Cactus 2.1

Cactus Journal #2: Art-game Traditions in the Modification of Chess

Art-game Traditions in the Modification of Chess

Dr. Laetitia Wilson

Over the past two decades the appropriation, modification and subversion of digital games has developed as a dynamic and ongoing practice amongst visual artists. This has been discussed by a number of theorists but less attention has been given to the historical precedents of this trend. Through the example of the game of chess, this paper discusses some of the key elements of association that have defined the interrelation of art and games from the early days of the twentieth century through to our contemporary era. The game form, whether digital or non-digital, will be considered as a medium whose tool value is intricately interconnected with game mechanics. Specific examples will be discussed with attention to how they mark ruptures with tradition in game design and demonstrate a critical play impulse that is shared by artists of yesterday and today.

Appropriation, Modification, Subversion, Chess, Art, Art-game, Gameplay.

The history of art is often discussed in terms of intense periods of experimentation, research and practice by artists. Among other activities, artists are seen as challenging traditions; re-presenting ideas and issues; making conceptual gestures; enabling participation and aesthetic contemplation and producing objects of meaning and significance. What is frequently neglected in dominant art histories is the role games have had in such activity. This is contrary to the reality that any cursory analysis of the practice of Dada, Surrealist, Fluxus, Situationist, Contemporary and Media artists will reveal that the ludic form is frequently wielded as a tool of the artistic process; as an aesthetic form in itself; as a means to draw art and participation closer together; and as a critical tool.[1] Games as ludic media have been used by artists as counter-cultural systems and as accessible vehicles for the articulation of wider social, political and ideological issues. Games mark one of the ways non-conventional engagements with art can be facilitated and for artists they are obvious expressive means through which to explore the possibilities of unfamiliar territory.

Cory Arcangel. Super Mario Movie. 2004.

Numerous games of the digital era have been taken up by artists and undergone shape-shifting through tactics of appropriation, modification and subversion. This is made obvious with the multitude of artistic offspring of games such as PongMario Bros, the modification of games such as Quake and Wolfenstein and performative – often politically orientated – intervention in games such as Americas Army and Counter Strike.[2] Much less obvious are the ways the game medium has always undergone such processes and the ways non-digital games have transformed over time in response to epochal paradigms and particular cultures of play. This paper does not intend to speak from a media archaeological perspective – although such a perspective is certainly relevant – but it does consider the comparative relevance of historical precedents to the practice of artists working with games today. This discussion need not be limited chess, but chess has been selected because of its complex history of modification and enduring epochal, global relevance over centuries, across the Orient and the Occident, the East and the West.

Joseph DeLappe. Dead-in-iraq. 2008. Interventions in America’s Army.

Chess is one of the most prolifically appropriated, modified and subverted games to date. Traditionally, chess is considered an intellectual war game, a stereotypically framed masculine pursuit, but it is also metaphorically rich as a social pastime across genders and a game of romantic entanglement and conquest, specifically during the Renaissance Period.[3] In terms of game-play, game-piece and board design, chess has expressed a diversity of permutations. As an example, it was not until the tenth century that a Queen was included on the board. Prior to this time the Queen’s place was occupied by a Vizier, or Kings Advisor, and the movement of the piece was restricted to a single square at a time. Coincident with a string of powerful queens in Europe during the medieval period,[4] the Queen’s manoeuvrability and power on the board flourished. Further transformations occurred at the level of the chess board itself which did not acquire its familiar gridded black-and-white appearance until it arrived in the Occidental world around 1100AD. The design of chess pieces and board has repeatedly undergone alteration in the migration of chess from the East to the West over a period of twelve centuries[5] and this morphology is especially discernable in response to particular cultures of play and idiosyncrasies of the given society.

