Panellists discuss how play can be a "powerful political gesture" at Venice talk

Promotion: at a talk organised by Therme Art at Venice Art Biennale last month, artists Sonia Boyce and Precious Okoyomon discussed how they use play in their work to bring people closer together.

In partnership with the British Council and the Serpentine, Therme Art's Wellbeing Culture Forum talk: The Impact of Social Practice saw moderators Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and artistic director of Serpentine Galleries, and Monilola Ilupeju, artist and curator at Therme Art, discuss the impact of social practice within communities.

Obrist and Ilupeju were joined by three panellists, British artist and educator Sonia Boyce; artist, poet, and chef Precious Okoyomon; and The Shane Akeroyd associate curator of the British Pavilion, Emma Ridgway.

The talk was part of Therme Art's Wellbeing Culture Forum talk series

Sonia Boyce's installation Feeling Her Way, which is on show at the Biennale until 27 November, was used as a point of departure for the conversation.

Exploring the potential of collaborative play as a route to innovation, Feeling Her Way brings together video works featuring five Black female musicians – Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth MBE, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram and composer Errollyn Wallen CBE – who were invited by Boyce to improvise, interact and play with their voices.

The video works are showcased among Boyce's signature tessellating wallpapers and 3D geometric structures. The Pavilion's rooms are filled with sounds – sometimes harmonious, sometimes clashing – conveying feelings of freedom, power and vulnerability.

A photograph of Sonia Boyce receiving the Golden Lion for best national participation at the 59th International Art Exhibition
Sonia Boyce received the Golden Lion for best national participation at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Photo by Andrea Avezzù

"We tend to think of play as an infantile thing and I think that for adults we find it incredibly difficult to play," observed Boyce. "It's almost as if we have anxiety about revealing our true selves in that moment."

"When I'm working with a group of people who don't know each other, in a space where I'm asking them to just see what can happen, to improvise without a script, to find a what to negotiate with each other, I'm also on that journey to the space between the known and the unknown, and that's what play is about – it's about trying to get to a place of innovation."

A photograph of Precious Okoyomon who is holding a small dog on their lap
Artist, chef and poet Precious Okoyomon joined the conversation

Moderator Ilupeju responded, "To me, improvisation is also a way of playing, a way of being ultra-present in your body. I think in the world that we're living in today, that thrives off of desensitisation and living in projections and living in fear, to live presently in the body, to allow yourself to improvise, to improvise with other people, I think is a really powerful political gesture."

Precious Okoyomon, who also puts community as a central ethos in their work, spoke about how the living landscape installations they create not only provide a space for collective mourning and joy but also feed back into the community.

"To me, art isn't just what's in the space. It's how it lives and breathes and entangles with the earth," they reflected. "That soil goes back out to the community, and it's not just art anymore. It literally goes back into the earth and then someone's going to use that in their farm. That energy continues, building and going out, and that's the poetics of relation. For me, it's how it spreads, how it changes and grows."

A photograph of Feeling her Way exhibition
Feeling Her Way is on show at the Biennale until 27 November

Currently on show at the Biennale, Okoyomon's installation, titled To See the Earth Before the End of the World, is a landscape planted with Kudzu vines and sugar cane. Streams of water flow through the soil and live butterflies flutter around the space interacting with the plants around them.

"I like getting out of the room and into the world, taking us out into a space that makes us a little uncomfortable," Okoyomon said talking about the temporality of their work. "It's the play for me; the freedom of getting malleable and loose and getting to dream in a different way that doesn't feel bound by anything. It's also just so fun."

The talk was the latest in Therme Art's Wellbeing Culture Forum talk series. Therme Art is the creative platform of Therme Group, responsible for outreach to creative communities, "focused on the production of wellbeing at the heart of art and culture".

Partnership content

This article was written by Dezeen for Therme Art as part of a partnership. Find out more about Dezeen partnership content here.