An Interview with Yoko Ono by Hans Ulrich Obrist, 1992
Q: Could you tell me a little about the early beginnings of instructions in your work?
YOKO: It started with music. I was trained as a musician since my pre-school years. My mother put me in a very special school called Jiyu-Gakuen in Japan, before I went to the elementary school. Jiyu-Gakuen, which translates as "Learning Garden of Freedom," gave early musical training to pre-school children. We learnt perfect pitch, harmony, playing the piano, and composing simple songs. Some very famous Japanese composers came out of this school. One of the most important things I learnt in that school, though I only knew how important it was in hindsight, was to listen to the sounds in ones' own environment. We received homework in which you were supposed to listen to the sound of the day, and translate each sound into musical notes. This made me into a person who constantly translated the sounds around her into musical notes as a habit.
Q: The sounds of the city...
YOKO: The sounds of the city and the sounds of your life of that particular day. Then you had to transform that into musical notation. Isn't that amazing?
Q: Really amazing. And that was a task in school?
YOKO: Yes, in the 1930s. It was an incredible idea. It was homework... to transform the sounds into notations. So in my childhood, I was always doing that in my mind. When the clock went ding, ding, ding, I repeated it in my mind afterwards. I did not count when the clock chimed, but after the chime stopped. That was what came naturally to me. In hindsight, it was a remarkably interesting exercise. The whole concept of transforming noise into notation, sounds like what was done by Cage, later...but it was just homework in a kindergarten for early musical training.
When I was living in my parents home in Westchester, N.Y., I was woken up in the morning by a grand chorus of the birds outside my window. I found myself, automatically, making an attempt to translate the sounds of the symphony of birds into musical notes. Then I realized that since the singing of many, many birds was so complex, I could not possibly translate it into musical notations. I didn't have the ability to, is how I first thought. But I immediately realized that it was not a question of my ability, but what was wrong with the way we scored music. Something got lost in the translation when you tried to notate the chorus of the birds. The score became a mere simplification of the natural sounds without it's original intricate beauty. Of course, you could make a whole complex world of musical order, entirely separate from sounds of nature . But if you wished to bring in the beauty of natural sounds into music, suddenly you noticed that the traditional way we scored music in the West was not the way. So I decided to combine notes with instructions. Composers who created Music Concrete must have gone through the same feelings I felt then.
It was a natural step from there to creating Events and Instructions for paintings and sculptures. In music you write the score and the performer interprets to perform it as closely as possible to the score. But the outcome is always merely an interpretation. When the score says pianissimo, how pianissimo are you supposed to express it? It depends on the interpretation of the musician. So there's always an argument to be made. It's fascinating in that, in music, there was a separation of the score and the performance. Artists, whether they are composers or visual artists, always want their work to exist in eternity exactly how they have created it. But it is impossible for their work to maintain it's original condition, and in the case of music, it to be performed exactly in the way they intended.
John Lennon once told a reporter, "Yoko got ideas like other people have diarrhea. It's like she's got diarrhea of the mind." It's true that ideas came to me like I was tuning into some radio from the sky. So I was always frustrated that I couldn't realize most of my ideas. But by instructionalizing my artwork I was, in effect, delegating the final outcome of it to others. It cleaned up my head which was clogged with ideas. Until then, sometimes for financial reasons, sometimes for technical difficulties, I could never realize all the ideas which were literally bombarding me. But now, I could just write instructions. It freed me. I became more and more daring. The instructions became more and more conceptual as well. In the conceptual world, you did not have to think about how an idea could be realized physically. I could be totally daring.
Q: And so the idea was that in making these projects there were no limits?
YOKO: Exactly. Because then, I discovered, that by instructionalizing art, you did not have to stick to the two-dimensional or three-dimensional world. In your mind, you can be in touch with a six-dimensional world, if you wished. You can also mix an apple and a desk. It is physically impossible to mix an apple and a desk in the real world. But you can, in a conceptual world. And in the process of mixing the two, you can mix them in the way you want.
