Almost every day during the first lockdown, I would take my son Iggy to Saltwell Park, holding his hand as we staggered all summer in loops round the pond, pausing briefly every now and then as he clung to a bollard to look out over the water. The park was where Iggy learned to walk, learned to point; where he acquired his obsession, which is so intense that I hope its lifelong, with the birds whose sightings quickly became the highlight of his afternoons. “Geese!” he still says, pointing at the pigeons who flock on the roof across the street from the window of my office. “GEESE!”
The first lockdown was in many ways one great reminder – or so I would assume, for most people with no private green space to call their own – of the immense importance of the public green space which Victorian reformers bequeathed to communities like Gateshead: a right, of course, that no-one in any sort of position of power would ever think to win for us today. But now, during the second one – as I push Iggy, wet and irritable from his insistence on diving into any puddle he sees face-first, back home from the park in the rain – I am reminded of the importance of something else: our indoor public parks, which have been closed.
This time last year, we were taking Iggy, pretty much every weekend, to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Even the week before the first lockdown was announced, with the baby sensory room curiously empty as everyone else seemed to have done a different mental calculation re: the relative risks of their baby not burning off enough energy versus dying in a pandemic, there he was – jingling the big wheel of shiny key fob things and chewing the multi-coloured fibre optic wires that look like robot spaghetti. The baby sensory room was where Iggy learned to roll over, learned to stand; where he once almost got brained by a toddler who randomly decided to throw the jangly keys wheel at his head.
Before I became a parent, I would have assumed an art gallery had its value in providing a space for the display of works which invite aesthetic contemplation, or whatever – ‘disinterested’ and disembodied, as Kant in the Critique of the Power of Judgment assumed our response to beautiful things must be. But now I know better. An art gallery, first and foremost, is somewhere you can take your kids to play. There is, frankly, no other space in most British urban centres quite like them: places which are at once free, and indoors, and where children of all ages can caper around interacting with basically anything they see fit to. When you are a parent, being able to inhabit spaces like this feels like a relief: they are places where you know your child is unlikely to be bored – where there is a surfeit of things to do – and where one does not have to be unduly watchful – where things are, for the most part (though with the partial exception of other children throwing jangly key wheel things) safe.
The only downside is that for the most part, the play does tend to be confined within set spaces cordoned-off from the actual exhibitions – although of course it doesn’t have to be. Within Iggy’s lifetime the BALTIC has been great at putting on shows kids can interact with, from Heather Phillipson’s hallucinatory The Age of Love – a sort of 100 Gecs rave with a big grain silo and strobing cats – to Pippa Hale’s wonderful Play Rebellion – which was a sort of DIY soft play in which kids could build their own sculptures out of foam blocks to bury each other in, run around and bounce off. Next year, pandemic gods and government willing, Albert Potrony’s Equal Play will install ‘a number of fixed structural/sculptural elements… to articulate, transform and activate the gallery through play.’
But this is not the sort of thing that art galleries over lockdown have found themselves especially able to compensate for. In fairness, BALTIC are currently running ‘Wonder and Wander’ tours aimed specifically at toddlers, which guide young children through the gallery using sensory materials found inside the home. But with the best will in the world, a Zoom call is no substitute for the actual gallery space. When Iggy sees a laptop, he’s not really interested in what he can see on the screen: he’s interested in trying to flip the screen down, or running his fingers over the keys. When I tried to engage him in a virtual toddler tour the other day, he mostly just… ran over to the window, to look at the pigeons-he-calls-geese. And then he played with his stickle bricks for a bit while everyone else was being instructed to sort some socks.
I have a theory about this (perhaps I’m overthinking it and really we should all just shrug and say ‘well, toddlers…’ but that’s not really how my mind works so here it is). In his Little History of Photography, Walter Benjamin notes that very old portrait photographs have what he calls ‘aura’ – ‘the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be’ – because the first people to be reproduced in photographs did so ‘with their innocence intact.’ Early photographic subjects did not really think about how the photographer might be able to distort or manipulate their image; how they might use their photographs to project a certain specific understanding of themselves. But then obviously, this very quickly changes: as early as the 1860s, people are having their portraits taken against fantastical backdrops; in elaborate costumes; surrounded by pillars and curtains. Nowadays, we are barely able to understand ourselves except through the image we present not just in photographs, but in the most general sense ‘on screen’: on camera in Zoom and Teams meetings; on social media.
It is not hard, therefore, to understand why adults might be motivated to engage both willingly and productively in online substitutes for irl activities like going to an art gallery: these things happen, after all, through the devices we use to construct, and understand, ourselves (the same goes for something like a class, which also suffers from the fact that the participants are not enclosed in the same physical space, but in ways which can be quite readily navigated around). Toddlers lack this motivation: they are not yet interested enough in themselves to care at all about how they appear on-screen. Even as our own experiences slip – and will most likely, post-COVID, continue to slip – more and more into being mediated through the internet, young children still need irl.
Until such time as our species develops a primal nature better suited to a world in which our inability to appropriately balance the burdens of individual and collective responsibility has forced everything to happen via Zoom – and as long as there remain grey, rainy days in the North of England to endure – the indoor park will always remain an essential social good. Long may they continue to escape the catastrophic funding cuts which existentially threaten anything half-way good.
Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher based in Gateshead