Game of Thrones

Artist Lee Walton has got you all in check with his upcoming mass chess challenge

[Screen still from Lee Walton's video "Mato Jelic."]

[Screen still from Lee Walton’s video “Mato Jelic.”]

While the art world can be competitive, Lee Walton certainly has racked up some impressive stats. Walton attended undergraduate programs in Sonoma State University, Chico State University, and finally San Jose State University; where he received his BFA. In 2000, Walton then garnered an MFA from the California College of Arts. Since then, the now-39-year-old multimedia artist has been featured in 20-plus solo and group exhibits in venues ranging from Manhattan’s legendary White Columns gallery space to the innovative Raygun Project Space located in Toowoomba, Australia. In the past decade, Walton has also been invited to deliver artist talks, participate as a panel member, and facilitate workshops on such highly-contemporary topics as experiential art, social media, public engagement, psychogeography, and game play in venues including Carnegie Mellon University, Parsons School of Design, and MIT. Walton is currently an Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Walton’s accomplishments and bulletproof track record are seemingly based on disparate disciplines and concepts that are always one move ahead of the art pack, pushing both his ideas and implementation that encourage public participation, directly invite in elements of chance, and are delivered with a welcoming and subtle sense of humor in lieu of the heavy hand of a clinical aesthete.

Walton is acknowledged as one of the first artists to directly utilize social media in his work, beginning with 2001’s Red Ball, wherein Walton placed a red ball in a specific location determined by the online instructions of his internet audience; in the project F’Book, What My Friends Are Doing On Facebook (2009), Walton created a series of 50 videos based on the status updates of his FB friends. Since 2004, Walton has been orchestrating Life/Theater, an ongoing performance-happening that pairs unknowing participants with professional actors. Presented in previous locations including Canada, San Francisco, and New York, each Life/Theater performance has been ostensibly-based on questioning ideas of spectacle-versus-non-spectacle, the randomness of human interaction, and the illusion of appearances; at the end of each event, the actors reveal themselves to be decoys in an otherwise innocuous scenario that has in fact been highly organized by Walton.

Much of Walton’s work is also based on sports, competition, and games; which makes sense as his web site explains that “his original career goal was to play centerfield for the San Francisco Giants. His more conservative backup plan was to become a contemporary artist.” In his piece One Shot a Day Walton altered the rules of golf by allowing himself one swing per day. Between March 26 and August 15 of 2003, Walton finally finished all 18 holes, posting each day’s play as a video on his site. The Rules of Staying Young (2010) was a performance-installation piece based on a Mets vs. Giants baseball game.

Now Walton is bringing his creative and competitive spirit to Northeast Florida. The Crisp-Ellert Art Museum presents Lee Walton Plays the World (On His Phone): A Chess Performance in 40 Parts beginning on Wednesday, October 30 at 5 p.m. The exhibition beings with a walkthrough by CEAM director Julie Dickover and Walton followed by the artist engaging in 40 separate chess matches via the Social Chess app.

The press release for the event offers the following: Subjecting himself to the ultimate test, Walton will play 40 simultaneous games of chess with 40 opponents from around the world. The exhibition will include 40 chessboards, lent by members of the Flagler College and St. Augustine communities and culled from thrift stores, in which Walton will play each game remotely from his iPhone using Social Chess an on-line application. The physical chess boards will be updated daily in accordance to each move. There will be a 24-hour time limit for each move, and visitors can follow the artist’s games by joining Social Chess and by following the username leeball

The exhibit also features chess-themed drawings, video work, and a sound installation piece. In conjunction with the Walton exhibit, the museum is also offering two chess-related lectures that are free and open to the public: on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m., Seattle-based National Chess Master, Dereque Kelley will present a lecture on chess and chess appreciation; on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., Dr. Chris Balaschak, Assistant Professor of Art History at Flagler College, presents the lecture, “Horses Running Endlessly: Modern Art and Chess.” The Crisp-Ellert Art Museum is located on the campus of Flagler College at 48 Sevilla St., St. Augustine. The Walton exhibit is on display through Nov. 30. The contact number for the gallery is (904) 826-8530.

