Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies is a boxed set of cards created by Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt. The two met when Eno was a visiting lecturer at Ipswich art school in the late 1960s, and later became friends and frequent collaborators. Schmidt's images were used for the cover of Eno's LP Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) and on the Eno & Fripp record Evening Star. Early copies of the 1977 album Before and After Science included four watercolour prints by Schmidt. I was once given a framed set as a Christmas present (by the owner of the record store where I worked) but they were water-damaged in a subsequent move and thrown away. In the liner notes Eno writes: "Apart from our collaboration on this record, Peter and I have been working together and comparing notes for some time. In 1975 we produced a boxed set of oracle cards called Oblique Strategies, which were used extensively in the making of this record."

When comparing notes, the artists discovered that they had both independently arrived at a system of using cryptic axioms to overcome artistic obstacles. Schmidt had created a wooden boxed piece called The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts in 1970*, and Eno was undoubtedly influenced by George Brecht's Wateryam, other Fluxus scores, and John Cage's use of the I Ching to compose music.

Subtitled Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas, the first version of the Oblique Strategies was published in 1975, and is now in its fifth, open ended, edition. Recently an iPhone app was released, and individual cards have been printed as t-shirts. The cards in the series each contain an instruction which can be used to break a creative deadlock. Eno has reportedly used them when recording his own projects, and also when producing albums for bands such as U2 and Coldplay. Some of the cards are specific to music, but most are open ended. Eno writes:

"These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear…"

In R.E.M.'s What's the Frequency Kenneth, Michael Stipe sings "Richard says 'withdrawl in disgust is not the same as apathy." He is likely referring to Richard Linklater, whose debut film Slacker featured a character handing out the cards to passers by. On their follow-up album Up, Stipe mentions both the I Ching and the Oblique Strategies by name, in the song Diminished.

The following images of the cards in use were found at Flickr and various other image hosting sites.

*see next post

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