Erin hands out the red-white-and-blue bandanas left over from a Slaughterhouse Five event. “They’ll help distinguish you as part of the group,” she says, which is true, but I don’t think any of us are crazy about wearing them. When the real game is played in October, players will get T-shirts. But it’s only July now, and this is only a dry run, so bandanas it is.
There are six of us at the Kelly Writers House this afternoon, test driving the game Re:Activism, which ICA, Kelly Writers House, and Penn’s Urban Studies Program have collaborated to bring to Penn as part of the Year of Games. Re:Activism, which was created by Colleen Macklin and PET Lab, has been played in New York, Minneapolis, and other cities. It asks teams of students armed with a map, a backpack of supplies, a smart phone, and their own creativity to reactivate histories of social activism and political protest from colonial times to the recent past.
This is what I wrote last spring in the grant application to the Provost’s Arts Fund that is largely supporting the project: “Part lesson in social history, part political engagement, and part performance art, Re:Activism encourages active participation, collaboration, and creativity.” But as I stand outside Kelly Writers House on this July afternoon, I realize I don’t really have any clear idea what that means—or what I’m in for. Of the six of us, I’m the oldest by a good twenty years, but that doesn’t mean I’m taking a leadership role here. Basically, my feeling is, I’m along for the ride.
At 2:45 we’re at the Betsy Ross House in Old City, our first stop. Thomson holds up the phone we’re using to send and receive the text messages. “I think Protest Central just gave us a call,” he says.
It’s a warm, sunny day, and the reenactors at the Betsy Ross House, dressed in breeches and long skirts, eye us curiously as Thomson unzips the red backpack. He takes out poster board, markers, a clipboard, a camera, and lays them out on the cobblestones around the fountain. We are reenactors too, in our own way, our mission to connect the issues of the past to those of today. The American flag, for instance, famously (if perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Betsy Ross: what has it meant to Americans down through the years? What does it mean to us now?
In 1971—according to our game materials— Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged a protest right here at Betsy Ross House. One of our Re:Activism challenges for this spot involves drawing a sign that addresses complicated responses to the flag. Another is to engage passers-by and ask them about the ’71 protest. It’s interesting to see how our little group divides itself: who wants to draw, who wants to talk. Anna-Lara is soon kneeling on the sidewalk with poster board and marker. Thomson chats to a woman with a cane and a bright turquoise necklace. She doesn’t have much to say. At first we’re not sure if we’re doing this right—whatever it is we’re meant to be doing—but then a man and woman walking down Arch Street stop to watch us. The man says he’s a veteran, and he’s curious about what we’re doing. We explain as best we can, and I ask him, “What do you think the connection is between the Veterans Against the War and the Betsy Ross House?” It’s a question I’m still puzzling over myself.
“Well,” he says, “maybe because the veterans were the ones to use the flag—cutting it up and burning it.”
“And what do you think about that?”
“I’m very patriotic,” he says. “I support the flag. But I also support the rights it represents.”
It’s not much, but suddenly I feel that I’ve begun to get it. When have I ever talked with a veteran about the flag? When have I asked a stranger on the street—a fellow citizen—anything significant at all? The game is making that happen. In that way, it’s not a game at all.
After this, the challenges get easier, or maybe it’s that we’re getting the hang of it. By the time we reach Independence Hall an hour later, I have lost all self-consciousness about our red-white-and-blue bandanas, our eccentric activities, our obsessive picture-taking (we have to document what we do in order to get credit in the game). Everyone down here is dressed oddly, everyone is in groups, and all the groups are taking pictures. Horse-drawn carriages rattle past, and the air smells of manure. We’re getting tired, but at the next site we kneel on the sidewalk to chalk a message about gay rights. We don’t even have to stop people; they stop us to ask us what we’re doing. They want to take our picture.
Jenna chats with a group of kids who kneel to sign their names to the proposal she’s chalked. “Do you know what Stonewall was?” she asks.
When we’re done at this site, we leave the chalk. It’s not in the instructions, but it’s good to think about people coming by, reading what we’ve written, maybe adding their names to ours. It’s good to think that, like the activists whose trails we’re following today, we too may leave traces on the city for others to find. At least until it rains.
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