Juan Carlos Castro

Daniel T. Barney


Playing the Spiral Jetty


An exploration of how play with, in, and through art can create spaces for novel interpretive possibilities. 


Part 1: Play 


Everyday usages of the word play can range from an activity for enjoyment to the space in which something can move. Play has roots in the Old English word pleg(i)an, meaning to exercise and plega meaning brisk movement. Hans-Georg Gadamer (2004) articulates play and subsequently art as medial process of back and forth movement. He continues that it is a movement not towards a prescribed or even intentioned goal; play has no substrate. As research the practice of play and art transforms structures of action and intention into something else entirely with traces that are familiar yet strange. The relationship between art and play is described by Ellen Dissanayake (1974) as intricately linked because both activities involve a state of exchanges of tensions and releases. Tension arises from a conflict with established norms and rules enacted in everyday life. It is from this tension and release that the surprise of the unknown emerges. Dissanayake states that in the work of art one can find “a blend of the novel and the familiar, the expected and the strange, the conventional and the previously unimaginable” (p. 214). This is achieved by delaying the unfolding of the expected and reshaping presumed outcomes. 


In this exposition we embrace this method of enquiry by being moved by, in the sense of being influenced and inspired, as well as by moving ourselves or shifting position through space in time, as we literally play with contemporary art. As stated previously, this enquiry is playful but remains a complicated conversation as we elaborate our theories as participant/viewers, practicing artists, and as art educators. It is as Gadamer (2004) states that “...in playing, all those purposive relations that determine active and caring existence have not simply disappeared, but are curiously suspended” (p.102). Our engagement with Robert Smithson’s earthwork Spiral Jetty, is a process of recursively elaborating the space of play set forth by the artists in the exhibition Contemporary Masters into and through what has become a pillar in many modern historical texts on art (see Arnason, 1986; Arnason, Wheeler, Prather, & Kalb, 2004). The work entitled Playing the Spiral Jetty is a documentation of play as artistic practice, partially documenting an edited process of our enquiry but the film also functions much like Smithson’s film entitled The Spiral Jetty. It is a continuation of a line of artistic enquiry, a transition expressing a playfully iterative and phenomenological journey. Smithson did not separate the actual jetty from the film or his essay with the same title. They were all The Spiral Jetty, which highlights Smithson’s belief that “artists must resist the process of temporal commodification” that stems from an “object-oriented view of art” (Roberts, 2004, p. 122). In this playful enquiry, we utilized Smithson’s methodological understanding of “time as a process of continuous material deposition” (p. 122). This methodology delays making determinations as to when an artistic “product” is complete or finished. And in so doing, works become significant in context and they are relational, resisting the notion of a timeless and context-free piece of art.


Play as a methodology in our research draws from the ideas born out of the same minimalist art movement in the 1970s that Smithson's Spiral Jetty was created. Referencing Jean-François Lyotard, Boris Groys (2005) stated “the question of how one transitions from one form to the other, from one artwork to the other, is central to art” (p. 54-55). And within the discourse of art in the 1970s those transitions were “something invisible, merely conceivable, virtual” (Groys, 2005, p. 55). These transitions were generative spaces in which the viewer or participant completed the work of art in which “an individual artistic decision is no longer understood as sovereign, as fully autonomous but, rather, as an individual application of the existing set of rules, as a realisation of an option that is always already given” (ibid, p. 55). Further, the space between works becomes an algorithm of sorts, a set of generative rules in which meaning arises. Groys (2005) continues that the space between works of art is a mimesis of thinking, which minimalist artists of the 1970s deployed to create a tension between the limitless possibilities of a system of generative rules and the finite nature of space and materiality. 


The artistic enquiry method of “play or movement that breaks down fixed oppositions” (Shapiro, 1995, p. 83) was conceptualized by Smithson as a dialectic. Through a dialectic, Smithson plays with centers and fringes, sites and non-sites, as relational entities rather than polarities. They are a part of a whole, not an either/or option. One must step back from known perspectives and delay one’s finished conclusions in such a methodology. 


