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Press: Georgia Straight, “Vancouver artist Germaine Koh asks public to help invent new sports”

The Georgia Straight
Vancouver artist Germaine Koh asks public to help invent new sports

By Stephen Thomson, October 12, 2012

Germaine Koh wants to bring fun and games to a small park in Vancouver.

The local artist is behind the new “League” project, a free drop-in program that gives people a forum to play games and sports they have invented together.

The gatherings will be held weekly at the field house in Elm Park in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood.

“It’s a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I sort of proposed it in gallery situations when I’ve had exhibitions and we’ve never been able to pull it off,” Koh told the Straight by phone today (October 12).

“I’m quite interested in creating situations that bring people together in kind of open-ended, experimental ways,” she said.[...]

Koh described League as experiment to get people thinking creatively. She said its success will rely on public participation.

“It’s a kind of proposition about that we could be more playful in our everyday lives and that we could look at a lot of different situations in a playful way,” she said.
[...link to full article]

From the vault: “Checks and Balances” from Art Lies

When discussing play and art, I was reminded of this piece I was challenged to write four years ago for the art journal Art Lies. The theme of the edition, guest-edited by the curator Stuart Horodner, was “second acts” — the myriad other things cultural producers do to the side of their practices, and Stuart asked me to write about playing roller derby.

Although that sport has developed and changed a lot in four years (my current teammates would scoff at any resemblance to burlesque and we’re dropping our aliases, as the sport has become ever more, well, athletic), the words I wrote about how sport complements my activities as an artist still hold.

Click the title for the full article. Excerpts:

Checks and Balances
Germaine Koh
Art Lies
no. 61 (Spring 2009), pp. 22-23

As an artist, almost everything I do contributes to the “brand” associated with my name, but when I’m playing roller derby I’m known only as PLAYER 1.[...]

[O]f the sports I could choose to take up at the age of 41, roller derby aligns well with some of the principles of my work and public persona. Unlike most sports, it embraces social complexities, combining athletics and burlesque, aggression and caring, all with political self-awareness of these implications. It’s tied to music, street and grassroots cultures, and this authenticity is a big part of its growing underground appeal.[...]

I am obsessed with derby because it is a completely new activity unlike anything I’ve done before, and a genuinely challenging sport with a whole new-to-me set of rules, conventions and skills to master. These reasons also happen to reveal some basic principles of my work.

For me, art is a means of engaging with the world with the intention of contributing something original to the public exchange of ideas. The task I set for myself as an artist is to observe myriad patterns in the world and synthesize them into unexpected propositions that encourage us to reflect upon the systems around us. At a basic level, doing a wide variety of things and being in contact with people from many backgrounds makes me more culturally literate and agile—a more able and balanced observer and thinker. Although this is probably a truism, it also feels true in practice. Being involved in a lot of different activities and operating systems gives me insight into a wider range of phenomena, allowing me to think more subtly and opening up ever more fields of enquiry.

On one level, then, derby is just the latest of the many “other things” that I have thrown myself into for the simple joy of learning, experiencing something new, knowing more about the world and feeding a curious mind. But more specifically, the other things I do have always included sports. Competitive sport has helped make me a relatively well-rounded person. For the younger me, it was a toss-up between art school and finding a career in sport, and I was certainly the only art student playing on a varsity team at my university. Art finally prevailed when I realized that I could justifiably do all kinds of other things, including sports, under the umbrella of being an artist.

Except in a couple of instances, sport doesn’t figure literally in my art, but it’s there everywhere. A sense of competition is related to the standard of minimalism and conceptual elegance to which I hold my work. A feeling for emergent play and the organization of games helps me evaluate how audiences will interact with my work. The ability to concentrate while in a state of uncertainty allows me to conceive of lifelong projects and to have the faith to design others with open-ended outcomes. Being accustomed to playing within rules gives me a greater understanding of the innumerable conventions that I need to negotiate, and of course, the habits of teamwork are directly transferable to the collaborative aspects of my—and many other—disciplines.

Certainly, some aspects of organized sports are quite different than artmaking: it is often authoritarian, it requires adherence to immovable rules and uses set plays, and the goal-oriented nature of competition doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debate. Yet, other elements of athletics do encourage the types of rigor that serve artists well: strategy, focus, flow, tenacity, awareness and commitment are all ultimately developed through physical training. In other words, submission to a training regime is eventually good for freethinking too: a healthy body is more likely to house a healthy mind.

