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“Random Order 3” by Karina Nishi Marcus

“We need not destroy the past. It is gone.” –John Cage

“The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.”– John Cage

“I don’t live in the past at all; I’m always wanting to do something new. I make a point of constantly trying to forget and get things out of my mind.” — Brian Eno

“John Cage made you realize that there wasn’t a thing called noise, it was just music you hadn’t appreciated.” –Brian Eno

As a Camp Fire Girl, when walking in urban or suburban settings as opposed to forested glens, the group would take what was called a “penny hike.”  At every juncture of street crossings, one would flip a penny: heads for right — tails for left, and then head in that direction until the next corner. You just never knew where you might, what you might discover, and you could come across some very startling experiences.  I loved this sense of adventure and try to incorporate this feeling in my art practice. I am intrigued by the concept of chance as a force in art-making – but I still maintain certain intentions and my creative imagination.

Chance art –- or probabilistic / stochastic / aleatoric art (these are words to flaunt at the next social gathering) has been in use since ancient China, when ink paintings depended upon a level of chance with the materials. These Taoist artists wrote that they ”intended the unintentional.” Leonardo would base some of compositions on random patterns of stains on city walls. Aleatory art is defined as “dependent on chance, luck, or an uncertain outcome.” It is the incorporation of chance as the process and energy of creation.

As artists, we strive to nourish and increase our artistic intuition and to trust in the improvisation of unconscious perceptions. Aleatoricism differs from improvisation.  It is giving the powers of the universe full reign on the process of creation, removing individual intention and taste, entailing the liberation of making a choice or decision and the relish of symbolic arbitrariness.

The modern emphasis on the function of chance in art emerged with Dada or Dadaism (the name was chosen at random by open a page in the dictionary.) This movement in Europe was started in reaction to the horrendous slaughter of the first modern war, the First World War. The Dadist repudiated the rule of logic and reason and elevated the irrational and nonsensical. Their creed was “Chance must be recognized as a new stimulus to artistic creation.”

Jean Arp, a founding member of the group, would tear up paper and then let fall and scatter the pieces into a design.  He would then affix and glue his collage He considered these chance patterns to be the work of fate. (Though I have long thought that if he did not like a a certain arrangement, he would just let the papers fall again.  Must be the cynic in me.)

The Surrealism also celebrated chance, exploring the concept of automatism and automatic drawing. During World War Two, many surrealists relocated to New York, they had a  profound influence and effect on the reigning provincial art of the day.

The prominent proponent of the methodology of chance in America would be the work of composer and visual artist John Cage. a pioneer of indeterminacy in music and electroacoustics. In 1950, which was a pivotal year in contemporary American art (I am currently reading “The Turning Point: The Abstract Expressionists and the Transformation of American Art” by April Kingsley — a fascinating tale about this year in art history,)  Cage discovered the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divinations

I-Ching Hexagrams

Though the I Ching is most commonly used for divination, Cage used it as a device to compose using chance. This became Cage’s standard procedure for composition which he used in virtually every work composed after 1951. Cage would pose a question (and he asserted this was the crucial matter) for every non-spontaneous decision, making non-intention paramount. His sole intention and responsibility lay within the formulation of the questions he would ask. He used this as a tool to explore his fascination into the very nature of sound. But once these chance operations of composition had occurred, Cage required  precision in the performance of his work. His descriptions of his methods tend to be a little vague, so if you are interested in a variation of this approach for your own work, it might be better just to make up your own tactics. Cage has been and still is highly influential within the art community.

One noted follower of Cage is English composer, musician and visual artist Brian Eno, known as  a principal innovators of ambient music, introducing the concept of chance music to  a popular audience. He developed “The Oblique Strategies,” a deck of cards with phrases designed to help loosen creative block or to uncover another approach to an artistic problem.

Some of the cards are definitely musically oriented, such as: “Feed the recording back out of the medium,””Use filters,” and “Fill every beat with something.” Others are directional: “Work at a different speed,” “Faced with a choice, do both,” or “Destroy
 -–the most important thing.” Others are more philosophical:”Be less critical more often,” “Is it finished?” and one of my favorites: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

Though these cards are sold as a set, they are also listed on the website and apparently many people make their own set. If you desire such a set, I suggest that you personalize it with cards that pertain to your own process.  Should you with to maximize your  arbitrariness with these cards, there is a computer driven Oblique Strategies card random selector. With the advent of the computer, there are many options for the use of randomness and chance. This site give more links to the concept and different application.

But no mention of John Cage should omit his rules for students and teachers (the bold emphasis is mine.)

Cage’s “Rules for Students and Teachers”

“Ten Rules for Students and Teachers”

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then, try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: (General duties of a student)
Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: (General duties of a teacher)
Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be Self Disciplined – this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Follow the leader. Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail.  There is only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things. You can fool the fans — but not the players.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think.

RULE TEN:  We are breaking all the rules, even our own rules, and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.”

Helpful Hints:
Always be Around.
Come or go to everything.
Always go to classes.
Read anything you can get your hands on.
Look at movies carefully, often.
SAVE EVERYTHING – it might come in handy later.

What role does Chance play in your art?
What are your own rules, and which do you break?

Are you open to take a Chance?

Karina Nishi Marcus