Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust is an example of how conceptual art can be a game. Or it could be an example of how a game can be used as conceptual art depending on where you start from when looking at it. Play It By Trust is a chess set where all the pieces are white. Because of this, it is virtually impossible to play a normal game of chess. Sooner or later, the players will be unable to tell whose piece is whose. How can you proceed when the opponent is indistinguishable from yourself?
What I like about this piece is that it is not simply set apart from the audience, but rather the audience is welcome to interact with it and attempt to play games with it. It invites the audience not to be passive observers, but to become active players. Do you try to play it normally and see how far you get? Do you work with the other player to overcome the identity issue and beat the game by playing it as a chess set is “supposed” to be played? Do you work with the other player to create a new game that can be played with this set? Do you play by convincing someone else of what is yours or of trying to trick the into giving you control? What does this simple concept represent? The futility of war? Of labeling others by race or creed?
In the end the audience is not just invited to become an active player, but an active artist as well. They are invited to create meaning, boundaries, rules and even entire games from their own experience and observations. Considering how often people are told by both the “art world” and its critics that art is something separate from them that they cannot hope to engage in without being experts, I think this is an incredibly powerful piece.
This piece has been shown many times in many different forms. The concept of the game is more important than the physical game itself. In Yoko Ono’s own words: “The concept is my work. In the art world, work is shown in a museum and a lot of people or a few people will see it, then if it’s bought by someone, that’s the end of it, or it comes back every once in a while. So I like the idea that Play It By Trust is repeated in different places, because the environment makes a big difference to the piece. Again, it’s the concept that is the work.”
Games bring their audience into them. They offer a way for an audience to not only interact with ideas, themes or images, but also make it impossible for the audience to fully ignore that power given to them. I believe all art is performative or interactive. You cannot observe a painting or sculpture without constructing your own ideas or narrative based on your observations. You cannot read a novel or listen to music without creating visual images in your head. We create the boundaries and definitions that shape our understanding of the world. But over and over we are told that we do not have this right. That authorial intent trumps everything. That art can be not only be separate from the rest of the world, but should aspire to be. That we need to first be a “real” artist in order to understand a piece or even comment on it. We are told criticism and discussion are akin to censorship, and that it is better to simply consume culture at face value. We do not realize the power we have to become artists and actors in our own right, and we allow others to define out worlds for us. When properly utilized, games have the potential to shock an audience out of this mindset. The game of creating meaning and new rules out of Play It By Trust is in fact the game we play when we view any work of art.