Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Abstract and Part 1)


Doubt is a word typically framed to mean its opposite within texts about art; common usage includes no doubt, undoubtedly, beyond doubt, there is little doubt and so on. That isn’t to say doubt as a concept is neglected in academic thinking, of course, since it is also linked to skepticism and critical thinking. What you will find here is an argument for doubt, finding room for doubt and uncertainty as a tactic within contemporary art. Beyond finding room, we shall explore tactics of creating doubt, uncertainty and not knowing by artists for themselves; how they create these sensations for their audience, and how they find or negotiate themselves into complex situations of their construction where they, as well as the audience, feel unsure. We are going speak to the value of creating work that has the effect of cultural upspeak.1

There is a tendency when one reduces doubt and uncertainty to ‘not knowing’ to build a narrative around the theory of artist as shaman: the assumption that artists are communicating something they may not understand while transmuting it from a place they don’t know. What I specifically want to look at are strategies for creating uncertainty and doubt and their use in manufacturing meaningful play. I’ll look at meaningful play in art through games – not exclusively, though one or two may be mentioned. Indeed, we will consider the variety of experiences games can produce.2 Art, too, can create these experiences and through drawing this parallel I will correlate the feelings of doubt, uncertainty and the unexpected sought by gaming aficionados to show they are also desired and sought by contemporary art audiences.


Finding yourself in doubt is part of the human experience, and there is nothing new within experiencing uncertainty. But there is perhaps as much shock in being uncertain as there is in finding something beautiful. Artists use doubt as a quality of their work and, given that doubt is part of the human experience, it is something they experience themselves. These tactics vary as much as experience varies and has variety. There are uses to induce doubt in the creation of work as well as reducing doubt’s influence. The public can experience the uncertainty with or without the artist or artists experiencing it simultaneously.

David Grieg, a Scottish playwright, casts doubt a vital role within his plays. As a response to my question if it was usual for him to experience doubt and/or uncertainty in the creation of work he said this.

They [doubts and uncertainties] are central to my work. I can’t create work unless I have them. Usually, work begins with some type of doubt about something which I might otherwise believe. Is it REALLY like this? Do I REALLY experience things in this particular way… or is the truth different? Sometimes I find an image that seems to hover… difficult to pin down… contradictory… These are the seeds of work. I write in order to explore my doubt and uncertainty. By writing I seek out foot placements… some truths I can hold on to – whether they be emotional or political or otherwise.3

Greig approaches doubt and uncertainty within his work as a form of affective labor, first finding something he has questions about, then finding a way to instill that within the audience. He later reiterated the star quality doubt and uncertainty play in his writing when he told me: “I would say it was a defining condition of a successful work of art. Certainty feels like kitsch or fascism. Doubt and uncertainty feels like the heart of empathy and liberalism… I can’t imagine certain art.”4

Boris Achour affirmed this sentiment when he said this as an answer to one of my questions: ‘To me, that’s nearly some kind of proof that a work is good when I feel there’s a balance in it between obviousness and doubt/uncertainty…’5 Where does doubt lie within the act of meaningful play? When and where is doubt used and what masks does it wear? What is the value of this cultural upspeak?

Can we look at Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies as a card game for inducing or reducing doubt?6 What other relationships to games exist? Does not knowing or being uncertain cast the creative in a shamanistic role? Is asking the artist whether they are in doubt a valuable or necessary question? Must a creative be in doubt to use it as a tactic to communicate doubt to the public? Is that the same kind of question as wondering if you need to be in love to write a love song?

Slightly chilled, my red and white striped stocking feet stand half-in-half-out of the ornate, geometrically-patterned Spanish blue and white tiled upstairs bathroom in a small cottage on the isle of Harris. Like my feet, my mind was only partly here this morning. The wondering mind could be the result of a full belly from the full breakfast with Stornoway black pudding, or the two-mile treacherous path we took from Rhenigidale village. On the trail, a plant, which has spent its whole life clinging to the sheer Loch Seaforth rock face, decided to hold on to me. Without careful reflexes there easily would have been a loss of my traction on the footpath. That path wasn’t troubling to our three canine companions. They jumped and scampered all the way down the winding trail. The dogs were ecstatic like it was Christmas, and this was the most joyous day of their life, and unlike us, they knew it.

My life too is on an uncertain path. Soon and quicker than I realize to be sure, I will complete my degree and have to leave the UK, according to my visa; perhaps I’ll end up back in the US. Two big projects loom between now and then, the bigger is the work for the degree show, which I have two dedicated hours scheduled for on the eighth of January, and the other is the dissertation on doubt and uncertainty within creative practice.



1 Upspeak, high rising intonation (HRI), or high rising terminal (HRT) is a feature  of some variants of English where declarative sentence clauses end with a rising-pitch intonation resulting in the audience getting a declarative in the form of an interrogative.

2 ‘Games can produce — complex networks of desire and pleasure, anxiety and release, wonder and knowledge. Games can inspire the loftiest form of cerebral cognition and engage the most primal physical response, often simultaneously. Games can be pure formal abstractions or wield the richest possible representational techniques. Games are capable of addressing the most profound themes of human existence in a manner unlike any other form of communication — open-ended, procedural, collaborative; they can be infinitely detailed, richly rendered, and yet always responsive to the choices and actions of the player.’ Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg x, Forward)

3 Greig, David 2017, pers. comm., 25 Jan.

4 Greig, David 2017, pers. comm., 25 Jan.

5 Achour, Boris 2017, pers. comm., 16 Jan.

6 Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a deck of 7-by-9-centimetre (2.8 in × 3.5 in) printed cards in a black container box, created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

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