Further underlying this enquiry is a theoretical stance that art practice and enquiry arise in relation to what post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler (2004a, 2004b) terms a scene of constraint that is not solely determined by culture or biology, but a complex web of organized associations. While art might evoke embodied aesthetic responses (Bresler, 2004) that prompt a learning opportunity, we propose that the viewer can actively play with the meaning of art across contexts, hierarchies and institutions. It is this performance of and with art (Garoian, 2001) that critically brings into relief and disrupts the processes which normalize our interpretations of meaning. Here play is that space of movement between the constraints of how we come to interpret and interact with art. This is key. Our purpose in the video artwork Playing the Spiral Jetty was to document a generative space and a process where meaning is reshaped and transformed. It is a part of our enquiry. 


Part 2: Contemporary Masters


In the summer of 2010 the Salt Lake Art Center, now called the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), mounted an exhibition of an 18-hole miniature golf course entitled Contemporary Masters: Art-Inspired Miniature Golf. Eighteen different artists from across the United States were invited to design and construct a hole for a miniature golf course. Fourteen Utah artist’s were selected after submitting a proposal, and four artists from other locations were invited based on their past work. Each Utah artist who was selected was given $2,500 to construct their creation, while the four invited artists were given an additional $750 to offset shipping costs that they might incur. The curator, now executive director of the museum, initiated this fully playable art exhibition to counter the public sentiment that contemporary art is inaccessible and unapproachable. His idea was to organize an art experience within a context that was somewhat familiar and fun, through which current and significant issues could still be addressed by contemporary artists with an actively engaged audience.


We began the exhibition with the competitive spirit of 10 year-olds trying to win at every hole with the lowest number of strokes. By the 13th hole our scores had become increasingly worse. The first hole by Kisslan Chan entitled Take it Easy seemed just that—too easy—because the hole was essentially an AstroTurf funnel that assured one’s success. The curator, Adam Price, intentionally positioned this hole as the first, “to ease the viewers [or in this case, participants,] into contemporary art” (A. Price, personal communication, September 8, 2010). As we moved through the exhibition, however, each hole seemed to become progressively more absurd. The sheer futility of the course in some instances led us to question how rules and conditions shape interpretive frames of lived experience. The 9th hole, entitled Pissing in the Wind [1] was artist John Bell’s attempt to create a piece/hole that was virtually impossible to beat, encouraging the participant to give up the notion of domination or winning and enjoy art as a point of conversation (Maguire, 2010). Our participation in the exhibition was teaching us, not solely about miniature golf, but about art, games and play, and learning within a variety of constraints. It made us aware of our own enquiry methods as artistic researchers. Data points are rarely, if ever, devoid of context or cross-disciplinary discourse. Interpretation within artistic engagement therefore becomes a significant dialectic in meaning making and can shift as frameworks are disrupted. Playing this miniature golf course as an engagement with contemporary art became a way to make new understandings certainly, but perhaps more significantly, caused us to interpret differently. For example, the exercise shifted our perspectives and interests and began to reshape interpretative possibilities of how we could engage with a rule structure present in a game like golf and also in the tacitly socially constructed expectations for engaging with art. 


Artist Peter Everett’s 13th hole entitled Donkey Kong seemed to be a straightforward affair [2]. A long stretch of red carpet leads to a narrow ramp that traverses a gully, leading into a small cartoon-like mouse hole carved into a bank of three Donkey Kong arcade consoles that were fabricated entirely from raw materials by the artist. After many putts, we eventually were able to send our golf ball up the ramp and into the small portal triggering a low, prolonged, rumbling chant of ohm, from the three arcade consoles representing birth, life, and death. Sinking the putt enabled us to play a round of Donkey Kong on the other side of the putting area. Our ball was not returned to us, instead a replacement was issued in a trough at the start of the hole, referencing an inspiration of this work, the transmigration of the soul or reincarnation. It was after this hole we began to understand the dialog between rules, or constraints, and play.


