Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry brings out playful side of scholars, artists

It was the opening night of Play as Inquiry, a practicum co-curated by Sha Xin Wei and Patrick Jagoda, both Mellon fellows at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. Posters featuring cartoon ducklings (or maybe rubber duckies) lined the walls of the Performance Penthouse at the Logan Center. There were ushers doling out cards, wearing white gloves and communicating only through pantomime.

Some of the cards conveyed instructions—“make yourself a costume using what's on the table in front of you,” or “propose a toast to pants”—which nudged the participants outside the bounds of normal behavior at an art reception. Other cards hinted at a larger puzzle that everyone tried to solve together, without knowing for certain if it was in fact solvable.

It was, as it turns out. The duck panels formed a single, expository image when laid out correctly. What participants experienced that night was an alternate reality game—a form of play layered on top of everyday experience, wherein realizing that one is playing a game is itself part of the game—designed by Play as Inquiry co-curator Patrick Jagoda alongside his collaborators at Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, James Taylor and Melissa Gilliam. At the end of the evening, the duck panels were aligned to spell out “Summon the host.” Then the host explained.

“I like to break down the line between theory and practice as often as possible,” said Jagoda, assistant professor of English, co-editor of Critical Inquiry and co-founder of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. “What we were trying to get at with the practicum was to avoid the traditional academic conference.”

Which was why guests were treated to an alternate reality game with pop art ducklings rather than a keynote address.

“It was set up to be the kickoff event for a conference,” everyone's chief expectations beginning and ending with “drinking wine and milling around,” noted Sarah Fornace, a lecturer at Columbia College Chicago, choreographer and co-artistic director of Manual Cinema. “That was a great reveal, of sorts, to turn that into an immersive game.”

In addition to co-curating the practicum, Sha Xin Wei, director of the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University and professor and director of the School of Arts, Media + Engineering at Arizona State University, contributed a surreally playful installation. He and his colleagues at Alkemie Altelier, a Montreal-based multidisciplinary collaborative, created haunting, crystalline sound from everyday objects and computer interfaces—but only after inviting those in attendance to do the same. This produced, as Sha explained, “an environment powered by people,” collaborating with “a computer powered by machine logic.”

Gray Center program curator Leslie Buxbaum Danzig describes the Gray Center as “a laboratory where artists and scholars experiment with forms of collaboration,” with its signature program being the Andrew Mellon Residential Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship.

Jagoda and Sha received a fellowship award for a yearlong collaboration entitled Alternate Reality: A Pervasive Play Project, in which they developed a transmedia gaming project, co-taught a seminar/studio course on Transmedia Games: Theory and Design, and experimented with how best to combine their practices and points of view. “They wanted something that would function as a culminating event, but that also would push them forward in their work.” The answer turned out to be a practicum about play, “that was itself, a form of play,” added Danzig.

“The work we invite our fellows to undertake is fundamentally experimental,” said David J. Levin, director of the Gray Center and the Addie Clark Harding Professor of Germanic Studies, Theater & Performance Studies, and Cinema & Media Studies. “And Play As Inquiry served as a wonderful response to that invitation: Patrick and Xin Wei were able to conclude a year of extensive exploration with a weekend that distilled their commitment to invention and extended its reach across disciplines and practices. It was a generous and apt way to conclude a truly exciting collaboration.”

A series of provocations

Play as Inquiry built confidently on this ethos of immersion and contemplation, with sessions that were wildly diverse but uniformly and resolutely inviting: a demonstration of clowning-as-inquiry by UChicago lecturer Adrian Danzig; a sound installation by UChicago musicologist Seth Brodsky; a reading by Columbia University anthropologist Michael Taussig; a speed-ideation workshop with experience designer Sara Thatcher; and a game about building hypothetical utopias with Michael C. Dawson, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

“Our table won that one, so to speak. We came up with the most plausible utopia,” says McKenzie Wark, professor of Culture and Media at The New School and author of A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory. “I think our craziest rule was, you are responsible for all of your stuff for its entire lifecycle. You [couldn't] throw stuff away, and if you didn't look after your stuff, you lost the right to have it.”

Wark's own contribution was “Games for Writer's Block,” an attempt to cure that most dreaded of creative ailments through a series of avant garde parlor games: cutting up existing texts with scissors and reassembling them with glue, or chugging airline-sized bottles of vodka at key moments in the iterative process. “There's something a little esoteric about this event, but it's also very practical,” Wark explained. “The way to make play helpful, often, is constraint. You just set up some arbitrary rules, and follow the rules, and then look at what you've got.”

Wark said he was enthralled by free jazz composer and trombonist George Lewis, who has applied theories of play and co-creation to his work for decades. “I was really glad to see that the organizers had included jazz improvisation and free jazz as one of the domains of improvisation,” said Wark. “[It's] a very important one in America.”

And it fits in beautifully with the goal of making Play as Inquiry, in Jagoda's words, “a series of situations and provocations rather than a series of conventional lectures.”

“What was fun was, with the Gray Center, we were able to be a bit adventurous with the format of the event.” Sha agrees, adding that the goal was to ask a single question, applicable across all disciplines: “When you reach the limit of your method, when you reach the limit of what you know how to do, then what do you do?”