The Work in Play: the Benčić Youth Council in Rijeka, Croatia

“The childhood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a metaphorical or mobile city, like the one Kandinsky dreamed of: ‘a great city built according to all the rules of architecture and then suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculation.’”

– Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall, 1984


It’s a strange thing that play is most often considered an antonym to work. It is its oppositional binary, springing as quickly to mind as night does when day is mentioned, what pepper is to salt. It is work’s implied carefree, frivolous cousin. A child runs through a field with grass green knees, holding an ice cream, trailing a kite in the other hand, pealing with laughter, butter yellow dandelions passing by at an impossibly slow speed (slow motion, shot with a soft focus lens, in warm light). The idea of play is as idealized as it is dismissive. We have phrases like “child’s play” for something preposterously easy, playtime is the loafing-off period that be-cubicled workers spend in sitcoms before their boss walks in and tells them it’s over (amidst much scrambling and coughing).

Anyone who looks back at their own acts of play (taking off the saccharine rose-coloured, “young-at-heart” glasses, of course) remembers its power: it is imagination embodied. In moments of play we build relationships as children. We bridge the gap between ourselves and others and the places we run through. We imagine possibilities for our world. This metaphorical act of play and imagining should not be so quickly idealized or dismissed. Rather, it can be considered earnestly as a chaotic and creative force that defies all calculation. Play, or at the very least, the act of imagining, can be a political energy that shakes the built spaces of the city—and its collateral staid mental architecture—to its foundations.

The Benčić Youth Council is a group of young people who are drawing from history to imagine the future of Rijeka, Croatia. The Council learns, debates, discovers, influences, creates, and experiences many forms of art and culture in their city. The group takes its name from and continues the energy generated by Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić), an experimental film directed by artist Althea Thauberger, commissioned and co-organized by Musagetes with in-kind support from the City of Rijeka.

children gathered

Shot with a cast of over 70 of the city’s children, aged 6 to 13, Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić) was a staged occupation of Benčić, an abandoned industrial complex that since the early 2000s has been designated as a space for developing creative industries. In the film the children are ex-workers who re-skill and temporarily re-occupy the factory as artists. In the factory, they discuss possible uses of the building, the history of the city as told through the building itself, and the relationship between “play” and “work,” while responding to cultural traditions. For the actors, play and work are difficult to separate, two strands bound tightly into rope.[1] They are asked, “When are you playing? When are you working?” and the childrens’ answers vary—they play in one part of the factory and work in another. When the cameras are rolling, it’s work; when they are turned off, it’s play. In one scene, the children vocalize the noises of a working factory: the hissing of a pneumatic punch, the beeps and blips of computerized equipment, the whir and thud of flailing metal arms. Through this act, they become the factory; in a sense they bring the long-abandoned space back to life with their imaginations.

The idea of play as a labour of sorts is deftly articulated by Mammalian Diving Reflex. Mammalian is a Toronto-based research-art collective founded in 1993 by Artistic Director Darren O’Donnell, whose writing has helped to contextualize much of our thinking about the Benčić Youth Council. The collective works within the social sphere, bringing people of varying ages and demographics to experience and experiment, and has created project such as Haircuts by Children, “a performance about trust, children’s rights, generosity and vanity, where ten-year-olds offer free haircuts to the public,”[2] and All the Sex Ive Ever Had, in which senior citizens relate their escapades to a live audience. Their document The Mammalian Protocol for Collaborating with Children is a rights-based approach to artistic collaborations that synthesizes numerous protocols, primarily the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In it, they present the writing of the International Play Association, an international non-governmental organization founded in Scandinavia in 1961. Mammalian agrees with the organization’s document The Declaration of the Childs Right to Play which states that “play is a means of learning to live, not a mere passing of time”[3]. Mammalian proposes that play “therefore can, in many ways, be considered the child’s primary vocation, which they enact for the good of the whole society.”[4] What would our society look like if we valued play as labour’s equivalent instead of its opposite?

children with posters

The Benčić Youth Council held its first session this week, a summer school from July 21-25, 2013. Titled By Railway, it used the work of local artists Nadija Mustapić and Toni Meštrović as a starting point to explore the rail system in Rijeka historically, metaphorically, and practically. Throughout the week the Council members did a lot of playing and working. They got to know each other by hurtling through rooms and halls playing tag. They learned about collaboration by crafting trains together out of egg cartons, covering them in coloured paper and pipe cleaners, and creating elaborate back stories together of where the train had been and why it was built. They processed and gathered their findings about the histories and metaphors of the rail system that made industry in the city achievable and dreams of connection possible. These were crafted with coloured markers, stickers, a typewriter, glitter glue, occasionally resulting in ink spilled all over the table. After every activity, pedagogue Natali Bosić worked with the group to debrief what they were doing. How did they work together and make decisions as a group to finish something? How does the connection of industry to the railway relate to the position of the railway in the city today? The activities—laborious and playful alike—were evaluated and valued. Their labour was acknowledged and their time was deemed to be important.

I imagine a city for all people, from those who are just starting to explore it to those who have already spent some time on its sidewalks and alleys. In this city, instead of work’s antonym, play will be recognized as something more like it’s synonym: a creative occupation and a valued labour. Though its towering skyscrapers and sensible houses may be built according to all the rules of architecture, its youngest citizens will lead the way in helping us to unravel its readable surfaces. Their imaginations will tease apart the sentences we forgot to question and codes we just assumed would always be that way. Their works of play will imagine new possibilities for the city. And the walls will suddenly shake with the thundering footsteps of children running through the streets.


[1] Imagery from a phone conversation with Brigitte Evering about complexity thinking and knowledge integration, July 2014.


[3] International Play Association, Declaration of the Childs Right to Play,, accessed July 31, 2014.

[4] Mammalian Diving Reflex, The Mammalian Protocol for Collaborating with Children (Mammalian Diving Reflex, 2014), 28

August 8, 2014
Shawn Van Sluys