Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Part 7)


For a month, “the most amazing month of his life”, Jeremy Deller realized he was putting himself at risk traveling with a US soldier and Iraqi civilian, towing a wrecked heap around the US. This is one of the moments in Deller’s life where he asked himself, “what I have done; what am I doing here?”50 Let’s examine this instance in creative practice where both the artist and the public are in a state of doubt or uncertainty.

Frequently this is the case in a piece that uses temporality, especially those that exist in the moment. They work differently than those which rely on the concept of the creator having doubt or creating uncertainty in themselves, or the work, than the process of sharing that doubt through affective labor.51 They are perhaps best understood and examined when the artist is not the exclusive creator, but relies on the public to be a collaborator. Where is the work? Who are the creators? When a creator designs frameworks, matrixes or recipes are they removing themselves from an authority and allowing discovery and play in a space no longer directed by themselves? What roles do archives, documentation, and artifacts take in this process, and are they part of the piece, or something else? Where does failure lie? Is it useful to think about failure in such work?

These sensations aren’t exclusive to art and happen within game design as well. Playtesting is an important and time-consuming part of the game design process that is recommended to commence in the early conceptualization of a play experience and runs vigorously to the end, informing production through what is called the rapid iterative process.52 Unlike the benefits game designers receive during this approach to their outcomes, artists are frequently in the dark, and on the brink of failure. They face this risk because the play-based design process that generates games is very different to the one-off, often event-based aspect of art that involves an extended group of collaborators, and may also include the audience. Consequently, what artists sense during this process is unteachable and unlearnable. Yet the artist is similar to the game designer in that through enacting such a work the role shifts from designer to player, either suspending knowledge of the outcome or experiencing uncertainty.

In the establishment of the framework of his engagement projects, Deller focuses on projects that do things, instead of making things, by inviting people to collaborate through social engagement. When he deals with something like a strike or war his focus isn’t the social impact of war, or why it happened or even particular battles. Instead, Deller seeks to create a structure that becomes open research, bringing people together, and unlike more typical uses of social engagement, the purpose is to make people angry and investigate that anger.53

David Cross also has a similar approach, yet the work of Cornford and Cross is far less dynamic than the open system that Deller constructs. Cross summed up his process and goals when he admitted in our conversation: “I keep returning to art in the belief that although our perceptions — and therefore our choices — are ‘framed’ by ideology, the non-linear dynamic nature of cultural practices continually generate new possibilities for thought and action. The game is rigged, but it’s worth playing because it combines skill and chance, so the outcomes are never entirely certain. When the stakes are high and I don’t know what will happen, I feel more alive… I’m attracted to dynamic situations, so my approach as an artist is less strategic or directive than it is tactical and responsive. What I love about critical, socially engaged art projects is the chance to find an edge, like placing a bet on the limit of what is acceptable. I look for contact through projects that invite people to come forward as players in heightened and unpredictable situations.”54 Cross’s approach is different than Deller’s, but they both involve degrees of risk and uncertainty, and entertain the possibility of failure. Could failure be defined as ‘going wrong’? Or is no engagement the greater failure? Or what if the engagement was interpreted as farce?

Deller admits there is inherent difficulty in enacting a riot, in particular the possibility that it could ‘go horribly wrong quite easily with one wrong punch thrown for real’, sparking a real riot instead of a questioning.55 It is this questioning and this anger that are the real goals of what Deller wants to achieve. He ‘didn’t want to tick the engagement boxes, or have the goal of people feeling better for participating. That isn’t where his interest is.’56 The original concept of the exploded car was to sit atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. When that proposal was rejected, Deller created what game designers would call an open system that invites input for open discussion. As little or as much space as the Battle of Orgreave or the bombed-out car occupy in three-dimensions, they open an infinite space for discussion. The chosen route for the car was through US Southern states and Republican areas. In an attempt to keep the car from being framed as an anti-war piece, Deller set out to make a very clinical, descriptive introduction to the work by posting a sign on the trailer stating: This car was destroyed in a bomb attack in Baghdad marketplace March 5, 2007. Each of the passengers gave out flyers and exposed themselves to the consequences of this in the hope that the idea spoke for itself. Or you could say spoke enough for itself; an opening line or gesture of an idea to create a dialogue to invite people to respond, with the bland title and twisted heap resulting in a blank page for people to write their stories.

Deller later said they were, ‘terrified because we weren’t sure what would happen and that was the exciting thing about making art within the public realm’.57 The uncertainty of the unexpected. He followed with: ‘If you do something in a museum it is warm and dry, and in a sense, people know how to behave.’58 Does that change in the public realm? Does an artist have less control because it is outside the norms of more established art experiences? Maybe there is a similarity here between Deller’s public realm and Cross’s ‘placing a bet on the limit of what is acceptable.’

What was acceptable to the public Deller encountered on his road trip? Where did the public start their stories? The most commonly asked question was “what kind of car was it?” next to “did anyone die?” Beyond that, the trio was working with ‘their wits, lucky that at the end of the day they could still talk to each other.’59 Is this space that Deller and Cross construct any different than Umberto Eco’s ‘unhinging’? Is that what they are doing in the public realm? The bombed car ended up in the Imperial War Museum where it ceased to be an artwork, placed in a space where the public wouldn’t tend to think in aesthetic terms, where they wouldn’t refer to the rust as patina and compare it to a Richard Sera or John Chamberlin understanding. It rests on a short grey plinth archived but not preserved, permanently unhinged.

