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Play in the City 2013

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Anne Dalke's picture


Welcome to the on-line conversation for Play in the City, an Emily Balch Seminar offered in Fall 2013 @ Bryn Mawr College,  in which we are addressing the question of how we construct, experience, and learn in the act of play. How is play both structured by the environment in which it occurs, and how might it re-structure that space, unsettling and re-drawing the frame in which it is performed?

This is an interestingly different kind of place for writing, and may take some getting used to. The first thing to keep in mind is that it's not a site for "formal writing" or "finished thoughts." It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. Imagine that you're just talking to some people you've met. This is a "conversation" place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking. The idea here is that your "thoughts in progress" can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours.

Who are you writing for? Primarily for yourself, and for others in our course. But also for the world. This is a "public" forum, so people anywhere on the web might look in. You're writing for yourself, for others in the class, AND for others you might or might not know. So, your thoughts in progress can contribute to the thoughts in progress of LOTS of people. The web is giving increasing reality to the idea that there can actually evolve a world community, and you're part of helping to bring that about. We're glad to have you along, and hope you come to both enjoy and value our shared explorations.  Feel free to comment on any post below, or to POST YOUR THOUGHTS HERE

Grace Zhou's picture

re-view of mosaics

 I always regarded the mosaic as fragmented and broken. It is said that“the earliest theory of art… proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.” Thus, whenever I saw the mosaic, I just directly interpret its broken nature as a reflection of our fragmented world, where is collaged by separated people, various emotions and different thoughts. But I forget how magic its connection power is. In other world, I tend to see mosaic as a broken world, but in fact, mosaic itself is a complete art with whole image and expression.

    I think the reason is that I’m distracted by the “form” of art. Mosaic is magic because it challenges the way we used to value the art- “whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture or on the model of a statement, content still comes first.” Mosaic is a kind of special art that attracting people first by its form. Moreover, it is the form of mosaic that still causes the interpretation.

Claire Romaine's picture


                When you live in a suburb of Cincinnati, you orient yourself by the highways.  Get on I-71 and head south into the city.  Or you could take a detour on I-275 and take the long way, avoiding the city itself as you drive into Kentucky.  However, if you head just a little bit east on 275, you’ll hit Terrace Park, while west will get you to Sharon Woods.  Anywhere North and you’re probably heading the wrong way because it’s just cornfields until you hit Columbus an hour and a half later.  Let’s stick to the simple things, though, and head South, straight into Cincinnati.


                But where does Cincinnati start? 

                Philadelphia has a border, a river on either side, and a clear, at least from this student’s point of view, delineation between the city and the surrounding areas.  Much like the maps we built in class, even detailed published maps use the Schuylkill and the Delaware as the boundaries of the map:

Clairity's picture

[Re-write] Being A Participant in Art -- Discussing with Kaprow And Sontag

       Before my trip to the Old City, I thought it was the spectator that made the picture. But this recent experience helped me realize that it was not that simple. It is not only the audience makes the picture, but also the performer, the creator and the artwork. These elements together make the "participants", who are actively engaged in the art or playful activities and jointly infuse dynamics and diversity into the work. The art is not complete without either the artist or spectators. A work engenders its true meanings with its participants. This also corresponds to Sontag's article on Against Interpretation. We should learn to "see more, to hear more, to feel more".

Everglade's picture

Critical Play Rewrite

“It’s beautiful. No, it’s not quite aesthetically beautiful, but… It’s beautiful. I mean, the history, the people. It’s not the best part of Philly, but exactly because it’s not perfect, it has potential for improvement.” 

A Temple student told me so on the train to North Philly, during my last trip for this class. Her words reminded me of what Sharon Zukin said, “the soul of a city is often felt to be in the long-time residents”. She suggested that I talk to some local folks, but unfortunately there was little people outside on that snowy day.

I planned to see the mural which has RISE on one side and SHINE on the other. In the  photo online, it’s visible in distance, the pure white letters prominent among the vibrantly colored squares in the background. But standing right in front of the mural, I saw something else hidden under the shiny surface. 

The squares were not just colors, but portraits of artists of this project and residents of this area. By incorporating these portraits, the mural showed respect for the people who gave it life, and connected art with everyday life.

The letters were not purely white, either. Scribbles were all over them. Voice. Inspired. Attitude. Power. Soul. History. Dreaming. Beautiful. We believe life. Love. Hope. 

AnotherAbby's picture

And, In the End.....

“Everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about.”-Louis CK

“Yeah, my finals had me laughing. Laughing until I had no tears left to laugh with.”-Abby ACK

.           Play and humor are two concepts that go together hand-in-hand. Levels of humor easily find parallels in the levels of play: simple, critical, and deep.

Simple play is the first step in the spectrum of play. In terms of humor, simple play to the least thought provoking forms of humor. The jokes are funny, but this humor is not characterized by biting satire and sublime revelation. It’s not "lesser”, in the sense that it should come secondary to the other forms of humor, but it is the only genre that includes fart jokes. I can’t say I’ve ever heard a fart that made me reevaluate my beliefs and the truths of the universe. I have never, and will never, use flatulent humor as the lens through which I view the world. However, farts are just a small part of humor in simple play.

Simple play humor is the baseline upon which other forms of humor grow. It is the bare essential elements of comedy, rather than the concepts that can sustain a story. Take, for example, the Monty Python sketch The Funniest Joke in the World.


Samantha Plate's picture

What Is Play? (rewrite)

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


What Is Play? (Re-Write)

We seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Walking down the streets of Philadelphia, my group and I were in search of mosaics. At an intersection we randomly chose to go right, hoping this would take us the correct way. It did not. The street soon hit a dead end. While trying to decide where to go next, the sound of laughing children caught my attention. We were right near a playground full of children who had just gotten out of school. Wanting to follow our course assignment of “play in the city” we decided to go in and join all the children having fun on the jungle gym.  

What is play? This is a question that many individuals have tried to answer. Theorists, psychologists, and scientists are always trying to pin “play” down and give it a strict definition. Play can be specified as simple play, critical play, and deep play- all of which have been important to our studies of play in the city and all of which have very flexible and overlapping definitions. As a child plays it seems so simple and natural, but it is actually very complex. Play in itself defies definition- it is playful. Play sets all the rules and breaks them too. There are so many ways to describe this essential part of life.

Yancy's picture

re-write paper

Before this semester, I never have thought I could learn so many different kinds of plays. Simple play, critical play and deep play, every play has its special meaning and make the word ‘play’ complicated in my mind. In the final essay, I want to come back and re-write one of my works about critical play.

Critical play is the first strange definition of play that I attached. Artists use this kind of play to express their special ideas to the public. This definition seems to be abstract but the real trip to Philly helps me a lot to understand it. When I enter into Chinatown, I suddenly know, the total place is a critical play. For me, it remind me of something familiar when I stay in China. The words, the people, the language and the names of food make me excited. However, I find the language, although is a kind of accents in China, I cannot understand. The food is not orthodox, and buildings keep the style of that in 80s in China. They are different from my real life in my hometown. The Chinatown is a critical play that is played by people in Chinatown. They want to create a familiar environment but failed because many of them even never come to China. They follow the rhythm of their predecessors. Their impressions for China, sometimes is the China in old stories. The Chinatown is the critical play for me and it is different from the real China in my mind.

Yancy's picture

last short post

In Sontag’s article ‘Against interpretation’, she propose her idea that the interpretation today is useless and not valuable. When I read her title, in the beginning, I disagreed because I thought interpretation was necessary for me to understand the meaning of art works. However, when I read the article, I notice that maybe I’m wrong. In her definition and explanation for modern interpretation, that is, people set some criterions and ‘put’ art works in them to interpret the art works. This kind of interpretation is so terrible for me. Thousands of artists use special ways to express different ideas. If I really want to understand their original idea, I should discard such criterions and feel the work individually.

clarsen's picture

Deep Play Rewrite


     Since reading Ackerman’s “Deep Play” article, I’ve keep an eye out for it in my day to day experiences and have tried to use it as a lens on assigned trips to Philadelphia.  Searching for such an intense and heavily emotion based sense has proved difficult, however, and it’s become even clearer that “deep play” is entirely natural and in the moment.  A hunt for deep play is not fruitful as it involves overanalyzing and planning.  As I open my sketchbook, paint a canvas, or begin a sculpture, I find myself incredibly focused and elated.  I suppose it shouldn’t come as a shock to me that I’ve been experiencing deep play when doing what I love most.  Art has always been a large part of my life and is therapeutic along with enjoyable.

