League and the Elm Park Field House Artist Residency


By Germaine Koh
Photographed by Noriko Nasu-Tidball

Hello, Kerrisdale! My name is Germaine Koh. I’m the artist you’ve been seeing at work in and around the Elm Park field house, and one of the people you may have noticed running around the park wielding rope, frisbees, mops, beanbags, lumber, and an old couch.

The Elm Park field house is one of seven new artist residencies launched in late 2012 within the Vancouver Park Board Field House Studio Residency Project. The goal of that program is to enliven previously-vacant field houses, using them as catalysts for community-building (read about the program and residencies here:http://vancouver.ca/parks-recreation-culture/field-house-studio-residencies-in-parks.aspx). From an open competitive call for proposals, artists were selected to use these field houses as studios for two years, in exchange for community-based art activity.

In my case, the project I proposed is closely tied to other aspects of my art practice, and one which puts the task of innovation into the hands — and legs, and minds — of community members. The project, League, is an open weekly gathering for the purpose of playing sports and games invented by participants. Each game, its playing field and its strategies evolve through trial and improvisation, and new and unusual equipment may be invented.

League aims to inspire residents of diverse backgrounds and generations to come together to play, think imaginatively, and act collaboratively, in response to challenges posed by different situations. Everyone is welcome, whether they identify as athletes, creative people, both, or neither. The project is based in a belief that play is an essential human tendency that is related on one hand to problem-solving and negotiation skills and on another to a pure pursuit of joy. League participants are encouraged to tweak established structures and rules, to bring into play unexpected objects, to think widely about possible spaces for play, to pursue unconventional approaches to sport, and to tackle situations with both mind and body.

In the first few months of this project we have already invented and evolved some odd games. For example, for New Year’s Eve we started with a vague idea about cyclical games, plus a desire to use the two huge maple trees outside the field house and an idea that the field of play could be flexible and changing. We eventually came up with a vigorous game we’re calling Cyclada, which could be described as a cross between cricket and tug-of-war. The dozen-or-so people who were there were really excited about the way that game evolved dramatically from its first conception — and it was also fun enough that one kid who was there organized his next birthday party in Elm Park in order to play Cyclada and invent other games. For Family Literacy Day we started with the idea to explore signs and signals, thinking about specialized visual languages such as hobo symbols and traffic signs. We ended up making abstract marks on the field and having the markings themselves suggest the procedures that should unfold. Future events will include performative projects that might not be clearly art or sport, and ones that reach out and affect city space.

 We’ve had a mix of people attend: families, artists, athletes ranging from roller derby players to a professional mountain biker, and Kerrisdale residents who’ve heard about the project. I couldn’t predict in advance who might be intrigued by the idea; really, the only expectation was that it would attract participants who are adaptable and have a tolerance for (or even attraction to) uncertainty, provisional process, negotiation, and unconventional approaches to problems. The project is conceived as a sort of sandbox for experiments around improvisation, performance, co-operation, and strategy. The process of learning, adapting and evolution through iteration (successive versions) is central to the overall concept. It is based in a belief that there is real value in emergent behaviour and the processes of making sense of things. It views games, sport and play as serious forms of problem-solving that may be more complete than approaches which privilege the mental over the physical.


In these aspects, League is very much an extension of my ongoing art practice. I make artwork that ranges very widely in terms of materials, but which is fundamentally concerned with paying attention to the everyday actions, social exchanges, and uses of space that shape our lives, sometimes without our being aware of them. I often create situations in which we become acutely aware of our own actions and our interactions with others, and how things do, or do not, play by unwritten rules of convention. For example, I once built a generic bus shelter structure onto the inside of a storefront gallery, then removed one of the street windows so that the shelter could only be accessed from the street, creating a space that was awkwardly in-between street and interior. I’ve also made works that bring the built environment into alignment with the natural one, for instance as a line of velvet ropes that move up and down in relation to the tide level, or a system that continually matches the interior lighting to the level of sunlight outdoors, essentially defeating the purpose of artificial lighting. I’ve transplanted the weeds and other ground cover from a vacant lot into a gallery and allowed that to grow for an entire exhibition period, connecting visitors to really fascinating sensory processes that they might otherwise walk right by. Other projects tweak social conventions. One object I’ve made looks like a taxi-call phone, but when you pick up the handset it connects you to a stranger who’s agreed to have conversations with whoever happens to call. Another is a bench like you’d see in a bus shelter, except that it pivots on a central fulcrum to become a teeter-totter that is best used in cooperation with another citizen.

You’ll notice that there is a good measure of absurdity in these propositions. Essentially, like League, they are about play with, and within, existing conventions. They ask: what are the unwritten codes by which we interact, and why are those procedures the way they are? How could they be shifted to produce surprise, discomfort, delight, reflective thought, sensory interest, political consequences, or other sorts of meaning? I think of art-making as open-ended, abstract problem-solving: approaching a given site or situation or materials without a preconceived idea about what they must be, but instead observing how they’re used, thinking about how they could be altered, and coming up with a “solution” that adds value to what was there before.

I work in the field house most days, and am open to visitors. League events happen on Tuesday afternoons/evenings, with larger gatherings on the last Sunday afternoon of each month.  Everyone is welcome to drop in to participate or initiate a game for the group to try. We’ll occasionally have special guests from the worlds of sport, art and games, and some of the events will be thematic. The project website at http://league-league.org includes a schedule, discussion, research on play and games, and League documentation.

We (League regulars, which could include you, dear reader) are also organizing some special events and developing a model for team-innovation workshops that can be brought to different groups. The special events include The n Games (http://ngames.ca), an innovative tournament in which teams of different backgrounds — sports and business teams, cultural groups — will play League-type invented games against each other in Elm Park on September 8.

I hope to meet you in person. Do stop by the field house to say hello or play.

Germaine Koh