Research Observations: chance vs accident



For a long time now I have identified in myself a predisposition to get easily sidetracked and distracted, a penchant perhaps to intellectually ‘wonder off’. A habit I have long since been aware of, and indeed referenced numerous times in new year resolutions, (see my post dated 11th January; ‘a design for 2017’) I rely heavily on the support of friends and colleagues to raise my attention to this and ‘rein me back in’. And yet here I am again, in what I suspect is another ‘wondering off’ into none the less hugely interesting, but largely irrelevant territory.

I recently attended a performance at Tate Modern of a number of pieces of John Cage’s work. Performed in the galleries currently housing the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, the performances were designed to identify, and illuminate some of the connections between the two artists. Something / Nothing: a performative private view, highlighted the enormous debt each man owed the other, and detailed the importance and contribution their friendship and collaboration had on the others work.

The performances consisted of Cage’s Violin Folio dedicated to Rauschenberg entitled Atlas Ecliptitalis 1961, its sounds deriving from star charts through the application of his chance procedures, (performed by Sheppard Skaeverd and Mihailo Trandafilovski), and the recital of his seminal text, Lecture on Nothing, (performed by Dorothea Smartt.)

The performances were thought provoking and well executed, at times producing a seamless synthesis of the works and philosophies of each man. A long time admirer of Rauschenberg and an avid disciple of Cage, the evening was a real treat to see some of Cage’s most illuminating and witty work performed, and was a rare and cherished opportunity to view the work in the original context of which much of it was created and born out of.

My lasting impressions of the event however seem to have been surpassed by a pondering I have had that was sparked during the introduction to the event. In discussing the nature of process and production to Cage’s work Atlas Eclipticalis and his wider work in general, his use of chance procedures was referred to as ‘accident’, or his process of production as ‘accidental’. This terminology immediately stood out to me as poignant. The wording, whether considered or ‘accidental’, reached out and implanted itself firmly in my mind. Having pondered it briefly at the time, I have since been unable to move far beyond it, and have therefore gone back on my new year resolutions and ‘waved the white flag’, giving it deeper thought.

As such, the following sentences are an attempt at surmising some of my reflections and observations.


1)      a: something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or                       observable cause <Which cards you are dealt is simply a matter of chance.>
          b: the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings :                      luck <an outcome decided by chance>
Merriam Webster

The application of chance in creative practice has to be by its very nature predetermined. One has to orchestrate, or ‘predetermine’ the parameters in which chance can be applied or harnessed.

In John Cage’s Ryoanji series of drawings chance processes were used in the choosing and positioning of each pebble on the paper surface, and to discern which grade of graphite pencil would be used to draw around the stone.

The parameters in which these drawings were created consisted of the following: a set number of pebbles, a grid for the positioning of the the pebbles, and a set number of pencils from which ‘chance’ would discern which to use and when.


1)     a: an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance <Their meeting was an                                   accident.>
         black of intention or necessity <They met by accident rather than by design.>
Merriam Webster

Accident, is by its very nature undetermined. By its very definition accident or the application of accident cant be predetermined. Indeed, accident cannot be physically ‘applied’.


This diagram aims to further illustrate some of the distinctions in this context, discerning subjectivity as the opposite of non-intention. The diagram sees ‘chance’ residing on the right axis with its mantra of non-intention, whilst seeing improvisation reside on the left axis with its mantra of subjectivity, or as Cage would have referred to it; taste. (His rejection of; thus central to his reasoning for harnessing chance in his creative process.) And seeing ‘accident’ residing separately, somewhere between the two axis of chance and improvisation.

Although it could be argued chance must have an element of accident, or the accidental to it, in the contexts of creative practice, its use, and the application of such in creative practice – it must by nature be predetermined.

…now back to more pressing matters at hand.


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