VAN09 – Play is Older than Culture by Justin McKeown

In 2001 I had an epiphany, that just as the 20th century demanded new forms of art, so too does the 21st century demand new forms of leisure. To this end I proposed SPART: the ultimate hybridisation of sport and art, and therefore the most evolved form of leisure on the planet. In 2001, when I first articulated the concept of SPART, I was virtually on my own in my enthusiasm for the development of such a practice. And though my concept of SPART has grown a support network of collaborators in Europe, Canada and America, and even earned me a solo show in the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, these SPART practices have remained marginal. Yet today, my articulation of the concept of SPART seems to have had some prescience since sport / art hybrid practices are becoming evermore significant as an area of cultural experimentation. I was therefore pleased when Visual Artists Ireland invited me to write this article on SPART and other related practices for this edition as it offers me a vehicle through which to clarify some key aspects of my thinking on this subject.

What the reader must first understand is that my concept of SPART is very particular; indeed my understanding of art is quite particular. Since I first began making art, I have been concerned with the simple question: given the world we live in what is the point of making art? This concern necessarily developed into an understanding that art is an open system of knowledge whose basis is material. Thought of in this way, art provides us with a material based system
for exploring and reasoning the conditions of the world around us. By extension of this logic, artworks are not so much expressions of view but rather crystallisations of moments of material thinking. This way of thinking about art  necessarily led me to work with time-based mediums such as performance, video, installation and sound. Simultaneously I was also interested in art historic precedents for this particular view of art, which could be found in the activities of movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Lettrism, Situationism, Fluxus, Dutch Provo, Punk et al, who seemed to be primarily concerned with redressing the divisions between art and life in one way or another.

Something important in my readings of the activities of these movements was the significance of play as a creative endeavour. Many of the aforementioned movements were of a utopian current, aiming for a society in which man would be free in which to endlessly create. This is as evident in the demands of Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck for
“the introduction of progressive unemployment through the comprehensive mechanisation of every field of activity” (1) to the playground style city envisioned by the Situationist Constant’s New Babylon architecture project. Yet the concept of art as a form of play does not sit well with many who treat art as a serious business. The reasons for this are
varied but perhaps at the root of all of them is a problem summed up succinctly by Stewart Home when he commented: “Rather than having universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society, one which leads to an irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs. This process posits the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and, thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated. This boils down to an assertion that bourgeois society, and the ruling class within it, is somehow committed to a superior form of knowledge”. (2)

Therefore the idea that art as a vehicle of superior knowledge is nothing more than a particular type of play enjoyed by a particular section of society, is not something that sits easy in the minds of many of those involved in the production and consumption of contemporary art. Yet perhaps the mistake made by those who are perturbed by the idea of art as play is that they mistakenly believe that their concept of art is being undervalued, rather than realising that they themselves may be undervaluing or misunderstanding the significance of play. For as Johan Huizinga put it “play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing” (3)

Thus it was with a head full of these and related thoughts I found myself in London in 2001 watching the performance art festival SPAN 2. One morning on my way to the festival I was having a coffee in a street flower market with a friend. While sitting with her I watched a kid on a skateboard weaving his way through the crowds of people. As a one time skateboarder I remembered the sensation of riding across different surfaces, of choosing which bits of the pavement and road were best to ride on, essentially pitting the materiality of myself and the skateboard against the materiality of the city, not in opposition but in a kind of flowing harmony. In recalling this I also recalled my love of martial arts and the sensation of the flow of fighting in which conscious thought disappears and all is left is the materiality of the body meeting the materiality of another. The kid on the board was poetry in motion. Then, he fell off a curb and landed on his ass. Our eyes met and he looked back at me with embarrassment. There it was lying naked for me to see, the whole
poverty and poetry of early 21st century life, the Hollywood ‘cool’ of the Jackass generation was lying at the bottom of a curb in London. Yet this kids hobby and his desire to pursue a particular type of glamour through it was no different than the desire expressed by both artists and sportsmen from all walks of life.

In this moment I realised the underlying commonalities between both fields of endeavour: the conditions of the game, the drive for success and the risk of failure. The ruthlessness of the pursuit of ones desires, the idea of fair play, the assumption of abstract rules as guiding principles governing the interrelation of form and content. Not to mention the underlying way in which both sporting and artistic pursuits explore the materiality of being, albeit through quite  different strategies. Therefore, I first conceived of SPART as a category or creative endeavour that would embody these conditions. In doing this I wasn’t seeking to combine sport and art, rather I was seeking to embody, materialise and explore the emotional and material commonality that underpins both. As I begun doing this I was interested in making works that would not so much represent these things, but rather embody them in everyday situations.

From my perspective, the great granddaddy of SPART was the pre-Dadaist Arthur Craven who in 1916 challenged then heavyweightboxing champion of the world, Jack Johnston, to a fight. While this is his most overt sport / art hybrid work, a quick glance at his biography reveals a larger than life character who understood that one’s existence and appearance in the world could be composed as a work of art in itself. The realisation of such a thing necessarily  embodies all the qualities of game play. Craven was last seen disappearing off the coast of Mexico in a rowing boat in November 1918. He was presumed dead, but a body was never found. Since Craven’s first sport / art experiment others have been thin on the ground. However in recent years this has been changing. Since the announcement of the 2012 London Olympics and the shifts to funding this has caused, various artists all over the UK have been dabbling in the hybridisation of sport and art. Indeed the UK government’s need for a cultural Olympiad has been an economic driving force in these developments. While Martin Creed has flown the SPART flag for Brit Art with his minimally titled Work No 850, which saw runners gracing the floor of Tate Britain (4), perhaps the most notable events to spring forth as a direct result of the Olympics are the large artist’s sports days organised by the Grunts for the Arts Campaign in protest at the affects of the Olympics on cultural funding (5). In a more banal way the term SPART seems to be coming into  more common usage. A quick google search reveals a SPART club ran by Lincolnshire council as an after schools club for kids. The term also seems to have had some currency in Australia, where rather a lot of money seems to be spent presenting annual SPART awards (6). Even in Belfast SPART seems to be catching on. The activities of myself and fellow SPART Action Group; Meabh McDonnell, Gerard McKeown, Nathan Crothers, Paul Stapleton, Caroline Pugh, James Black and others aside, other completely unrelated groups have been producing their own SPART-style works. These include a wrestling match organised by the Lawrence St Workshops at the Giants Ring titled The Fling in the Ring (7) and the Tit-tat Disco Olympics recently hosted by Catalyst Arts (8). Yet even though SPART seems to be gaining ground, we within the SPART Action Group are choosing this moment to officially announce a SPART Strike within Northern Ireland, beginning in January 2009. This is in protest at the cuts to funding caused by the 2012 London Olympics. However, don’t expect SPART to disappear, rather await the application of our corkscrew logic to the idea and context of the Strike. It seems we already have the support of these people

( )

Why not go on strike yourself?

Justin McKeown

1) R. Huelsenbeck cited by S.Home in The Assault on Culture, AK Press, p5,
2) S. Home, The Assault on Culture, p43,
3) J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Paladin Press, p19,

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