Let’s play Maidan?! The potential of playsettings for new orders in theory.

Christina Schwigon

pdf: Lets play Maidan

Let´s play Maidan: The potential of play settings and new orders in theory.

During the protests in Kiev on Maidan Nezalezhnosti from November 2013 to February 2014 one could consider active demands in front of the police lines. Aesthetic performances, such as a demonstrative Kissing-Happening or “The Maidan Piano Player” were seen – just to name a few examples in this conglomeration of socio-aesthetical exchange. Even common exchange gestures – like offering sandwiches to the police – also were recognized as a political interaction.

gh Maidan_sandwiches

Lately, sharing food or a meal is a usual ritual to create unity – a lesson taught primarily at the family’s dinner-table. Symbolic self-generated artworks, such as decorating the Christmas tree, are also part of traditional unity. Maidan furthermore integrated the Ukrainian Intellectual Scene and their works translated rapidly, not only as aesthetic, but political statements. In the co-presence of social media, as a communication channel for protesters and their supporters beside the press and live reports, Maidan has shown its face as a 21st century-uprising, reaching beyond national borders via internet. Seen in the digital light, the topic of Maidan also contains references in which the direct association of playing and protesting can be recognized.Ukrajna_Kijev_Angry_Ukrainians

So, the appearance of the internet-game “Angry Ukrainians” is not only an allusion to the original version “Angry Birds”. The cover picture depicts the bird caricatures in a successful fight-in-flight against pigs in front of the Ukrainian states flag. This remarkable Angry ukrainianscomposition points to a national common-rooted content, as seen by the borders of interweaving fine red lines on the birds’ bellies, inspired by custom arts and crafts. However, the added detail of the birds’ hairstyle, i.e. the manner of worn braids and moustaches, refer to Cossack tradition. The allusions of an old and new Ukrainian content were digitally connected and furthermore seen on the physical space of Maidan as a protest banner.

Another digital relation is given with Age of Maidan, which was designed in Switzerland in March 2014 in remembrance of the victims in riot. On the publishers’ Facebook-page one can find the following announcement:

“The campaign mode will tell you more about the events in Ukraine. You will be able to see them from another perspective.”(facebook 2015: ageofmaidan/info)

The striking commercial note sounds impious, but one has to consider that Age of Maidan was conceptualized as a strategy-based app-game concerning the play-content of conquering the most important administrative buildings in Kiev. Leading a digital mass of protesters to political power also appears as a final mission in the so-called secret level of Crimea. Playing in this case means a symbolic unification of the former Ukrainian state.

Age of Maidan screenshot1

Majdan Revolucija, for instance, was published in Kiev in March 2014 and is another type of app-game that has an additional striking concept: the possibility to throw Molotov cocktails at Putin and Yanukovich on the Red Square in Moscow. Even if the visible protests on Maidan are over: a repeatable spare revenge can still be taken on these politicians. In addition to that, one can symbolically conquer Russia’s centre of political representation by bringing “Maidan” to them. In a narrow sense, the gesture of playing is carried out as a form of support for a (real and political) fulfillment.

Maidan RevoljucjaMajdan Revolucija1

Relating the phenomenon and movement of Maidan with the imagination of a videogame or a play is at first sight a provocative line-up, but all in all refers to the central issue of understanding a special form of revolution as a process of civil society. With this essay, I want to make an approach on how one can see the phenomenon Maidan as a whole and how to deal with the highly diversified cultural production on, around and about this place and protest. On the relatively wide horizon of ludic and aesthetical theories Jaques Rancière and Johan Huizinga show that a play is set as a social-cultural moment in aesthetic development and self authorization techniques. I would like to make the claim that Maidan belongs to the cases, where we see sense and society under construction. In that way, Maidan can be called a showcase of play to a certain degree.

Maidan – a common ground takes its place in theory.