The other thing that derived from this was that the paintings or the sculptures did not have to be static. They could keep on moving and growing, like life. In those days, artists and musicians were slow in allowing others to touch their work. They did not like the fact that anyone else would touch their work. Even the public felt that that was not what an artist should do: to let others participate in their work. "You mean, you've let somebody else make this?" That was bad. The work had to be made solely by the artist and remain as the way it was produced. But I was a war child. Life was transient, and often with sudden changes. I was always forced to move on. Static life seemed innately false to me. It was a fact, that statues and paintings deteriorated in time, or were destroyed by political considerations. I knew that no matter how much you wanted, the work never stayed the same. So, as an artist, instead of trying to hold on to what was impossible to hold on to, I wanted to make "change" into a positive move: let the work grow- by asking people to participate and add their efforts.
Q: So it is unlimited in duration also?
Q: And that is very related to music because in music there is the element of interpretation/participation.
YOKO: Yes. But even in music, there was an understanding that the score was for the performers to repeat the score as faithfully as possible. I wanted to give an unfinished work for others to add to, not to merely repeat. That's very, very different. In those days, especially, most artists hated the idea of letting anybody touch or variate their works. It was a big step for me, too. I am a perfectionist. I, also, did not like the fact that somebody will touch my work. I did it in spite of myself, in a way. You can say that I did it for my growth, for me to let go my artistic ego. I felt like I was representing the whole artistic community and releasing my ego on behalf of the elitist group of people.
Sometimes, there were still my instructions as the measure to follow. But it was not the same as giving a finished score. There was a bit more leeway, a lot more, actually, for the performers to play with and express themselves in. Much later, in l968, when my first record came out, I titled it "Unfinished Music No. 1." In this one, I did not give any instructions to follow. I just titled it "unfinished music." I thought that the hip ones will understand by then. It was, after all, a decade or so after I presented the idea to the world. But I don't think anybody was able to make head or tail of it. At least, that was my impression.
I met John Cage towards the end of 1950's, through Stephan Wolpe. What Cage gave me was confidence, that the direction I was going in was not crazy. It was accepted in the world called "the avant-garde". What I was doing was an acceptable form. That was an eye-opener for me. Pre-Cage composers such as Henry Cowell, Stephan Wolpe, and Edgar Varese should be remembered for their brilliance and courage, too. They were in pain already because it seemed that they were rapidly forgotten once Cage came out. I still have warm feelings for them. As you know Frank Zappa studied with Edgar Varese, and he always spoke of Varese highly. I met all of them: composers and artists. It was a great feeling to know that there was a whole school of artists and musicians who gathered in New York at the time, who were each in his/her own way revolutionary.
Q: So the Grapefruit Book is also an invitation for the unpredictable?
YOKO: Exactly. My Indica Gallery show in London in 1966 was the first time I actually incorporated the expression "unfinished paintings" in the title of the show, though my first show of "instruction paintings" was in N.Y.C. in 1961 at AG Gallery. I didn't incorporate the word in the title of the show at the time, and therefore, I had loads of difficulty after that. Several artists said things like "oh, that show of yours in AG was just a calligraphy show," or something like that to sweep it under the rug, so to speak. I only had one tiny mention in an obscure newspaper that showed that it was an instruction painting show. That situation changed in the middle of the 1980's when suddenly a whole roll of photo negatives of my show by George Maciunas came out. Thank you, thank you, George! For both of my shows: AG Gallery 61, and Sogetsu Art Center 62, I asked Toshi Ichiyanagi to print out the instructions instead of using my own handwriting, to make a point that they were instructions, not words drawn by the artist as visual images.
Q: Adorno describes this idea of the gap between art and life, and in the 1960s, there was a very strong sense of bridging the gap between art and life. I wondered if this was what an element behind the instructions in the sense that there wouldn't be a threshold, that there wouldn't be a separation.
YOKO: Yes, that, too. But I also wanted to add the time element. The time element was incorporated in the painting in the form of instructions, instead of leaving the work to naturally deteriorate in time.
Q: There are some very interesting connections between your work and that of Messiaen. Can you tell me about translation?