Sport also has the amazing effect of quieting the overly busy mind.[...] It’s primal, primary experience.[...] Sports let me reconnect with the delights of play and of really feeling stuff in the moment. The reckless way I play means that my career in roller derby is likely to be short-lived, but for now it complements, nourishes and provides a welcome counterpoint to the weight of my job.

[...]Vancouver, November 2008

News release

News release
9 October 2012, Vancouver

Artist Germaine Koh launches “League” for invented sports and games in Elm Park

  • Who:    Germaine Koh, artist in Vancouver Park Board Field House Studio Residency Project
  • What:   “League”, a new group for playing invented sports and games
  • Where:  Elm Park, 5800 Elm Street at West 41st Avenue, Vancouver, BC
  • When:   Tuesday afternoons and last Sunday each month (28 October, 25 November…)

As one of seven new residencies in the Vancouver Park Board Field House Studio Residency Project, artist Germaine Koh is launching the new community-based project “League” at Elm Park in Vancouver-Kerrisdale. League will be an open weekly gathering for the purpose of playing sports and games invented by members of the community. Each game, its playing field and its strategies will evolve through trial and improvisation, and new and unusual equipment may be invented.

For two years beginning October 2012, Germaine Koh will be using the field house in Elm Park, located at 41 Avenue and Elm Street in Kerrisdale, as home base for the League project and a studio for her art practice. Everyone is welcome to drop in to participate or propose a game for the group to try. League will be meeting in the park weekly (Tuesday afternoons 3pm to dusk until further notice) to workshop new sports and games, and organizing larger weekend events once a month, some with special guests from the worlds of sport, art and games. The first large event will take place on Sunday 28 October beginning at noon. The project blog at http://league-league.org hosts a schedule, discussion, research on play and games, and League documentation.

League is conceived as a project that will inspire city residents of diverse backgrounds and generations to come together to play, to think imaginatively, and to act collaboratively in response to the challenges posed by different game situations. All are welcome, whether they identify as athletes, creative people, both — or neither. The project is based in a belief that play is an essential human tendency that is related on one hand to problem-solving and negotiation skills and on another to a pure pursuit of joy. League participants will be encouraged to tweak typical game structures, to bring into play unexpected objects, to think widely about possible spaces for play, to pursue unconventional approaches to sport, and to tackle situations with both mind and body.

Germaine Koh, recipient of the 2010 VIVA Award for mid-career artists, is an internationally active Vancouver-based artist who works in many media, including interactive electronic installations, long-term process-based projects, and ephemeral situations in public space. She is known for artwork that examines under-valued aspects of daily life — for example the life-long project Knitwork, an ever-growing blanket knit from unraveled used garments, and the installation Fallow, in which she transplanted a vacant lot into an art gallery. Koh also has a long background in sport, currently playing roller derby for the All-Stars team that represents Vancouver’s Terminal City Rollergirls in inter-league play. League is the latest of many projects by Koh that focus on play or social interaction and shift habitual patterns of behaviour.

The Vancouver Park Board Field House Studio Residency Project was expanded this fall to encompass nine previously-vacant field houses in city parks. According to the City of Vancouver news release, artists for each field house were selected from more than 50 applications in response to a public call for proposals. The Park Board is providing use of the studio spaces in exchange for community arts based engagement. “The studio residencies will enhance the Park Board’s arts policy objective of arts in everyday life and contribute to addressing the City of Vancouver cultural plan priority of neighbourhood arts and the objective of supporting more creative spaces for artists.” For more information on the Field House Residency Project, contact the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.



  • League project: Germaine Koh, league [at] germainekoh [dot] com
  • Vancouver Park Board Field House Studio Residency Project: Daria Wojnarski, Communications Coordinator, tel. (604) 257-8440, daria.wojnarski [at] vancouver [dot] ca.

Games and critical invention

“What do you mean by invented sports and games,” you may ask. My own view is that play is at heart about invention, testing, and improvisation — potentially radical processes which can be lost when games become very regulated.