I interviewed CEAM director Julie Dickover and Lee Walton via e-mail. What follows are transcriptions of those Q&As.

Julie Dickover

Starehouse: How and when did you become familiar with Lee’s work?

Julie Dickover: The stars aligned last year when Lee was in Northeast Florida on a short vacation, and Patrick Moser took that opportunity to invite him to do a small project and give an artist talk in the museum. Lee set up a stack of amps in front of the museum and students were able to sign up to receive guitar lessons from him.

S: Why did you choose to bring Lee to CEAM?

J.D.: I really like how Lee’s work explores different technologies, such as social media and games, and how his projects leave room to engage with his audience.  Once Lee and I started talking about a possible exhibition, he threw out this really fantastic idea about an exhibition around the subject of chess, and I knew it would be a great follow up to Liz Rodda’s exhibition that recently closed [Here is a link to Rodda’s site and my interview with her prior to that opening]. Maybe Lee’s exhibition reveals my proclivity for a certain type of open-ended exhibition, one that has the potential to engage the audience in a different way, and that also allows me to schedule interesting related programs. There will be a lot of chess playing throughout November, which is exciting.

S: I know you had put an open call and request for chessboards on Facebook. How was the response to that? Did you have any success?

J.D.: Ultimately our call for chessboards was successful, because I think we’ve almost reached our goal of 42. It was a bit of a stretch though. After not getting much feedback from the initial call, I went on a thrifting-excursion, but didn’t come up with anything. Lee put an ad on craigslist in Greensboro, and I started targeting specific groups, such as professors here on campus and arts people in Jacksonville. I have generally asked every person I’ve come into contact with in the past three weeks! After all of that, and buying five sets on Amazon to be safe, I think the total now is 39 and I have another instructor dropping off a set this morning [10/28/13]. I had thought that a chess set is just something people would have around their house, stuck in a closet somewhere, but I was a bit mistaken about that.

Lee Walton

Starehouse: Why do you choose to focus some of your work on sports, competition, and games? What do you find so compelling about these particular concepts or ideas?

Lee Walton: I have always been interested in sports, competition and games – long before I had any interest about the idea of art, or making works of art. I have a hunch that both are very much the same thing. Meaning is created out of thin air through the construction of situations. Game Seven of The World Series means more than the third game of the season. A drawing of a flower by Matisse means more than a drawing of a flower by a second grader. Unless, of course, that second grader is your kid. I have always been compelled by the idea that through “play” we can create meaningful moments that can teach us something about ourselves – and the way we understand the people and things around us.

S: Can you describe how you will attempt to play 40 other people simultaneously during the performance-slash-competition Lee Walton Plays the World (On His Phone): A Chess Performance in 40 Parts?

L.W.: For this performance, I will be playing on-line chess against people from around the world via Social Chess, an app. Each game has a monitored time limit of one move every 24 hours. Therefore, I can play 40 games at the same time (the maximum permitted). There are actual 40 chess sets in the Crisp-Ellert Museum.  Each of these boards will change daily to reflect my on-line play. I have played up to 11 simultaneous games before, but have never attempted 40. Chess is already hard enough, so I am not sure what I am about to get myself into…

S: Along with the actual chess tournament, how many actual pieces are featured in the exhibit? What do they entail? Are they also game or competition-related?

L.W.: Other pieces in the show include documentation from the Charcoal Chess Tournament, an event that happened a few years back with the Minnesota Chess Club. This involved an actual chess tournament in which the players used charcoal and paper to play the games. They had to draw their pieces, when they wanted to move or capture, they had to erase it, and then redraw it again. I am also exhibiting a sound piece created in 2000 that uses systems to translate chess games into musical competitions played with my guitar and voice. Additionally, I am showing two new works; a video piece called Mato Jelic and a wall drawing comprised of chess notations from my last 100 games.