  1. and S. Wichmann point out that:
The game’s conquest of the Occident, the conflicts it caused, its gradual assimilation and modification to western ideas and concepts and the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that took place were clearly reflected in the chess pieces which had become a veritable mirror of all these events.[6]

This has been an un-ceasing process. Dating from its origins in India, as Chatarunga (sixth century AD), the evolution of chess board and piece design is tightly interconnected with its context as a morphing communicative beacon highlighting cultural complexities beyond the game. For example, during the French Revolution in 1793, Baron Guyton-Morveaux proposed a Republican chess set with the pieces defined more militaristically, than regally, by the replacement of the King piece with a flag-bearer, or simply flag and the devolution of the Queen to a general officer.[7] Chess sets appropriated and modified by artists follow suit in the twentieth century as a tumultuous century mirrored in individual designs. In 1920 Man Ray was the first artist to abandon figurative aspects of the pieces in favour of Euclidian forms and notably conceived the Pawns of equal height to their superiors, the Rooks. This speaks to issues of class and Ray’s own origins from a working-class, Jewish, immigrant family. In 1942, Alexander Calder crafted a set entirely out of recycled materials (broom sticks, scrap metal), clearly reflecting the economy of means and national rationing of WW2 America. In 1849 the British Staunton set was created and soon after established as a universal standard – played in tournament chess across the globe through to today. The Staunton pieces embody the tripartite features of royalty, church and the military. Chess pieces, generally, maintain broad cultural resonance and give outward expression to what is an inner intellectual pursuit. It is this twinning of recognisable functionality of form and metaphorical expressiveness that has proven compelling to artists over the course of the twentieth century, specifically compelling for appropriation, modification and subversion.

Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, artists as diverse as Marcel Duchamp, Yoko Ono, The Chapman Brothers, Barbara Kruger and Yayoi Kusama have adopted the game of chess. Duchamp is remarkable here as an avid enthusiast of the game, a grandmaster, who on many occasions claimed to have abandoned art in favour of chess. Throughout his career Duchamp created a number of chess-inspired artworks, developed multiple ways of playing the game, co-wrote a book on end-game strategy and designed chess boards. An example of a board that dates back to Duchamp’s self-imposed exile in Argentina (1918-1919), is the Buenos Aires Chess Set (1919). Conventions of standardised chess design were challenged in this set through the purposeful removal of the cross from the King piece. This gesture not only signalled the Dada spirit of anticlericalism but also made for less distinction, or a gender-blurring, between the pieces of King and Queen. The latter echoes Duchamp’s own play with gender identity with his alternate female persona of Rrose Selavy. Such modifications are subtle but distinct and symbolically potent. The pieces are within the realm of familiarity and demonstrate minor ruptures with tradition that mark the debut of a more significant trend soon to flourish in the early decades of the twentieth century.

From Duchamp onwards we see a shift away from traditional design by artists moving deeper into the wonderlands of modification and re-skinning with close attention to abstraction. In 1944 Max Ernst abandoned the representational characteristics of the chess pieces and created a set of abstracted, curvilinear forms, the Wood Chess Set. In this set the Queen proudly towers over the King who humbly angles up toward her; her form finally accords with her power on the board and the increasing mobility of women within society and the workplace.[8] The remainder of the pieces resonate with femininity and as the game progresses it becomes a field of shapely, rounded, undulating forms in contrast to the unyielding geometry of the grid below.[9] The game is aesthetically altered but logistically consistent and therefore coherent. This is significant in highlighting the position of privilege granted to the culture of chess gameplay.

Specific modding cultures formed around the game of chess, around an infatuation with the game and a belonging to a culture of like-minded players. The Duchamp, Ernst, Calder and Ray sets maintain recognisable and usable forms much like the gameplay of a partially converted computer game retains consistency and therefore enables playability. The chess sets of other artists, such as Yves Tanguy and Josef Hartwig, or contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers also opt for distinction in form but consistency of the play-world. There is notable respect for the rules of the game, respect for the game mechanics and their accord with recognisable form. Generally, appropriation and modification can either maintain or subvert traditional aesthetics and game mechanics. In gaming cultures the creation of mods is prolific and was ushered in during the 90s with the 1991 release of the Doom. Modding developed as an ongoing practice with a diversity of creative applications outpoured by game-players, game-developers and artists alike. Despite a clear distinction in technological means, this is in parallel to what has happened with chess. Over centuries chess has undergone persistent appropriation and modification as it has been interpreted by various cultures and societies. For comparison, consider a quote by Tilman Baumgärtel on the topic of computer game modification:

