Hi readers,

Gijs here. I wanted to write to you about Play. But it soon got way too serious. Which was actually the reason I wanted to write about it. 

Ever since I quit my side job in September, I’ve been telling people I’m enjoying some Playtime. I had saved up to give myself some months to figure out what next adventures I would want to dive into. Sounds good, but it took until halfway November until I actually started to have some Time at hand. And even now, Play doesn’t occur so naturally. I sure am playing with my new synth – but back at the work desk Serious things get priority. 

Still, in all my projects the happiest and most meaningful moments happened when I could let myself indulge in Play. (I even believe it’s the duty of the artistic researcher.) So how to get there? What mode of Play can live under Serious-pressure? I kind of lost myself in this game/life mission of and I haven't completed the quest yet so instead let me just try to answer the prompt I gave my studio mates:

What are conditions of play in your life, and how do they apply to your practice?

During Dutch Design Week, while presenting Objective Portrait, I got to talk to many visitors, but I noticed it felt best, most intimate, when there was a bit of a ‘jokey vibe’. It seemed to make visitors and me more honest. One asked, with a cheeky smile, what many might have only thought: “then tell me, how is your work not narcissist?” I answered of course that I found it hard to think of anything more narcissistic. But this allowed us to talk about deeper motivations, like why I think that such navel-gazing is actually a very responsible thing to do (because I think it’s important that a designer can account for the position and desires they bring into a project).

I think it was this light atmosphere of play that allowed both of us to share lingering but undeveloped thoughts. This is the Play I want when working. Some kind of mode of being where you have to respond in the moment, listening both to others and your own desires, always having to decide without enough information to be certain, bound to make only attempts, and learn something. This is the exciting, scary, revealing, and fun mode of Play I want to make Time for when trying to figure out my life.

Play doesn’t always feel like that. Rather than scary it can be an escape, a way to temporarily forget your duties. I always told myself this was why I didn’t like card games. Why escape into some frivolous imaginary world if you can make serious meaningful conversation? But there’s probably a deeper reason I didn’t want to play along: joining a game is also a bit scary. I have to leave behind my comfortable position in the ‘real world’ –with its reflective inclination, controlled composure, ability to come across as wise – and instead rely on my intuition, and keep any uncivilised tendencies in check.

So what conditions make me jump into this Playmode?

In teaching I often compare artistic research with a process of continuously jumping into the water (read: the work), coming up for some air and overview, and jumping in again: moving from abstract-conceptual-theoretical to concrete-material-embodied-practical ways of knowing and back. As you may have guessed, part of me defaults to staying dry. But I think it’s by jumping in that research becomes artistic. That it goes beyond what’s planned, conceptualised, understood, instead using a process of interacting with a material, situation, community, as a way of learning something. 

What usually helps me jump in is satisfying/tricking my conceptual brain into thinking it's all logical and important: a bit of a sense why (aka Research Question) and how (aka Method). Even if that means just gathering images of how humans deal with plants, because it's all in the serious pursuit of non-controlling modes of care (tbc).



When I had just started the first grade of primary school, my mom was called in to speak with the teacher about the fact that 4-year-old me didn't want to engage in play, but would rather stay on the side and watch. Two and half decades later, not so much has changed. If you manage to persuade me to play a game I might end up enjoying it, but at first I will usually feel reluctant to participate. “Maybe I just don't like games,” I've often thought to myself, but if I'm honest this difficulty with playing stretches further than that.

If I try to unpack this reluctance, differentiating between social and solitary play, between what brings me pleasure and what not, the thing that keeps surfacing is an inability to be fully open. Stepping onto the open field of uncertainty that comes with play perhaps scares me. Not knowing what will happen, not knowing whether I am able to play along ‘properly’ or keep up, not being familiar with the rules or customs, will make me feel somewhat unsafe.

There's a vivid memory around ‘playing house’ with my entire street; an activity in which children pretend to be an adult and practice grown-up social situations. I took on the role of the cousin that was a pro football player and would continue doing my kick-ups. Already then I was developing my inner escape artist that would be put to work whenever I'd feel discomfort. This coping mechanism is perhaps my way of being playful (playing with what is expected of me) while avoiding being forced to explore unknown territory before feeling ready.

Perhaps playing ‘voor spek en bonen’ (Dutch expression for partaking in an activity without carrying responsibility) can be a method for easing into the game, towards playing ‘voor 't echie’ (‘for realsies’). Applying this to my professional practice, this could mean writing random notes rather than a proper essay and realising that the notes can be the essay. What I am most eager to find out is how I can invite myself to play with my synths and sampler more often (my amateur practice). Rather than immediately aiming for a composition of sorts, I should maybe just try playing around with one little element and recording that for later use if it sounds nice. Going about new territory step by step, instead of wanting to first have an understanding of the entire field. I'll let you know in a month how it's going.


At the moment the first thing that comes to mind is bouldering, which is basically a big indoor soft playground for grown-ups. But probably my most consistent play is cooking. When I was a kid we would invite friends over ‘to play’, its kind of a shame that this language shifts as we get older and now we need more of a reason to ‘hangout’. Even then though I would often be trying to invent food (there was a website called pimp-my-snack which you made giant versions of snacks, we made a giant Reece’s peanut butter cupcake.) or build some new thing (picture attached of my god-mother trying to use our leaf-blower-powered-hovercraft.) In a way these are the sort of things I try and do with my work now but it doesn’t feel much like play anymore. I think the other form of play is through conversation. When a joke develops with friends, strange scenarios develop and for a moment you are playing out an alternative reality, a playful ‘what if?’ which builds and then bursts with laughter when the hastily formed logic can no longer contain it. In a way this is the residue of the type of play we see from children acting out scenarios in the playground, role playing until the bell rings you back to the grown up ‘reality’.