We might forget sometimes that even our best-known games and sports have not always existed the way they are now; they either evolved over time or through cultural exchange, or they were created wholesale. Basketball, a sport now played by 200 million worldwide, was invented in late 1891 by James Naismith as a challenge from the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, to create a sport for the school’s most incorrigible students that would be “interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.”[1]

Game design and sports have also become big business, so it can be easy to overlook the critical potential of play. Theorists of play have defined it variously as an activity that stands apart from ordinary life, as activity that involves the free acceptance of binding rules, as a cultural expression of a society, and so on. Games always seem to emerge in relation to a system, and so it follows that play can be a potential tool for subverting expectations and conventions. Artists have understood this well, and over the years have invented many games
that involve a radical rethinking of existing systems.

Some critical games

  • Anti-Monopoly. In 1974 economics professor Ralph Anspach invented a board game resembling Monopoly, but re-written with language that undermined the cultural idea of monopoly upon which the original was based. Similarly, Bertel Ollman’s 1978 game Class Struggle, reworked the original, proposing instead to help players “prepare for life in capitalist America.”[2]
  • Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse). Invented (or re-imagined) by the Surrealist group around the 1920s, Cadavre Exquis was first a language-based parlour game in which different people wrote elements of a sentence without seeing the other participants’ contributions. The first sentence produced —”The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”— gave the game its name. Later it evolved into a drawing game. Like many Surrealist techniques such as automatic writing and collage, the game attempts to disrupt traditional patterns and conventional thoughts about authorship.
  • Yoko Ono. The Fluxus group with which Ono was associated, created many critical games that played with rules and chance operations. Although not obviously games, Ono’s work is particularly devastating when thought of in those terms, for they directly address the implicit rules by which we interact with each other. Take for example, her 1964 performance piece, Cut Piece, in which the audience was invited to the stage one by one to cut off and keep a piece of her clothing. She also made an all-white chess set (1966) and a series of works consisting simply of plain but socially challenging instructions, such as “Touch each other” or “Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky.”
  • Gustavo Artigas, The Rules of the Game, San Diego/Tijuana, 2000-01. A project for the cross-border project insite, it included an event in which two Mexican football teams and two American basketball teams played against each other on the same court at the same time. Although not the first artist to propose a game involving two balls (see Uri Tzaig, for example), the literal clash of cultures staged by Artigas brought to the fore questions of cultural habits embedded in games.
  • Lee Walton has created many performances that cross the systems of sport with urban systems and spaces, turning the city into a space of play. For example, for City Golf (2002), a round of golf was played in the city of San Francisco as if the golf course were superimposed onto the city. The score for each hole required a (social) reward or penalty of different degree to be performed.
  • The Game at Hand, by Larry and Debby Kline (2002). A hand-made chess set in which one side features icons of American culture, and the other an indistinguishable set of burqa-clad figures. As the artists describe, “As viewers are encouraged to play, it becomes evident that the game cannot be conducted fairly even with the most conscientious of intentions. Once engaged, players become quickly confused; the player controlling the US side of the board cannot adequately strategize and the opponent will eventually violate the rules of the game either knowingly or unknowingly.“[3]
  • Big Urban Game, by Katie Salen, Nick Fortuno and Frank Lantz (2003). The B.U.G. project was commissioned by the University of Minnesota Design Institute as part of a process of looking at urban planning for Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Three teams moved large, inflatable game pieces through the Twin Cities, taking advice online advice from the public to determine the fastest route. As Lantz writes about games that cover a large area, played by large numbers of people, set in the real world, they tend to “distort the relationship between game worlds and real worlds.”[4]


  1. John Fox, The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game (Harper Perennial, 2012), p. 267-8.
  2. Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009), pp. 87-8.
  3. Larry and Debby Kline, “The Game at Hand,” http://www.jugglingklines.com/Game_at_Hand.htm.
  4. Frank Lantz, “Big Games”, http://www.decisionproblem.com/big/

City of Vancouver press release

City of Vancouver press release

More than 30 local artists set to work out of Park Board field houses

October 2 2012

More than 30 local artists, including internationally renowned visual artist Germaine Koh and composer/double bassist Mark Haney, have been selected to participate in the Vancouver Park Board’s artist studio residency project in seven locations.

“The arts are critical to a community’s quality of life,” says Park Board Chair Sarah Blyth. “The studio space will provide a supportive, creative environment where artists can develop their work, engage residents and increase participation in the arts.”