            Ackerman defines “deep play” a number of different ways and uses words such as “freedom”, “thrill” “whole”, and “sacred”.  She states “there are times during deep play when one feels invincible, immortal, an ideal version of oneself”.  When practicing art, I feel as though all problems and worries melt away and the only thing that matters is the piece at hand.  It is remarkably fulfilling and I can feel myself “in the zone” where I am so thoroughly focused.  Deep play is an experience where one gains an extraordinary amount from an event.  It may be an extreme understanding or happiness or simply where “one finds clarity” and an “acceptance of self”.

ecohn's picture

My City of Play (Reworked)

Ellen Cohn


Reworked Essay

My City of Play

At the beginning of my Bryn Mawr-bound summer, I had a checklist of everything I had to do to prepare myself to begin college. One of the most daunting things on the list was to select my top three choices for an Emily Balch Seminar.  Although each one seemed intriguing, I ended up selecting the “Play in the City” Seminar, largely because of the professor teaching it: Theater has been a big part of my life, and although I do not necessarily want to major in theater, staying within a community which I understand, and which generally understands me, seemed like a great idea. With Mark Lord, the head of the theater department, teaching my Emily Balch Seminar, I figured that I could get to know him without taking a theater class or participating in a main stage production.

I got so much more out of this Seminar than I was expecting. When I initially wrote this essay, I wrote about food, and how my freedom in the city (provided by this course) allowed me to express myself through my travels and the takeaway from those travels. Many times, the choices I made involved food, so I connected the enjoyment and freedom I felt in the city with that of the food I experienced.

pbernal's picture

Rewrite: What is a City? (Syllabus)



Deep in The Heart of Texas -Syllabus


As you walk into this class, you all hold knowledge as to what a city is, a town of significant size. But what and who really make the city? This class will focus mainly on perception and interpretation as we venture through Houston and explore several aspects of what makes Houston, deep in the heart of Texas. As a class, we will analyze what terms like diversity, culture, immigration, and relationships mean to us individually through our experiences of Houston. And with each trip we will discuss how each place manages to keep Houston growing and strong.

Our class is a total of twelve and will take a total of seven trips into the city. Each will be different and will focus on a new aspect of Houston. There will be a van that will take us to each of our destinations. Your trips all paid for thanks to The Brown Foundation. Caminen con esperanza!


Discovery Green

Parks are structured to fit people’s needs. Parks close to schools and family orientated neighborhoods, if not all, most, have a playground for children to enjoy.  Whereas in a part of the city where there’s more commuting and far more exposed, the welcoming factor tends to wane and the importance of appearance is far more critical. 

natschall's picture

I love Philadelphia.

I love Philadelphia. That’s it. That’s all I have to say.

I know that I should explain that further, that “love” is a stand-in word for not expressing myself more fully. But really, “I love Philadelphia” is the only thing I can think every time I go into the city. It gives me such a sense of home, of connection, that nowhere else I’ve ever been has been able to give me.

In my first essay on this topic, my relationship to cities, I said that I judge cities based on how those around me feel. But after taking this course, I think it goes a little deeper than that.

I like cities when I feel like I can truly let go in them. Of course, this feeling does come from being around those who are comfortable in the city, but it most of all comes from deep play. If I witness others experiencing deep play and letting go of their inhibitions in the city, I’ll also feel like I can do that.

Student 24's picture

Words in My Mouth, like Strawberries, in October

I played with Frost. It was October. If only I had learnt from Ray Bradbury that October was a grotesque Country where you should only step foot if you are looking to be assaulted by the skeletons your mind shoved in a closet on purpose in the first place. It was October, silly.

I opened the closet, and out walked Robert. He brushed off the Frost from his shoulders; it must have been cold and dusty behind the Doors. Or he was tired of being cold. He walked out. And I stepped into his Home Burial.

I fell deep. The door was wide open and I fell damn deep. I told myself all I had to do was pull apart the words and reconstruct them into a window. So I sat on the narrow, creaky staircase and listened attentively to Frost and his wife. But slowly – I found – slowly, I was listening to myself. And I had the same voice as his wife.

I was accusing. I was hurt. I was pushing away. I was losing. I was missing. Home Burial. 

There wasn’t a way to pick out my own words, care about his, and try to assemble a window which might cast light on our conflict. What we needed to was to smash open the windows we already had, and get some fresh air.

I was overwhelmed as I fell deeper and deeper into Frost’s Home. Or was Frost just pulling out some things that already existed deep in the back of my closet?

Lay them on the table. Let me hear you say what you already know about them, but use a different voice so you can hear yourself do the talking. 

pialikesowls's picture

Barnes Again

Many people view the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia as a complete violation of a dead man’s will. After all, Albert C. Barnes would not have enjoyed the audio tours, easy accessibility, gift shop, website… The list would be endless. His sole intention for the Barnes was to educate and enlighten those using art, and he arranged every single inch of the space with his way of seeing: through an artist’s lens, with thought and purpose in every part of the wall.

