Juego es Poder is a design research project that explored a taxonomy of play in urban space inspired by the ways skaters creatively dispute the conventional use of the city. The project worked closely with young skaters in Mexico City to reimagine the regulated use of public spaces such as plazas, parks, and streets and applied the informal and improvisational approaches of skating that temporarily rendered elements of the built environment into a personal space of exploration. Skaters do not just play in space; they play with space. Inspired by the way skaters make space pliable through their activities, the project identified new forms of play that activate unexplored layers of social interactions in the city.
Juego es Poder collaborated with skaters, positioning them as:
(1) Active design research co-creators
(2) Producers of new possibilities for social interactions
(3) Players that construct alternative engagement with public space
The project shifts the popular perception of skaters from countercultural vandals to valuable design research collaborators. The ways skaters interact with the city are unique and worth observing as they abut the authoritative agenda and status quo of urban policy and regulations which are often enforced on subpopulations such as skaters to marginalize them in the interest of maintaining an appearance of orderliness of public space. In this vein, the project was established to:
(1) Physically confront the rules and perceptions around conventional uses of public spaces such as parks, plazas, and sidewalks and explore how improvisational play can reveal the incongruence between the imagined use of public space and the actual practice of it
(2) Challenge the solution-based approach of government-built play spaces (that may or may not be intended as youth containment strategies) and demonstrate alternative playful opportunities in spaces not specifically designed for play
The project practiced a taxonomy of informal and improvisational play in Los Angeles and Mexico City. Interventions that expanded on the way skaters play with space were met with various reactions in each city, presenting a different opportunity and challenge in engaging with public space. Interventions in public space in Los Angeles were often accepted as an interesting activity albeit unusual. For instance, informal making activities in residual spaces in Los Angeles were met with curious reactions from passerby that often led to informal and casual conversations. Interventions in public space in Mexico City were more challenging, given how the designer was often viewed as an external presence from the tightly-knit and networked communities. Residual spaces underneath bridges, plazas next to tianguis (street vendors), and sidewalks all exposed the various spatial politics that exist in the site in visible and non-visible ways. Performing informal and spontaneous activities in Los Angeles that deviated from expected behaviors in public spaces did not evoke any immediate conflicts, however, in contrast, Mexico City encouraged consideration of play as a collective activity that involved skaters and youth as agents who actively co-created informal and improvisational playful practices.
"Skaters as co-designers, 1"Deployment #1: Skaters in Constituyentes Skatepark in Mexico City participated in the activity as active co-producers in discovering how design can create a new language to explore how skaters perceive space. They were eager to jump right into experimenting with attaching chalk to their boards and did not require facilitation.
"Skaters as co-designers, 2"Deployment #1: Even in the process of designing together, skaters often practiced their tendency for improvising creative strategies and offered promising futures towards designers and skaters as collaborators. Here a skater is seen breaking a fat piece of chalk into two in order to increase the performance of the chalk in this activity.
"Skaters as co-designers, 3"Deployment #1: Skaters drew traces of their informal choreography with both chalks in their hands as well as on the skateboard, improvising as they found fit. The multilayered traces of activity provided foreground for the visual media studies and analyses that showed how skaters actively discard the idea of the Cartesian grid.
"Creating your own drawing apparatus, 1"Deployment #1: A skater in San Cosme Skatepark in Mexico City improvised a contraption made out of a broom and spray paint to continue exploring how material language can be applied to the way they perceive space. The pressure applied from the duct tape holding down the nozzle determined the success of the prototype, and the skater is seen carefully setting up the device.
"Creating your own drawing apparatus, 2"Deployment #1: A skater maintaining natural flow of movement as they skated through the park and left traces of their choreography and decision-making processes in the form of spray paint traces. Various colors were used in attempt to increase the contrast between the paint and the ground of the park.
"Changing perceptions of space, 1"Deployment #2: A cardboard intervention that was deployed in public spaces in Mexico City interested in performing the idea of making people deviate from their usual activities. Here it attempts to make the benches in the plaza dysfunctional and challenge people's perception of the programmed use of public space.
"Changing perceptions of space, 2"Deployment #2: The cardboard sculpture experienced brief physical engagement from passerby, partly in its radically open-ended form that was not perceived as a designed object but rather as a random obstacle that stood in people's way. Here a group of cyclists move the sculpture to the side to make way for the bikes to pass through.
