Please Play with the Art

Yoko Ono, Play It By Trust, 17.5 x 17.5 in board game, set of wooden chess pieces, 1966.

A dark and cold Thursday evening in January. Hedreen Gallery is brightly lit and brimming with activity. Two women giggle on a seesaw. A group of visitors holds a crimson canvas taut between them, blowing a feather over its surface. People are attempting ping-pong, throwing dice and shuttling kings and queens across chessboards. The scene is not Hedreen’s attempt to lure visitors into a white box gallery with friendly diversion. The games, reconsidered and represented as a group show, are the art. 

Push Play, an exhibit guest-curated by Seattle-based curator and writer Melissa E. Feldman, who currently teaches at Cornish College of the Arts, demands visitors begin problem-solving immediately upon entering: To hopscotch or not to hopscotch? The parquet gallery floor is covered with different sizes of white tape circles. Inside the hopscotch rings, white letters spell out Nagasaki, Dresden, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, No Gun Ri and Mai Lai. The size of the circles corresponds to the scale and horror of the United State’s attacks on each place. Who would play with this history of aggression? 

With “BOMBscotch,” Mary Flanagan—artist, professor, writer and game designer who produces conceptual, socially conscious board games through her company Tiltfactor—invites visitors to playfully engage a gruesome pastime. The simplicity of its childhood imagery renders the violence visceral and understandable in a way that numbers cannot. You can tiptoe around it. Stomp all over it. Ponder the nuclear potential in the hands of our current commander-in-chief. Flanagan believes that game-playing can tip over into the realm of social critique, a concept that links the works in Push Play together. 

“When artists make games, they want to make fun of something. It is inherently political,” Feldman says while walking through the gallery. She wipes a fleck of dust off Yoko Ono’s all-white chessboard. “Because the visitor has to take action, it also ties into activism.”

The idea of game-as-critique is not new. The 20th-century avant-garde had a penchant for play. With the Exquisite Corpse technique, surrealist artists like Man Ray, André Breton and Joan Miró would incorporate children’s games into their art practice, in the process creating a drawing that exemplified everything they loved about chance, collaboration, unpredictability and disorder.   

At Hedreen, the caprices of chance echo in “Your Fate,” a piece by Allan McCollum and Matt Mullican in which players are instructed to throw 25 dice across a felt-top game board. A corresponding interpretive guidebook deciphers the resulting pictograms, the divination system and its symbols reading like a dream dictionary and recalling the Freudian current of later Surrealism. 

The Surrealists’ predecessors, the Dadaists, were more subversive than dreamy. Both movements were born out of disillusionment with World War I and anger over bourgeois hypocrisies, but they employed different coping mechanisms. Dada prided playful nonsense as a form of provocation. 

The greatest Dadaist of all was French artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously laid a urinal on its back, called it “Fountain” and birthed conceptual art there and then with his invention of the readymade. Duchamp played chess passionately, penning newspaper articles about the game for much of his life. Art was a game of chess for Duchamp, equally playful and intellectual, posing a challenge to the player and viewer.

Chessboards are a recurring theme around Push Play, including Ono’s “Play it By Trust,” which offers a politicized Fluxus iteration of the game, its monochromatic squares suggesting anti-violence.

The solitary games in Push Play, often presented on computers or screens, deal with aging and life as a cycle of human consumption and loneliness. For their multimedia piece, Brent Watanabe and Cable Griffith built a Pac-Man-like environment that conveys a sense of entrapment—life as a game in which we don’t make the rules. On paintings made of pixelated visions of nature, the viewer moves a projected consumer-ghost up and down ladders and walls. Ultimately the viewer is trapped and never satisfied. There’s no winning here. 

But to focus on winning and losing  misses the point: Playing games is a constructive effort. With his concept of détournement, best translated as “deflection,” “distortion” or “misappropriation,” the influential French theorist Guy Debord created game-like “situations” that took place in public. Debord used gameplay and humor to counter the capitalist disease he diagnosed in his seminal Society of the Spectacle: the commoditized spectacle replacing human connection.

Debord, a contrarian to his core, would’ve loathed exhibiting games as social critique. How much can a white-box space bridge the gap between art and life? Can a university gallery exhibit curated by an academic be anything but a playground of privilege? Possibly, if the players come in. Or, as in the case of the Dadaists and Surrealists, the artists take the games outside.

The pieces in Push Play fillet consumer culture and generate more critical thinking and a sense of cooperation than, say, an abstract painting might. But, in trying times like these, they might better propose a more subversive way forward.

As I exit the gallery, I think about artistic games beyond gallery walls, and the Dadaists, who sang nonsense poetry and organized insane dinners that were works of art in their own rights. Their acts might seem naïve in a moment when direct defiance is vital, but a century after Dada and 50 years after Fluxus, the society of spectacle grows ever grimmer and the ground for new movements is more fertile than ever. 

Push Play is on view at Hedreen Gallery until March 4. On Wednesday, March 1, a game night from 5:30 PM to 7 PM will be followed by a performative game lead by artist and professor Michael Swaine.