I started looking at the paintings one by one; I wanted to see every single piece of art in the area, which is usually my attitude when I go into a museum or gallery. The museum contained works by some of my favorite artists: Manet, Seurat, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Renoir. I enjoyed looking up close at the paintings (not too close, obviously, as there were clear markers around the perimeter of each room) then seeing the painting as a whole. In a Renaissance painting, it’s easy to see how the strokes contribute to the overall work. In comparison, an Impressionist painting has short, choppy strokes. Out of context with a small close-up of the painting, you would not be able to tell what it is. However, once you look at it from afar, you could see how the strokes make a face, flower, or change the lighting. However, I noticed the furniture, and door locks on the wall. I wondered what their purpose was.

Cathy Zhou's picture

About Sontag

I think the idea of "against interpretation" is fetched. Even she's trying to ask people not to interprete art, I feel like interpretation has to happen in the interaction with art. If you don't have any knowledge or experience of art, you would not even be willing to come to an art piece and spend time with it. And it's not like if you stop thinking, you would have a better approach with art. Many paintings have their own stories, without interpretation, the original story would be lost. I don't believe there could be any bare appreciation of art with no interpretation.

playcity23's picture

A Re-Write of My Very First Essay

If I’m going to tell you what my definition of what a city is, my personal style dictates that I use a slightly unconventional metaphor for it. This one was thought up today whilst I was burning calories in the pool. 

Imagine a bowl half-filled with water. 

Now imagine this bowl with blue food coloring diffused coloring in it. It’s a pretty shade of lavender. There is no obvious nucleus where the color leaks from because you’ve stirred the bowl to avoid this. 

Next, you carefully place the vial of food coloring into the bowl of water. Being only half-full, it bobs happily on the surface. Since you spilled a little on the vial itself before putting it in, the immediate water enveloping it is a darker shade of lavender. 

The bowl is the border of a country, the vial with the food coloring is the only city, and the water is everything in it. Granted, I can’t think of any country that only has one city in it, save for the Vatican but they don’t count for the purposes of this essay. 

tomahawk's picture

Play in the CIty Part II: Believing Game in Action

Sontag: believing game

Yes, people focus on their analyzation/interpretation of art far more than the emotional impact of the art. In the English classes I have been in, people are spending more time trying to manipulate texts in certain ways to prove an interpretation they hold. Yet, this is not a direct reading or a respectful one. It ignores the original work, and it distances people from it. People feel as if the interpretation of a work actually surpasses the work itself.

I would go to the Free Library and pick up books off of the shelves and read one to two sentences from each of them. Perhaps the lack of context would help me separate interpretation of a text from the text itself. Maybe the words themselves will impact me more than the meaning that might surround the words (this wouldn't be the other words on the page, but my own separate thoughts about words that is derived from context). Maybe in this way I could actually test the believing game and submit myself to it so that I could better understand the benefits of Sontag's argument.

nightowl's picture

Concrete and Abstract in Sonntag

I would say that in Sonntag’s essay anything concrete would mean an example or interpretation and abstract would be leaving the art alone with time and it’s physicality. Sonntag leaves parts of her essay open to interpretation in her use of sentence structure and words and what “new vocabulary” we would use to describe/define art. Instead of “genius” I would say as a “critic” that this is a lack of it, a lack of concrete ideas. I don’t like how she presents the abstract emotional side of art as indefinable. I think the emotional reaction that someone has to art is directly related to concrete ideas about the world. This as she says can constrain the artwork, but there are also multiple interpretations of art. Therefore, art mixed with time and multiple people has the potential to be interpreted in almost everyway. This basically infinite amount of interpretations is how I think of the abstract emotional side of the art. I think that interpreting isn’t altering something but is taking from it something that is already there whether the artist knew they put it there or not.

ecohn's picture

True or False about Sontag?

In the excerpt we read from Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," Sontag threw out many strong opinions about why interpretation is bad. Saying things like "Interpretation...violates art" and explaining that interpretation lets us forget our initial emotions. From this reading, I've generated a true/false question:

Does trying to find meaning in art strip the work of its otherwise emotion-rendering power? 

Everglade's picture

Against Interpretation

“Against Interpretation” can be paralleled to the Believing Game. The believing game is the next level of the doubting game. It's not blindly believing in everything, but someone with the ability of critical thinking choosing to believe. Similarly, Sontag is not promoting ignorance and asking us to deny any knowledge of art, but suggesting that there is another way to look at art: don't rush to judge every artwork, try to enjoy and appreciate first.