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Play Orbit: a play on the history of play

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In 1969 Jasia Reichardt curated an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London called Play Orbit. Although it has not achieved the landmark status of Reichardt's Cybernetic Serendipity, which was presented in London a year earlier, it caught the intellectual and artistic mood of a newly emergent constituency of (largely British) artists who had benefited from a post-war revision of art education and a de-centring of intellectual energy away from the economic capitals.

It may be that Play Orbit will eventually be regarded in much the same way as Cybernetic Serendipity that is, as a significant footnote in the history of contemporary art. By turning artists' attention to toys through this project, the categories of painting and sculpture dissolved and the Modernist imperative of the enduring observation that had informed the arts and letters in a centred intellectual regime was seen for what it was: a colonial anachronism. The unapologetic relativism of play and the provisional truths of games coalesced in Play Orbit as confrontations to the essentialist materialism of the prevailing orthodoxy. In this sense Play Orbit, and its extensive catalogue of images and essays, foreshadowed not only the critical style that followed the influence of Continental Theory in the mid 1970s but also anticipated the agenda of virtually all that has been written about games in the last decade. For all its apparent whimsy and reification of idiosyncrasy, Play Orbit can now be seen as, above all, a constructively political intervention levered through the arts. For example, one of the more enduring and least contested impacts of the intellectual revisions of the last thirty years that Play Orbit foreshadowed is evident in the practice of history not least the practice of history as a game to be played. This paper elaborates on these assertions and asks how games and games theory might be connected with their own political and intellectual history, and how contemporary artists who choose to benefit from the licence that play endows might situate their work within what might be called Art Ludistory: a political play on the history of play.
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Keywords: art education; art ludistory; game theory; play orbit; toys

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Plymouth.

Publication date: August 21, 2008

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  • Technoetic Arts focuses upon the juncture between art, technology and the mind. Divisions between academic areas of study, once rigidly fixed, are gradually dissolving due to developments in science and cultural practice. This fusion has had a dramatic effect upon the scope of various disciplines. In particular, the profile of art has radically evolved in our present technological culture
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