Week 7 - Part 2 - the unbuilding game

This log is a continuation of Week 7 - Part 1 - message in a bottle, where I talk about some of the work that came out of my class Embodied Research.

building | unbuilding

If you remember my log a few weeks ago about visiting Keji and the Fortress of Louisbourg, and especially after visiting the sites around Fundy with the geologist, I was mulling over the opposites, building and unbuilding. “What and how do we build and undo? What do we choose to rebuild? What remains?” (pertinent to the bottle, too) There’s a drive to constantly grow economically and develop land. The opposite force is concerned with conservation or preservation for the future. Both have a sense of forward motion, whereas to undo something seems almost backwards.

Coincidentally, Charlit was reading the book Half-Earth Socialism, which argues that we need to undo some of the systems and changes we’ve made to the planet, through rewilding and an ‘unbuilding of the world’:

Unbuilding would be the equally hard work of disentangling human consciousness from self-willed nature… the task of unbuilding makes clear that environmentalism isn’t so much the idealization of ‘pristine’ nature… but the recognition that it is still possible to repair our broken world.

Initially I was working with paper forms, and thinking about drawing/printing natural textures like rock onto paper that could then be folded into a block, like a brick or a wood beam. I remember seeing a photo of an artist’s work (that I can’t find it, unfortunately) where they had screenprinted brick texture onto paper and then folded it into a box, then stacked it with multiples to create a wall. I really liked the fakeness — it looked like a brick, but once you picked it up it would be obvious it wasn’t real, and didn’t have mass — I thought this fakeness would play into this kind of futility, and relative fragility of our built structures.

This also felt like an opportunity to make something interactive (especially while I had classmates that would hopefully go along with it), and explore Nguyen’s idea that games can communicate different forms of agency, as well as ask players to strive for different goals . In this case, what would an experience of unbuilding yield?

My paper forms weren’t really going anywhere though, but when I was thinking about the gathering around food, I started thinking about edible materials… and those cheap wafer cookies came to mind. It came together pretty quickly after that.

the outside of the very DIY game kitthe outside of the very DIY game kit interior of game box including the rules, sleeves of ‘blocks’, tools and brushes, syringes and small containersinterior of game box including the rules, sleeves of ‘blocks’, tools and brushes, syringes and small containers

the rules of play

The ‘kit’ contains:

  • 3 Sleeves of BLOCKS
  • 5 Brushes
  • 5 Small containers of mysterious pink powder (beetroot, shh)
  • 5 Syringes
  • 5 Tools


The FOREMAN directs:

  1. Unpack all BLOCKS and place them in the middle, accessible to all BUILDERS. This is the QUARRY.
  2. Each BUILDER at their SITE gets 1 CONTAINER, 1 BRUSH, 1 STYRINGE, + 1 TOOL
  3. Prepare your CEMENT: add 5ml of water to the CONTAINER using the SYRINGE. Close and shake vigorously.

Stage 1

OBJECTIVE: Build the best wall on schedule.

Each BUILDER builds at the same time.

  1. Pull BLOCKS from the QUARRY pile. Before using them you must:
  2. Use your CEMENT mixture to write a word (with your BRUSH) related to PERMANENT on the BLOCK. You cannot repeat your own words.
  3. Build the best wall on schedule, within: 5 MINUTES (FOREMAN keeps time)

building teams around the table, with the blocks (cookies) arranged down the middle in the ‘quarry’building teams around the table, with the blocks (cookies) arranged down the middle in the ‘quarry’

Stage 1 is about building and development; quickly, yet with the intent for this structure to stand for a long time. The ‘schedule’ (time limit) was there to try to inspire a sense of urgency and competition amongst the players, while the word-writing was meant to add a bit of challenge. It was interesting to see what the teams built, and the words they wrote!

We had more than five people, so we played in teams of two. I played the foreman, giving directions, because we were running late on time. I didn’t have enough brushes in the kit, so they had to take turns writing on the cookies. There was a bit of confusion over the ‘cement’ mixture (which was just beetroot and water, food safe), when some people expected it to literally work as cement to stick the blocks together. I think this would be fun — I could see icing in tubes being used instead.

The vague wording “build the best wall” was deliberate; after the round was over we briefly checked in with each team to hear their reasoning. Everyone’s was slightly different– some were stacked vertically upon each other, others were arranged in a curved wall, others like a tower.

Sarah writing words onto cookies to use them in their wallSarah writing words onto cookies to use them in their wall some of the words on Jasmine and Fanny wrote on their blocks, related to ‘permanence’some of the words on Jasmine and Fanny wrote on their blocks, related to ‘permanence’

Stage 2

OBJECTIVE: Unbuild your wall as thoroughly as possible.

Each BUILDER UNBUILDS their wall at the same time:

  1. You may UNBUILD using any available tool
  2. As you UNBUILD each BLOCK you must saw the word written on it aloud.
  3. There is no schedule. The game ends when all BLOCKS in play and all walls are fully UNBUILT.

Stage 2 is about unbuilding, and had less of the intended outcomes. I was trying to shift players into a slower, more deliberate mode of interacting with the cookies. I had provided a variety of tools — palette knives, a spoon, a peeler, a charcuterie knife — to see if they would try to disassemble the wafer cookie into layers, scrape the icing off, etc. Obviously, you could unbuild the cookies by eating it! This is what many of them did, which was kind of fun and silly to see people announce “Tomorrow!” and eat a cookie. But the pacing wasn’t quite there, and people quickly unstacked cookies and tapped out.

Still, it was a fun experiment to try with people, and I think there’s something to the concept re. interacting with materials that can be broken down further vs. our ideas about building permanence and change.

With that, we wrapped up the class. But at the time of writing, I’m currently also preparing for another camping trip for a class that is essentially a continuation of this one, in the fall. I’ve enjoyed writing these logs and documenting some of the experiences over the summer — I hope there’s been some interesting tidbits for you, too! I intend to share research and work here over the course of my Masters — though perhaps not quite so frequently — and hope to hear from you, too.

Enjoy the last of these summer days! Katherine

Up next Week 7 - Part 1 - message in a bottle Nocturne Log - Art at Night
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