The Critical Escape Aron Birtalan

Page 1

Close your eyes and look at what is in front of you. ÁRON BIRTALAN


3. 2.


4. 1. Citizens in the Children’s’ Kingdom of Caer Cadarn - 2016, Hejce, Hungary 2. Greek coin. India ink on paper. 40 x 35 cm. Made by Mauro Cateb 3. ‘Inside Looking Out’, a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2016, The Hague, Netherlands 1 4. Citizens in the Kingdom of Pipecland- 1958, Bánk, Hungary

Follow the trace of your hands, as they move through the air. iii.

I want you to understand...


The Crisis of Imagination – an opening

vi. vii. xi. xv. xvi.

Secret Kingdoms Stepping Into the Circle Transformation Games The Ludic Society Art, Politics and the Ludic Society


What is Within? –a publication Proposal


Edges (of Understanding)

xxiii. xxv. xxvii.

Passing On – an educational Proposal No Island is an Island From Participatory to Collaborative – an artistic Proposal


The Critical Escape – a temporary conclusion


Credits and Acknowledgments

Draw a Circle with both hands. Dear Reader, I want you to understand, but I only have words and images. This Publication is the result of an intense three-year research process, involving countless experiments, hundreds of testimonials from participants, about a thousand pages of writing, and numerous insights that I have experienced first-hand - though never expected to do so. I spent the past year distilling all that made it into this Publication. I want to use this moment to stop and reflect on the path taken so far on a journey that I can easily imagine myself continuing for years and years to come. This Publication also marks the limits of what can I truly pass on from what I and the participants I worked with learned and experienced. Hence the sentence ‘I Want You to Understand, but I Only Have Words and Images’. The limits of understanding and intelligibility have been something I’ve struggled with since day one.

Ways of seeing that allow us to see something that is right in front of us – the present moment, and the possibilities it holds. For this, new ways of understanding and intelligibility need to be introduced, ones that facilitate a communion with what is at hand. Ways of seeing that allow us to see something that is right in front of us – the present moment, and the possibilities it holds for us. Without it, what is left would truly be only words and images. The chapters are arranged in a loose logical order, but please feel free to read it in your own liking. Being my second language, English is often used in a quite liberal manner here – though I do find incorrect grammar often magical. Hope you enjoy reading this publication as much as I enjoyed writing it. best, Áron Birtalan Amsterdam, June 2018

With this Publication, I’d like to turn this struggle into an asset, to use it as a compass that will eventually help me navigate through the future developments of my practice, rather than an anchor that’d weigh me down. And hopefully, it will also serve as an invitation for others, to engage with this practice in the future. THE CRITICAL ESCAPE


The Crisis of Imagination “It is easier to imagine the end of our world than to imagine a world different from ours” This quote is anecdotally credited to Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, and though I could not find any source confirming it, for the sake of argument, let’s say it is from him. [1] I find this statement hilarious coming from someone who authored sci-fi novels, but it also points out an attitude of thought that is indeed very common in our times. The thought that we do not possess the agency, the right, or tools to change what is around us, to be the authors of our reality. Regardless of how much I love Lem’s thoughts and writings, I’d like to disagree with him on this one. Other worlds do exist. I know this because I have been there. iv


Notice the distance between your hands and your thoughts. 5. 1. fig

fig 2. 7. 6.

8. 5. From the Advent Calendar of The Kindred Of The Kibbo Kift - 1920s, United Kingdom 6. Citizens in the Children’s Kingdom of Dombudvard - 1980s, Hejce, Hungary 7. Participants playing during Secret Fiction Lab - 2017, The Hague, Netherlands THE Kingdom CRITICALofESCAPE 8. A 4m tall ritual pyre at the Children’s Care Cadarn - 2017, Jákotpuszta, Hungary v

Scramble your thoughts. own Kingdoms. Today there are about 20 Kingdoms in Hungary with varying recogniThe Kingdom of Pipecland was a children’s tion of one another. They differ in their culkingdom that existed between 1938 and ture, but all point back to Pipecland as their 1978. Founded by Eszter Leveleki, a young ancestral origin. Montessori teacher, within an annual summer camp in rural Hungary, Pipecland was a As a kid, I was fortunate enough to spend my fictional world within our world. Throughout summers in one of these kingdoms. its 40-year lifespan, Pipecland grew into This experience was highly transformative: a society of its own, with its own customs, through the magic of role-playing I could a way of speaking, rituals, symbols, songs, not only realize my childhood fantasies but style of art and so on. This happened be- managed overcome a lot of my fears, was cause in Pipecland because the children’s encouraged to interact, to engage with my imagination could come true through an act environment and my thoughts in ways that of role-playing, where nothing was scripted, I have never done before. These days as an new identities could be embodied and the adult, I run my own camp with my friends, lines between fictional and real blurred and where through our own Kingdom we give a overlapped. new generation the experience of freedom, exploration, and experimentation of playing To say that Pipecland was a Utopia is on one we had as kids. hand not true, on the other hand, a major understatement. It is not true because it was There is never only one story to tell. To this real. It really happened. And it is a Utopia day Pipecland, its legacy and its lineage because it was an attempt to create an ideal remain a complete Apocrypha, both locally Society through the darkest days of Fascism and internationally. This is a vestige of its and Communism. Needless to say, the secretive nature, which kept the camps alive Kingdom and the children’s camp that gave a under decades of dictatorship. So far, two home to it were completely illegal, surviving Hungarian books and an exhibition [2] comin a political grey-zone. News of it could only memorated the founder Eszter Leveleki’s spread through word of mouth, and the camp pedagogical visions. However, no English itself never grew out of its initial size – about literature has been published exploring the 30 to 40 kids annually, most of them return- Pipecland lineage from an artistic or political ing from year after year. perspective. Secret Kingdoms

After Pipecland’s disbandment in 1978, the former citizens went on to find their own summer camps, and consequentially their vi


