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Purgatory Playground

Graduating, role-playing and starting a blog   15.07.22

A man stands waiting for the green light to blink for him to walk across the street. He is devastated, frustrated talking on the phone before the camera leans upwards to the sky as an electric guitar plays in the background. The man runs with a bag of money and a gun; again, he is frustrated and panicking. Seeking shelter, he sees a door with a sign reading ‘TODAY’S bloodthirsty butchers’ and decides to enter. The status quo of his emotions are broken as we focus on four band members playing Japanese punk. These are the Bloodthirsty Butchers, the song is ‘Jack Nicholson’. The video and song continue with this man running from police, listening to this band, and flashing back to the monotony of his life; squashed against the train window, distressed listening down the phone and staring even further down to the ground as he stands in front of his disappointed, angry boss. These are only expressed further in the lyrics:

You might think I’m loud and selfish, and I might die in a gutter, but I want to maintain this speed.

Speed. Speed. He just wants to be fast, to speed it all up, to move past the monotony of it all. At the beginning of the script of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is a quote from Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’. It reads:

He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed.

To live so fast you throb is to live fluidly. To live so fast, you live within these natural processes. To remain unpinned, undefined then can be a different kind of speed to the one capitalist requires. We live in a fast gig economy, run on the speed of a TikTok video, the speed of a worker, it is a machine run on exploitation. Everything seems to rely on it and with it we can have everything right now, in front of us. There is rarely a sense of limbo, of in between as anything can be ‘remedied’ with something else, a distraction. No space left to be bored, we don’t allow ourselves to be. Or we haven’t been allowed to be. To be in a state of in-between, of limbo is often regarded not as it’s neutral state but in moving away from the distractions of such an economy, automatically negative; it is a state transformed into purgatory.

Play is an inherent part of childhood; something that if allowed, would give you the autonomy to explore, to exercise your mounting curiousity and to participate in the world in new ways. It would at times involve roleplaying and through this a passport to travel to alternate worlds, alternate timelines, and alternate selves. In doing so, especially so intuitively, would be to act outside of oneself. It was about discovering yourself through being someone else, in constant flux, an undecided person always in flow. As a result of this fluidity, it should be very difficult to tie it to any physical objects, yet it does. Hear the word ‘play’ and we are brought back to our playgrounds, our concrete landscapes transformed by toys supplied, lines painted out on the floor and by the people that surround you. You never call a child pretentious, says Dan Fox in his book Pretentiousness: Why it Matters. You never call a child pretentious for participating in roleplaying, in being someone else yet as an adult you are scrutinised at times for it; pretentious is often uttered by an audience after a performance at art school. More than anything, it highlights a mounting incrimination against the act of roleplaying, of being outside oneself within an unfixed state. Ultimately, it is an incrimination against play and its benefits.

Play then, could be considered initially as a form of experimentation. This is what is championed a lot from my own experience at art school; experiment, go in the workshops, make, make, make. It was about production, in a way, about being in constant flux. Writing this seems arrogant but it’s true; it was about making and then reviewing, ironically an uninstituionalised mindset compared to a gallery’s agenda. In moving between different media, you would be going against the agenda of remaining fixed in choosing just one medium which would be much more easily marketable as you could be tied down to a bio describing you and your work in three sentences. Leaving art school now, however, there feels a need to fit into something, to choose exactly what I want to do, a feeling inexclusive from just an art degree.

The first proper video game I played was Minecraft. Partly afraid of the world and its uncertainty, I gave myself an alternative name; going off the characters I knew from comics I compiled Calvin and Hobbes and Desperate Dan to create the name danhobbes. I could live anonymously in this space, if any criticism was spewed, any downfalls or setbacks occured in the game it was towards Dan not me. Eventually this became a running joke when my friends and I formed a faction on a server as it seems strange to have a name so different to your own. I could play for hours, build for hours, either on my own or with other people. I switched between both the physical and the digital, becoming an outsider from both and as a result viewing both these from a less involved angle. To play is to be an outsider. And with this an ability to view outside of my own life in that time, another space I could occupy. 

Jacob Geller is a writer and video-essayist, known for his intricate parallels between contemporary art and video games. His video Capitalist Present, Collective Future explores the notions of unemployment and capitalist power through video games ‘Night in the Woods’ and ‘Tacoma’. Whilst the format of video games lends into the fast economy of capitalism, and at times offer as an escapism rendered unhealthy in excess, the escapism if balanced can be a very important method in viewing the world outside of more conventional modes of art typically used. The games Geller discusses in this video explore the difficulty of employment, the steam rolling of the capitalist machine and the opposing hope of this through unionisation in the future. ‘Escapism’ here then is not a form of filling this boredom but utilising it by viewing issues in the physical within an alternative space. Watching more of his videos alongside reading more of the White Pube’s texts writing about video games, it is difficult to avoid thinking of what video games unearth. The inaccessibility of galleries and wider art education that is becoming more and more narrow coupled with the physical inaccessibility caused by covid allows the digital to become more prominent, utilised in alternative ways. Covid has cast the world into a state of in between; it has only exacerbated this idea of the in between as a neagtive one. In times of this in between, during covid, leaving school, graduating from university, I find myself returning again and again to my brother’s switch. Playing again and again, Zelda: Breath of the Wild; here, everything is as you wish. Slow if you need, watching how the grass flows, inspecting the ruins of Hyrule, doing every side quest meticulously. But it is fast too; transporting, evaporating into blue particles, riding horses and if you have the DLC, a motorbike. You conduct the game as you like, and most of all control the bounds of time until either the switch or yourself runs out of charge. This is a prime example of unhealthy escapism; it only chimes into the capitalist rhythym that if something is not profitable it it seen as a waste of time. But this detracts only further from a maintaining amount of escapism, one paired with physical action, living equally physically and digitally. Whilst escapism is viewed the same as play, as a means of avoidance, it instead could be used to maintain the speed, to reintroduce play and experimentation with the tools that allow for it.

As London says, in maintaining this speed you have to pair the past with the present, to pair this play so often associated with childhood with an adult’s avoidance of it now. To stop seeing it as something negative and find your own speed. Starting this blog is a form of this for me; taking the time out to write this post felt guilty as I wasn’t using it to look for jobs. That because it isn’t profitable it then isn’t valuable but it’s valuable to me and that’s enough; it’s about finding those things in the past that feel like enough for you now and finding the time to do them alongside your job, course or anything else. But that’s the thing with Purgatory Playground – it just sounds good. Not only the alliteration of it but the feeling that play, the state of being in-between, is negative. Left to the uncertainty of the world, with no easily measured goals of grades as instructed in education, we must instead understand our own goals outside of an institution. More than anything, it is about how purgatory is used; as a noun, it is a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners. It is a negative place, a space where you must expiate your sins. But as an adjective it is to cleanse, to purify; it is to get rid of anything no longer needed in your progression to some sort of heaven. And what is no longer needed is the reference of the in-between, of play and fluidity as a state of suffering. It is being content with sitting in the middle of a see saw, tipping from one side to the other, allowing yourself to be undecided except on the decision that you would rather, for now, remain undecided about the rest of your life; to lean into the uncertainty of it, to foster and build the playground from it. To deconstruct, expand, test, invite others into. It is to realise that if something has value to you that that is enough and is good enough reason as any to pursue it. It only seems right this was my first post here, trying something I thought I wouldn’t, playing around with things while I’m here in the playground.