Power Play

Novuyo Moyo takes a seat at the top table, in Liliane Lijn’s Power Game

By Novuyo Moyo

Power Game at Tate Modern, 2019. © Tate Photography

It took me two or three rounds to work out, but here are the rules: Liliane Lijn’s Power Game is played using boldly coloured cards with words on each side. Players around the table take turns to be the bank, waging an amount against a word dealt to them by the croupier. Players can match the wagering as a collective or, by shouting ‘banco’, play against the bank alone. Those who aren’t part of the bet then vote on their preferred word, taking into account the case made for it by each backer, and the stake goes to the winning word. The game is observed by a live audience.

In the 45 years since it was first staged at London’s Royal College of Art, as part of a festival protesting the 1973 coup in Chile, Power Game has been staged seven times, with the video documentation of the performances constituting part of the artwork. Its eighth staging took place at Tate Modern last Friday, and I was among the audience and, eventually, the players. The evening began slowly, as people filed in and punters with chips in hand took up the 15 seats at the felt table. Spotlights flanked the ends of the table, casting a shadow on those of us waiting for a seat to become vacant.

Power Game at Tate Modern, 2019. Online article Dec 2019
Power Game at Tate Modern, 2019. © Tate Photography

After a short introduction to the history of the game by the artist, a few dotted cameras streamed the game to what was now a swollen crowd at the bar outside, visible through the window. As people popped in and out, sounds from the stream also burst in – something that seemed only to bother me. I wasn’t alone, however, in noticing that several of the players may have been acquainted – a by-product of belonging to the relatively small artworld – as I spotted gallerist Sylvia Kouvali and curator Emily King at the table. In one round, a woman dejectedly anticipated her defeat to the room, attributing it to the popularity of the person she was up against. These pre-existing social relations soon emerged as one of the factors deciding which word won: the ability to articulate oneself mattering less than whether one had allies in the room.

In light of this and our impending elections, it’s unsurprising that the game was flush with explicit references to our current, and by all accounts dismal, political state

Which brought to mind the workings of power in politics, a subject that seemed inescapable for the evening. In light of this and our impending elections, it’s unsurprising that the game was flush with explicit references to our current, and by all accounts dismal, political state. As the evening wore on and the drinks took effect, the players became more theatrical and the conversations animated. Occasionally the room would break into a chorus of disapproval when an unexpected word won the round, such as when ‘ice’ won over ‘sex’ – reinforcing our reputation as a nation of prudes – or when ‘attachment’, appropriately enough given how the game operates, defeated ‘truth’.

Power Game at Tate Modern, 2019. Online article Dec 2019
Power Game at Tate Modern, 2019. © Tate Photography

The Power Game can be read as one card in a hand of methods to illuminate the less visible mechanisms of power. But what could be an open-ended exploration of possibilities is changed by the context – of being watched, of performing for an audience, of the burden of making art – into something much more self-conscious. As the game degenerated into musical chairs, I snuck a seat at the table and, with inherited chips in hand, played the final round. I suffered what felt like a personal defeat when my chosen word ‘whole’ lost to my opponent’s ‘water’. Was it that my word was more abstract and therefore less easy to grasp? Was it that my stuttered delivery couldn’t stand up to my opponent’s considered phrasing? Or was it some other factor of which I was ignorant?

The Power Game was presented from 6–8 December at Tate Modern, London, as part of A YEAR IN ART: 1973, a display that considers how art was used as a form of protest responding to the 1973 coup d’état in Chile 

Online exclusive published on 11 December 2019