Not Playing Games: Tony Martin’s Game Room

Tina Rivers

PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University

In the spring of 1968, the artist Tony Martin exhibited a new work called Game Room at the Howard Wise Gallery. Located in the arts district on Manhattan’s tony 57th Street, the gallery enjoyed a national reputation as the premier venue for cutting-edge ‘tech art.’ Accordingly, Martin’s work – a multiplayer game in the form of an interactive installation – was reviewed by major publications including the New York Times, the New York Post, and Time. As recounted by these reviews, the floor of the room was divided into four quadrants, each of which was associated with a color; on each quadrant, footprints indicated where players should stand. Photoelectric cells detected the players’ locations, triggering a set of slide projectors mounted on a frame above the players and outfitted with correspondingly colored lenses. According to the instructions, players were to:

Go to one of the four sets of footprints and stand on them. The colored light that you have chosen expresses your preference.
Your presence on the footprints triggers a series of events.
Either pursue the color and its consequences, or explore others by going to the other sets of footprints and standing on them.
Your choices will affect the other players [sic] areas.
Throw the manual switch nearest you, either positively or negatively to increase the possibility of your chosen color, or decrease the effect of others.
Continue to try to make your choice prevail over those of the other players.

RED represents FIRE
BLUE represents WATER
YELLOW represents AIR
GREEN represents EARTH [1]

Martin has since elaborated that he also intended the colors to represent emotional states: red was for joy, or violence; blue for freedom and timelessness; yellow for provocation or aggression; and green for well-being. [2] The work also included futuristic sounds and projected spiraling lights, like those of Otto Piene’s Light Ballets, to further activate the room as a total environment. The slide carousels contained around 680 slides depicting elements of nature (such as trees and water), animals, sculptures of people, Martin’s nude wife (though these were soon removed), and pure abstractions. The slides also included found images, in the form of transparent acetates the artist pulled from the trash, only modifying them by scratching their surfaces.

At the time of making Game Room, Martin had recently returned to the East Coast from San Francisco, where he had collaborated with artists and musicians like Ann Halprin and Terry Riley in his capacity as the visual director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. He was also a pioneer of light shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, a legendary rock concert venue. Martin moved to New York to take a job working alongside Morton Subotnick at NYU’s new Intermedia Center; similar to his arrangement in San Francisco, he supplemented his income by designing the lighting for the Electric Circus, a downtown club catering to the psychedelic crowd. His efforts in New York soon resulted in an invitation from the group Experiments in Art and Technology to design the lighting for the notorious Pepsi Pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka.

Today, aside from his work on Expo ’70, Martin is probably most often remembered for pioneering the kind of light show entertainments that energized the Fillmore and the Electric Circus. This is to the detriment of his lesser-known interactive art installations, like Game Room, which are governed by a different set of operations and motives. As Martin wrote in a statement on the occasion of the Game Room show, “Light and sound have been used so much for mere sense stimulation and to provide environments. This interests me less and less.” [3] His new purpose, he wrote, was “to create an inter-relationship between modern technology and the human being.” Following on that idea, the New York Times review observed that Game Room was “Martin’s contribution to the ‘humanization’ of media,” quoting him as saying, “I guess I’m finally hitting back.” [4]

In his effort to ‘humanize’ media technologies, Martin promoted the Game Room as a tool for self-expression: as the Howard Wise Gallery’s press release noted, “The viewer is the participant in a game of self-discovery […] The Game Room consists of an area in which the participant can shape his environment to match his feelings and thereby externalize his personality.” [5] Notably, the attempt to ‘humanize’ technology relied not only on making technology useful to the individual, but also on the strategy of naturalization, which is effected here by associating technology with the four elements and images from nature. Thus Game Room can be related to the idea of the art encounter as a kind of therapy session, running from Lygia Clark’s manipulable objects to Alain de Botton’s recent defense of all ‘Art as Therapy.’ In this light, one could argue that Game Room re-instrumentalizes technology, so that instead of serving the so-called technocracy (critiqued by Theodore Roszak’s bestselling book of that same year, The Making of a Counterculture), technology in this instance serves the needs of the individual.

