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Serious Play
25th July 2019
tate exchange

By Amy FW Corcoran and Isobel Roele

On 10th June this year, an artist, and academic, and about thirty 12 and 13 year-olds from Mile End in East London pitched up at Tate Modern, all set to make a giant Snakes & Ladders board. This might sound like the beginning of a joke, but its punchline is deadly serious: we were creating a special edition of this well-loved board game to illustrate the inequalities and indignities of global immigration rules and processes.

Art and play, law and cruelty, make for strange bedfellows. Were we inadvertently making light of refugee experiences? Were we detracting from the seriousness of the issues or distracting from the need for law reform? On the contrary, we aimed to use humour, exploration and creativity to make all these things visible. It was clear that this fun project would need serious thinking.

The project came about after our university – Queen Mary University of London – invited academics to propose projects for Tate Exchange, a week-long public engagement residency at Tate Modern. For an artist and an academic, both of whom write about law and art, the opportunity was too good to miss.

We were presented with the theme of “bodies in motion”, and since our residency was to end as Refugee Week began, pitching a project about immigration was a no-brainer. But what form would it take? We soon hit on the idea of making a huge Snakes & Ladders board. Each “snake” would have an icon illustrating the way legal rules and processes hinder some people’s movement, while each “ladder” icon would show how others move more freely. We wanted to create something interactive: something that would put visitors’ bodies in motion, as well as their grey-matter. Visitors’ migrations around the board, we hoped, would echo the trans-national migrations we wanted to explore intellectually. All very worthy; all very well-meant.

At the same time, of course, Snakes & Ladders is a game – an invitation to play. The happy faces and delighted squeals of the people – especially the children – who played our version of the game were, on the face of things, alien to the migration experiences illustrated on the board. Another big difference between real life migration and Snakes & Ladders is that the rules of the board game are totally intuitive – everyone knows how it works. The real life rules are often Byzantine in their complexity.

Tate Exchange - Queen Mary Uni_Dan Weill Photography-29(2)

We wanted to use artwork to square the circle of this clash between serious rules and playful board game. We wanted to bring a creative depth to the images on each of the snake and ladder squares – the pictures would not just symbolise this or that rule, they would start conversations about the lives of people affected by the immigration system. To help us do this, we called on the pupils of a local secondary school, St Paul’s Way in Mile End, to help us – and help us they did.

The pupils designed and illustrated the ten “snake” and “ladder” icons. They set to work after a short interactive seminar about the inhospitable conditions faced by asylum-seekers, the inequalities involved in international travel, and the migrations associated with colonisation and decolonisation. It’s fair to say that we learned as much from them as they did from us: we shared resources like the ESRC’s Becoming Adult project’s wonderful Dear Habib; they shared the stories they had learned during Ramadan, the month of fasting and giving that had ended the previous week.

The pupils brought curiosity, adventure and acute indignation. They reintroduced the unruliness and unpredictability of art, and we would defy anyone to suggest that their designs – the inspired fun of turning a snake into Donald Trump, the moonlit refugee camp stretching all the way to the horizon, the shoreline made of gold coins – are naïve or dumbed-down. By going-home time, Tate Exchange’s room on the fifth floor of the Blavatnik Building was awash with spilt paint and scattered tiles, lying about willy-nilly to dry, and waiting to be arranged in their set-square numerical order.

Our job, once the pupils left, was to produce order from chaos. Art is often associated with unruly creativity, so we were conscious of the need to preserve the liveliness of the pupils’ work. For governments, of course, immigration rules and processes are a way of maintaining order and avoiding chaos. For many governments, the “migration crisis” ignited by the Syrian and Libyan civil wars threatens impending chaos for wealthy nations in the West, which – they fear – will be overwhelmed by “swarms” of needy people. Refugees, in this inhospitable landscape, are the thin edge of a much larger “economic migrant” wedge. Legal rules and processes are meant to be the antidote to perceived migrant chaos – laws that regulate who can stay, for how long, and under what conditions.

Tate Exchange - Queen Mary Uni_Dan Weill Photography-103(2)

So in organising the neat rows of numbered tiles that made up our Snakes & Ladders board we thought a lot about the politics of ordering. Players of our game would have to follow rules; that those rules might be seen as a parody of immigration rules; and that players’ eventual “winning” of the game – “bon voyage”, the last square read – might seem to belittle the lived-experience of millions of migrants. In some ways, board games can be just as rule-bound as immigration processes.

We shouldn’t have worried. The pupils’ captivatingly painted snake and ladder squares subverted the order of the board game, while preserving its playfulness. Visitors engaged with the ordered space – which we played-up with up passport-control-style cordon and border control booth – hesitating over the “remove shoes before entering secure area” signs, and wondering whether to duck the cordon, or respect its authority. Often, players who began to engage with the board according to the rules ended up lingering over the squares, tracing up snakes and down ladders in order to look more closely at the pupils’ images, and think about their messages: “you attempt to enter the USA with a Syrian passport”; “the authorities compensate you because they failed to recognise your Windrush-status”; or “you win the lottery, and buy Maltese citizenship”.

Our set-design included a passport-making station. Children – and adults – could draw their own passports and then collect visa-stamps that we’d hidden around the Tate Exchange space. This sparked many excited and sometimes raucous treasure hunts around the gallery space, a joyful counterpoint to the often ponderous pace of adult art-gallery-speed. The children took their passports as invitations to explore, rather than timid permissions to travel.

We were also delighted to find that many visitors felt free to break all the rules. The board was a football-pitch, a selfie opportunity, a padded playmat for toddlers, a floor-mounted display of student art work, a learning opportunity, as well as a rule-bounded board game. In short, visitors used it to exercise their freedom of movement – a symbolic act of resistance to the immigration rules and processes created to restrict that freedom.