Unleash children’s joy, fantasy, and creativity–then they are free, social, and curious children.” – Palle Nielsen
Living in Copenhagen now, there are a lot of options for children. Most neighborhoods have imaginative playgrounds with interactive play areas based on themes like a Bermuda Triangle shipwreck, robot men, or magical towers. Most building courtyards are filled with green spaces and also have playground equipment. Copenhagen today exudes a child friendly vibe.
This wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, Copenhagen’s architectural and spatial awareness of children’s needs was not a priority in city planning. One Sunday, artist, Palle Nielsen, who had been experimenting with and researching children and play, decided to take action and propose a solution to the problem. There was a growing sentiment internationally during this politically tumultuous period that among the many other marginalized groups in contemporary society, children and their needs should be taken seriously. For example, in nearby Germany, activists were creating radical kindergartens in storefronts called Kinderläden. Nielsen gathered a group of people, made flyers urging parents to take action for their children’s welfare, and set about making a guerrilla adventure playground in the courtyard of a Nørrebro building that particular Sunday. He would go on to make several more playgrounds in and around Nørrebro, all were eventually taken down by authorities, but the actions had set a public discussion in motion about the needs of children in the concrete city plan.
In 1968, Nielsen went to Stockholm to collaborate on city actions with the activist group, Aktion Samtal (Action Dialogue). The group was doing similar actions, setting up playgrounds, tearing down fencing to extend green space and leisure space in the Swedish city, though they were also organized around an anti-Vietnam war platform. As Nielsen became more involved with the group, he suggested that they raise their profile by doing a large-scale intervention at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. The idea was met with criticism from his fellow activists. The group took convincing to agree that a large cultural institution could provide an appropriate backdrop for a “large, pedagogical model exhibition,” and garner media attention for their cause.
After receiving approval from the director and much fundraising Modellen–En modell för ett kvalitativt samhälle (The Model–A Model for a Qualitative Society) opened in October 1968. The exhibition saw 35,000 visitors over its three-week run, with 20,000 of that number being children. Art critic, Lars Bang Larsen writes that the Model had a triple agenda in its execution–”It was a pedagogical research project and an activist critique of everyday life, as well as–unofficially–concerned with introducing an inclusive, process-oriented concept of art.” Nielsen was navigating several different fields in the realization of this project—the art world of the museum and his own professional background, his activist collaborators and the political goals of that group, and the world of academics. By the time the exhibition was up and running, Nielsen was a PhD student in architecture.
A model for society? A model of social change? The large indoor playground included a foam rubber pit, a dress up area with costumes donated from the theatre, a painting station, a place to play record albums over the loudspeakers, a mountain of tires and much more. After a few children were injured when the exhibition opened, the organizers limited the number of people who could go in at a time. Other than that security limit, children were allowed to play fairly unsupervised in the exhibition hall, while parents and other museum goers watched a live feed in the entry way. The exhibition was free for children up to age 18, but adults had to pay five Swedish kroner. In an attempt to break down the class barriers associated with visiting a cultural institution like the Moderna Museet, kindergarten and school children from all over the city were invited to come to the exhibition.
Nielsen writing under the collective pseudonym of Arbetsgruppen (Working Group) wrote in the exhibition catalogue:
All these sentences have their own signals.
But they also are also associated with a model at Moderna Museet on 30 September–20 October 1968.
The idea is to create a framework for children’s own creative play. Children of all ages will work on developing this framework. Indoors and outdoors – in all kinds of play – they should have the right to communicate their capacity for self-expression.
Their play is the exhibition.
The exhibition is the work of children.
There is no exhibition.
It is only an exhibition because the children are playing in an art museum.
It is only an exhibition for those who are not playing.
That’s why we call it a model.
Perhaps it will be the model for the society children want.
Perhaps children can tell us so much about their own world that this can also be a model for us.
We hope so.
Therefore, we are letting the children present their model to those who are working with or are responsible
for the environment provided for children outside – in the adult world.