This model of Game Room as therapy, however, does not account for the inherently ‘social’ aspect of the work: it is impossible for the gamer to guarantee himself a private experience, which means that his freedom to ‘shape his own environment’ is always curtailed by the desire of other individuals to do the same. (In fact, it is debatable whether a single gamer can realize the work.) In other words, Game Room is less a mechanism for the projection of individual consciousness than a social arena – a society in microcosm. Martin’s disparagement of light and space installation art as ‘visual perfume’ that is fundamentally ‘about one person’s ecstasy’ signals the importance of group dynamics to all of his work. [6] In this regard, Game Room is not simply therapy, but a precursor of what critic Claire Bishop has called ‘the social turn’ in contemporary art, towards the intersubjective practices of relational aesthetics. [7]

Martin’s interest in interpersonal relations emerged even more clearly in his 1969 show at the Howard Wise Gallery, which featured works that used mirrors and other optical devices to virtually combine the appearances of two viewers. Unlike the holistic fictions generated when artists (and now, computer programs) combine two or more faces, these works result in disjointed, uncanny, and tenuous creatures. Viewing Game Room through Martin’s subsequent show, one recognizes that the work similarly sets up a dynamic situation between individual actors who must confront the shifting contours of their relationships, represented by the constantly changing collage of images and sounds in the room.

Thus, if this work is an early example of relational aesthetics, it does not assume that our relations are always governed by an easy conviviality. Martin was aware of the demands his works made upon their viewers: as he has recently explained, “it wasn’t just fun and games. It was quite deep as an experience. And some shied away because it was too demanding.” [8] This statement refers both to the difficulty of having to look oneself in the proverbial eye, and to the difficulty of having to negotiate one’s desires vis-à-vis others. Game Room is therefore precisely the demanding kind of experience that Bishop – the most acute critic of relational aesthetics – has championed:

I would argue that such discomfort and frustration – along with absurdity, eccentricity, doubt, or sheer pleasure – can…be crucial elements of a work’s aesthetic impact and are essential to gaining new perspectives on our condition. The best examples of socially collaborative art give rise to these – and many other – effects, which must be read alongside more legible intentions, such as the recovery of a phantasmic social bond or the sacrifice of authorship in the name of a ‘true’ and respectful collaboration. [9]

Because works of relational aesthetics implicitly model intersubjective relations that exist in the world beyond the work, and because the raison d’être of social structures is the management of conflict, Game Room’s recourse to the idea of gaming is valuable precisely because it models the social sphere as a game – in other words, as a space of conflict.

Of course, the theorization of society as a game is not unique to this work, but was percolating in the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Most notably, the techno-utopianist Buckminster Fuller recast the global competition for resources as a ‘World Game,’ reflected in his proposal to build a world map the size of a football field, embedded with computer-controlled lights that would flash to communicate relevant real-time data. Counter to the game theory of John Von Neumann – which divided players into winners and losers – Fuller claimed that “to win the World Game everybody must be made physically successful. Everybody must win.” [10] While Martin’s Game Room is comparable to Fuller’s ‘World Game’ in that they both deploy a theoretical model that allows not only for competition, but also for collaboration (as addressed by Nash’s Equilibrium), Game Room differs in one important regard: it interrupts the direct, causal link between action and consequence, making it difficult for players to act ‘rationally’ in their own interest or that of their group. Martin created multiple mechanisms for chance operations to enter into the production of the work (aside from the randomness of who happened to be in the room to compete or collaborate with others). For example, the timers advancing the slide carousel could cause a given slide to be displayed for a few seconds—or a few minutes. Or, the projector that the spectator activated could project not on the wall facing them, but on one of the other walls. And although the spectator could operate the switches in the middle of the room to alter the system, there was no way of precisely controlling or even roughly anticipating the switches’ effects.

