'Ethnography of Play in/via/with Video-making'

Curator for Video Program for Culture As Play, Microwave International Media Art Festival, Hong Kong, October 2005 / 玩感之都: 微波國際媒體藝術節 (2005)錄像節目策劃

'Ethnography of Play in/via/with Video-making'

@ Hong Kong Film Archive
2005.10.21(Fri)19:30 《左閃右避搵命玩 Precarious Play》
2005.10.22(Sat)19:30  《無中生有象外有天 Just for Fun: Play is Fabrication》
2005.10.22(Sat)20:45 《偽裝秘笈 Let’s Pretend: Shall We Begin?》
2005.10.23(Sun)19:30 《日復日、轟轟轟 Machinery of the Everyday》+ discussion
2005.10.23(Sun)17:00 《玩認真 Meaningful Play》

Curatorial statement for the Screening Programs

In line with MIMAF 2005’s playful spirit, the curatorial approach for the screening event deviates from the usual practice of surveying recent video arts around the world and showcasing trend-marking works or personal favorites. Instead, I turned the programming process into an ethnographic exercise via random sampling. From a bulk of works indexed in a few video databanks and distribution catalogues made available to the MIMAF within our curatorial time-frame, I stock-took the different ways the notion of “play” has been deployed, understood, appropriated, challenged and turned into actions, whether self-consciously or normatively, among my samples. The five program titles together form the general shape and variety of usage resulting from my survey. While each selected work is a specific form of creativity with its unique origins, all of them together fall into the grid of the 5-program series, forming a spectrum of views on the usage of the notion of “play” in action.

To begin, I took the “magic circle” principle,(1) that is, to set the basic condition of play as the stepping out of daily routine to engage in activities that involved certain spatial and temporal specification. What results is a diverse list of “play” – body exercises, play-acting, traveling and drifting, visiting the place’s one’s ethnic origin, fabricating events, conducting a familiar routine in an unfamiliar location, conducting unusual activities in an unexpected place, lying, mouth-tricks, pretending, hypothesizing, experimenting, creating, poetry, guessing, appropriating, re-inventing, deconstructing a story, magic, and the consumption of goods, media signals and information.

The stepping out of routine, however, does not necessarily inspire pleasure and leisure, like we often take for granted. My survey finds visions of play more bent to the critical and contingent aspects of the term as subversion, intervention and critique. The well known Marxian position regards leisure activities as compromising the critical mind and personal autonomy of workers for the benefits of the economic elite, which in the end encourages “perseverance” and compliance to the condition of exploitation. While this classical view remains valid in many aspects of contemporary life, the works collected in the five screening programs find more than a few extended versions of the precariousness of play. Some works, such as Forbidden to Wander and Baghdad in No Particular Order strike right onto our face the impossibility of play, and the illusive quality of playfulness. The two works, with settings in Gaza and Baghdad respectively, particularly haunt viewers sensitive to the current events in the Middle East for the impossibility to return to the scenario captured on camera. Many works also hold that playfulness is a paradox – that the hidden quality of playfulness may contradict the notion of pleasure, such as danger, risk, boredom, discipline and punishment. Play has been very much turned into a form of social technology, and playfulness an engineered quality turned into rationality. All the works in Program I “Precarious Play” and Program V “Meaningful Play” include works that expose the paradox, or whose creative/production processes are acts of risk, whereas Program IV “Machinery of the Everyday” reveals the mechanism and instrumental reason that sustain consumerist pleasure, with Harun Farocki's documentary. The Society of the Spectacle (a digital remix) is one of the many forceful responses to Guy Debord’s 90-minute work of the same name made in 1973, a “classic” of the Situationist International’s critical engagement with our highly managed urban life, for the age of digital media. Creators of the Shopping World revealed for us in prolonged exegesis the many assumptions and calculations at work behind our leisurely shopping tours. How to fix the World looks innocent with its stop-frame animation style and simple Q and A game-like workshop sessions. But it confronts us with the absurdity of imposing a particular type of everyday logic groomed in Western societies on to “other” cultures as universal truth, and more horrifyingly, when all this is done in the good will of modernization and education. Lesson should surely find rapport among those viewers who have grown up hating piano-playing as discipline gradually devours pleasure.

A second strand in the video programs concerns the performative use of video as a playful tool, mostly collected in Program II and III. Rather than deploying the indexical power of the camera to show and discuss the paradox of play, the makers in these two groups of works turn video-making itself into politically charged activities. In these cases, to entrench in playfulness is the necessary basis for active participation in the dialectical process of culture.

In line with the performative quality of video-making, video can be viewed as a unique site of play: video-making is an open-ended game, and concrete acts of playful intervention due to the medium- as well as convention-specific qualities of video-making. Playfulness is indeed a core feature of all arts. In video, it particularly refers to conscious attempts to isolate the individual components of the tool and the medium in order to seek for innovative extended/expanded usage against specified contexts. Most of the works in Program II “Just for Fun: Play is Fabrication” and Program III “Let’s Pretend: Shall We Begin?” as well as 10 and Worst Case Scenario in Program V are exemplary of the commitment to deconstruct (take apart, break down, reveal the process of construction etc.) the multiple linkages between “play” and “video-making.”

1. The idea evolves from the discussion of sociologist Huizinga and Caillois. See “Culture as Play: A new Paradigm for Art and Cultural Theory” by Hector Rodriguez, Artistic Director for MIMAF 2005