21 games you can play with a cosmic house

Resident Alien**

These games came from the feeling of a body in various museums rather than from academic studies, which has created a translation problem that I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve by procrastination. The other problem is formal, since my interest is in creating situations or atmospheres for people to inhabit, and the linear and fixed essay isn’t very useful for this. I’d rather be talking with you in The Cosmic House, wearing my bathrobe maybe, and sitting somewhere in which we both feel comfortable and where the light is right.

I’d start out by saying something like: museums are interesting places to think about human behaviour. A museum is a particularly suggestive or strong environment, though this suggestion is often expressed in the absence of suggestiveness, in superficially characterless white cubes, for example. Houses are also strong environments. Like museums, they come with sets of expectations, rules and roles. In any house, but especially in the house in which you are standing, a cosmic one – a house with a name and many attitudes – the suggestions for your behaviour are easy to notice. Some of them are even written on signs that tell you what to (not) do. You can reject or accept them – like putting on a mask, assuming a role and trying on a different perspective. Situations that slip between the ordinary (a house) and the odd (this house) can be liberating; they can make us question some things we otherwise assume to be normal.

All games have their specific histories and many once had agendas too, a purposefulness that can seem incongruous, at first, with the idea of play. Some are so pretentious and intellectual, like a ‘seminar’, that it sounds wrong to call them games at all. If you abstract such familiar forms and break them down into their basic objectives and rules, you see how truly arbitrary they are and how easily they could be organised in other ways. What could be a good way to think in public about some problem or a question? How many people should be involved? What kind of relation should they be in – hierarchical, flat, fixed or free? Should the rules of the game be implied or announced? Can they change? Are they improvised or imposed? An important factor in the answers to these questions is the character of the game’s ‘host’, which like the word ‘game’ I use quite loosely. A host can be a person or a place, like this house. A house that is many things: a live-in manifesto, a spatial argument spiced with architectural elements and objects. Another, equally important factor, is the attitude of the ‘player’. There is a lot in this house for interpretation and misinterpretation; it’s also just a fancy house and you can try to react to its house-ness as normally as possible. In the first attitude you’d be acting like a curator and in the second like a child.

The games in this booklet were created through conversations with the house and the people in it during my short live-in residency. How much should these new games extend ideas already present in the house – for example, cosmologies; polyphonous references; material, architectural and linguistic jokes; mythologies; marginalia; puns; Post-Modernism – and how much should they introduce new ones or contradict what the house is ‘saying’?

Houses shape the behaviour of their inhabitants in concentric circles of decreasing intimacy: the family first, then guests and relatives, and sometimes strangers, i.e. the public. So opening a house to the public is, first of all, confusing. The visitor rightly wonders, ‘Is this for me?’ ‘Am I allowed in here?’ Signage helps, but it’s only needed to counteract the deceptively familiar domestic interior and to answer the question: ‘Am I in a house or not?’

Nobody, of course, arrives at The Cosmic House and is surprised to find a museum. Expectations are set long before, so this ambiguity, like a tickle of domesticity, can only start after you arrive, when the house-ness of the house has had time to work on you. And I suspect that for many visitors the feeling never arrives at all, because they aren’t the kind of people who try to eat or sleep in museums. But once you cross some personal limit then even banal activities can take on new importance.

You notice your body differently as a visitor to a museum than when you live in one, even for a few days. Fumbling with double door handles because I couldn’t remember which one was real, my feet unfamiliar with how many steps to expect in the dark, stumbling every time I entered the library with its little carpeted step were constant reminders that my body did not know this place. ‘How much longer until I start to feel comfortable here? And what about others?’ I wondered what kinds of bodies have been welcomed here. What shapes and colours? What kinds of food have been cooked in this kitchen, and by whom?

Particularly when I was alone at night I had the unsettling feeling that I didn’t know how I was supposed to be. The house has familiar parts to other houses, but I’m supposed to treat it differently. I even signed papers to that effect. As a guest bumping around sleepily inside a historical object I was terrified of leaving signs of my presence. A single hair left in the sink was ghastly. Toast crumbs took on some terrible new aspects like evidence of a crime. I was unable to leave any room without first checking it for signs that I had been there and obsessively removing any that I found. I was constantly trying to erase myself, to be like a ghost.

Except in ‘my’ room – nanny Ann’s bedroom, on the top floor – where I felt the most at home. My clothing and bags and rubbish, which were so inappropriate everywhere else, felt reassuring in there. I even enjoyed it when visitors tried to come in on the days when the house was open to the public, because I could greet them from bed. Surprise! But then, why can’t someone live in a museum?