YOKO: It struck me that one could not possibly make an exact translation of the birds singing, so that's where instructions came in. The instructional idea developed from realizing the limitations of our scoring and suggesting an alternative to normal Western classical musical notations.
Q: It's a much more open notation in this sense. You mentioned the Cageian notion of the open partition even before you knew Cage.
YOKO: It was that homework from Jiyu-Gakuen (The Garden Of Freedom) that did it! It's very interesting that it happened that way, isn't it?
Q: And what about Duchamp, whose ideas about this "partition" are also interesting?
YOKO: You know what I thought, this may be construed as arrogance, but I felt I had gone a step further from his idea of "Found Objects." Duchamp is about the found objects. I was saying: "here's something I'm presenting that you can add to. You can change the combination, make a new arrangement." I'll tell you a funny story. I had a painting called "Painting to be Stepped On," and many instruction paintings...
Q: the cigarette burn...
YOKO: ...yes, and in Chambers Street, I gave a series of concerts with La Monte Young as you know. So then Cage brought all these incredible people to it: Peggy Guggenheim, Duchamp, Max Ernst....
Q: And when was this?
YOKO: The first concert was held in December of 1960. It was a snowy day, and it was amazing that John Cage, David Tudor and all the "beautiful people" came from Stoney Point, New York in that weather. It took about two or three hours from Stoney Point to Chambers Street on a good day. This concert series started to be a very famous and successful series, very fast, just by word of mouth. In one of these concerts, Duchamp and Max Ernst were there. I thought maybe Marcel might notice my "Painting To Be Stepped On." I didn't think he did. He was looking around, and his eyes did go to the painting for a second, but I didn't think he focused on the idea. I was too shy and too proud to go to him and explain it or anything.
Q: And the do-it-yourself aspect, that people could actually participate and also to add or to subtract. I saw your show at the Royal Festival Hall in London a few years ago, which was concerned a lot with adding. So could you tell me more about this adding/ subtracting device, which I think is very interesting in relation to the ready-made.
YOKO: That's exactly what it was: the instructions were for people to add or subtract, and to sometimes just imagine and do it only in your mind. In your mind you can do things that you can't do physically, which is very interesting, too. You can mix two paintings together in your mind- though physically that's impossible to do. It's also interesting that the way in which you mix the two paintings is your own way. You could mix two different things, of different dimensions, such as a painting and a sculpture. The idea of mixing a building and the wind....could you write that down for me? It might make a good instruction.
Q: Mix a building and the wind? That's beautiful.
YOKO: Yes, in my mind. I can just see the building becoming totally blurred because of the wind that's passing through it, through every cell of the body of the building. It'll be fantastic!
Q: And also the importance of the weather. So you are always adding instructions to the list? It's continually evolving?
YOKO: Yes, of course. It's like a poet always thinking of different lines. I think of ideas all the time, so what am I supposed to do? The only thing I can do is write them down. You can't execute everything physically.
Q: And since the Grapefruit book has come out, there have been a lot of different manifestations of these instructions. I wanted to ask you about these different appearances of the same instructions, because they exist as pieces in handwritten form that you put on walls, they exist in a very accessible published form, it's in English, Japanese, in several languages and you have also put it out in the form of a website.
YOKO: Yes. That particular website project was almost like a book in itself. I was asked to do 100 instructions, one instruction a day for a hundred days. They were not instructions from Grapefruit. They were all new instructions. So I called it "Acorns."
Q: So these were new instructions for the internet basically?
YOKO: Yes. Once people started to get into it, they wondered every day what the instructions would be the next day. So that was interesting.
Q: So you were getting feedback from people. And would you say that the internet has changed the way in which you work? Does the internet have a particular importance for you?
YOKO: All the stuff we were discussing in the 60s in terms of the global village is actually happening now. What's happening is really important. It's happening on a conceptual level and it will become very physical one day in fact it's becoming physical already. [The clock chimes] it's like a message isn't it?! It's more than just a clock chiming.
Q: Yes! And so would you say that the internet could be/have been a kind of partial realization of the utopia of the 1960s?