Breathe. Focus on the moment between an exhale and an inhale. of transition and transformation, reinforce identity and shape the choreography of eveIn the past four years, my practice as an ryday life. They are the in-between and the artist has led me back to the Kingdom of immediate. Pipecland and its lineage. Not only from a point of historical reflection, but through an Initially, the nature of my fascination towards organic communion that unfolded itself the Liminal Rituals was unclear to me. I just knew more I tried to distil the essence of what is I was drawn to them, wanted to experience was doing. them, and most importantly create them myself. I started out with an intent to explore Liminal (Immediate, In-between) Rituals. These What I knew for sure though that it was Rituals work by creating what social anthro- definitely not fuelled by religious pursuits (I pology called a Magic Circle: A special moment was not interested in engaging in a spiritual in place and time, where the conventional practice). Nor was I interested in putting on social structures, roles, and behaviors are the analytical hat of an anthropologist, or a temporarily suspended, and new ones are in- theologian. Regardless how much I love the troduced. This temporary suspension allows history and language of rituals throughthe participants of the ritual to transcend out time, I felt like engaging in discourses their everyday reality in favor of a new one. found in academic theory would ultimately The function of a Liminal Ritual is to facilitate distance me from what is at hand. It would such an experience – to help participants position me outside of the Magic Circle, alcross over from one world to another. With lowing me to point at it, describe it, represent its help, one is allowed to tap into ways of it, but in the end, would bar me from being in perception, thinking, action and interaction it. Lastly, I did not want to think of my prothat would otherwise not happen in a mun- cess as an extension of already pre-existing dane environment. This is the transformative artistic disciplines, avoiding falling into the power of Liminal Ritual: because once leaving trap of ritualized-art, or gamified-art. More the Magic Circle, the participants themselves on this in the chapter From Participatory to carry their experiences with them. Collaborative. Stepping into the circle

In our world, Liminal Rituals serve as mediators in social situations, both sacred and secular. From hen parties to weddings and funerals, from national and religious holidays to household traditions, rituals help to materialize the immaterial. They signify moments

I have decided to create and undergo my own Rituals, as a way to understand them. I used myself as a lab-rat for this process, allowing knowledge to come to me via first-hand encounters. Embodying my practice was my way to absolve the distance between me



Feel the objects you are against. Respond. and my material, that other, more academic simplest of practices, and one that leaves no or reflexive forms of knowledge production room for intellectual debate. A 100kg bar will would perpetuate. always be a 100kg bar. One can read Foucault to it, shout at it, dress up for it – it will still Because of this, I choose to temporar- remain an absolute deadweight, waiting to ily exclude myself from consuming external be lifted of the ground. There is something theoretical sources (be that through reading, liberating in the binary cruelty of weightliftwatching films, going to talk, etc.) and rely ing – you can either lift it, or not. I was fason my and (later on my participants) experi- cinated by this, not because it funnelled my ences as my main pool of learning. The result actions (and consequently the path of my of this kind of empirical knowledge produc- practice) in a direction where contemplative tion is not a finite set of answers, but a re- and interpretive thinking is suspended, in faconditioned state of being, a new paradigm vour of ‘doing’. of understanding. This doing, this action is the process of reThe same way Ritual reconditions their par- conditioning itself – and a pretext for its ticipants, I wanted to alter myself through excrement: the state of being immersed. [3] undergoing events of transformation. An im- To be within the experience, rather than outportant pretext in this process was to work side of it. with no explicit religious context, in order to distance me from falling into the socio- Later, to find ways to develop my experihistorical perspectives outlined previously. ences into an artistic practice, I started exWith that said I do think the practice of rituals ploring movement and meditation practices. (any ritual) is a spiritual practice. This is pre- As I started to gain mastery of my practice, I cisely because of the repetitive nature of any went on designing real-life games, and finally practice - which by consecutively revisiting facilitating social situations and encounters itself initiates a change of transformation. between people. The reports on this process In that light, I would go out on a limb and can be found on my website. [4] say that the act of a practice (any practice) is in itself a spiritual act. Meaning that one The process eventually resulted in the stripcan tap into a Liminal Ritual by following just ping down of Rituals from their socio-politabout any practice. ical and theatrical façade to reveal what’s underneath it. I started this process in the autumn of 2015, and went from working with my own body through endurance sports and weightlifting. Rigorous physical exercise is one of the viii


Feel the thoughts you are up against. Don’ respond. And what I found was this:

Within the Magic Circle, my fascinations found their shared backbone.

What also became clear is that as opposed to most Rituals – which are reproduced almost mechanically each time, not allowing any change to interfere – I was interested in a Magic Circle that is less strict, openended. A Magic Circle that poses a structure different from the everyday, while allowing changes to take place within itself. This was the difference between most Rituals I have encountered and my background as a roleplayer. The act of playing is generally based on chance and the emergence of unforeseen and unexpected situations, making it somewhat opposed to the rigid repetition of Ritual The Magic Circle, nothing else. A temporary practices. suspension of the everyday. The tension between these two forces thus At this moment it became clear that my became the heart of my creative practice. fascination with Rituals was coming from my experiences as a child in the Kingdoms I Because of this, I wanted to find a name grew up in. These experiences proved to be that represents my practice both as an highly formative in my development both in independent entity and as a continuamy personal life and in my path as a maker. In tion of the Pipecland lineage. This is when role-playing (in transforming into a fictional Transformation Games was born. citizen of a fictional Kingdom) I found that I could dare to do things I might not dare to do otherwise, interact and engage with others in a more profound and intimate way and be a part of a community that connected via an ephemeral thread of experiences, thoughts and memories that was ours, and no-one else’s. These connections were the ones that drove me into pursuing my practice as a maker. THE CRITICAL ESCAPE


Keep this moment as quiet as possible. 10.


11. 12. 9. Illustration from a 19th-century book on gymnastic exercises 10. Children playing “War of Numbers”; the 1960s, Hungary 11. ‘SEE’, a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan; 2017, Amsterdam, Netherlands x 12. The sword of Sir Urre in the Children’s THE CRITICAL KingdomESCAPE of Dombudvard; the 1980s, Hejce, Hungary

Read this sentence, and become the reading itself. Transformation Games

Throughout the past three years, I designed and ran several Transformation Games and Imagination Rituals (a name given to shorter experiences, with more guiding and limited participant agency). These include Patience (2016), Inside Looking Out (2016), SEE (2017), DIM (2017), COLOR (2017) and Covenant (2017). These experiences range from 20 minutes to several hours, with participant numbers reaching from 1-2 to nearly 100. Furthermore, I co-designed two experiences that are currently works-in-development: Court (2016) with Roel Heremans [5], and Shadows and Light (2018) with Nina Runa Essendrop, amongst others [6]. In 2017, with the help of Estonian artist Marit Mihklepp, I founded Secret Fiction, a nomadic platform exploring Transformation Games through labs, workshops, talks and co-created experiences. In 2018 I moved Secret Fiction from The Hague to Amsterdam, with the help of WOW Amsterdam, where I’m currently staying as Artist-in-Residence.