In Alexander Galloway’s book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, he names this strategy of game design ‘noncorrespondence.’ Noncorrespondence occurs whenever a game violates “the faithful, one-to-one relationship between user actions on the controller and resultant actions in game-play” that one expects from conventional games. [11] Galloway designates games that use noncorrespondence and other disruptive strategies as countergames; at their best, countergames do not merely frustrate the gamer, but offer “a critique of gameplay itself.” [12] If the typical digital countergame has a critical relationship to mainstream videogaming, then one might say, by analogy, that Game Room has a critical relationship to the normative gameplay of social interaction, which is governed by the unspoken rule that, whether we are acting selfishly or altruistically, we are acting rationally, in the pursuit of a specific goal: through its aleatory mechanisms, Game Room desublimates reason, refusing to privilege it as the necessary property of all gamers. (The work therefore heralds trends in the field of economic theory, which now contends with the possibility that not all economic actors are rational actors). At the same time, Game Room de-instrumentalizes gaming: despite the mandate to “prevail over others,” there is no point at which a winner, or even an ending, can be declared; note that the instructions simply read “continue to try to make your choice prevail over others,” as if this action was interminable.

If Game Room is a kind of countergame that reveals our expectation that social interactions be reasonable and goal-oriented precisely by frustrating that expectation, it is also what architectural theorist Felicity Scott, following Marshall McLuhan, calls a counterenvironment. [13] In her review of last summer’s blockbuster environment Rain Room, she notes the long history of interactive installations – including the Pepsi Pavilion for Expo ’70, on which Martin worked – are, at their core, nothing more than spectacle or surveillance, serving the agenda of the military-industrial complex in either case. But she notes that there is an alternative history of ‘counterenvironments’ – including the works of Arata Isozaki, Ant Farm, and Hans Haacke – that have sought “to resituate or recast techno-scientific and environmental forces, to cut across vectors of power of the era, to make them function differently.” [14]

On its face, Game Room certainly subjects its participants to a form of surveillance, instantly translating their bodily movements into public data. Between the grid on the floor and the projectors above, the subject is literally bracketed within a feedback loop governed by the black box of technology. But again, it is crucial that chance is allowed to intervene between the capturing of data and its display: the semi-stochastic projections expressing the choices of multiple players on the walls obscures the choices of any single individual. In other words, the data is scrambled on its way out; despite all the rhetoric of ‘self-expression,’ Game Room takes in signals and outputs noise. Granted, the work supposedly allowed the gamer to attain a new level of self-awareness (for example, to realize one’s attraction to red, and ergo, violence), and to influence the local environment accordingly. But the ultimate effect of its operations might be to demonstrate how our subjectivities and social relations alike are increasingly mediated through external mechanisms that exceed our control. In this instance, that mechanism is a technological apparatus that – despite being humanized or naturalized – evades the gamer’s comprehension, and seems to act of its own accord. In other words, the spectator has to contend not only with the relationship of self and society, but also with the technological sublime. Thus, through the strategies of countergaming and counterenvironment, Game Room prompts its viewers to consider whether they really are rational, autonomous subjects. Game Room is not, like so many projects of relational art, a simple affirmation of collaboration; nor is it, like so many games, a simple affirmation of competition. It is about the shifting contours of the social game itself, the one which we all are forced to play, but is always already rigged.


1. Tony Martin archives.
2. Tony Martin, conversation with the author, New York City, September 27, 2013.
3. Tony Martin archives.
4. Grace Glueck, “Art Notes: The Far Out is Way In,” The New York Times, April 14, 1968, 30D.
5. Tony Martin archives.
6. Tony Martin, conversation with the author, New York City, September 27, 2013.
7. Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006): 178-83.
8. Will S. Cameron and Camilla Padgitt-Coles, “Tony Martin: On Light, Sound and Assymetrical [sic] Experiences,” Perfect Wave vol. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011). Accessed at
9. Bishop, “The Social Turn,” 182. Bishop had earlier critiqued the dominant convivial mode of relational aesthetics in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 51-79.
10. Cited in Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 93.
11. Galloway, 120.
12. Ibid., 125.
13. According to Felicity Scott, McLuhan “proposed that art (and at times science) could…produce ‘anti-environments,’ archaisms or refractions that sought not to seamlessly solve technical problems but to render contemporary environmental forces perceptible without simply reducing art to the logic of electronic programming” (Felicity Scott, “Limits of Control,” Artforum (September 2013). Accessed at
14. Ibid.


Tina Rivers is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Art Journal, Art in America,, and in books from Oxford University Press, Düsseldorf University Press, and Richter Fey Verlag. In the 2014-15 academic year she will be completing her dissertation on the Howard Wise Gallery and the rise of media art as a fellow in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.