Connected \\ January 17, 2018


Driving through a car wash can certainly be a striking visual experience. Artist Lara Favaretto recognized even greater potential for amusement. Her sculpture, Simple Couples, features seven pairs of spinning car-wash brushes of different sizes, moving in a mesmerizing mix of color and rhythm.

Chances are you many never look at a car wash the same way again.

Pedro Reyes, meanwhile, has taken 6,700 guns confiscated by the Mexican government and transformed them into working musical instruments, similarly identifying uses for objects beyond the obvious. Martin Creed filled a room with pink balloons and invites people to walk (‘frolic’ may be the better word) through them to reach the exit on the other side. His installation asks us to consider the question: Is wasting time really wasting time?

Organized by PEM, PlayTime is the first major thematic exhibition exploring the role of play in contemporary art and culture with works by 18 leading contemporary artists, including video, sculpture, photographs and interactive experiences. The show reveals how many behaviors that are essential to the creative process — risk-taking, exploration, questioning and curiosity — are all encouraged by the act of play.

Starting in the 1990s, PEM Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith became aware of an increasing number of contemporary artists playing with the concept of play and in the process offering new opportunities to redefine what the word even meant.

“Play is no longer on the margins anymore,” said Smith. “Play is a catalyst for creativity. Play is where you get to make up the rules and learn how to negotiate and resolve conflict. Play is where you understand that you do have the power to change the ways things are done. To me, play is fundamentally about human empowerment.”

Pltime Blog Bunn Prinz

Nick Cave, still and detail from Bunny Boy, 2012. Video, approximately 14 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Making the claim that play is a powerful subject for artistic production and social critique, the exhibition features not only artists who employ game structures but also those who embrace playful behaviors to generate their work and encourage participation and critical dialogue through play.

Instead of a traditional exhibition catalog, PlayTime is complemented by an ambitious digital platform ( that expands on themes introduced in the gallery. Here you will find a collection of diverse voices — game designers and theorists, poets, artists and writers — contributing to the ongoing conversation about the shifting role of play in art and culture through essays, short stories, interactive games and interviews. The content will be updated on an ongoing basis.

The exhibition explores how the barriers between work and play have eroded in the 21st century thanks in some part to the proliferation of iPhones and other digital devices that have a major impact on where and when and how we play. Smith acknowledged how people can play at work (think fantasy football teams) and work at home (think incessant email checking).

Following the lead of game developers, many businesses have “game-ified” their practices, adopting reward-based systems to encourage desirable behaviors. Smith cited as one example online quizzes given to employees to teach policies, such as best cybersecurity practices. It’s now common to know someone who can play ping pong or fuse ball at work. These are cultural shifts that happen slowly, but the ramifications are profound, he noted. 

Today video games generate more money than the music or movie industries. And the world of gaming offers a plethora of material for artists to tackle in provocative ways. Artist Angela Washko’s work in PlayTime explores the sexist environment she encountered in World of Warcraft, the online role-playing game with more than 10 million users. She set out to ask players their thoughts on feminism after becoming bothered by the misogynist language she often encountered there. The reception was not very positive. She later discovered that more than half of the female character avatars in World of Warcraft were actually male players.

“A number of works in the exhibition explore how we represent ourselves online vs. how we present ourselves in real life,” said Smith. “An avatar is really an extension of a game of dress-up, if you will. They help determine how we negotiate the online world.”

As a child, Smith said play was what happened after he finished his homework and household chores. “It was a reward after you completed the important stuff,” said Smith. “Today play is no longer a reward for hard work. It is something that is absolutely central to how we learn how to be human.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Lara Favaretto, Coppie Semplici / Simple Couples, 2009. Seven pairs of car wash brushes, iron slabs, motors, electrical boxes, and wires. On loan from the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, Vancouver. © Blaine Campbell.

PlayTime begins February 10 and runs through May 6.

Share your photos and thoughts with us on social media using #PEMplaytime.

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