Irrepressible city

London Essays – Issue 9: Play

Irrepressible city

London’s enthusiasm for play of all kinds is a sign of its optimism.

By Pat Kane

“If you’re curious, London’s an amazing place.”

— David Bailey

This journal has already covered Culture and possible Futures, so it may be useful to specify – as best one can – what one might mean by Play in reference to the state of London. Theories of play derived from evolutionary biology, neuroscience and educational psychology could be said to have much of both culture and the future in them.

The natural (and adaptive) experimentalism that play represents for social, cortically-developed mammals – the low-risk and pleasurable exploring of potential new niches, in any environment – has plausibly been identified as the root of culture itself, by both the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott 1 and the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. 2

Play is also an indicator of optimism in an organism – it happens when its basic needs have been adequately satisfied, and flourishing is possible – and of its openness to change and flux. Our species can easily imagine ourselves as players in scenarios that are alternatives to, or extrapolations of, our present realities – futures either ahead of or alongside us.

The great synthesiser of play theory, the late Brian Sutton-Smith, described play as “adaptive potentiation”. 3 Play wrests out space and time for imaginative creatures, in order to rehearse and prototype forms of life.

So a London in and at play is a city in rude health: an entity with enough surplus energy to respond to whatever limitations it experiences; and with enough cognitive excess for those responses to open up zones of novelty and creativity.

Evolutionary accounts of play lead to the conclusion that it is most sustainably supported by a “ground of play” – from the delimited space for cavorting lion cubs on the savannah, to the loose yet robust structures of the open web. These are platforms that raise the floor above the zone of sheer survival for organisms to flourish and “potentiate”.

How does this map to London? With its astounding levels of public investment in the subsidy of arts, culture and primary science, and in public infrastructure through transport, parks and sports facilities – never mind its flows of private capital, whether consumer-led or philanthropic – London could be regarded as a particularly well-resourced “ground of play”.

But as this is an essay space – and as Susan Sontag once reminded us, to “essai” is to attempt a measure, not to establish one 4 – I want to suggest how uneven and incommensurate are the play-spaces and playtimes of London. Some of this can be framed by policy and the design of institutions – but some of it, qua play, arises free from these determinations.

This unevenness has already been revealed in London Essays, as the meanings of play are struggled over. For example, in the Culture issue Justine Simons praises London as a “chaotic playground” for the arts – whereas in the Futures issue, Celia Hannon calls it a “playground for the super-rich”.

Of course, the two are often linked. Anyone visiting the annual Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park will witness the ludic energy of contemporary art practice mesh with the bottomless bank-balances of London’s global plutocrats. Some excellent jokes have been played around this, including Christian Jankowski’s 2011 The Finest Art on Water, involving the sale of two multi-million-pound Riva speedboats, one bearing the imprimatur of the artist (and thus justifying it as an “artwork”). Of course, it was snapped up instantly.

As an occasional reviewer of contemporary art, I have heard more backstage chat about six-figure sales to private collectors than about radical aesthetics. But however you regard the dirty marriage of conceptualism and capitalism that undergirds much contemporary gallery art, it would be hard not to categorise it as a play-phenomenon – that is, a pursuit of possibilities under conditions of surplus.

Indeed, the consumer power of London’s plutocracy – their appetite for positional goods in architecture, fashion, interior design, entertainment and drinking venues – is evidently a playful wonderland for designers and makers of all kinds. Reading the lifestyle pages of the Evening Standard after a few months away is to be overwhelmed at the sheer gildedness of London’s current age.

But sybaritism and ostentation isn’t, by any means, the only ground for London’s play. Indeed, the capital’s magister ludi of design, Thomas Heatherwick, recently came a cropper with his exclusivist Garden Bridge proposal. This at least indicates that a civic London often pushes against a commercial London – and that the terms of the struggle are often around how open London is to its citizens’ joyful self-definition.

There is a very obvious indicator of London’s commitment to public play – and that is its steadfast maintenance of its system of public parks. Play-forms would seem to be obvious here – the balls and frisbees in Hyde Park, the football grids on Regent’s Park, the bike rides through Battersea Park. This exuberance is part of a larger answer to the play instinct that London’s parks bring – addressing what the activist Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder”: our deep need, as a species, for rough and tumble and to get deliriously lost in natural environments.

To steer oneself into the depths of Hampstead Heath is to experience that exquisite mid-point between risk and security that typifies play. You are lost for a while in a near-primeval tangle of trunks and roots, only to emerge into light with spires of corporate modernity on the horizon.

In moments like these, London’s vista itself feels like the product of some audacious director’s montage. Indeed, the view from the Shard shows how the city has, with some absurdity, built itself around the serpentine squiggle of the Thames – quite the symbol of the unpredictable emergence that often typifies London.
A city as historically layered as London is a paradise for what those great revolutionaries of play, the French situationists, once called “psychogeography” – moving away from the usual pedestrian paths by following one’s desires and curiosities, or by seeking unusual concordances and signs.

Literature and letters have provided us with some of London’s most avid psychogeographers (most of them available on the “London” shelves of Housman’s, a venerable lefty bookshop in King’s Cross, part of a wider archive of subversive adventurers through the city’s coils and caverns).