The dialectic created between old gaming (golf) and new gaming (video arcade) embodied a much broader conversation between order and chaos that emerged in the experience of playing the exhibition. Participating in Contemporary Masters aligned many aspects of an ongoing critical conversation that we have been engaged in over the past four years. Even though we were raised on opposite sides of North America, we share similar backgrounds in our training as artists and educators. For example, our undergraduate and masters programs were influenced by two prominent proponents of Discipline-based Art Education who are also co-authors (see Hurwitz & Day, 2007). Our artistic and educational heritage was parallel enough to be able to communicate and yet different enough to provoke a reframing of our entrenched interpretive responses. The process of artistic enquiry and research that we have developed over the past four years has been recursively elaborative.


Recursively elaborative processes are a feedback loop of conversation and dialog with our past experiences that folds into future action. The constraints of our similar yet different educational training in art, in dialogue with one another, resembles the dialectic of our experience of playing the miniature golf course in Contemporary Masters. Our training and experiences in art and education influence, but do not determine, because as we interact relationally and dialectically we create new possibilities for interpretation. This co-invested investigation then resembles what we know about this game yet provokes encounters in a way that are almost totally unfamiliar. Our collaborative artistic and educational enquiry, therefore, attends to both randomness and coherency. 


Contemporary Masters, as an artistic exhibition, embodied ideas put forth by Groys (2005) of generative rules operating in the space in between works. It also represented a kind of art curriculum as a constrained space, not as a step-by-step planned beginning-to-end activity, but as a negotiated space with simple guidelines or constraints—agreed upon by players, or participating agents—that generates divergent possibilities, interpretations, and understandings. Reinterpreting Judith Butler’s (2004a) notions of gender, as “an improvisation within a scene of constraint,” (p. 1) we view art curriculum, as lived experience (van Manen, 1982) and as an improvisational and relational experience within a scene of constraint. Katherine Hayles (2001) presents a similar notion of thinking of encounters with art and art curriculum in the following:


Neither completely constrained nor entirely free, we act within these systems with partial agency amid local specificities that help to determine our behavior, even as our behavior also helps to configure the system. We are never only conscious students, for distributed cognition take (sic) place throughout the body as well as without; we are never texts, for we exist as embodied entities in physical contexts too complex to be reduced to semiotic codes; and we never act with complete agency, just as we are never completely without agency. (p. 158)


We have found through our own collaborative artistic enquiry, and through that of contemporary artists and practices, that we are concerned with the creation of constraints as spaces that are contingent on participation and collaboration. The importance of these constraints is that they are dependent on diverse interpretive frames from participants while also occasioning the re-examination of those interpretive frames, inspiring transformation and adaptation. To us, this is learning. By playing the artists’ designed holes in Contemporary Masters, we began to question whether the interpretive strategies of our own art education could fully account for the kinds of understandings emerging from our participation with the art.


Throughout our art educational histories there has been a tacit and sometimes explicit attitude of reverence taught in how we should encounter works of art. Yet, many artists in the past thirty years have questioned this reverential stance of transmission and observation and developed a critical dialog with the many histories they embody and encounter. We call to mind the playful work of Vik Muniz and his peanut butter and jelly portraits of the Mona Lisa, Jeff Wall’s complex and subtle staged-photographs that recontextualize historical painting into tableaus of contemporary life, and Cindy Sherman’s unnerving photographic re-presentations in her History Portraits


Art and museum educators alike have also questioned the unilateral monologue of museums and art and pointing toward a need for critical and open dialog between viewer and art (Paris & Mercer 2002; Du Toit & Dye 2008; Falk 2009). It is here we draw upon Garoian’s (2001) “radical pedagogical strategy that critiques the exclusivity of the Enlightenment mindset in order to create an open discourse between museum culture and viewers” (p. 237). The space of play that is created by deploying Garoian’s interpretive and performative framework is one of divergent possibilities and one that was enacted in the process of making our video artwork Playing the Spiral Jetty.


