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«Alternative Mobility Futures Conference, Lancaster University, 9-11 January 2004 Abstract. What does it mean to move playfully, or to be playfully ...»

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Playful Mobilities: Ubiquitous Computing in the City.

Anne Galloway

Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University

Alternative Mobility Futures Conference, Lancaster University, 9-11 January 2004


What does it mean to move playfully, or to be playfully mobile? Various emerging wireless and

ubiquitous technologies suggest types of mobility that are decidedly playful – and that bring to

discussions of mobility multiple notions of play. When we ask about the relations between sociality, technology and mobility, we are often enough asking what is at play, and to be at play is to be active and operative, to change position, to be mobile. But what kind of movement is this?

What is being moved? Where, when and how do people and objects and ideas move? This paper asks these and other questions by relating discussions of movement in art and technological play to several recent explorations in wireless computing. These examples of ubiquitous computing in the city can be seen to delve into different aspects of playful urban mobilities, from formalised games and performances to technological subversions. In keeping with the theme of play, this paper will also experiment with more playful ways of producing academic work and serve primarily as a contextual guide to my conference presentation.


Mobility and its relations According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word ‘mobile’ derives from the Latin mobilis, from movere ‘to move’. To move is “to change or cause to change position,” and to be mobile is “to be able to move freely or easily.” To ‘mobilise’ is to organise or make mobile and to be ‘motive’ is to produce motion. The opposite of mobile is ‘stable’: “not likely to give way or overturn; firmly fixed; not likely to change or fail,” from the Latin stabilis ‘to stand.’ To stand is to “place or be situated in a particular position.” Similarly, the word ‘kinetic’ derives from the Greek kinetikos, ‘moving’: of, relating to or resulting from motion (the action or process of moving). In physics, kinetic theory explains the “physical properties of matter in terms of the movement of its constituent parts;” kinetic energy refers to “energy which a body possesses by virtue of being in motion.” Mobility is also related to ‘dynamics’ in physics and mechanics. A dynamic process or system is characterised by constant change or activity, and dynamics refer to causal relations, or the “motion of bodies under the action of forces.” Dynamics may be contrasted with ‘kinematics’: the branch of mechanics concerned with the “motion of objects without reference to the forces which cause the motion.” The opposite of dynamic is ‘static’: lacking movement, action or change. In physics, statics is concerned with “bodies at rest” or “forces in equilibrium.”

-2Of play and games The OED defines ‘play’ as both verb and noun. To play is “to engage in games or other activities for enjoyment rather than for serious or practical purpose.” It means to “perform” a musical instrument or to “produce” a piece of music. Actors can also be referred to as ‘players.’ Play can also mean to “move lightly and quickly: a smile played about her lips.” As a noun, ‘play’ again refers to “games or other activities engaged in for enjoyment” as well as the status of a ball within the rules of a game: “the ball was put into play.” Play also refers to the “state of being active, operative, or effective: luck comes into play,” and the “ability or freedom of movement in a mechanism” or “light and constantly changing movement.” The word ‘play’ derives from the Old English, pleg(i)an ‘to exercise’, plega ‘brisk movement’. To be ‘playful’ is to be “fond of games and amusement.” The word ‘game’ also derives from the Old English gamen ‘amusement, fun’, and gamenian ‘play, amuse oneself’. A game is also “an activity engaged in for amusement,” but more often according to particular rules, as in a “complete episode or period of play, ending in a final result.” In The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith (2001) focuses on play theories rooted in seven distinct "rhetorics" - the ancient discourses of fate, power, communal identity, and frivolity and the modern discourses of progress, the imaginary, and the self.

At the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference (University of Utrecht, November 2003), octogenarian Sutton-Smith suggested that one of the reasons we play is to cope with the reality that "life is crap and we're all going to die in the end anyway" (Stern 2003).

I immediately smile at the idea that play gives us hope.

In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Salen and Zimmerman (2003) discuss various schemas for understanding games. Formal schemas interpret games as sets of rules, such as put forth in emergent, information theory or game theory systems. Experiential schemas understand games as play, including frameworks on play and meaning, narrative play and social play. Contextual schemas frame games in terms of culture, and focus on how games interact in and with their social contexts, for example, as cultural texts, ideology or as political resistance.

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Calder’s mobiles.

In the arts, mobiles refer to sculpture. In reference to metal sculpture, “it might be easier to define constructions, stabiles, mobiles and kinetic sculpture by what they are not.” Kinetic art or sculpture relies on motion for its effect, and a stabile is a “free standing


sculpture, in the style of a mobile but rigid and stationary” (OED).

In 1928, Alexander Archipenko exhibited Archipentura or Peinture Changeante – a motorised work that produced variable images in sequence - one of the first attempts to introduce ‘real’

movement into a work of art:

Since Archipentura paints movement and since movement does not exist outside of time, the duration and speed of action intervene inevitably as elements of creation in Archipentura … Archipentura offers the possibility of executing and representing in even the same point of space, different objects, movements, transformations, and displacements (Archipenko as cited in Marter 1991:42).

Moholy-Nagy described kinetic sculpture as “the highest sublimation of volume content, the creation of virtual volume relationships realized at the point of balance of taut forces” (cited in Marter 1991:119).