As a theoretical approach, the article “Maidanologie” by Stefan Weidner can serve as an example to form a common ground. In this case, the author traces the etymological roots of the word Maidan back to their oriental, i.e. Arabic, origin (Weidner: 96). Pointing out that this term also refers to translations like field or battlefield, he mentions that other forms of “Maidan” need to be recognized in the Arabic or the Middle East area, i.e. the Tahir Square in Cairo (Mīdān at-Tahrīr) or the Taksim Square in Istanbul (Taskim meydanı), where other protests were taking (a symbolic) place at the same time (96). In this context, Weidner mentions the actual translation of Maidan Nezalezhnosti: Independence Square (96). Beside Psychology or Biology, with the term “Maidanologie” (“Maidanology”) appears the label of a scientific discourse. Nevertheless, one can say that Maidan does not mean the exclusive suitability for academic use, but that the terms protest, play, independency and the symbolic struggle for it, can be put into correlation. A methodically similar statement is found as well in Johan Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens”, concerning the early 20th century art movements of the avant-garde:

“Wherever there is a catch-word ending on –ism, we`re hot on the tracks of a play-society” (Huizinga 1955: 203).

If so, Maidan isn’t just the label for a simple playground and we need to revise our tendency to imagine a play as “leisure” and a superfluous act.

Common Ground and common experience or what defines a “play”?

To start with Huizinga, the reason for the popularity of the Dutch philosopher comes with an anthropologic pamphlet “Homo ludens” which is seen as the core work of ludology. It was published in 1938 right beside the regimes of Socialism and National Socialism and can be read with the subtitles of academic resistance. The main point of this work is that a play is the wellspring of every civilization and culture and that this remarkable achievement is generated out of a ludic experience and less in rational thinking. Huizinga presents us the play as a cultural and pre-cultural moment liberating it from an only definition of physical or biological determination:

PLAY is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men.” (Huizinga 1955:1)

Play is a unifying moment that “makes sense of its own” and that clearly appears before an order or a system comes into being (6). From its beginning, culture is played and kept by it. Even animals do play – so we do furthermore coping with the play-element – even in science (203). In the end, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (the playing human) also appears as a concept of being which was created in front of the background experience of World War One with its mass hysteria and favor for war. So, the idea of human play can also be grasped as a counter-part to blindfolded obedience and the (political) functionalization of beings as objects. By demanding fair play and equal participation that guarantees humanity, culture dissociates from war:

Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms.” (Huizinga 1955:211)

Furthermore the play has a “family” in Huizinga’s theory: He upgrades the play with forms like celebration, party, presentation, a contest or competition such as with (religious) rituals or cults (15-27). If one bears in mind, that a play is the living principle of all civilizations even after placing orders like culture, one might call society a play in the formal sense which defines its own spaces.

KIEV, UKRAINE - JANUARY 25: A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protestors near Dynamo Stadium on January 25, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Violent protests in Ukraine have spread beyond the capital as President Viktor Yanukovych held crisis talks with three key opposition leaders. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Huizinga sees in a play the common moments of a mystery or “ritual acts”(27) and the further unifying moment of a “magic circle” (77), that come up with a play in a fascination of solidarity that requires the demarcation of a special place and dignity (like Maidan). The confession on Maidan is just one example of a clear statement for faith in social participation: To demonstrate fair play means, in a long run, a demand for morality and humanity. A play, as such, is freedom itself that distinguishes in time locality and setting from ordinary life (28). So, there is no absence of play spirit. Beyond that, the playful element has an evaluated meaning:

It is the moral content of an action that makes it serious” (Huizinga 1955: 210)

What is to be seen as critical in Huizinga’s theory for this context is the cooperation of at least two equal partners, willed to communicate and to negotiate on the same horizon following the same rules (28). If a government or governmental instrument excludes people from power or decision rights, there is another possibility to demand fair play.