"Public making experiments, 1"Deployment #3: Public making experiments conducted in residual public spaces in Los Angeles that questioned the relationship between the player/prototype builder and the non-player/passerbyers through a series of temporary, informal and illegal occupations of public space that was deliberately visible. Here, a making session using post-its in MacArthur Park initiated a conversation between the player and the curious non-player.
"Public making experiments, 2"Deployment #3: Another public making experiment using tape to draw attention to a residual space in Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. Passerby were not sure how to interpret these unusual activities despite the fact that it was openly vandalizing public space. It successfully invited a different kind of behavior from passerby in an otherwise non-descriptive space.
"Play as Power, 1"Deployment #4: This diagram extracted qualities of play from how skaters engage with the city. The diagram provided a blueprint for the 4th and final iteration of deployments in Mexico City as the project shifted to engage youth as active co-creators of playful interventions and it was used as a conversation tool in deciding the specific interventions.
"Play as Power, 2"Deployment #4: Skaters in Constituyentes Skatepark in Mexico City engaged in drawing maps that visualized their route from their home to the skatepark and how they navigated the city. Here, a skater points to a detail in her map as she explains her day as a skater navigating the various public transportation systems of Mexico City.
"Play as Power, 3"Deployment #4: Youth in San Pedro de los Pinos in Mexico City asked neighbors permission to temporarily occupy the sidewalk to play basketball. The intention was to understand the kinds of conversations that play can facilitate between the various actors that occupy public space, and youth deliberately positioned themselves in an intrusively playful way to see the reactions from neighbors.
Juego es Poder extracted the qualities of play from skating through a series of four deployments in Mexico City and Los Angeles. A combination of insights from both research and fieldwork drove the development and iteration of the project.
Deployment #1, The Playable and Pliable City: Motion Mapping in Mexico City
(Fieldwork in Mexico City, 2 weeks)
The project started by extracting elements from the way skaters see the city: a perspective that demonstrates their expertise on appropriation of urban space which enabled the research to explore playable, pliable scenarios in public space. Involving skaters in Mexico City through several popular skateparks and public skate spots, the project studied their strategies for self constructive and improvisational play.
Co-design activities in skateparks applied visual analysis to the physical movement of skaters in space to discover a language of design that is in conversation with but different than the athletic perspective of skating. One activity asked skaters to attach chalk to their skateboard which traced informal aspects of their choreography (see images: "Skaters as co-designers"). Skaters also created a drawing apparatus from a can of spray paint and a broom that enabled a more natural flow during these activities (see images: "Creating your own drawing apparatus"). Once overlaid onto the grid of the city, the visual media studies allowed a deeper understanding of how skaters actively discarded the idea of the Cartesian grid of the city.
The activities revealed promising futures of designers working with skaters, a group of thinkers and doers who resonated passionately to the co-design prompts. They actively supported the designer in ways that improved or enhanced the understanding of how skaters see the city.
Deployment #2, Changing People's Perceptions of the City: Alternate Behaviors in Public Space
(Fieldwork in Mexico City, 2 weeks)
This deployment intended to encourage people to see the city in ways similar to that of skaters. Engaging with passerbyers in public spaces throughout Mexico City, a pliable cardboard sculpture attempted to make people deviate from their usual paths and alter perception of public space (see images: "Changing perceptions of space"). This iteration revealed the complications of evoking reactions from a random passerby unfamiliar with design interventions, suggesting that a more explicit invitation for play with specific parameters of design, placement, and context would benefit this exercise. This prototype theoretically performed the idea of making people deviate but it only returned a brief reaction (because of the casual and intrusive nature of this intervention) and did not reveal insights as to how design could inspire people to see space as playful or pliable.
Deployment #3, Play as a Vehicle for Social Interactions: Theoretical Framing and Fieldwork
(Fieldwork and Research in Los Angeles, 4 weeks)
The study of play as a vehicle for positionality and a theoretical framing device for social interactions was further investigated in Los Angeles.
