Max Alexander blogs about his autistic play space project, Function Schmunction and how he makes use of capes in that space.

Audio / Captioned version of Blog: Capes and Subsequent Capers by Max Alexander

As one of the artists in the Sensory Collective I have been working on the project “Function Schmunction” which is all about celebrating and creating opportunities for autistic play. I’ve worked with a wide range of participants creating and co-creating shared play spaces and am now building upon those experiences to design and create a tour-able play space.

When I’m working on creating physical play spaces a key part of that process is taking every object or idea and exploring it from as many angles as I can. Looking for different ‘hooks’, different ways in, around and about what playing with or alongside that object or idea might look like. This process helps me create richer and more exciting play possibilities but also it is key to creating a space that can encompass as many different ways of playing as possible and therefore, as many different people as possible. The most wonderful thing about this process is; no matter how much thinking and experiencing I do, I’m never going to be able to fully predict what will actually happen when I introduce whatever I create to others. 

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is what Capes might do in the play space. So I’m going to share a bit of that thinking…

[Image shows a collage of two photographs. The larger shows Max, a beardy white man with glasses in his early thirties sitting on a window sill wearing a long gold cape. His eyes are closed and he looks restful. In the bottom left corner there is a smaller image showing the same scene from further away. There are bright lines drawn on top of the photograph in pink, orange and yellow. The smaller image is encompassed in a thought bubble which emerges from the larger Max’s head.]

I understood pretty early on that the play space I want to create requires capes (which will hopefully induce capers).

The cape sits in a liminal realm that is ripe for playfulness. Capes are familiar but they’re not the stuff of everyday. They are novel but not new. Most know what to do with them but haven’t done very much with them. All of this in-betweenness that capes inhabit means that when you bring one into an everyday space it’s usually unexpected but not too intimidating. Which is perfect. There’s enough there to inspire action or exploration but not too much pressure. The cape brings its own gentle intrigue and questioning prod. It’s a permissive portal.

Your body changes when you put on a cape. The weight becomes part of you in the same way most clothing does but it extends your movement in the way most clothing doesn’t. So it changes the way you move and your body learns to move with it. The weight of the cape can be soothing or energising. Grounding or lifting. If you’re someone who doesn’t feel very in touch with your body it might create different sensation in your muscles and against your skin. If you are someone whose body can be on high alert the weight across your upper body might encourage relaxation.

The cape can make the most reluctant or self-conscious of us soften and stand taller at the same time. It is a gateway to extravagance and silliness. Stepping into a cape means stepping out of your world a little. It brings out a particular character in people. The hero, the mystic, the dancer, the majestic, the aloof, the skybound, the swisher… we all have a cape persona or several waiting. You get to take on and play with those different personas whilst being softly shielded.

[Image shows a collage of four photographs increasing in size. They are taken very close together and show Max running and leaping into the air whilst a long gold cape flies out behind him. The image is annotated with bright yellow and orange lines coming out of Max’s feet and off the cape. The numbers 4, 3, 2 and 1 are written on the photographs in bright pink]

I’m a gentle swisher meets high energy leaper. The Swish Factor is one of my favourite cape elements. Being able to twist, spin, rock my body and having the cape follow. Feeling the moment of slack just before it changes direction. The soft whrrrr shhhhhhhh sounds. The pull on parts of my body… The way the most subtle of movements or the most dynamic and explosive create different shapes.

The cape can also become a wearable enclosure. It can hide you in an act of mischief; in that way where you know you’re not really hidden but you still kind of feel like you are and choosing to believe that is a game in itself. But it can also hide and swaddle you in an act of seeking shelter.

[Image shows two photographs side by side. In the left Max lays curled up in a pool of sunlight on the floor. He is mostly covered in a gold cape. Yellow lines drawn on the photo fall down on top of Max but stop at a white line tracing his outline. The right photo shows Max stood in the cape with an orange bucket over his head. Two buckets hang beside him with rope and yellow gloves dangling out. The floor has tinsel and various objects strewn over it. The words ‘Look! I’m hiding’ are written in orange text around the photograph]

Then there’s the potential of the fabric and form. They can be light and airy. Heavy and slightly musty smelling. Fur lined, stretchy, shimmery, extravagant, simple. They can have different lengths and shapes. All of which affect the way they move and feel on the body, but also, the things our imagination consciously or subconsciously attaches to them about what kind of persona or energy they hold.  

The way imaginative and sensory elements can intertwine and merge and interact just adds more and more potential for playful experience. And I wonder if therein lies some of the power of capes. For some it might be a purely sensory experience all about the feel, for others a purely imaginative experience all about the becoming… but for most it’s probably a very particular mixture. 

Perhaps having read this you might find yourself freshly cape-curious. If so, I’d invite you to throw a blanket or tea towel over your shoulders and see what it brings out in you… swish swish.

Max Alexander is one of six artists who form the Sensory Collective, a 21-month-long programme of sensory arts projects for participants who experience multiple barriers to access mainstream arts activities. It is produced by Independent Arts Projects as a Culture Collective project, funded by Scottish Government through Creative Scotland.

Top image by Catriona Parmenter