Germaine Koh, winner of the 2010 VIVA award, will use the Elm Park field house as the home base for the community-based project League. League will be a weekly gathering of people who come together to play sports and games invented by members of the public. Participants will attempt to play with the guidelines, equipment and spaces suggested, and will further adapt the game, evolve strategies, and invent new equipment through trial and improvisation.

[... link to full release]

Obscure sports — links

Miscellaneous links to obscure, oddball, and cult sports.

Pinjat Pinang, from Rough Guides’ “The world’s strangest sports”

Games – October 2012

Some ideas to try…

If you have an idea, send it along by using this form or posting below.

Field Carcassonne

Carcassonne board, from Wikimedia Commons

What would Carcassonne principles be like translated into a game physically played on a field that was not defined at the outset and which only develops as the game is played? It could be a ball-and-goal based game in which the field is chalked as the game progresses, making it more difficult to navigate. Or one in which movement has to happen differently in different areas as they develop.

Street Pong

A game I once hatched to be played in the street, possibly with parkour moves. Two teams link up in straight lines to act as the ‘paddles’ while individuals act as the ‘ball’, trying to score points by reaching the goals. Like the video game, the ‘ball’  changes direction when it comes into contact with either paddle. It’s a game of individuals versus groups. Probably best played in a space, like a street, that is enclosed on the sides.


Courtesy of Ian, who used to play a version over their roof as a kid. The idea seems to be to play a ball off a roof while you are off the ground and without it touching the ground. It could be an interesting game moving through streets.
Version of roofball by YouTube user Ordainmentmusic

Game-design challenge

Rock-Paper-Scissors from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been pondering whether a Rock-Paper-Scissors-based sport is possible, and what it would look like. or RoShamBo or Jan-ken-pon has a lot of cultural variants. The basic concept is that each type is strong over another, but weak compared to a third. The concept has even expanded to include other options (see Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock).

My question is: how could RPS be expanded into a sport in which the strategies were physically executed? Could there be an element of the game that took into account how well or strongly the strategy were executed?


Kicking it off … Sunday 14 October

There’s been a lot of excitement and interest in this project, so although we only just got access to the field house, we might as well kick things off. Here’s a provisional schedule:

  • Sunday 14 October – Kickoff!
    noon to 4pm
  • Tuesday afternoons, starting 16 October
    3pm to dusk
  • Last Sunday of each month
    ie. 28 October, 25 November…
    noon to 4pm

No need to pre-register; just show up. Elm Park is at 41 Ave @ Elm St in Vancouver-Kerrisdale.

What to play?

If you have an idea for a game, post below.

We do have this one that Verena, Cedric and Mike are very excited to share on 14 October:

It’s called Couchie… It involved a complicated scoring system, 6 beanbag juggling balls and a large overstuffed couch.[...] It was really fun, we spent hours doing it, even attracted the rather attractive girls who lived above us down a couple times to see what all the thumping and cheering was about. Loosely the game involves hurling said juggling balls at the couch and attempting to lodge them in the various cracks between the cushions. Each crack had a different value and score would be counted up to a pre-determined amount.

Launching League

League is launching in Fall 2012. We’ll be based at Elm Park in Vancouver, thanks to the Vancouver Park Board Studio Residency Program.

Here’s how the project is envisioned:

League will be a changing group of people who gather regularly to play sports and games invented by themselves or conceived by members of the public. League members will attempt to play with the suggested guidelines/equipment/space, and will further develop the game as they play, with the expectation that it will evolve, and strategies emerge, through trial and improvisation. The advantages and weaknesses of different approaches will emerge and be incorporated organically into the play.

Commonplace sports and play equipment, markers and everyday objects will be available, and new tools might be invented on the fly.

League will be a sort of sandbox for experiments around improvisation, performance, co-operation, and strategy. The process of learning, adapting and evolution through iteration is central to the overall concept. The project is founded in a belief in the value of emergent behaviour and the process of making sense of things. It views games, sport and play as serious forms of problem-solving that may be more complete than approaches which privilege the mental over the physical. League might attract participants who are adaptable and have a tolerance for (or even attraction to) uncertainty, provisional process, negotiation, and unconventional approaches to problems. They may or may not identify as athletes, but are expected to bring all faculties of the mind and body to their play.

More news is coming soon. Check “League events” in the menu.
Germaine Koh aka PLAYER 1

Elm Park field house