Rancière and the “fair-play-manual”  

Standing at the theoretical crossroads of politics, society and aesthetics, Jaques Rancière also copes with the idea of equality. As a pupil of Michel Foucault, his philosophy of social esthetics has its influence from the discursive theory and experience of the Situationist International movement of the late sixties. Rancière favors the concept of self-authorization in “Das Unbehagen in der Ästhetik” (Rancière 2008). All in all he argues that new kinds of artworks create new communities and ways for people to relate to each other. Art and Politics find a common ground in the long run because they act as autonomous forms of experience in perception. Moreover the possible relation with politics and esthetics is based – on the setting and meaning of symbols. This symbolic dedication to politics corresponds to a casuistic accentuation on the political power of symbols that creates “the Janus-Face of politicized art” as well (Rancière 2004:47). Politics, in this case, doesn’t mean power as such, but the division of the sensible:

This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution.“ (Rancière 2004:12)

In a nutshell, one can say that politics is also the struggle of signs for equal social recognition in the established order and that esthetics is bound up in this battle, because this conflict takes place over the image of society itself with the general tendency to extract equal recognition among social groups. First one has to notice that the possibility of equal participation is split up into “voice and speech” (Rancière 2008:38). In Politics of Aesthetics he stresses their functions within the relation of power and society:

A speaking being, according to Aristotle, is a political being. If a slave understands the language of its rulers, however, he does not ‘possess’ it.”(Rancière 2004:12)

Voice means a simple sound that is just noticed to be existent. So, a being of arguing weight is to be recognized by its speech: the function of creating solidarity of groups sharing power about the same sight of symbols (Rancière 2008: 38f). This precondition for equal participation has its own precursors.


By referring to Friedrich Schiller´s example of the free play in the work of Juno Ludovisi Rancière shows us how art and politics are closely linked together by describing and defining the historical development of socio-aesthetical hierarchies (35-40). It can be simplified if one realizes that what he is doing is bringing together art history and labor history, linking them in a tripartite scheme. The ethical regime is based on the division of “voice and speech” and copes with the evaluation of artistic works in terms of their utility to society, which usually extracts the political voice of common craft laborers (35). The representation of art means also an inscription of hierarchies and exclusions in the work-labor-alliance to guarantee that art is an own sphere with own rules, elevated above the demands of common craft (40). The esthetic regime touches the equality of life and art, which was especially proclaimed in the 20th-century-movement of the avant-garde: It is the progressive approach of art and labor hierarchies that takes an aim at the democratization of forms and symbols (40).

Rancière furthermore presents the concept of critical art as an intervening micro-politics – a manual for entering into negotiations about symbols (57). In this context, a play comes into action by the direct work on signs in order to subvert their common meanings (65). The inventory and the meeting (68) appear as a background for a wider social context in which artists and artisans play an initiating role (see Rancière 1983: 10-12). So, formulating a common history, calling for participation, collecting and cultivating new signs, are processes in constructing a trace for unification that takes the tendency to create unforeseen relations into consideration(Rancière 2008: 69). Hidden in the term of Rancière’s mystery one finds in the long run the reconsideration of solidarity in a community in a paradigmatic accentuation of symbolic relations – the construction of sense within the co-presence of forms and signs (70).

Huizinga and Rancière show that the term of a play is far from the common image of a “leisure” and “unserious” act. In Huizinga’s case, we see the play as a basic characteristic of life such as a motivation to produce and keep culture in all its forms. The demand for fair play also touches the common ground of civilization and culture: it is the right of everyone to participate in solidarity. Rancière points out that aesthetics and politics find their socio-cultural potential in the struggle for equal participation that takes its way over the meaning and interpreting of common symbols. On his agenda of critical art, i.e. forms of intervening and self-authorizing processes, the play means the first step to appropriate symbols. Last but not least Maidan is to be seen as sense under construction because we also take part in the classification of its cultural production and representation. Furthermore, Maidan as such can be linked to the concept of a play, if this term is liberated from the naïve imagination of a superfluous and childish act. It is of lower importance whose theoretical moment of play is the most confirming if one realizes that this event is a gesture of self-authorization and an aesthetical co-reference. The potential of Maidan as a play touches the serious ground of pluralistic society processes and democracy. Play in this case is not only a unifying moment but the mutual assurance of freedom and being that brings out new references and representations of signs and settings as an expressing moment for others. Furthermore it is a demand for widespread support.

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