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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Student artist turns Brandeis into a playground

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

College students, not young children, play on the shiny red swings hanging from white ropes across campus. Some swings mysteriously appeared without explanation in the fall and now nine swings fill the campus, stretching from the Shapiro Campus Center to Rabb. Students frequently talk about the swings and enjoy them on study breaks but few seem to know their purpose or the story behind their appearance.
The swings are the work of Maayan Bar-Yam ’12, a Studio Arts major with a focus in Sculpture. He created the swings and put them around campus so that the greater student population would notice, and not just those who visit the art building. Bar-Yam has been interested in the concept of creating and designing play spaces since high school, and the swings are his most extensive creation thus far.
“I wanted to continue this theme of doing big installation pieces that people could use and play on, and part of it was that I wanted specifically to get out of the art building bubble and put it out all over campus,” said Bar-Yam. “Nobody sees all the work that goes on.”
You might recognize some of Bar-Yam’s other pieces of artwork on campus. During the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts last year, he built and spray-painted the performance cube on the Great Lawn that acted as a stage. If you have classes in IBS, you might have seen the large poles in the ground that were placed in different configurations throughout the fall, which were designed to make you feel like you were walking through a forest.
The mystery surrounding the swings makes them so intriguing. Bar-Yam’s name has not appeared near the swings, but he has enjoyed hearing the “buzz” about it. His artwork is not just something to look at, but also a medium with which to engage.
“I think it’s really important for adults also to get that chance to play. It becomes a more casual place to interact with your peers,” Bar-Yam said. He created a Facebook page, “Swings All Over Brandeis Campus,” in an attempt to record and gauge student interest in the swings. Only about 40 people have “liked” the page, but some students have posted photographs of themselves or their friends swinging and socializing near the swings. These works of art have become more than just things that take up space; people are using them as catalysts for social interaction and relaxation.
After starting with just three swings, Bar-Yam’s project has expanded to include nine different swings on campus.
As you might notice, some of the swings look slightly different; the new design with the red swings has a safer construction, although all swings have been carefully inspected to ensure safety. With all the trees around Brandeis, finding appropriate branches for swings wouldn’t seem too difficult, but finding living branches level to the ground is more difficult than one might think.
The swings are not static either. Bar-Yam has noticed that the heights of the swings have been adjusted by other students. He said, “They should feel empowered to change it and raise it for themselves so they can enjoy it too, and people have done that.”
There is a concept of an “open source playground,” which is a playground that is built by those who will be using it. Typically here in America, children play on playsets designed by adults, and they cannot do much to change it. The playground is therefore immutable and unengaging; children can only climb on top of it, run around it or slide down it. They aren’t actually using their creativity physically to create their own playspace.
Fine Arts Professors Christopher Abrams and Tory Fair helped the project move forward. Bar-Yam worked with Abrams to make sure they were safe, and he has not heard any complaints from facilities about the swings. Brandeis Facilities’ response to Bar-Yam has been that students on campus can do what they want, and if there are any big issues they will let someone know.
The swings will be left up until someone takes them down, and they do not warrant any action by Facilities. Essentially, if someone wants to put something interesting up, they are allowed to.
As Bar-Yam said, “Basically, I’m just another guy and I put them up. You can do that. If you wanted to, and you put up a swing somewhere, nobody would stop you.”
Brandeis has an eclectic student population, and this is a way to encourage students to make their campus feel like home. The hope is that spontaneous artwork or other random displays around campus will spark conversation and encourage students to engage with the art.
This semester, Bar-Yam has plans to add to the Brandeis playground. He has the initial design created for what will look like a human-sized hamster tube playground to crawl in. The Austro-Croatian artists Numen / For Use inspired Bar-Yam with their huge tape installations. Imagine this: a rectangular prism metal frame. Then imagine strips of fabric (as substitute for tape) attached length-wise from one end to the other. Finally, imagine a second set of fabric strips, perpendicular to the first set of strips and interwoven through these strips in the center of the frame, which makes a narrow tunnel in the middle. It’s similar to the finger traps you can win at an arcade, where, when you pull your fingers, the trap only gets tighter because it’s woven together. The strips are woven together to create a tunnel, similar to the funnel-like part of a spider’s web.
Bar-Yam has had difficulty selecting a material for this project. Using tape would be extremely wasteful and not environmentally friendly, but using fabric is also difficult because it is not as strong and doesn’t weather well, so a roof may be needed to protect it. The installation is planned to coincide with this year’s Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts in May and might be set up on the hill near the Shapiro Campus Center where the statue of Louis Brandeis is.
In addition, Bar-Yam is interested in creating what are called “adventure playgrounds” in the future. Children use hammers, nails and saws to build their own playground with minimal supervision. They take responsibility for their own actions and learn to assess risk.
The swings provide freedom. It is just you, the rope in your hands, your legs pushing yourself into the air and the green grass blurring beneath you. Most of all, it is a chance to gain a new perspective.