Transformation Games is an artistic and political practice that attempts to re-imagine the world around us through playful social experiences. Transformation Games blend techniques of role-playing, rituals, and everyday routines into new, jointly-created experience. Using co-created alternative worlds (either provided by a Facilitator in a workshop or developed together with all participants), Transformation Games establish a society within a society using fiction as a point to distance itself from the everyday. By becoming the fictional characters in a fictional world, one’s everyday responsibilities, hierarchies, and social dynamics are temporarily suspended. This is the great power of play: it provides one the opportunity to safely interact and make decisions outside the mundane way of thinking. \ The context of ‘play’ and the element of a ‘role’ or ‘character’ acts as a lens, through which participants can explore different personalities, communities, and realities. From all the Transformation Games made, DIM is the one closest to my heart - and the Transformation Games are designed to be one that encompasses the direction I’d like to safe, yet powerful to undergo, keeping the go towards for future Games. fact in mind, that the experiences of the fictional and the real often overlap one another. DIM is a Transformation Game for 4-20 parFurthermore, Transformation Games facili- ticipants, and for 5-6 hours. It takes place in tate experiences that are highly accessible an darkened and undefined abstract space (no prior knowledge or skill needed when where Forms and Shadows meet. Forms and signing up for an event) and advocate for a Shadows are abstract personalities that constant re-playability of each Game - since communicate mainly through their own no two experiences are alike. unique body language. These personalities THE CRITICAL ESCAPE


Point to your eyes. are developed through a guided workshop, where participants embody both Forms and Shadows using exercises in attention, breathing and movement. In the Game, Participants can switch between these two personalities, or make other participants switch. Creating and exploring these personalities as well as the space they meet in is the ‘purpose’ of the game. DIM puts a lot of emphasis on subjective worlds and character-creation, resulting in vastly different outcomes every time it is played. Most importantly, DIM is a Game that was co-developed with participants of the first Secret Fiction Lab, in February 2017. We ran a two-week intensive session with multiple experiments, exercises, and tryouts until the Game emerged in its current form. To what extent does this affect the potential authorship of such Game is something to be explained in later chapters. How much Transformation Games are scripted is open to debate. There is always an initial structure, ensuring the participants’ safety and a common language to engage in. This is what one would refer to as the rules of the Game; rules that are unalterable a non-negotiable. As with most games, these rules are not there to control (or command) agency but to facilitate agency.

participants learn how to safely interact with one-another, gain an understanding of the structure of the Game, their possible roles in it, and are provided with the time and tools to tailor the Game to their own liking. Visually, this would be the drawing up of the Magic Circle, with its size and nature determined both by the initial rules and the participants’ calibration. The briefing and the workshop is set up and guided by the Facilitator, usually following a fairly strict script – or manual, for that matter. What follows after that is however unscripted: Once participants have all they need to go into the Game, they step into the Circle, and the Facilitator steps back from their role as a guide. This results in social situations, interactions and insights that are open-ended, unrepeatable and unique each time – making every Transformation Game vastly different each time when its run. In this phase of the Game (called Playout), the Facilitators’ role is to hold the space for the participants. As a referee in the football match, they are there to oversee if the initial rules of the Game are kept, most importantly the ones regarding safety. Even though nothing bad ever really happens, due to the participants having learned enough agency to calibrate their own experience, the constant presence of a third perspective that is not 100% in the Playout is crucial.

That is why all Transformation Games include an introductory briefing and a workshop Once being immersed in a Playout, particibefore going into the experience of playing. pants are in a Liminal state of being, where This is a learning process, through which the the domesticated perception of time and xii


Allow your environment to come to you in its totality. space dissolves. Since the new reality within the Magic Circle still happens in the reality of everyday, more ‘mundane’ priorities need to be met in order for the Circle to sustain itself throughout the time of the experience. These priorities include making the space of the Game suitable for the participants to be in, attending practical issues and needs that might arise both from within and from outside, as well as to keep all participants at arm’s length, so they do not fall headfirst into situations that can be potentially harmful to them, or to the others. Regardless of one’s best effort, however, even Facilitators are limited in what they can look out for and what they cannot. This is why all participants of a Transformation Game are required to share responsibility for themselves and for everyone else, voice their concerns and regularly check-in with their fellows, if everything is going okay. At the end of the day, no Game is more important than general well-being. Transformation Games don’t aim for a specific outcome and thus there is really no way to lose in them, unlike most games. Their function is to facilitate the Magic Circle and allow experiences to safely emerge from it. Nothing more. This is why most Transformation Games and after a specific time, regardless of what is going on within the Circle. Once that time has come, I take back the role of the guide and bring the participants out of the Circle.

We then go into what is called an after-talk, where through sharing our experiences of the playout we both provide a slow landing back to the everyday and wipe the Magic Circle off. Since a lot of my Transformation Games are non-verbal, this moment is paramount for the participants to process what just happened. People narrate their experiences through stories and the after-talk is there to facilitate that. One soon discovers that each participant has their own, unique story, with themselves being the main character. Beyond that multiple collective stories emerge, stemming from each encounter that happened throughout the Playout. In the end, participants end up with a large body of experiences and stories, some of which distill and reveal themselves hours, days, or even months after the Game has passed. Participants of DIM have described their own experience as being out-of-thisworld, transformative and ecstatic - often coming to terms with their actions only in posterior. Furthermore, many participants gained insight into the workings of their own everyday reality, through the interactions and sensory experiences found within the Game.



Look at something that is far away. 13.

15. 14.