Part 3: Playing the Spiral Jetty


Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, constructed in 1969-1970, is considered “the most famous and romantic of all the Earthworks” (Arnason, 1986, p. 577). It is included in many art history texts as an example of “earth and site art” (Arnason, 1986; Gardner, De la Croix, Tansey, & Kirkpatrick, 1980). It is an iconic work, consisting of a film, an essay, and the monumental constructed site at Rozel Point in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, USA. This work has been discussed and analyzed at great length, especially the site itself (see Cooke & Kelly, 2005 for an extensive albeit selected bibliography). We are not the only ones whose theories and artistic enquiry have been influenced through an interaction with the actual site. Take for instance, Tacita Dean’s soundwork Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty (1997), which is an edited narration of how she and a friend sought to encounter the jetty but were ultimately unable to find it. Nico Israel (2002) also offers an account of his journey with a friend, who is also unable to find the jetty, but discovers new insights and understandings in the search regardless of its absence. Likewise, Clark Lundberry (2002) theorizes his attempt to see the jetty as it was documented in photographs as a type of ruin and vacancy that aligns with Smithson’s notions of entropy. The Great Salt Lake swallowed the jetty only two years after Smithson built it. For two decades it lay dormant under water, making a brief appearance in the early 90s. However, in 2002 when water levels once again receded, the jetty re-emerged. 


Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty is almost exclusively interpreted through institutional, ecological, or entropic discourses. We do not disagree with these interpretations, but we find it useful to play with Smithson’s methodological practices to create new understandings and possibilities that move beyond these self-replicating perspectives. As The Spiral Jetty has now resurfaced, it makes perfect sense to revisit it as a catalyst of possibility. Smithson himself did not want meaning to be fixed, complete, or finished, but risky as he intended ambiguity in his work (Danto, 2005; Tsai, 1991). Ironically, interpretations of his art seem to have coalesced into an entropic sameness that he imagined for his sites (Flam, 1996). Smithson saw his work as antithetical to the gallery/museum-centric art world. He likened the gallery/museum to a prison environment incapable of supporting a dialectical relationship between viewer and art. Smithson (1979/2003) stated “[m]useums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells—in other words, neutral rooms called ‘galleries’” (p. 970). For Smithson, working in nature and outside the walls of a museum or gallery provided a space for the type of play in which he could participate with “a dialectic of nature that interacts with the physical contradictions inherent in natural forces as they are—nature as both sunny and stormy” (p. 971). Smithson saw nature as providing an opportunity to create a dialectic “outside of cultural confinement” of the white cube gallery (Smithson, p. 971). What Smithson did was to use the “rules” of nature to play with the notions of the gallery establishment. Likewise, in making our video artwork Playing the Spiral Jetty, we sought to play with the rules of engagement to generate new interpretations and meanings from our experiences in Contemporary Masters and fold them into our encounter with, including our historical training about, Smithson’s artwork.


Given the legendary status of The Spiral Jetty, our video Playing the Spiral Jetty [3] could be construed as irreverent to some. The protagonist performer, dressed in a white jumper, travels over rough terrain in the Utah desert to ultimately hit a golf ball into this well-documented earthwork. However, the intention of this performance is more of a complicit reverential play than a kind of irreverent or disrespectfully making fun of. To clarify this point, reverence in this instance is an attitude that seeks active and critical attention towards connected experiences. That is to say, our experience of engaging with our understandings—brought forth from our engagement with the artists’ works in Contemporary Masters—was at play in our encounter with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a historically significant site. We acknowledge our own experiences in relation to historical accounts relative to this project. Instead of solely enacting how we have been trained to encounter a work of art, we critically connect the processes and practices of play that we brought with us from our experiences with Contemporary Masters. In so doing, the work is remade conceptually to us just as the waters subsided and revealed the jetty anew in recent years. 


