TRANSLATED PARTS OF "THE RIGHT MOVE"
- Checkers in the jungle
- A Tango
- Artists are pureblood players
- Timeless and Universal
- The absurdity of abstract games
CHECKERS IN THE JUNGLE
1986, the Philippines. I find myself in the middle of the jungle on the island of Samar, in a remote village consisting of a cleared, dead straight shred of wilderness — reminiscent of a short, sandy landing strip — with on either side ten or so stilt houses. I am surrounded by a swarm of flocking villagers, mostly children. They shout, laugh, feel my skin and want to touch my mustache. I don’t understand a word of what they are saying. A woman invites me into one of the stilt houses and a bit later I am offered a plate of white rice cooked in jackfruit milk with, in the middle, a tiny, dried and extremely salty fish for some extra flavor. Everyone is chased out of the humble quarters to let me eat at ease. Afterwards the hostess signals that I am to follow her outside and I am given a little bunch of tiny bananas, about fresh from the tree, as dessert. A few men emerge from the overwhelming green, returning from some task in the jungle with a bolo (machete) in hand. I offer them a cigarette and take out some pictures of back home. Everyone crowds around the snapshots, they are passed around and pulled from each other’s hands. Especially the one of me as a baby is a veritable fairground attraction – because, for the entertainment of the inhabitants of another village, I have drawn a mustache on it to make the baby unmistakably me. Here and there on the other side of the sandy strip, bathing in the harsh sunlight, are spread out plastic tarps on which pieces of coconut lay to dry. When my pictures do no longer seem to be interesting, I walk over to one of the tarps and ask if I may touch the coconut pieces, if I may take a few. I am given a handful. I move to the middle of the sandy strip, squat down and break the coconut into smaller pieces. Hilarity all around. I draw a checkerboard in the sand and lay the pieces down in the starting lineup, half of them with the white side up, the other half with the brown side up. Next I gestures that I would like to play against someone. Even more hilarity. One of the men is pushed forward and takes places opposite me, awkwardly, yet broadly grinning. We start and make a few moves, but playing is not possibly due the surrounding crowd pushing in on us.The children in the front are practically pressed onto the checker board. I succeed in standing up in the tangle of people and with some shouting and lots of gestures I make it clear that everyone needs to move back. Then I draw a big circle and it is understood that everyone needs to stay out of that circle. The pushing doesn’t stop but the directive is roughly respected. The round of checkers can be resumed. I have no idea how many of the spectating villagers are familiar with the rules of the game, but the delight had by all with every move is indescribable, particularly when a piece gets captured. I lose the game and shake the hand of my opponent. The winner is a hero and immediately a couple of others are ready to take his place. An older man breaks through the circle with more pieces of coconut. Ten minutes later, in the middle of nowhere, on a cleared strip of jungle between two rows of stilt houses, squatting in the sand under the blazing afternoon sun, three games of checkers are being played next to each other, with an entire and intensely amused village crowding around.
The interaction of reason and sentiment in what are often called brain burners, even in the pejorative sense, shows a duality that can also be found in other typical indicators of their stratification. The most obvious being, of course, that you play with two players. This implies that you must in part play the game but in equal measure undergo it. You are informing and being informed. In this sense a kind of communication is created, an idiom that only exists when playing. It is a dialogue between two players each of whom begins an argument but of which neither one knows to which conclusion he will come. Along the way they will continuously come up with ideas and strategies for the following phases of the game, but again and again it will remain to be seen whether those intentions will be applicable. You are served up bits of truth: pieces on the board as fixed and unmistakable facts. After every move the new situation is what it is, there’s no way around it, yet you remain in a state of unknowing about the extent to which you’ve understood these bits of truth. That is the slack line between what you think you see and not knowing what you’re not seeing. Every other move you have to build upon what you saw, what you thought you saw and what you didn’t see. And while you’re dealing with it, you wonder what the other player will see and won’t see.
This again indicates a duality: you’re playing against someone, but also with someone. The conflict that is inherent in an abstract game, brings along with it a connectedness for the duration of the game. It’s a tango, a battle for dominance on the dancefloor, with the understanding that the one you want to dominate is at the same time your companion. The better you can anticipate each other’s movements and the more instant inspiration induces flamboyant executions, the larger the satisfaction is once the dance is done — for both parties. When players are aware of this connection, they can tap into a whole other repertoire, not necessarily of moves but with regard to the attitude with which the game is approached and played. Playing is a duel, sure, but it is also creating something together. It initiates a process that is determined by action and reaction on the one hand, and by respect for one another and for the game on the other hand. By the way, in the Far East this is an important philosophical notion amongst players. They stand in solidarity by honoring the game they are playing. And they do so by not playing solely to win, but also to surprise and amaze each other, to show beautiful and, when possible, never before seen maneuvers.
