by Aimee Walleston
“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.” In Homo Ludens (1938), the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga presents an ontology of play that abstracts from mere human games. What if we took this a step further—or several steps further—and made the claim that play itself might exist as its own generative teleology? When our moon is sent spinning around earth, causing our tides to rise and fall, can we not comprehend this phenomenon in the same way we view two children clasping their hands and spinning each other into centrifugal joy–i.e., as a gesture of play?
Humans are the only known entities who formulate play into games. Animals may have certain rules that contour their play—for example, neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp discovered that, when play-wrestling, young rats must be allowed to “win” by pinning their opponent at least 30 percent of the time (otherwise, they give up and stop playing)—but we would never codify these rules into what we would consider a game. So what happens, in human terms, when we are presented with a game that wants us to play it, and that places us into a set of ancient, yet very contemporary, parameters? We must find our own way of bringing the immovable laws that govern these shapes and signifiers to life through play. In that process, we might stumble across a game that seems to never end, that is won, though not played yet—a game you can still choose to lose. This is the game we mostly shy away from playing, because we aren’t used to playing forward in reverse. We choose, instead, to engage in self-scripted competitions where we can emerge as victors in our own strength, taking comfort in their foreseeable beginnings and endings, their assertions of prestige or defeat that have expired before we reach them. Playing above the snake line (2018), Kristina Buch’s commissioned installation for The Playground Project—Outdoor, curated by Susanne Kleine at Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, opens a new conversation toward the edifices and criteria of gamesmanship, and the infinite game.
A linear playing field composed of abstract geometric shapes rendered in an expanded liturgical palette (its anterior accented with a callipygous form in a light flesh tone), Playing above the snake line covers the entire far stretch of ground on the institution’s roof garden before pressing itself up the garden’s wall. Once up against the wall, the previously horizontal piece resolves into a sculptural form that performs a visual slip, completing and simultaneously preambling the work: on the vertically expanding playfield, a large bull’s-eye structure forms both and neither a Rosetta stained glass window (no glass) and/nor a dartboard (no darts). While the form might initially gesture toward the type of surface one yearns to hurl stones or sharps into, according to Buch, “what you can mostly throw at this structure are your own thoughts and associations.” The ground surface of the piece is made from EPDM, the rubbery substance that lines many playing fields (it delivers a scent redolent of tennis courts, racetracks, and playgrounds). So, experientially, one gets the sensorial read of sport and competition, yet the work’s shapes and tones—and the way it stretches open before its visitors—suggest an abstract cathedral hallway. The identity of the work is therefore doubled and negated: it has attributes related to both game and sacred space, but it proposes no exacting rules. Still, we sense laws as old and yet as eternally present as gravity itself, paradoxically unleashing and enabling an unscripted playfulness as we stroll, tumble, chase, or think across Buch’s work.
Which begs the question: If a game has no detailed rules, or if the game encompasses the totality of all extant rules, is it still a game? In Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game, 1943), the novel’s eponymous game is described as
“a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property—on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ.”It is not merely a game; it is the way in which we continuously try to unearth the meaning of life itself. Similarly, Buch’s game plays “above the snake line,” which might represent, in this instance, the necessity for higher fields of knowledge and inquiry. In mountaineering parlance, the “snake line” is the circumference line of a mountain above which snakes cannot survive. “It is a game that starts where the air becomes too thin for the purely earthly issues and knowledge,” explains Buch, noting that it is the snake’s nature to be forever bound to the horizon line, crawling through the dust of the earth.
The Glass Bead Game also represents the multidisciplinary epistemologies that Buch synthesizes and alchemizes as an artist. Her pieces often sprint past the suffocating drawing-room manners of sanctioned art history—its clasped hands and crossed ankles—and emerge from a reservoir that contains the unlikely companions of scientific thought (the artist received her MSc in biology) and spiritual inquiry (she also studied Protestant theology). Folded into a peripatetic examination of alternative sociocultural and art historical narratives, her propositions and “experiments” do not resolve into quantitative conclusions or religious conversions, but are a space where unchanging primeval laws come alive through improbable collisions with the present, unleashing unlikely futures.
An early work of Buch’s, Perhaps the wind is to the tree what curiosity is to the mind (2009), is a triptych of three small black-and-white drawings. One of the three, she says, “is one of my very first drawings, made when I was about two or three years old; the second is a drawing by Congo [zoologist Desmond Morris’s chimpanzee friend] that Desmond generously gifted into my triptych; and the third is a drawing that was made by a pen attached to a branch of a tree, which was moved across a small piece of drawing paper by the wind. All three drawing gestures are strikingly similar.” A stratification of seemingly contingent patterns, play and game, is proposed, yet in all three drawings we find forms of life playfully unfolding. For It’s normal that reality happens. (these games will fall apart), a public artwork commissioned by Arte Merano and BAU in 2016, Buch further complicated the idea of play and the drawing of borders—and also the identity of the player—by creating an abstract game field composed of yard lines of local white marble embedded in the lawn of a public park. The work found the divisive lines that normally connect the player to the rules of the game seemingly broken into pieces, floating in a state of an enduring “already but not yet,” as though the game itself had decided it no longer wished to be played by the presumed “rules,” written in stone.
For a 2016 exhibition EXECUTION SEMANTICS for a necessary criminal, the artist engaged in the “decapitation and otherwise dismemberment of words, to put them into a new semantic reminiscent of punch cards found in computers, looms and barrel organs, or Morse code and musical notation.” In this work she plays what is often the most dangerous game: the disturbance of collectively agreed-upon human rules of language and syntax—one thing that arguably gives us primacy above animals and the forces of nature. How do we know the rules if we can’t even consciously pronounce the words, or if the words we speak are indecipherable to our ears, and only intelligible to our spirit? Referencing Ada Lovelace, the woman commonly acknowledged as the first computer programmer, who conjured a computational device that “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” Buch had her work of decapitated words / new semantics woven into a long Jacquard curtain that covered the coat-hanging area of the institution. Like her game of broken signifiers set in stone, Buch detaches both the digital and the textual from its penance of promise: I will do everything you tell me to, as long as you keep feeding me words, or zeros and ones. Freed to wander into the unknown, these communications stop telling us what to do, just as we cease demanding that they speak for us what we have spelled out in advance. They then enter a space of being fully alive. They start playing.
With her meta-games, and particularly in Playing above the snake line, Buch may be summoning a rendezvous between Homo Ludens and Deus ludens, a notion of divine play rendered in human terms. Instead of a vision of God as the master puppeteer, we have a reinterpretation of the divine as gamesome co-conspirator: the infinite player and the infinite gamer. When introducing gestalt therapy to his audience at the Cooper Union in 1957, Fritz Perls noted that “in the social system the loss of nature is replaced by the rules of games,” equating nature with a form of rule-free interaction resembling play, from which we have devolved into our present condition. Fourteen years prior, Hesse tasked his Glass Bead Game with even further reclamations:
“[The Glass Bead Game] represented an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself—in other words, to God. Pious thinkers of earlier times had represented the life of creatures, say, as a mode of motion toward God, and had considered that the variety of the phenomenal world reached perfection and ultimate cognition only in the divine Unity. Similarly, the symbols and formulas of the Glass Bead Game combined structurally, musically, and philosophically within the framework of a universal language, were nourished by all the sciences and arts, and strove in play to achieve perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality. Thus, “realizing” was a favorite expression among the players. They considered their Games a path from Becoming to Being, from potentiality to reality.”So then, forget about all strategies, forget about all competition. Let the game be the play, whole in itself.