As a little child in the Soviet Union, I remember the sullen grannies who glared from the corners of museum rooms. I think they could have been prompted to speak, but nobody seemed to think this was a good idea, so they weren’t there to interpret the art. And they were not armed, not obviously, so their security responsibilities were light. Perhaps putting them in rusty chairs in every room of the Hermitage museum prevented them from forming vigilante morality gangs in the streets, but I think they were there to set the tone. To shush teenagers giggling at Renaissance flesh. To make sure that you acted and felt the way you were supposed to in the presence of serious art.

You’ve probably experienced other kinds of coercion – this depends a lot on your race and gender – designed to socialise you into knowing how to behave in a museum. The no-talking, no-touching, no-sitting, no-playing traditional rules of the museum game are few and obvious. They exist to enforce a regime of sight, a disembodied looking that we used to think was the best or only way of appreciating art and artefacts. And because museums don’t exist to make money – unlike the majority of spaces in our impoverished world – they stand out as thresholds, like islands in the sea of ‘normal’ capitalist behaviour whose rules express different values.

It’s possible to look at museums in general and easy to look at The Cosmic House in particular as sets of rules – suggestive environments – that were set arbitrarily by relatively few people – or maybe just one family! But nobody would be hurt if the rules of a museum suddenly changed, which makes them some of the best places we have for play. You could say that every museum is also a theatre, except it’s even better, because the people there don’t know that it is a theatre and there is awesome potential in this confusion. We can use The Cosmic House as theatrical sets, props and scenarios; as a place to question rules by using rules.

I read several books while I was here. Some I looked for and others the house-host brought to me, for example David Batchelor’s Chromophobia on a shelf in my bedroom. Batchelor writes that the minimalist home ‘shows no exchanges with the outside world and the doubt and the dirt that goes with that’. In The Cosmic House the exchanges appear to be everywhere. Dirt and doubt: even the toilets are playful, once you find them. And the hidden cupboards and kitchen appliances seem less like they’re ashamed and more like they are playing hide-and-seek with you. In this anti-minimalist manifesto, the apparently overcomplicated is quite simple and sometimes ridiculous; the environment is intensely ordered and disordered at the same time (and this is after its museumification).

Is carefully curated abundance just another kind of control, one that looks like omnivorous curiosity? Is it really more open than ‘closed’ minimalism? It is certainly easier to engage with an anti-minimalist house; there is so much more conceptual surface area for association and reaction, like a ribbed condom. And there is some heavy ambiguity lying around too. A museum house (house museum?) can’t, by definition, be used for the domestic activities it was designed for (was it?). Instead, today, it is supposed to be used, played with, by you.

Games can, but don’t have to, be played as if they exist apart from the rotten world. They can reflect the rot back to us in helpful ways. You should take this pamphlet like a sandwich; something left in embarrassment on a culinary school prep table, uncorrectable but still technically food: thoughts about games and rules, and games created for The Cosmic House and in the house and because of the house. They are written like recipes with ingredients and instructions, and you can read them as evidence for the soundness of these claims about games (the baloney in the sandwich?). But they might just be for fun. I hope it won’t be clear which is which.

** As part of its inaugural programme ‘Architistics: Architecture’s Lingusitics’ (2021/22), the Jencks Foundation hosted Lev Bratishenko as a live-in resident at The Cosmic House. In response to the polyphonic potentials of curatorial interpretations of the newly inaugurated house museum, Lev’s week-long residency focused on inventing new public-event formats specific to The Cosmic House and Charles Jencks’ archive and library – an environment loaded with ideas and primed for interventions and interpretations. This pamphlet is the result.

Lev Bratishenko (b. 1984, Moscow) is a writer and curator. His curatorial inventions include the Come and Forget (2017) series proposing benevolent acts of mass amnesia, and How to, a workshop that brings strangers together to produce interventions in architectural culture: How to: not make an architecture magazine (2018); How to: disturb the public (2019); How to: reward and punish (2020); How to: not become a ‘developer’ (2022); How to: do no harm (2022); How to: mind the moon (2023). He was inaugural Curator Public at the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA) in Montreal and has been contributing to CCA exhibitions, publications and online projects since 2007, including curating The object is not online (2010) and co-editing It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment (2016). He regularly writes on architecture, classical music and opera, and he also writes fiction. Sometimes the two become confused.

Download the full booklet, 21 games you can play with a cosmic house, here.

Lev Bratishenko
21 games you can play with a cosmic house
Residency, The Cosmic House