Nobel Prize winner Yasunai Kawabata claimes it as follows in “The Master of Go”: “That play of black upon white, white upon black, has the intent and takes the form of creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony of music. Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric flight of his own. A masterpiece of a game can be ruined by insensitivity to the feelings of an adversary.”
ARTISTS ARE PUREBLOOD PLAYERS
The art trade also doesn’t escape the game, and neither does art itself naturally. To kick in a few open doors: what is literature if not a game with words and style, a puzzle with little pieces of a message? Painting is playing with shape and lines and colors, architecture is a game of space, light and materials, and music is juggling with tones, sounds and rhythm. Actors and actresses play a role and even the content is a game: who, where and how, protagonist versus antagonist, meaningful as opposed to meaningless, clues and omissions, perspectives and visual trickery, foreground and background, reality and symbolism...
‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, right? Artists are players, driven by passion, lust, rage, grief, dissatisfaction, fame or just plain entertainment. Each one of them is a pureblood player outing himself as such. They are specimens who embody the homo ludens in the purest and at the same time in the most layered, even most compulsive manner. It’s not just about the game for them, but also, and often more so, about the meaning, the purpose, that can be drawn from it. They play with their lives as the bet and with nothing but the resonance of their art as a result.
These are high and mighty words, but they cannot be denied, can they? I wouldn’t want to count the number of those whose artistic impulses have led to a neurotic and/or self-destructive urge to create, which no longer allows for a normal social life, whether desired or not. As far as I’m concerned, we might compare artists to gambling addicts, not knowing beforehand what kind of recognition their bet will lead to and often characterised by an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. It is impossible to estimate the number of entirely unknown and unloved artists who have drowned in forgottenness, of whom not a trace is to be found besides perhaps at some flea market or another. Players until death. Let us light a candle for them.
TIMELESS AND UNIVERSAL
Though every year an increasing number of museum visitors is recorded, I must confess that more often that before, sometimes I simply don’t know anymore what to think about what I’m looking at, and am more apprehensive of being hoodwinked, more frighten of charlatanism.
Not that these developments — if they are indeed true — make art less interesting. On the contrary, art is more exciting, more complex and more eccentric than ever, but at the same also more insidious and therefore, for the observer, a bigger, be it not always equally fair challenge. When trying to sort out my conflicting musings about this, I always praise myself happy to still have a safe haven: abstract games.
An abstract game doesn’t shame anyone. It won’t, it can’t — at least not without you noticing it. An abstract game won’t fool you. Play it and you’ll find out if there is something to it or if it’s nothing but packaged air. It is perfectly possible to find out, because it doesn’t have to be absurdly innovative. In the first place a game should work, and whether or not something works is verifiable. If it doesn’t work, if it gets stuck or falls apart, then it is worthless, and if it’s worthless you should threat it as something worthless: make life easy and discard it. On the other hand, if it does work, than at the very least you have a playable game. Whether it is a good, a very good or an exceptionally good game will become apparent when in playing you notice that the tangible object becomes less material and more ethereal, comparable to – I can’t think of anything better – a crystal ball in which more and more vague images become visible. You don’t really look at the pieces on the board but rather stare at what is not known to you yet. It triggers the desire to understand more and even to become aware of it. Therein lays the novelty a really good abstract game has to offer. It is not novel by itself but becomes it, generates it. By playing it, the game will reveal itself as innovative. With the right mentality and the necessary patience, it will confront you bit by bit with its newness, at your own pace, not as an absurd wave that crashes all around you and washes away any ability to evaluate it judiciously.
For me this process is the action of timelessness. At the present one should not step forward with a David of Michelangelo anymore, while an abstract game must still meet the same and unchanged requirements. Every new game must also undergo a comparative test with the classics of all times, while contemporary paintings and sculptures are not measured against masterpieces from any other period – or incidentally as a reference, but not as a test. The innovativeness of today’s art lies in the relocation of beacons, while a game designer must deepen the same, still universally applicable criteria, in the hope of bumping into a new implementation. I’m not talking about old hat here, not about rusty traditions or crackled folklore, nor of digging up an old unknown coin on which the vague profile of a Roman emperor can barely be made out, but of principles that are so genuine and pure that no one could improve upon them in any way, let alone replace them. A circle is round and, no matter what someone might come up with, it can’t be made any rounder. However, it is still possible to think up new applications of a circle without changing the criteria that define a circle as a circle. That is what makes a circle timeless. The same applies for a square or a triangle. In The Genesis of Forms (1987) artist Mark Verstockt writes that these three primal shapes have confronted the creative man since time immemorial ‘with the limitations of the geometric themes, yet [these shapes] are so inspiring that one can endlessly variate upon them.’
