Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Play and its Potential Publics

14 September 2019, 10:30 am–7:00 pm

Play and its Potential Publics

Play and its Potential Publics is an interdisciplinary symposium funded by the Open University and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), UCL. It will take place on 14 September 2019 at the IAS. Registration is free, all welcome.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Catalina Pollak Williamson (PhD Student, UCL Bartlett), Dr Jan van Duppen (ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The Open University), Dr Andrew Murray (Associate Lecturer, The Open University) and Freya Field-Donovan (PhD Student, UCL History of Art)


IAS Common Ground, G11
Ground Floor, South Wing, UCL
Gower Street
United Kingdom


The potential of play evades definition. No matter how a form of play is described, recorded and delimited, its representation and evaluation do not completely overlap with its experience. Such potential can transform or disrupt public life: football fans, for instance, share their experiences before and after the match in the streets and city outside the stadium. But just as permitting such potential can have its risks, so can attempts to police or contain it. In In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1935), Johan Huizinga warned of a world where the experience of play becomes indistinct from its rationalisation. He was concerned how the ritualised politics of 1930s Europe was becoming a key component of social control. Perhaps we can make similar observations in the contemporary public sphere, one in which labour and leisure becomes indistinct in social media platforms, or in office spaces that mix work and rest facilities to blur the distinction between contracted hours and overtime. As soon as play becomes defined, delimited or rationalised, so is its public and their behaviour.

Rather than seek to define play, we therefore perhaps get closer to understanding it at the point when it exceeds its purported rhetorics, functions, limits and uses, in so doing finding and defining new public spaces or communities. This symposium will therefore bring together scholars in the social sciences and humanities to ask how the potentials of play can operate in public life. We will consider what the consequences are of extending play beyond any defined or intended limits: how it can become integrated with the everyday, the trivial with the serious, the imaginary with the real, the sacred with the profane.

Please visit https://playandpublics.home.blog/ and download the poster here.


10:30–11:00 Introduction

11:00–12:30 Session 1: Playing the City

  • Dr Sigrid Merx (Utrecht University) Playing the ‘As If’ Game: Theatre that intervenes in Public Life by pretending to be something else
  • Dr Luke Dickens (King’s College London) Clowns, Play and the Politics of Engagement in Joan Littlewood’s Visionary Urbanism

12:30–13:30 Lunch

13:30–15:00 Session 2: Play and Sensation

  • Dr Emma Fraser (Lancaster University) Imagined Ruins, Technofutures, and Critical Play
  • Prof. Nicolas Whybrow (University of Warwick) Sensing the City: A Road Map

15:00-15:15 Break

15:15-16:45 Session 3: Play and the Public Sphere

  • Dr Emma West (University of Birmingham) Policing Play: The Arts and/as Social Control during WWII
  • Lucie Glasheen (Queen Mary University) Places of Play: Spaces of Change in Nineteen-Thirties East London

16:45-17:00 Break

17:00-18:15 Keynote Lecture

  • Prof. Robert Pfaller (Kunstuniversität Linz) From Suspended Disbelief to Deceptive Truth: The Vicissitudes of Play In Postmodernity

18:15-19:00 Drinks & Nibbles