We believe children are capable of articulating their own needs.
And that they want something different from what awaits them.
Nielsen’s text is a sort of manifesto for the children. It also denies that The Model is an exhibition. Lars Bang Larsen’s critical essay on this exhibition carefully outlines why this denial and other reasons kept Nielsen’s work from being recognized by art history for many years. Nielsen’s project was rooted in community activism, it was media spectacle, and it was research. Using the political atmosphere at the time and his own interest in play and spatial dynamics, he wanted to use the institutional backdrop to create “the pre-school of the culture revolution.”
Despite his negations of the institution in his text and attitude, the Model has now become a cultural institution in its own right. With recent re-presentations of the original work, the cultural impact of the original intervention can be assessed by a new generation of children and museum goers.
I took my daughter to Arken, a museum near Copenhagen, to see the “reinterpretation of the legendary exhibition.” Palle Nielsen worked on the new installation and it includes the famed foam rubber pit for jumping—separated with one for ages 3-6 and one for ages 7-12 , various wooden and carpeted climbing structures and a tent for playing dressing up, face painting, a making crafts. Visitors can paint the walls in the long airplane hangar-like museum hall, and they had indeed been painted. This version of The Model has been open since February 9th and will remain up until December 7th of this year and there is already next to no space left on the walls and floors, where visitors have left their marks. The used tires, part of the original Model in Stockholm, had been re-visioned here as rubber inner-tubes for rolling and stacking, a little more safety conscious. Admission is still free for kids.
Nielsen’s 1968 version of The Model was obviously ahead of its time; a precursor to the field of art now described as ‘social practices.’ Art that involves social politics, interactivity, institutional critique, and often includes the creation of temporary free spaces, both within and outside of the institution. The space I visited at Arken was fun and exciting for my two year old, but it felt like a shadow of the revolutionary space for free play that the descriptions and images from the Moderna Museet telegraph out to us from the past. Mothers, myself included, hovered on the edge of the foam rubber pit, watching to make sure no one got hurt. We talked and taped our feet to the popular indie rock playing over the loudspeakers, managed not by the kids but the museum attendants who attend to the installation all day, almost like pedagogues in a daycare center. For my family, and me this was a fun way to introduce our daughter to art, in a museum setting. It did spark her imagination—while swimming in the foam pit she said she was swimming at the pool.
In another exhibition hall nearby Palle Nielsen’s Modellen, another visionary artist from the 1960s had a retrospective of his work. Hundertwasser, a radical eco-artist from Vienna is best known for his colorful paintings, strange public performances, and Dr. Seuss like contributions to architecture. This exhibition was a saturated display of his paintings and architectural models. I am sharing it here because of one particular piece described in the exhibition. In 1960, Hundertwasser performed his Nettle Campaign at the Galerie des Quatre Saisons in Paris. The artist served foraged nettle soup form a large copper pot while pronouncing that one could live happily with out money—just eat nettles! His performative reading was directed mainly at the economically challenged artists in the audience. It created a cultural experience and discussion around food in a gallery space, years before the concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ was being discussed in art circles. Hundertwasser, like Nielsen was a social critic whose art practice tried to push the edge of what, by whom, where, and how art was experienced.
These two exhibitions show historical works and documentation that reflect the concerns and aesthetics of artists working today. As we work to make our own revolutionary forms and practices, we can see the results of past efforts. Hopefully in comparison, we can add something to the discussion. Lars Bang Larsen writes in the conclusion of his essay on Nielsen’s Model:
Time, however, has also turned play into a thing. As a result, it is no longer a figure for the transgression of existing society, but a norm in an economy based on commodified experience. Art and play are reconnected in the growing culture industries and in new imperatives of socialization. If forty years ago free play was believed to be an Erziehung zum Ungehörsam, as a German book title proclaimed back then: an ‘education in disobedience’; then the encouragement of creativity has today been turned into one of the means by which the commercial spheres of circulation adjust and control social processes.
Radio Aktiv Sonic Deep Map (2013)
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