Every object has its behaviors, limits and affordances. The material it is made of, the associations we have from experiences with something similar, the signs of care of neglect inscribed upon it – all these can alter an object’s character and play cues. I’m always curious about the relationships between people, play and things and so far have noticed three aspects affecting the looseness of parts – context, colleagues and quantity. As always, let me know what I’m missing!
The same table behaves differently in a formal dining room than it does in a woodland. Very young children might interact with it the same way regardless of environmental cues, but for others setting matters. This is not to say one is better or worse – how many remember the area beneath a table as sacred to childhood, as filled with hushed whispers and studied observation? That same table, in a woodland, inspires a rich narrative starting with the question: how did that get here? What is it for? What can it become? What can I make it? The shape that table makes in the air is more malleable in the woods than the home, because the air around it belongs to no one.
Plus when stolen from one location and brought into another, an object can become a trophy.
(It is extremely tempting to link to the British Museum on that one)
Play is as much a material experience as an imaginative one and we develop relationships with objects over time. The soft polish of an old banister, the familiar smell of one’s own bed. We converse with the world, our palms against the wood and the wood against our palms. Materials also interact with one another, and can be brought into fruitful combination. The sand and water of Nicholson’s childhood beaches were more than the sum of their parts, as are cardboard and tape. Dirt and shovels. Hammers and nails. Pebbles and a wok.
Some objects, such as paper clips, are at their best in plentitude. At a pop-up in the Berkshire Museum someone brought a truckload of old National Geographics and stacked them in the corner. They slipped against each other, a heap of images that attracted people to sit and read, to tear out pages, to lay back on their glossy creased covers.
Conversely, scarcity can make an ordinary object feel precious.
At the same time, each material has its own character, its own baggage. A table might be imagined into a horse, or if turned upside down a flying carpet, but it is difficult to transform one into a duck.
When staging, we need to find ways of balancing invitation with adulteration. Suggestions can become subtly prescriptive, and often the best combinations are ones that would never have occurred to us – a line of spoons carefully hung from branches, or a watering can filled with string and stuck up a tree.
We each read cues differently, due to the context we give them in our own minds. On one hot summer day I strung lengths of T-shirt fabric between poles to create hammocks. Empty, they blew and opened in the breeze. When I looked back, a group of mothers had laid out blankets beneath, enjoying the pockets of shade, and one thanked me for “thinking of them”. Another time, I arrived at a ranging site and was so happy to find a string hanging from a tree. It was small, plasticy twine, and I was struggling to swing from it when children started arriving.
“Ewww,” one said. “What you doing that for?” I explained, and they all laughed at me.
“That’s a dog training string,” they said. “And now you’re covered in slobber.”
So, what else could I do with that? I chased them.