Charles Dickens is probably their primary inspiration – take the fog-wreathed explorations of Bleak House, or the multitudinous street descriptions in Sketches By Boz. But writers like Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have explicitly taken to their feet to map out the “ulterior city”, as Self-puts it. A place of eccentric pathways and endless ironic mutual contemplation, its tone set by artistic bohemias that, according to Sinclair’s most recent book, The Last London, are being snuffed out by the relentless rentierism of the capital’s property-development economy.

Even as Sinclair bids his farewell to London, the arrival of ubiquitous GPS and map-apps for smart phones allow us all to be milquetoast psychogeographers. We can throw ourselves wholly into London’s working or suburban backwaters, and be retrieved by a snaking information-line of forms of public transport, back to our front doors. As “augmented” or “mixed” reality builds into our eyeware, maybe London will become another kind of psychic playground – a giant game space.

Some days in London, though, an overlay of digital enhancement is hardly required. Soho itself – its media watering holes, its gay cultures and venues, its industries of sex and music – is a historic engine of play. The ambient liberalism of the city allows its citizens what the child psychologist Vygotsky once called a “zone of proximal development” 5 – or, in the words of another great ludic Londoner, George Melly, a “revolt into style”. The Tube is a particularly vibrant stage – for the latest fashion cuts (to the head, lapel or hemline), for native dress unabashedly displayed, for busking that often produces indelible smiles (the rockabilly-guitar Santa in the tunnels of Green Park at Christmas is always worth the wait).

Official and institutional platforms for creativity can be sensitive to the playfulness of London. In her cultural programming at the South Bank over the last decade, Jude Kelly has clearly sought to pursue all the possible adult cultures of play in her venues. She has run a Catherine-wheel curation of art, cultural and intellectual form, spinning sparks off themes like masculinity, the nature of power, love – and all of it in a sheltered indoor agora, ushering visitors to reasonably priced events. The preservation of the spontaneously developed skatepark at the South Bank’s concrete undercroft has proved to be a test of street play versus institutional play – which, at the moment, the skaters are winning.

Institutional play also thrives in what could be called “sci-tech” London – and most evidently in its circulation between primary and applied research, creative invention and applied innovation, intellectual freedom and commercial exigency. The event I curate for the innovation foundation Nesta, FutureFest, draws on this nexus. Some of our recent world-firsts have been Neurosis – the first ever neuro-driven six-degrees-of-motion thrill-ride, combining commercial theme-park engineering and university research; and Cybathlon, the first-ever demonstration of “bionic olympians”, subcurated by Imperial College, London. Cybathletes are paralympians with differing abilities who become the “pilots” of bionic exoskeletons, robot limbs and brain-computer interfaces, competing with each other according to internationally agreed rules.

Another of FutureFest’s speakers in 2016 came from Deep Mind, the artificial-intelligence company bought by Google. Headquartered at 6 Pancras Square, the Deep Minders are reverse-engineering a general AI, one game at a time – testing its learning machines against the best human players of Go, and currently vanquishing them with relentless efficiency.

Hard science in London (as in Silicon Valley, but more sustained and thoughtfully here) often has a playful penumbra around its activities. The best examples of this are probably the daring and liminal curations of the Wellcome Gallery – recently covering sexology, superhumans and graphic design – sitting right next to the bio-scientific (and proprietorially secret) combinations of the Wellcome Institute next door.

I have deliberately left to the end an account of London-at-play in its most obvious senses. London is a city of sporting stadia, occupied by the behemoths of commercial football, or represented by the legacy of the London Olympics. The former, like any other Premiership entity, is a strange combination of the cosmocratic and semi-cyborgised (sports science squeezing the last points of speed and skill from a globalised pool of labour), yet still mistily tethered to its community origins as “rational recreation” for the industrial working-class. London has to work out its relationship to this lurid circus of players, which is as complex as for any other city on these islands.

The Olympic Park – currently a mausoleum of architectural follies and deserted agoras – at least has a municipal cultural development plan attached. Titled Olympicopolis, it will feature outposts of the V&A and Smithsonian museums, a 600-seat theatre for Sadler’s Wells and a campus for the London College of Fashion.

London is also a city of “players”, in that vernacular (and often pejorative) sense applied to competitive and acquisitive males, in the realms of finance – or sexual conquest. This is not to say that London lacks woman players in exactly this sense; nor that London doesn’t excel and exult in those whose play with gender itself is enthusiastic and exploratory. But it is to say, at the end of an all-too-brief catalogue, that the play of London transcends and includes even its most toxic and rejectable forms. Or as Disraeli put it: “London is a roost for every bird.”

  • 1 Winnicott, D.W. (2005). The Location of Cultural Experience. In Playing And Reality. London: Routledge. p135.
  • 2 Huizinga, J. (2002). Homo Ludens. London: Routledge. p173.
  • 3 Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press. p46.
  • 4 “The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt – and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness”. Sontag, S. (1992). Introduction (xvi). In The Best American Essays 1992. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • 5 Robson, S., & Quinn, S. F. (2014). How play creates the zone of proximal development. In The Routledge International Handbook of Young Children’s Thinking and Understanding. London: Routledge.