From the vault: “Checks and Balances” from Art Lies

When discussing play and art, I was reminded of this piece I was challenged to write four years ago for the art journal Art Lies. The theme of the edition, guest-edited by the curator Stuart Horodner, was “second acts” — the myriad other things cultural producers do to the side of their practices, and Stuart asked me to write about playing roller derby.

Although that sport has developed and changed a lot in four years (my current teammates would scoff at any resemblance to burlesque and we’re dropping our aliases, as the sport has become ever more, well, athletic), the words I wrote about how sport complements my activities as an artist still hold.

Click the title for the full article. Excerpts:

Checks and Balances
Germaine Koh
Art Lies
no. 61 (Spring 2009), pp. 22-23

As an artist, almost everything I do contributes to the “brand” associated with my name, but when I’m playing roller derby I’m known only as PLAYER 1.[...]

[O]f the sports I could choose to take up at the age of 41, roller derby aligns well with some of the principles of my work and public persona. Unlike most sports, it embraces social complexities, combining athletics and burlesque, aggression and caring, all with political self-awareness of these implications. It’s tied to music, street and grassroots cultures, and this authenticity is a big part of its growing underground appeal.[...]

I am obsessed with derby because it is a completely new activity unlike anything I’ve done before, and a genuinely challenging sport with a whole new-to-me set of rules, conventions and skills to master. These reasons also happen to reveal some basic principles of my work.

For me, art is a means of engaging with the world with the intention of contributing something original to the public exchange of ideas. The task I set for myself as an artist is to observe myriad patterns in the world and synthesize them into unexpected propositions that encourage us to reflect upon the systems around us. At a basic level, doing a wide variety of things and being in contact with people from many backgrounds makes me more culturally literate and agile—a more able and balanced observer and thinker. Although this is probably a truism, it also feels true in practice. Being involved in a lot of different activities and operating systems gives me insight into a wider range of phenomena, allowing me to think more subtly and opening up ever more fields of enquiry.

On one level, then, derby is just the latest of the many “other things” that I have thrown myself into for the simple joy of learning, experiencing something new, knowing more about the world and feeding a curious mind. But more specifically, the other things I do have always included sports. Competitive sport has helped make me a relatively well-rounded person. For the younger me, it was a toss-up between art school and finding a career in sport, and I was certainly the only art student playing on a varsity team at my university. Art finally prevailed when I realized that I could justifiably do all kinds of other things, including sports, under the umbrella of being an artist.

Except in a couple of instances, sport doesn’t figure literally in my art, but it’s there everywhere. A sense of competition is related to the standard of minimalism and conceptual elegance to which I hold my work. A feeling for emergent play and the organization of games helps me evaluate how audiences will interact with my work. The ability to concentrate while in a state of uncertainty allows me to conceive of lifelong projects and to have the faith to design others with open-ended outcomes. Being accustomed to playing within rules gives me a greater understanding of the innumerable conventions that I need to negotiate, and of course, the habits of teamwork are directly transferable to the collaborative aspects of my—and many other—disciplines.

Certainly, some aspects of organized sports are quite different than artmaking: it is often authoritarian, it requires adherence to immovable rules and uses set plays, and the goal-oriented nature of competition doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debate. Yet, other elements of athletics do encourage the types of rigor that serve artists well: strategy, focus, flow, tenacity, awareness and commitment are all ultimately developed through physical training. In other words, submission to a training regime is eventually good for freethinking too: a healthy body is more likely to house a healthy mind.

Sport also has the amazing effect of quieting the overly busy mind.[...] It’s primal, primary experience.[...] Sports let me reconnect with the delights of play and of really feeling stuff in the moment. The reckless way I play means that my career in roller derby is likely to be short-lived, but for now it complements, nourishes and provides a welcome counterpoint to the weight of my job.

[...]Vancouver, November 2008

Posted under: History / philosophy / sociology


PLAYER 1 is the roller derby name of artist Germaine Koh.

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