An interview with Helen Kwok and Chad Toprak, artists behind the brightly-coloured Street Tape Games.
Helen Kwok and Chad Toprak are an artist duo based in Melbourne. Their installation Street Tape Games is a pattern of brightly-coloured tapes designed for playing on. It’s running throughout JUMP in three different locations, with facilitators present to suggest games to play on the weekends.
Melbourne, where Helen Kwok and Chad Toprak are based, has had an unusual pandemic, combining months of some of the world’s harshest lockdowns with months where—as a result of those lockdowns—there were no cases at all (apart from returnees from overseas, who were quarantined in medihotels). It’s a strange context for a pair of designers who make physical games and run in-person events.
Their work Street Tape Games was, they say, “very much a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular the rapid emergence of social-distancing tapes in public space”. The evolving regulations about how to move through public space, the patterns on the ground: wasn’t there something about them that was reminiscent of playground markings? “So we thought, what if we can make a playspace from these tapes? Essentially, subverting the role of these social-distancing tapes from something that is traditionally used to isolate people and to keep people apart—to something that can actually bring people together through play.”
Their aim, then, was to use the tapes and work with the rules around social distancing to create experiences that people could have together. “Can we still safely play our beloved street and playground games in public space? How can we play ‘tag’ when we can’t tag each other anymore? We wanted to create an installation that encouraged people to feel safe enough to come outside and play again after lockdown,” they say.
Even now, with many regulations lifted and most types of outdoor play permitted in the UK, not everyone feels safe to take part in traditional playground games. Using the tapes to maintain distance therefore helps to make play available to a broader range of people.
For that to work, however, it’s not enough to make games that are theoretically still fun even at a distance as long as everyone is careful and restrained: once people start playing a game, restraint tends to fall by the wayside. Instead, these reimagined games have to actively require that social distance be maintained, as a core part of what makes them fun and functional.
It wasn’t an easy task. So many classic playground games are totally dependent on proximity and touch: whispering in someone’s ear, tagging them, throwing a ball to them, bursting through their clasped hands. But there are other mechanics that can work without touch: racing, sneaking, passing secrets, deducing, freezing in place. None of these require people to be close to each other.
“That led us down the path,” Chad and Helen say, “of redesigning a set of physical games that can incorporate social distancing as a part of their gameplay—taking traditional childhood favourites like Foursquare or What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf—and tweaking them to not include any body contact or touch. At the same time, we thought we could use the social-distancing tapes to create a unique playspace for the games. We were very much inspired by Bernie de Koven’s philosophy around the Well-Played Game – to change the rules if it means allowing everyone to play. In the words of de Koven: “If you can’t play it, change it.””
In fact, they had a lot of fun deconstructing and reconstructing the games with social distancing and no-touch elements. Sometimes, they say, it was just a simple matter of flipping the game around. “For example, how do you pass on a secret message at a distance, and with masks on? That’s how Distant Whispers was born.”
Or it might be that you can’t get people to pass a ball around: but what can they do instead? “For instance, the use of a body action or pose in Mimic Me Foursquare, or your voice in Verbal Tunnelball.” They’ve even changed fast-paced action game British Bulldog, intermittently banned in playgrounds across the world, into a no-contact timing-based strategy game.
“When it comes to physical play,” Chad and Helen say, “we often forget that we have access to a wide range of body actions and poses, like jumping, squatting or stomping, in addition to touch. The constraint of social distancing has actually allowed us to tap into these bodily actions that would otherwise be forgotten.”
Alongside the challenge of reimagining the games, the artists had to deal with the challenge of making sure that the space would work physically. It was an intensive process: they conducted materials testing on 23 different tapes, ranging through coloured masking tapes, cloth tapes, fluoro tapes, PVC protection tapes, social-distancing printed tapes, floor vinyls, gaffer tapes, and hazard tapes.
Furthermore, they say, “we tested them on three different types of floor surfaces: smooth and light-coloured concrete; dark, pebbled concrete; and black asphalt – and also tested each tape’s adhesion levels (how easy it is to apply and remove), visibility (visible contrast on various surfaces), and durability (how long it lasts when jumping and stomping on it).” And only after all these tests could they winnow their selection down to the mix of cloth and masking tapes that they use now.
JUMP will be the first time the Street Tape Games have been run outside of Australia, but Helen and Chad aren’t particularly worried: they believe play is universal. And they’ve seen how people react to the patterned space that the games require; even when it’s just lines on the ground, with no facilitators there to explain the games and muster a group, they say that kids see the marks and start inventing and playing and jumping spontaneously, coming up with their own rules and experiments. People in the UK should have a pretty good time with it, they think.
Finally, I ask them whether there’s anything they haven’t managed to do with Street Tape Games that they would like to; what they would do with the idea if they had unlimited time and budget.
Chad is immediately ambitious: he would install Street Tape Games everywhere in the city, “in unexpected and liminal spaces like queues, public bathrooms, pedestrian crossings, bus stops, libraries, shopping malls, schools”. He’d also like to make it easier to allow anyone to create their own modular playspace.
For Helen, the temporary of-the-moment nature of Street Tape Games is part of what she values about the project. “But,” she says, “I think the best outcome for me would be seeing kids and adults, after having played the installation, look at social-distancing tapes in public space with a playful mindset… perhaps even playing some of the games we taught them on these tapes. Or perhaps seeing kids take these games back to school and build upon them. What I love about Street Tape Games is its use of everyday materials to bring joy to people, that it’s very DIY, and it shows that with a slight change in mindset, we can still be very playful during a pandemic.”
Helen Kwok and Chad Toprak (Melbourne) are an artist duo specialising in playful installations, experimental games, and public play activations. Their focus is on promoting play amongst adults and children in social and public settings. They have showcased their work at festivals and events across Australia and around the world.