16. 13. Children playing Table Football - 1960s, Hungary 14. A citizen in the Children’s Kingdom of Caer Cadarn - 2016, Hejce, Hungary 15. ‘Patience’, a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2016, Amsterdam, Netherlands xiv 16. The Knightly Order of St. George THE CRITICAL in the Kingdom ESCAPE of Pipecland - 1960, Bánk, Hungary

Look at something that is right in front of you. Ludic Societies If we say that Transformation Games is a practice to facilitate an experience, what is the experience itself? Though Transformation Games comply with a lot of elements that other Games hold (they are structured forms of playing), in other sense they are anti-games: there is no competition amongst participants, no winner or loser, or a higher ideological agenda beyond itself. So what is experienced within the Magic Circle of Transformation Games then? In my reading, this experience is both an artistic (aesthetic) and a socio-political experience. This is where the second term comes in: The Ludic Society A Ludic Society (Ludic coming from Latin origin, meaning playful) is a temporary autonomous, self-transforming society, that has play and playfulness at its creative heart.

blooms not within themselves, but in posterior (when returning to the ‘real world’). The pretext of this is the presence of the facility, that provides the frame, the entrance, and the exit. The facility constitutes the physical borders, the facilitators and the Social Contract of the Ludic Society. Autonomous: The pretext of autonomy is based on the Social Contract. It is unalterable and non-negotiable in its terms. It is the law of physics, the rule of the game – the Magic Circle in anthropology. The Social Contract (as all others in the Facility) is a Support Structure, enabling (and not limiting) agency by providing a safe space to return to. Furthermore, it creates inside and outside. Everything that is within (the Magic Circle) is it, and everything without is not it. In Ludic Societies, the Contract is not readymade, but established and accepted by all participants each time, during the Society’s foundational moments.

Meaning that it’s a society created and Self-Transforming: Ludic societies are creoperated through a practice of playing. ated through acts of self-transformation, Transformation Games are such practices. such as role-playing, costume playing, neologism, alternative and altered modes of comIn the following paragraphs, I’d like to dissect munication. While inputs from the ‘outside’ the terms used to describe the Ludic Society. might enter the Ludic Society, they are implemented after screening, translation, and Temporary: Ludic Societies are not made to assimilation within the ‘natural laws’ of the last forever. They have their clear beginning Contract. Same way the legitimacy of these and an end (an entrance into and an exit tactics ceases to exist with the disbandment from). They are by nature transitional (limi- of the Contract. nal) Societies, that are meant to exist only for a set duration. This is because their effect THE CRITICAL ESCAPE


Look at something in the past. The Ludic Society as ‘Art is Politics’ I’d like to see Ludic Societies both as socio-political phenomena and as works of art. This is not dual function, but a synergic oneness of nature - one that cannot be dissected. In the following, I’d like to explore this relationship, as well as outline the current frontiers of my research. The aesthetic quality of Ludic Societies (which is an aesthetic of relations, rather than a narrative or a spectacle) inherently demands a certain level of high-importance social engagement and interaction. We can see in examining Ludic Societies that their political and (relational) aesthetic roots can’t be separated in their present practice, which thus corresponds with the ‘doing of politics’ as understood through Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa. The facilitation and experience of such situations thus can be seen both as a political gesture and as an artistic gesture. With that in mind, I try to assess the Ludic Society based on four intersections of art and politics: Intersection 1 Rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and customs

Intersection 2 Symbols of identity

The practice of everyday life within the Ludic Society is done and passed on via rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and customs. Their historical origin is not as important as their present function to establish and reinforce identity through their repeated practice. However, without a playful counterbalance (the possibility of overthrowing these) they can lead to a Society that is permanently played out in accordance with the rules of its Game. This the dogmatic choreography of performed life found in Royal Courts, sects, and on Wall Street.

Ludic Societies often produce material symbols of identity: totems, tokens, heirlooms, artifacts, memorabilia with a strong visual language inherent to its own culture. How these symbols (as well as all other traditions, rituals, customs, etc...) created are usually by chance. Ludic Societies often thrive on serendipitous encounters within playing, and use those ‘creative accidents’ as a base for new traditions, making their identity truly their own, and interwoven within their history, no matter how recent the Society is. A lot of the objects shown on the Totem Wall above were found by accident, near the grounds of the camp that gave a home to Pipecland. These objects were then quickly built into the personal mythology of the Kingdom, with makebelieve origin stories, conspiracy theories, or through whatever explanation the person who found it came up with.



Scramble your palms. Intersection 3 Knowledge-Production

Intersection 4 Revolution and Emergence

Ludic Societies produce knowledge that is idiosyncratic, hermetic (corresponding with the laws of the Magic Circle), but also acts as systems, can be learned and adapted, researched and perfected. The inability of understanding from the outside is what we call being perceived as Esoteric. In the Pipecland lineage forms of knowledgeproduction took many outlets: Archives, stories, neologism, and dialects, theories, scientific and sacred orders. Conversely, within any Ludic Society, one can find inner codes, slangs, word-to-mouth teaching, superstitions, written and unwritten customs. These entities and tactics also act as authorities to legitimize what makes it into the Society’s canon, and what remains left behind (either as Apocrypha, or gone completely).

Most importantly, Ludic Societies allow and encourage the constant and complete overthrowing of its own culture, rituals, customs, symbols, theories, ideologies, hierarchies and so on, provided it happens within the frame (along with the rules) of the pre-established Contract. Making Ludic Societies radically conservative and progressive at once. This creative tension between the two vectors is the essence of playing and playfulness. In this sense, Pipecland (and potentially all Ludic Societies) are Retrograde Utopias.