YOKO: Of course. I think that it's almost like a logical conclusion. It was logical to think that way. Many artists, poets and songwriters were giving us prophecy. I don't know what happens first: whether it's happening anyway and people feel it so they speak of it, or it happens because the poets, songwriters and artists willed it to happen by stating it in the form of prediction. But it's something beautiful and it's something that saves us from the horrible, destructive dream of the Doomsday. That's another thing. Many writers, kept predicting Doomsday future. John and I kept predicting a very beautiful, open future. I say John and I, because, off hand, I can't think of anybody else that was doing it so publicly. At the time, we were accused of being naive by other songwriters/artists and underground political people. We felt we stood alone. I think it is very important to keep the dialogue going, and keep our future open, not closed.
Q: Which relates to what we were discussing at breakfast, which was the idea of peace. The instructions have been another thread throughout your whole work relating to peace which in the current condition is now again of an incredible relevance.
YOKO: Amazing, isn't it? It's more likely that the human race will keep finding ways to survive. Some of us may even leave this planet for another....and we will survive.
Q: When we met for the first time, many years ago, you said something to me which I have never forgotten and which I think is really essential, you said that the whole world was full of the war industry and that our task was to be the peace industry somehow.
YOKO: The perfectionist in me is still there. The problem of a perfectionist is that you limit yourself with that image of perfection you have in your mind, so you don't really accept anything short of something you regard as perfect. Most of the time I go to a show and think to myself, "Oh, this artist is terrible, what a load of trash!" But my attitude is changing now. This world is separated into two industries: one being the war industry and the other being the peace industry. People who are in the war industry are totally unified by their ideas. They want to make war, kill, and make money. There is no argument there. They just get on with their objectives. Therefore, in that sense, they are a tremendously powerful force. But the people in the peace industry are like me: they are idealists and perfectionists. So they cannot agree with each other. They're always arguing in the pursuit of the "perfect idea." They are asking themselves and each other "What is the best way to get peace? Of course, it's MY way. What's wrong with YOUR way is that..." But instead of doing that, if we can only try to accept each other, forgive the differences and appreciate each other...because the fact is that all of us are in the peace industry. We should bless each other for that, and through that togetherness, somehow, we may be able to make the peace industry just as viable as the war industry, or more. Only then will we be able to stop the wars and bring peace to the world. The fact that the war industry is flourishing is because it's more profitable. It's more economically and financially profitable for some people to make war. It's as simple as that. Instead of arguing, we should embrace each other and come together.
Q: We should "do it" together.
YOKO: Exactly, we should appreciate each other and just "do it." And for that you don't say, "well, you're just a florist", you say, "it's beautiful that you're a florist. Thank you for taking care of the flowers," you know. Caring for each other and appreciating each other instead of using all our energy to try to change each other.
Q: And do you think it's also to do with breaking indifference? I think art can have the function of breaking indifference.
YOKO: Yes. Not only by Art but by communication in general. We can break the indifference to each other. But it's a very delicate thing to do. Soon enough, we will be wearing the same T shirt, the same jeans, and getting off at airports which look exactly the same. We will lose our individual uniqueness: differences. Then we can clone a World President who will be wearing that same T shirt and jeans! It is a volunteered unitarianism, but there will be very little difference from the world run by dictatorship. We don't want all of us to be the same. It's very important not to break differences but to break your idea of difference. We are all in this together, as what we are. So we must appreciate the differences.
Q: This is interesting in terms of another topic I wanted to ask you about, which is utopia. Utopia as a word has been very discredited in recent years because of its tendency to be totalitarian, to eliminate difference, but there are also many kinds of, and many moments of utopia, and I think it is interesting to go back to the term not as a homogenizing, unifying, totalitarian system, but utopia as a motor of change.
YOKO: Yes. I don't know if you know this, but when John and I were about to be kicked out of this country (the United States) because of immigration problems and all that, we created a country called Nutopia and we said that everybody, including us, was an ambassador of Nutopia. So we called a press conference and produced a white handkerchief from our pockets and said "this is a flag to surrender to Peace." Not fight for Peace, but to "surrender" to Peace was the important bit.