As a rule, fans contented themselves with ‘new decorations’ of existing structures, whereas artists carried out very many far reaching changes, some of which led to the games becoming completely unplayable.[10]

Early chess modifications demonstrate the ‘new decorations’ of a fan culture predominantly engaged in and enamoured with the game, rather than taking the risk of sacrificing gameplay. However, artists who have appropriated and modified the chess set have not always maintained traditional gameplay. In the twentieth century, many artists within the Dada, Surrealist and Fluxus circles desired to not simply appropriate and replicate the game form to ends of play, but chose to complicate game mechanics, or use the metaphorical richness of chess as an unplayable sculptural vehicle for social commentary. This is where more far reaching changes come into being and the element of subversion is acutely foregrounded.

In 1944 André Breton and Nicolas Calas created the Wine Glass Chess Set – a set made entirely of variously shaped wine glasses containing appropriately contrasting red and white wine. Conquering an opponent’s pieces resulted in the prize of a glass of wine and the coinciding requirement to consume it. The course of the game made for gradual inebriation of the players and the player with the most conquered pieces celebrated the glory in a drunken stupor reflected in the mirrored surface of the chess board. Breton was not a fan of chess and through this set he clearly demonstrated his sentiments toward the game as a narcissistic and nullifying pursuit. This set is specifically subversive to the reification of chess and can be read in alignment with Breton’s frustration deriving from the infatuation of the game held by his immediate colleagues. “What must be changed is the game itself, not the pieces”[11] writes Breton, calling for deeper and more extensive subversion of game mechanics.
Subversion can be subtle or far-reaching, can work within the parameters of the rules or re-define them. Takako Saito’s Spice, Sound and Weight Sets (1964-65) disrupt the relationship between player and game. As their titles suggest, these sets shift the focus from the ocular to other sensory perceptions, requiring players to play by smell, perception of weight and sound. Again, the play world is maintained through the identity of the pieces and partial conversion is undergone to re-define the play experience. Play is possible but it requires different skills than habitually deployed and the required approach may significantly stunt the flow of the game. The sets mark a subversion of ocularcentrism in accord with Duchamp’s stance against retinal art – art intended to please only the eye. For Duchamp, intellectual or conceptual qualities were seen as superlative to visual dominance. In addition to appealing to the intellect these chess sets appeal to the embodied player and thus re-present the game as an holistic experience.

On a more political bent and approaching Breton’s call to change the game itself, not solely the pieces, is Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust, also known as White Chess Set (1966-1999). Here the classic Staunton chess set is appropriated; its appearance modified and in the process traditional game-play is subverted. In the several iterations of this work, the pieces and board are painted entirely white. This not only confronts the tradition of chess game design, but also dismantles antagonistic dualisms in the collapse of the distinction between conflicting opponents. Nevertheless, playability is maintained, if complicated, as the further into the game, the harder it is to distinguish between friend and foe and the greater the likelihood of ‘friendly fire’. The demands to play the game by trust and the choice of white as colour considered spiritually pure, reflects Ono’s own ideology of Zen Buddhism and quest for peace. This set essentially re-defines the ideology of virtual combat within the context of activism in a not dissimilar way to contemporary art game interventions by artists such as Cory Arcangel, Anne-Marie Schleiner and Joseph DeLappe. When DeLappe enters the game space of Americas Army in the project Dead-in-Iraq and lists the details of US soldiers deceased in Iraq, it is perceived as an affront to the community of players who take the game seriously. DeLappe’s intervention, like Ono’s subversive modification, calls attention to realities beyond the sphere of play, to different kinds of seriousness. The game medium is subverted and shaped into a political tool, imaging the political.
In game modifications of the past, as with modifications of today, there is a discernable distinction between artists who are faithful to the game and artists who wish to question and challenge the games’ mechanics and what it represents. Either approach can be subversive. Subversion is important in art practice to enable unfamiliar perspectives on the familiar. When subversion follows game mechanics its impact and degree of disruption is subtle, when it disregards game mechanics it risks ‘griefing’ players and ghettoising the practice of game artists – this becomes obvious with many digital art-game interventions. Each nevertheless has their place in the long history of game appropriation and modification. Indeed, the practice of artists intervening in the products of popular culture is not insignificant or futile but highly relevant to reflect upon cultural, social, ideological and political concerns. For artists, games are vehicles for artistic exploration and expression; they are also aesthetic systems in and of themselves; ways through which to engage an audience; and political strategies of subversion to challenge dominant culture – whether that culture be a product of capitalism, the state, the church or the military. Modding cultures that have formed around the game of chess testify to more than just interest in game mechanics and game aesthetics, the game becomes a potent medium. This also happens when artists engage computer games as art media; essentially, games in general are ripe for appropriation, modification and subversion.