S: The press release for your upcoming exhibit and tournament-performance alludes to the fact that you “experienced a renewed interest in the game of chess. This exhibition is the tangible manifestation of the artist’s pursuit to master his hobby.” When did you originally begin playing chess? What do you think are some of the most interesting aspects of this game? The roots of chess date back to the 6th century and the game is almost an-archetype for many subsequent games; why do you think chess has both stood the test of time and remained a steady presence in human history?


L.W: First, I want to be clear: I am by no means an amazing chess player. The only thing I know for sure about chess, is that it is a lot more difficult to win a game than it is to lose. However, over the last six months I have been studying the game and feel I am getting better!

To answer your question, I have always enjoyed board games in general (except for “Candy Land”). However, chess is the only game that gets my adrenalin going the moment the first piece is moved. It’s strange. Maybe because there is no chance involved and each player can see the same thing the other person can see. It’s like fighting naked (probably).

As a kid, I played with my Dad and with some friends. Later, I found a book and learned a bit more. I played in a local tournament at a library when I was about 14. Somehow I won. I can honestly say it was a fluke. In the final game, I accidentally set up my pieces wrong. (To this day, I sometimes switch my Bishops and Knights accidentally.) Well, the guy I was playing corrected me. He then tried to beat me really quick by bringing out his Queen. In chess, this is known as a “premature attack” and it can backfire; and for this guy it did. I goofed around with chess on and off over the years since then.

Recently, I taught my daughter to play chess. By teaching her, I started thinking about the game again. I quickly realized how little I actually know about the game. So I got a book and caught the bug again.

I think the game has stood the test of time because there is always something to learn. The more we learn, the more the game changes. The more the game changes, the more we learn. Ultimately, it’s about change.

S: Have you ever personally challenged other visual artists to sports competitions or similar feats? If so, who were they and what was the outcome?

L.W.: I once created a season-long Free Throw Competition between Shaquille O’Neal and myself. I lost by seven baskets. In San Francisco, a friend of mine named Bao Vo and I created Last Place, a Pine Wood Derby race in which the slowest car to pass the finish line was the winner. When we get home, my daughter and I race from the car to the front door. It’s always close and we laugh every time.

S: Along with the competitive-based pieces and performances, much of your work and creative discipline seems focused on public art and events, happenings, social media and long-term projects that are inclusionary in the sense that they both invite and challenge the public to participate. What do you find engaging about this kind of offer to bring complete strangers into your creative world? How has the overall response been to these projects?

L.W.: I want my artwork to be an experience. Sometimes, this experience is completely private, like taking a walk. In this case, I may formalize the walk as an artwork by designating a starting and end point. This simple set of rules somehow gives the walk extra meaning. It’s not just a walk anymore; it’s art.

When making social and participatory art works, I aim to do the same thing.  I create bookends for people to have experiences. I create the structure, but the participants create the art.

S: Do people ever seem surprised to discover that you are both a contemporary artist and sports enthusiast or athlete? Do you feel like you have ever encountered any skepticism or even snobbery-based prejudice regarding your celebration of sport and competition in your work i.e. “No Jocks Allowed in the Gallery”?

L.W.: Yes, I have seen the sports world and the art world bump chests; maybe because they are both artificially constructed situations providing us with moments of escape from our realities; or maybe they bring us closer to reality? I am not sure anymore. Maybe they are both just rooted in play: “Make Believe.” We have to believe in something, right?

S: Who do you think has had the greatest influence on the 20th century: the painter Francis Bacon or chess champion Bobby Fischer?

L.W.: Bobby Fischer. He could handle the Bishop much better than Francis Bacon ever could.

S: What are some of your upcoming projects?

L.W.: I am not sure what new projects are around the corner. Admittedly, I have been thinking a lot about Hacky Sacks lately.


[Screen grab for Lee Walton's "Social Chess" username.]

[Screen grab for Lee Walton’s “Social Chess” username.]


Daniel A. Brown

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