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Playbox01 at The British Art Show

A week in the life of Playbox 01 by Playful Leeds
We knew the community in Armley had loved the residency of Playbox01 in Charlie Cake Park over the 6 months we were there together, but when the hauliers Cramscene came to take it to Leeds Art Gallery for October half term we did not expect children to cry at its departure. (We’ll be back Lia don’t worry),
Playbox01 is our prototype, a 20ft shipping container, which we acquired during our year long civic engagement project March of the Robots. We turned it into a roving robot lab and took it across Leeds in 2014 to where people were rather than expect them to come to us. It dropped in on shopping centres, playgrounds, schools, car parks, older people residential centres before landing in the centre of Leeds.

This year we started with a big question mark…What can this robust box of tricks stimulate? We wanted it to enable playful connections in under used common land in Armley. We proceeded with minimum resource, spent time observing what happened in the park, before creating anything with the community. We put on events, BBQ’s, art activities, and opened the doors for play. From there developed a crowdfunding campaign to help create storage. We gained support from the Asda Foundation, and enjoyed masses of help from Kieran and the team at Three Create kitting towards the end of summer.

From Armley to Victoria Gardens in Leeds City Centre
So despite our hearts being wrenched we set out to play with the British Art Show, which tours every 5 years, this time Leeds Art Gallery has the honour of kicking off the show playing host to works by 42 artists.
Our plan was to sit opposite the gallery and invite people to talk to us, get creative, respond to their experience of visiting the British Art Show and connect to the wider cultural offer in Leeds including the Unfold programme across Leeds. There’s something about the Playbox which ignites the curiosity of passers-by, and more than connecting with us, it seems put people at ease and gets them talking to each other too. We facilitate the conditions to bring people together and see what emerges.

Making it up as we go along…
With no budget, we knew we had to create something good on a shoestring. We asked our friends if they’d like to play out with us during the week, and we were joined by the fantastic playmakers Stephanie Jefferies, Paul Jewison, Alison Booth, The Art Doctors and the enigmatic editor of the Culture Vulture, Phil Kirby. New art emporium Fred Aldous supported us with amazing art materials, and we raided the pound shops for inspiration.
Inspiration struck whilst in Wilkinsons hunting for post it notes in the form of Blox, their low cost version of Lego! Aha we’ll create a physical evaluation board to find out what people made of the British Art Show. Instead of a visitors book we’ll ask people to choose a coloured brick and set it down based on what the show made them FEEL…not think. Blue was COLD, Yellow bricks for LUKE WARM and RED bricks for LOVE!

We could not have imagined how this would have worked out so beautifully, both attracting passers by to enquire what it was all about, as much as seeing children running down the steps after they’d been to the British Art Show to share their appreciation in the form of bricks. As a conversation starter it was brilliant, some people were very specific about where they wanted to place their brick, like the gent who felt the inclined to place his blue on the outer edge of the board ‘This is not representative of the best of British Art’ he declared ‘don’t you have any black bricks?’ Other’s wanted to put their reds on the yellow section, because they felt they loved what they’d seen but needed more time to go back and linger. All in all the bricks piled up over the week, catalysed people to go into the gallery, as well as engaging those coming out. It gave Playful food for thought about how we collect data in interesting ways, and the opportunity 3D data can give not just us, but others who work with people, and collecting the metrics that matter….

Art Confessions were a simple way to get people thinking and sharing the way art makes them feel. Again this grew physically as the week went on, and allowed people private moments to chuckle, share, or converse. Some were a bit saucy, some a bit provocative, but all revealing. Art, and the curation of, has the power to make us feel all sorts of things, joy, anger, bemusement, indifference, and sometimes it renders us mute. We think it’s good to get it off your chest and onto our Playbox!

When the weather was clement Steph encouraged people to chalk on the paving slabs, initially drawing inspiration from Stuart Whipps’s The Kipper and the Corpse with Mini Mini cars to create recognisable city streetscapes. This playful permission setting sparked what became anarchic chalk drawing from children and adults alike. What joy to see people immersed in their creativity in the fresh air. Less joyful was the act of swashing the pictures away each evening.

Connecting through Play
Through the week we loved seeing how the Playbox allowed us to making connections by getting creative together. On the days when the sun shone people sat and created their art, talking with strangers whilst drawing for our gallery. One memorable moment involved a lady from Germany discovering with a lady from Bangalore that they shared a friend in common, and that friend happened to be the flatmate of the lady from Germany now living in Leeds. A little boy with a love of drawing tractors led to a chance encounter between an older agricultural engineer who used to run a Playbus in the 80’s with the boy’s grandmother, a retired head teacher who had his Playbus co-worker in common. You could not make these moments up!

When the rain came we hacked quacks! Not to be disheartened we took ourselves to Bargain and bought plastic ducks and see through brollies. We encouraged people to create secret messages, and light their ducks up from inside and then take them on a journey across Leeds with the aim of finding the best puddles and potholes. Sadly people became too attached, and took them home, but we did get to enjoy some pictures on Facebook of their bus top tours and trips to Liverpool!

Clear brollies acted a superb props to get people dancing and singing in the rain, borrowing from activities created on our final event in Armley* we asked people to decorate their ArtBrollies with glowsticks and stickers, and then did our best to encourage people to splash about in the rain. We were amazed by just how up for it people were.

Playful Potential – Connecting the Civic and Cultural in Leeds
Through the week we observed how people use Victoria Gardens, we became a stop off point for regulars, on their way to and from work. We were a sign poster to other bits of Leeds, We encountered day trippers who’d come from London for a day out, and people disappointed on Monday when they discover the gallery is closed. We were joined by a visiting orchestra on their way from the Radission to the Town Hall to perform Gershwin <picture> We helped people find the visitor information centre under the Art Gallery, and we got to know some of the people who find the civic buildings of Leeds offer comfort, and sanctuary We met people who take their children to the library whilst they complete their education, to people with no homes keeping out of the cold.

All in all it was a privilege to be asked by the British Art Show and Leeds Art Gallery to spend time with the public on Victoria Gardens, we learnt so much, and would love to return with Playbox when the gallery is closed for renovations to the roof in 2016 when the British Art Show moves onto Norwich on its Tour. Victoria Gardens has so much potential for play, for place and for connecting people to the city, the civic and cultural offer. We feel we just scratched the surface in the week we were there with Playbox. We know people loved to linger, they want to meet, to connect, to play. Imagine If we could put out some tables, stick on a brew, offer some blankets, brollies and maybe some cake, imagine the art of the possible…
*Abby Dix Mason, Charlie Mason and Maisie Zanzottera creators of ArtBrollies concept