Rules of the Playground

By Brian Pronger
Open Studio Brochure

As the saying about men goes: "You can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em."

Over the past few decades, masculine desire has been criticized and lauded: for the violence of its aggression on the one hand, and for the caring concern that can underlie its assertiveness on the other. As Daryl Vocat wittily demonstrates in Rules of the Playground, conflict, tension, irony and humour intermingle in the social imperative where boys become men and both behave accordingly. Far from being simple or natural, masculine ideals in the modern Western world are imposed on those who have the (mis)fortune of being born male. This organization of desire asks men to dominate others and care for themselves, each other and the world around them at the same time.

In Rules of the Playground, Vocat explores the ways that technology, sport and popular iconographies of manhood express the duplicitous nature of masculine desire. Cultural critic, Susan Bordo, has described this phenomenon as the "double bind of masculinity," in which men are expected to be brutes on the sporting playing field, in their work and other recreations while simultaneously being caring, sensitive and engaged human beings. Vocat explores this tension by juxtaposing traditional images of masculine power (technologies, athleticism, and business and warfare acumen) with images of masculine care and concern offered, for instance, as first aid to the injured.

Each screen print is composed of layered found images with colours mimicking various sports teams. In many of the pictures the background figures depict assertive masculine behaviours, the effects of which the foreground line-drawings of first aid procedures seek to ameliorate. What is represented here is not a simple cause and effect chain of events; it is rather the intertwining of aggression and intimacy that is the warp and woof of modern masculine desire in sport, work and technology, the underlying energy of which is at once subtle homoerotic attraction and renunciation. Rather than representing the raw sexual energy of men playing with each other's bodies, Vocat explores the touching cracks in masculine aggression that give way to the healing touch of a shared humanity. The many rituals in work and play which men construct in order to touch and dominate each other's bodies are presented by Vocat as harbouring an almost innocent desire for men to love each other.

First aid diagrams evoke the human power to heal, save or comfort a wounded soul, but these images are also technically informative and devoid of emotional attachment. They are originally intended to be read with no resonance aside from their practical nature. Vocat's manipulation of didactic images shows that they can indeed have great emotional vibrancy, bespeaking the ways in which a masculine ethic of care cautiously negotiates the fine line between male intimacy and instrumental rationality.

The gesture, particularly of the hands, plays an important role in this body of work: pictures of counting money, smoking a cigarette, and carrying a briefcase, act as iconic signifiers of competition, success and wealth. Overlaid first aid imagery challenges rigid notions of masculinity by offering a cure for its shortcomings. Similarly, imagery pertaining to flight expresses the desire to leave the trappings of masculinity behind in search of something else. Appropriating these images Vocat recontextualizes the originals giving them new meaning, telling stories of masculine affection that are usually overlooked, thus giving the viewer an opportunity to think again about what is there. At the heart of Rules of the Playground is a desire for the wholeness, integrity and love that so often remains concealed in a conflicted masculine world.


Brian Pronger, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, the Sexual Diversity Studies Program and the
Graduate Centre for the Study of Religion. He is the author of The Arena of Masculinitu: Sports,
Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex and Body Fascism: Salvation in the Technology of Physical Fitness.