Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) is a deck of 7 by 9 centimetres (2.8 in × 3.5 in) printed cards in a black container box, created by Brian Eno andPeter Schmidt and first published in 1975. Each card offers an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.
Origin and history
In 1970 Peter Schmidt created “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts”, a box containing 55 sentences letterpress printed onto disused prints that accumulated in his studio, which is still in the possession of Eno. Eno, who had known Schmidt since the late 1960s, had been pursuing a similar project himself (which he had handwritten onto a number of bamboo cards and given the name ‘Oblique Strategies’ in 1974). There was a significant overlap between the two projects, and so, in late 1974, Schmidt and Eno combined them into a single pack of cards and offered them for general sale. After Schmidt died suddenly in early 1980, the card decks became rather rare and expensive. Sixteen years later software pioneer Peter Norton convinced Eno to let him create a fourth edition as Christmas gifts for his friends (not for sale, although they occasionally come up at auction). Eno’s decision to revisit the cards and his collaboration with Norton in revising them is described in detail in his 1996 book, A Year with Swollen Appendices. With public interest in the cards undiminished, in 2001 Eno once again produced a new set of Oblique Strategies cards. The number and content of the cards vary somewhat from edition to edition. In May 2013 a limited edition of 500 boxes, in burgundy rather than black, was issued.
The entire story of Oblique Strategies, with the content of all the cards, exhaustive history and commentary, is documented in a website widely acknowledged as the authoritative source, put together by musician and educator Gregory Alan Taylor.
The text of Schmidt’s “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts” was published by Mindmade Books in 2012.
Design and use
Each card contains a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general. Examples include:
- Use an old idea.
- State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
- Only one element of each kind.
- What would your closest friend do?
- What to increase? What to reduce?
- Are there sections? Consider transitions.
- Try faking it!
- Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
- Ask your body.
- Work at a different speed.
From the introduction to the 2001 edition:
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…
Many references to Oblique Strategies exist in popular culture, notably in the film Slacker, in which a character offers passers-by cards from a deck. Strategies mentioned include “Honor thy error as a hidden intention”, “Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify”, “Not building a wall; making a brick”, “Repetition is a form of change”, and one which came to be seen as a summary of the film’s ethos (though it was not part of the official set of Oblique Strategies), “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” This line was quoted in the 1994 song “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M., who also mentioned Oblique Strategies in their 1998 song “Diminished” from the album Up. The Oblique Strategies are also referenced in comic 1018, “Oblique Angles”, of popular web comic Questionable Content.
Other musicians inspired by Oblique Strategies include the British band Coldplay, said to have used the cards when recording their 2008 Brian Eno-produced album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and French band Phoenix, who used the cards when recording their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. German musician/composer Blixa Bargeld has a similar navigation system, called Dave. In response to their song “Brian Eno”, from their album Congratulations, MGMT has said they had a deck of Oblique Strategies in the studio, but they “don’t know if [they] used them correctly.”
They were most famously used by Eno during the recording of David Bowie’s Berlin triptych of albums (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger). Stories suggest they were used during the recording of instrumentals on “Heroes” such as “Sense of Doubt” and were used more extensively on Lodger (“Fantastic Voyage”, “Boys Keep Swinging”, “Red Money”).