New Site-Specific Artwork in Boston asks, ‘Do You Feel Free to Play?’

The Shape of Play, a new temporary public art installation by artist Sari Carel, commissioned by the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts) and curated and produced by Now + There, debuted September 4 in the North End’s Waterfront Park, posing a provocative question: Do you feel free to play? This engaging multi-sensory work, up through October 31, invites us to reflect on the connections between play and the universal search for freedom through sight and sound. The work invites people from across the Boston area to come, play, question, and explore the meaning of freedom in this time when personal and communal freedoms are being tested.

The Shape of Play fuses an ambient, multi-channel soundscape — created by Carel using structures and play equipment at Boston-area playgrounds as her instruments — with a colorful, architectural sculpture evocative of children’s wooden building blocks. The multi-channel soundscape emitted by the sculpture is at points whimsical, energetic, buoyant, and ethereal. It offers moments of respite and delight, creates a communal experience of shared listening, reminds us that the ability to play and the sense of freedom are closely linked.

Originally conceived in the pre-pandemic world and planned for display last Spring during Passover, the project has taken on new importance in a city where play spaces were padlocked this Spring, and calls us to break down the barriers to freedom our society has built.

“When we first commissioned Sari, we were excited about her vision to talk about freedom through play, something so innate in the Jewish values,” says JArts Executive Director Laura Mandel. “We had hoped to display the work during Passover because it is the time in the Jewish calendar where we celebrate and reflect on the meaning of freedom—and not just for the Jewish people, but for all. Now, as we struggle with unprecedented levels of cultural and social change across our country and community, we are especially proud that we can bring this project to life this Fall.”

Carel’s work seeks to uncover the underlying connections between our senses, play and freedom. “A whole new world opens up as we train our ears on the sounds all around us,” says Carel. “Sound, like freedom, is invisible, to be felt more than seen. The feeling of freedom is essential to play, and this project articulates that connection in a sensorial experience of both sound and freedom. My idea for this project came from listening to playgrounds being played as instruments as they were used for actual play.”

Playgrounds, widely considered to be among our most egalitarian of public spaces, are places open to people of all ages, cultures, races, and social groups. But as Now + There Executive Director Kate Gilbert put it, “As with many of our public spaces, the ability to play, speak, and move freely in our playgrounds and parks can be inhibited by the very social forces and institutions that have shaped our neighborhoods—the forces of poverty, race, politics and social inequity. These are also the systems we create public art within and interrogate.”

As part of the mounting of this work, JArts and Now + There are working with several community organizations and individuals to conduct a series of open dialogues on the issues this project presents and confronts, including freedom, play, public space, equity and how art impacts our community. More information can be found on www.jartsboston.org.

ABOUT ARTIST SARI CAREL

Based in Brooklyn, New York, much of multi-media artist Sari Carel’s work focuses on translation from one modality to another. Her projects consider interspecies communication, relationships between people and place, and how the senses inform our perception. Also an environmental activist, Carel is a sharp observer of ecosystems, be they natural or human. The Shape of Play is inspired by her many hours spent at playgrounds, watching her children, and considering the sounds that these abstract structures make.

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