satory narratives of interpretawe will see, we are conditioned to tion, adaptation, and reflection. divide and to point, rather than to These could only act as mere commune. For the lack of better pointers, as mere tag-lines ‘about words, let’s call these polarising it’, rather than ‘being it’. It crevantage points interpretations. ates a divide between object and subject, between the reader and Interpretation is compulsive (visthe material. ceral, comes from conditioning) not deliberate or premeditated. The 2016 Transformation Game We are conditioned to interpret. ‘Patience’ can be seen as a proTo dissect everything into the obtotype for such a way of ‘readject/subject in the same impulsive ing’. Patience is an experimental manner we hush mosquitos. game that uses the framework of Susan Sontag puts it beautifully a guided single-player card game in ‘Against Interpretation’ [7], and to create a chain of mental events I can’t help to see every word of with intense variations each time this paragraph resonating with the game is played. The artwork Ludic Societies: itself thus becomes the ephemeral and unrepeatable experience [Interpretation] is the revenge of that happens when the reader the intellect upon the world. To communes with the materials interpret is to impoverish, to deat hand. Revoking traditions of plete the world—in order to set up fortune-telling and Tarot, the a shadow world of “meanings.” experience of Patience is within It is to turn the world into this the ‘event’ of the reading. The world. (“This world”! As if there encounter, in which the two were any other.) The world, our endpoints (the material and the world, is depleted, impoverished reader) dissolve is what ignites enough. Away with all duplicates Patience itself. of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. However, without a properly facilitated experience - without the If interpretation is the result of proper conditioning-, the encoun- conditioning, then the unlearning ter never happens and the work and undoing of it should also be remains distant, unreadable, eso- done as such. How can the access teric - silent. to a publication be immediate (first-hand, non-mediated and real-time), can be experiential? The responsibility of undoing such divide is up to both the reader and the material – because as


What is Within? – a publication proposal


To be within the Magic Circle.

‘What is Within?’ (working title) is a publication-in-making that explores Ludic Societies through the practice of Transformation Games. Using my artistic practice and a previously untold story about a lineage of Hungarian children’s camps as departure points, ‘What is Within?’ is a publication that invites the reader to engage with it on an experiential level, becoming more of an instruction for participation, rather than classic forms of fiction or non-fiction literature. Tapping into the fields of role-playing, autonomous societies, rituals and playing, and the statement ‘Art is Politics’ as its foundational manifesto, ‘What is Within?’ is a manual to experience and create worlds within our world, through the communing experience of reading (of the publication). I really want you to understand, but I only have words and images. To understand is to be with. It is a state of communion, where the object/subject polarity dissolves. To understand Ludic Societies is to experience them, to be with them, to become them.

This understanding cannot be interpreted, represented, or illustrated. Thus, the form of the publication has to be an experience itself – a Transformation Game. The ‘reading’ of the publication happens through the ‘practice’ of itself. In this way, the publication becomes the facility of an experience - ceases to be removed from the reader and vice versa. In this sense, the publication itself takes the role of the Facilitator, becoming an organic extension of the material. Or to put it in other words: the publication invites the reader to read it, while also teaching and conditioning the reader in how to do so - much like a tutorial or a manual. The urgency of an experiential form came from the dead-ends I met when trying to translate the essence of the Pipecland lineage or my works to an outside reader. Despite my best attempts, I could only go as far as to scratch the surface of what is truly at hand, leaving the reader in a state of confusion or coming off as Esoteric (possessing some sort of indecipherable knowledge, one that could only be marvelled from afar). This goes head-against the inclusiveness of experiencing Ludic Societies in the flesh. If the material becomes inaccessible, one is only left with the compen-

Cross your palms and your gaze into a junction. Edges (of Understanding) The current interests in my research are also intersections which tackle politics and arts alike. I’d like to refer to them as Edges, signifying the current frontiers of my practice and understanding. These Edges are the questions and issues I’m most inspired to explore in the following years, and through the Publication proposed. Edge 1 The Document, How to understand falling asleep? By falling asleep. Through experience (of the publication), the participant (the reader) is allowed to understand (to be with, to commune with) what is at hand. This experience brings about a reconditioning of the participant, and posterior transformative effect, once exiting the Magic Circle and returning to the everyday world. Such understandings (as all experiences) cannot be undone. This proposes that the length of the posterior transformative effect (and thus the artwork) lasts for life. The ex-participant becoming the living document itself. ‘I’ve been there, and now I know how it is’. It is a document that exists in relations – be that personal or interpersonal. The document of a Transformation Game and the Ludic Society is the reconditioned participant and the previously non-existing network of participants who from undergoing the same, or similar experiences now poses a shared understanding and kinship with one another. The facilitation and emergence of such networks thus reinforce the notion of Transformation Games being a practice that is a ‘making of politics’. xx

Edge 2 Society of Creation and Society of Production The Ludic Society is a Society of Creation. In my reading, a Society of Creation is self-fulfilling, open-ended society. Its only purpose is to facilitate and experience the act and state of creation. To be in it. The Society of Production’s goal is to maximize productivity, with every action subordinate to the objective of reaching the desired endpoint – the Product. Even though Ludic Societies have a marked end, they are selffulfilling societies, with no end goal other than itself. The Ludic Society is a Society of Creation, unique each time, and in this playing and playfulness plays a crucial role. Playfulness is the buffer of the Creative Society not to go into a Society of Production. Playfulness is the counterweight that enables open-mindedness, revolution, and emergence. The moment it stops being Ludic (playful) it goes into Productivity.


Divide the space around you with your thoughts. Edge 3 The Facilitator and its responsibility

Edge 4 Authorship and Authority

The Facilitator is the living extension of the Facility. It is present as a Function, not as a Role, nor as a Participant. Their Function is to provide a condition of possibility for the experiences to emerge, the same way an Atelier provides the conditions for a painter. Facilitators can be designers (architects of the Facility) or guides (navigators and teachers of the Facility). What is their function? Why is there a need for a living extension? Firstly, to act as mediators. Secondly to prevent the Society from going into the perpetual model (sect) nor into Producing Society. The Facilitator is there to help participants enter and exit the Magic Circle, while also holding its borders when needed. This act is often referred to as ‘Holding Space’ and it is a common practice of facilitators of various practices - guides, therapists, shamans, teachers and so on. If not present, the Society can be overthrown by a self-proclaimed authority, violently breaking the Contract (as we see with dictators in turbulent political times).

The experience of the Ludic Society suspends the object/subject polarity in favor of an organic synergy with itself and its participants. Thus, if we want to frame Ludic Societies within the classic discourse of categorizing participants of a (for example) artistic experience (as makers, performers, spectators, audience, etc.) we will quickly realize that it is impossible to do that. Everyone fulfils those categories at once, with the highest authority being the Social Contract made and accepted by all participants. This decentralization of personal authority brings about the question of decentralized authorship. With the designers and guides only present as part of the facility, they cannot truly claim authorship for the artwork, the same way the speakers don’t claim authorship of the music transmitted through them. So who can and should claim authorship?



