A few years ago, I wrote a collection of poems called The Fool. Being slightly disillusioned with poetry circles, I tried printing them individually on the backs of Death tarot cards and sneaking them into the worst and best books I could find in bookshops. The idea was for people who might not have any interest in poetry to find them (something I’ve been trying to continue with a later collection The Magnetic Mountain, which I’ve put into bottles and thrown into various rivers around the place). The deck I used was the Tarot de Marseille, which along with the Rider-Waite deck I’d become fascinated with. The interest wasn’t in any supernatural way (I’m as sceptical of the prophetic/con artist qualities of Tarot as any religion, pseudo or otherwise) but in the sense of the artistic merit and history of the decks. They are after all beautiful works of art as well as Jungian mythology. Above all, they were a way of inspiring ideas; taking each card as a thematic starting point for writing. The most interesting challenge would be how to respond to the more obscure cards in the deck (The Wheel, The Tower and The Chariot for example). It would be a way of forcing yourself to leave your comfort zone and attempt something new.
In the course of researching the project, I came across Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. If you haven’t encountered these before, they’re a deck of cards with instructions on them designed to be selected randomly when musicians run out of ideas or fall into familiar patterns in the recording studio. The idea is to suddenly change direction, jolt the participants out of their somnambulism, leave the comfort zone for terra incognita.
I didn’t know it at the time but I’d been listening to and falling in love with the musical results of Oblique Strategies for years, through the music Eno made or produced. You can hear it in Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime or Crosseyed and Painless. You never quite know where and when it was used which adds to the mystery but perhaps it’s there in Eno’s own exceptional albums Another Green World and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). It’s in Byrne and Eno’s Regiment. It’s possibly there in Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, Breaking Glass and definitely in Boys Keep Swinging (for the latter, Eno, or rather the cards, had the band switch instruments so the guitarist played drums, the drummer bass and so on). None of it should work, which is precisely the point; it is to escape what works and the gravity of cliche that comes with that. Crucially, it works for more than music; you can apply the strategies to art, literature and, if you’re bold or foolish enough, life.
It’s tempting to think of Oblique Strategies with its instructions to ‘Abandon desire’ and ‘Find a safe part and use it as an anchor’ as pretentious wank and the concept has been brilliantly satirised by Chunklet (‘Nail a bandmate’s girlfriend during overdubs’ / ‘Play a kazoo now’ / ‘Is it still possible to remove your head from your ass?’). This culture cringe, whilst very funny, is undermined somewhat by the fact the results of Oblique Strategies haven’t been particularly pretentious. It’s also clear from interviews that Eno himself is not a snob at all but rather amiable, engaging and enthusiastic. Yet it goes further than that, sometimes things should be pretentious. There is, after all, a positive sense to that word that has been forgotten (‘something imagined’). When we examine closely the voice in our heads that reactively calls things pretentious, we can find out some interesting and rather uncomplimentary things about ourselves. It’s true that most of the time the opposite of pretentiousness is humility. At other times though, it’s cowardice. Creating a semi-poetic, semi-esoteric deck of cards around the much-abused idea of lateral thinking is setting yourself up for derision but there’s a bravery in that. Given that it’s a game, and a relatively tongue-in-cheek one at that, the results of Oblique Stratgies demand no unwarranted position of merit. They are often fun. A person who has tired of Talking Heads has tired of life itself. And if the results aren’t fun then they’re at least different. And in a culture that tends towards homogenisation, we need difference more than ever, even if it initially jars with us, especially if it jars with us.
The idea isn’t an entirely new one (but then what is?). As with most conceptual art, you could trace it back to Duchamp, via Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Diceman, John Cage’s Music of Changes and especially George Brecht’s Fluxus boxset Water Yam. You could even go back further to the Surrealists’ games of Exquisite Corpse (see above) and Dada’s obsession with play, to Keats’ idea of Negative Capability (in the sleep of reason, there are more than just monsters) and William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, to the ancient Chinese ‘Book of Changes’ I Ching, even the aforementioned Tarot cards which subtly influence the future thoughts and actions of those for whom they are read.
The poet Simon Armitage has recently put together an interesting radio documentary on Oblique Strategies for the BBC which you can listen to here. Alternatively, here’s Eno talking about them:
Given an original deck will set you back a small fortune, you can cut the deck electronically or make your own from this list. ‘Use fewer notes’ reads the card I’ve picked. A good point, it’s been decided, on which to end.