Historically, artists have utilized play and games as methods for disrupting conventional belief and practices—as methods for realizing new interpretive frames. Surrealist, Dada, Fluxus, and New Game Movement artists, for example, used game play to challenge historic interpretive frames relevant to artistic discourse. These strategies have been adopted more recently in contemporary practice.


Surrealists created games such as exquisite corpse and automatic writing “to escape the confining cultural constructs of the period” (Heon, 2001, p. 9). We utilize known structures, such as historical accounts surrounding The Spiral Jetty, existing roads to the jetty, and our own embodied histories as artists and art educators, as a framework to be able to play in between The Spiral Jetty and our experience of Contemporary Masters. We view this type of play as an important artistic methodology, but we also value play as a more intellectual endeavor, such as addressed by Duchamp.


According to Heon (2001), Duchamp approached game play differently than the surrealists. While the surrealists attempted to create work free from the confines of cultural constructs, Duchamp was determined to create “intellectual rather than emotional products” (p. 11). Hughes (1991) explains that Dada “enshrined play as the highest human activity, and its main tool was chance” (p. 61). Our methods in creating Playing the Spiral Jetty are not to disrupt solely through chance, but to play with known structures at hand in a nondeterministic way. Although, like Dada and the theoretical understanding presented by Gadamer, we do not prescribe an end goal in our play. 


The goal of Fluxus artists was “to undermine the seriousness of high art in order to make art in general available to more people” (Heon, 2001, p. 15). Certainly, there is an aspect of this in Playing the Spiral Jetty, but we do not pretend that the goal of our enquiry, however noble, is to make The Spiral Jetty more accessible to more people. Our open-ended intention, simply stated, is to see what interpretive possibilities emerge through artistically playful engagement.


The contemporary women’s game collective, Ludica, explored counternarratives to “current anthrocentric, male-dominated, and technocentric culture” (Pearce, Fullerton, Fron, & Morie, 2007, p. 261) by drawing from the methodologies of the New Games Movement, formed by contemporaries of Smithson in the early 1970s. Ludica’s recent exploration of these strategies—requiring some physical participation, rules that shift through game play, and rarely involve keeping score since there is never an expressed winner—parallel our own methodology of play. For example, New Games are utilized as strategies to learn as they are played. The learning that is to take place, however, is not necessarily known in advance. The only hope is that a new understanding will be made available. As Brand (in Fluegelman, 1976) suggests, “You can’t change a game by winning it... or losing it or refereeing it or spectating it. You change a game by... starting a new game” (p. 137). Playing the Spiral Jetty is an attempt to start a new game.


Smithson sought to supplant where and how artworks would be encountered and by doing so created an implicit invitation for participation across scales of individual viewers, cultural hierarchies, the environment and time. This also created the conditions for our participation and juxtaposition of experiences to come together in Playing the Spiral Jetty. Artworks can provoke embodied responses and Playing the Spiral Jetty is about connecting seemingly separate experiences of art embodied by us, the artists/authors, into new forms and ways of knowing. Play as a spontaneous and undirected, or ludic, space of possibility prompts opportunities to reshape entrenched and enculturated interpretive responses. Through ludic play in creating Playing the Spiral Jetty we reimagine our work as artists and art education scholars.


