Remember summers filled with sno-cones and going to the pool and games of Wiffle Hurling and Straightjacket Softball? If you say yes you are a liar because Tom Russotti made them up. Equipped with a room filled with “uniforms” and a trunk full of hula...

by Alex
Oct 21 2009, 5:06pm
Remember summers filled with sno-cones and going to the pool and games of Wiffle Hurling and Straightjacket Softball? If you say yes you are a liar because Tom Russotti made them up. Equipped with a room filled with "uniforms" and a trunk full of hula-hoop adorned bike helmets, the Brooklyn-based artist is the founder of the Institute of Aesthletics. This is just a fancy way of saying he makes up new sports that don't bring up old issues of getting picked last for kickball teams or beat up by muscular assholes. And there's no roid raging or campus murder, so it's basically a sports utopia. Tom and I caught up on the last leg of his cross-country road trip, destination: the Lab, a San Francisco alternative art space where he will have a four-week residency full of fantastical games. It starts tomorrow. Vice: Aesthletcis. I'm going to take a stab in the dark and guess it's something to do with sports and aesthetics? What is it that you guys are doing exactly? Tom Russotti: The Institute organizes and promotes sports as an art form. We invent sports like Mega Soccer and Break a Leg, put on sporting performances, and teach sports as art rather than as physical education. OK, names aside how are the games different from traditional sports? It depends on how you look at them. From an art context they are participatory art, but for others they are just games. The ultimate point is pretty basic: I create interesting social interaction. The games exist as performance, as rituals about the ambivalent and conflicting roles of cooperation and competition in human behavior. That sounds intense. So it is kind of a sociological experiment. Kind of, the events are very often meant to represent this chaotic conflict. I try to change the sports up so players constantly find themselves in the primordial beginnings of a game where nobody is quite sure what is going on--play is more free and more mentally challenging in this space. You're losing me a little. It is important to consistently invent new sports. Once the games get well-defined they revert to traditional methods of sports performance, which become less interesting. I'm all for getting out and playing, but personally I do believe I am still traumatized by organized sports. I totally understand, having gone to an artsy-fartsy school, and then to summer camp with the general population and the reality of dodge ball. I think gym class is the first time kids realize it's a dog-eat-dog world. But, generally, my sports experiences were good because there was no presumption of moving on to the next level. Sports were an anecdote to growing up with the bullshit of NYC. Since I went to an art school and it was more of a contrast going out and playing sports. In the first game that I made, I wanted to re-create that play experience. Are your games still competitive? People like to win, you know. Competition is in no way eliminated; it is reduced, sometimes to an imperceptible level. But the idea is for the players to be self-conscious about their human need to compete, to realize competition's positive and negative aspects and to ultimately transcend this base desire by recognizing its constant existence. Of course, some people get this, and others don't. Americans have a lot of experience and/or baggage with sports. True, a ball of any size does seem to have the power to mesmerize the average American, but what about the artist athletes? Do they tap into their inner jock too? The events are not tame, both because there are always actual jocks in attendance (who I'm trying to help find their inner artist), and because the artists are often very competitive…. In society at large, the role of the artist is often that of the rebel, the passionate romantic, the uncompromiser-these roles could also very easily describe a competitive athlete. During off-season do you work in a medium that doesn't involve wearing a cup? Yes. I play around with other types of games. This spring I made a 40-by-20-foot tangram and a Bernie Madoff board game for a museum in Washington D.C. This summer I was also on a Lithuanian reality television show about competitive art making, though I literally escaped after a couple of weeks because it was such a cheesy production. Glad you got out. So what is this upcoming endeavor at San Francisco based gallery The LAB all about? What's the show like and what kind of games should people expect? I'll be running new sports on the weekends in Mission Dolores Park: Wiffle Hurling, Mercury, Megasoccer, etc. Check out to see the schedule and videos and pics of the games. I'll also be creating a site-specific game for the performance space at the Lab. I'll also organize some competitive artistic events such as drawing duels and a drinking and dancing competition. People should expect fun, physical, sometimes chaotic sports where they'll get easily swept up into the fray- the games are very visceral. And there will be costumes/uniforms so you won't take yourself too seriously. Costumes, nice. Can any sports-art junkie glue on a wig and participate, or is this more members only? Anyone can play--we've had an eight-year-old walk-on old join one of our very competitive Wiffle Hurling games. The purpose of aesthletics is very much to encourage participation and to encourage new social activity. What is the future for Aesthletics? I'll be crashing Vancouver 2010 and doing some games there, but, yeah, definitely going international. I think new sports are integral to harmonious globalization, a possible antidote to the "clash of civilizations." I think this is already happening with video games, i.e. WOW, but it needs to happen with new, physical games as well. I want to make larger games--sports with hundreds and hundreds of people that still have the feel of a traditional ball sport. Perhaps we'll see you at Rio de Janeiro 2016!
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