Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Part 4)


‘Was that artillery fire, or is it my heart pounding?12 Ilsa Lund’s question in the movie Casablanca typifies the confusion one could feel over very different but mistakenly similar things. You could also see it as two contradictory yet interchangeable things. Her heart could be pounding due to the proximity of the artillery fire. She could also say something like, ‘Is that artillery fire? Now, is that my heart pounding?’ But let’s part with that idea for now and not rob her situation of its archetypal romance. We will continue with something that is even more in step with artillery: conflict.

With a slightly more militaristic mind, let us think of strategies. Tactics and situations exist within a work to induce a sensation of unknowing within the audience. But can we assume that such a feeling of uncertainty is intentionally induced? That is, how can we assume that the audience is experiencing doubt or uncertainty within a work, and that an artist could purposely generate such sensations?

Are there situations where we can prove an audience not only senses unknowing but seeks it out? All we have to do is look to the gaming industry. Through creating situations of meaningful play, this industry sells the sensations of doubt and uncertainty to those who want to experience unknowing.13 Indeed, uncertainty has been given as part of the definition of a game.14 Furthermore, note how central this aspect is to every game when you consider the following, written by Bernard Dekoven in The Well-Played Game: ‘Imagine how incomplete you would feel if, before the game, you were already declared the winner, imagine how purposeless the game would feel.’15 Without free will and choice, if the outcome is predetermined, why even bother to play? With this in mind we ask, how do artists create layers of doubt within their work?

My other two companions at the cottage certainly didn’t decorate this way. Their homes are full of personal style. Fiona, a writer, journalist and translator, and Marianne, also a writer and journalist, and a lover of music culture, can both do better than flipping through a catalog selecting style like one selects suggested wine pairings off a restaurant menu. They may not be as conscious of their style as I am – theirs may have come from a life worth living – a behavior similar to the vocabulary of personal accumulation, like an artist who collects found objects to discover the relationships later.16 But because of its recentness, I know how I developed my style. Shortly after I arrived in Glasgow, I put my house under construction for what should have been a couple of weeks, at best a month. The contractor I hired either didn’t understand the job or was incompetent because he started refinishing all the floors when only the kitchen that was needed. The dust he kicked up while running the heater destroyed my climate control system. After I had spent over ten thousand dollars more for a new system, he ignored my calls and never returned to complete the job he shouldn’t have started.

In the spring I finally got another contractor on site, a man who turned out to be a heroin user and billed me for work he didn’t do, and work I later had to pay others to redo, simultaneously systematically robbing my house. I lost every bit of furniture, plumbing, light fixtures, kitchenware, tools, my artwork (which he sold for $5 for the small ones, $10 for the big ones), bicycle, a 1963 Mercury Monterey car, and things I’ll never remember I owned. All this was sold in garage sales from my front yard while he should have been working, prompting me to fly back to Memphis for a week to oversee completion and go through the house to provide a list to the police. One night, when I couldn’t sleep for the time change and stress I left the house late for a twenty-four-hour drugstore to pick up a kettle to make coffee in the French presses I brought from Glasgow.

While I was in the kitchen aisle, I decided to pick up a set of dishware that was on sale to have something to eat off of the next few days; as an added bonus it came with a set of mugs for the coffee. As I sat at a chair and table I found in the street, drinking fresh coffee in the early hours in the morning and not able to do any actual construction work for lack of tools, which were the first things to go in the theft, I thought about the blank canvas of the house and began to write the brand guidelines for my new home decor on the back of the paper bag. The plan was to refurnish the home based on the dishware set I just bought, my life experiences, and the history of the city of Memphis.



12 (Casablanca, 1942)

13 French sociologist Roger Caillois published Man, Play, and Games, a book that is in many ways a direct response to Homo Ludens [Huizinga, 1955]. Building on Huizinga’s work, Caillois also presents a definition of play, describing including ‘uncertainty: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative’ Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg 75-76)

14 ‘Imagine how incomplete you would feel if, before the game, you were already declared the winner. Imagine how purposeless the game would feel.—Bernard DeKoven, The Well-Played Game. Uncertainty is a central feature of every game. That’s right: every single game. As game designer and philosopher Bernard DeKoven points out, uncertainty about the outcome of a game is a necessary ingredient in giving a game a feeling of purpose.’ Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg 174)

15 Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg 174)

16 Jyrki Siukonen writes about the idea of discovering the relationship between found objects in the conference and the later constructed essay Made in Silence: On Words and Bricolage within On Not Knowing page (pg 91-92) ‘Let us take as an example a recent work: Tripod, 2012, is as simple as it gets, its materials are sparingly used and found to hand in my studio. The three steel rods that form the frugal freestanding structure are recycled parts from a large museum installation from 1992, and have not only lain dormant for 20 years but have also survived five moves from one studio location to another. The rope-shaped bundle of papyrus for its part has been on the shelf awaiting its first deployment since summer 2006. The smaller parts of the work (nut, bolt, metal wire) are ubiquitous detritus. Depending on the viewpoint, the making of Tripod took anything from 15 minutes to six years of my time. Judging by the result one can hardly call it a muscular affair. How to unravel such a project?’

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