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Quiet Critical Play

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In Mary Flanagan’s book Critical Play, she addresses the connection between the artistic movement of Fluxus and the concept of critical play. Broader than the fluxus movement, theatre in general can be a form of critical play. Flanagan speaks to this connection, and could have easily included the genre of autoteatro in her writing. A few weeks ago I was a part of the “The Quiet Volume,” a theatre piece by Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells, which incorporates text and audio to guide the audience. “The Quiet Volume” has all the hallmarks of Flanagan-approved critical play: not only is it exciting and playful, but it is critical in that it creates a space where the participants can question a basic aspect of human life. In this case, it is reading. Where we read, how we read, and the nature of words is explored through “The Quiet Volume.” Flanagan would define this as critical play.

            In the fifth chapter of Flanagan’s book, she brings up the critical play of the Fluxus artists. They played with the idea of where the stage could be, and had a very fluid, open idea of performance. Their theatre was often composed simply of vague instructions. Keeping the rules loose, they allowed ample room to play. They also played with the concept of who was performing. An artist on the street doing something strange might be considered a performance, but so is the stunned reaction of the passerby. Fluxus included the audience more than conventional theatre, and was interested in creating art that, as stated by their manifesto, is to be “grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” Groups of fluxus artists also created Fluxkits that were filled with simple objects with which anyone could play. This was to go against the idea of a framed piece of art on the wall, creating something more interactive and playful. The activities, similar to their theatrical events, were meant to be relatable to the audience, to turn a mundane act into one worth questioning.

“The Quiet Volume” has many parallels to the work of the Fluxus artists. First, it calls into question the often-unconscious act of reading in a library. By following the directions of the whispered voices, I became more aware of my surroundings; the familiar sights, smells, and sounds of a library were suddenly heightened. I also thought about reading from the scale of focusing on small words to quickly flipping through whole books. This “artistic intervention” into the way I read relates to Flanagan’s concept of critical play. Critical play must call into question some fundamental aspect of human life. When instructed to attempt to read upside-down, I fought my brain to keep from making sense of the marks on the page. In a state of awe at what my brain is capable of, I saw for a moment the strangeness of reading. The complexity and weight that words can hold is astounding, and I would not have questioned it in the same way without the instructions provided by “The Quiet Volume.”

Flanagan also writes about games, and how they might be a form of critical play. I do not think that “The Quiet Volume” is a game, because there is no winning or losing, which was part of the definition of a game mentioned by Flanagan. More pertinent to “The Quiet Volume,” she also says that “all games are performative,” and that performance can be thought of as context. This speaks to another fundamental aspect of “The Quiet Volume,” which questions who the performer is and who the audience is. Before the “show” I thought I was going to be the audience, and by the end I thought of myself as part of the show. The artists remove themselves from the performance by remaining there only in voice and spirit. This makes the experience much more personal and individual. By being the actors, one has the opportunity to learn by doing. Through the experience, my view of the stage was widened to encompass everything around me. The performance included me and included people who had no idea that they were, in a sense, performing for me.

The connection of performance and critical play are essential to fluxus, “The Quiet Volume,” and Flanagan’s book. Observing and questioning life around us is fundamentally human. Doing so individually and playfully means more fun and a more unique takeaway.





Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. Print.

Kellein, Thomas, George Maciunas, and Jon Hendricks. "History of Our World."History of Our World. N.p., 1995. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

Knowles, Alison. "Alison Knowles Discusses the Fluxkit." YouTube. YouTube, MoMA, 03 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

Friedman, Ken. The Fluxus Performance Workbook. London: Performance Research, 2002. Print.



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Anne Dalke's picture

Weaving it all together....

You don't need to attach a copy of the Word document; just posting the paper is fine.

You weave together very neatly here not only Flanagan's key ideas, but one of her artistic examples with your own experience.

Amy makes the nice point of contrasting your and Claire's very different experiences-and-readings of The Quiet Volume; I'd be curious to hear your response to the argument developed in Is All Art Play? I'm also curious to hear you "play" a little more with Flanagan: do you take all her claims as true? Is there any space for push back?

My attention is also drawn to your first paragraph (which tries to do way too much, and so in confusing) and the final one (which I think tries too hard to do the opposite: to "tie this up," or "shut it down"....) So...

How might you open this essay back up again?
What new direction can you take it in next week, to follow on and expand on what you've done here?

Claire Romaine's picture

Sara talks about the

Sara talks about the manifestation of critical play in the performing arts, and how the interactions between certain performers (like the Fluxus artists) and their audiences creates an active playing experience for both parties.  In talking about performance pieces Sara also brings into play her own experiences with "The Quiet Volume" and compares it to to Flanagan's definition of playing critically, which significantly departs from her definition of games.  Finally she illustrates how "The Quiet Volume" performance was personally an act of play because  of how it altered her perceptions of reading and performance both through its content and form.

Amy Ma's picture

By comparing  the work of the

By comparing  the work of the Fluxus artists to the Quiet Volume, Sara said in her paper that Quiet Volume is critical play. However, according to the definition of games, she stated that Quiet Volume is not a game, because there is no losing or winning. It is very interesting that Sara and Claire both wrote about the Quiet Volume but they have different opinions on that. While Claire doesn't think it is critical play becuase it lacks of interaction with the performer, Sara thinks it is critical play because  it calls into question some fundamental aspect of human life