Loose Parts and Black Boxes: Play Orbit’s Cybernetic Ontology of Toys

Document Type

Conference Paper


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Publication Details

Panel: Mapping Cybernetic Art: A Supra-Computational Approach

Convenors: Dawna Schuld, Kate Sloan, Jon Wood

Association of Art Historians annual conference, University of Edinburgh, 7th to 9th April 2016


This paper discusses Play Orbit, an exhibition of ‘toys, games and playables’ curated by Jasia Reichardt, then Assistant Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, in collaboration with Peter Jones of the Welsh Arts Council and first shown at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales in Flint from 4to 9 August 1969 and then at the ICA itself from 28 November 1969 to 15 February 1970.

Play Orbit’s introduction of play participation into the space of art exhibition correlated to a change in the ontology of the works available to the public, a change in what type of thing the work of art was or could be and what manner of engagement it required as a result. This ontology privileged performance over representation. In most cases, a player was to learn what a toy did, rather than, say, what it stood for. Playability was the primary criterion by which these toys were judged.

The paper’s core claim is that the ontology introduced by Play Orbit’s toys was a cybernetic one. The most successful toys consisted of many loose parts or variables with which to play and operated as Black Boxes whose mechanisms remained, to some degree, unpredictable or obscure to players. Because it expands cybernetics to the social domain of play, beyond its initial applications in engineering, computing, and psychiatry, Play Orbit marks a significant moment in the history of systems art that grew through the artistic encounter with cybernetics in the late nineteen-sixties.

This document is currently not available here.