In 1974 I created a piece of performance art which looked at the politics of identity and power.
‘I called the event Power Game. I intended it to be a farce depicting the absurdity of power. There was no script, no actors, no rehearsals. The farce occurred through people’s normal behaviour and their reactions to the situation in which I placed them. The Print Room of the Royal College was the gambling room. I borrowed a set from the ENO and invited 15 people, choosing them especially for their differences in occupation and income. I asked them to come formally dressed or in imaginative alternative. With the invitation, I enclosed the rules of the game. They were loosely based on the rules of Chemin de Fer.
‘Liliane Lijn 1974
I use the concept of ‘the casino’ as a metaphor for a capitalist democracy, a society in which everyone supposedly has an equal chance to succeed. The idea to base the game on Chemin de Fer (the French casino game preferred by James Bond) looks back to when, at the age of 14, my father, an inveterate gambler, would beg me to accompany him to the casino to bring him luck.
Principally concerned with the power of words and how people interpret meaning, depending on their interests and preconceptions, Power Game investigates the politics of identity and power. Essentially a piece of unrehearsed theatre, Power Game is also a game in which fifteen players sitting around a table pit their wits against each other defining power. Is one word more powerful than another? Can words be powerful? Can we subjugate with language, seduce, conquer, vanquish with sound, with a vibration of our tongue?
For that very first staging of Power Game in 1974, I asked the invited players to be prepared to gamble on the meaning of words. Derek Jarman, who was then just beginning to make his super 8 films, had worked all weekend to come with enough cash to play. He came dressed in a white tuxedo. Michael Kustow, then director of the ICA, came as a four-star general and sat with Patrick Seale, the political commentator and art dealer, at one end of the table. They seemed to dominate the game from the very beginning of the evening.
Asking people to gamble with real stakes quickly converted what might superficially appear to be only a game into a very real situation. Although played with actual stakes, words are used instead of numbers and the winning word is chosen by a majority vote of the players seated at the table, who are not at that time betting. Anyone who has entered the casino can place a bet on a word but the right to vote is given only to the players invited to sit at the gaming table. To enter the casino, it is necessary to exchange money for gambling tokens. On exiting, money is returned in exchange for tokens. Just as in real life, those who prefer not to participate, can watch the proceedings in the adjoining café bar. Drinks are served at the table by cross-dressed waiters, since those who serve the powerful are not always who they seem.
Power Game uses words divorced from the syntax of a sentence or phrase. Individual words seem to resonate in a similar way to images. I am not talking about words bringing images into the mind but about a more abstract resonance by which a word can become an image. TABLE is no longer related to the structure that stands in a room and supports our everyday. The word suddenly freezes, its remembered meaning dissolves and it is an image. Words do this by freeing themselves from their syntactical matrix, their embedded meanings and the habitual context in which they are used. At this point, they can be transformed. Cutting up and mixing unconnected texts was a way of doing this and visual or Concrete Poetry was another. Syntax is all about the position of words and their relation to each other. However, by considering the position and relation of words on a page divorced from their syntactical meaning, unexpected meaning can be revealed.
Language empowers. How much blood has been spilled over Freedom of Speech? There are many ways to disempower and to take away the ability or the freedom to speak out is always the first to be used in a dictatorship. When people are able to communicate, energy flows between them. One might even say that there is an equality of power enabled by discourse. Inequality arises when one person speaks and all others merely listen. In a democracy, there is not only the freedom to speak out but also the freedom to write, to meet to discuss and to disagree. The freedom of dissent. These freedoms are powerful, when organized into voting systems, unions, into associations in which many disparate voices unite into one coherent declaration.
Synonyms for power are control, dominance, command, rule, authority, influence, wealth but also strength, force and energy. We have electrical power and spiritual power, the power for good as well as for evil.
Power Game asks an invited group of people, who may have what in our society is considered to be attributes of power, such as intelligence, talent, fame, wealth and notoriety, to place bets on their own choice of a powerful word in a restricted sampling of four words dealt to them as word cards. They then have to defend that choice, declaring why their chosen word is powerful. In so doing, they explore and communicate their definition of power.
It is only through understanding the multiple meanings of power that we, as individuals, can regulate it, both in the natural world and in our own society.
Liliane Lijn is an internationally renowned artist whose Power Game will be performed at Southbank Centre on Saturday 25 June as part of Power of Power festival. For more information and to reserve a ticket for this free event, please visit: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/liliane-ljin- power-game-98125