The gallery that’s a play space and a gallery

Friday September 4, 2020

“Can you help us turn the gallery into a play space/s? Oh, and it still has to work as a gallery… and a workshop space… we’ll need to do presentations in there too… oh and probably performing arts stuff as well?”. “Ohh yes please!”

Tŷ Pawb: Play, Culture and The Arts

Our recent work on Stryd Pawb (Everybody’s Street) with Tŷ Pawb endeavoured to engender a sense of playfulness and freedom for visitors, whilst working with the constraints of COVID-19 requirements to ensure visitor and staff health and safety. Using our combined appreciation of both the features of play and risk-benefit assessment, we were able to develop a design concept that met this demanding brief and that, now implemented, is receiving positive feedback. The ‘Useful Art Space’ another commission we’re working on with Tŷ Pawb, promised to be equally demanding and equally as much fun. If the aim of Stryd Pawb was to create opportunities for moments of play to emerge on people’s journeys throughout Tŷ Pawb, the Useful Art Space is about creating a space for longer periods of playing, where children’s play can develop in-depth and complexity.

Arte Util or useful Art as Tania Bruguera describes it is about using artful means to transform people’s lives, even on a small scale. Useful art shifts the role of art from the passive realm of aesthetics to one of action and activism. It is art as activism and activism as art, rather than a rarefied spectator experience, a process that should have a real effect in society as part of everyday life ( Jo Marsh, Creative Director at Tŷ Pawb is passionate about the movement and recognises the intersection between useful art and children’s play. Perhaps worth noting here is the book Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Huizinga identifies playing as having a culture creating capacity. The freedom of play grants permission to explore, outside of the bounds of the conventionally accepted and expected forms of behaviour or indeed the discipline of the art, enabling the novel to surface and as a result to influence.  Jo brought us together with Tim Denton, Manchester-based designer and maker to develop the physical layout of the Useful Art Space.

The Useful Art Space

Jo says, ‘traditionally within cultural institutions, learning and engagement spaces are designated rooms, separate from the galleries. I have always been adamant that we must use our galleries at Tŷ Pawb as spaces where ‘things happen’ rather than simply spaces for display; the most overt example of this so far at Tŷ Pawb has been the Play-Work exhibition, co-curated with Ludicology in 2019.

I have been interested in the notion of Arte Util / Useful Art for several years now, particularly following the work of Alistair Hudson at Mima, and now at the Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries. After two years of programme at Tŷ Pawb, now is the time to really nail our colours to the mast of Useful Art, through permanently designating one of our two galleries as our ‘Useful Art Space / Lle Celf Ddefnyddiol’.’ The Useful Art Space will take over Tŷ Pawb’s Gallery 2 and is a space intended to have many different functions, only one of which will be as a place for children to play.

As a consequence, as well as using our usual principles for creating a quality place for play (variety, flexibility, adaptability, pretence and uncertainty etc), the design of this space must also meet the requirements of multiple users and various functions. The space will be a play space, but also a space for performance, for arts workshops, instruction and display, and a multitude of other exciting things.

Now, if that wasn’t already a recipe for a really interesting project, we also have the added dimension of negotiating the inevitable and additional risk management concerns brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. So, to recap, high-quality play space or spaces, that has high play value, where whatever equipment, apparatus or materials used in its design must also be transformable for functional use in arts workshops, performances, and as a gallery, whilst also complying with COVID-19 health and safety guidance. We cannot begin to tell you how excited that sort of challenge makes us, because we know it’s possible and we know when a client comes with that sort of proposal, they have already given it thought, are motivated and committed.

Risk-Benefit Approach

The key to this challenge is developing a risk-benefit approach. In this context, risk-benefit means weighing up the risks associated with COVID-19 against the benefits of children being enabled to play. Whilst visitor attractions and public facilities like Tŷ Pawb have a duty of care to their service users, they can only do what is reasonably practicable (which is also the legal requirement). What is reasonable and practicable depends on the resources available and the cost of any potential control measures. In this situation consideration of those costs must include any benefits lost as a consequence of placing unreasonable constraints on children’s play. Whilst some of the science referred to in their paper has developed, (we now have a better understanding now that children, particularly those under ten are less likely than adults to transmit COVID-19 and those older only as likely as adults) the research paper commissioned by the Play Safety Forum (and written by Professor David Ball, Tim Gill and Andy Yates), ‘COVID-19 and Children’s Play’ does serve to demonstrate that whilst COVID-19 is obviously very serious, overzealous application of health and safety control measures can actually do more harm than good, the exact antithesis of health and safety. Much of our work, over and above advising on design requirements, installation and resources for the space, will be in developing a robust risk management strategy that will enable Tŷ Pawb to deliver this important offer. Ultimately the ‘Useful Art Space’ needs to be a good place for playing whatever the social distancing requirements.

A Work in Progress

Work is ongoing, and the scope of what is possible changes with government guidance, but to date, using some really simple design principles and working closely with the Tŷ Pawb team and Tim, we have agreed that this space is likely to include multiple interconnected zones, using modular structures to create multiple spaces within these zones.

From an initial workshopping of concepts and parameters, Tim collated a bunch of ideas that showcased a range of possibilities and from this we worked with him and the team to identify a family of forms/shapes of various sizes that can work as one collection (and as such create one play space) but can also be split into smaller collections, creating multiple places for play.

These forms/shapes are just directive enough that they might invite particular types of playful interactions but not so directive that they dictate how children should play. These forms can be played on, in, through and with, but equally can be used to frame spaces, to separate, hide and obscure, and to create opportunities for journeying through and discovering other spaces.

Combining these forms with carefully selected loose parts will further enhance their play value by increasing the potential for flexible use and adaptation, enabling children to have real influence over their play and their play space.

The sizes and shapes of these forms have been carefully considered and will be trialled through modelling to ensure that what can be played on, through and in, can also be worked at and performed on; so that a play space may, with a blink of an eye, become a display space.

‘Later this year Tŷ Pawb will begin delivering a programme of activities in the space, including creative playwork sessions, artist-led training projects for unemployed adults, and a range of family activities. The key to this is utilising a playful, artful approach, to create a space where people can come together to connect, develop, learn, play, discuss, even disagree. As such, it was the most natural thing in the world for us to work with Ludicology and Tim Denton on the project.’ (Jo Marsh, 2020)

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