Find a comfortable space. Arrive there, then leave it. 17.

19. 18.

20. 17. Children playing ‘Bringing the Fire’ - the 1930s, Hungary 18. Circle of Chairs during The Floating Shipyard project - 2012, Dordrecht, Netherlands 19. ‘Inside Looking Out’, a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2016, The Hague, NL xxii 20. Citizens in the Polis THE of Tócsa CRITICAL - 2016, ESCAPE Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary

Think an object that you didn’t have before, and introduce it. Passing On – an educational proposal The publication What Is Within? is to be developed through a two-year research project, starting in the Summer of 2018. In April 2018, I applied for the 2018-2020 Fellowship at The New School’s Vera List Centre for Art and Politics [9]. My intention was and is to pursue my practice outside of the conventional realms of art and into alternative forms of politics, especially education. As Pipecland in Hungary was initially founded as a counter-educational initiative, I found myself returning to this perspective more and more throughout my research. Even though it is obvious that Ludic Societies do produce their idiosyncratic corpus of knowledge, I am interested in seeing how Ludic Societies can work as legitimate forms of education in an everyday environment. In short, I’d like to put forward a series of actions in order to see how a self-fulfilling Ludic Society can actually act as a catalyst for producing knowledge and experience that would be impossible to get otherwise. With that in mind, I proposed establishing a Ludic Society within the walls of An educational institution. This could be done through a series of Transformation Games specifically designed to develop a Ludic Society within the institution. The Ludic Society at hand can either consist from a select group of participants (recruited via an open call or a sign-up process), an ever-changing body of people

(provided they accept the Contracts of the Society), or even the entire institution, using its existing structure as the initial frame to start from. This Ludic Society would either be a short-term, full-time Society (much like in a 24/7 role-playing game) or a part-time Society (much like a Secret Society). The goals in the preliminary design process would be to see how can one establish a temporaryautonomous zone within an educational institution, not as a form of protest, but to find new paths of knowledge production. This is not to fall into the possible traps that could occur with such projects. On one hand, there is the issue of the idiosyncratic trying to translate itself outside the magic circle. The issues of this (intelligibility, the role of the Document, being perceived as Esoteric, and so on) has been addressed in the Project Proposal, so I won’t go into more detail here. On the other hand, there is the chance of the ‘self-fulfilling autonomy’ of the Ludic Society being jeopardized once there is an overarching explicit educational goal involved. We have all seen educational programs, learnas-you play games, and other projects that are being labeled as ‘fun and educational’ (and usually aimed at a younger audience) coming off as somewhat sham. Both children and adults realize (on a visceral level) when playfulness is used as a masquerade to obfuscate a hidden agenda. This realization can also be seen as an asset, redeeming play and playfulness from the possibility of it being truly corrupted.



Shrink an object until it fits the palm of your hand. We can’t be truly fooled. My other intention with pursuing an educational path is to see if Transformation Games can be turned from my individual practice into a sustainable method of knowledge production - one that would be able to go on without me being present, ultimately emancipating me from the role of the author-maker. Transformation Games are made to be adopted by anyone who is in possession of the initial script, containing the instructions for both Facilitators and participants. I intend to publish my Games in the future, so they can be run by anyone, the same way a board-game can be played out, with the right amount of people and using the provided manual. Alternatively, one could think of a course or workshop (through the Secret Fiction platform) that would teach and certify future Facilitators for Transformation Games. This way of transmitting knowledge also proposes the notion of the ‘institute’ in education - a notion that could be interesting to explore in relation to Ludic Societies.

Thus, the practice can move from isolated islands of maker-authors to a constantly evolving domain that can even be described as making-of-folklore. Last year a child in another Kingdom stemming from the Pipecland lineage came across my writings I made as a magician in the Kingdom of Hegyhon back in 2003 (at the time I was 13), and using those writings was able to adapt and create her own system of magic. Though this story might have some nerdy undertones, in my view, initiating such processes overall is what my path as maker should be about.

This again touches upon the questions on authorship and authority outlined earlier: if Transformation Games can and should be adopted by all, their artistic, political and educational value can only be measured through individual instances, but as a continuous, sustainable practice, that is passed down from one to another.



Cross onto another space. No Island is an Island Pipecland was not an island in its vision. Its roots can be found in turn-of-century Utopian Socialist, woodcraft, and Backto-the-land agrarian movements, as well as Eastern-European arrival the arrival of ideas from thinkers such as Rudolf Steiner of Maria Montessori. This was also the time (the early-XX. century that is) of alternative and illegal Jewish Youth movements, to whom which Eszter Leveleki was a contemporary of. Pipecland was also famous for being a safe haven for children from Jewish, Marxist and intellectual families - a stigma to some outsiders, which is present to this day when talking about the camp and its legacy. Upon careful examination, one can notice resemblances between the traditions found in Hasidic Judaism, and in Pipecland, including the usage of language and conversation as a tool of magic, as well as the strong hierarchies between age-groups and genders (though in Pipecland’s case both these traditions were appropriated in a much more playful manner). In its ideology to establish an autonomous, retrograde utopia, Pipecland holds kinship with the Native American Hobbyist communities of Western Europe, The Children’s Republic Gaudiopolos [10] in Hungary, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift [11] in the UK, and to a certain extent the Californian communes of the XX. century.

