Skills and Sabotage

by Christina Lina


“Holy cats!” cried Horace, goggle-eyed to think of others carrying on the way he did. “Would they ever make trouble and stop the traffic!”

Horace, the central character in Paul Goodman’s 1977 novel The Empire City, is receiving a lecture from an older friend, Mynheer, about the possibility of a sort of ‘school without walls’, where children roam the streets with a teacher-shepherd to do their learning un-separated from the real, adult world. Horace’s own (informal) approach to education has been precisely this: to avoid school at all costs and to educate himself through what and who is available on the city streets. Mynheer’s lecture continues:

“Fundamentally our kids must learn two things: Skills and Sabotage. Let me explain. We have here a great City and a vast culture. It must be maintained as a whole; it can and must be improved piecemeal (…) At the same time it is a vast corporate organisation (…): therefore, in order to prevent being swallowed up by it or stamped by it, in order to acquire and preserve a habit of freedom, a kid must learn to circumvent it and sabotage it at any needful point as occasion arises.”

To which Horace interjects:

Wait up! Wait up! Ain’t this a contradiction? On the one hand, you gotta love an’ serve ’em; on the other hand you gotta kick ’em in the shins. Does it make sense to you?”

And Mynheer concludes:

“There’s nothing in what you say young man. In the Empire City these two attitudes come to the same thing: if you persist in honest service, you will soon be engaging in sabotage. Do you follow that?”

This tension has always resonated for me. I am going to unpack this idea of skills and sabotage through examples of play in the public realm. If the public realm is largely organised according to the calculative logic of the financial market, and if play is often organised according to an emotional type of reason embedded in experience and human relationship, a conflict is likely to occur.

An area that is excellent for ball games but where priority is given to the car is an example we can all imagine. Painting a pair of goal posts on the wall is a relatively small act of defiance and might not constitute an enormous challenge to authority but does perhaps represent an exciting moment for those involved. They knew they were breaking a rule but they did it anyway because they felt their claim to the space was valid too. These are the moments where our actions are connected to our feelings and where we might have experienced the world coming sharply into focus. The unsanctioned goal posts do not completely reorganise a space in the interests of its child or teenage users, but they do make visible an alternative experience of that space and in turn may affect the way those involved see themselves as agents within their immediate environment. I understand these sort of moments a bit like touchstones – like memories we come back to – to remind us of how a different way of organising things might feel.

Rope Swings was a project I started in 2017 with Andrew Gillman that involved the installation of unsanctioned rope swings in public spaces, mostly in London. It’s the way this project was confrontational at the same time as really joyful that connects it, for me, with the idea of skills and sabotage. We knew from the outset that rope swings would be a good device for disrupting the rules and conventions of public space, because rope swings are fun and you can’t say they’re not; however the importance of the connection between the experience of the swings and a critical awareness of public space only became clear as we went along and saw how other people responded. You feel a bodily freedom by jumping and swinging. It’s exhilarating, everything tips up, you’re upside-down. Then all of a sudden, all the rules and norms and possibilities of what happens are also up in the air: you do not have permission to do this activity here, but it’s happening anyway and it feels good. The rope swings made the normally intangible rules of public space felt by breaking them.

The emotional, experiential and physical connection to something, the experience of joy, opened up possibilities for criticality, for a questioning of public spaces, and the conventions, rules and controls that exist within them. People were passionate about the rope swings, they were ready to defend them and questioned why rope swings like these weren’t allowed in public spaces.[1] Like the goal posts, the rope swings do not represent a seismic change or rupture, but the shared experiences had ripple-effects beyond the actual swinging-moment.

Audre Lorde’s discussion of the erotic is useful here as she offers us a language and context for thinking about the importance of an emotional type of reasoning. Lorde points out that feeling is something vital and transformative. In the experience of something deep and brilliant and strong – and such an experience is often amplified by being shared with others – we are forced to confront its absence in other areas of life and to recognise the ways in which our lives are sometimes organised to restrict these unexchangeable, uncompetitive, inefficient, passionate types of logic. Lorde writes:

“Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning in our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected.” (2007:57)

There isn’t space here to discuss more examples of the games, adventures and self-set challenges of children, young people, and occasionally adults, that reorganise the environment according to their own logic, but we can all think of a bunch more. This reorganising process inevitably disrupts the conventional order of a space and this is the moment of something creative and confrontational – the moment for skills and sabotage. I think of these moments as ones where we can drive a jemmy[2] into reality and lever it open to catch a glimpse of a world that is TEEMING, where ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN (Cage 1978). The possibility here is in fact enormous and shatters any belief that a competitive society based on principles of efficiency is something natural. These moments of conflict are obviously never tidily resolved, and there is no replicable road map for navigating the contradictions of a neoliberal context, but it begins with this on-going struggle to confront reality: to see and communicate how things could be understood and organised by a different sort of logic.

Cristina Lina is an artist and researcher. Her work tends to be situated between play / public space / and education.



Readings, B. (1991) Introducing Lyotard London: Routledge

Cage, J. (1978) Silence London: Marion Boyars

Lorde, A. (2007) Sister Outsider New York: Crossing Press

Goodman, P. (1977) The Empire City New York: Random House


[1] It’s a slightly different discussion, but this project lost much of its traction when we reconfigured it in a gallery setting. In public, as an unauthored intervention, it operated with powerful simplicity to disrupt and confront its environment, inviting others to engage actively in that political act. Once reconfigured to operate within the gallery space, despite all our best intentions, it no longer offered the same clarity or politicality (too much ARTY, not enough FIERY).

[2] Small and handy crowbar traditionally used to force open windows or doors.

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