Alexander Calder studied as a mechanical engineer and is attributed with the invention of the mobile (sculpture) – a word coined by fellow artist Marcel Duchamp and contrasted with his stabile (sculpture), so coined by Jean Arp. As Marter (1991:123) reminds us, “Calder’s mobiles of the 1930s were the first sustained exploration of virtual movement in sculpture” Inspired by prominent artists of the era, Calder (1966:113) tells a story of visiting Piet Mondrian’s studio: “I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate and he, with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast’.” Calder also claimed that Marcel Duchamp’s elimination of representative form in Nude Descending a Staircase avoided the connotation of ideas which would interfere with the success of the main issue – the sense of movement. He described his mobiles as nothing but “moving elements, their forms and colors, and their orbits, speeds and accelerations” (cited in Marter 1991:141).

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His standing mobiles involve fixed and moving parts, where the fixed elements are autonomous forms and not just support for the mobile elements. Left: Mobile with Stabile Element, 1940. Right: Myxomatose, 1953.

Myxomatosis is a highly infectious viral disease of rabbits that attacks the nervous system and causes unpredictable and uncontrollable convulsions before death (OED).

Calder’s stabiles suggest mobiles at particular points in space and time. Left: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1947. Right: Teodelapio, 1962.

And Calder (1943) defined a mobile in motion as leaving an

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In biology, a tropism is the “turning of all or part of an organism in response to an external stimulus;” from the Greek trope ‘turn, turning,’ also related to tornos ‘circular movement.’ For example, phototropism involves plants growing towards the light. Turning also involves a change in position, although often limited to pivoting on an axis. Similarly, nastic movements refer to the “movement of plant parts caused by an external stimulus but unaffected in direction by it,” from the Greek nastos ‘squeezed together’ (OED).

What if we were to imagine socio-technological assemblages as mobiles? What kind of mobility might that be? What if we instead imagined them as stabiles, as assemblages that suggest or represent mobiles at particular points in space and time? And what if we imagined socio-technological assemblages as standing mobiles, where the fixed elements are autonomous forms and not just support for the mobile elements?

“All we know are assemblages. And the only assemblages are machinic assemblages of desire and collective assemblages of enunciation. No significance, no subjectification...” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:22).

“The name of the game is not to extend subjectivity to things, to treat humans like objects, to take machines for social actors, but to avoid using the subject-object distinction at all in order to talk about the folding of humans and nonhumans. What the new picture seeks to capture are the moves by which any given collective extends its social fabric to other entities” (Latour 1999:193-194).

“Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:25).

In The Mobiles of Calder, Sartre (1946) writes:

“I was talking with Calder one day in his studio when suddenly a ‘mobile’ beside me, which until then had been quiet, became violently agitated. I stepped quickly back; thinking to be out of its reach. But then, when the agitation had ceased and it appeared to have relapsed into quiescence, its long, majestic tail, which until had not budged, began mournfully to wave, and, sweeping through the air, brushed across my face. These hesitations, resumptions, gropings, clumsinesses, the sudden decisions and above all that swan-like grace make of certain ‘mobiles’ very strange creatures indeed, something midway between matter and life. At moments they seem endowed with an intention; a moment later they appear to have forgotten what they intended to do, and finish by merely swaying inanely.

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they are left to work it out for themselves. What they may do at a given moment will be determined by the time of day, the sun, the temperature or the wind. The object is thus always half way between the servility of a statue and the independence of natural events; each of is evolutions is the inspiration of a moment. It may be possible to discern the composer's theme, but the mechanism itself introduces a thousand personal variations” … “Mobiles have to draw their mobility from some source … They feed on air, they breathe, they borrow life from the vague life of the atmosphere.

Thus their mobility is of a particular kind. The ‘mobile’… never [has] precision and efficiency … [it] weaves uncertainty, hesitates and at times appears to begin its movement anew, as if it had caught itself in a mistake. Yet the motions are too artfully composed to be compared to those of a marble rolling on a rough board, when each change of direction is determined by the asperities of the surface” (Sartre 1946).

Movement as Play / Play as Movement

“The spirit of play replaces the metaphysical desire to ground things in principles, to stabilize movement on the basis of laws, to neutralize ambiguity in the hermeneutic move toward the constitution of meaning, and to reduce the multiplicity of phenomenon to the One instance that is common to all. As Hegel put it: ‘Play is the noblest and only true seriousness’” (Miller 1996).

What are the relations between movement and play?

For Gadamer, the to-and-fro movement characteristic of collective play exemplifies the active relationship of subject and object in the experience of art. Becoming lost in play affects an ontological shift, where the player as subject is incorporated into the (object of) play. Play depends not upon the subject who plays it, but on “the movement as such” (Gadamer 1989:103By surrendering to play, the player forgoes the separation from nature that arises from her status as rational being, and instead becomes part of the “natural” and uncertain movement of the universe.

According to Gadamer (1986:23), this play of nature exhibits a “phenomenon of excess.” In the play of art, the phenomenon of excess is manifest in the artistic work. In art, as in play, something comes into presence that has never been there before; the work is made present, presented, through play (Gadamer 1986:12).

For Deleuze and Guattari, movement is always associated with production, with becoming, with flows; conversely, stability is associated with reproduction or the symbolic, with being.

Following Deleuze and Guattari, Lash (2002:173-74) argues for a critique of information that shifts our focus from representational culture to technological culture, which is an “immanentist order. It presumes a certain hands-on-ness, a tactility, in contrast to the distanciation… of representational culture.” Lash (2002:157) puts forth a familiar space of immanence, of play, which “operates in the register of magic.” In this sense, play is firmly rooted in the real, the

embodied, but is not utilitarian or linear. Lash (2002:158-59) continues to write that:

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the significance of the metonymic mask in play … Play emerges in, indeed constitutes, the general economy of excess … To partake of excess through the agon is to partake of honour. Honour surely does not accumulate.

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