Spring 2012

It’s in the Cards

Following Oblique Strategies

Geeta Dayal

I draw a card at random from my Oblique Strategies deck. “Don’t break the silence,” it advises. I draw another card.

“Just carry on,” it tells me.

The Oblique Strategies card deck, a collection of “over 100 worthwhile dilemmas,” was originally released by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 in an edition of five hundred copies. The first few editions of the deck—which featured clever aphorisms printed in Helvetica on white card stock with rounded edges, packed neatly in handsome cases with gold lettering—are now coveted collector’s items. These days, numerous software versions exist; there is, as one might expect, a popular iPhone app. A deck of the most recent edition of the cards, in its pleasing analogue version, retails for about fifty dollars. The cards continue to have impressive cultural traction, nearly four decades later. Many of Eno’s high-profile friends and collaborators—from David Bowie to The Edge to David Byrne—have used Oblique Strategies. The cards have been discussed by cooking magazines, Silicon Valley tech companies, international newspapers, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I draw another card from the deck. “A line has two sides,” it says. So it does. I choose another card. “Consult other sources -promising -unpromising.”

Many artists used special decks of cards or card-like systems in the twentieth century, but few of these crossed over into popular culture with as much success as Oblique Strategies. Various members of Fluxus created “Fluxboxes” and “Fluxkits” in the 1960s; George Brecht was of particular note; his piece Water Yam was a box crammed with event scores. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan released his own deck, printed on regular poker cards, known as the Distant Early Warning cards. Instead of offering specific creative advice, many of McLuhan’s cards bore quotes—some from himself (the ten of diamonds instructed “The medium is the message”) and some from others (the five of spades carried Jacques Ellul’s dictum “Propaganda is any culture in action”). Earlier on in the century, there was Aleister Crowley with his special “Thoth” tarot deck, complete with its own book, The Book of Thoth. John Cage famously used the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system generally based on sixty-four hexagrams—not a straightforward card deck, per se, but a complex system that he deployed in many different ways. Cage simplified the I Ching into a series of coin tosses, and adapted it to his needs, but it still wasn’t easy to use. By the end of the 1960s, Cage was asking various engineers—such as his friend Max Mathews, the director of acoustics research at Bell Labs—to write programs in FORTRAN to simulate the I Ching, generating clusters of numbers that Cage could then use to direct his compositions.

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