Acting on a tip, I downloaded from the app store a deck of imagination prompts. Originally created in 1975 by musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies began as a box of index-sized cards for artists, made of cut up, discarded prints from Schmidt’s studio. Now, in 2016, the cards can arrive on your phone. I found them by following the breadcrumbs from a story in the New Yorker magazine describing a world-renowned food critic who sometimes emails his editor around deadline time to say that he’s forgotten how to write. For him, Eno and Schmidt’s “strategies” have been a go-to during moments of creative malaise. But what about deadlocks at the easel? The “strategies” include:
Use an old idea.
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Question the heroic approach.
Only one element of each kind.
Give way to your worst impulse.
What to increase? What to reduce?
Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate.
Do we need holes?
From nothing to more nothing.
Ask your body.
Remove specifics and revert to ambiguities.
Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance.
Consider different fading systems.
Simply a matter of work.
Use fewer notes.
What would your closest friend do?
Used by the bands Coldplay, Phoenix, R.E.M, MGMT and by Eno himself when producing David Bowie’s 1977-1979 Berlin trilogy, the Oblique Strategies have, over the decades, taken on a kind of mythic ethos — inspiring second and third generation brainstorming card decks, comic books and the Richard Linklater film, Slacker. While, as artists, our dreamtime may already percolate in the abstract, a prod to shake up stagnant creativity patterns is always appreciated. Here’s an idea for our collective, lateral thinking cap: might we each contribute our own “oblique strategies” in the comments, below?
Esoterica: Coined in 1967 by psychologist Edward de Bono, “lateral thinking” approaches problem solving indirectly, instead of by the step-by-step “vertical” logic of deduction. By embracing the value of the fluidity of ideas, a lateral thinker can migrate from a known concept to a breakthrough by using four tools: Idea generating tools like Oblique Strategies that may help disrupt thinking routines; Focus tools like meditation or experiences that can help broaden where ideas come from; Harvest tools, which extract more value from new ideas; and Treatment tools, which honour real-world constraints like resources, support or other costs of an idea. “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify.” (Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies)
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“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…” (from the introduction of Oblique Strategies, 2001 edition)