Q: Wonderful! And did you also make any statements or a manifesto?
YOKO: Our statement for Nutopia is in the inside cover of the "Mind Games" record. This year, there is a group show of art by women artists in Venice. They invited me and told me that I have to be representing a country. I thought about it, and I decided to represent Nutopia. I felt it was just right for this occasion to be representing Nutopia, a conceptual country.
I make an effort to involve a wider section of the population in my artwork. For example, "Wish Tree." When I have a "Wish Tree" in an exhibition, people line up to tie their wishes on the tree.
Q: And when did the "Wish Tree" happen for the first time, because it is in Do It, but it has happened before.
YOKO: I don't remember exactly when. It's after 1981, after John, my husband's passing.
Q: Every city could have a "Wish Tree!"
YOKO: When they did it in Finland they said one tree was not enough. Because the wish was becoming much larger than one tree. They added so many trees it became like a mini-forest. You suddenly see very strong emotions of people coming out. It is fantastic. I'm keeping all the wishes from all the countries, although I never read any of them. I feel it's not right to read people's private wishes.
Q: It's a growing archive?
YOKO: It's not an archive. I'll tell you what's going to happen: every piece of paper has a wish on it, I don't read it, and all of them will be put in one big tower of a sculpture, like a totem. It will be a very powerful sculpture... a tower which contains wishes of the people of the world of our time. All in one tower!
Q: In terms of the energy!
YOKO: Yes. People's wishes! So that's why I'm keeping them.
Q: I'm curious to find out more about Nutopia. It was a country that went beyond national boundaries, it was a post-national country?
YOKO: You got it. It IS a conceptual country we all belong to.
Q: A free country.
YOKO: Did you notice that the back door of my apartment has a little plaque that says "Nutopian Embassy"? It was John's idea to put it there. I'll show it to you later.
Q: Did you make some logos and some embassies?
YOKO: We avoided politicizing and institutionalizing the concept. We are all embassies. We are all ambassadors.
Q: The moment when you did Nutopia was also the time that you were in contact with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.
YOKO: That's right.
Q: If I understood correctly, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin insisted that you and John give a concert and somehow that ended up in the press and then the government got suspicious and wanted to make problems for you with visas. It is ambiguous, you both agreed and disagreed with Abbie Hoffman.
YOKO: We liked the theatre that the Chicago 7 created in court. It had a great sense of humour. We saw it on TV when we were in London. So we immediately met Abbie and Jerry when we went to N.Y. But once we met, we discovered that there was quite a difference in our ideas. They believed in confrontation. That concert you mentioned, for instance, would have been a big confrontation with the government. We did not believe in confrontation. We wanted to bring about a change through our artworks and songs.
Q: So you agreed with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin about the necessity of change, but your means to achieve this goal were totally different.
YOKO: Totally different. It was very important that John and I stuck to our ways which was the peaceful way. But the underground people thought we were naive, and the establishment thought we were, if anything, a nuisance, so we got it from both ends.
Q: One of the many mediums you used for peaceful possibilities was music, and another of the most effective mediums was the Bed-In. I wanted to ask you if you could tell me a little about the Bed-In as a peaceful strategy of resistance?
YOKO: Bed-In was theatre. It was a statement on a very theatrical level and I think it was very effective. Basically, we were artists and did it our own way. I think what we did had an effect. For instance, the song, "Give Peace A Chance"- that was big. It opened possibilities to change the world through songs. Saying "I love you," with songs are good, too. But this was about creating political awareness through songs.
Q: And did the Bed-In take place more than once?
YOKO: We did it twice. Once in Amsterdam, and the second time was in Montreal. Never in New York. Although many people, for some reason, think we did it here. We wanted to, but we couldn't. So we thought if we did it in Canada, the message would go right through to the States.
Q: But it became so global that it doesn't actually matter where it was.
YOKO: That's right-nobody remembers where we did it! In a way, we did it in the world.
