free caged areas that emphasize safety more than critical thinking, smart reasoning, hopeful investigations, or thrilling adventures.” In other words, playgrounds are highly dominated by the immutability in forms and functions, therefore imposing a decorum on a rightfully open-ended activity. Such restrictiveness is most often attributed to concerns about liability, upkeep in the public domain, and a cost-related stigma among playground patrons when it comes to involving creatives in the design of playgrounds. In reality however, Susan Solomon debunked this myth by stating that stock items and standard playground kits may in fact be damaging. In her book, she cited a research by neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, in which both posit that American playground equipment fails in preparing children for variations, and therefore from distinguishing between what is safe and what is dangerous.
In contrast, consider the multi-texture and multi-sensory Adventure Playground—a half acre of dirt filled with found objects, literal junks, and mishmash play structures. Here, children are allowed to experiments and create their own landscape, while at the same time allowed to assess risks and gauge dangers. Adventure Playground does not only allow productive and compliant play, but it also provide room for chaos, disorganization and de-construction. A similar result also emerged at project PlaySpace, where an art gallery is periodically transformed by the playful interactions from its audience—most of whom are children. Matthew Shaw, the project initiator, stated how the project is about supporting creativity instead of directing it. He recounts how the space changes “…from an empty shell to an intricate maze of structures… These spaces were allowed to organically and often chaotically grow into something that could never have been conceived at the start of the project.”
In these two examples, children and visitors are able take charge of their own choices, and therefore exploit the full spectrum of cognitive functions—pragmatic, exploratory, imaginative, constructive, and social/rule-based elements. As landscape architect Richard Dattner said, “the next best thing to a playground designed entirely by children is a playground designed by an adult but incorporating the possibility for children to create their own places within it.”
But how does all of this relate to computation? And how is computation spatial?
When the idea of personal computer was first conceived by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, it is imagined to be a creative media—akin to pen, paper, and found objects; canvas, brushes, clay. At Xerox PARC in 1977, the two pioneers published a paper titled Personal Dynamic Media, which essentially described how users, especially children, can use mobile computer in an almost spatial manner. Using intra- and inter-connected platforms called Smalltalk, they are allowed to manipulate information, create their own applications, and work collaboratively. Kay even said that “…[the] semantics [of Smalltalk] are a bit like having thousands and thousands of computers all hooked together by a very vast network.” In its sandbox-like genesis, the personal computer was a playground in construction.
Fast forward to today, we are at a time in which computation is becoming more and more spatial. With the development of VR, AR, and wearables, the computer is not contained within the premise of a single hardware—and as such computation is dispersed not just through information, but through its physicality. Our surrounding environment becomes a component in computing; even the most mundane elements are going to be part of the medium. But still, maybe we don’t have to look too far ahead—consider the smartphone. With their compact and handheld size, they allow a user to type, access wealth of information, finger-scribble, record audio, take pictures, 3d scans, detect geolocation, measure tilts, interpolate facial gestures, all while being able to organize and upload these data online!
And that said, forty plus years onward, Alan Kay argues that personal computing today is more akin to a “sophisticated television”; a mere amplification of old media. Instead of stimulating creativity, he posits that mobile computers are rarely seen as media, and its culture engineers predominantly passive and consumptive behaviors. Marina Umaschi Bers, who is a child development and computer science professor, also compares many programming educational apps as safe playpen—typically commercialized and heavily selected/curated by parents. It is perhaps appropriate to re-summon the imagery of a carpeted playground that is filled with metal armatures and linear ladders.
It appears that there is a necessity to create a learning medium that answers to the advent of spatial computing—one that exists beyond single hardware; one that does not put primacy on the screen. Even today, the term computing is most often associated with the act of coding and programming. Both of these are most commonly understood and communicated through textual abstractions of mathematical structures. However, in Programming for the Puzzled, Srini Devadas argue for an alternative semantics. He talks about the possibility of learning programming through puzzles—a real life application that is familiar and attention grabbing. Role-playing puzzle examples—such as being a chess player or a recruiter for a talent show—grants a visual and embodied understanding more so than directly attempting to grasp programming terminologies (struct, append, float, and other various operators) which have been abstracted almost into pure utility (to be used as variables, loops procedures, decision logic, etc). The puzzle serves as an analogy—and perhaps in some instances, as metaphors.
Yet while I agree with Devadas’ idea, I find that puzzle is not enough of a sole vehicle, since it connotes a process that pursues a final resolution. This is not to say that puzzle games do not afford creativity in choices—instead, I am inclined to augment them into an actual physical playground! Imagine an ontology for programming, where perception of codes, functions, and mathematical structures is made out of, things; things that interact. Real objects, colors, shapes, terrains, landmarks, sounds, and social interactions. Imagine if the manipulation of computational principles is done by combining electronics, fabricated objects, and random household materials; making a route for sensor-equipped ball using cardboard boxes; swinging a gyroscope that is suspended on a string to produce a looping oscillating sound; pointing color detector in a room to pick up data of colored paper and creating visualization with it. Something messy!
Furthermore, in fabricating my sensor equipped objects, I am inclined to use the block-model. Not in the sense of exclusively cubic module such as that in Minecraft (even though it is one of the closest game representation of a physical sandbox), but through using basic handle-able elements/geometry. So far I have been experimenting with different block forms, and these are some of the strange shapes that I have came up with. The final versions are going to be sensor equipped and color-coded.
Lange talked about blocks in her book through referencing Froebel’s gifts; she said that even in early educations, blocks are widely used as a tool to represent letters and numbers as tactile objects. Appropriately, block-play has also been used in many instances as a tool to represent abstractions and computational principles. Mitchel Resnick, who is a LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, wrote about how he and his team drew inspirations from block-play in writing the programming language Scratch. Interacting within its interface has a feel of arranging, snapping, and connecting modules together in a 2 dimensional playing field. Additionally, more physical and robotics-oriented examples include LEGO Mindstorms, as well as Creative Hybrid Environment for Robotic Programming (CHERP) that was developed by Bers’ Developmental Technology at Tufts.
However, it is worth remembering that spatial computing does not deal specifically with stereometric/linear construction, but more so about the bifurcating relationships of objects and devices in space. It also has to do with the way things are appropriated from their original function into a computational element. In thinking about this, I cannot forget to mention Dynamicland. This computational medium, which is being developed by the CDG Research Lab, affords collaboration with real objects in the real world; visitors would program using paper, stickers, pen, tables, etc. Its entire building in Oakland is essentially growing to be a computer and a playground! Dynamicland is at the forefront of developing a computational playscape, and I continually draw inspirations from the works that they are doing.
In relationship to the model that they have provided, I am attempting to play with the designs of the computational playground, and therefore enrich the possibility of what it can be. Through their radical and experimental projects, as well as the research that I am doing, I am hoping to provide a space that honors the way our body perceive space, where one can solve programmatic puzzles while at the same time play for play’s sake; to the end of creativity.
Anyway I’m going to end it here for now, but stay tuned! More stuff coming soon!