Play the LA River: Using Games to Engage Open Spaces

Come one, come all for 51 miles and 51 weeks of play on the mighty LA River starting September 13, 2014. Join Play the LA River to explore, enjoy, reclaim, and reimagine the river as a grand civic space that can green and connect our communities.

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Photo courtesy of Jeff Houze

Early one morning just outside the Los Angeles River Center, a crowd of about forty or fifty gathered around the baseball-capped Jenny Price, eager to experience the 51-mile Los Angeles River in person.

But first, a question is raised, “How many people have been on the Los Angeles River?” At times, a few hands rise, hesitantly. At others, none. After years and years of bringing people on her Los Angeles River tours, Price had yet to reach critical mass, it seems.

“It just felt to me that every time I had these forty or fifty people on the LA river tours, none of them really knew where it was,” says Price, “Even though there’s a $1 billion revitalization going on, if you stop someone randomly on the street, they wouldn’t know what’s going on. I felt that even with all this activity, policy, planning, and re-engineering, the public knowledge isn’t there really.”

Though an indelible part of Los Angeles history, its river occupies a strange space in the minds of Angelenos. Like a mythical creature, many people have heard of it, but hardly anyone has ever really seen it.

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

Two years ago, Price sent out a few invitations to colleagues in the hopes of changing that unfortunate circumstance. Price’s invitation was to form Project 51, an artist collaborative around increasing awareness of the Los Angeles River. The result? Play the LA River a yearlong public art and community project that hopes to push the Los Angeles River into the forefront of the regular Angeleno’s mind.

Project 51 is composed of John Arroyo, Barron Bixler, Allison Carruth, Amanda Evans, Catherine Gudis & Price. This team is joined by a programming and outreach group, which includes Erika Barbosa, Lila Higgins, Kat Superfisky, Allison Wyper & Natale Zappia.

At first glance, Play the LA River is deceptively simple. It centers on a deck of cards. Created with the Los Angeles River in mind, the deck of cards will be available for free after September 13 at the LA River Center & Gardens (570 W Avenue 26 #475, Los Angeles) and at UCLA’s Humanities Building (415 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles).

Each deck consists of four suits (or neighborhoods): the Valley, the Glendale Narrows, Downtown and South. In every suit, thirteen sites in the neighborhood are highlighted. Extra wild cards designed separately by Leo Limon, Judy Baca, Christine Nguyen and the Ulysses Guide to the Los Angeles River are also included, highlighting an important site off the river.

Every card includes, an aerial map of the area; bubbles that call out important information about the area; specific features such as murals, kayak zones, fishing spots; and finally lighthearted suggestions on how to interact with that site.

The headwaters card, for example, tells players this site is where two concrete creeks converge, built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The card highlights the nearby schools, non-profits along with scenic spots in the area. “With each card, we want to give people a sense that this is place on the river and in Los Angeles,” explains Price.

It doesn’t stop there. The card also cheekily suggests players sing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” in homage to the location’s significance. Though Project 51 doesn’t expect people to burst out into song, its playful attitude encourages Angelenos to have fun with the river and to take ownership of what’s around them. “The beauty of play is that it can take so many forms. So the river becomes this 51-mile-long blank grey canvas for the collective imagination of a city, of many cities,” says Barron Bixler, a documentary photographer and designer and Project 51 co-founder, “There’s no right way or wrong way to play. We just want people to embrace a sense of fun and adventure, get out there and experience it for themselves.”

The idea of this playful public art initiative gained such traction that last July, it won a $185,000 grant from ArtPlace America for creative placemaking. “This grant has been instrumental in every facet of the project’s implementation since June,” says Allison Carruth, associate professor of English and affiliate of the Institute of Environment & Sustainability at UCLA, “and also allows us to make the Play the LA River card deck guide free to the public for as long as we can!”