The same timelessness, the same appeal to ones imagination, the same tension between mathematical exactness and inconceivability is present in abstract games. It is not just the essence, but the absolute core of the phenomenon of abstract games. It can be argued that all the styles, movements and tendencies in classic, modern and subsequent postmodern art followed each other, that each step was an outgrowth of or a reaction to the foregoing and that the time was always ripe for what was about to come. Art history is one long chain of shifts and changes that couldn’t have followed one another in any other chronological order, not even hypothetically. Had someone attached a carriage wheel to a chaise Louis seize in the end of the 18th century, he would’ve been locked up in the Bastille with the Marquis de Sade. Duchamp went public with his ideas at the right time, just when they were about to become permissible – as it turned out, in an avant-garde scene that was ready to be shaken up again. And in doing so he added another link to the chain.
There is no such chronological timeline for abstract strategy games. The historical facts are what they are and can be listed in fixed order, true, but the chronology is purely coincidential; hypothetically it is perfectly possible to mix them all up. For abstract games there is no such thing as a climate that is ready for change or innovation, no time that is ripe for a particular abstract game. Although I should add that we find ourselves at a tipping point: through digitalisation we now have – for the first time! – possibilities we never had before. But in this contention I limit myself to abstract games as simple board games.
Every recently designed abstract game could have been thought up at any point in the past – also games that do not yet exist and could pop into someone’s mind in the near or far future, could already have been there. I have no reason to assume that I could only have designed my games now, at this point in time. Of each one I can wonder why it didn’t yet exist, why no one else had come up with the idea sooner. All have a simple concept and are easy to make, in no way products of industrial or technological advancement, or of societal or cultural developments. There was no special knowledge required. They are a composition of shreds of knowledge that have always been available – the knowledge which Plato claimed shimmers through the universal but of which hardly any reflections can be found in reality. I refer again to Go: to me that game is a rare reflection of that knowledge. It is inimitably correct.
THE ABSURDITY OF ABSTRACT GAMES
Of course, it can be asserted that abstract games are absurd, too. Perhaps for the better, because what isn’t from an existentialist perspective? Why you can move a piece like this and not like that in one game but only like that and not this in another, is completely absurd, especially in an abstract context. However, it is absurd in a verifiable and comprehensible manner. Even though it is impossible to foresee what could be done like this in one game and like that in another, the fact that the whole of absurd rules presupposes a concrete goal – of which again can be said that it is absurd – prevents an abstract game from being licentiously, non-committedly absurd. Meaning: no matter to what extend it is absurd, there’s an aim and an incorporated deontological code that must be respected.
Often the absurd has the connotation of inflated meaning and purposelessness but it is in fact exceptionally meaningful and purposeful when it denounces the absurdity of premature and unfounded assumptions, habits and regulations. But abstract games are not absurd in this sense.
The absurdity of abstract games lies in their uncontrollable nature, laid out in front of us in the form of a set of rules and some assets. This may well be the ultimate metaphor for life. We think, reflect and deliberate, we do what we can, each at his/her level to the best of his/her abilities, and yet, in our attempts to control what will happen, we are more than we would like confronted with what we don’t succeed in controlling at all. And winning offers no solace. Sure, you can get a brief, ephemeral sense of satisfaction, even sometimes of triumph or euphoria, but that doesn’t affect that, in the end, the story of a player will always remain a variation on the myth of Sisyphus– used by Camus in his similarly titled book (1942), in which he evokes the absurdity of life. Winning is only defeating an opponent, not the game itself; a victory changes nothing of the seemingly senseless existence of an abstract game. Furthermore a victory is eventually always followed by a moment of defeat and the boulder rolls back down again. But just as Sisyphus learned to cherish his boulder and mountain, so does a player cherish his abstract game. Both the boulder and the game are the tangible part of a task that always must be started again and can never be completed; they are the tools that, despite the absurdity of the assignment, give meaning to the effort in itself, to doing in its own right. Just as the timelessness and the innovativeness, also the meaning is hidden in the game, in playing it, within the comprehension of everyone who is prepared to have an interest in it.
Yes, it’s kicking in an open door, because that can be said about art in general. Certainly, and so abstract games are also art. More even: art that is reliable and accessible and demands interaction, participation and, above all, commitment to an act that has no purpose beyond itself. And, like so much of life in and outside of art, absurd on top of it all.