In the 1970s Dungeons & Dragons arrived (another product of 60s California), and roleplaying quickly developed itself into its own subculture, with Live-Action Role-Playing (or LARP) as one of its outlets. LARP has gone through many changes since then, including its progressive edge infiltrating the artworld in the past decade - most notably via the Nordic LARP scene [12]. However, most discourses in the LARP community seem to be focused inwards, keeping conversations within the walls of the subculture. LARP could potentially be the best example of a subculture constantly creating Ludic Societies, however, due to the conflicting political and social background of its main initiators, it remains not much more than a past-time for Western youth. I came to the practice Transformation Games through my background both as an artist and as a role-player. Even though there are other makers working on the verge of these two disciplines, they are usually framed as LARP, and referring to themselves as LARP-designers. The difference between Transformation Games and LARP is twofold: Firstly, Transformation Games proposes treating the practice as something stemming from the inherent human desire to establish (political) autonomy through play, and its many forms throughout history (more on this later). LARP, on the other hand, traces its origins back to the fantasy and sci-fi subculture of the 70s and 80s, which, despite having its



Touch your own hands. roots in the Californian hippie movements, is still being treated more as a form of entertainment, rather than an artistic/political creative practice.

cheap real-estate market). However, due to the recent interest from the art-world and the activity of some veterans, one can find valuable reflections and writings when reading into some of the newer writings as well as Nordic LARPs foundational manifestos from the late-90s. For a general, I’d recommend the book: The Foundation Stone of Nordic LARP. [14] Furthermore, writings of Gabriel Widing [15] (for intersections between LARP and the artworld) and the blog of Adam James [16] (who currently does a Ph.D. in LARP as a Practicebased Research). The title of this chapter, ‘No Island is an Island’ is taken from Danish artist Nina Runa Essendrop’s LARP of the same name. [17]

That is not to say LARP, especially Nordic LARP is completely apolitical. However, this content is mostly reflexive and reactionary, using LARP as a tool of emancipation, as understood through the politics of neoliberal activism. Examples of such LARPs can be Just a Little Lovin’ (dealing with the history of LGBT communities and AIDS in the 70s upstate New York), Level 5 (dealing with the Self-Actualisation movement of the 70s), Mad About the Boy (a Dystopian allfemale LARP resembling 2006’s film Children of Men) and Kapo (set in a prison camp in Denmark). [13] What further separates LARP and Transformation Games, is that the latter Most progressive LARP initiatives are born out does not depend on the notion and element of lefty university subcultures in Scandinavia of ‘role’, provided there is a substitute for its and the US, with a discourse echoing a quite function – an alibi for interaction, in ways that conservative post-Marxist protest-rhetoric, would not happen otherwise. Through rolerather than proposing a Third Path. A Path playing, one is socially allowed to step out of that is not a counter-culture (not hell-bent their everyday behavior and adapt or create on being ‘against’), but an other-culture (a new ones (the homeless person can lie down culture that is ‘for’), akin to the one Ludic on the street, the alien can read other peoSocieties are capable creating. ple’s minds, and so on…). This is done through the safety that such activities are purely Nordic-style LARP has been around for fictional. However, since on the experiential nearly twenty years, and its heydays seem level there is no difference between fiction to have passed, as its initial founders grew and reality (or to put it in the Cartesian diolder and new, more business-oriented vide: the body does not know the difference), creatives entered the subculture - running whatever happens to the ‘fictional’ charachigh-budget Harry Potter reenactments in ter, also happens to the ‘real’ person playing Polish castles (Poland being chosen for its the character. This effect has been vastly xxvi


Touch this sentence. explored in performing arts (Stanislavski, Forum Theatre, and method acting), in alternative therapy (Family Constellations and Gestalt Therapy) and in social psychology (the experiments at Stanford and of Stanley Milgram), so I won’t go into much detail here. In my practice, role-playing is often substituted with other playful tools: exercises in imagination and attention, guided meditations, small games in movement, speech, and so on - all serving the purpose to recondition the participant and thus set forth a domino effect that transforms the everyday. This practice points back to the spiritual tradition of incantations, spells, and prayers. I treat the text (used in scripts and guiding) and all exercises in Transformation Games as language-to-be-performed, in order to initiate ruptures in reality, which in consequence becomes altered and transformed.

From Participatory to Collaborative – an artistic Proposal Though Transformation Games borrow techniques from visual and performing arts, its existence itself should not be treated as an extension of already existing artistic disciplines. There is a lot of interest from the visual, performing and cinematic arts regarding Rituals and the Magic Circle, however, what comes out of it hardly undoes the already pre-existing political apparatus inherent to the artworld. The object-subject polarity, the need for interpretation, the narcissistic position of the artist-maker as the sole author of their work, and a lack of creative agency provided for the ‘spectators’ all lead up to an asymmetrical power-structure, creating what we can the Fourth Wall. Attempts to break that Wall are, of course, present since the last century, however due to the politics of how visual, performing and cinematic arts are experienced in the west conditions institutions, makers, and spectators to still perpetuate its presence. This results in artworks branded as participatory (and immersive or interactive, to some degree…) that while promises itself to involve audience members to co-create the experience, in practice no transparency, space and agency is provided that would truly enable them to creatively steer and calibrate the artwork beyond a finite number of possible outcomes, already readymade in advance



Read this sentence in different voices. by the artist. At the end of the day participants of a ‘participatory’ artwork rarely get to create the artwork themselves, keeping the scepter of authorship in the artists’ and institutions’ hands. The notion of ‘participatory art’ pre-supposes an already established structure of experience to participate in, not the creation of one. Often times the artwork itself is already created, and the invitation for participants to actively engage with it is only a superficial, nominal gesture.

one needs to be established. Following the analogy of the house, a symmetrical or collaborative experience is the one when the house is designed, built and explored together, from the ground up, involving all present. The artist still has a vital role, to facilitate this process: provide the tools, skills, possible blueprints and safety instructions prior and during the building of the house. However, these are there not as tools and instructions to the author (of authoritativeness), but to invite, to condition and outline the possibilTo put in in an analogy: In my reading, par- ity of new structures, processes, and experiticipatory art is when the artist makes a ences to arise. house and the audience is allowed to wander around in it any way they want. This can to There are limitations to what extent can a some extent break traditions on linearity and Facilitator control and steer the participants’ introduce some game-mechanics that can experience in any experience. No two expeyield in different permutations of outcomes, riences are alike, thus the Facilitators (and however at the end of the day it’s still the the designer, writer, or guide of the experiartist who owns the house, and the audience ence) eventually has to suspend their desire is nothing more than mere guests, visitors to author and own the experiences of their – Unable to break down or build new walls. Game - and potentially the authorship of the There are the artworks where participants artwork. This shift from my work, to our work, usually leave with the experience of ‘being a or rather the work, is the POV through which part of the artists’ work’, rather than being an Transformation Games, Ludic Societies and active creating agent of an experience that all collaborative artistic and political pracis truly theirs. tices should be perceived. In order to truly emancipate ourselves from this paradigm of object-subject polarity, I’d like to propose not breaking any walls, but rather not having them in the first place. There is, should and will be experiences and forms of art that separate performers and non-performers. But next to such asymmetrical kind of experiences, a new, symmetrical xxviii


