Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Part 3)


In June of 2014, a conference was held in Berlin called The Pleasure of Doubt in Art, Aesthetics, and Everyday Life. Many of  the seminars have intriguing titles: Doubt, Skepticism, and Desperation; The Theatricality of Doubting; What is a Doubtful Situation?; Catching Doubt in Mid-Air?; Reflections on the (Im)possibilities of the Empirical Study of Doubt, Moments of Sudden Rightness; and Think Today – Finish Tomorrow: Strategic Dilettantism and the Question of Knowledge in the Arts.10 These titles acknowledge a rise in interest in exploring these issues in relation to contemporary art, and, as we will explore here, this is only the beginning of the conversation.

We could ask whether doubt and uncertainty are among the many tools we should consider at our disposal as creators. Let’s allow those conference titles to fill the mind with imaginings of the presentations and resulting discussions. And sadly we can only imagine, because when I reached out to one of the organizers, Jörg Volbers, looking for the accompanying written materials, he replied that the publication got ‘stuck’ and there was nothing, unfortunately, he could offer.11 He ended the email with saying my dissertation sounded interesting, and wished me luck.

So, now we are at the start, done with the setup and like any board gamer about to make their play, I’ll take his wish of luck, make my first roll of the dice and move on to the board.


10 http://pleasure-of-doubt.com/#2

11 Volbers, Jörg 2017, pers. comm., 5 April.

An Offer


What is the value of an idea? What does it mean to know something? Is it better to share ideas or have it as your asset? Both methodologies exist simultaneously in the mind if you think of the internet and the market economy.
Maybe not every idea should be followed, but maybe every idea should be had. Does having a routine encourage ideas? Or is it better to be interrupted? 


Between the first and second year of the MFA program at GSA, each student puts in a proposal for their studio the next year. In mine, I listed needing a space “cozy enough to welcome individuals to practice hospitality.” Here I can play a super host and am glad you received my invitation. The space here is different than the typical museum or gallery and we are outside the typical practiced rules and behaviors in those spaces. Here we get to define how we behave. And I was to invite you to share ideas. Here, outside these structures, you and I can exchange and collaborate, and more importantly play.


When I was talking to a friend about offering up my studio as an exchanging place for ideas I talked about having ice tea, what we in the American south would just call tea, and lemonade to share. “Great! I can make an Arnold Palmer,” was exclaimed as their face filled with joy. An Arnold Palmer is a drink of 50/50 tea and lemonade named after the Golfer when he ordered a drink that he usually made at home while on the PGA tour in the 1960’s.


Jeremy Deller sees artist divided into two categories one manufacture the physical material that is used to represent power and wealth and the other collects and shares stories. That second kind of artist can often be inviting us to play or engage in some way. That seems to be what is at stake here, a form of idea engagement. All ideas are welcome. Should the NHS focus more on preventative care? What is the best way to open a bottle? Is a paper airplane a nostalgic form or a functional sculpture that expresses itself best in space and time? What role does affective labor resulting of delight have to do with the exchange of the motion of your arm and the movement of the plane?


I’ve been getting up early lately. Recently partially because of this, I was watching youtube. Over an hour I was watching separate octopuses navigate different puzzles and tests. Each proved that this animal whose nervous system is different than ours is a multi-level problem solver. From what I understand their learning capabilities are based on the fact that there is no parental relationship. Once they are born, they are on their own. That being said they can learn from watch others even with a single example shown to them. Off the coast of Capri, the once solitary octopus interacts with others of the species. Younger octopuses are learning from older octopuses. Imagine in 10,000 years of this interaction how different it will be if they as a species also get the language virus like us having exchanges of ideas.

Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Part 2)


When you look at a matrix of the definitions of games the two most agreed upon aspects are: ‘proceeds according to rules that limit players’ and ‘goal-oriented/outcome-oriented.’7 We are looking at games – or imposing the abstraction of games upon this investigation of the tactics of doubts – because games have rules, and use play. These aspects of play go deeper, into meaningful play and the open system of exchange within game design definitions. In game design there are two particular meanings to meaningful play. We are going to use these as a framework to consider the structures creatives use to induce doubt and uncertainty.

The descriptive definition of meaningful play: Meaningful play in a game emerges from the relationship between player action and system outcome; it is the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game, and the system responds to the action. The meaning of an action in a game resides in the relationship between action and outcome. The evaluative definition of meaningful play: Meaningful play is what occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game.8

Games use tactics to induce doubts, risks, and uncertainty. Uncertainty is an essential aspect of games, and there is little point in playing if you know how it is going to end. We will explore this relationship, and compare it to the role played in the creation of art, later.

The restoring of this old postman’s cottage in Harris has my attention because of my most recent renovations at my house in Memphis. When we entered the door we took off our wellies and I noticed the boot dryer; not that seeing such a thing was a sign of the luxury to come, but there is a difference between knowing such things are in the world, and owning the contraption. Certainly, warm dry feet would have been something the postman who lived in this cozy dwelling in the mid-19th century longed for during his eight-mile journey delivering communications on the island.

How do artists create? Every single time something new is imagined blank pages, unmarked canvases, and empty spaces are faced. Beyond the physical expression of fresh beginnings there is the internal doubt and uncertainty of creation. The cottage I’m in has been decorated room by room, as if being picked off a restaurant menu. The creatives I know work differently than that. Within the design world that happens only when the difference between deadline and project kickoff is measured in minutes. Even then, though, you often have the framework of a brand guideline you created and can follow.

One of the first things they had to rebuild here was the trolley rail to the pier far below on the loch that I imagine the letter and packages were hauled up on in the past. With that personal port restored the new owners got the building supplies up to the cottage the easiest way they could, by boat. That’s also how they got these Spanish tiles, whose design reflects the Moorish influence on the Iberian peninsula that inspired the string instruments and musical harmony we use today. The slate roof was instead hauled over a route similar to the one I traveled on. Then knapped on site and laid in the pattern currently keeping my head dry and allowing me to warm.

Not long ago, three years to be exact, the doctor who owns and restored this cottage received a controversial wage increase – alongside four others – while the rest of the NHS salaries at his teaching hospital fell.9 Here at the cottage, you could see where the extra cash went. Everything here was about a display of taste. Nothing would be out of place in an upmarket decor magazine. But this is exactly what made me feel uncomfortable. There wasn’t any originality in the house. Even the seemingly random nature in the pattern of the tile had such the feel of an all-too-fashionable reclaimed architecture aesthetic since these individual tiles were not part of the original pattern in which they were intended to sit within and puzzle out. With a Google search for ‘Spanish blue tile’ you can buy the same effect as wallpaper on eBay.



8 Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (pg 37)

9 ‘Dr Alastair Turnbull, the medical director of York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, last year received a rise of about £15,000, taking his annual earnings to between £225,000 and £230,000. He earned 9.3 times the average hospital salary – up from a ratio of 8.5 in 2011/12. The median salary of hospital staff dropped from £25,611 to £24,566 at the same time as the top bosses’ pay increased.’ The Press

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.