The framing and value of play that spans across various disciplines provided the underpinning and insight into designing the next series of deployments. Each discipline invited new interpretations of play, from the basic principles of child development to the history and agendas behind the playground construction boom in urban planning. For example, the works of Guy Debord of the avant-garde collective The Situationists championed the idea of detournement or deviation in the city as a way to explore alternate urban experiences by unlearning the grid. Other creative disciplines provided new insight towards intentionally playful design, looking at how the works of Noguchi, Arp, and Calder in modern art emphasized the value and careful design of abstract, open-ended forms that evoked improvisational and playful interpretations from the viewer. Landscape architecture in the 1980s advocated self constructive play through devised gardens, ranging from the intentional design of open-ended interactions championed in the works of Lawrence Halprin to the designed thoroughfares by Noguchi.
There is also a history of play particular to Mexico City that stems from with games such as the Aztec ball game that often came with serious consequences such as death, which provided insight into the expansive definition of play. Playfulness is not merely something that is silly and reserved for children, but an important vehicle for creating social context and as such requires its participants to embody the outcomes or consequences of the game.
Drawing from the works of Noguchi that specifically looked at the opportunities of open-ended play, the deployments in Los Angeles invited passerby to creatively interpret the meaning of play through the act of participating as a spectator. Learning from the takeaways from the cardboard sculptures in Mexico City, these interventions did not heavily rely on setting up passerby in public space as immediate participants but instead shifted the focus towards how spectacles in public spaces could potentially draw people in and activate an alternate social dynamic.
A series of highly informal and public "making" experiments in residual spaces in Los Angeles consisted of rapidly prototyping things in public spaces using banal items such as post-its, tape, and patterned paper, incrementally developing larger structures that began to temporarily occupy the space and engage with people. Immediately it revealed how making in public shifted relationships with people in that space to the prototype builder (see image: "Public making experiments, 1"). Video recordings of these interventions show how the production of things in public creates a temporary social spectacle that successfully –– although very briefly –– shifted the way people look at that space had there not been an activity taking place.
The interventions were highly informal and even illegal as they temporarily appropriated public space with foreign, physical elements. Passerbyers were unsure of how to interpret the making intervention despite the fact that it was openly vandalizing public space, and the playful production in public communicated a different intentionality and positionality to space that begged to not be criminalized (see image: "Public making experiments, 2).
A takeaway from this prototype was that it still relied on a dialectic relationship between the prototype builder/player and the surrounding passerby to function in farfetched ways. This discovery provided an opportunity for the research to position people in public space as a secondary instead of primary focus: instead of using design to try to evoke interesting interactions from them to re-experience space differently, the question became around how play creates alternate social relationships between the player/prototype builder and the non-player/the passerbyers. The interventions in Los Angeles revealed the power that is given to the player when they are physically engaging with public space in a different way.
Deployment #4, Play as Power: Temporarily Rendering the City into a Space of Personal Exploration
(Fieldwork in Mexico City, 5 weeks)
The final deployment in Mexico City explored various qualities of orientation to urban space through a series of playful interventions (see image: "Play as Power, 1"). The project revisited skaters as co-designers and created media studies that further demonstrated their perspective of the city as it asked skaters to create maps of how they navigate the city (see image: "Play as Power, 2").
The next series of interventions engaged with a mix of skaters and non-skaters and positioned them as active producers of play in various locations in the city. In each iteration, youth were asked to act out scenarios with a specific quality such as "play that happens between point A and B," "play that has an On/Off switch," "play that asks people for permission," (see image: "Play as Power, 3") and "play that creates different social dynamics with people in the space." The interventions demonstrated play as a form of physical engagement that activated new social interactions and gained positive responses from participants including: "I never had so much fun in the city" and "it was great playing with people in mischievous ways and seeing their reactions to it."
Juego es poder is a praxis of play, bridging the theoretical frameworks and practices for alternate urban experiences through playful design interventions. Play offers three contributions to the future of urban design of public space:
Play is a self constructed, improvisational and informal activity that anyone can reenact in the city and temporarily reimagine and practice alternate uses of public space. It uses physical engagement as a tool for play and deliberately does not require technical skills, access to power, and/or special resources, and is a direct response to the exclusive and authoritative agendas embedded in the design of public space.
Play could extract the values of skateboarding in how it constructs individual identity and empowerment in public space. It uses design to leverage the language of the technically-critical athleticism that is required of skating and activates a new language that can enable a discourse between skaters and non-skaters around the valuable contributions that skaters can have on the future of urban design as expert advisors on alternate forms of play.
Play offers insight into how future practices of urban design could maintain and preserve physical interactions as a form of social engagement in an increasingly antisocial world mediated by intangible and digitized interactions.