Creative Somerville Series: Department of Play Talks Cities, Sci-Fi & Art

Today’s post comes to you from Mia Scharphie, a designer and researcher whose work focuses on the intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. Mia co-curates the Creative Somerville Series, is a co-founder of Proactive Practices and founded the Build Yourself+ Workshop. She writes about design, creativity, entrepreneurship, ecology and social impact at www.miascharphie.comMia will be sharing her Creative Somerville Series re-caps on the Beat after each event. You can also watch a re-cap of the event produced by SCATV.

In February, we had artist and urbanist Katarzyna (Kate) Balug (below right with Mia), who cofounded the Department of Play with anthropologist Maria Vidart-Delgado, at our Creative Somerville Series–a series designed to highlight local creatives and entrepreneurs through intimate “fireside chats.” We had delicious (and highly alcoholic) beers (I had to hold back on mine until I finished interviewing Kate to keep everything cogent), and the twinkle lights at Aeronaut Brewing, and our YouTube fireplace on loop were doing their thing to set the mood.

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Department of Play is a truly unique organization that combines art, temporary installations and planning, running “temporary play zones” (TPZs) that bring people together to think differently about “what could be” in their cities. The Department of Play asks a simple but radical question: “What if, through play, we found other ways of addressing issues throughout the city?”

During her talk, Kate brought us back to a key moment in one of her planning studios under artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, in which she presented her final, an idea for the organization that would eventually be Department of Play. It was “just a PDF” Kate said, but during her review, one of the critics threw out that this “could be your life’s work.”

For Your Life’s Work: Start Here
Kate joined the staff of artist Lauren Bon’s Metabolic Studio after finishing her undergrad degree. Bon worked on large land art projects and had a number of people on her staff. During Kate’s time there, Bon decided to introduce pay equity to all of her staff. Kate, one of the younger staff on the totem pole, got a huge jump in salary. So of course, Kate joked, after getting that big pay bump, she went looking for her next step. She was so inspired by Bon’s move, that she wanted to be able to start her own studio, so she could be that model herself.

Kate moved across the country to start an urban planning masters at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She never intended to go into planning the traditional way (with zoning and all that) and she went in keeping an eye out for the vision that could be hers. After presenting the concept for the Department of Play in her studio, she was connected to a group of MIT researchers interested in similar issues. After graduating and spending a year in Mexico City, experimenting with sci-fi-inspired public art as a way of engaging residents in envisioning change in their city, and working with youth, Kate returned to the Boston area and founded Department of Play, as it is today.

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“No Neighborhood is Abandoned”
A social consciousness and insight into culture drives Kate. She spoke about her experience coming to the U.S. from Poland as a child, and being “a pollack” in her Chicago school. This interest in cultures and peoples that are left out has extended to her view of the city: She firmly believes that “no neighborhood is abandoned.”

Kate’s work, both here and in Mexico City, often focuses on youth. “They’re at that time in their lives where they find that everything is possible or nothing is going to change,” she said. Adults do partake of the TPZs (Temporary Play Zones) that Kate and her team plan, and Kate enjoys seeing the moments of intergenerational cooperation–and she suspects she will learn more about adults and play. Kate and her team are now working in the Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park neighborhoods in Boston, planning a series of activities that will occur on the Fairmount Line train in which residents will envision a future by thinking about what they might see out of the train window in a hypothetical future.

The Hustle
Kate spoke honestly about “the hustle” and balancing multiple jobs, while building your dream vision. She laughingly spoke about not being “a good employee” because she’s constantly dreaming up other ideas while working in jobs. Boston is a city that’s very focused on professional labels, Kate noted, and what she is cooking up doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s box. “My advice?” she said, “Find a friend that makes you feel not insane.”

Creative Somerville Series February Crowd

The Vision
The Department of Play is a finalist for an Art Place America grant, which would be the organization’s first big funding win. Kate let the crowd know that if they don’t get get it, they’ll be coming to us with a Kickstarter.

Aside from running TPZs, the Kate and her co-founder have their eyes on a much larger vision: They point out that the city of Boston doesn’t have a master plan (“the city is too complicated for that” they were told when they asked about it.) Department of Play doesn’t buy that. They envision a “living master plan”–not just a document that sits of a shelf–but something interactive, an exhibition, a sci-fi graphic novel, a something yet to be designed that can help the city think not just as a series of neighborhoods but as a larger entity.

Amidst dispensing advice on career paths (Kate’s not sure whether there’s any antidote to the meandering path for an interdisciplinary type like her, but she advises getting a solid foundation in a discipline), Kate mentioned that just that morning she had a little extra time before a meeting and pulled out her journal. She used a very Department of Play trick and wrote a diary entry for herself in 2020–five years into the future. In it were dreams for her personal life and family (she has a few kids), and for Department of Play, which has a secure funding stream, is affiliated with at least one university and is actively working in communities.

“Uh yeah I guess now all that stuff had better come true,” she said.

CSS Foret SquareTickets for our next event on Thursday, March 19 at Aeronaut with Rose Mattos and Erin Heath, the ladies behind Forêt Design Studio, are going fast! RSVP to snag a spot.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of “fireside chats” with local creatives and entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our free fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and getting to share creative energy and ideas in an intimate setting. The events are co-sponsored by the Somerville Beat and Somerville Local First.

Cover image and first two photos courtesy of Ben Holmes/Aeronaut Brewing.

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