Part 4: Interpretive Play through and with Art


We are concerned by convention that restricts or limits possibilities and constrains the imagination of divergent understandings in art and education. Language, in a variety of forms, along with its vocabulary offers potential for expression and understanding, but it comes with a caveat if it is not able to adapt. Ordinary usages of language, their form and structure and their protocol for exchange restrict as they offer opportunities to create. This poses a paradoxical complication, for we are able to create through vocabulary and convention, but are simultaneously limited by it. Judith Butler (cited in Salih & Butler, 2004b) shared her warning that grammar simultaneously constructs and limits our understandings of the world:


I’m not sure we’re going to be able to struggle effectively against those constraints or work within them in a productive way unless we see the ways in which grammar is both producing and constraining our senses of what the world is. (p. 328)


Hence, the grammar of artistic engagement and discourse must be critically explored. In art and art education we can work with and against such constraints. Constraints, however, can both enable and close off new forms of knowing. For example, constraints are relational properties that simultaneously constrain the possibilities available to a knower and open up new possibilities. We cannot function without a certain amount of constraints and yet many times the constraints that give form to our thinking and artistic enquiry also close off new possibilities for knowing. Through the limitation of possibilities, new coherences can emerge (Juarrero, 1999). For example, the constraints or “rules” presented in both Contemporary Masters and in Smithson’s Spiral Jetty allow for new interpretations as playful interactions or improvisations. Constraints that enable are articulated by Davis and Sumara (2006) as,


structural conditions that help to determine the balance between sources of coherence that allow a collective to maintain focus of purpose/identity and sources of disruption and randomness that compel the collective to constantly adjust and adapt (p. 147).


The kinds of constraints that are enacted in playful enquiry are what Juarrero (1999) termed second-order constraints, which are initially top-down in that they impose a certain level of causal influence yet are open and reciprocal allowing a space for a generative back and forth between scales of organization. The scale where second-order constraints are enacted is two-fold. First, it is at the scale of an individual. We can enact context-free constraints, meaning that we impose constraints that are not sensitive to the context where they are enacted. Context-free constraints close off any openings for the embodied histories and local knowledge of individuals outside of schooling or in the viewing of an artwork. Such enactment involves imposing an order on an individual so that they conform and adapt to the conditioning of the constraint. Meaning is usually found at the level of performing as a good student or making the ‘correct’ interpretation of an artwork’s meaning from an established hegemony. Context-free constraints are often characterized through a convergence on pre-existing points of knowledge. Juarrero used the image of a pendulum coming to rest at a single point or at its attractor to describe context-free constraints.


On the other hand, context-sensitive constraints are an occasion for prior possibilities embodied by individuals and collectives to be enacted, extended and elaborated. It is a reshaping of interpretive frames, enacted at the scale of individual and collective. At the level of the individual, it asks for a reconsideration and reordering of interpretive frames that are dependent on prior actualities. It is an act of enabling individuals to enter into spaces of uncertainty, to encounter the limits of their knowledge, and to be able to reorganize previous understandings and interpretive frames into new patterns of knowing about themselves in the world, as part of the world. Art and art curricula can be a space for the reshaping of the contours of enacted interpretive frames, in between a space of prior and possible actualities.


The ability to play within and across the constraints we encounter, be it prior histories, educational experiences, and institutional and curricular structures, is a generative space. Play then, acts as movement and conversation across local constraints enacted from personal histories and enculturated norms, reshaping our encounters with art. Playing with constraints from different contexts brings forth possibilities that critically and playfully reshape our engagements with art that shift interpretive possibilities. Our encounter with the exhibition Contemporary Masters and subsequent creation of the video artwork Playing the Spiral Jetty, for example, illustrates how our enquiry unfolded in between context-sensitive constraints. This enquiry serves as an example of how interpretive play, that is the productive space of juxtaposing explicit and tacit rules of engagement, provokes a space of divergent possibility. We are not making presumptuous claims of new knowledge in the sense that we created something of which has never existed. Instead, knowledge is a new—qualitatively different yet familiar—interpretive act. The play between art is the generative space for novel interpretive possibilities. Playing with and as art presents a new grammar, or set of rules, that opens up dialectical interpretive frames.




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Playing the 9th Hole with a par by John Bell, Pissing in the Wind, 2010


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Daniel T. Barney & Juan Carlos Castro, Playing the Spiral Jetty, 2010