Creative Somerville Series: Kate Balug Talks Cities, Sci-Fi, Art & Play

Last week we had artist and urbanist Katarzyna (Kate) Balug, who cofounded the Department of Play, at our Creative Somerville Series–a series designed to highlight local creatives and entrepreneurs through intimate ‘fireside chats.’ We had delicious (and highly alcoholic) beers (I had to hold back on mine until I finished interviewing Kate to keep everything cogent,) and the twinkle lights at Aeronaut, and our youtube fireplace on loop were doing their thing to set the mood.

Department of Play is truly a unique organization that combines art, temporary installations and planning; they run “temporary play zones” (TPZs) that bring people together to think differently about ‘what could be’ in their cities. The Department of Play asks a simple but radical question: “What if, through play, we found other ways of addressing issues throughout the city?”

During her talk, Kate brought us back to a key moment in grad school when she developed the idea for the Department of Play, in a final for a course. It was “just a PDF” Kate said, but during her review, one of the critics threw out a thought that struck her, that this “could be your life’s work.”

For Your Life’s Work: Start Here
Kate joined the staff of artist Lauren Bon’s Metabolic Stuido after finishing her undergrad fine arts degree. During Kate’s time at the studio, Bon decided to introduce salary parity across the studio. Kate, one of the younger staff on the totem pole, got a huge jump in salary. So of course, Kate jokes, she did the absolute dumbest thing to do after getting a big pay bump. She was so inspired by Bon that she decided to go to graduate school in search of her own vision–so she could lead something that would one day empower others.

Kate in Mexico City.

Kate moved across the country to start an urban planning masters at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She never intended to go into planning the traditional way and she went keeping a keen eye out for that vision that could be hers. After presenting the concept for the Department of Play in her studio, she was connected to a group of MIT researchers interested in similar issues. After graduating and spending a year in Mexico City, experimenting with sci-fi-inspired public art as a way of engaging residents in envisioning change in their city, and working with youth, Kate returned to the Boston area and founded Department of Play, as it is today with cofounder anthropologist Maria Vidart-Delgado.

“No Neighborhood is Abandoned”
A social consciousness and insight into culture drives Kate. She spoke about her experience coming to the US from Poland as a child, being one of the “polacks” in her Chicago school. Her interest in ‘the other’ and cultures and peoples that get left out has extended to her view of the city: She firmly believes that “no neighborhood is abandoned.”

Kate’s work often focuses on youth. “They’re at that time in their lives where they find that everything is possible or nothing is going to change,” she says. Adults do partake of the TPZ’s (Temporary Play Zones) Kate and her team plan, and Kate enjoys seeing the moments of intergenerational cooperation that are developed in her TPZs. The Department of Play and its “players” has worked with a wide variety of materials –from fabricated building units, to snow to futuristic costumes–when asked what her favorite tool or material to work with, Kate tells us “a truck.”

The Department of Play is fluid when it comes to what format their work will take. Kate and her collaborators are now working in the south of Boston, planning a series of activities that will occur on the Fairmount Corridor. The Department of Play intends to use the windows of the train as a frame for radically hopeful thinking about the future by neighborhood residents. Residents will dream, brainstorm, plan and create what they might see out of their train window in a distant future, unencumbered by the politics of the immediate tomorrow.

The Hustle
Kate spoke honestly about ‘the hustle’ and balancing multiple jobs, while building your dream vision. She laughingly spoke about not being “a good employee” because she’s constantly dreaming up other ideas while working a job. Boston is a city that’s very focused on professional labels, Kate notes, and the organization she is cooking up doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s box. “My advice?” she says, “Find a friend that makes you feel not insane.”

The Vision
The Department of Play is a finalist for an Art Place America grant, which would be the organization’s first big funding win. Kate let the crowd know that if they don’t get the grant, we’ll be hearing from them soon via Kickstarter.

Aside from running TPZs, Kate and her cofounder have their eyes on a much larger vision: They point out that the city of Boston doesn’t have a master plan (‘this city is too complicated for that’ they were told when they asked.) The Department of Play doesn’t buy that. They envision a “living master plan,” not just a document that sits of a shelf–but something interactive, an exhibition, a sci-fi graphic novel, something yet to be designed, that can help the city work as a larger entity, as more than just a series of neighborhoods.

Amidst dispensing advice on career paths (meandering paths might be unavoidable if you want to do innovative interdisciplinary work, but Kate advises getting a solid disciplinary foundation) Kate mentioned that just that morning she had a little extra time before a meeting. She pulled out her journal and used a very Department of Play trick and wrote a diary entry for herself in 2020–five years in the future. In it were dreams for her personal life and family (she has a few kids,) and for her organization, which has a secure funding stream, is affiliated with at least one university and is actively working in communities.

“Uh yeah I guess now all that stuff has better come true,” she says.

photo credit: Aeronaut’s own very talented Ben Holmes.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

Tickets for our next event on 3/19 with Rose Mattos and Erin Heath, of floral styling and event company Forêt Design Studio are going fast! RSVP here.

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