Notice the distance between your gaze, this sentence and your thoughts. The Critical Escape I started role-playing when I was nine years old. My parents took me to a camp in rural Hungary, where for three weeks I and a bunch of other kids acted as citizens of a medieval kingdom. No one told us what to do, or who do we need to play out. Our imagination was set free, and the adults there were eager to turn that into reality. This experience was highly transformative: through the alibi of role-playing I could overcome a lot of my fears, encouraged to interact, to engage, to imagine. These days as an adult, I run my own camp with my friends, where through playing the same game we played as kids, we give a new generation the experience of freedom, exploration, and experimentation of playing. Similarly, other Ludic Societies believed that rituals and communities created through play are the keys to a better future, and this sense constructed Utopias that are just as well progressive, as retrograde. I strongly believe that this can be true. By constructing fictional societies through play we are also embodying possible alternatives to the one we have now. We are able to reflect on ourselves, discover our faults and, potentials and hopefully become more open, more resilient and empathetic. Through its many forms, playing brings us to the unknown and allows us to bravely step into it. [18]

With Transformation Games and Ludic Societies, I’d like to reintroduce playing and playfulness as the active social agent it is. When we are playing, we are not just escaping from our everyday life, but actively reflecting back on it. This Critical Escape can lead us to new understandings, new ways of seeing, and behaving. We are able to return to the ‘real world’, as more open, empathetic and resilient people - transformed. The children of Pipecland understood this, though probably only in retrospect, once becoming adults. By creating their own kingdom, they experienced (and thus understood) the fragile and volatile structures that condition and construct social roles and systems. In dark times (and I want to point out that Pipecland did go through and survived the darkest times of Fascist and Communist Hungary) this understanding is paramount. The seemingly unalterable terms of our status quo can be challenged once provided the experience and agency to do so. We are not the subject to our structures, but the creators and shapers of it. And there are practices in which we can learn how to do exactly that. I feel a strong urgency for such a practice. We are currently facing a world where even though such notions as ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are more volatile than ever, knowledge and interpretation still govern our way of seeing, our way of behaving, our way of being.



Look at something that is beyond your thoughts. This paradoxical situation – that there is an apparent loss of truth and reality, and at the same time no initiatives to emancipate ourselves from binary, object-subject, and categorical thinking – this paradoxical situation is at the heart of many of the difficulties we face in our time. This is the Crisis of Imagination. [19] A Crisis that is present both between people and between our thoughts. Overcoming this Crisis, allows us to see it for what it is: just an arbitrary structure, nothing else. Once we understand that, we understand also our position in it and the agency we possess in how to change it. We understand that we have the possibility and the means to create new structures, new ways of seeing, new ways of being, new Magic Circles. If this sounds like a call for a political practice, that’s because it is a political practice.



Wipe away with hand. Credits and Acknowledgments


I’d like to thank Klára Cserne of the Transforming Association, for her amazing writings and thoughts that helped to shape a considerable part of this Publication. Klára introduced the term ‘self-transforming group’ to me in relation to playing and politics and was also the first one to draw attention to Arendt’s Vita Activa as a relevant point to relate to. Further thanks to Eyal Sivan, Roel Heremans, Marit Mihklepp, Ilga Mijnon, Johanna Koljonen, Julia Willms, and Michel Oltheten of Zen Heart Sangha for their immense help and support in making this Publication. I’d also like to express my endless gratitude to the children of Caer Cadarn, the participants of all Transformation Games, as well as to friends and family. This publication is made possible with the support of the Master Film Amsterdam, STROOM Den Haag, and Fonds Kwadraat. Words by Áron Birtalan; Design by Márton Kabai; Typeface: TT Drugs, TT Bells; Printed: Newspaper Club; First edition, 300 copies; 2018 June, Amsterdam, Den Haag

[1] There is a more well-known version of the quote from Fredric Jameson – it goes like this: “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” from “Future City” New Left Review, 2003 [2] Eszter Götz - Everybody is Born a Bear exhibition review https:// english/2557_everybody_is_ born_a_bear [3] Gabriel Widing - Immersion is the excrement of action http:// [4] Áron Birtalan - FIVE REFLECTIONS ON INTENTION, INVITATION, SITUATION, _______, AND REVOLUTION research-dossier [5] Roel Heremans and Áron Birtalan – Court http:// hp?page=article&id_article =2351&lang=nl&moturl=1&or ig_ection=516&date=2018-03 [6] Nina Runa Essendrop et al. – Shadows and Light http://blackbox-cph. dk/?page_id=139&lang=en [7] Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation uploads/2015/10/SontagAgainst-Interpretation.pdf [8] Ludwig Wittgenstein - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus klement/tlp/tlp.pdf

[9] The Vera List Center Fellowships http://www.veralistcenter. org/lead/2/fellowships/ [10] Childrens’ Republic of Gaudiopolis https:// Gaudiopolis [11] The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift wiki/Kibbo_Kift [12] What is Nordic LARP? what-is-nordic-larp/ [13] Sarah Lynne Bowman - Love, Sex, Death, and Liminality: Ritual in Just a Little Lovin’ https:// love-sex-death-andliminality-ritual-in-just-alittle-lovin/ [14] The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp - Edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back https://nordiclarp. org/w/images/8/80/2014_The_ Foundation_Stone_of_Nordic_ Larp.pdf [15] category/english/ [16] [17] http://www.ninaessendrop. com/ [18] quote taken from the foundational manifesto of the Transformation Association [19] Max Haiven - The financial crisis as a crisis of imagination http://www.academia. edu/1474831/The_financial_ crisis_as_a_crisis_of_ imagination THE CRITICAL ESCAPE


Give this sentence to someone else. 21.





21. Citizens in the Kingdom of Caer Cadarn - 2017, Jákotpuszta, Hungary 22. Members of the Kibbo Kift Kinship - 1929, United Kingdom 23. ‘SEE’, a Transformation Game by Áron Birtalan - 2017, Amsterdam, Netherlands THE CRITICAL ESCAPE 24. Children playing with slides - the 1960s, Hungary