Game theory is a field of study founded by a pair of immigrant economistmathematicians at Princeton in 1944 to address "questions of parallel or opposite interest, perfect or imperfect information, free rational decision or chance influences." Game theory's questions have been applied to fields from behavioral science to art, and they've yielded infinite implications—but all stemming from the fascinatingly unstable conditions created by a multiple-player system, in which outcomes produced by the many may not have been intended by any one player.
How would you make a painting that you don't control? LA artist Steve Roden lay on a bed in Marfa, Texas, looking up at the grid of the ceiling at Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation—the architecture just one physical version of Judd's plans and ideas, the natural light streaming in changing by the hour. Roden, a sound artist always lobbying for senses other than the eyes, wanted to make paintings from Chinati rather than of it. He took what he saw and combined it with the vowel structure of one of Judd's writings, then turned it into code. The code called for different colors of paint, thicknesses, angles of line. The resultant paintings ask you to make the leap with him, to accept that every view, after all, is a lens-enabled translation of some kind.
Are these abstractions any less personal—inspired by the combination of sensations occurring to the artist there on his bed and by the earlier artist also marooned there in the high desert of West Texas—than the abstractions produced by more typical sources of artistic inspiration (love, pain)? Are these paintings any less beautiful for it? How much information can you pack into a painting before it collapses? How much more information is in any painting than you'll ever get out of it?
These works, and these questions, are part of Game Theory, a new group show at Cornish College of the Arts. It includes a game played by Chauney Peck, a Seattle artist who recently moved to LA, with two work-study students at the school. She mailed them instructions to create a wall drawing in the gallery without her being there. The resulting "directional" drawing is made of lines in certain colors, at certain lengths, drawn according to the earth's compass—northeast, south, etc. The students had to make certain decisions themselves depending on whether they came to the edges of the given wall space. Given the resurgence of interest in Sol LeWitt's classic instructional drawings of the 1960s, these don't seem to add much to the tradition. But they are more cosmological: If Peck asked the students to make the drawing from the same instructions in a gallery in, say, London, its lines would implicitly point toward different spots on the globe than these do, despite the fact that their angles would form a perfect visual echo when compared to the Seattle version.
Game Theory demonstrates an attitude of acceptance toward a spiritual crisis—an attitude that began with the antic-withdrawal of Dadaists after World War I, then the surrealists of the '30s with their automatic writing, and of course (the necessary but overtired) Marcel Duchamp, with his philosophical bent and chess habit. One of the highlights of Game Theory is a chessboard made of salt and set to be played every Wednesday at 12:34 p.m. by the artist, Cornish student Chris Walsh, using pieces made of ice. Anyone is welcome to come and play or just watch as the ice, time, salt, nerves, and flesh interact.
What Game Theory presents is a lack of faith in human-led action. The artists here are opening themselves up to collaboration with all sorts of forces: chance, work-study students, weather. London-based Tim Knowles's tree drawings are made by attaching pens to tree branches next to an easel, allowing the wind to make the drawing for him. Photographic portraits of these branches trained on easels make the trees look like hunched-over factory workers, ridiculous and sad. On the playful (if still undeniably dark) side of Game Theory is Brent Watanabe's iPhone hooked up to two facing speakers and camouflaged to look like a thermostat on the wall. Every 40 minutes, gunshots ring out between the speakers, and if gallerygoers happen to be standing between them, they get "hit" and the body count is tallied on the "thermostat" on the wall. Some visitors figure it out immediately (and often throw themselves into harm's way, says curator Cable Griffith, enacting their own false deaths), and others never understand why gunshots just seem to go off in the gallery. If no one is hit, you hear the sounds of casings hitting the floor. The game plays for you, with you, without you, against you.
There are videos, prints, and a book here by John Cage, the artistic godfather of Game Theory (and a onetime composer/accompanist at Cornish, making this show an eloquent addition to an ongoing internal conversation at the college). When Cage was asked to contribute to a show honoring Duchamp, he responded with a series of images created by throwing the I Ching, called Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. Making space for nothing feels like the best kind of lack of hope.