Q: Something else relating to non-violence that I wanted to ask; you have often spoken in interviews about this karma of non-violence-could you tell me about this concept?
YOKO: Creating violence creates violence. It's as simple as that. I'm not blaming the people who think that we should change the world through violence because it's a very difficult and a delicate point. I'm not saying that my way is the only way. Because I don't know what sort of situation we will be put in. I hope I will not be put in a situation where I have to kill some one for self-defense, to protect my children, or whatever.
Q: So there are different alternatives.
YOKO: Yes. So that's why I don't disdain Jerry and Abbie for arguing with us about it.
Q: It's a very interesting moment of 1960s history.
YOKO: Yes. What is wrong with war, is as Ghandi said, an eye for an eye makes all of us blind. I'd like to see the human race wake up to the danger and futility of war as soon as possible. At the time, in the 60s, we thought we could change the world just like that! But it's taking a little bit more time! (laugh)
Q: In relation to that, one of the things that strikes me as interesting is the notion of interdisciplinarity, because it's not only war between people and war between geographies, but also this incredibly sad war between disciplines which grows out of the widespread fear to bridge the gaps. From the very beginning your work has pioneered building bridges between art, music, literature, science, spirituality and all kinds of things. Could you tell me about this interdisciplinarity, this pooling of knowledge?
YOKO: Yes, and allowing people to be different, that's very important. That's something we (John and Yoko) tried to convey. We felt that we were almost symbolic figures of that concept. John and I come from very different places. We were man and woman, we were from the West and the East. Each of us represented totally different social strata as well. We came from extreme opposites. So in some ways, we were very different from each other, but then in another way we were totally together. By the way, we were very aware of that symbolism, and also how people hated us for it. We were two people who transcended the positions they were suppose to adhere to. We didn't get together just to do that, but we felt that it was very magical that we fell in love with each other and understood each other totally in spite of all the differences.
Q: We are here in the white room, so I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the space in which we are sitting.
YOKO: This is just a living room. We liked the fact that it had a white motif. We didn't want too many colors to control and affect our minds. We were both artists who wished to have our own vision. We just wanted to breathe without being manipulated by the colours in the room. As you know, each color has it's own special message, energy and vibration.
Q: So it's not utopia but uchromia! Non-color!
YOKO: (laugh) Yes! Alright, Nuchromia then! Well, it made us breathe better in our conceptual world without interference.
Q: At the same time it is a living room, but it is also a studio.
YOKO: Look, for an artist everywhere is a studio.
Q: When we were talking about utopia, I wanted to ask you about your personal utopia and maybe also your unrealized projects-projects which have been too big or too small to be realized, projects which have been censored or forgotten.
YOKO: My favorite unrealized project is the one that will come as an inspiration to me tomorrow. I don't wish to look back. When they were going to do a retrospective show of mine, I asked "Why? Isn't that what you do when the artist is dead or something?" I was kind of opposed to it. So they decided not to call it a retrospective. But the Japan Society Show is, in reality, a retrospective show. If that is fun for people, then, why not? Is how I feel now... especially when a lot of my work was not known at the time in which it was made. Right now, I'm looking forward to collecting all the wishes together and making them into one wish, a tower of wishes. That's something that I'm really looking forward in doing.
Q: So that is a yet unrealized project that will soon be realized.
YOKO: Yes. The "Freight Train," also. The Train was displayed in Berlin and in Yokohama already. But it's actually a working train. So I want to hook it up to a train that goes to different countries in Europe, and for it to visit every city in Europe that way. Each time it stops in a city or a town, I want people to see the train and write about their memories of what happened. I want the train to go around Europe like that.
Q: So the "Freight Train" will be a global train?
YOKO: Yes. It's like that isn't it? So that's one project I can still look forward to doing in Europe. I think Europe is the place to do it in, because the train connects all the different countries. It's nice. What else? Oh, I have so many ideas to do collages. And music, of course. I'm planning my next album now. That's about it, in terms of the immediate future. You've listened to "Blueprint For A Sunrise"? Well, the next album will be more about fun, I hope. (laugh)
MIX A BUILDING AND THE WIND