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At 74, Yoko Ono is more active and engaged than many artists five decades younger—opening exhibitions, producing documentaries, performing live music, and continuing her tireless campaign for peace. In February 2007, Ono released Yes, I’m a Witch, a compilation of songs remixed by a variety of artists including Cat Power, the Flaming Lips, and Peaches. Open Your Box, a collection of remixed dance tracks, followed in April.
Plazm publisher Joshua Berger recently spoke with Ono about unfinished music, witches and wizards, and why the flag-waving activism of the ’60s is over.
Joshua Berger: Can you talk about your concept of unfinished music?
Yoko Ono: “Unfinished Music” was first made when John [Lennon] and I did “Two Virgins.” A couple of years earlier at Indica Gallery I did a show of my artwork and I called it “Unfinished Paintings and Objects.” I was trying to have some participation from people in the art world so they could feel that they were part of the creativity. When John and I did “Two Virgins” we decided there should be unfinished music too. I did explain that to the critics at the time but nobody really did anything about it. Except for probably keeping the cover. For what? To frame it?
There’s a huge range of musical styles on the Yes, I’m a Witch album. Were you surprised that your work could be translated successfully into so many different languages? Was there a certain amount of letting go that’s required?
No, no. I loved the idea of it. These are all very artistic people to begin with—stars of the indie music world. So they knew what they were doing. It just came out very well. I really like the idea of encouraging, inspiring people to be creative. Because we all have this creativity inside, but we’re not always opening it up. It’s an incredible pleasure to be able interact with other artists.
What does it mean to you to have so many people from a younger generation remixing and reinterpreting your music?
Well, I don’t know… I just did a show in the Pitchfork Music Festival and I really enjoyed it. Sometimes people will say to me, “Your audience is all young.” And I am thinking, Yes, because I feel I connect with them more than my generation.
I saw some of the Pitchfork set on YouTube—you with Thurston Moore—which was great.
I think Thurston is fantastic. He is a very heavy musician. I have played with so many heavy musicians, I am very lucky that way, and I think that he can be counted as one of them.
You wrote Yes, I’m a Witch in the early ’70s but it hadn’t been released until recently. I’m curious if you’d talk more about the definition of a witch.
I am a witch. I think that all women are witches and all men are wizards. Together, we are a very powerful, interesting race of people, and we can do a lot for this world if we want to, instead of destroying it. When people say you’re a wizard, that’s a compliment, right? But when somebody says you’re a witch, that’s like…
It’s so derogatory. And I question that. Why would a witch be derogatory? They burned the witches. Wizards, they give medals to. I just think it’s very important to bring that out.
What do you see as the role of the woman artist in today’s culture?
It is not just “the woman artist,” but women in general. We are all very sensitive, powerful, creative, and intelligent people. I think that the world is actually doing disfavor to itself by not recognizing this power because if we used this power well we could probably survive.
I don’t like the idea of saying women artists are better than men artists. It’s not like that at all. It’s just that women artists are not getting the same kind of acceptance as men. But that’s changing, and I think it’s going to be fine. Still, there’s a stigma about being a woman. The society itself is still a male society and men fear the power of women. That should not be.
So how do we change?
By recognizing that it’s a power that you can use on a societal level. We should be practical about it, instead of being scared or prejudiced. It’s very important to learn to always use good power.
How can artists use media to change the world?
As artists, that’s what we’re all doing. I think that the power of art, music, and films—anything to do with artistic, creative events—can help to change this world. We’re trying to do it, and I think we will.
What advice would you give to young artists today, facing these enormously daunting issues: overpopulation, global warming, seemingly endless war…
We don’t have to feel like we are the only people who want to do something. Once you start thinking like that, you might as well jump off the roof. Just do as much as you can. If each of us does what we can, in a very small way… If the whole world did that, it would just be going the right way. People see all of the violence and terrible things happening, but there are so many good things happening, too. We have discovered all sorts of things that will make our lives totally different—stem cells, DNA—all sorts of things that could make our lives easier.
Focus on the positive?
Focus on the positive and help those things to grow. Stay well and healthy, and let’s see what happens.
So you’re optimistic?
I’m realistic, let’s put it that way.
Does that mean you’re not optimistic?
Your conclusion is that I’m optimistic. What I’m saying is, ‘I’m realistic.’ Do you see the difference?
I understand that you are saying, “Every person, do what you can, and focus on the positive.” That seems either very optimistic or just blind faith.
If all of us, everybody in the world, at once, would say, we want world peace or something positive together, the whole world would change so much. Instantly. Don’t you think? Just saying one or two things sometimes is very important.
How do you feel about what’s going on now in terms of activism versus what was happening in the ’60s? Do you think that there’s an evolution of understanding? Does our culture really remember what happened then? Did we learn from it?
They don’t have to because the ’60s were a different time, and now we have to cope with something bigger. Don’t think about the ’60s. Those were flag-waving days. We can’t just be waving flags. It’s a different time.
So it’s unimportant that young people now may not know what happened then?
The young people now, you can’t take them lightly. I think that they’re very intelligent and they know where they stand. They are doing it in their own way. Very quietly, not standing on the corner of the street shouting. So you may not notice it, but there’s an incredible awareness now, that we all share, and it’s going to be fine.
Do you still believe in pacifist resistance?
No, I believe in pacifistic visualization, dreaming, wishing, and being united.