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What Yoko Ono's art teaches us about video games
Yoko Ono's brilliant performance art pieces were designed to be interactive and impermanent, ensuring that each audience member had their own unique experience of them.
July 23, 2015
7 Min Read
“Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the sense you have chosen. Collect the pieces and put it together with glue.”
~Yoko Ono, Collection Piece II, Grapefruit
My partner was the first to realize it as we walked through the Museum of Modern Art’s acclaimed Yoko Ono exhibit, “One Woman Show”: putting much of Ono’s work under glass, behind barriers and alarms, preserving it, rather missed the point of it all. Her art’s radical edge, the very thing the museum sought to share with a new generation, lay in two things: first, it is meant to be interacted with, and second, it is meant to be impermanent as a result.
As I wandered the exhibits with this in mind, I realized that there were decade’s old lessons here about video games hidden among the incongruously displayed pieces and performances.
Amongst game critics it is now de rigeur to tut tut and remind people that interactivity is neither unique to video games nor what makes them special. I always felt that this critical bon mot was a bit overstated in some ways, and I will return to that, but as far as it goes there’s truth in it inasmuch as interactivity in art is less a feature of gaming than of modernity itself. All art, regardless of epoch, genre, or medium depends on the audience seeing it, of course. This can be said to be interaction at a base level.
But more modern works require interaction to even truly exist at all. Chicago’s Cloud Gate (better known as “The Bean”) was expressly designed to use its distorted, mirror-like surface to reflect the crowds of Millennium Park; the work only truly exists if those crowds are present. Without them milling across its gentle curves like colorful ant colonies, Cloud Gate lies unfinished, not truly constituted.
"As I wandered the MoMA's Yoko Ono exhibit, I realized that there were decades old lessons here about video games here. Performance art pieces like Yoko Ono's famous Cut Piece—where she was filmed sitting passive and motionless while onlookers cut off pieces of her clothing—only existed through audience interaction."
Similarly, works like Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece—where she was filmed sitting passive and motionless while onlookers cut off pieces of her clothing—only existed through audience interaction. The art lay in that ineffable, distinct moment between the passerby and Ono as each sheared away one more strip of cloth. The film playing at MoMA on loop was only ever going to be a copy of the actual work. Without the interaction, there is no Cut Piece.
This feature of modern art is the mode of human expression that videogames sit in quite comfortably and, I would argue, constitute the ultimate expression of it. When MoMA put on an historic exhibit of videogames themselves none too long ago, the display cases were spartan; a screen surrounded by a black featureless wall and the minimum number of control inputs before the screen required to play. While arguably heedless of the artistry inherent in colorful arcade cases, this choice represented the elevation of interaction as the work-as-such; the video game-on-exhibit had to be played, or, at the very least, seen in motion as someone else played. Without that motion, entirely constituted by the player’s inputs, everything MoMA had just added to its collection would be inert and even meaninglessly incomplete. Tetris isn't Tetris unless someone is playing it.
I say this because while older art was more passively experienced (one can stand in front of a painting and interact with it mentally or merely stare, but your presence is sufficient for its constitution) art of this sort can only be ‘seen’ through interacting with it and making it go.
MoMA mercifully made some concessions to this reality by allowing some pieces to be played with. Bag Piece, on display near the entrance, requires you to step inside a formless black cloth bag wherein you can see your audience, as if through gauze, but they can only see your anonymous outline as you perform in motion however you see fit. It’s a rather ludic thing; like much of Ono’s work playful deviance is at its heart.
Her spiral staircase to nowhere, To See the Sky, puts one in the mind of Myst, the otherwise dreary metal stairs sprinkled with the fairy dust of the D’ni as you look out the museum skylight up top. Her Touch Each Other, perhaps shockingly for us New Yorkers, invites strangers to reach out and touch each other within its borders (a magic square, if one wishes to be cheeky), and seems to anticipate similar virtual spaces like Second Life. With the strictures of social expectation and necessity ripped away you are left to invent your own meanings and contexts in a virtual reality confined to that space. As you play, you bring Ono’s art to life.
And it is there that even the boundaries of ownership break down. Developers are artists of their virtual worlds who surely deserve the lion’s share of the credit for their creation, but the players who digitally reach out and touch those worlds, who bring them to life through their play, also become artists in their own right, each often creating an ineffable moment in time made of inputs, gestures, and emotional experience.
This, finally, brings me to Grapefruit—Ono’s 1964 instruction manual to readers for creating art—and to White Chess Set. Grapefruit depends on readers interpreting Ono’s instructions however they like. The resulting art, whether physical or existing purely in the reader/artist’s mind, is distinct to that person. Each page, then, can spawn thousands of ‘works,’ born from a union of Ono’s imaginative suggestions and the reader’s response. Somewhere in that nebula lay the artwork itself.
In a similar stellar nursery of happy mistakes, unintended consequences, and violated expectations also lies some of the beauty—and raw art—of video games. White Chess Set is little more than a standard chessboard with one important difference: every piece and every square is painted white. In MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, a copy of the original installation is set up for visitors to play and my partner, a devotee of Ono’s, eagerly pulled me into a game with her.
As we pushed pawns to the center of the board and moved our other pieces out, the resulting alabaster blur began eating away at chess’ rigid rules like acid. We only had ten minutes at the board, but in that time we felt ourselves being pulled inexorably towards a completely different way to play, one where we might’ve teamed up to capture a king, with no care for whose pieces belonged to who.
It’s redolent of the way bugs and glitches, or inversions of common game mechanics, are turned into art in their own right, or how player-created mods alter the taken-for-granted virtual world around them.
When we ooh and ah over interactivity in video games, this is, in part, what we’re struggling to find words for: the strange ways that players can take a developer’s creation in directions that may never have been intended but still somehow live up to the ultimate promise of games. Iwata’s ‘fun’ is somewhere in that space.
Games can be touched similarly, places for exploration, the creation of meaning, for breaking things and putting them back together--whether that’s through the creation of glitch art or an MMO mod. We would do well to remember that heritage, rather than buckle to the pure consumerism that says a video game's interactivity only means it's a product for use, like a car or tube socks, rather than a way of meaningfully experiencing the world.
As I left the exhibit I began to realize that video games, the best ones, were rather like Grapefruit: creative instructions that we, the players, then carry out and realize in our own way, producing discrete instances of the video game that only exist fully for each of us. Even for game developers who may find Ono’s art pretentious, ridiculous, or obtuse, they may have to face their kinship with her. In some way, they’re both trying to do the same thing.
Come play with me, Ono always seemed to say. Is that not what every developer wants?
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.
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