Alger, J. G. 1902. Paris in 1789-94: Farewell Letters of Victims of the Guillotine. George Allen. London.

Baumgärtel, T. 2007. On a Number of Aspects of Artistic Computer Games. Media Art Net

Breton, A. 1995. Free Rein (La Clé des Champs). Translated by Parmentier M. and D’Amboise J. University of Nebraska Press, USA.

Cabanne, P. 1971. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. Translater Ron Padgett. Decapo Press. New York.

Callois Roger. 1961. Man, Play and Games. Translated by Barash, M. University of Illinois Press. USA.

Flanagan, M. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press. Cambridge. MA

List, L. The Imagery of Chess Revisited, George Brazillier, New York, 2006.

MacDonell A. A. 1898. The Origin and Early History of Chess. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.117-141

Mesch, C. 2006. Coldwar Games and Postwar Art. Reconstruction, Vol.6. No.1.

Shuen-shing, L. 2003. I Lose, Therefore I Think: A Search for Contemplation amid Wars of Push-Button Glare. Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research. Vol.3, Iss.2.

Thomas, M. J. 1988. The Game-as-Art Form: Historic Roots and Recent Trends. Leonardo, Vol. 21, No.4. 421-423

Wichmann, H. and S. 1964. Chess: the Story of Chess Pieces from Antiquity to ModernTimes, Paul Hamlym Ltd. London.
[1] See: Flanagan, M. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press. Cambridge. MA
[2] See artists such as: TimesUp, Cory Arcangel, JODI, Feng Mengbo, Joseph DeLappe and Anne-Marie Schleiner
[3] As is seen in painterly representations such as El Padovanino’s Mars Plays Chess with Venus, 1630 or Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Chess Game, 1555
[4] Queen Ingeborg of Norway, Queen Isabella of Castille and Eleanor of Aquitane
[5] See: Wichmann, H. and S. 1964. Chess: the Story of Chess Pieces from Antiquity to Modern Time. Paul Hamlym Ltd. London. p.13
[6] Wichmann, H. and S. 1964. Chess: the Story of Chess Pieces from Antiquity to Modern
     Time. Paul Hamlym Ltd. London. p.13
[7] Alger, J. G. 1902. Paris in 1789-94: Farewell Letters of Victims of the Guillotine. George Allen. London. 128
[8] It is possible to interpret this queen as a reflection of Ernst’s relationship with Dorothea Tanning. See; List, L. The Imagery of Chess Revisited, George Brazillier, New York, 2006.
[9] This set is an echo of the eighth to ninth century Arabic chess pieces that were abstracted into elementary curves in distinction to the naturalistically embellished Indian pieces. This abstraction was the result of prohibitions in the Koran against imagery. See Wichmann, Hans and Siegfried, Chess: the Story of Chess Pieces from Antiquity to Modern Times, Paul Hamlym Ltd. London, 1964, p.16
[10] Baumgärtel, T. 2007. On a Number of Aspects of Artistic Computer Games. Media Art Net
[11] Breton, A. 1995. Free Rein (La Clé des Champs). Translated by Parmentier M. and D’Amboise J. University of Nebraska Press, USA. 76


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