Not only do the cards emphasize the traditionally beautiful spots along the river, it also calls out some seedier, overlooked portions of the waterway. “We also wanted to give attention to certain areas where nothing is happening–especially between downtown and Long Beach–we wanted to emphasize that this is a 51-mile river, not just the 11 miles that the Army Corps is focusing on,” says Price. Thus, the card also ranks the site on three-point scale from green to gritty.

According to co-founder Amanda Evans, an artist with a social practice who’s leading the card development process, each card represents about three to five site visits to each location, ten to twelve hours of research and writing passed between each Project 51 member, and even more hours of designing the text and design of every card. It is a whole lot of information condensed into an easily digestible card.

“The language on the cards was written by everyone on the team. That’s how the design evolved as well,” says Evans. The artist was hard-pressed to pinpoint just who contributed what in the collective, only because everything had been a product of the group.

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

It’s an impressive accomplishment, especially when one takes into account that not every member was always in Los Angeles. At the time, Price had been splitting time between Los Angeles, Princeton in New Jersey, and Munich, Germany. Another co-founder John Arroyo had also moved to Massachusetts, to work on his doctorate in Urban Studies and Planning. “We did a lot of conference calls, Skype calls, documents over internet with Google docs. We really have strong writers, who were able to do work even over two or three time zones,” says Evans.

The deck of cards is just an entryway into a much larger scheme. Apart from the card decks, Play the LA River also comes with its own mobile-friendly website that includes a social media wall, where people can share their experiences playing on the river with the hashtag #playthelariver.

“We’re prompting play all throughout 51 miles,” says Catherine Gudis, co-founder and Associate Professor of History and director of the Public History Program at UC Riverside. “Shared on social media, it would be an enormous public record of a public space.”

Rather than organizing a handful of events, Play the LA River hopes to open the floodgates of creativity along the Los Angeles River, inspiring people to enjoy this public space. “If we were just doing this ourselves there would be a few dozen events, what we’re hoping for is thousands,” says Price.

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Activities along the river could be anything. It could be Trivial Pursuit tournaments or juggling tournaments.

Events could be simple, personal celebrations or big, complex happenings. For the latter, Play the LA River also includes a community-generated calendar where people can post an activity they are looking to do riverside and get more people to participate. It also plans to publish a quick guide, to help would-be organizers navigate the many agencies that they need to coordinate with when putting up large events. Apart from these DIY community -led events, Project 51 is planning a series of events over the course of the year to keep the momentum going.

The launch this Saturday at the new Marsh Park expansion is meant to be a small taste of what yearlong playing along the Los Angeles River could be like, says Gudis. This September 13, the same day as the Frogtown Art walk, Play the LA River will be taking over the Marsh Park expansion, turning into a play space dedicated to Angelenos by the river.

Music curated by Downtown Los Angeles’s The Wulf will play the park, while Cole James conducts plein-air painting with watercolors. Typerwriters’ Anonymous will compose odes on the spot to be read by members of the Poetry Society of Los Angeles.

Instead of the usual boring table and flyers, Gudis says to expect more from this Saturday. The Los Angeles River Corps will host boat races. The Los Angeles State Historic Park will lead a revised version of bocce ball that highlights the different kinds of railyards where some of its parks are located. There will even be giant tumbling towers where people can construct their own version of the 6th Street Bridge, knock it down, then build it up again. “It’ll be little tasters of what’s to come in the coming year,” says Gudis.

The launch is just that, a beginning. “The point is not to have a huge mega party,” says Gudis, “It’s about thinking through artwork and finding meaning in the site.” Play the LA River is not just about what goes on this Saturday, but what continues to happen on the river a year after or years after the last deck of cards have been printed. As Price points out, “The point of this project is getting people to the banks of the river. The river is its own best advocate.”

This article originally appeared at KCET Artbound.

Media Contacts

Allison Carruth
acarruth@humnet.ucla.edu

Catherine Gudis
catherine.gudis@ucr.edu

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