Knowing that the vehicle ended up displayed with the machines of war in a museum dedicated to wars of empire, is it now removed from the concept of that original artwork? Deller would say so and you could agree. That isn’t to say Imperial War Museum isn’t without art or aesthetics. The museum shows art and commissions new works in a bid to debate different conflicts around the world. The Spitfire that is suspended above the exploded car is a graceful design that appears to move fast even when standing still. Imagine if it was in British racing green with stripes. The V2 rocket that stands nearby could evoke Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Though the content of the museum is primarily objects of war, there is no certainty in whether the public will view Deller’s work aesthetically or not. A dialogue could evolve either way. That may just bring us back to the duckrabbit ambiguity inherent in Deller’s car. Some may see the picture-duck and others the picture-rabbit. ‘Unhinged’ among the machines of war and flight, it can sit framed as a significant work in the museum. But without that frame saying, in a heavy-handed way, this is art. Functionally it could also approximate to the parking-lot experience of the original tour or the WWI soldiers in Ikea.

There was little if any documentation of those daily events of Deller’s on the road experiment. Did that make the experience more human, more natural, or importantly more unexpected? Every day on this trip these three cooks followed their recipe. Every day they played the game, and each time it was a new moment of play. During these repeated interactions not only did they hear multiple stories and experience multiple interactions about this lump of oxidizing iron, but they probably learned about themselves. If they were approaching the scenario in the same way every day, it is doubtful that they would consider themselves ‘lucky’ to be able to be still able to talk to each other that evening.60

Elsewhere, Sol Lewitt’s work is created even after his death following his instructions. Yoko Ono tweets out ideas for work for others to complete. These frameworks are directive and limited and outside the meaningful play that Deller and Cross create and emerge themselves in. We can imagine Ono and Lewitt rarely see themselves in doubt or experiencing uncertainty mostly because they aren’t looking for collaborators, they are exclusively looking
for fabricators.

A strong wind whistles in the window and hums through the drainage vent pipe. Harris sheep must eat rocks, or be rock; otherwise they would be Newfoundland sheep.

Brian Eno doesn’t think art bursts out into reality by some unstoppable divine force. He defines his way of working not as setting a goal and trying to reach it, but seeing what he does anyway and how he can make use of it in a different way of working.62 He studied as a painter and sees his ideas in music coming from looking at painting and wondering how you could make music about that.63 The idea of ambient music came from the idea to make music that existed in a steady state like a painting or a sculpture. No longer does he use Oblique Strategies because he feels that he can call upon them from his memory if needed and use creative adventurous mind games to be able to understand things. I doubt whether James Gardner or David Greig would disagree.

I follow the two writers down the steps through the kitchen, past the French butcher block island, the knives, and forks, pots, and pans. We put our dry boots on and brace against the world. We sit on the cold concrete base at the top of the trolley rail structure. My legs are cold and are growing wet. I am the first to drink from the flask of coffee, and the dogs are ecstatic at the appearance of digestives. Their muddy paws leave prints on anything not dirt.

Eno said, “children learn through play, adults play through art.”64 Perhaps he casts art as unteachable and unlearnable, in that once you find the tools to solve the problem you only have them stolen when you need them next.65 That could be a projection on my part. He certainly didn’t say that adults learn through art, though. Whether faced with an empty house, a blank page, a freshly primed canvas, or working on a sculpture, or any other creation that you don’t know how to finish, creatives and creators face doubt and uncertainty during the creation of work. Often they find a way out through establishing gridworks of abstractions, platitudes, metaphors, and imaginary inventions to induce or reduce those feelings of doubt till they achieve the result they are looking for. Maybe Nietzsche was also right about the will to endure. Who defines the ‘mistake’ or the ‘intention’ in Eno’s suggestion?



50 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

51 Thinking of David Greig earlier quote in the introduction section I, around how he approaches doubt and uncertainty and expresses that within his work.

52 Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg 11)

53 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

54 Cross, David 2017, pers. comm., 19 Jan.

55 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

56 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

57 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

58 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

59 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

60 (Deller, Jeremy; ‘Situations Bristol’)

61 Here is a bit of an ‘Easter egg’ that fits within the gaming framework as well as the ‘picture-rabbit.’ There is an essay that might be worth a read if you are interested in redaction. London Fieldworks and The Office of Experiments contributed to On being overt: secrecy and covert culture in On Not Knowing. Two investigations feature in the paper: Gustav Metzger thinking about nothing in an EEG machine and the resulting sculpture London Fieldworks made from that image, paired with the hiding in plain sight of military secrets.

62 2015 sample played during the introduction to Brian Eno’s John Peel Lecture

63 2001 Jools Holland interview.

64 2015 John Peel Lecture

65 Unteachable and Unlearnable: The Ignorance of Artists, an essay in On not Knowing Atkinson Warstat considers the difficulties of finding room for not knowing within a pedagogic framework using a mix of James Elkin’s Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students, Kafka, and a good dose of Blanchot. On not Knowing (pg 42-52)

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