Bernie De Koven’s Legacy of Play: an interview with Tassos

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Tassos has spent the last month travelling across North America, on a mission to visit and collaborate with jedi master of play Bernie De Koven. As Bernie nears the end of his life, he and Tassos are making A Game of Legacy.

The Kickstarter campaign for this project is in its final week – click here to find out more, read blog updates from Tassos, and donate to the project.

From Coney HQ in London, Jyothi interviews Tassos in Montreal to find out about the journey, devising process, and future of the Game of Legacy:

What were your highlights of the road trip and your time in Indianapolis with Bernie?

I just love being on the road, by myself – the space it opens up for thinking and reflecting.

I drive very rarely in the UK. I mostly drive when I’m in other countries, so I appreciate those rare chances to be driving, and be there in your thoughts. Knowing what I was going to do with Bernie, it was really useful to have that time to unpack – what am I doing, and why am I doing this?

I was also delighted by the randomness of place names, in Ontario especially, matching ones in England but being all mixed up. I stopped in Brighton – Brighton, Ontario – it’s a very different place in a very different geography, but it almost rhymes with Brighton in England. And I had coffee in London, Ontario – I specifically went there so I could have coffee in London. I had a lovely conversation with a guy sitting at the next table; those kinds of chance encounters that you have on the road are wonderful.

And the highlights with Bernie…were everything. To have that week with him, to have the exchange, was a profound privilege. To get to know him and his family was a really beautiful experience. I’m now also now eating a lot of ice cream. Not just because of Bernie, but Wyliepalooza in Indianapolis – it’s the most perfect place to be hanging out with him because ice cream and games.

 

What moment sticks in your mind?

The moment when I was siting outside on his porch listening to the chimes, and suddenly a hummingbird appeared. This was the first morning. I’d never seen a hummingbird before outside of a zoo – free, in the wild – and I was gobsmacked. And it felt serendipitous that this tiny creature, the most beautiful symbol of free-form movement and play itself, appears when I’m sitting on the porch of Bernie De Koven.

Also what feels pivotal was the time we spent sitting on a bench, watching people play on the expression swings which Bernie has bequested to his local park. Being there beneath the oak trees, watching people play with no idea that this old dude sitting with this less old dude on the bench was responsible for the swings being there.

That itself felt like the best expression of legacy.

 

What does legacy meant to you, and what’s interesting about making a game about that question?

I think that it’s a gift, and you don’t know who’s going to take it in the future and what they’re going to do with it. Before starting this project, I asked a question on Facebook: what does legacy mean to you? It was really interesting that the negative connotation of legacy, thinking about the 2012 Olympics and the regeneration there in London, is around the tight grip that the legacy maker has on how things will be done and what the benefits will be. It leaves no space for people to pick up and take ownership or not to, as they want.

And perhaps legacy should be a gift which is free for people to take from it what they want. Rather than a gift which demands that it be done in a particular way, or that you know that this is about this person. There’s something beautiful then about us talking about legacy by the swings, watching how people play on those, all the different ways they play or don’t play.

 

What was most challenging?

Time, and the lack of it. It would cross my mind that we only have so long – I only have a week with him, but also Bernie only has so much time left because of the presence of the cancer. In the present moment, it didn’t cross our minds. When you lose that and start worrying, it gets harder. But Bernie is very open and funny about talking about it and how he wants to respond to it.

The silver lining is that there’s no arguing with it – if his body is tired and he needs to lie down, that is what needs to happen. It was useful to limit our time to a couple of hours a day to give him time to rest and to spend with his family. 

What form has the game taken?

The game is a surprise parcel, a performance you will make between yourselves as you play, and a game at the heart of that. It being a surprise, with some tilts within the experience, is a really important quality of it. I won’t say say much more than that…

Funnily enough, if you’d asked me to predict what it would be like before went to see Bernie, this isn’t be far off from that. But it’s all in the details, in the very specifics of what we’re asking people to think about and do and play. We were very aware in the devising process of holding on to the quality of resonance. It needed to resonate with the present moment of us together, what that means, and what it means for players gathered together to play. And a way of making those two moments resonate together – that’s the challenge.

The devising process was a series of conversations and reflections, like any process. Moments where I wanted to say let’s just make something, let’s playtest, Bernie resisted beautifully so we could continue playing with it in our imaginations. 

There’s been a lovely gifting between us. The lead artist of this is Bernie and it’s for him as much as it’s by him. But he’s gifting back to me as he wants it to be about the both of us. Without planning or fixing this process, it has been characterised by gifting between the both of us throughout.

 

What do you hope the legacy of the game will be?

I hope it will be the same for those who know Bernie already and those who don’t, that we will try to conjure his personality and his presence in the game (without becoming in any way maudlin). Bernie, for me, best articulates and expresses in his writing and his living the spirit and value of play and playfulness. I’ve known that in my head, but feeling that in my heart is what’s really touched me.

I already knew how much I wanted to exchange with Bernie because he has such wisdom about what happens between people when they play. Any game is the means as much as it is the end in play between people, it’s how it makes and transforms relationships which counts.

I’ve also been left with an amazing conversation we had about playing ‘just for fun’ – purpose and purposelessness, and the purpose of purposelessness. There was birdsong all around us that week, and there are all sorts of theories about why birds sing, but Bernie said – what if they do it just for fun? How is that any less than the purposeful explanations of birdsong? That it’s just for fun.

I hope more people will learn about Bernie, be drawn to his writings and books – including Infinite Playground which will be published posthumously by MIT press – and be as inspired as I have been. And hopefully it will be fun. Just for fun. That’s the legacy.

A Game of Legacy‘s Kickstarter campaign runs until Tuesday 1 August; click here to find out more.

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